From the ghoulish to the flat-out quirky, these cultural and historic holidays are guaranteed to captivate the kids, writes Sally Webb.
History can be brought to life in many ways. Right now, for me and my family, it involves being dressed like a miner in overalls, gumboots, a helmet and headlamp as we descend 61 metres underground in an industrial lift. Following our guide, we meander through a warren of humid tunnels and stope workings that still contain veins of gold. The Central Deborah Gold Mine in Bendigo, in the heart of Victoria’s goldfields, may no longer be productive (operations ceased in 1954) but touring it is one of the best history lessons my children have ever had. The facts they glean and retain from two hours down a mineshaft beats anything they’ve ever learned from a schoolbook.
That’s the joy about kids and holidays that involve history and culture. If it’s presented to them well – in an engaging and entertaining way – it makes the whole experience one they will never forget. Here, then, is a selection of some of Australia’s best.
Parkes Radio Telescope, NSW
While history looks at the past in tangible time frames, astronomy paints a broader picture. Despite the emergence of rockstar astronomers such as Brian Cox, it’s sometimes difficult for kids to get their head around these concepts. They do better with more obvious symbols of the science, such as the radio telescope at Parkes Observatory. “The Dish” played an important role in relaying live television of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon during the Apollo 11 landing in 1969. The well-organised Visitors Centre allows kids to see the telescope move, participate in scavenger hunts and experience the 3D-movie theatre, where animated features offer a glimpse into the vast complexity of our universe.
Mossman Gorge and Cape Tribulation, Queensland
The Daintree region in Tropical North Queensland is Kuku Yalanji country and it’s one of the best places to teach the family about Indigenous Australia. At Cooya Beach, just north of Port Douglas, Linc and Brandon Walker run Kuku Yalanji Cultural Habitat Tours. They share stories of their ancient culture as they lead guests through coastal mudflats and mangrove habitats teeming with aquatic life. You’ll learn to forage for edible and medicinal plants and how to throw a spear. If you’re lucky, you’ll land a mud crab that you can cook up for lunch (and if you’re unlucky, you might come across a crocodile who’d like to have you for his).
A short drive away, Mossman Gorge is another essential part of the Kuku Yalanji experience. Join a local Aboriginal guide on a Dreamtime Gorge Walk and you’ll experience a traditional smoking ceremony, visit a sacred site and eat damper with bush tea.
Alice Springs School of the Air, NT
If ever there was a school experience to really make kids think, this is it. Alice Springs School of the Air is effectively the world’s largest classroom, with a broadcast area covering 1.3 million square kilometres, which includes most of the Northern Territory, South Australia’s north and Western Australia’s east.
For a child from the city, this is mind-blowing. Founded in 1951, Alice Springs School of the Air bridges the education gaps caused by remote locations. These days, it provides daily lessons via satellite broadband to children from preschool to Year 9 who live on cattle stations and in remote Aboriginal communities and national parks. At the Visitors Centre, you can see the radios originally used for lessons, observe classrooms and learn about the interactive education experience that the school provides.
Coober Pedy, SA
On the surface, there’s not much to Coober Pedy – it’s a barren red-earth landscape almost devoid of trees and vegetation. That’s because much of this opal-mining town is actually underground. It’s thought that about half of the 1700 residents live in dugouts or underground homes, in order to escape summer’s blistering heat. And while fossicking for opal fragments in discarded mullock is a bit of fun, staying in a hotel or campground beneath the Earth’s surface is an experience that few kids will forget.
Horses on courses
Outback Pioneers, Longreach, Queensland
Stagecoaches opened up the outback but, by golly, they were uncomfortable. You’ll learn this for yourself as you cling to the top of Outback Pioneers’ Cobb & Co. coach as it charges through the bush.
Longreach’s traditional industries– cattle and sheep farming – have been augmented by a push for the tourism dollar. At the forefront is the Kinnon family, former pastoralists who own Outback Pioneers tour company. They run sunset cruises on a restored paddle-wheeler and farm visits with shearing demonstrations to give visitors a taste of historic and contemporary outback life. But it’s the Cobb & Co. stagecoach tours that really appeal to youngsters (or perhaps it’s the delicious homemade scones with jam and cream that are served at the post-ride “smoko”).
