OZ – THE HILLS ARE ALIVE
G’DAY Mate! It’s true to say that Australia is a country that wasn’t high on our list of must visits. On the other hand it was a pretty large landmass that we felt hard to miss out on the way to the South Pacific. Instead of the originally planned month, it looked like we would be extending our stay to two months because of the Malaysia fiasco.
We had boarded the evening flight, grumbling at the tight seats, and dreading the 9-hour bum connection with them. In the morning Knox flicked up the visor at his window and peered out at the burning horizon. In the distance, pale blue faded into pastel yellow that in turn shone intensely orange on the skyline were the clouds licked like a rip-curl. The airline soared over the rippled, unironed, fluffy, cotton wool clouds before easing into its slow descent to Sydney.
“It’s beautiful up here”, thought Knox who loved the clear blue above and how the rising sun gave a brilliant halo around a ships chimney stack of a cloud. Streaks of vapour gave the impression of a cruising formation flyby in the opposite direction. Passing through a layer of stratus, pockets of turbulence caused a few jitters within the cabin but as they got lower and lower the clouds broke. The marvel of a colossal cumulus structure varied white, grey, orange and pink as it billowed high into the sky had Knox revelling in the wondrous nature. Miko breathed a big sigh of relief as they touch down safe and sound.
As to be expected the immigration lines were long, but efficient enough. Knox’s cheeky, competitive streak had him stand in the line beside Miko’s in a race to see who would get to the top first. He won.
“He’s such a big kid sometimes!” Miko thought with amusement.
The girl in front of Miko disguised in a big, floppy hat was ordered to remove it, before being ushered away by authorities. Miko mused on the reasoning’s for this and stepped forward for her turn. The immigration officer here had that stereotypical, ‘I’ve got the power’, attitude, and was forthright in offering his views.
“Where are you staying?” came the regular question.
“O’Malley’s Hotel, in the King’s Cross area”, replied Miko before throwing back her own questions.
“Can you tell me what the area’s like?”
“It’s full of losers and junkies!” he answered candidly as he stamped her passport.
Not quite the official tourism spin for Kings Cross then! He said nothing else handing over the passport. This wasn’t quite the good omen that we had been looking for and was an intriguing representation for Australia.
There was a distinctive difference between Sydney and what we had just left in Hong Kong. Mainly a low-rise city which had an easy spread with its long and wide streets that left only the CBD with a number of tall office blocks. The less cram automatically made the feel less hectic. In the distance a bright coco-cola sign lit the summit of a gentle incline. This turned out to be one of the icons of King’s Cross. Once again our early arrival gave us a couple of hours wait before we could get into the room.
The accommodation was above an Irish Bar but we were assured the noise would not be a factor. With Paddy’s day a few days past, life had dipped into a bit of a stupor. The building itself had a real old-fashioned feel, with creaky floorboards and flowery carpets that seemed to flow throughout, like it had been left back in the Mid 20th century along with the ‘Sullivans’. On the streets, at first glance, the area tried to shake its head free of the night before in this early hour. A few yakking curb walkers and dirty old men still scanned the junction for business or slipped into the gutter while plunging the district down into the depths of the sewer. We were grateful that O’Malley’s skirted the edge of the tip, just away from the start of the main drag. Cities were kind of getting on our nerves now, making us glad we only had a couple of days here, before we took up a search for a new beach.
Within our ‘Harbour View’ room we found the ‘view’ afforded them to be a distant one of the Opera House and Bridge. It was certainly going to take the full zoom of the camera to get a close up shot, although we found the night time picture, when the Sydney skyline manifested a dazzling spectacle of lights around the city worth taking.
At the top of the house and with a fully equipped kitchen the space was useful and ‘clean’, all-be-it with a few niggly bits of scum and hair around the cooker and fridge. The hotel was adequate but quite a come down from Cosmo.
There was nothing to rave home about. Jet lag set in as we caught up with ourselves through the day and Knox, after a visit to the supermarket, rustled up our first proper meal since Singapore that was polished off with a chardonnay before we simply petered out.
You can’t come all the way to Sydney, Australia, and not make the effort to check out its star attractions down by the harbour. Miko had envisaged herself with her hand-held looking glasses, sat in the Royal box as a rapturous performance played the boards below. She was disappointed to find the play list not to her liking though!
“Ah well, next time”! she thought.
Jorn Utzon’s famed Opera House with its extraordinary roof-shells was imminent throughout the world and without a doubt Sydney’s must see show case display. Down by Circular Quay the clouds dulled the day leaving the revolutionary architecture drably let down by the 70’s look, coffee brown and cream painted exterior. The piazza style of the harbour side gave a spacious feel to the area were people mixed in cafes, restaurants, and gift shops, or came and went from the jetties commuter ferries. Large and powerful V8 jet boats sprayed garish yellow, ticked over while waiting to offer passengers a wet and wild ride of awesome fishtails, spins and power brake stops. The Opera House’s dominance on one side was balanced by the bridge structure that straddled the sloshing water and proudly waved the mighty Australian flag.
As an escape we took a stroll through the tranquillity of Hyde Park, which sat in the middle of the hustle and bustle. It was a fabulous city sanctuary of natural sights to charm the senses and let the mind ease from the pace of the shopping district. A wander across the grass and through the trees helped to wash the stresses away as one watched the birds loitering around picnickers lunching on the scraps tossed in their direction. Cut in two by the busy park road, the wooden benches, gardens, water features and monuments were never that far away from the traffic yet the grounds did offer a sedate passage to the Anzac museum.
Flags drooped on poles in the still air outside this classical style, never to be forgotten memory of all those who fought for their country. Sculpted head-bowing figures sat atop columns in a protective circle around this church like building, and at the highest corners of the squared off tower, carved sentinel’s offered a sombre watch.
With respect we turned the video camera off when climbing the stone steps to the slate-grey, heavy, riveted doors whose sections bore embossed crosses to symbolize the sacrifices made. Inside the marble hall, a reverence struck with silent bell tolls right to the inner sanctum of ones soul.
This was a place for the living to remember the brave who died for the way life is now and to reflect on war in its extremes of cruelty through to heroism. From the Anzac’s beginnings in a Turkish hell from World War through World War 11, Korea, Vietnam, and right up to the scenario’s of the present, the stories of soldiers from Australia and New Zealand were told in words and pictures, displayed in cabinets or hung on the walls, as well as by means of memorabilia, such as uniforms.
This helped to make life real and present in ones heart. Although the aura is sombre, the underlining wave of striving to be the best one can in order to honour the memory of the fallen, and the torment of their surviving comrades, rolls in on seas of potential. It is a gift to be alive.
It was now 20 days since leaving India, and it seemed such a long, long time ago. We’d done so much in a short period. Life felt unreal sometimes, experiencing all these countries and cultures, yet its true we were happy to live in this present, not brooding on the past or worrying too far in the future. We were blessed to be able to do this. It can be hard living out of a suitcase all the time though, life’s tough eh!
When we settled for a month or so we had the opportunity to unpack, but for the last 3 weeks it had been a case of digging into the abyss to find things, inevitably one ended up wearing the same few things as they occupied the top of the rucksacks and did less disruption to Miko’s particularly tight packing.
That’s not to say we were dirty as life’s little chores continued even for those on a world adventure and laundry was one such needful thing. A rest beckoned from the constant moving about through the big smoke and we yearned to empty our bags. The plan was to find a nice beach and hole up for a few weeks.
Manly was our first step northward out of Sydney, were we where hoping to hangout at the beach for a while.
But how busy would this be so close to Sydney? It was a brighter day and the sun twinkled off the calm water as the ferry pulled away from Circular Quay, leaving the towering offices of the centre behind. Even the vaulted roof of the Opera House shone while the windows winked with a sparkly smile, basking in its glory with the solar glow.
With spirits rising we bade Sydney goodbye as the fabulous scene of the harbours treasures faded into the distance. 30 minutes later we were on the North head shore, and it was a pity that the showers sniggered at our hope.
We hadn’t booked anywhere to stay yet, as we were unsure of what our options really entailed. A lot of the listings and the budget accommodation they checked were the usual back packer places or long-term worker type dorms. The prices in Sydney and its suburbs certainly weren’t cheap with even Singapore, the ‘so-called’ expensive stopover, affording much better value for money. It really was a dire situation. In Manly we were only able to score ‘Raveena Serviced Apartments’, a dull, cramped and dingy place as expensive as O’Malley’s, were ‘apartment’, was a real stretch of the words meaning. It was akin to ageing student digs at a university halls of residence.
Once checked in, our concentration quickly turned to the rest of the trip and in essence the movement from A to B while stopping at all the areas of interest being picked out of their guidebook.
Originally the we had thought about catching a Greyhound and alighting where we wished but in the face of the backpacker movement here, and the mentality towards it, this option became increasingly alarming and off-putting.
Our considerations opened up when we picked up a leaflet for ‘Wicked Campers. Our imaginations came alive because one of our dreams had been to tour in a campervan and maybe this was the opportunity we were looking for.
A few initial calls answered a number of queries but we had to discuss further the financial situation as well as the connotations surrounding the full payment upfront layout of money and other impacts of the contract. The scales had to be balanced out and that would take deliberations and a sleep.
Manly was a seaside town and reminded Miko of holidays in Portrush when she was a kid as it wasn’t afraid to be tacky with its cheesy tourist shops and bars. It was a thriving joint were Sydneyites got away from the metropolis and the heaving ‘Bondi’ to let off steam. Surfer’s crowded the water, riding the surges trying to mimic the moves of their idols as they caught that wave. Skate boarders tangled with bladers across the promenade that over looked the volleyball and Frisbee beach. The town was what you’d imagine Oz to be as big named surf stores competed with each other for the latest chilled-out threads, and ice-cream parlours fought the bit out with cafes, in their eager attempts to refresh. Bikini clad girlies and bushy blonde haired blokes strutted and posed around the precinct desperate to catch each other’s eye. The answer to the busy question was BULGING!
We knew this teenage play park wasn’t our place to chill for a few weeks but Manly had one real area of interest for them, a spooky ghost tour, at its famous Quarantine Station. We had vowed not to go on organized tours again but felt this one was different and we couldn’t resist the eerie night time setting.
