Dedicated to the Indigenous Australians, for putting up with us Europeans stomping over their land all these years.
This blog is primarily meant for my family and friends to let them know of my travels in Australia, although I quite like the idea of a stranger in Sydney, London or Beijing with nothing better to do with their time, ending up here by mistake and thinking "what the hell's this bloke on about?" Especially the bloke in Beijing because he can't read English.
How I came to be here in Australia is a story I might explain somewhere along the line. Suffice it to say I must like it here as this is the second time I’ve been in as many years.
I’ll probably go off at tangents and embellish or exaggerate the facts a little here and there, purely for dramatic emphasis you understand, but I’ll try not to tell any downright lies.
For those of you of a nervous disposition they'll be plenty of bad language and references to bodily functions.
No names have been changed to protect the innocent: you know who you are and you’ve had it coming.
I've put in some links to some of the places I've visited. So have a look at the pictures, then read the text and then check out some of the links. Actually you can do what you like, it's no skin off my nose. There's a sunburn joke in there somewhere if I could be bothered to figure it out, which I can't.
Enough of this nonsense, on with the story...
Saturday 9th February Sydney.
Well here I am in Sydney. The hotel is a bit of a dump but you get what you pay for as they say. There’s a single bed, one of those TVs where the channels are all fuzzy, a wardrobe with a few bent coat hangers and a fridge, presumably to keep your stubbies in. Toilet and shower down the hallway. Got in this afternoon and got out again pretty quick.
Went down to Circular Quay and my spirits were lifted by the sight of the opera house. Probably the most amazing building I’ve ever seen, the pictures just don’t prepare you for the real thing. Also the Harbour Bridge, stupendous, I didn’t realise just how big it is.
Sunday 10th February Sydney.
Excellent day. Did more of the sights - started at the Australian Museum, world class, favourites for me were the minerals, crystals and gems and the Indigenous Australians section. Then on to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Again world class, especially enjoyed the twentieth century section and contemporary stuff. The power of art is amazing in drawing out emotions and sharpening the senses. Came out and the whole world seemed so much more vivid - colours, shapes, textures, movement, everything! Next on to the Botanic Gardens, had a pleasant time relaxing and strolling around. Back to the hotel for a shower and a bit of a rest before rounding off the day with a cracking Thai meal at a café across the street.
Monday 12th February Sydney - Blue Mountains.
Took the train to Kingsgrove out near the airport to pick up the camper, then the M4 out of Sydney towards the Blue Mountains. Torrential rain for much of the way. Pulled in at Richmond to stock up on supplies at a supermarket. Carried on along Bells Line of Road into the Blue Mountains National Park. Lots of orchards on the way through apple growing country. Beautiful scenery but obscured for much of the way by the rain; driving conditions pretty hazardous and had to pull over a couple of times.
Just about everyone in Australia drives the way we used to in England before gridlock and hidden speed cameras put an end to all that. Driving at least 20 kph over the speed limit is the norm and if the road has bends in it they choose the quickest route between point A and Point B, solid white lines being no obstacle. If it's raining they drive even faster. This might explain the number of vehicles with dents in the side, front and/or rear. That combined with an equally olde worlde attitude towards drink driving. Tailgating is another favorite pastime. If you're in a camper the way to deal with all this out on the open road is to choose another slow moving vehicle as your point man and stay about twenty yards behind them . That way, when the locals come flying past gesticulating wildly, you can join in and point to the guy in front as if it's his fault.
I'm thankful to reach a caravan park at Lithgow, friendly and helpful owners, $16 for the night.
Tuesday 13th Blue Mountains
At last the rain has stopped. I wake up to a lovely view across a valley which looks uncannily like the Peak District. It’s the first time since being in Aus that I’ve felt cold and extra layers are called for - well it is the mountains!
Back on the road again, first stop Hartley, one of the earliest colonial villages still intact.
On to Govett’s Leap and spectacular views of the Blue Mountains: cliffs, waterfalls, the works!
The grand finale, Echo Point at Katoomba, which words cannot describe except to say that it’s like having all of creation spread out in front of you.
Had some lunch in Katoomba then on to Wentworth Falls, a spectacular waterfall with a rainbow across it. What can I say; I’ve run out of superlatives.
Managed to get hold of my friend Kate (who I met at the festival at Woodford last year) on the mobile and met up with her at her home in Blaxland. We went up the pub for dinner and were having a good chat when disaster struck: the top plate of my dentures split clean in two. Hopefully I’ll be able to find somewhere tomorrow to get it fixed. Probably did as much damage to my ego as my teeth.
Wednesday 14th At Kate’s
Beautiful morning here at Kate’s in Blaxland. Lovely house, lovely vibe, lovely lady. I’ve managed to get an appointment at the denture repairer for this afternoon so thing’s are looking up. Kate’s gone to work so I’m spending the morning chilling out here on the deck. Didn’t realise how tired I was, the last four days have been pretty full on.
Went to the denture clinic, nice middle aged lady repaired my plate, in between eating her lunch and chatting to her friend on the phone about how to deal with her dog’s psychological problems. On her card she also offers "intuitive massage", whatever that is, I didn’t ask.
Now the next problem: I noticed yesterday a rattling noise from the engine, which is much worse today. So I phoned the rental company who gave me the number for roadside assistance. They came out and identified the problem as "pinging" (pre-igniting) which in my case could be serious and result in one of the pistons getting a hole blown through the top of it; it needs to go to a workshop. Found a garage that dealt with it right away and only charged me $15. The problem isn’t as bad as it was but we’ll have to wait and see. By now it’s late afternoon so I’m going to spend another night at Kate’s.
Thursday 15th Blaxland - Kiama.
Said my farewells to Kate and made an early start for the journey down to the South Coast. Rejoined the Great Western Highway then took the Northern Road towards Campbelltown, then the Hume and Illawarra Highways into the Southern Highlands: rolling pastureland, pine trees, "Scottish" tourist joints and, best of all, cool air, no need for the air-conditioning here. Down through the Macquarie Pass the road descends through a series of steep gorges with heart-stopping hairpin bends.
The van, an early model Ford Econovan with a cheapo camper conversion, has a few other little quirks besides the dodgy engine. The gate on the gearbox lever is so loose it's pot luck whether I slide it into first, third or fifth; the steering gives me a full upper-body workout; when it rains water leaks in all over the place; when I switch the air-conditioning on the power from the engine to the wheels drops by about a third and finally, I know I'm being a bit picky here but the seatbelt always, but always, gets trapped in the door. There's a sticker on the inside of the windscreen saying "Next service: 460,000km", when I picked it up it had done 462,000, so that might explain a thing or two. One thing it doesn't come with, which it should, is a map. Or rather, there's a very good map of Queensland, but that isn't much use here in New South Wales. I've hired it from a firm called Camperman although the logo on the side says Driveaway Australia, so maybe it's one of those outfits that keeps going bust and has to keep changing its name. Hey-ho, you live and learn.
Down into the lowlands towards the coast and the grass is greener, temperatures high again. On to the Princes Highway to Kiama and that first glimpse of the ocean, always good for the soul. Down to the beach and get my feet in the water. Bloody marvelous. Bloody hot too and after a while I’m off to find the air-conditioned shopping mall. Get some supplies in from Woolies and stop for a pie and a cuppa.
Then on to find a caravan park. It’s a posh one, flashy caravans and four-wheel drives all round, Winnebago’s the size of your average terraced house. I make the most of my powered site and fire up the fridge to keep the beers cold. $29 for the night, which is a bit pricey but still only about 12 quid so I can’t complain and it’s got the works: swimming pool, café, laundry and, best of all, is within spitting distance of the beach. I pop up the pop top on the camper and the place becomes surprisingly roomy, in a vertical direction at least. I could juggle in here if I were so inclined.
Friday 16th Kiama - Fitzroy Falls - Shoalhaven Heads.
Often when driving down the highway you will see a sign for a tourist route. These are detours off the main drag and often offer the best scenery and a chance to escape the tailgaters who have been up your backside for the last twenty kilometres. Some tourist routes also offer various challenges to the unsuspecting traveler. The road will rapidly deteriorate from a good enough two lane road to a single lane barely paved one with crumbling edges, spine-numbing potholes and the chance to encounter sundry obstacles such as fallen trees, wandering livestock and wildlife; "interesting" cheery locals who will smile and wave, usually because they know the road up ahead has been closed because of flood, bushfire, earthquake etc. The one with the biggest grin on his face will be Bill, who has removed the "Only Suitable for 4WDs" sign to weld to the hole on the underneath of his Ute.
Utes (utility vehicles) are what many country people (and city people come to that) use instead of cars. They’re basically what we know as pick-up trucks and come in varying degrees of disrepair with an amazing array of tat strapped to the back: other utes, livestock (dead, alive or somewhere in between), members of the owner’s extended family, agricultural implements and so on and so on.
I took a tourist route this morning whilst continuing my drive down the south coast. The sign was for Kangaroo Valley, which kind of took my fancy. The road climbed up at an alarming degree through a series of hairpin bends along a progressively worsening road surface. There was hardly any traffic, just the occasional grinning local leaning against a farm gate. I followed a Ute with a life-sized plastic cow strapped on the back and my nerves were just about frayed to the point of snapping when I came upon the sign saying "Steep Descent". Eventually the road flattened out into a valley and I pulled over to recover for a few minutes. It’s at this point that I’m passed by a fully laden semi-trailer which has just come down the same road as me. Perhaps I’m missing something here. (Needless to say I didn’t see any kangaroos).
The "tourist route" brings me to Highway 79 and I make a right for Fitzroy Falls. Fitzroy Falls is another of those stunning National Park locations: this one has sandstone cliffs on a grand scale and Fitzroy and Belmore Falls plunge off a plateau down through rainforest gullies to the valley below. I take a wander to the various lookout points and am also honoured with a close-up look at a lyrebird; the further round the rim I go the fewer fellow tourists there are and the more peaceful I feel. Mmm, nice.
