Off-road with the rugrats

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Mum's the word as two daredevil parents take their bubs on a 4WD tour of outback South Australia.

It started, as these things do, over a glass of wine. I was showing my friend Melinda Bey a series of photographs of the Flinders Ranges that I'd taken on a trip in 2005.

"You're kidding, aren't you?" she said with growing apprehension as she looked at the images of red dirt and not much else. "A road trip to the outback with our babies?"

I could see her point. Here they were, helpless three-month-olds, unable to even roll over. So I filed my dream away for another day and got on with the job of being a new mum.

But something about making that trip to the back of nowhere with my baby daughter just wouldn't go away.

Part of me wanted to see whether we could have an adventure with such young babies and inspire other new parents to have one of their own.

And 11 months on from that initial conversation, here we were, two friends who met in prenatal class, watching a glorious outback sunset with 14-month-olds Ella and Ziya strapped snugly in the back of our Land Rover Discovery 3.

We'd met in February last year and discovered, to our amazement, that we lived a few doors apart. When I went into labour half a week late, Mel, thinking she was having sympathy pains, started having contractions, too. Ella and Ziya were born just 23 hours apart, forging a special bond not only between the babies but our two families as well.

Rationally, I can't explain what it was about the outback that enticed me to take our babies there. I'd fallen in love with the Flinders on that previous visit but as we prepared to make the eight-day road trip, armed with a list as long as my arm, at times I wished we were going somewhere like the Pacific Islands, where baby loving islanders could help out with the children while we enjoyed cocktails. Another part of me wanted to see whether we could have an adventure with such young babies and inspire other new parents to have one of their own. Heck, if we could do it, anyone could.

Our journey starts at Adelaide Airport on an overcast Monday morning, when we load up the Land Rover, dubbed Barney, with two baby seats, two travelling cots, two strollers, nappies, formula, groceries and our bulging suitcases containing both our and the babies' clothes. The airport security man kindly turns a blind eye as we overstay the time limit, packing everything from the GPS, a portable DVD player, endless supply of Wiggles DVDs, digital cameras, tripod, laptop, mobile phone, portable high chairs, winter weight sleeping bags and more into Barney's every nook and cranny.

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Land Rover, wisely, put us through a four-wheel-drive course to ensure we knew how to tackle the terrain and change a tyre. We'd spent weeks going over every detail as well as reassuring our families and friends that we weren't mad. As we drive off with a large "whoop" and two excited babies in the back, we feel confident about what lies ahead.

Our first stop that night, Rawnsley Park Station, is more than six hours away and before we know it suburban Adelaide disappears, giving way to wide, open fields.

Halfway there, with the strains of Captain Feathers word from the Wiggles ringing in our ears, we take a break at a roadhouse as the littlies let off some pent-up energy.

It's here, surprisingly, that we're given an alarming wake-up call.

Inside, as the toddlers randomly pull items off the shelves, an overly friendly local takes a liking to Ella.

Outside, as she stumbles on wobbly legs, he scoops her up in his big hairy arms and marches off to show her to his family. Everything seems to move in slow motion as I watch him place her in the back seat of his beat-up old car. As Mel waves frantically at me to do something, I blurt out "Could you not do that!", trying not to provoke him as I reach past him and grab Ella from the lap of his niece. We drive off hurriedly and laugh nervously at what just happened, trying to reassure ourselves that he was probably harmless but at the same time feeling unnerved.

We drive through the outback townships of Quorn and Hawker, where we discover the BP has shut for the night. Fortunately, we've got more than enough petrol in the tank and push on to Wilpena Pound - leaving civilisation and all mobile contact behind. It's well and truly dark when we reach Rawnsley Park Station, owned by Tony and Julie Smith. The girls are exhausted and after giving them a bottle, they instantly fall asleep inside the station's fantastic eco-villas. We wake to a spectacular dust storm, which swirls around us and covers the entire Flinders in red dirt. After lunch in the property's Wool shed Restaurant, washed down with a South Australian beer, we follow Tony in his faithful old Daihatsu 4WD to nearby Arkapena Station, which the Smiths have recently acquired. The little ones run amok in an empty sheep pen before Tony gives them a shearing demonstration. Just before dusk we make our way to neighbouring Wilpena Pound Resort.