We had that ‘being dropped in the middle of nowhere’ feeling, as we watched the taxi drive away. It was pitch black and a shudder went down our spines. A splattering of people milled in the shadows around the entrance of the old Quarantine Station of Spring Cove, North head. There were no guides or caretakers present to bring comfort in the darkness of the night.
“I hope we can get a taxi back”, Miko thought out loud. “I wouldn’t fancy walking back along this road with the beady eyes watching from the fields”.
The mild night threatened as spits of rain tingled the skin. When Kathy Hart, the tour guide turned up rubbing her hands briskly against the early autumn chill, her demeanour reminded us of ‘Kathy bates’ from ‘Misery’, giving a shiver to an added effect.
The clouds darkened and the atmosphere intensified as Kathy packed people into her car before driving down a tree lined lane towards a collection of wooden buildings.
Now part of Sydney Harbour National Park, the Quarantine Station protected the country from infectious diseases being carried in by newly arrived immigrants. Opened in 1828 its purpose had been to confine the poor people who had contracted ills, such as small pox, Cholera and Bubonic Plague during weeks of being isolated on ships. In 1972 it was retired from active duty because of modern treatments and the speed of air travel, yet its history was steeped in frustration, sickness, pain, and death, with many who entered never coming through the system.
Bulbs flickered from a few of the buildings ahead lighting the surrounding village that was the quarters reserved for the first and second class. The feeling was sedate amid these structures that were well facilitated with a school, clinic, recreation room, and sanitary conditions befitting the moral standard, of the associated guests. The painfully slow start of the tour with this history lesson had the ghosts of the past waiting patiently to come out from the shadows. Life had been bearable up here and even sometimes the residents would feel like they were on a bit of a holiday as they had no contact with the bleak confinement of the lower classes. From the shoreline location great views of the harbour ignited the background perspective and would have given hope of a better life to come through the years.
With the lights on we felt like it wasn’t much of a ghost tour. The wooden lounges, open planned kitchens and toilet blocks only raised a sterile interest and not the heart-thumping ride into the depths of ghoulish horror. We wanted the works, Halloween pranks that made one jump out of their skin, frightening grisly tales, howling wolves and the music of haunting chants. We wanted to feel the fear.
Did Kathy read their minds as we reserved judgment? A darker move away from these prim quarters had Kathy stopping the group to hand out oil-fired lanterns that squeaked on their carry handle hinges, an old-fashioned touch that added to the mood. Descending a gloomy hill along a path enveloped with vegetation, the shadows began a spectral dance.
The living area of the lower classes was a dead zone where human demises dripped in the constant and depressing stench of suffering deaths. Stories gasped the breath here. The harsher conditions, not only here but more importantly of the confines of the long voyage, inevitably lead to more anxiety, infections and ultimately the passing of souls. This deprived sense spirits itself through to the depths of the asiatic’s compact dorms and rudimentary amenities.
These, Kathy explained, were the worst conditions as she ushered the rest of the ghost hunters into a large room to show a quick film. Knox was videoing the earthen cauldron that they used for cooking and was last onto the dorm steps where Kathy stood at the door.
“Is it a good camera?” she asked peculiarly allowing the stragglers to move on in and take up their bench seats.
“It’s Okay”, a bemused Knox replied with a shrug of the shoulders.
Kathy then revealed her real purpose.
“I was hoping you would help me play a trick on the others. There’s no pressure, it just helps to bump the tour along a bit”, she whispered conspiratorially.
Knox gave a nod that he was willing to be game for a laugh, knowing it was the type of rocket the tour needed. Miko heard Knox’s hushed tone as he knelt behind her ear when Kathy had dimmed the lights and started the film. Knox was thankful, even with her poor eyesight, that Miko was at the back and they could leave quietly. When they were outside Knox was able to fill in a few gaps about the plan being concocted. With Kathy’s torch the only light, they traipsed down the gravel track and Miko’s imagination was saddled up and ready to run the derby.
“Is this strange woman trying to trick us”, she thought suspiciously, looking at Knox believing him to be a tad on edge.
Knox though was intrigued with the scenario developing.
“You will miss a part of the tour, but this trick will really liven things up. You can come back tomorrow and catch the day time tour for free”, Kathy offered as they stepped outside a small, grey, concrete building. Miko took a step back not getting a positive feel of the place. She quivered at the feeling of terror inside it. Knox saw bricks and mortar, and a bolted door.
“This is the mortuary”, Kathy explained calmly, sending Miko’s heart pumping a million miles an hour.
“Just what I wanted to hear”, Miko thought as Kathy turned the key in the padlock and slid the bolt across.
The old wooden door played its part by creaking open in a horror movie kind of way. Light oozed into the darkness revealing the shadows of a sparse room. Then we were beckoned in, but Miko hovered near the doorway in case Kathy tried to lock them both in this room of the deceased. She knew Knox would roar in laughter when he discovered her thinking but it didn’t stop her! A bare bulb was flicked on and shone down on the dissecting slab that took prominence in the centre of the room. A human form remained silent and still, lying under a white sheet on top of the table. Miko’s heart was in her mouth by this stage.
“We put a dummy here, underneath the sheet for effect”, Kathy revealed as she whipped the sheet away. Knox could kind of see what was coming while taking in the stone benches along two walls, a Belfast sink on the other, and the grooved concrete floor that allowed fluids to drain. Lifting the dummy off the slab, Kathy passed it to Knox, who in turn set it through a hatch that led to a lab of cupboards, more benches, specimen bottles and sinks.
“Now, they carried out autopsies on this slab”, Kathy told them matter-of –factly to the knowing nods of Knox and the freaking out whimpers of Miko.
“What I’d like one of you to do is lay on this table”, she explained.
“In the dark, I take it?” Knox presumed.
“What, oh no I can’t!” hollered a horrified Miko with blood and guts of the autopsies splashing all over her mind.
“Yeah, I’ll do it”, said an unperturbed Knox.
“You can stay with him Miko, on the other side of the hatch”, Kathy proposed.
“Oh my god, no”, gasped Miko with fear as she realized they’d be in complete darkness.
She thought he’d gone mad saying he’d do it, especially as Kathy had told them this was the most haunted place at Quarantine Station and some had seen a man’s face peering sombrely through the window of the lab.
“I’m sorry Knox, but I can’t stay”.
Knox knew how Miko’s mind would be running away with it.
“Its okay love, I’ll stay alone”, he soothed feeling an extra spark of enjoyment striking within that he had the chance.
This was the excitement we’d been craving from such a tour and he wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity.
“I’m sorry Knox, this place gives me the heebie jeebies, will you be okay on your own?” a concerned Miko apologized again.
“That’s okay love”, he reiterated.
“Are you sure?” Miko questioned panicking for him.
Knox rolled his eyes.
Kathy explained the story she would relate and gave Knox his cue to become alive. Between thrill and apprehension, Miko stepped outside with Kathy, feeling bad – in fact very bad as she left him in the blackness.
Knox climbed on to the autopsy slab, lay down, gripping his torch and drew the sheet up to his neck. The light was flicked off and assurances given they’d only be 20 minutes. Knox twisted his small maglight on and the doors banged shut. Darkness wrapped around the humble light of the torch. Knox was alone as he heard the bolt of the door shoot home, and the lock click shut, or was he?
“Did she really have to lock him in”, Miko thought as she accompanied Kathy back up the track.
The forest rustled in the wind and Miko’s mind caught a faint child’s cry and a mans moan as their fates greeted them in the departure of their lives. She felt as if lost souls still wandered through the swishing branches in these parts. She felt their eyes watching and boring into her psyche. Terror menaced her as she walked with this stranger worrying about Knox and whether Kathy really was a normal tour guide, or a slasher movie trickster! Miko’s figments were in full swing.
Knox could remember what the room looked like and what it was used for, but he really didn’t want to think about it. He was glad of his torch. This grooved slab sat cold and hard in the centre of the mortuary in one of Australia’s most haunted compounds. Once again not a good thought as he looked around himself. Nothing was moving, bar his own silhouette along with the beam of the Maglite, and he didn’t sense any supernatural perceptions. Knox remained lying down, not because he was frozen to the spot but because he didn’t want to be caught out of position when the group came back. More concerned about messing the trick up, he concentrated on the story with its cue and went over his lines, a scream, quietly.
Luckily Miko’s imagination was wrong, and she got back to the others in the group safely, slipping behind a few hoping they hadn’t noticed she’d been away. Each taking their oil-burning lanterns, the tour wound its way through the deplorable worst wing of the station. Kathy stopped at a field, trees and emptiness on either side.
She began to recount a story of a mischievous spirit that had pushed a child when he and the others had visited on a school trip as part of a history class. At first he thought it was one of the other children but as he turned around the space spoke plainly to him that there was no one else near. His mother was there also and was witness to the event. After the unnatural occurrence happened for the second time they spent the rest of the excursion making sure they were surrounded by others of the human kind.
The silence was deafening apart from the monstrous noise of his own breathing. He tried to quieten it, but that only seemed to make things worse because his heart then beat louder.
Sitting up he ensured his big shoes were safely underneath the sheet. This done he lay back and pulled the white cloth back up to his neck. His chest seemed to be rising and falling too much. He found an impossibility to shallow it, trying to hold his breath and reduce the intake of air. To hold the breath though meant a large gulp of air in and a long exhale that would have an even bigger effect. Like a game Knox listened for the group, turning his torch off quickly as if he’d heard them come. He didn’t want anything to be given away so turned the light towards himself, putting it into his chest and deepening the enveloping black hole. In an odd way he wished that he would hear a bump or rattle, or feel an icy chill descend upon the room, so he could tell the devilish tale. The room felt sterile though. It was a place where death hadn’t occurred but was more a way of life. Any spirits that may have occupied the mortuary were long gone or at least appeared to be having a night off!
All that stirred was a lonely Knox in the dead of the night. He sighed and lay in the dark for a few minutes. The fear and dread that he fought on first learning of Kathy’s trick still lurked in the back of his mind but it had been subdued. He was certainly having to be patient yet knew his little stage debut was just around the corner.
A half hour had past and Miko was getting agitated and fearful for Knox, as she envisaged him in that horrible locked room. Kathy had told him about 15-20 minutes, so what must be going through his mind?
The torch flicked off in the instant a distant voice became audible. The crush of gravel confirmed the approaching victims. Knox covered his head and composed his breathing. Listening was his primary sense now. Outside Kathy told the tour about the morgue as she turned the key in the padlock.