Heading back towards the coast I stop at a small country town for what I think might be a circus but is in fact a country fair. I pay my $6 entrance fee to the old man on the gate who, seeing the small haversack on my back asks how far I’ve walked. "Er, just from my van" I say, jerking my thumb over my shoulder. I pass the sign saying "You may be searched for alcohol" and head down towards a ramshackle collection of fairground attractions ("Try your luck sir?") which are arranged around the showground where a number of horsy type events are going on. On one side is what I recognise as what we call show jumping, whilst on the other side are small children riding semi-wild horses which, in a series of races, they have to weave in and out of a number of poles. The horses buck, twist and turn but are kept expertly under control by their young charges. This, I learn from a fellow bystander, is called flag racing. I can’t see any flags but don’t push the point. There are a small number of us watching the action, seated here and there on the makeshift stands. I do my best to adopt a nonchalant pose to fit in with the "crowd". I soon realise that most of the action is actually going on in the beer tent a little way away. I go and skirt round the area, attracting wary looks from the locals. I take a look inside the Department of Rural Affairs tent where, along with pamphlets extolling the various good works of the department, are a couple of old dears discussing ways of eradicating the various rampant weeds which are spreading across their properties, one of which, I am surprised to hear, is the humble privet. I continue on my way, past stalls selling various leather goods to the leathery people and buy some chips from a hot dog stand. The kids out on the showground are still putting their steeds through their paces, which makes this city boy pom feel so inadequate that I wander over to the area selling agricultural machinery, nodding and smiling all the while to the wary farmer types who look straight through me. Time to move back to civilisation methinks so I’m out of there faster than you can say "pommy woos" and on my way back to the coast and the relative sanity of the nearest caravan park at Shoalhaven Heads.
It’s here that I switch the phone on and find a message from Phil saying that Annie has finally left him, which isn’t funny at all. I give him a ring and he fills me in, sounds very subdued. It’s a poor line. "You’re cracking up mate" I say. "Yeah" he says, "I am". I take a walk along the beach which of course is stunning, but it’s a sad end to the day.
Phil is the reason I’m here in Australia. Me and Phil go back a long way to when we were young scallies running around together working at a kiddies’ holiday camp in Wales. I was twenty-one that year; he was in his late teens. We were up to the usual things young fellas get up to at that age: drinking, smoking dope and trying to sleep with as many girls as possible. I was with Lyn and Phil was with Jenny, unless they weren’t around, when we went after anything that moved. I was fresh out of a dead-end job in Derby and my first failed serious relationship and Phil was fresh out the pit town of Castleford. Phil has the body of a telly-tubby and features like a Yorkshire coalface (when Yorkshire still had coalfaces). Despite this he was and still is loved by woman and men alike (though hopefully for different reasons). His addictions are numerous, to gambling, alcohol, women, but his heart is in the right place and he always comes up smelling of roses.
That late seventies summer we carried on like there was no tomorrow: having adventures, going to festivals and, well, drinking, smoking dope and chasing anything that moved. Later, when I’d settled down with Sian and Joey had come along, Phil would turn up from time to time and regale us with tales of his latest adventures. We’d lost touch, as you do, and it would be another twenty-five years before I got a phone call early one fateful morning. "Hey up Sime. D’ya know who this is?" "Yeah, it’s Phil. You still owe me money." There then followed tales of his various escapades over the years. Travels to various corners of the globe, failed relationships, spells in prison. But the boy had come good. Living in Australia, married with two boys, making a good living, life on track. He was coming over to England and could he pop in and stay awhile. "Sure you can, you still owe me money." That was two and a half years ago and now I’m on my second return visit to Australia.
Phil and Annie
Phil doesn’t deserve Annie as he himself freely admits. Annie is fiercely intelligent and totally together but for some reason fell for Phil. They met in a squat in London, had a kiddie and went back to Annie’s homeland, Australia. Now they have two teenage boys, Rob and Paddy. Rob has his mother’s brains, Paddy his father’s native cunning. They are a pleasure to be around and will no doubt both go far. Until today Phil and Annie were living the Australian dream: four bedroom house with pool in one of Brisbane’s better suburbs, high standard of living, and lovely kids. What happens next is anybody’s guess. Only time will tell and besides, it’s their story, not mine.
Saturday 17th Shoalhaven - Booderee National Park - Sanctuary Point
It’s the weekend so busy on the roads. I spend the morning getting pleasantly lost around the highways and byways of Booderee National Park. Eventually I find my way back to the Information Centre and pick up a map. Tootle on down to Cave Beach for a splash around in the ocean. Then on to Huskinson (a bit like Skeggy but without the charm), for some splendid fish and chips. I forget the name of the chippy but there was a large sign behind the counter which described itself as "world famous" and another sign saying: "Notice to Customers: We don’t serve fast food. We serve good food which takes time to cook. Please be patient". Aussie chippies do indeed serve excellent food. There’s always a bewildering array of fish to choose from (today I had the barramundi) and you can also buy fresh prawns and other staples by the kilo if that’s what you fancy. They also do salt and lemon, which brings out the flavour so much better than salt and vinegar. You place your order, they give you a ticket and you wait patiently. In front of me today is a family of German tourists whose patriarch is not prepared to wait patiently. He paces up and down, gesticulates wildly and when his order finally arrives, storms out with it. The staff take all this with typical Aussie good humour.
I came across another German tourist in the national park today, having parked the van next to his shiny red hatchback. "Hello" I say. No response. I try out my Australian accent: "G’day mate". No dice. "Cat got your tongue?" Zilch. "Shall I do the silly walk?"
Back to Booderee and an amble along the beach at Green Patch in Jervis Bay, which is supposed to have the whitest sand of any beach in the world. Good job I had my sunglasses on then. Then off to find a caravan park for the night. The first one I checked, called Aloha for some reason, perhaps the owners had been to Hawaii, was fully booked but the owner directed me to another one I might try: "Right at the roundabout and left at the hardware. Good luck." Fair enough I thought. "It’s a little basic" she hollered after me as I headed back to the van.
In Australia there are caravan parks and there are caravan parks. Let me explain. The former are what we are used to in the UK, somewhere to park up for the night, often with cabins or even "luxury cabins" where you can stay for a week or more if you feel so inclined. The latter are what you might call rather low-rent, and other than the occasional unsuspecting overnight visitor mainly consist of ancient trailer homes and what can best be described as shacks. These appear to be occupied by people you are perhaps a bit down on their luck or otherwise of limited income. The unpaved tracks that pass for roads alongside these architectural delights have names like Paradise Grove or Sea View Mews rather than Broken Fire Hydrant Way or Wobbly Ariel Drive. It’s easy to miss the entrances to these sites as the paint on their signs has usually faded to the point of obscurity and besides are always obscured by dense foliage.
Palm Beach Caravan Park at Sanctuary Point was a case in point and the owner looked a little taken aback when I rang the bell (the office was closed) and asked if he had room for a camper for the night. Shooing his ancient alsatian out of the way he showed me over to my space, a small gap I could just about squeeze into between a sagging trailer with no wheels and a fibreboard cabin. "It’s got power" he says, pointing to the tangle of cables hanging up dangerously close to the tap. I nod appreciatively and we go back to the office to settle up. "That’ll be twenty-four dollars for the night". Now this is about what I’d been paying for the deluxe type of site, with swimming pool, internet connections and the like. (I stayed at a place like this last year, as the dusk was falling after a long and tiring drive down the Pacific Highway, and it was five dollars for the night). But anyway it’s getting late, I need a shower and he knows I’m not going to find anywhere else tonight so I duly cough up. "You’ll need a couple of tens for the shower" he says, but seeing the expression on my face adds "but seeing as you’re a visitor to our country I’ll pay for that" and he hands over the coins. Actually he was very helpful, pointing out local places of interest on the map and asking if I have any relatives in Victoria: "I knew a Kevin Beavis down there once". I go to park up, passing a couple of possums copulating on a fence, and go to enjoy my complimentary shower, wondering what might have happened to Kevin.
Once I’m in a better frame of mind I get to thinking that actually it makes a nice change from the posh sites with their noisy families cackling into the night. It’s very peaceful here, reminds me of living on the farm. If I live long enough I could happily retire to a place like Palm Beach.
At dusk I take a stroll across the street to one of the places my new friend has told me about and find myself by a beautiful lake, St. George’s Basin, still as the night and with a hint of something you rarely see in Australia in the summer: a sunset. Cool.
Sunday 18th Sanctuary Point - South Durras.
Mucked out the van this morning as I’d managed to spill a bottle of beer on the floor, probably because the parking-up spot was on a bit of an incline. (I finally found a use for my Lonely Planet Guide to East Coast Australia, to prop up the bed to a more tolerable angle). Once everything’s spruced up it's back on the road.
I’m getting the hang of the van now, getting used to its little quirks, playfully wrestling with the steering wheel and easing the gearbox through its paces. I’m even finding myself getting quite fond of it, the way you would an errant child.
The first place I stop at today, Lake Conjola, is full of beady-eyed old timers and red-neck fishermen so I push on to Ulladulla where I stop for gas and some brekky. Nice view of the harbour. Then on to Dolphin Point, where the road is blocked by a fallen tree, so third time lucky and it’s South Durras. Jackpot: beautiful beach, nice and quiet for a Sunday. I take a nice slow wander. It’s good to slow down; in fact I think I’ve discovered the secret of a happy life: a) slow down and b) slow down some more.
That evening I’m entertained by a group of kangaroos. There’s a big daddy kangaroo and then various other kangaroos of decreasing size down to little toddler kangaroos, and a little joey kangaroo poking out of his mothers pouch, all come to nibble the short grass around the caravan site. There’s kangaroos boxing, kangaroos scratching themselves, pooping, sniffing each other, standing up sniffing the air. (I’ve eaten kangaroo steaks before now and very nice they are too, very nutritious apparently, hardly any fat and lots of iron). What kangaroos don’t do is make those noises like Skippy, who was the star of a TV show that was on when I was a kid ("What’s that skip, little Billy’s fallen down the well again?"). Anyway these kangaroos don’t do anything of the sort. I heard one of them cough but that was it.
In the middle of the night, having just gone out for a quick pee, a koala comes wandering past with a baby koala on its back. Regular safari park this is.
Monday 19th South Durras - Tuross Head - Narooma.