The next morning we tag along on the resort's Mountain Tops Spectacular tour to remote Arkaba Station, a working 24,280-hectare sheep station on the edge of the Pound. By coincidence, friends of mine, Pat and Sally Kent, are now managing the property so we pop in and say hello. The terrain is lush and hilly with incredible views of the Elder Ranges. On the four-hour 4WD tour, we stop for morning tea in a sheltered spot and watch the toddlers tear around, plastered in red dirt.

On day four, with the youngsters safe in the hands of a resort babysitter, we take to the sky for an incredible half-day flight over Lake Eyre in flood. Nick, our young pilot, points out the clearly visible outline of the 4.2-kilometre geoglyph, the MarreeMan, as we spot about 30 camels on the shoreline and he is completely unfazed as Mel loses her lunch on her first flight in a small plane. We land at outback cattle station Muloorina and meet Lisa Mitchell, whose family owns the property, spread over a staggering 404,685 hectares. She works at nearby Roxby Mine but comes home on her days off. "I don't have to feed you guys?" she asks nervously, stubbing out her cigarette.

Fortunately for her, we've just landed for a quick loo break. We circle the incredible Pound at sunset and come in to land, Mel sick again.

Back on the road, we stop for lunch at the historic mining town of Blinman, before making our way through the scenic Parachilna Gorge to the Prairie Hotel. It's late afternoon when we arrive and this famous gourmet pub, based in the township of Parachilna (population eight) is a hive of activity. We join a bunch of locals and a visiting geologist from Colorado for a beer and then tuck into our best meal yet - a fantastic red goat curry and the Prairie's feral mixed grill (FMG), consisting of camel, emu and kangaroo, indicated on the plate by quirky yellow road signs. We can't believe our luck when a perfect latte is delivered to our table.

During the next few days we see the coal train from Leigh Creek pass the hotel each night (all 161 carriages), drive through the stunning Brachina Gorge and tour the enormous Leigh Creek Coal Mine.

As we head home through the contrasting lushness of the Southern Flinders, we marvel at the people we've met, the things we've seen and how well the babies travelled.

We've overdosed on Wiggles, driven more than 1400 kilometres on dirt, bitumen and rocky terrain, changed 76 nappies, laughed and cried and are utterly exhausted.

"Maybe we should drive up the west coast next year?" I suggest to Mel. "Hmm, only if we can bring a chef and a nanny," she says.

Little does she know, I have just the person in mind.

Travelling with babies

* Study up on distances and road conditions. Ensure your GPS is loaded with up-to-date maps. Check where you can buy fuel and opening hours. Avoid travelling at dusk or at night. Provide a friend or family member with your itinerary and phone numbers. See flindersoutback.com/driving

* Pack a DVD player and DVDs to entertain children. Have a thermos with hot water and snacks readily accessible.

* Break up your journey. Stay overnight to and from the Flinders, at either Port Augusta or the Southern Flinders. Nuccaleena Cottage (nuccaleenacottage.com.au) in Orroroo is child friendly.

* When booking accommodation, ask them to have a portacot set up for you. If they don't provide cots, the Kindercot (kindercot.com.au) and Phil and Ted's Traveller (philandteds.com) are compact and easy to erect and dismantle.

* Rawnsley Park Station's (rawnsleypark.com) eco-villas and units have kitchen facilities. At Wilpena Pound Resort (wilpenapound.com.au), your best options are the Heysen and Edeowie suites (Edeowie has a microwave). The Prairie Hotel's (prairiehotel.com.au) deluxe rooms have tea- and coffee-making facilities, fridge and sink.

* To feed your child anywhere, bring your own chair.

* If flying then hiring a car, send some things ahead of you to lighten your load and check with Jetstar and Qantas for their baggage and infant allowances. You can hire baby seats from rental car companies, or Hire for Baby (hireforbaby.com) will deliver to Adelaide Airport.

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