“At last” was the thought that rippled through our minds.
The doors swung open.
“It’s a very small room in here”, Kathy told the group.
“So, it’s best if you leave your lanterns outside, so the fumes don’t get to you”.
Knox could sense the footsteps shuffling around him and Miko could see people eyeing the shape under the sheet but could not detect any movement.
With hushed tones Kathy related a story that stretched back 70 years, of how an aboriginal fisherman had been washed up on the rocks of Quarantine Beach on a thunderously, stormy night. He was very close to death as workers brought him to the only space available, the autopsy slab. Predicting that he’d pass away during the night, they left him there and would deal with his body in the morning. Ears listened intently.
“… In the morning they opened the doors wide and got a shock”
“AAA GGG HHH!” Knox screeched and sat bolt upright.
Shrieks and screams were balled in alarm at the scene. A startling horror reverberated in the small room, even Miko yelled and she expected the prank! Nervous giggles and excited murmurs quickly replaced fright in the tiny commotion filled space. Gasps of astonishment and Knox’s bravery gave him appreciation of the reaction. Kicking the ghost tour into top gear, it was amusing to feel the electricity spark through the room and it felt fantastic to be in the privileged position at the centre of the trick.
The thrill continued as the company progressed to the hospital. Miko expressed her fears to Knox while asking Knox was he okay.
We had a laugh and knew the ghost tour had been made. For Knox the hospital was more eerie than the mortuary when the lantern lit the hanging uniforms of the Victorian era and the old beds where dying people had been nursed. The dimness gave edge but the frightening heights of the mortuary were not reached again. From the hospital it was down to the quayside where colonists had carved names and dates into the rock face to pass time noting their stay. The last stop was the sanitation facility used to put passengers through a cleansing routine as soon as they disembarked. One building resembled a gas chamber and the shower block was shrouded in gloom with nasty stories of a perverse nature. The ill feelings of these buildings oozed out of the peep holed showers and darkened beams.
Afterwards, tea and dampers; bush loaves made from flour and water that’s often cooked in a camp stove were served in the first class quarters to calm there tingling nerves. Chat was had between members of the group, and included unterrifying topics such as travel. A few others like us had to make their own way home and a humorous gran along with her ghost jittered 20 something granddaughter waited with them for their shared taxi.
Of course it took an age to come as they stood out in the night time chill with no phone to check its progress. Kathy Hart had gone on her rounds, lonesomely checking the buildings were locked up. The trembling set in again as the woods watched, the wind laughed, and over active minds saw figures floating in the distance.
Finally, the taxi pulled up and we comfortably rode out of the spooky world to arrive at the hotel room dead-on midnight.
We had slept on the dilemma. The figures were worked through as well as the practicalities. We discovered that we could hop on and off coaches at plenty of locations up the North coast of NSWs to Queensland and Brisbane for 130 dollars each. A decent offer we realized but being constrained to timetables, advance booking, pickup points, heavy bags and extra charges for buses and cabs to reach their final destination would have bumped the price plus the hassle up. It would have been more like a hop, trip and a thud rather than the advertised ‘on and off’.
This coupled with the fast approaching Easter week and its hiked prices with squeezed availability of accommodation caused concern. Deliberations were over as we stuck our neck out, made a call and laid down a no refunds 200-dollar deposit. The drawback was that we had to wait the guts of a week before a campervan would be available, although the company did have a van waiting to go now at a reduced price because they needed it in Brisbane depot ASAP for required mechanical work.
It would be a month before we reached the city and the girl said this might be too long, besides we wanted a fully functional bit of kit and were prepared to wait.
We reasoned the van would provide more flexibility. We would have our own space, could cook our own food and we would be carrying our beds on their back, so to speak, while the luggage would be stored neatly inside.
We had a nervous feeling of butterflies in the stomach but was looking forward to getting behind the wheel and out onto the open road.
With bags a tad heavier after a spot of surf wear collecting, we caught a couple of buses with certain gladness that we’d have our own transport and freedom in less than a week. 17 kilometres North of Manly, we heaved ourselves off at the suburb beach town of Avalon and trudged the 50 meters to the only accommodation mentioned in the guidebook, Avalon Beach Hostel. We stood aghast on arrival.
When emailing we had been confirmed a double room, what we saw caused a questioning furrow in our brows.
A slow renovation was in progress and Craig, the husband in the owner partnership, admitted it had been on the agenda for years but it still didn’t prevent them packing the customers in while charging full whack. Miko was the first to inspect the basic, bland, cell like room. Gloom prevailed as its one window looked out on the narrow passage dividing this three storey hostel from the supporting mound and retaining wall of the up hill building next door. This so-called ‘double’ was at the bottom of the heap and recent rain only encouraged the rising fusty smell. No decoration adorned the dirty cream walls apart from the fan. Similarly, the four sheets of hardboard that made up the ceiling had a single plain light and, thankfully, a smoke detector for company.
There was nothing modern or welcoming about this sparse space. Two flaky painted bunk beds stood on the concrete floor either side of the window where a rickety bedside table nestled in between. The only other furniture was a clothes rail, a bin, and a wooden table with chair resembling a child’s Frankenstein project in woodwork class. Not only that, but the shabby articles seemed to have been the dunces desk for years, with scrawls of unintelligible graffiti and carvings.
It was a hellhole disaster zone that was matched throughout the building. Outside the room Knox surveyed the shambles. Due to the building work, the toilet and shower facilities were a unisex free for all with a distinct lack of locks on the doors, which wasn’t conducive to making Miko feel safe and comfortable. It was incredible that we had to ask for locks to be installed.
Knox swallowed deeply after his look, as he made his way up to the common room area where the picnic bench tables sat in front of a large stainless steel kitchen area. A few tatty settees faced a sizable fire place that had dusty book shelves either side while a veranda and a coin operated internet kiosk completed the miserable picture. Cell Block H would have been more inviting.
We thought this had to be a joke. There really was no excuse for the low standard on offer and would have appreciated the state of the place being noted in the email they received.
“It’s not really what we expected”, Miko told Craig and his wife.
He acknowledged this with a touch of embarrassment but she had no qualms about renting the rooms out.
“Most of our guests our long-term workers”, he explained.
“They don’t mind roughing it. As you can see we are doing a bit of work to make improvements, and hope to have the new toilets opened at the end of the week”.
Of course an event that never happened. We could already sense that Dutch- bulb worker feel and knew the mentality of the clientele. This is Australia’s view of the ‘backpacker’. Seasonal workers, who come to Australia to work their way through, pissing all they earn up the wall. This gives a bit more understanding of the basic nature of the place but didn’t particularly excuse it.
“Do you have a phone book and some change?” Knox asked, when they decided to ring around a few places, in fact the whole accommodation section in the phone book, to seek an alternative. This was, we discovered, the gap in the market. Apart from this AUS$55 abomination there was nothing until the $150 night rung was reached, which would leave us well over budget for the 5 nights therefore forcingus to stay here.
We had tried every other hotel we could find in Avalon and nearby towns but little was on offer, or available, apart from sky-high prices. If we went back to Sydney it would work out more expensive. We were stuck. With no competition we negotiated a slight reduction and made the depressive decision to brave it out. We were brought back down to earth with a bump after the excitement of the ghost tour and booking the camper.
The first evening bore out the worst-case scenario as the owners drove to their off-site home leaving no security. Vulgar foghorns drank well into the night, reverberating their noisy racket throughout the echoey building. With diplomatic decorum, we asked a large bunch to ease up with the noise, to which they received a mouthful, and even more volume. The disrespectful mob really didn’t comprehend the concept of their disruptive behaviour. With no supervising ‘adult’, these 20 plus year olds were free to go off the rails as much as they wanted.
Australia’s impression of independent travelling was down hearting and we both felt this treading water here was wasting money rather than them getting out on the road, but what could we do? We decided to spend their time out during the day to get peace and quiet.
The next morning we woke to a brighter day and decided to make a trip a few kilometres north to Palm Beach. ‘Well-heeled’ they say but also famous for the Australian soap Home and Away, that we embarrassingly cringe when admitting we’d watched it in our younger years. A silly bit of fun really!
When we were confronted by the shore front which brought memories flooding back about the TV series, and we could envisage ‘Alf Stewart’, with his fishing rod outside Summer Bay’s well known surf club. We had a laugh along the familiar walkway and our spirits rose with the sun.
Palm Beach really was a lovely setting, and finding a quiet spot on its long golden stretch was not difficult. We were happy to be back by the sea.
We lay on the sands letting the stresses ease. The sun fought through the clouds offering warmth to glow the goose bumped flesh created by the constant wind. Miko lapped it up as she felt the rays feeding her SAD, and caressing her tired eyes that had been brought on due to the obtrusive partygoers in the rough house. She closed her eyes and smiled as a sprinkling of raindrops trickled on her face before disappearing as the sun kept battling through. Knox sat in wonder as he took in the waves and their riders.
Kite surfers had that puff needed to ride the rugged white horses, sporting wetsuits to protect them from the chill of the Pacific Ocean. From the expensive condos at one end to the craggy cliffs at the other, the beach swept in front of the conserved grassy dunes. Knox meditated in a beautifully alive scene.
“What lessons are we being taught by our challenging stay in Avalon Beach hostel?” he asked himself.
“Maybe we have to be flexible enough to brave it sometimes so we can enjoy the gems that frequently come our way”, was the thought that rose up to his mind. He also had the feeling that he needed to look at and appreciate what we had in our hands:
(I) A roof over their heads
(II) A soft (ish) bed
(III) Their own space
(I) Wholesome food and fresh water
(V) A ticket to ride
(VI) A wanderlust and the challenges it throws up
(VII) Good health
(VIII) The fact that Belfast was thousands of miles away
(IX) They had each other
(X) They were living the dream
(XI) The sun was shining
He found the list could go on and on.
“Miko should be happy she had me to wipe the sand of the back of her legs”, he thought with a chuckle.
It was time to quit complaining, because in the end of it all we had many things to be thankful for. Yes, there is no point in accepting mediocracy and if thoughts need saying, speak up, but balance that out with keeping the inner self in good humour and have happiness to give. There’s nothing worse in bringing oneself down.
We beach bums extracted ourselves from the groove, and headed for a well-to-do luncheon at the snooty pub. The gas-guzzling SUVs, BMWs and Jags, occupied the marina car park opposite matching the golf establishment with their pedigree dogs, flashy diamonds and Rolexes. All the money in the world still doesn’t make it easier to crack a smile.