Up with the kookaburras this morning and nipped across the street to the beach to watch the sunrise. Does it get any better than this?
I spend a couple of hours on the beach then its back on the road. On the outskirts of Bateman’s Bay I pull into a shopping mall for supplies. After two days of ocean and forest it’s like entering fairyland, but without the magic.
The rows of shops on the covered pavements of small towns are where you find the best food in the cheapest cafes but if you need groceries or cheap clothes then you head for the shopping mall. Unlike in the UK, where shopping malls seem to consist of endless designer clothes shops, here they have shops which offer you things you might actually need. (And Australians don’t give two hoots for which label you have on your polo shirt). There’s at least one in every town and they’ll always be a Coles or a Woollies, the main supermarket chains over here, which sell great food really cheap, unlike those greedy profiteering monopolising bastards at Tesco with their endless rows of chiller cabinets stuffed with inedible ready-meals. They also sell vast arrays of fresh fruit and veg, meat and seafood but if you’re on the road these don’t keep for long and besides, as anyone who knows me will attest to, cooking is not one of my strong points. So anyway it’s into the delicious sweet cool air-conditioned air I go and amble up and down the aisles, past the healthy Aussies stocking up on kilos of lamb and prawns and mangos, to fill up my trolley with noodles and canned tuna and baked beans, Weet Bix and skim milk. I could get my bread here too but they still have bakeries in Australia for that, even in shopping malls. Then onto the bottle shop for a slab of Hahn premium light and thence to K-Mart.
K-Mart is one of those evil American multinationals which sells cheap clothes, as well as any other kind of cheap tat you’ve set your heart on. However, unlike stores in the UK who seem to think that men don’t require or deserve more than a couple of racks of shirts and pants, usually grey or navy blue, K-Mart, to their credit, have rack after rack of brightly coloured t-shirts, shorts, boardies, jeans; you name it they've got it, so that a cheap clothes fetishist like myself has somewhere to get his kicks. It’s not only K-Mart either, there’s Lowes, Target and more besides. Whoopee.
The only problem is the sizes, which are in centimetres. There's usually a sign somewhere telling you the equivalent in inches, but these tend to differ wildly, if there is one, from the size conversion on the label in the actual garment. So 32 inches, which is actually 82cm might be written as 87cm. Are you with me so far? It's most confusing. And some clothes are of the small-medium-large variety but having been made in China for the American market these are always all the size of tents anyway.
Anyhow I'm a bit bleary-eyed this morning and can't get my head round all this so I leave K-Mart with a cheap kiddies exercise book and a biro so I can continue writing this nonsense. Aren't you glad about that? How exited are you today?
Setting off once again down the Princes Highway my nerves are a bit jangly from all the colours and bright lights of the mall so I turn off into a rest stop for a snooze.
Unlike on UK motorways, where you are herded into services with the rest of the great unwashed to eat vastly overpriced food and drink mud-like coffee, over here you can pull off a little way from the highway and have a pee in the composting toilet, sit at the picnic tables, stick on the kettle and generally "Rest, Revive, Survive" as the signs say. Some of them even have little walking trails where you can stretch your legs whilst admiring the local scenery. You come away feeling relaxed and refreshed rather than with indigestion and the feeling that you've just been mugged. When you want to eat you can pull over as the highway slows you down at the next small town and get a slap-up meal for next to nothing at an old-fashioned cafe. (The dreaded McShite and KFC are making inroads but if want that kind of crap then that's your funeral.)
Back on the road I take a left on to Tourist Route 7 and end up at Mossy Point. Nice enough but I feel like driving today so carry on to Tuross Head where I roam around on the rocks at the end of a cove, watching crabs in a rock pool. It's also a nice enough place, gorgeous in fact and from the headland I can see more coves and longer stretches of beach with bush behind and mountains in the distance. Trouble is it's a kind of retirement place and behind the beaches are developments of new houses with manicured gardens and watered lawns. Everyone I pass seems to be giving me the dead eye, as if a person with long hair must be about to rip out their internal organs (I must admit after a while it does begin to cross my mind). There are people taking their dogs out to urinate around the neighbourhood. In fact every other person seems to be walking a dog. There's obviously sod all else to do once you've retired to Tuross Head and you've watered the lawn and pruned the shrubs. There are signs for the golf club and the bowls club. You can almost hear the ringing as the local neighbourhood watch telephone tree bursts into life. It's the only place in the time I've spent in Australia that I would describe as twee. Even on the new housing developments around Brisbane you see homes with unmown grass, old utes in the front yard being used as tool sheds and the like. Australians are proud of their freedom to do what the hell they like on their own property and generally nobody gives a toss. Obviously nobody's told that to the residents of Tuross Head.
I drive into a shiny new shopping centre and pass a few bored looking teenagers on my way into the cafe. I order a steak sandwich and sit down to read the paper. When they call my order there's no question of eating in as it's already wrapped for me to take away. I drive on down to the beach again and sit down at a picnic table. I'm chewing so furiously that for one heart-stopping moment I think I've broken my teeth again. I'm back into the van and driving round trying to find my way back to the highway when I almost run up the arse of a brand new top of the range 4WD. It's then that I realise I'm trying to drive with my reading glasses on. I pull over and take a few deep breaths. I finally find my way back to the highway and I'm so out of there, tyres squealing. Actually I have to make the squealing sound myself because the van isn't quite up to that kind of drama.
I pass a caravan site not far down the road but there's no way I'm going to stay anywhere near Tuross sodding Head, even though it's getting late and the next town is 40km away. Cruising down towards Narooma the cool evening air and miles of forest help me to chill. This area is known as the Nature Coast and it really is lovely, lots of little inlets from the sea which you cross over on funky span bridges with views over the rivers and lakes sparkling in the evening light. I make it to Narooma and swing into the first site I find. The desk is manned by a cracking blond who keeps me chatting about her Scottish heritage and the wonders of UKTV. I'm not complaining. I park up with a view over Wagonga Inlet, take a shower and crack open a stubbie from my stash of Hahn Premium. Pretty soon I'm opening another. It's been that kind of a day.
You meet all kinds of people on caravan parks. Tonight I get chatting to an excavator driver who's working on the highway just up the road. We're chatting about this and that and, is often the case, about the differences between Australia and the UK and I happen to mention that it was snowing in England when I left and he starts telling me about his home town in the Snowy Mountains. Which gives me an idea.
Tuesday 20th Narooma - Snowy Mountains.
Taking a dump this morning I notice a cockroach ambling across the tiles and resist the temptation to put my foot on it. Back at the van I chuck out some stale bread for the seagulls. Regular Doctor Dolittle I am today.
I think one of the reasons I broke my teeth the other day might be that I've been chewing so much chewing gum. In this heat my mouth has been getting pretty dry. At the petrol station this morning I ask the lady behind the counter if she's got anything that's like chewing gum but isn't chewing gum. She gives me a funny look: "We've got chewing gum and we've got mints." "Righto, I'll take a packet of mints please." I pop a mint in and it nearly takes the roof off the top of my mouth, but at least it takes my mind off the dryness.
Reading my horoscope yesterday Jonathon Cainer was saying I should be thinking about making a compromise so I reckon it's time for a haircut. As luck would have it, drifting out of Narooma this morning I spot a barbers and pull over. "You've got a challenge for me", says the lovely lady whose name is Caroline, and we agree that it's time I left the 1970s. So here I am half an hour later looking spick and span. It's great to be able to walk down the street without old ladies clutching their handbags a little tighter and knowing I'll be able to drive through country towns without the farmers reaching for their shotguns. It's going to be a beautiful day.
Heading south towards Bega I spot a tourist route for Dromedary Mountain. The road turns to gravel but I'm up for a challenge today. We meander up hill and down dale and I nearly lose it on a corner to a truck speeding the other way. Eventually after about twenty bumpy kilometres I end up back on the main highway. No doubt Bill's been messing with the signs again. (Needless to say I never did see Dromedary Mountain). There's some roadworks up ahead and remarkably I spot my excavator-driving friend. I give him a wave but I don't think he recognises me with my short hair.
I pull over at Lake Corunna and bump into a bunch of Yorkshire lads with a big camper, all bare chests and tattoos. There's a couple of girls as well, fixing their eggs on toast. They tell me about a kangaroo they've seen, a dead one at the side of the road: "Got out and took a photo!" I can just imagine it, them taking it in turns to be pictured with the dead kangaroo, maybe giving it a bit of a poke with a stick. I tell them about South Durras and the kangaroos there, the live ones, and give them directions. I hope they made it. Australia could do with a few more Yorkshire lads (or maybe that should be the other way round). Onwards and just before Bega I take a right onto the Snowy Mountains Highway.
Onwards and upwards, through stunning scenery and take a break at Piper's Lookout, which offers views over the entire Bega Valley out to the ocean. (It was named after Fred Piper in 1951 after he died clearing snow from the road). Onwards and ever more upwards, crossing the Great Dividing Range at an elevation of 1110 metres. Over the other side and the landscape is a total contrast. Rolling hills and pasture devoid of any features other than browned grass which here and there is an almost imperceptible shade of green. A few sheep, some mean-looking crows. Yep, it's pretty dry out here. Hardly any traffic on the road until a point where there's cattle wandering around in the road and a drover waves us through. It's quite a surprise to arrive at the little town of Cooma. I get a map from the visitor centre and make my way on to Adaminaby. I pull over to fill up at the petrol station, which seems to be the only building here, and from there to the Old Adaminaby Caravan Park, next to Lake Ecumbene. $9 for the best location yet and I seem to have the place to myself. "You can park where you like" the owner tells me, waving to the large grassy area with a view over the lake. "Stay as long as you like; people do." It's not difficult to see why. Except for the buzzing of the odd fly you could hear a pin drop. I take a shower, open a beer, get the chair out and sit back to take it all in: kangaroos and bunny rabbits in the valley down by the lake, grasshoppers jumping around, the forested hillside on the other side of the lake. Bliss. When it gets dark the view of night sky is fantastic, so many stars. The milky way looks like some giant cosmic orgasm splattered across the sky.