Couple your adventure with a visit to the town’s renowned Stockman’s Hall of Fame. Explorers, pastoralists, Aboriginal workers and even the Royal Flying Doctor Service are celebrated at the museum, with photographs, archival material and interactive displays. For kids, it’s a chance to learn how the outback was shaped.
There’s a famously bawdy side to Kalgoorlie that the kids are unlikely to see but that won’t stop them getting a feel for this rugged outpost.
The local economy has been driven by gold for more than 120 years and the city’s prosperity is reflected in the magnificent and varied architecture that lines the main drag, Hannan Street.
Kids love quirky facts and “Kal” is full of them: Hannan Street is wide enough for a camel train to turn around; the 100 ounces (about 2.8 kilograms) of alluvial gold discovered in 1893 unearthed one of the richest goldfields in the world; by 1903, the so-called Golden Mile had 49 operating mines and more than 3500 kilometres of underground development; and the largest nugget found here weighed in at 25.5 kilograms.
Kalgoorlie is about mining past and present so a visit to Hannans North Tourist Mine – where you can try your hand at panning for gold and see how miners of the 1890s lived at Prospectors Campsite – should be paired with a tour of the Super Pit on the town’s outskirts. You’ll don a high-vis vest and safety glasses, board a bus and descend into the massive pit, where you’ll be dwarfed by earthmovers, trucks and other vehicles.
Port Arthur Historic Site, Tasmania
The appeal of Port Arthur, a 90-minute drive from Hobart, lies in the ghosts within. This is unparalleled Horrible Histories territory, where the crumbling ruins practically reek of the former penal colony’s occupants and the gruesome reality of their incarceration.
Simply wandering the grounds evokes the convict past but, cleverly, child-friendly activities and displays have been developed to reel the kids in. One of these is the Hidden Stories activity book, part of a treasure hunt designed for children aged seven to 12. Another is the Lottery of Life game, which allows children (and adults, for that matter) to follow the life of one convict. As you move through the Convict Gallery, you discover clues about the prisoner’s identity and how they spent their days. Older kids (and those not freaked out easily) will also love the lantern-lit ghost tour conducted each evening.
Australian War Memorial, ACT
An estimated 10,000 Australians served with Bomber Command in Britain during World War II, many of them flying in Lancaster aircraft, which emerged as the outstanding British bomber. The raids were extremely dangerous and survival expectations for crews were low.
The memorial’s Striking by Night sound-and-light show brings the terror of the raids to life by re-creating a bombing operation that occurred over Berlin in 1943. It’s part of a permanent exhibition that includes the Lancaster bomber “G for George”, flown to Australia in 1944 to promote the war effort, and three German Messerschmitt aircraft. This is history at its most mesmerising.
Seams of gold
Sovereign Hill, Ballarat, Victoria
This gold rush theme park is a little like Disneyland without the rides – peopled by crinolined and corsetted ladies and suited gents, wandering a high street that resembles an 1850s mining town. Sovereign Hill has everything from shops selling boiled sweets to an old-fashioned bowling alley and musket-firing demonstrations.
The tours of a re-created mine aboard an underground tram are a hit with kids but they sell out quickly each day (and you can’t book ahead). Far more spectacular – and bookable – is the Blood on the Southern Cross sound-and-light show.
It starts in a theatre with historical and animated films then takes you on foot through the actual diggings. Next, travelling via tourist tram, you enter an outdoor auditorium and massive purpose-built set, where you’ll hear the story of the Eureka Uprising. It’s arresting theatre with a clever script, exciting lighting and special effects – and not an actor in sight.
West Coast Wilderness Railway, Tasmania
For kids brought up on Thomas, Edward, Percy and Co., riding a historic steam train on the West Coast Wilderness Railway is nirvana. Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company built the tracks in the late 19th century to connect its Queenstown copper mines with Macquarie Harbour. The railway, which turned 120 in May, meanders over mountains and through rainforest and World Heritage-listed wilderness, making it a visual treat for parents, too.
The company offers three itineraries (though only runs half-day tours in winter). Trips depart from Queenstown and Strahan and include insightful commentary. The rack-and-pinion system between Queenstown and Dubbil Barril is a highlight as the original locomotives strain to conquer the steep inclines, like a version of The Little Engine That Could. The marketing slogan – “History that moves you” – couldn’t be more apt.
SEE ALSO: On a Dinosaur Hunt in Outback Queensland