With the café culture of the peninsula, it was difficult to get some nightly entertainment as the retirement village of Avalon appeared to be tucked up in bed by 9. The one and only bar was the RSL (recommend a social life) club. The very bright, dress-coded, association was somewhere where your gran and grandpa would go and listen to a cheesy one-man band singing enthusiastically to an audience of four. Afraid that their members may buzz on into the early hours, the bar rules refused to sell energy drinks after 11 when the alcohol still flowed up until the witching hour.
Apart from the private function room upstairs the only other room was filled to the brim with the mind-numbing, seizure inducing monotony of the flashing slots. The excitement was unreal!
Daytime was the main event here so we made use of the improved weather, splitting their time between Palm and Avalon’s own beach.
Australia’s wildlife started to show, beginning with the large white raucous cockatoos with plumed yellow crested heads that boasted their presence while socializing with the humans. We strolled cutting into a quiet neighbourhood of Palm beach, which displayed its grass verged footpaths and twisting trees dressing the land surrounding the neat houses. An antiquated atmosphere wafted dreamily through this part of town. The huge, thick-bodied spiders that hung in the mammoth webs enhanced a feeling of being watched. One such web was strung by two thick cords from overhead power lines dropping to connect a fence and a tree. The structures were immense and the monsters who had spun them certainly took no prisoners.
Knox got used to cooking again after the city breaks. The supermarkets offered the most economical options and a large choice of produce we were used to. Fresh salads delighted the pallet and continued a healthy vibe that was tempered by a few chips and an odd sweet. Using a good kitchen made life a whole lot easier and was definitely an improvement on their facilities in Kerela. In the end it wasn’t too big a challenge to stay in the hostel but we were eager to pick up their van and ride off into the sun.
It was easy to find Wicked Campers garage in Sydney’s suburbs as brightly painted themed vans sat outside. There was more of them packed inside the warehouse when we went in and slung our rucksacks on the ground.
The individual graffiti artwork of each van was what made them standout and they thought the prices were reasonable. We caught the attention of the girl in the back office, explaining who we were. When we were brought up close to the vans they looked a bit scruffier than expected, which wasn’t surprising when they found out that quite a number of the campers were approaching the ripe old age of 20.
We both had been hoping for a wee bit more when they first clapped eyes on ‘Julie Andrew’s’ with her rolling green hills, trees, waterfalls, blue skies and bright sun shiny paint job.
We were taken back on first impressions as we both had anticipated a more caravan style. A cramped feeling knocked on the door of second thought as we inspected the worn edges of the old girl’s inside.
It definitely wasn’t as big as expected and, although we weren’t expecting luxury, a bit of walking space would have been nice even if it was only 2 or 3 feet! Basically there was enough room for a squeezed double bed. A look at the kitchenette, which was tackled from the open boot, had Knox despair that life was back to single stove cooking once more but at least he knew he could work with it because of his Indian experience. Miko looked at the drab interior with its old-fashioned cushion and scuffed surrounds realizing that the levels she’d reckoned on where quite a bit higher than the reality.
“It’s much smaller than we expected and also a bit frayed”, Miko motioned to the girl, who by now had taken in their disappointed faces.
“I thought there was room for three in all your campers but I notice only 2 front seats here”, Knox chipped in, as this wasn’t explained in their leaflets.
“They are quite small”, the girl answered a tad abashed. “We do have vans suitable for three, but they aren’t much bigger”, she admitted, showing us a slightly larger van, whose paintwork was duller and less interesting.
“This one is available but it’s deluxe, meaning it’s around 10 years old, but costs more”, the girl offered.
“Do you have any more of the bigger campers available in the standard version?” Knox asked.
“Unfortunately not”, she replied.
There really wasn’t much inching difference, between the deluxe and standard, but quite a bit when it came down to costs. Mulling it over we decided that Julie Andrews was a colourful 19 year old who deserved the chance to spread her sunshine into our lives.
After swapping a few cleaner appliances, pots and bedding, Knox reluctantly filled in the insurance details without taking the reduced excess and left an imprint of his credit card just incasey. Miko prayed just incasey didn’t happen and Knox didn’t even want to contemplate it. When the girl gave us a new telly, to replace the scratch faced other one, we signed up, handed over the wad of cash, loaded up, and motored on out of town.
The hills really were alive with Julie Andrews as we broke free from the shackles of city life and hit the open road with some roadtrip tunes on.
For Knox it felt great to be behind the wheel again after months of not driving and he had a happy smile on his face as he rested his arm on the wound down window. The Australian destiny was so much more in our hands now. The thoughts of long distance coaches in cramped conditions improved the reality of the tight spaced home we were travelling in, giving it a little more of that spacious feel. We grooved a steady path through the forested hills of New South Wales along the Pacific highway contented with our lot. Apart from other motorists this was a sparsely populated countryside full of challenge.
The local residents here were the wildlife, which was evidenced by the sign boards pointing out the number of deaths and ordering careful driving. Caged overhead walkways enabled the area’s fauna safe passage across the speedy motoring lanes. Places we had never heard of before became real with the help of a concise motoring atlas accompanying each camper that trails the roads. After a 250-kilometer drive north, we drove along a deserted sand dune backed road, a 100 kms the other side of Nelsons Bay and 16ks past Hawks Nest. This was like being in the middle of no-where and like the rest of the drive really started to open ones eyes to the immense size of this country.
Myall Lakes National Park was right down by the sea, where the beach just stretches for miles. The lakes of the inland side are a haven for many birds and animals as well as sporting kayakers. There ain’t too many houses around or phones if one needs one in their retreat.
In truth we were glad to see a few other caravaners when we reached the environmentally friendly Mungo Brush campsite down by the shores of a glistening and tranquil lake. When we discovered the self-service ticket machine wasn’t working, we avoided the cheap 7 dollars over-night fee and parked under a tree close to the eco-friendly toilets that were great if you didn’t mind the swarm of flies.
Using the last bit of light we made up our bed and sprung together an easy salad. It was only when darkness was upon us we realized it was an electric free campsite and Miko sure picked her time to let nature call a number 2! Going to the loo proved to be a difficult process because the squeaky animals didn’t entice Miko to want to leave the van.
“Come on”, encouraged Knox in his half shouting whisper.
“It’s only possum’s or something”!
“Possum’s my ass!” a quivering Miko shot back.
She had no choice but to brave it, only to look above and be confronted by her dreaded phobia of BATS! From the dim glow of her torch she watched a multitude of these vampires of the night scream at each other, flapping and hanging upside down. With a sprawl of their black cloaks, their pointy rat’s ears listened to the beat of Miko’s fear as her heart leapt, fuelled by stories she had heard of bats getting caught in long flowing locks. She wanted to keep her hair so sticking her head underneath Knox’s jacket like a child afraid of the dark, she stumbled hysterically in his guidance.
Through the evening we heard the pelting of debris on Julie Andrews’s roof as the leathery winged creatures came out to play amid the ancient trees.
Even with the nightlife our thoughts appreciated that this wasn’t a bad wee van when we were safely tucked up with curtains and doors locked.
The morning brought a bright dawn and an early start. The rippling lake invited the canoers in for a paddle with dad leading the way. A lack of showers and a need for a good clean gave us an excuse to retrace the steps back into the Nelsons Bay area. We’d gone past it without really thinking but after a look at the map and the guidebook, we realized it was worth a visit.
We made One Mile Beach our base and set up camp in the caravan park. The glorious sun shone with intent as we lounged by the gaily-depicted animated landscape. The camper stuck out like a sore thumb, but she still managed to blend in with the country surroundings. This park was well set up with cabins, powered and unpowered sites, and facilities to match. Julie Andrews did not have a power connecter and her lights; radio, CD player and mini TV all ran off her trusty battery. Thankfully it was during the week and the park was no-where near full, allowing uS space to open up the van and still feel privacy.
Knox did his usual roaming to acquaint himself with his temporary habitat. The dunes of the long and fairly tranquil beach backed one side of the grounds where trees and bracken offered a pleasant divide. A main sandy trail entrance opened to the safe swim area marked by fluttering flags as the famous caps of the yellow and red surf club life guards kept a watch over swimmers and board- riders alike.
Lolling on her picnic style rug, Miko’s eyes were alerted by movement a couple of meters in front of her. They widened at the ‘dinosaur’ that sauntered across the open grass. Quietly Miko moved for the video camera. Fumbling she flicked it on and captured the one and a half metre Goanna in her sights. The unperturbed reptile continued its slow swagger towards a tree flicking a long fork tongue out in front of its striped greyish brown body. The ashen bark of the flaky tree gave the perfect background to camouflage the goanna. An adept climber, the reptile sought sanctuary as a group of rowdy children, flagged by Miko’s camera work, took a fascination to the creature as their oohs and wows indicated. Shouts of , “dad get a look at this!” and excited chatter within the group sure made the goanna happy to be 15foot up a tree.
We have a real passion for animals and the desire to see them in their own habitat. Since arriving in OZ, we had two Aussie icons in mind to see; Koala’s and Kangaroo’s. This area gave us the opportunity to look out for the first as caricatures of the fury marsupial’s face dotted the local tourist leaflet maps, intimating a fairly healthy population.
To this end, and after checking out of the caravan park the next morning, we made for the quaint lakeside town of Lemon Tree, the kind of place were when one rings the doorbell of the police station they get a recorded message.
We parked up at the side of the marina on the shores of the large open lake before ambling towards the mango Boardwalk. Small yachts bobbed gently while on dry land a fisherman idled with rods draped easily not trying too hard and letting fish decide their own fate. Large pelicans plumped out their black and white plumage in anticipation as they eyed a wader wearing guy gutting his catch on a slip ramp table, their pouched bills high in the air ready to net the scraps. Australia’s own, cockatiels, bounced in the grassy edges of the path keeping their distance and chorusing together as their snowy feathering contrasted the green.
It was peaceful to follow the Mango Board Walk hearing the gentle lapping of the muddy water against the tangled roots. Glittering in the sunlight, the lake peaked through the foliage as we rambled further inland towards the strong odour of the Eucalyptus trees that aids ease of breathing. The land opened up at intervals, interspersing the woods with large houses. We creaked our necks sky wards to search the branches for those thick furred cuddly bears as dog walkers pass on the hunt for exercise. Miko’s eyes strained as she wondered if one was there and would she see it camouflaged in the bark and leaves.
