A day in July 2013
Reaching out in the shower I realise it won’t be long before the wonderful handmade lemongrass soap has gone and with it the final tangible trace of our holiday. This makes me sad and I want to keep remembering those days in the moment, not as the rehearsed stories that must be told to others.
I wake feeling lucid and in suspense for how the day will turn out. A few chores online, the suitcase re-packed and the motel door opens into warmth and light. The scene is cheap and bright, not dingy and grey like a motel would be back in the UK, making its guests feel despondent. I look up at the sun, feel the rising vapour, faint at first but then remembering the unmistakeable smell of Australia. It is like a homecoming. Back on Australian soil for the first time in seventeen years.
We meet around midday, me with my hippy hair and you with your can’t care less bare feet. It soon feels like we were never parted, although we turn to one another and high five a few times in the first hours on the road. Slightly apprehensive and concentrating hard, I drive and you navigate us through suburbs and cityscape, traffic lights, junctions, left, right and left again, then we hit the M1.
Oh oh the ocean. We arrive at our first campsite in, fittingly, Anderson Bay, Inverloch. This is for families, just off season and waiting for the final big spend of Easter to fill up the cafes and shops. We find the beach, walk and adjust to one another, finding a rhythm, shakily at first then nice and easy. A lacklustre meal and some beer do no more than their job and we trot back for the first night in the van, where my latent fears come to the fore as you tell me about a spider not big but hiding exactly according to the cliché , what you find here when you go for a wee.
The next day we are eager to get on to the open road, both of us yearning to savour the otherness. But we are mildly disappointed, climbing and falling through the surreal landscape of muddy English fields set down among sparse traces of ancient Bush. Are we in the right country - the country of brittle and burn, of dust and crackle? The road is serpentine but the last thought we have in this damp and mist is of snakes.
Over rivers and railtrack, across creeks Reedy, Muddy and O’Flyn’s; Middy’s Swamp.
Lakes Entrance does not entrance. Our reception at the floating seafood restaurant is hostile and we feel that we don’t fit here.
“Have you booked? Oh. Well we are fully booked completely booked in fact over booked. **sigh** But if you mean right now and you won’t stay long we will let you sit in the corner.”
“Take them to 23 it’s a re-lay it’s a re-lay.”
We don’t overstay our welcome and on the way back call in at a pub where locals meet, hardly aware of the town’s visitors. Big horses on screens in the wall tell them if they have won; pokies next door for consolation. Weary couples, wary girls trying to be daring, wearing haloha garlands to show they are having fun on a hen night.
A couple of beers later, we are so tired! And we still haven’t eaten bugs.
Early morning we forego breakfast and get back to the road. The sun hot already, climbing above the branches. Deep into the magnificent forest we coast the magnitude of the mountains on foothills, rising and falling. It is bright, hot and breezy and so are we. The map shows us the Snowy River and the Great Dividing Range.
On a whim we pull off to ride the Grandview Road and immediately see an echidna crossing in front of us, which is entrancing. Then, some isolated dwellings, a safe place to park and a dinky-di Aussie in a bush hat.
“Yeah. Where you from?”
“So’m I! Whereabouts?”
“You come right back I’ve got the billy on”. And that is our introduction to Pioneer Roger and the Outlaw Wayne. They press us to stay but we have to push on, taking sweet lemonade lemons in our hands and stories on our tongues.
The afternoon is stunning as the glittering forest flashes left and right, giving way to dust and rock. We stop to watch a wombat feeding, unconcerned on the roadside. Late lunch in a sleepy town with a few craft stalls and baker’s shop, with the sun arcing lower.
In Eden the birds sing paradise in the evening peace. We try Canasta. Early in the morning the volume of birdsong is startling and the only person awake apart from me is a lovely bush ranger doing his checks and cleaning before the campers wake.
Later we pull off the highway at Berry. Very bohemian so we buy hippie hats to remember it and share huge plates of food with the flies. Back on the road we are discouraged from throwing litter with the banner: “Don’t be a tosser.” Public service Aussie style.
Bateman’s Bay is spectacular and surrounded by enchanting places - Mooney Mooney Creek, Beauty Point, Waterfall. Pressing on to Botany Bay where we don’t find any reference to Captain Cook’s first landing of HMS Endeavour in 1770. We are amazed to find a campsite in such a built up area. It is cramped and we spot our first cockroaches.