Wednesday 21st Snowy Mountains
Up with the squarky things and ready for a cuppa. It's so quiet the boiling kettle sounds like a fighter plane preparing for take off. Seriously though (seriously?) it's drop-dead gorgeous here and if I were to die right here and now I'd be off to Stovokor or wherever with a big silly grin on my face. Shouldn't tempt fate though, I was nearly a goner yesterday when a kangaroo leapt across the highway about five metres in front of me. That loosened my bowels a bit I can tell you.
I take an amble down to the lake, a flock of rainbow-coloured lorakeets flying overhead.
Down here there's even beauty in decay, in the dead trees and some wasps eating the remains of a grasshopper. Nature doesn't give a toss really.
It's difficult to tear myself away from this place so I don't. I put the kettle on again and open a new packet of teabags. "New Dripless Drawstring Teabags!" the packet says. Just what I've always wanted. On each teabag there's a set of instructions: "Pull out tag. After brewing separate tags. Pull tags in opposite directions". I follow the instructions to the best of my ability and scalding hot tea sprays over my arms, my new polo shirt, the pristine wilderness. I have another few goes and eventually get the hang of it but not before getting through half the packet.
Have you noticed how every blood-sucking planet-destroying multinational is jumping on the green bandwagon? The Tetley Tea Company is no exception: "Naturally Rich in Flavonoid Antioxidants" it says here. Now I've got a vague idea what antioxidants are but Flavonoid? And there's more: "We're proud to announce the creation of a new Tetley initiative: Tetley wellbeing 4 life." There's even a website where you can "get as much information as you can for yourself, your family, friends and work colleagues to make positive choices about wellbeing." I can't wait, if I could get a signal out here I'd be on the phone right now to all my family, friends and work colleagues to spread the good news. Work colleagues! I mean, can you imagine: "Hey Bill, heard about the new Tetley wellbeing thingy?" "Wha? Ah fuck, sodding tea bags, all over me clean overalls!" As soon as I get to a caravan site with internet access you can bet I'll be online so I can download as much information as I can. Oh yes.
As promised, I feel like I could stay here a lot longer, like the rest of my life, but I want to see some more of the Snowy Mountains, so I nurse the old girl back towards the highway. (See how fond I'm getting of the old crate?) I turn on the radio but there's someone singing about Jesus. With a shudder I try to tune to something else but there's only crackles. I'm actually a big fan of Jesus, just not of people who insist on singing mawkish songs about Him. As we enter Kosciuszko National Park the road markings turn from white to yellow. Funky. There are photo opportunities round every corner but if I'm going to make it to Brisbane by the end of next week I'm going to have to move up a gear. Or at least get into first. But I keep having to pull over, not only because I want to experience more of the quietness but also because I keep thinking of more of this nonsense to scribble down for you, and only you, dear reader. I'm sitting here now, in the silence, amongst the scattered rocks and dead trees, watching a few bush ants crawl round by my feet. If anything were to happen to me now they'd soon have me, that's for sure. I eat a banana and toss the skin to the ants, who are beaten to it by the crows.
Just about everywhere in Australia, if you look down round your feet you'll see ants. Waiting at a suburban bus stop, ants; ants on the kitchen counter, ants out on the patio; on the rocks down on the beach, ants; out in the bush - lots of ants. The little ants out on the patio will give you a nip but it doesn't really hurt. The bush ants, on the other hand, are an inch long and if you tread on one it'll give you something to remember for the rest of the day. That's why you keep your shoes on, as I have learnt.
Out here this barren and desolate place has a beauty all of its own, which I can't quite put my finger on until I realise it's all about death, and how one day it'll come to us all, and we might as well accept it, because nature really doesn't give a toss. There's an Aboriginal tale of how the land wants to draw you down into itself, which out here it could do pretty quickly. Cheerful little bunny today aren't I?
My book "On the Road: 40 Great Driving Holidays in Australia" tells me one of the highlights of this parts of the world is a place called Providence Portal, but it doesn't say what or why or where it is. Luckily I see a sign for it but it's a dirt road. Oh no, not today matey, I'm not falling for that one again, so I rattle on down the road none the wiser. After a cold start the day's heating up fast and I bung on the air-conditioning.
The air conditioning in shopping malls is cool and sweet and refreshing and is a welcome relief from the constant heat. This might explain why shopping malls are full of pensioners and the unemployed, not shopping but sitting around enjoying the cool sweet air. The air-conditioning in vehicles, on the other hand, dries your skin out to the texture of toilet paper and leaves your mouth feeling as if you've been chewing on a dry nappy. Which might also explain the need for chewing gum, or mints. So I've been experimenting with not using the air-conditioning in the van and instead just opening the windows. This can be a little tricky. Not wide enough and it doesn't do the job, too wide and maps, sleeping bags and packets of mints start flying out of the windows and I have to back up down the highway to retrieve them, much to the annoyance of approaching truck drivers.
I make my way to the next town, Kiandra, which isn't a town at all, more of an ex-town. It was built on the wave of the 1860 gold rush and once housed thousands of people. The last resident left in 1974, after which the National Park and Wildlife Services took over the town and demolished most of its buildings. Today there are a few restored shacks, some public toilets, a callbox and an information board, which is why I'm so knowledgeable about the ex-town of Kiandra.
Time to move on and I make a point man out of a Maui supercamper as we plunge down below the tree line. At least these trees have a few leaves on them. I'm guessing the Maui is being driven by a German couple and I try to imagine the conversation they're having: "You know dear zat pom in ze crappy little Econovan has been following us for ze last tventy kilometres". "Yes. And you know he looks like ze one who made zat crack to Hans about ze silly walk". "No I don't think so, zat guy had long hair". "Ah yes. Bastard. However did zay vin ze var?" I notice there's a trickle of water coming out of their rear end where the Mrs is taking a pee in the en suite. Then again it might be coolant leaking so I back off a little in case his engine is about to blow, which is just as well because suddenly he veers wildly over into a stopping bay on the other side of the road. "Ha ha. Zat showed ze bastard." "Yes dear, could you pass me a towel pleaze."
I resist the temptation to take the road for Tumut 2 power station and instead head for Cabramurra (and Tumut 1 power station - the roads in this area were first built for the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme). The sign for Cabramurra lookout helpfully points upwards at the space between two forks in the road. Bill obviously has a brother round here somewhere. I take a gamble on which fork to take but end up at the Cabramurra ski club lodge, which is closed, probably because they don't get much snow up here in the middle of summer. I have a poke around anyway, admiring the vast stack of firewood which has no doubt been hauled up here by strapping ski club members, or maybe they just have a whip round and hire a contractor. I don't suppose it matters really but this is the kind of thing you get to wondering about when you've been winding your way round the roads of the Snowy Mountains for a few hours.
I eventually find the Cabramurra lookout (elevation 1488 metres) a little way down the road. I was hoping this was going to be one of the high points of my trip around the Snowies as Cabramurra is the highest town in Australia. I had imagined grand vistas of, if not snow-covered peaks, at least peaks. Instead the main view is of the town of Cabramurra, most of which appears to be a housing complex for the power station workers at Tumut 1 and Tumut 2, all with funny pointy roofs, no doubt to shed the ample falls of snow. Over to the left the view is better but is obscured by some picnic huts, again with funny pointy roofs. And there's a tree that's been left to grow and obscure the view as well. Probably the contractor who hauled the firewood up to the ski lodge was meant to take it down but couldn't be arsed. I expect he had Bill working with him that day: "Hey Bill, want to give us a hand to take this tree down?" "Nah, fuck it, let's leave it there to piss off the tourists." "Alrighty." In disgust I thoughtlessly throw down my cigarette end which starts a small fire in the tinder dry grass. I frantically stamp it out, burning the soles of my trainers in the process. By now my mind is whirring and I'm imagining it's all a conspiracy by the power station company, who probably own everything round here, to force me down to the visitor centre to buy a postcard of the view, which of course I dutifully do. Before I do I manage to get in a couple of half-decent shots by zooming in over the top of the picnic huts and the tree. Aren't you pleased I did that for you?
Before I get to the visitor centre I notice on my left the Cabramurra General Store, Cafe and Takeaway. This being the only chance for a nosh for miles around I go in, but there doesn't appear to be anything on the blackboard where the menu should be. "Sorry, we've had a bit of a rush today". I glance around; I'm the only person here. "We've got coffee and some cakes." "I don't suppose there are any other cafes round here?" "No. There's one in Adaminaby. Forty-five minutes, give or take." Rather disappointed I wander over to the rack to pick out some postcards of the view from the lookout. There are cards of the Snowy Mountains with snow on, cards of the wildflowers which the area is famed for (which are now over and gone to seed), cards of rustic alpine shacks, cards of barren hillsides covered in dead trees and cards of the Sydney Harbour Bridge but no cards of the view from Cabramurra lookout. They're missing a great marketing opportunity up there at the Cabramurra General Store. I buy a couple of cards of rustic alpine shacks and it's then that I notice that the General Store also has a Post Office counter. This must be the highest Post Office in Australia and, as I'm running a little short of cash, I ask if I can change some travelers cheques. "They're American Express" I boast, "in Australian dollars", hoping this will clinch it. The girl doesn't seem too hopeful: "Sorry, we did some a few weeks ago but we couldn't get rid of them." This intrigues me. Is there a black market in travelers cheques up here in the Snowies? Do dealers from Sydney drive the five hours out here to trade, perhaps for shiny beads? They'll take ANZ, they'll take SunCorp, but no way will they take American Express. She goes to fetch the manager, who is most apologetic. "We haven't got the electronics you see", he says, which seems a bit strange, seeing as we're next to Tumut 1 power station. Perhaps they still use an abacus and quills dipped in ink up here in the highest Post Office in Australia. "You could try Adaminaby" he advises, "forty-five minutes. Or definitely Cooma. Two hours. I've got some stamps." "Sorry?" "For your postcards."
I make my way back up to the lookout to make myself a sandwich and a cuppa. There's lots of interesting stuff up here. There's a little weather station, a helipad, information boards about the history of Cabramurra and the power stations and a plaque dedicated to the site of the original school. This I am informed was built in 1954 but is no longer in existence. Now 1954 isn't so long ago and I get to wondering what might have happened to it. And who in their right mind would build a school on the highest point of the highest town in Australia? I reckon of all the options it was probably bushfire, they do seem to get quite a lot of them round here. Or perhaps Bill's brother, as a lad, burnt it to the ground one boring summer evening. After all, as we know, mischievousness does seem to be a trait that runs in Bill's family, and there can't be much else to do to entertain yourself if you're a bored teenager in Cabramurra, the highest town in Australia.