“Can you see any?” she asked Knox, depending on his bionic eyesight.
“No, not yet, but I have spied these gorgeous birds”, he answered, filming some amazing rainbow lorikeets chirping as they rattled in the trees. Wow!
We were having no luck so took the opportunity to follow a clearing between the backs of some housing and a thick wooded area. Tramping the longer grass we edged with hushed tones further back, but yet again there was no joy in spotting the elusive koalas. Deciding to turn back we came across a little Scottish terrier, barking from his territory in one of the fenced gardens. His owner came out to see what was bugging him as we said hello to the wee mite with an excitable tail.
“He’s a lovely dog, my parents have a Westie, the white haired version”, Knox chatted in conversation with the lady, and soon we talked about the local koala’s.
“A neighbour of mine saw one just last week in a tree on the street there”, the woman told them, explaining that sightings are reasonably regular but can take time, because they are hard to see and tend to sit high in the trees. “I think it’s moved on, but you never know”, she encouraged optimistically.
We were disappointed at the failure, but the lady did point them in the direction of the nearby town of Tanilba Bay, that sometimes had guided walks together with a viewing platform.
We thanked her as she wished us luck. We trudged through a few laying branches back to the path, passing someone’s joke effigy of a koala, before briskly walking to catch up with Julie Andrews.
The drive to this other sleepy town, Australia is dotted with them, was short. The wildlife club was set amid woodland and at times a guide did take people along on a route pointing out the local inhabitants favourite spots. This was not one of those times but we were still able to follow a trail to the viewing platform. The eucalyptus were thick here like the undergrowth below but still the blighters wouldn’t show.
It was late in the afternoon by now and we had to call it a day before the light went out of the sky. We were frustrated but had also enjoyed a full day with plenty of exercise. It was too far on in the day really to go anywhere else so we headed back to one-mile beach, but instead of the caravan park we pulled into the large car park off the beach itself. A public toilet block here, provided bladder relief, and cold showers were available.
Parking over night was technically illegal and we hoped that the rangers wouldn’t come round to move us on. We were glad to have a few iced ones with dinner in the lovely countryside setting, as we saw another couple of cars settling down for the night.
Knox looked up at his friend Orion in the starry space and contemplated his day and week. The night sky on a clear evening was a beautiful host to observe. There was more light pollution here than Mungo Brush but he greatly appreciated the chance to have been in both places.
In Julie Andrews we were happy. We were aware though that her engine wasn’t top notch. She was a bit ratty and slow starting with a sluggish chug in the mornings but once she got going she was steady to cover the kilometres. The old girl’s bright outlook together with the slogan on her behind;
HIM:”SHALL WE TRY A DIFFERENT POSITION TONIGHT”?
SHE: “OK, YOU STAND BY THE IRONING BOARD, WHILE I SIT ON THE SOFA AND FART!” turned a few heads, gave a few laughs, and helped keep the lightened spirit.
The big country was best viewed off the beaten track and the couple were savouring their wee hippy space.
Boy, these surfers were up early. It was in that pre-dawn half-light, that some cars skidded to a halt on the gravel. Yawning people stepped out through vehicle doors and with sleepy eyes walked the sandy trail to check the waves. Obviously the surf wasn’t up to much as they returned a few minutes later and drove off. Miko had already taken her cold sprinkle at this stage and Knox went for his. Unfortunately there were no showerheads in the men’s so with the coast clear he dashed for a very quick dip in the women’s. Risky yes but it was early and needed. The day was set for their visit to Oakvale Farm.
The koalas clawed the scarce branches that where in their enclosure, their gentle brown eyes timid as a leering line of tourists marched in to the tin house. The two curled up, grey fur-balls were the focal point as a little platform paraded the onlookers past, allowing snaps to be taken as parents grabbed their children’s hands to place them on the soft coats. Neither of us liked the enclosure but these beautiful, cuddly looking animals amazed us. Such fuzzy little ears and beady eyes either side of a black patched nose really gave that teddy bear style. One of them moved to be more secluded in a leafy branch. Our hearts sank and we just knew that this wasn’t the right situation for such shy little creatures who make their home high in the trees.
We wanted to see koalas but not like this. The only reason we came to Oakvale Farm was because of the thought that it would be less like a zoo and more like a sanctuary with freer animals.
“Did you rescue the koalas? Knox asked the keeper who had unlocked the gate.
“No, we catch them and put them on show”, he replied brazenly.
We looked at each other horrified as they stepped out of the cage. We were furious we paid money to support this ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’.
The ill ease of cages continued as birds of all kinds looked out from their prisons unable to feel the freedom of the air around them. It just didn’t make sense because many wonderful bird species had been easily spotted even through this early period of their OZ trip. Sulky camels, stood motionless in their fenced field and seeming somewhat out of place and very dis-interested. A trope of kangaroo’s roamed the farm and we did appreciate the opportunity to get so close. These gentle creatures, some with babes in pouches eased their way over in a slow motion hop to the tourists who walked around. Such a strange make-up with their long tails to balance their spring, short bony forearms, and eyes filled with gentle intelligence. They took the touches of humans realizing they could get an easy meal from the purchased food pellets. An inquisitive donkey trotted behind the fence of his enclosure trapped on the wrong side of the feeding stakes derby while a group of Shetland ponies galloped through their grassy field.
A selection of pens, in an open barn near the entrance, was the showpiece for the expected farm animals where pigs, a calf, sheep and goats were able to glut themselves amongst the racket of children. There was a fun element as a free strolling goat stood on its hind legs to paw at the bag of food in Knox’s hand, nudging with humorous little horned bullying to get enough pellets into his gobbling toothy mouth. Ducks and geese roved where they pleased, tracking their feed down with aggressive quacking determination, slithering their long tongues like a snake, and hissing a threat to give them what they wanted. Knox had to move fast in order to protect a particularly sensitive area from this over-zealous pecker who decided a finger would do instead.
“OUCH!”, but Knox survived.
The animal characters were also a stress buster for us but seeing the few who should be disentangled from a captive existence sickens them. Zoo’s and farms are places we wished to avoid and this visit just reiterated the fact.
With Julie Andrews revved up we jaunted into Nelson’s Bay where we hoped to hop on a ferry for the short sailing to Broughton Island in an attempt to cop a load of its famed penguins.
Excited on the way in, we were once more thwarted and left disappointed as the only option was a yawny 7 hour group cruise that only went on certain days. This wasn’t the day but that wouldn’t have mattered as we had learnt our lessons were this type of tour was concerned. Now we felt this was the right time to make a dash up the coast.
Without really having a destination decided upon we floated a few place names from the map in their heads. As the afternoon crept on we came to that point were the sun was waning and we felt the need to set up camp before the light started to fade. In this way they chose the hilly coastal town of Port Macquarie, 420 kilometres north of Sydney. Activity was in full swing as joggers treaded the pathways while other people chalked words on the roads and put up signs of encouragement. Was this a hyperactive fitness town or what!
These thoughts were blasted away as the campers rising temperature guage blared an alarm. This was when we discovered that Julie Andrews was averse to low gear town crawl style driving. There was no option but to park up and turn the engine off to stop the noise that was crazifying their minds.
We’d managed to get within a couple of blocks of a holiday park so, as Miko stayed with the van, Knox set of on foot.
It was in Sundowner caravan park’s office that the penny dropped. The clues they had passed on their way into Port Macquarie added up to the town’s inaugural staging of Australia’s leg of the ‘Iron man competition’. The contest meant that the roads in the locality would be shut the next day as competitors swam 3.8 km, cycled 180km, and ran 42 km’s.
This extreme athleticism was unexpected but one thing was for sure the hand was played for us and trapped us here for 2 nights. Thankfully there were spaces available at the beachside caravan park and Miko was relieved for Knox, as it gave him a well-needed rest from driving. We nursed old Julie to her grassy site as she gave one last squeal before coming to a halt. She was too hot now to look over but Knox would have to check her vital stats when the engine cooled off. We were left to make the most of our confinement.
Saturday night offered a morning lie-in with no possibility of driving. We put the glad rags on for a party, as we shimmied on down to have a jar at the Shamrock logoed Finnians Irish Pub, yes they pop up regularly all around the world! A live band got us in the sociable mood instead of being cooped up in the van twiddling thumbs.
The band rattled off a selection of well-known tunes to humour the jostling punters at the bar. As usual under the drunken influence, the blarney kicked in as a few stories were swapped with evening acquaintances to the tune of jollified laughter. We had good craic with big John, who guffawed while exhibiting his beer belly to the question of his participation in the next day’s events. This gentle giant with hands as big as spades went straight out of our life as quick as he came in.
There was a certain throb to the frontal lobes as parched tongues tasted the early morning. 7.30 wasn’t the early that we thought because already some swimmers had finished and hopped upon their expensive cycles with the race hotting up.
The announcer could be heard up the hill on the road amidst the beating rotors of the TV helicopter that circled the blue above with a cameraman dangling out the door to get the best shots. Crowds played their part by lining the streets of this sea side resort location clapping and cheering, providing extra energy to the hardened muscles whizzing by. At this stage Knox was just happy to find a supermarket open to purchase our breakfast. His pitiful accomplishment was to dodge metal frames and spoked wheels at the stewarded crossing. Surviving this intact we readied ourselves to chill the day out by the beach.
Port Macquarie was an extensive holiday town that had been given a rude awakening by the liveliness of tri-athletes. Its grid street style had been built up with shops in the centre within easy walking of the modern shore side hotels, apartments and caravan parks. A promenade followed the shores from the hilly outskirts, past the central beach along the sea defensive rocks, and through to the marina area of the north side. Colourful graffiti artistically painted by people over the years enriched the esplanade, giving pride to the locals.
The brisk beach gave a nice setting as sun seekers enjoyed their leisure time picnicking, lounging, swimming and body boarding.
Finding a fairly quiet spot in the corner near the rocks, Knox tapped into his inner child once more, putting his art cap on and drawing waves with a surfboard beside his depiction of celestial bodies in the sand. We played in the water where the fun was disrupted when Knox was struck in the chest by a renegade surfboard whose irresponsible rider neglected to use a lead attachment. Fortunately he escaped with just bruising.