Kind bus drivers, fast train rides, hard pavement. Feeling tired we turn a corner and have our first sight of the harbour, the bridge, the opera house. We are smitten. On the way home we stop for a beer and a bored barman makes us a free molecular cocktail, Cointreau caviar that explodes in the mouth. We are there till dusk the next day, walking the bridge at the end.
Driving out of Sydney through the northern suburbs is our first encounter with narrow roads and it is a relief to get back on to the Pacific Highway.
At Port Stephens we ride up and down the peninsula road, u-turning to catch the Anna cemetery, free range eggs for sale, the winery and Murray's brewery, tasting Sauvignon Blanc and Angryman pale ale.
The site has no space for a camper van, but we are happy to get a slab of concrete in between the cabins, where kids ride manic scooters and parents drink loudly. The old man next to us tells of the days when koalas were here. Now we are content to watch as his wife feeds kookaburras from her hands. Omelette, wine and beer for supper and I am loquacious.
Next day we are pulling off the Pacific Highway to make lunch of tuna and eggs salad with flatbread. Finishing the chutney we agree it wasn’t good - more like mild salsa. Cracking on, this is the day we listen to Chopin as the majesty unfolds. Then Monster. Then Nashville Skyline.
Look, a Koala park. Shall we? Yes No. It is Good Friday and there are no shops or cafes open. After searching we decide yes to the koala park and what a good move that turns out to be as we stroke a koala, coax a wallaby and say Hello Howryagoing with a parrot – all on a half price ticket - Happy Easter.
At the service station minimart I lay in some emergency “So Aussie” supplies - sliced bread, vegemite, crackers, chips, Cherry Ripe, beer. This is the evening we are forced to eat KFC. Birds and more birds, squabbling, screeching, chattering, whistling
We have traversed creeks Lemon Tree, Ferny, Fernbank, Humpty Back.
At Port Maquarie we remark that it is a country of such great contrasts, all seeming to coagulate as one Australia. Except for the one really big contrast. We are remembering the man on the train in Sydney who looked like he belonged less than all the oriental faces - his being the dark squashy nosed visage of a native.
On we go, over Coolongolook Creek and Dead Mans Gully.
A few hours in South West Rocks, where at the craft market we buy local avoes and star fruit. A funny man is singing about pate foie gras as burnt duck liver on toast, he is called the backyard crooner. It’s quite middle class despite him. We buy books (“three good choices” says the stall holder in a surprised voice) and hand made soap.
At the butcher’s we buy the local beef. Then pull off road for local fish and seafood. We’re back on the Pacific Highway and at the veggie shack there are fresh plums and pears for the drive. Beans, chokoes (are they gourds?) garlic for the prawns. Our soundtrack is Nina Simone, Queen. More REM.
We see a lizard near the creek as we take coffee on the waterfront. Boys are fishing, a family is rowing. Ladies lunch. Later in a grog shop you tell me about clean skin wine and I snaffle a bargain bottle. We get some fat yak beer – “hairy but approachable”.
This is the banana coast – we know because of the giant bananas, which they are very proud of. We leave Coffs Harbour and head inland. Grafton is intriguing - all old weatherboard houses. An amazing bridge and viaduct. It looks like the fifties. Skippy could have lived here.
We are in the mountains, with ramshackle houses that almost look like poverty, neglected and decaying. At an isolated roadside cafe you ask “do you sell coffee” and they kind of get the joke. This day it rains, real stuff, hard and cool.
Climbing serpentine roads reveal sudden vistas, emerging peaks. We stop to photograph Nimbin Rock. This is the worst road we have driven on, but the potholes are helpfully accentuated by brightly painted snakes and turtles. We swing into Nimbin - Rishikesh in Australia. The shop owners wispy haired and grizzled among the tie dye, batik and joss sticks. Sixties hippiedom like a time capsule.
“Will ya be wanting any weed while yus here.” Not much alcohol. Lots of dope. Nimbin feels like a community. Slogans and aphorisms on ancient campervans say things like "dont let your mouth get your ass in trouble"
At dusk there are flocks of cockatoos, swooping and swifting up the valley and swarming over the mountain tops.
So we leave the wonderful mountains. Watch an eagle huge in the sky. Buy local produce and eat fruit for breakfast. On to the M1 with the Gold Coast running parallel, high rise and theme parks to our right. Through the suburbs, into the city.
Brisbane. About 20,000 kilometres later. It’s over, it was a gas. It was the best ever.
The final creeks were Deep, Sandy, Stoney, Pebbly.