Just as I'm pondering all this a guy turns up on a trails bike who turns out to be a bit of a character. "That's the best way to get around up here I guess" I say, nodding to the bike. "Yeah, can't carry anything though, have to do without." Which gets me wondering: where does he sleep, what does he eat? Does he ever change his clothes? I imagine him dossing down in huts, living off bush tucker, washing in mountain creeks. Mistaking my enquiry for an enthusiasm for motorbikes he regales me with details of cylinder capacity, torque, gear ratios etc but he can see my attention's wandering. Turning to the map on the information board he points out good places to camp, difficult roads, lookout points not obscured by trees, everything I need to know really. "Had a swim in the dam this morning" he says. "Lovely warm water." Now this seems a tad risky to me, taking a swim in a dam whose waters feed the turbines of a hydro-electric power station but go on, what do I know, I'm not touring the Snowy Mountains on a trails bike with just a little haversack on my back. "Ah well, time to push on" he says as he fires up the bike. "Rumble rumble" he adds, imitating the sound of the engine, and it gladdens my heart to know I've just met a kindred spirit.
It's about now that the wind starts picking up. I'd read on the back of my map of the Snowies that the weather can change rapidly up here, as it does in mountains all over the world but it's nice to be reminded. Just then there's a flash of lightning and as I'm sitting in a metal box on the highest point of the highest town in Australia I decide to head for lower ground. Perhaps it's a warning to me from the local gods for taking the piss out of their quaint little town. I make my way back down the road and pull into a rest area next to three mile dam, resisting the temptation to nip in for a quick swim. I hear on the local radio that the bowls match in Cooma has had to be called off because of the rain. Apparently we're missing the worst of the weather, with a big electrical storm to the north. But get this: "Police are reporting a large number of umbrella thefts. They are looking for someone with a large collection of umbrellas". Priceless. Snow FM. Remember that name.
Still feeling a bit peckish I head on back into Adaminaby, over the Great Dividing Range again, this time at 1250 metres. Give or take, the journey takes me forty-five minutes. I discover that there's more to the town than just one petrol station, it's just that I'd blinked yesterday and missed it. There are in fact two petrol stations, six streets (counted 'em), the Tanderra Lodge Motel, a shopping centre and a school. There's also one of those corny things you'd think they only have in America: a whopping great twenty foot high fibreglass trout.
I head on down to the shopping centre and Hudson's Diner, an old-fashioned burger joint. By coincidence there's lots of pictures of motorbikes on the walls as well as framed newspaper articles with headlines like "UFOs spotted over Canberra" and decent music on the stereo. On the other side of the counter waiting to serve me are four small boys ranging in age from about five to eleven, all with identical faces. The eldest one is ready with the pad and pencil but just then their Dad, who just might be a biker judging by the length of his hair and the pictures on the wall, comes out to see what I'd like. The kid with the pad looks crestfallen but his day will come. I order a chicken burger and go check out the newspaper clippings. The burger is excellent: real chicken, real salad, real mayo (child-eating executives at McShite Corporation please take note). I take my seat and the youngest comes over to check me out. "Hi there, what's your name?" I ask but his expression says he doesn't know, or he's forgotton, or he can't be bothered to tell me. He's probably seen plenty of pommy tourists in his time already and he walks off to find something more interesting to do, like counting sheep. When I'm done I go over to the counter to pay and the eldest manfully takes my six dollars. He's well chuffed. They'll go far those boys, far from Adaminaby if they're lucky. Great place for a burger, Hudson's Diner. You should check it out, they could probably use the business.
There's a Post Office a few doors up so I decide to give the travelers cheques another go. The couple behind the counter are up for it too. The computer isn't much help (at least they've got "electronics") so I show them the ropes: which machine to scan them through, where I have to sign. Everyone's happy and I come away with another $400 to inject into the Australian economy, minus $7.20 commission and GST.
The rain has reached us now but I'm still feeling game so I decide to have another shot at Providence Portal, just time enough I reckon before dusk and the kangaroos come out to nibble the short grass at the side of the road and leap out in front of unsuspecting tourists. So it's back up the good ol' Snowy Mountains Highway, over the Great Dividing Range, still at 1250 metres, to where I saw the sign this morning. As luck would have it there's also a sign for caravan park. It's still a dirt road but hey, the sign says it's only 500 metres to the park. It's just going dark as I check in at the office; $9.50 for the night. The Snowy Mountains: not only good for your soul, also light on your pocket.
Thursday 22nd Snowy Mountains - Narooma
Wake up in the middle of the night feeling peckish. Should have had some chips with that burger. Fix myself some Weet Bix and hear grunting noises outside. Must be a wombat, either that or one of Bill's cousins looking for some late night action.
In the light I can see why this place is called Providence Portal: the mountainous landscape flattens out to a wide plain with a creek running through it, which must have pleased the early settlers in this area no end. I also discover the source of last nights animal noises: cattle wandering round the site. I go for a wander down to the creek; it's another beautiful place on another beautiful day.
Time to say goodbye to the Snowy Mountains and head back to the coast today but before I do I stop off in Adaminaby for some breakfast. Then it's back down the long and winding road towards Cooma. The cattle are still wandering around on the highway and I pass the same drover, still waving his arm bestowing blessings on the traffic.
On through Cooma and onto the Princes highway to start the journey north up the coast. By early evening I'm back in Narooma and choose a caravan park, this one with a nice view over the ocean. I'm parked up next to a couple of ex-pats from Sydney. We get chatting and they've obviously made a pile over here. He's in engineering and she drinks gin. Lovely people though and they invite me to have dinner with them. In the UK I'd be working for people like this but here I'm eating their food, drinking their beer. Bloody marvelous. Viva Australia, that's what I say, or would do if I were a Mexican.
Friday 23rd Narooma - Kiama.
Had another strange dream last night. For some reason one of the kids (it wasn't clear which one) had married into royalty. We were all at some royal function and I kept coughing up phlegm and spitting all over the place. The queen and prince Andrew looked none too pleased and a couple of security bods ushered me outside. I was just apologising when shots rang out and they dropped down dead. I'm frantically trying to phone the cops by dialing 0099, a combination of Australian and British emergency numbers, maybe I should have stuck with one or the other because I keep getting through to my Mum: "Hello dear, how are you today?" At this point I wake up in a cold sweat, still coughing up phlegm and I roll over and spark up a ciggie to calm my nerves. I check the phone for messages in case something dire has happened to my Mum and resolve to cut down a little on the ciggies. I also make a mental note to buy a copy of The Times when I get to the next big town to check the court circular, just in case.
I swing myself upright, open the van door and watch the sun rise over the ocean. Take a wander and it's a nice beach too, bit of everything: sand, rocky coves, bush, little birdies, groovy patterns in the rocks.
Time to hit the road again. I've got the DIY air-con sussed now. Roll the passenger window down about a third and the drivers side just enough to keep the top of my head cool without ending the day with blistering sunburn down the side of my face.
Having brekky in a cafe in Muruya this morning I tune into a conversation between two old dears: "And how are you today dear?" "Well it still hurts when I sit down but at least I survived the operation." Mid-swallow I try to suppress a giggle but instead end up spraying scrambled eggs and tea all over the clean tablecloth. The one facing me leans over sympathetically: "Went down the wrong way did it dear? I have that trouble sometimes." Her friend turns round to nod in agreement: "You should try sucking a mint. Nice haircut by the way."
The highway north of Batemans Bay is much busier than to the south but I'm in there with the best of them by now, skirting the white lines at 120. That is until I nearly run into the back of a line of stationary traffic at some roadworks. The gods roll their eyes and I promise to ease up a little.
I hear on the radio that that rat-faced spawn of satan Dick Cheney is visiting Australia at the moment, banging the drum for his War Of Terror, and I snap it off as he starts to spout the usual drivel about defending freedom and democracy. To borrow an Aboriginal saying, his words do not travel well to my ears. Good to hear the Aussies are putting up a decent protest. The equally rat-faced Australian politician Kevin Rudd describes the protesters as "violent ferals". Takes one to know one, to borrow a European saying.
As the heat of the day rises the DIY air-con isn't really up to the job and begrudgingly I switch on the real one. The old girl groans but we struggle manfully onwards. Rumble rumble.
On the outskirts of Nowra I spot the town cemetery and pull off the highway to go and have a look at the headstones, as you do. I drive round the block a couple of times but can't find the entrance so skip over the fence by the catholic section. O'Connor...Caffrey...Ryan. An old guy, maybe the gravedigger, wanders over. "Looking for anyone in particular, son?" he asks. "No thanks, just browsing." The catholic section is a bit boring so I go over to where there's some really big ones with angels and stuff on top, obviously the section reserved for the town worthies. But these don't take my fancy much either so I check out some smaller ones starting with Lance - killed in action July 1918 - aged 19. There's a whole row of them, the eldest 22. Killed in action in another pointless war started by rat-faced politicians from another era.
Here and there are some really piss-poor graves which belong to Aborigines, with just a plain wooden cross or even just a stick with a number on it. There's one really recent one, fresh earth mounded over it. Over the top is a T-shirt with a picture of a message stick on it. I'm feeling a little spooky by now, as you might be too, so I skip back over the fence to the van.