On the path above the beach the runners kept up the pace. We decided to pig out on pizza for dinner and took a stroll past the now deserted road barriers and smudged chalk praises. We were shocked to find some competitors still cycling in the early evening, in the knowledge that their remained the small task of a marathon to run. This type of realization drives home the unbelievable amounts of energy, stamina, guts and determination just to complete the course never mind win the competition. The last competitors didn’t finish until well after midnight and the endurance was felt by their supporters who stuck by to see them cross the arched finish line long after the crowds had dispersed with winners Chris McCormack and Canadian Lisa Bentley.
It had been a week since we had adopted old Julie girl and she really had done a lot of miles for us. The years may have slowed her down but she was still a steady ship. Our direction was still north but there was indecision over exactly where to go. We had enjoyed the excitement of Port Macquarie but now wished for the perfect getaway, although not quite as remote as Mungo Brush.
A quiet beach to squat at for a few days was in order so the search was on taking us in and out of a few sleepy villages that lay off the pacific highway. After hours of being on the road Miss Andrews came up trumps finding them Valla, about 7 km’s from Nambucca Heads. The road came up over the hump of a hill passing several houses before dipping down a winding lane to arrive at a secluded beach fronted car park that was backed by a thicket and unobserved by any housing.
We pulled up by the low wooden fence that divided the car park from the white sands. The picturesque view opened up in a background of the deep blue pacific that washed the shore 100 meters in the distance. A wigwam stood as a watchtower near the halfway point of the 250-meter stretch of beach.
“Do you think someone is staying there?” wondered Miko out loud, intrigued at the possibility who their beachside neighbour might be.
“Who knows”, replied Knox.
Just one other car nestled between the picnic tables, also looking to bed up for the night, with the therapeutic roar of the ocean filling the caves of the ears.
It was lovely to wake up at Valla beach. Cumulus clouds formed far out on the horizon for our first dawn here, but over Julie Andrews and her crew the sky was blue and pure sunshine, hallelujah! Even at this early hour just past 6am, cars were driving in and out of the grounds. The surfer’s were here to check out the waves seeing if it was worthwhile to brave the cooler autumn water as boards were moved from racks and waxed up.
Some would just watch the enchanting scene, admiring and mediating with the beauty before developing their day. A small public amenities block provided good facilities even without the aid of electricity. With no door on the outside, it was a risky process grabbing a cold, invigorating shower.
Getting Knox to promise to holler if someone came her way, Miko would liberate herself under the spray as the angled sun penetrated the slits of the brickwork window, kissing her skin. More clouds formed by mid-avo when Knox decided to start dinner. A storm was brewing and the thick gloomy nimbus formation threatened.
The back hatched door was up to allow access to the kitchen area for chopping, while the gas stove settled on the gravely tarmac sheltering from the licking breeze. We worked feverously glancing at the ominous menace crackling from the electrified battle ship grey sky. Miko feared about the attractiveness of lightening to the camper, unplugging the TV to aid the safety of their tin can home. A few spits tinkled at first and we moved what food we could inside. The spits rapidly evolved into huge spats that splattered the ground and gained a speedy intensity within seconds. Knox zipped through the gears into overdrive to flow the veggie filled sauce over the dish, chucking the pots into the sink and stowing the stove underneath it, all the while the rain increased the pour to a torrent. A wet Knox made his dash for the inner sanctum pulling the rear door down and tipping the gathering pool on top of himself as the splashes laughed in slapstick humour with the thunder clapping sky. Knox was soaked through but his sprint meant that dinner was saved and enjoyed, to the accompaniment of a pitter-patter symphony that sent a shiver of spookiness through veins as darkness fell.
We survived the storm, and by morning the clouds were re-treating en-mass after their night time domination. We stood at the wooden fence, legs up on the lower cross plank, and listened to some strange birdcalls. A large thick beaked kookaburra, with grey plumage and dark stripes across its eyes, swooped to sit on the elevated signpost standing beside. His smug head tilted with confidence while eyeing the peaches in our mouths. In the trees a whippersnapper drew out his long whistle with a flicked whip end and the kookaburra had little hesitation in accepting a fleshy piece of peach to accompany his morning insects. The regulars were coming and going about their usual business, like Jim, a 40 plus Aussie guy, who’d been born in Belfast and enjoyed surfing down in these environs. He picked up on our accents straight away, assuming rightly that we’d camped up here for a while.
“Aye, you’ll be alright, no rangers come out here to check”, he reasoned, telling them the story of the New Zealand boardie who’d camped up in Valla for a year! We laughed at this, as we had thought our few days were already taking the piss, never mind a year!
“Did you bring your board with you?” Jim asked.
“I wish”, Knox replied.
“I’ve never surfed before but would love to get out there”, he explained further.
“That’s alright, 30 minutes drive south will bring you to Scott’s Head”, Jim flowed with information. “There’s a guy I know there called Richard. He owns a surf shop, should be able to help you out for a board for a day”.
The light bulbs flashed in Knox’s head as he thanked Jim. This was his opportunity to open into a dream and he was determined to take it, excitedly approaching the possibility of going surfing.
We found Richard’s surf shop easily in the tiny town but at 10.30 it was still shut.
“Come back at 11” a local man said to them from his cafe table next door.
“Nambucca time”, he chuckled at his sleepy town.
“Probably still out surfing”, Knox laughed back.
We checked out the beach they had spied on the way in. Mostly families with young children dominated these parts and the kilometre curve of white sand, with clear crystal calm waters that was like a large kiddie’s pool, didn’t look to hot for surfing even though a few boards were out drifting on the tame sway.
Richard recommended ‘little beach’.
“More swell in the waves there”, he told us while Knox picked up a clumsy 9 foot board that was the experts advice for the learner.
Miko found the board to awkward for her petite frame so she let Knox get on with it. He had a blast for the hour or so he was in the water. He watched another surfer and how he managed to get up steadily. It became obvious that instruction would help his progress as Knox splashed and sank again and again in his attempts to stand. He checked where his stance should be, keeping up his tries and looking out for the bigger yet relatively easy waves to catch. He paddled around and was careful not to get in others way, which was easy at the start with only one other person in the sea.
“Yippee!” exhilarated, Knox made a break through as for a couple of seconds he managed to stay on his feet before being bucked back into the water.
The whack he’d taken in his chest in Port Macquarie forced him to call his session quits a bit early and we returned the board to the shade of the shop. Knox talked about his surf time with Richard, explaining how he tried to get up on his knees and then stand, were upon he was taught his first lesson.
“Yeah, you’re better going straight up in one movement, practice jumping into position. It’s much easier in the end”.
The surfer inside Knox was finally awakening.
We were made to feel at home with the smiles and hellos they received everyday in Valla. It was interesting listening to the surfer’s technical conversations about waves and winds as a lifetime being out on the board had built up a deep knowledge and a healthier fitness level. Unfortunately even with this, for some, tragedy could strike. One conversation highlighted how a friend had died by heart attack just last week while out surfing. He was just 39. It got the group talking and one reminisced about his father who also died from a heart attack at 39.
“Stress is a big killer”, one said.
“No matter how much you try and keep yourself fit”, they all agreed, as the thread of sombreness led to reflection as they looked out to sea. This talk struck a cord with Miko as sometimes she would get so worked up from stress. To counteract this she was teaching herself to relax more, not bowing down to the pressures, because these warnings show all that life is very short. To worry is a waste of time. One should grab their dreams in both hands and live the kind of life that makes one happy.
There was only a couple of nights when we had no car park companions, and when there was it was usually only one or two others. On separate nights a couple of fellow campervaners, these ones with a little more luxury than ours, moseyed on down to take in the views of the attractive hollow.
The first was a Dutch immigrant couple that now lived in the Lismore area of northern NSWs and the second a couple from Brazil, to which Knox surprised himself even in this world cup year that he didn’t talk football. Both couples were mature and pretty chilled as they chatted briefly. The ice breaker was always the same.
“How are the authorities here?” they’d ask. “Have they tried to move you on”?
“So far so good”, we would reply as we settled Julie in with the bit of company.
The ability to park up in this peaceful location, remaining undisturbed, and having the use of functional facilities was a big plus point that enabled us to stay for a week but it was the gorgeous views and vicinity that encouraged us to remain here for that length of time.
The tranquillity smoothed life giving us exactly what we’d been looking for. Any curves we encountered were braked on entry and accelerated on exit, running the course in a confident manner.
Mid-morning usually saw us jumping the fence to cross the squeaky powder sand under the cloudless skies and its magnificent radiating orb. Directly on the no-mans land in front was the prominent tepee that was well constructed of branches and leaves. It was no more than a toy hut, and a shade from the sun, making an excellent focal point for the wave riders. Just sea-ward of this level, drift wood was strewn as a tidal frontier stretching the initial 250metre of beach from the eroding cornerstone of rock to the small estuary. Beyond these points the strand continued to coat the shore. Laying down and taking it easy amid the northern dune they could view the near empty beach with the deep blue pacific in front and the green building-less brush behind. There were no hotels and no busy promenade, just tickled long grass, tall dried trees, and thickets of blooming yellow flowers watching the huge ocean like an expectant crowd. Big waves resoundingly struck the coastline with their incessant curls rippling continually, spreading out from a deep ancient effect.
Often a couple of surfers would be floating on these more difficult waters watching and waiting for a crest to ride, or maybe simply thinking about how life is great.
Below the dune, on the run to the water, caramel, chestnut or charcoal in hue, the smooth rounded curves of the pancake flat pebbles decorated the sands together with the light, speckled and streaked shells. Scurrying between them on scuttling points ran oyster bodied crabs with amber emblems, coats of arms centred on their shield. Grey beady eyes on alien stems ogle around to decide on their stop start moves before sensing a human stare, causing them to run away in dismay to dive for cover in their underground bunker.
A pair of rock pools extended out, swirling life amongst the rushing tide. The fires of old had ran cold, cooled from a pre-historic lava flow, with twisted streaks of reds, browns and blue grey in a mix of smooth flats and jagged crags. Years of memories were gathered to tell a story but the older it gets the more it forgets as the salty water faded it away and yet allowed growth as lichen stuck in a green weed beside the muscley shells and the wary side steppers.
A wonderful life evolved, moves, goes around in circles and starts a new. What begins with the crack from an eagle’s beak, flows through the channels and out the creek to become substance for something else in a mystery that is subtle and discreet.
