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Tue, Jul 29, 2014
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Mummy in the driver's seat
by Clara Chow

On a stark wintry morning, we're zooming down the Bussell Highway in an orange Hyundai SUV.

"Caravan," announced my husband, as one came barrelling down the other side of the dual carriageway.

"Winery," I countered, waving my hand at the neat vines streaking outside the window.

"Cows!" called our eight-year-old in the back seat. A bovine blur sped by.

"Ten thousand trees!" yelled his four-year-old brother gleefully next to him, as my mother chuckled on the sidelines.

Welcome to Extreme I Spy: Perth-to-Margaret River Edition, the game we played on a recent road trip - our first. A game which not just kept this driver awake, but staved off the "Are we there yet?" blues on our week-long journey.

Unlike packaged tours, family-friendly beach resorts or even city-hopping, there is something particular about the road trip that makes it such an indelible rite of passage.

Jack Kerouac famously went On The Road; Robert M. Pirsig wove philosophy into a 17-day two-wheel journey in Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Cinema-scape is littered with them: Thelma And Louise (1991), Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron's coming-of-age story Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001), and Pixar's Cars (2006), one of my sons' favourite films, is a nostalgic meander along Route 66.

But the ones that seem most hilariously disastrous are always the ones that involve family. National Lampoon's Vacation (1983), Rain Man (1985) and who could forget the dysfunctional falling-apart-then-coming-back-together of Little Miss Sunshine (2006)?

The family road trip is as much an endurance test as it is a means to an end.

When I first mooted a Southern Australia road trip to my husband, we might have imagined ourselves starring in Sideways (2004), sipping pinot noir at wine-tasting sessions, with the kids edited out.

But as the trip loomed, I got nervous.

My husband doesn't have a driver's licence and my mum, joining us on the trip, was not keen to drive overseas.

So that left me as the solo driver. Possibly navigating country roads with no street lights after dark.

And getting lost. And stranded. With me getting in a shouting match with the Supportive Spouse, or storming off at a petrol kiosk after getting irritated with my mum, or leaving the unruly kids by the roadside.

However, everything was paid for and there was no backing out. Which was how, after a five-hour flight, we picked up the said Hyundai Tucson from the car rental company and spent 15 minutes trying to find our way out of the airport carpark.

Ten minutes later, with a sigh of relief, we pulled into the hotel driveway and got out. So far, so good.

For the rest of the trip, GPS proved to be a godsend. We grew used to the serene female computer voice telling me to "after 500m, turn left", etc.

We all cheered whenever she announced: "You have reached your destination." Even when there was a map error and we were in the middle of nowhere on a dirt track.

Motoring south proved a hit with our two boys. I had forgotten how car-crazy they were. Their favourite TV show was Top Gear, the BBC series for petrolheads. They were counting down the years before they could take their driving test. Some afternoons, I would hear them pretending to review super cars on the race track.

So, for a glorious seven days, I got a taste of something the SS routinely gets: hero worship. As THE Driver (how Ryan Gosling!), I was arguably the most important member of our crew and got the star treatment.

"Water," I'd intone while eating up asphalt in our rented wheels, and my menfolk would scramble to put a bottle of Fiji in my outstretched hand.

"Pinch," I'd instruct, and the eight-year-old would twist the flesh on my forearm with his thumb and forefinger, to wake me up on monotonous stretches.

When we felt like it, we pretended we were in a World Rally Championship, making appropriate skidding noises while cornering and holding on exaggeratedly and shouting "woah!" at every minor pothole or bump we hit.

And, strangely - or not so, strangely - enough, I felt pride and pleasure at being able to take my family to far, new places. It was liberating not having to depend on a foreign driver and to spontaneously alter our destination.

Unlike the day-to-day drudgery of being the de facto chauffeur back home, the possibilities of the open road made me feel extra alive, chasing the horizon.

One chilly night, the eight-year-old and I put on our parkas and slipped out of the farmhouse we were staying in at Margaret River. Our footsteps crunched in the dark as we made our way by torchlight to the parked car.

It was a special treat for him: helping me set the GPS for the next leg of our trip. We tapped in all the places we were going next to determine the most efficient route, then saved it in the device's memory.

Job done, we stepped out into the cold. The sky overhead was filled with stars. We looked for the Southern Cross, Orion, and the unwavering light of planets. Tracing those routes in light years, it was easy to understand: A journey worth making and remembering is not about distance - but imagination and discovery.

We survived - my driving and one another.

Next time, in approximately 14 years, we're renting a convoy of super cars.

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This article was first published on July 29, 2014.
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