At the end of the road there's a sign for HMAS Albatros. This I deduce has got be some kind of military installation so, the theme for the day being death and destruction, I motor on down. Sure enough there's all the signs of a base. Fences with barbed wire. A sign saying "Give Way to Marching Troops". And also a sign for the Fleet Air Arm Museum. Not being particularly interested but guessing it's got to be air-conditioned I follow the signs. Sure enough round the corner there's a whopping great building of the type you might stash old fighter planes in. I park up and squelch my way across the sticky tarmac towards the promise of sweet air-conditioned air. Outside there's an old plane of the type you see outside Fleet Air Arm museums, all rusting pipes and bits of wire hanging out here and there. It obviously doesn't go anymore. That's why it's outside a museum. There's also a whopping great propeller off the back end of a carrier, possibly the one that carried the jet, also rusting away under the searing Australian sun. Pulling up next to me is a guy about my age, obviously incredibly enthusiastic about old fighter planes, even ones that don't go anymore. With him is his teenage son, who is taking no interest whatsoever but is gabbering away into his mobile. "Look", his Dad is saying, nearly wetting himself, "it's got two cockpits". The kid looks the other way so I try to help out: "Off a carrier is it?" I ask, having spotted that the wings fold in half, in a plane that goes on a carrier sort of way. "Yeah" he says, "it's a jet." I'd kind of figured that out too but I'm feeling sorry for him, his son being such a dolt, so I feign a bit of interest.
The three of us troop over to the doors of the mighty building. "Closed for Major Refurbishment" says the sign on the door. The guy is devastated. God knows how many hours he's driven to get here, with his air-conditioning drying his skin to the texture of toilet paper, enthusing to his disinterested son about the wonderful military hardware they'll soon be salivating over. Clearly not one to give up at the first hurdle he tries the door. Remarkably it opens. We all troop in but there's not much to see, just a few books for sale and some flight suits in various stages of decay hanging on the walls. There's an attendant. "Erm, closed is it then?" I venture. "Yes sir, closed for major refurbishment sir." My disappointed friend goes to have a poke around amongst the decaying flight suits but personally I find it spookier than the graveyard, even the sweet air-conditioned air doesn't tempt me to stay and I go to have another shufty around outside. I push my nose up against the chain-link fencing around the base but there's not much to see, there doesn't even seem to be any planes. I wander over to a little building but it's just the toilets. I take a pee and there's sign for "Visitors Showers". So there you go, you can visit the Fleet Air Arm Museum near Nowra, there's nothing to see but you can take a shower at the expense of the military.
I head on back towards the highway but then see a sign for a lookout. I follow the little road up towards one of those big radar type thingies, only to have to screech to a halt because across the road it says "Restricted Area " in big red letters. I back off pretty sharpish and pull in to where the real lookout is. You walk along a little path around the back of the big radar type thingy to the lookout. The view is of course mostly obscured by trees. There's one of those plaques set in stone pointing the way to various points of interest: Mount Whatsit, Bill's mother's house, you know the kind of thing. I can't really see much today on account of the heat haze. However what there is is a remarkably good view over the whole military airbase. There's a sign with a list of things you can't do: no fires, no camping, no playing with yourself and so on. But there's no sign saying no taking photographs of the military airbase. You'd think, in these sensitive times, that the military would have closed off the lookout with more chain-link fencing topped with more barbed wire but no, there it is, for any Tom, Dick or Abdul to photograph to their hearts content. So that's what I do, and just for good measure take a few shots of the big radar type thingy.
Down the road we go, camera disk buzzing with military secrets, on to Nowra proper where the highway is lined for several kilometres with petrol stations, warehouses, used car lots and several McShite drive-thrus. I pop into a DIY store, buy a little bag of cement, drive down to the nearest McShite drive-thru, go into the gents and dump a portion of cement down each toilet. Actually I made that last bit up but it's the thought that counts.
Rumble rumble. There's been a distinct lack of rest stops along this section of highway so when I see the old "Stop, Revive, Survive" sign I know there's one coming up. It even promises to have a tap and Information. 500 metres. I veer off the highway but there's no tap and no Information. It's just the old bit of highway that's still here before they built the new section which takes out this rather nasty bend. There's a nice view of the ocean so I stop anyway, make myself a sandwich and a cuppa. I'm pissed off with canned tuna by now so it's a choice of margarine or margarine. I pick the margarine. Whilst I'm enjoying my cuppa and relishing the flavour of my sandwich without canned tuna a few other tourists pull into the old bit of highway, look around in a bemused sort of way and pull out again. No doubt they need a tap or Information. I take off again and soon the highway turns into a real highway, with two lanes in both directions, exit ramps, overpasses, crash barriers and so on. It's the same road as I came on in the other direction on my way south but I don't think I mentioned the detail before, so I thought I would, just for all you highway nuts out there.
The super-duper highway rolls on and I take the exit for Kiama which, you'll know if you've been paying attention, is where I started this little jolly down and back up the coast of New South Wales. The sign for Kiama has a little logo of a castle on it. Now I'm no expert on Australian history but one thing I'm pretty sure of is that Europeans haven't been here long enough to have built many castles. It turns out not to be a castle at all but a whacking great monument (about the size of an Australian castle) to the fallen of yet another war, the one between 1939 and 1945, started by a German madman in that case, rather than an American one as now.
It's time for my late afternoon nosh but I don't fancy fish and chips today so I pull up outside the Black Rock cafe, which is closed. What I really fancy is a steak but as I walk up and down the strip I can't find anywhere that sells it. There is a pub doing steak but I don't fancy eating my meal surrounded by leery pissed-up Aussie holidaymakers so I settle for a pizza, which is excellent: real fresh chicken, real cheese and real tomatoes (processed shite selling executives at Dominoes please take note). Having satiated my hunger I mosie on up to my old haunt at Easts Beach Holiday Park for the night.
It's been a great day. I've been on a lovely beach, been spooked in a cemetery, paid my respects to the war dead, taken the piss out of politicians, the military and multinationals and even enjoyed the long drive. I also realise I've been using the word piss rather a lot so I'll try not to do that in future, if I can be arsed that is.
I've lost my lighter so try the one on the dash. I'm pretty sure it doesn't work but just to be sure I stick my finger in, which promptly takes off a couple of layers of skin. The gods have had the last laugh.
Saturday 24th Kiama - Camden.
I check my voicemail again this morning. I know there wont be any messages, I just like listening to the pre-recorded voice, which sounds like it's been done by the sexiest chick in Australia: "Hi there! You've got no new messages!" I check a few more times. Sometimes she says "Hi there! How'd you like to come back to my place?" Obviously I might be imagining that.
It's time I got out more so I do, down to the beach but away from the happy couples with their beach paraphernalia: towels, chairs, sun shades, children, boogie boards, fishing tackle, ocean-going canoes and so forth. Away to the rocky headland to scramble over the rocks. Well, more like pick my way gingerly over the rocks, they being of the jagged pointy variety rather than smooth roundy ones. The waves are crashing against the jagged pointy rocks in a vain attempt to make them smooth and roundy. The morning sun is shining over the ocean and it's a beautiful scene. I haven't got my camera with me so you'll have to take my word for it. Somewhere around here is the famous Kiama blowhole, one of those natural phenomena where the ocean gushes in through a giant hole in the pointy jagged rocks and erupts out up towards the sky through the other end like a giant oceanic orgasm. I savour the word: b-low-hole. Horny old devil this morning aren't I? Anyway I can't find the blowhole this morning. It must be slumbering, biding its time, a bit like me.
It's time to get out of here, this isn't the Snowy Mountains, it's a Big 4 Family Caravan Park and if I'm not out by ten they'll want to charge me for another day. Down to the mall with its sweet air-conditioned air for some supplies but you've heard that one already so I won't bore you with the details. I don't want you skipping over to your other browser to check on the price of that piece of tat you've got your eye on on ebay.
Up the road a bit I drop into Shell Harbour for some brekky: "How'd you like your eggs...would you like mushrooms with that...onion rings...which kind of sauce would you like?" It's like a second childhood, so I leave my crusts.
Up the ol' Princes Highway again, heading for Bulii. On the outskirts of Wollongong you're suddenly presented with this:
Pretty grim eh? Smells as bad as it looks too. I suppose they have to put their industry somewhere. Up through the city and I must have missed the turning for Bulii because I end up on the road for Picton. There's no way you can turn round, just a few turnoffs for coal mines and I'm running low on fuel. Approaching the exit for Wilton there's a sign saying you can get a bed and you can get a knife and fork but you can't get a petrol pump. We struggle on to Picton where there's a choice of four petrol stations. I pick the Shell and thankfully fill up the tank. It's getting on in the afternoon by now so there's no point in turning back. It's hot and sticky and I'm knackered so on the road out of town I pull over for a kip.
On to Camden where I know from my guide book there's a caravan park. It's of the basic variety but I couldn't care less by now and pull in for the night. Tomorrow it's the drive through Sydney's notoriously complex road system so I get an early night, with just a disembodied voice for company: "Hi there..."
Sunday 25th Camden - Tiona.
Sure was a rum site last night. They didn't even ask for my name. The guys in the cabin opposite me must have escaped from an asylum for the criminally insane, judging by the noises they were making. I skip brekky and am out of there quicker than you can say "violent ferals". I want to make it up to the the central coast today as I'm not much interested in the resorts between Sydney and Newcastle. I've realised that my cock-up yesterday means I'm far west enough to avoid having to drive through Sydney and the route looks pretty straightforward. The forecast is for showers and thunderstorms but at least the cloud cover is keeping the temperature down. I head out on the Camden Valley Way towards Liverpool.
Approaching a busy intersection on the outskirts of Camden I'm feeling a bit lightheaded, probably because I haven't had my Weet Bix this morning. I need some gas anyway and pull over to fill up the old girl and myself. There's no cafe in the garage but there is an ATM and seeing as I'm running low on cash I stick my card in. The machine says it doesn't recognise it and spits it out. Hey-ho. Hopefully things can only get better. I'm really starving but the only choice is the McShite next door. I gag on my pride and wander over. There's a group of bikers out front to entertain me, all leathers and gleaming Harleys, in high spirits looking forward to their Sunday ride. (Actually they call them bikies over here, which always reminds me of a gang of kids on tricycles, but don't tell them I said that). I slowly swallow mouthfuls of plastic McMuffin and watch their antics. There seems to be some sort of altercation going on about who should ride in which position. "I'm the president and I have the final say", the biggest bikie is saying. Eventually they come to some sort of agreement, or perhaps they just do as the big man says, pose for a group photo taken by a willing punter and roar out onto the highway en masse, bringing the approaching traffic to a juddering halt, though no-one gets out to complain.