Living wouldn’t be the same without some tricky sharp bends to challenge ones philosophical makeup.
Some girl had walked all the way up the beach only to go in the sea a few metres from us, was one thing, but when her water scared puppy ran and playfully jumped on Miko pulling her top down to un-do her modesty by exposing her breasts, this was embarrassingly different.
Miko intermittently found the funny side of it but her annoyance was directed at the innocent Knox, rather than the inconsiderate owner. Knox with a chuckle under his breath drew a simple picture statement in the sand to help his love snap out of being the ‘huffy flasher’.
This simply true message enriched Miko’s resolve and enlivened her spirit to transcend this little foible.
The time had come to say bye bye to Valla beach and the nearby town of Nambucca Heads with its famed snaking mosaic and its pernickety inline parking style, leaving us a charmed memory as we once more rolled along the pacific highway. We pinned our hopes on other destinations being just as special, as we headed for the inland retreat of Bellingen and the Dorrigo National Park.
We had planned to stay in Belligen’s one and only caravan park for a couple of nights allowing us to explore the quaint lovely town, nestled on the banks of the peaceful Belligen River, as well as investigating the rolling hills of the open countryside. Best laid plans eh! No disaster, no worries! The town was a sweet little place and the pretty caravan park was small and tucked nicely amongst an ancient huddle of trees and the river side. It was a very picturesque setting indeed. However, immediately a problem made itself unmistakably evident in the late morning sun shine. BATS! Looking up at the trees, and glad he’d cased the joint out before handing any money across, Knox saw a multitude of squabbling screechers hanging upside down, jostling their rusty bodies and black bony framed cloaks for position on the branches.
“Dracula eat your heart out!” thought Knox, as he went to get the camera to capture the amazing horde of noisy rabble makers. He knew instantly that they would not be staying here, and anyway Miko had heard the hundreds of crying creatures screaming for her blood as she cringed inside the van!
576 kilometres north of Sydney and 760 meters above sea-level, Dorrigo had views to die for. We kept to the planned excursion, and were highly stimulated by a fantastic climb up the mountain to reach the national park. The winding roads carved into the steep forested terrain, with dry seasoned waterfalls, which had Julie Andrews working overtime, as a fully concentrated Knox kept his eye on the twists, turns, other traffic and very importantly on the temperature gauge.
Relieved that a steady pace was kept and mishaps avoided, we levelled out on a large expansive plateau. A guidebook had described the park’s ‘skywalk’ as a “floating platform, stretching out over the canopy” and we were intrigued to see it.
The expected ‘wow’ factor fired our thinking, thrilling us with scary bridges akin to the ‘Carrick-a-reed rope bridge’ in the land of our birth that is suspended over a sea washed chasm.
The apparatus gave us a big let down as the stilted board walk, pegged by metal supporting guy wires, offered little of the danger both of us had anticipated. Even though it didn’t span out too far, the panorama was admittedly terrific with the rain forested hill sides spreading their descent, undulating into the Bellinger valley for mile after spectacular mile.
Putting our feet firmly on the ground, we drove the few kilometres to check out ‘danger falls’. It was pretty in its beautiful countryside setting but it was less dramatic than expected and lost a lot of its awe because of its high vantage point, although the treacherous white rush was worth a look.
Once the sightseeing and pictures were snapped we had to consider where Miss Andrews was going to lay her hat for the night. We were glad of the early morning start as it meant no rushing as we wished to be settled before light started to fade.
Our failed attempt to spend a few inland days saw us back on the coast road, passing through the towns of Sawtell, and Coff’s Harbour. Clocking up the miles we checked out caravan parks at Emerald beach and Arrowara but OTT prices saw us on a bit of a wild goose chase. It was well worth the extra time though as we slowed to a gentle halt on a deserted road, spotting a family of five free kangaroo’s feasting on the grass. What a privilege to spy these untamed animals and there was a huge difference here from the ones in Oakvale Farm. We got the video footage we dreamt about, as these gorgeous wise creatures kept their distance, not about to run over for food.
For a moment they looked stunned, aware of these two humans watching them, and they stood ever so still observing the actions as if posing for the camera before hopping one after another into the woods. We beamed from ear to ear as this capped the fantastic feeling that welled up within uS due to the wonderful nature that had been served up all day.
A few kilometres up the road, we came across the cheap and cheerful ‘Corrinda beach caravan park’, where an unobtrusive relaxing time was to be had for a few days. It didn’t have the man-made thrills, such as a kiddie bouncy castle or a pool, but the amenities of this small site were adequate and the beach was an easy climb down a rocky path. The therapeutic singing of the song birds was really the only noise that broke the hushness where the walks and running helped clear heads, giving release from the sometimes suffocating confinement of the van.
Yes, tensions did arise on occasions as Knox got tired at the wheel and Miko bored in the passenger seat with both our arses getting sore after sitting for hours.
We gave a thorough check to the budget and with just over 3 weeks of their OZ leg through, we had basically spent the money allotted for this down under portion, although that did include the van payment for another two weeks.
We knew this would happen, being that this value was for when we had budgeted for only a month’s stay. We weren’t concerned with the fact because we’d worked out that we could easily withstand the costs of staying in OZ for two months.
What these checks did was to validate the importance in keeping track of our spending so our brains remained unclogged. Knowledge of where we wanted to be financially used this accounting to keep us up to date but at the same time didn’t restrict us by dictating a strict boundary. It was a balancing tool that allowed us to fully enjoy our experience.
We planned the next steps as Easter was approaching. Continuing the northward route we would aim for Lennox Head and Byron Bay to see what was on offer. On the drive up we ear marked a couple of possibilities to look up and stop over if we wished, but as it happened we came on up to Byron Bay in a straight run.
An example of the freedom of the van was played out here because places checked just didn’t grab our imagination. The bourgeois town of Byron Bay in itself was fit to burst. It was the Thursday before the Good Friday, and Byron’s annual Blues Festival was ready to hit the big stages. We checked a few campsites but they were both full and asking ridiculous money, approx 70 dollars per night, for an open field and rudimentary faculties. Its centre was a clogged mix of trend chasers, show off’s, gawkers and a get smashed attitude, stirred up under the sweaty heat of the glorious sun creating a carnivorous stew that was unpalatable to our taste buds. Thousands were flocking to this tacky vibed den of commercialism so our blues loving vibes pressed the button on plan B, ‘a run to the hills!
Somewhere called to us and we knew when that somewhere appeared we would instantly be aware of it.
We turned the wheel inland to take an easy drive that left the busy tensions behind as we slipped along the quiet country roads and blew into a different world. A remnant of a volcanic dyke 20 million years old, the sacred Aboriginal burial ground of ‘Nimbin Rocks’ stood guard over this bewitching valley. A decoratively sculpted sign of differing shades welcomed us to colourful little Nimbin town where so many things had stayed the same since the 60’s!
Miss Julie Andrews fitted right in with the hippy chick look and it felt she was a time machine bringing uS back to the era of love and peace. The place had revitalized itself from a sleepy diary village to the backdrop for the famed 1973 Aquarius festival that spelled a new age for the area, making it renowned for its alternative life style and ‘freedom for hashish’ protest.
Residents brought variety of thought that allowed dreams to be lived and simple ancient views expressed giving them the fun to name one of their lanes ‘Alternative Street ’.
The handful of wooden frontal shops and entertainment establishments were creatively painted with art to represent themselves. Whether it was a witch on a broom stick, rainbow stripes, Aboriginal murals, or kaleidoscopic fantasies of nirvana, the vitality gave these places a special character that was less ordinary than the usual stiff necked grey brick buildings one is used to seeing. The guidebook focused on the cannabis dealing and the writer’s perception on weirdoes but missed the chilled ambience breathed into the town by the residents and Mardi Grass marchers, who proudly held their heads up high, living in such a beautiful landscape.
It was the daytrip tour operators from Byron Bay and their coach load of gawkers that had the queer feel in a strange environment before running back to their drugged comfort zone in the ‘normal world’ of oblivion parties.
With its shops, cafes, and hemp museum, the place in ways was like a mini Amsterdam.
In the afternoon sun, the feel was relaxing as John Lee Hooker boom boomed his voice from the CD player, while the rugs where laid out on the grassy garden that was Nimbin’s caravan park. Even though there were quite a number of guests, the atmosphere was serene and unhurried, and we had space to move under a grey gum tree in the corner that faced out onto a human deserted plain and woods. It was a little sanctum of peace with a fluffy cloud ceiling in the blue sunshiny sky. By a stroke of luck we walked into Nimbin’s alter-ego blues fest, that had a low key, down to earth, lounged out, and no ‘big name’, attitude. We weren’t going to get ripped off with astronomical ticket prices or even more ridiculous accommodation charges, and we would get that chilled out experience we sought.
Good Friday morning brought more sunshine and the warm up to the festival. A symphony of twittering and warbling greeted us on the way to the shower block with a chirpily busy group of Rainbow Lorikeets taking centre stage. These socially active, chatter-boxes were exquisite with the vivid fusion of feathers that their name spelled out. Bright scarlet eyes pierced from mid-night blue heads, a cheeky orange beak pecked at seeds on the ground as they jostled and bobbed their emerald bodies, tangerine chests, yellow and ruby necks for position with their hungry mates. Their close proximity to humans gave us a brilliant sight as they hopped from one food source to the next, squabbling with each other over tasty morsels, or taking respite on the nearest sapling. There was no rush today as we took a dip in the villages out-door pool that was conveniently located at the entrance to the caravan park before spreading out on the grass. Life was blissful as we shared a fruit bowl breakfast around the little wooden camp table even though a few scurrying ‘fire ants’ gave the odd wee sting.
While relaxing, a portly gentleman meandered through the campers, inviting guests to join a gathering near the office as a band rehearsal became a special private show. We soon found there wasn’t a reason to move, as the instrumental, roadhouse tunes twanged through the vicinity. The intimate crowd swayed their bodies and clapped the rhythm encouraging the mood into full swing.