I get on my way again. Up between Liverpool and Parrameatta the Cumberland Highway is not so much a highway as three lanes of slowly moving traffic which skirts the two cities through umpteen sets of lights. Towards Hornsby the Cumberland turns into the Pacific en route towards Newcastle. Australian road numbers are ridiculously complex. So Pacific Highway(1) is also known locally as Highway 58 or 83 or whatever, sometimes both. The trick is to ignore the numbers and just keep your eye on the name of the place you're heading for. That is until you get outside Hornsby and you've got a choice of Pacific Highway(1) for Newcastle or Freeway(1), also for Newcastle. With the McShite muffin settling uneasily in the pit of my stomach I plump for the freeway, which turns out to be the right choice as the road turns into a proper grown-up six lane motorway (or freeway). The traffic is chocker but at least it's moving. Incredibly I pass a cyclist peddling along the hard shoulder. Must be pretty lax security up at that asylum, or maybe there's no law in Australia against wobbling along the side of a six lane motorway (or freeway) with the traffic thundering by. Further on I pass the bikies, looking pretty miffed that the early afternoon drizzle is slowing them down.
I pull off at the services for a coffee. There's a choice of McShite or their Australian equivalent, Olivers. It's much the same, only with flies and dirty tables. You order at the counter then pick up your order when they call your name. "Real food, real fast" is their slogan. There's a big flat screen TV on the wall playing the corporate video extolling the virtues of Olivers. It shows a truckie striding into Olivers, receiving his order in ten seconds flat and striding out again, cheesy corporate grins all round. My ten seconds has long gone but whilst I'm waiting I notice there's an ATM, wander over to chance my luck but it's out of order. After about ten minutes I go up to the counter: "'Scuse me, I ordered a flat white ten minutes ago?" "Sorry" the girl says, in a disinterested sort of way, "was it a regular or a large?" "I think it had better be a large." To her credit she fixes the coffee in ten seconds flat, I help myself to a dozen packets of sugar and head for a table outside to escape the incessant dance music that's blaring out. But there's no escape, they've got speakers outside too. These people want you out of here and real fast. I find myself tapping my toe to the music, realise I've become brain dead and walk over to the freeway to throw myself under the wheels of the nearest truck. Well, I don't but it's the kind of effect Olivers has on me. I take back everything I said about British services. They are palaces of delight compared with Olivers.
Up past Newcastle and the highway slims down into a regular two lane affair with occasional overtaking lanes. I hope you don't mind me waffling on about highways again but I've been driving all day so there's not much else to write about. Actually I don't much care whether you mind or not, you can always skip a bit. That's what I'd do. But if you're a real highway nut check out ozroads.com, where you'll find more highways than you can shake a stick at. So anyway I'm trundling up the Pacific Highway and just after Buladelah I take a right onto The Lakes Way which, unsurprisingly, leads to some lakes. The Great Lakes in fact which, if the hype in my guidebook is to be believed, promises to be the place where the magnificent Eastern Dividing Range forms a backdrop to one of the most dazzling stretches of coast I will ever see. Phew. The Lakes Way is in need of some serious maintenance work but you can't have everything. I check in at the caravan site at Tiona and sure enough there's a Great Lake on one side (Wallis Lake, as it happens) and Seven Mile Beach on the other, all of which I appear to have to myself, at least as far as my eyes can see. I end the day with a wander along the beach, though not all seven miles of it, thinking back over the day and it occurs to me that yes, things have certainly gotten better.
The site seems to be a christian-owned place, which probably explains the snotiness of the woman on the desk. Maybe she's had a rough weekend. I should be more forgiving really, that would be the christian thing to do. The Green Cathedral Ministries, whoever they are. I'll have to look it up on the net one day if I run out of other things to do. The campground is nice enough, just me and three twenty-somethings from England, two lads and a girl. Public school accents all round. The girl is friendly enough (nice legs too) but the lads just shuffle around and look at their shoes, which is a shame really when you consider how much their parents must have spent on their education. Three of them in a camper the same size as mine. Head to toe the chicky babe reckons, the little tease.
Monday 26th The Great Lakes
Up with the mosquitoes this morning and off for another wander along seven mile beach. Still no-one around and I fall to pondering why this might be. Perhaps a giant sea monster creeps out from the deep to devour unsuspecting tourists. Or perhaps the christians aren't christians at all but something more sinister. I'll leave it to your imagination. I decide to move on, hand my toilet key back in to the old bag, who's much brighter now that she's seeing the back of me. There's no sign of the public school brigade even though their van's still there. Maybe the sea monster's had them for breakfast. Bet he spat them out again if he did.
It's cloudy today but hot and sticky so I head on down the bumpy road into town to the bank to try my luck with the ATM. I say a little prayer to the cash machine gods as I put my card in and it coughs up $300. Glory alleluia! Praise the Lord! I have a poke around the town, Forster, and look in the estate agents window. The price of property round here is pretty exorbitant, which probably explains the number of yuppies and retirees littering the streets, which are full of antique shops, noodle bars and the like. I'd had a job finding a normal cafe for my bacon and eggs.
Down at Elizabeth beach I meet a German couple, very healthy looking, sensible shoes, obviously been pounding the tracks in the National Park, which is where we are and is called Booti Booti if you're taking notes. They're very friendly and helpful, pointing out the best beaches and so on in the area. Not fascists at all so I don't mention the war. One of the places they mention is Boomerang beach so I go and check it out. It's shaped like a boomerang, like a lot of beaches. I quite fancy a swim but the surf is crashing down like nobodies business, clawing the sand back into itself, which it might well do to me if I were to go in there. So I don't risk it, what with sea monsters and everything. And besides, the sun has come out and is burning the back of my neck where my hair used to be. The only other people on the beach are are a fat old codger and his young mail-order Thai bride.
Overlooking the beach are million dollar beach houses. Back at the car park is a notice board telling me about the sand dune reclamation project, not being done by the National Parks but by the local council, probably with the money they should be spending on the roads, no doubt to stop the ocean from clawing the million dollar beach houses back into itself and having a negative effect on property prices.
I want to go and have a look at the view from Whoota Whoota lookout which, according to my guide book, promises 360-degree panoramas that encompass hinterland, lakes and coast. So I set off up the Coomba road and on my way call in at the National Parks office. There's no-one at the counter but I can hear a woman waffling on the phone out back. I tune into the conversation but it's so boring I won't bother repeating it here. I ring the bell a couple of times but she ignores me, so after about ten minutes I help myself to an armful of free leaflets and booklets and a few not so free ones too. Back on the Coomba road about an hour later a closer look at the map makes me realise I should have taken the Sugar Creek road instead. Never mind, I get to drive alongside Wallis Lake which is enormous but has a dreadful smell. I also get to see a lot of the hinterland.
By now it's late afternoon and I'm getting hungry. I head off back towards civilisation, see a sign for a cafe but find it's only open Wednesday to Sunday. Then another sign but this one only does Devonshire teas, whatever they are, and I want steak and chips. I realise I'm going to have to make the trek back into town. On the way I slow down as I pass a row of shops but there's only a bait store and a couple of estate agents. I arrive in Forster feeling famished enough to skin a yuppie and go on the hunt. There's a Bar and Grill but the grill is only open on Sundays. There's the cafe where I had my breakfast but they're only offering burgers and kebabs. There are more cake and coffee shops (or "patisseries" to use the local parlance) than you can shake a stick at. Then there's a place called Beach Grill but hunger is affecting my eyesight and it's actually Beach Girl and the bikinis don't look very appetising. It's about now that it starts to rain. In the end I have to settle for a Chinese. I never know what to order in Chinese takeaways so I look at the list of 700 items and choose something with the word "chicken" in it but without the word "deep-fried". When my order comes I get the hell out of Forster and pull up at a picnic area to lay into my meal, which incidentally is very good, although by now a skinned yuppie would have tasted pretty good. There's plenty of it too, a bit too much in fact and I amuse myself tossing the leftover vegetables to some magpies who have come to scavenge at the van door. There's a National Parks sign with a list of things you can't do, one of which is feeding the wildlife. I figure it's in the magpies nature to scavenge so I don't reckon I'm doing much harm to the local eco-system. They don't care much for the Chinese veg but they like the carrots.
I make my way to the National Parks campsite at The Ruins, where they're aren't any ruins. It's only a minute down the road from the christian place and much cheaper at just $15 for the night. Unusually for a National Parks campsite there are some showers, otherwise I wouldn't have bothered. I go for my shower and there are instructions on the inside of the door: "Push button. Shower will last for four minutes. Shower will then stop for three minutes." This might be on account of the drought and to educate the public only to take four minute showers, the National Parks being very keen on educating the public, although it's only the hot water that goes off after four minutes not the cold. (They're also very keen on rules and regulations. There was another list of things you can't do outside which I made a point of not reading). So anyway it's a race against time as I furiously soap and rinse myself down but just as I've got to the point of working up a good lather with the shampoo the shower goes off. Not being a German health fanatic who gets his kicks from rinsing his hair in water as cold as mountain snow I stand and count the seconds to when I can get some more hot to wash off my Head and Shoulders Smooth and Silky. Just as it's seeping into my eyes with that caustic stinging sensation the hot water returns. I rinse my hair in two minutes flat and leave the rest to go down the drain. That'll teach 'em.
It's not been a bad day. I've seen lakes and forests, had two good square meals and taken the mickey out of sea monsters, yuppies, christians, Germans and the National Parks (for whom, by the way, I have the deepest admiration. The National Parks that is, not the others, except maybe sea monsters).
Tuesday 27th Tiona - Valla Beach
Up to the sound of the roaring ocean, Weet Bix, a cuppa and the the first ciggie of the day, always the best. Out on the highway an ambulance screams past, I bet it's for that old codger I saw on Boomerang Beach yesterday, croaked after going one too many rounds with his young Thai bride. That'll be his last orgasm then, if he got that far that is. I wonder what we'll do with the insurance money. I've just realised I've written "we'll" instead of "she'll". I must mention that to my therapist when I get home. "Wishful thinking" he'll say, "get a bloody life". Only he wont say "get a bloody life" otherwise I'd stop paying him. I bet it'll be what he'll be thinking though. I bet it's what you're thinking too and I can't say as I can blame you.
Over to the amenities block for a shower, shit and a shave as they say in the army. (I've not been in the army but it sounds like the sort of thing they'd say). The National Parks woman from yesterday is over there doing the cleaning. Only she's not doing the cleaning, she's sitting in the cab of her fancy 4WD chatting to her mate on the expensive satellite phone. No wonder the National Parks have to keep begging the public for money. I pass on the four minute shower and use the wash basin, where there are no plugs so precious water has to dribble down the drain again for a few minutes.
Time to get a grip and leave the Great Lakes but on the way out of town I spot a sign for the road to Cape Hawke Lookout. (You'll probably have clicked by now that I'm rather partial to the views from lookouts). Once the road comes to an end I have to hike the last 400 metres. It's up a steep hill through rainforest swarming with mosies. Every now and then there's benches so as you can sit and catch your breath and have a ciggie. They've been donated by the wives of various people who've no doubt croaked their last whilst attempting the steep climb. Each one has a little plaque on it. The first one is for Michael, who only made it the first 100 metres. Then there's one for Norman, who perhaps didn't smoke as much as Michael because he made it a bit further. The third one is blank, maybe whoever it was donated by didn't cough up the money for the plaque. The last one's been donated by some company who's name I'm not going to advertise. When you get to the top, if you survive that far, the lookout is of course obscured by trees. But help is at hand as the federal government has funded a giant lookout tower. I climb the steps of the tower which sways ominously. From here you can see over the whole Great Lakes area, the coastline and the hinterland. I'm sharing the space with a yuppie and his pretty wife. "Pretty good view" I say. "It's an incredible view" he corrects me. Tosser. The pretty wife takes photos of himself against the backdrop of the incredible view and they trot off down the steps of the tower. I resist the temptation to give him a gentle prod with my toe to help him on his way and run off with his pretty wife. I bet he's well insured.
After admiring the incredible view for a while I go back down the tower and check out another plaque, this one set in stone, which informs me that James Cook named this spot Cape Hawke Lookout on such and such a day, 1770. Some wag has chiseled away at the the second "o" in "Cook" so that it now reads James Cock.
As I'm about to make my descent a couple of teenagers come running to the top of the hill and up the steps. Then there's a third one, a little out of breath, obviously the smoker. As I go down the hill there's a few more, even a little girl who is skipping up the hill. Then come the parents. The first couple are keeping up a good pace but the second one are badly overweight, obviously with a serious McShite habit. The guy in particular is puffing like a steam engine and gobbing up lumps of phlegm and he's only about a quarter of the way up. He looks like he needs some encouragement. "Not far now", I lie. They'll be naming another bench by the end of the day I reckon.
On the drive back down from the lookout I notice there are more million dollar houses, set into the hillside with views over the ocean, most of which, you'll be glad to hear, are blocked by trees. I toss my ciggie butt out of the window in the hope that it'll start a fire and burn a few of them down (the million dollar houses that is, not the trees). Further down I spot a sign saying "Don't Be A Tosser" and I feel a bit guilty, though not much. They should go tell it to the yuppies.
If you're traveling on the highway at school dropping off time, as I was, you sometimes see gaggles of little kids at the side of the road making a pulling down motion with their arms. They're not being abusive, just signaling to the trucks to sound their horns, which they obligingly do, and the kids jump up and down with glee. Such are the joys of being a little kid growing up in Australia.
I'd not gone far when there's this dork in a red sports car right up my arse. To try and teach him a lesson I slam on my brakes so he'll get the message to back off but instead he comes swerving past me and we give each other the finger. See how my driving's coming up to Australian standards?
The highway is quieter on the mid coast, fewer towns, more bush. Great scenery with the Dividing Range over to my left and some great bridges too over the Manning and Hawkesbury rivers. I'm quite getting into bridges. I'm listening to Radio TAB this morning, the 24 hour racing station. They don't start the racing till after 10am, even in Australia, so before that in the mornings they have tipsters phoning in and also a spot with the vet so that worried horsy people can phone in for answers to their various horsy problems. I'm interested in an item about behavioral problems, which can be treated with anti-depressants and sedatives, but then he starts going on about ways of extracting semen from dead horses so I change over to Triple J.
Onwards, up past Crowdy Bay where I stopped last year, past Port Macquarie and through Kempsey. Early afternoon and I'm ready for some breakfast. Seeing the knife and fork sign I turn off into a sleepy little motor inn with half a dozen mongrels in the yard (dogs not kids). Looks like I'm the only punter here but the kind lady seems glad for the custom, fixes me my usual and we chat about the usual things, where I'm from, where I've been. "You liking it here in Australia then?" she asks. "I certainly am" I reply. "Everybody does!" And she's not wrong. The real kid, in his late teens, is just pulling out of the yard with his blond chicky babe on the pinion. Oh to be young and in love and growing up in Australia.
On the road again and the air is becoming more humid, fruit stalls by the side of the highway selling passion fruit and mangos, jacaranda trees in flower. I pull over for a kip at Paddy's Rest Stop and then on through Macksville and into the Nambucca Valley to one of my favorite spots on the planet at Valla Beach. It's still there, beautiful as ever, with The Rock at one end and the beach tailing off into the distance at the other. There's a lagoon that fills up when the tide comes in and I go for a long leisurely swim in the warm water. Bliss. Then up to Max's, the best cafe on the East Coast in my book, steak and chips and a pot of chai. The simple pleasures a middle-aged pom traveling in Australia.
Wednesday 28th Valla Beach - Yamba
Up with a stiffy this morning, must be the sound of those pounding waves. Even at this hour there are surfers and swimmers flexing their bodies out there in the ocean. Makes me come over all health conscious and I plump for a low-cholesterol brekky. Banana sandwiches it is then. Free-camped last night in the car park by the beach, toilets and showers courtesy of the local council. Go for an amble around the lagoon checking out the birdies and plants and rocks and stuff, the patterns of light reflecting on the water, little creatures crawling about in the shallows. See a hawk perched on a log eating a fish. Down by my feet there's a whole universe in every square foot of ground. Very zen I am today.
Later in the morning I do a more serious walkabout along the lagoon as far as the little bridge then back along the beach. I love it here but if I'm going to make it back to Brissy by Friday without some seriously long drives I'm going to have to tear myself away so late afternoon hit the Princes Highway again.
I want to look at Byron Bay so aim to get halfway there by tonight. Up through Coffs Harbour, passing Yuraygir National Park and Minnie Water, which brings back fond memories, through Grafton and Maclean to the fishing port of Yamba. Nice spot overlooking the river, boats bobbing on the water. It was real windy on the highway today and the old girl and me were bobbing about a bit ourselves. Not much traffic except near the big towns, mostly trucks traveling in convoys. The sky is black now and there's lightening flickering in the clouds. Looks like we might be in for a storm tonight.
Thursday 29th Yamba - Byron Bay
Bit manic this morning on account of the upcoming full moon. We didn't get a storm but the lightening put on a good show and the radio's saying a cyclone's heading for South Queensland at the weekend as am I so that could be interesting.
I take a wander around the front at Yamba, couple of dolphins playing in the bay, then back on the road again, up through Balina to Byron Bay which lives up to its name, beautiful beaches, wall to wall backpackers. Have a shufty round then take a kip in the park by the main beach under the shade of a palm tree, out of the glare of the midday sun. Then up to Cape Byron, the most easterly point in Australia. Stunning views of the coast from up by the lighthouse:
I find a caravan park by the beach, $25 for the night, not bad for Byron which is busy. The streets are busy, the shops are busy, the bars and cafes are packed to the rafters. The beaches are full of bodies soaking up the sun and slowly acquiring skin cancer. It's the hip place to be. Just about everyone is under the age of 25; I'm camped next to a couple of barbie dolls and have to change into some looser pants. It's supposed to be a centre for the alternative lifestyle but apart from the occasional old hippie and some overpriced sarong shops I don't see much evidence of this. Despite all this I love Byron, it's happy and relaxed and has a good vibe, man. Even the Germans don't get on my wick, they're all much too young and pretty, even the boys. (For more about Byron check out some of the videos here).
As it might be my last chance for a swim in the ocean I make the most of it and spend the evening splashing around in the surf. A fantastic place to end my trip.
And so, as I sit here tonight overlooking the Pacific at the end of another glorious Australian summer day, slurping a few beers, listening to the singing cicadas, with a warm wind blowing just enough to keep the mosies at bay, what, you may ask, have I learnt from this voyage of discovery? Well I'll tell you. About Australia: when God created the Earth he did Australia first, found he'd done a perfect job and filled in the rest in his spare time. About Australians: the secret to their sortedness is that they bring up their children with love and care. About myself is my business. The secret to a happy life I told you earlier, so if you've forgotten you'll have to go back to the start and read it all again. And best of all, today I found a pair of cargo pants that go just right with my blue polo shirt.
Friday 30th Byron Bay - Brisbane
Up with the shakes and ready to rumble. Clear blue skies, it's gonna be a hot one. Time to hit the road Jack. I pretend I'm a truck and make the sound of air brakes being released: tsh-tshhh. It's freeway all the way through Tweed Heads and then the M1 up towards Brisbane so I make good time, off on the toll road towards Ipswich then the Centenary Highway to the northern suburbs and Phil's place at Jindalee. That was pretty quick eh? Tsh-tshh.
It's been quite a trip. I've done over three and a half thousand kilometres (3693 to be exact, or 2308 miles). So what were the highlights? The Snowy Mountains comes tops for me, so much space, so awesomely peaceful. I'll definitely go there again, God willing, and the Blue Mountains should be on anyone's list, just for the views. Best beaches? South Durras was just about perfect, though there's so many to choose from and Valla has a vibe all of it's own.
I think next time I'll try and take my time a bit more, not do so much dashing from one place to the next. I'd like to see Melbourne and explore more of the south coast so a Sydney to Melbourne run sounds about right, with at least a week in the Snowys. I wouldn't have a van from Camperman again though, it really was pretty poor and I never did get back the $15 for the repair.
I'll miss you Australia, you've been good to me and you've given me so many memories, enough to keep me going for another year anyway. Don't go away; until next time...
Simon, March 2007.