A radiant Miko, dressed with a sunlit smile and a yellow flower behind her ear, strolled hand in hand with a ‘top of the morning’ Knox the 5 minutes into town. The streets profiled a happy go lucky pose, casting a sorcery spell of amicable joy through the fresh air. Much was getting set up, but a few harmonized their blues in street cafes or outside Nimbin tourist Info. Sauntering they followed the side walk with ease to appreciate the magic how the rainbow lorikeets had fluttered their painting wings to wash the town with a vibrant coat. Above the ‘Bringabong’ shop, a circle of colours sits below its quote, ‘Earth am I, water am I, fire and air and spirit am I’. While the quote above another, ‘From our hearts, with our hearts, for the earth, and all the world together, for peace and healing, one and all’, raps around a blue circle star. Store front windows were dressed with objects brightly shaded and full of cosmic charm, tying the sign boards adorning the premises together with the aura of the community.
There is a celebratory respect for nature through the segmented snake and reptile art of the Aboriginal forbearers and the connecting spiritualization to the hippy love of natural elements. There is no doubt about the leaf culture embellishing the hemp embassy or the health feel of the wondrously spontaneous world that cultivates the whole of humanity and this oneness is reflected in the noted desire to understand others. A decorated notice on a building wall is Nimbin Street Code, a bulletin for all:
RESPECT BUNDJALUNG LAW. DON’T FIGHT, STEAL OR BE GREEDY. HAVE INTEGRITY. BE KIND, HONEST AND FAIR. RESPECT ALL PEOPLE. CHILDREN ARE WATCHING, AND MODEL THEMSELVES ON BEHAVIOUR. HELP KEEP NIMBIN FUNKY, FRIENDLY AND FREE. DON’T FORCE YOUR ADDICTION ON OTHERS, WORK IT. BE RESPONSIBLE LEAVE YOUR DOG AT HOME. WE CARE ABOUT OUR CHILDREN, PLEASE BE MINDFUL OF THEIR SAFETY. LIFE IS SACRED, INCLUDING YOURS. KARMA IS FOR REAL. LOVE IS FOR REAL. NIMBIN TOLERATES MOST THINGS, BUT VIOLENCE IS NOT OK.
The path leads past a mystical, psychedelic door where artistry abodes with the wintry starry night, depicting pointy hated broom riders scooting between the craggy snow doused trees and iridescent sprinkling fairy dust wisps from a magical cauldron.
We smiled back at the shaggy dog panting in the shade of a picnic table and giggled as cars stopped and waited patiently for a ‘big mama’ of a canine using the correct ‘stop, look and listen’ approach to the zebra crossing. Easy goes it with her tongue lolling out the side of her mouth and a tail wagging like a branch in the gentle breeze.
”Some may even say they’ve reached the end of the rainbow here, with so much colour and love about”, thought Miko aloud, as it seemed they were right in the middle of it.
She laughed at Knox. “I sound stoned, and I don’t even touch ganja!”
“It must be in the atmosphere”, as she give the air a sniff!
We stepped into the hemp museum, started by Michael Balderstone, with the unique themes he’d gathered over the years and finally collected in this bohemian treasury that had once been a dilapidated second hand store. At the entrance there was no charge although donations were welcome. As one passed the lounging dreadlocked doormen sat against a protruding bit of one of Julie’s old buddies, the front of a real McCoy Volkswagen camper. We slipped into what at a quick glance may seem like a junk yard but on further inspection was a fascinating winding serpent eight room gallery that commenced with the Aboriginal dream time of the dinosaur Bungalung room.
“Take a whiff of this”, was the natives call, as a huge bag of sweet smelling grass was motioned towards Knox’s nose.
Our eyes widened at the chattel around.
“Cool eh?” the man proclaimed. “Just some guy’s stuff he gathered over the years. Go have a look”.
We breezed into the pioneer room where writings printed on the walls dictated the tale of early settlers and how the decimated grey forests were replaced by pastures and farm animals. Slithering on, hippy era filled the senses as mushrooms grew out of cow shit and a new age Nimbin was born. Things grew with the use of natural resources developing a strong band of life. The smell of herb was pungent and no-one would need to have a joint near their lips in this garden when traversing the hemp room. The mottos were funny and the thinking philosophical throughout the museum with profound contributions from superb artists. This little treasury was definitely the most absorbing and alluring repository one could find themselves in and we were happy to depart in a puff of the dragons smoke, 20 dollars lighter.
Our roam about the village was bizarre in a wonderful kind of way, and with Miko’s hippy persona brought to the surface, she felt like she belonged. In her eyes she found it refreshing to see that there are people who are proud to be a little bit different instead of the ‘same same’ culture that tries to dictate life. It was also a strong breath of fresh air here, to have a local kid describe ‘Julie Andrews’ as her idol rather than the usual Robbie or Beyonce. The afternoon was played out by a few blues band street shows before we retired in a view of the full moon to flake out early after an awesome day.
At the fork in the road was the villages central park were a small stage had been erected. We looked out from the wide opened windows of the Nimbin Hotel bar opposite as the streets oozed people. An ice-bucket cooled the cockatoo-ridge sparkly while the festival music wafted in pleasing their ears and soaking up the mood. Soon, as if by rod and line, we rolled outside and were drawn to sprawl on the grassy floor, only 10 meters from the stage, with the spread out listeners. We plonked near a kids play slide that was painted in a hue of yellows and reds to compliment the surrounding style with a cheerful unvandalised look. Jugglers displayed their talented tossing to the sound of a guitar strum, the beat of a drum, vocalist’s lyricing and even just a simple hum.
We whooped, hollered, clapped and pursed our lips for a while as the bands delighted the audience. Mr George Scott was a massive favourite as he twanged his guitar with a depth of emotion, thrilled with the revelations from his harmonica, and vocalized words of meaning while playing his 7bar blues.
Our video footage wasn’t enough and we just had to get a hold of a recording so at the end of his set we shimmied round to the side of the stage to approach the man. This Scottish guy who’d set up in OZ 30 years ago had a truly modest demeanour and his honest dignity was apparent as surprise met by our request for a CD.
“Yeah, Yeah, I think I have one”, he said, obviously not prepared for fans, rummaging in his guitar case and hooking through some song sheets in a haphazard way.
“We really enjoyed your stuff. It was just fantastic and got the crowd going”.
George pulled out his CD with the title, ‘Nothing about Cats’.
“It’s only got 5 tracks on it”, George said sheepishly.
“No worries, that’s perfect, how much do I owe you?”
The price was announced at $5 and said in such a way that George felt it was maybe over priced.
“It’s only got 5 tracks on it though”, he reiterated before a few of the sound guys chuckled at his lack of marketing skills, agreeing with uS that he was great and a fine gentleman.
We were delighted with the score and knew that this singer-song writer had made our festiv. We took a sound check and headed back to have a picnic with Julie.
Easter Sunday was fuzzy headed but nice. We sat chatting on a long rotting bench that was alive with little dark striped lizards playing a game of hide and seek through the pock marked grain. We supped on cool beer, easing back in the peacefulness away from the hung-over bevy up on the main street. To our amazement we turned as a rainbow lorikeet dropped by to say a melodious hello while propping herself on the bench half an arms length away. The thrilling photo opportunities were taken and the little bird didn’t even flinch at the fumbling but rather hopped around in different poses for a long while before fluttering onto the grass below then off into the distance, leaving us chuffed.
Even Nimbin wasn’t perfect as that evening we found the music crashed and burned in ravey, trance hell down at the Bush Theatre. We ended up at a get together at an Italian’s, Luciana pad within the venues ground. We were joined by two we had met on the Thursday evening.
Neil from the Young Ones’ look-alike, Varan, and George, who resembled an early Doors front man, Jim Morrison. Miko was great at encouraging the long, black haired Varan, an excellent guitar player, who sang deep words personal to him. He performed for the party, before everyone drunkenly united in singing, strumming, and clicking of drum sticks rather incoherently. The issues that Varan carried seemed to allow him to play the victim role of getting ridiculed by some of his peers, giving him the opportunity to check out, and it wasn’t too long until the night faded as he stormed out claiming, to the astounded giggles of the rest of them.
“I am not a puppet on a string”!
This was hardly inspirational stuff. In the shadows of a moon-lit scene we staggered home, but our spirits hadn’t been dampened.
After our weekend bender, thoughts turned to ‘UKI’ and Mount Warning, where healthy eating, lots of walking, and a famous physic awaited. The camper chased a bunch of cyclists, who had camped up in Nimbin the night before into the huge caldera bowl left by an extinct volcano encapsulating Mount Warning. Uki was a quirky village on the way to their mountain side retreat that had been given an enchanting write-up.
Unfortunately the world-renowned physic had left 7 months ago and a kiwi called Ray had taken charge of the new-age shop, ‘Uki Dreaming’.
“I know a woman called Rowena who might do it”, Ray informed Miko as she explained her quest for a good tarot reading.
“She’s more into DNA healing though these days”, he said as if trying to look through Miko.
She shrugged off the tingle caused by him trying to read her.
“Right, and does she not now give readings? Miko asked.
“She doesn’t really like doing it anymore, but I’ll see”, he told her.
“Oh, why’s that?” Miko pressed.
“Well it appeared that she got too good, if you know what I mean”, he whispered, even though the shop was empty, looking at her again with those piercing eyes.
He chatted more about the crystals and their power, Mount Warning, and the area, which somehow led onto the subject of relationship break ups.
“When a lot of couples move here many end up separating”, he intrigued.
“There’s a great force within the ground here, and woman usually are at the fore-front of it”, he continued spookily.
“Umm”, Miko thought. “Do, I really want to stick around”.
She took Ray’s card with contact details and left it with him to phone Rowena to set up a meeting the next day. At the foot of the mountain we found the caravan park and opted for a wee bit of luxury for a couple of nights, treating themselves to the modern comforts of a cabin. We could actually stand up in doors. Not only did we have a bedroom and sitting area, the sleeping area was in a whole different room! WOW! We didn’t know ourselves and planned to take a recovery lie-in the next morning before taking on Mount Warning.
An extraordinary change of events dawned as we slumbered on. By 9 Knox finally got himself up and out, repeating the telephone call to Ray that he tried the evening before. It didn’t go as hoped. Rowena really did mean that she didn’t read tarot anymore but she would be willing to fit Miko in for massage and healing. This wasn’t for Miko, although she didn’t doubt Rowena’s gift and her interest in seeing her. The way Knox saw it, this would give us a bit more relaxing time today as he walked into the office to pay up for the second night only to find Graham, the owner, had double booked the cabin. He informed that the new arrivals wanted that cabin for a week, expressing that we had to move out within the hour.
The pace of the morning suddenly shifted from a nice sedate country road into a busy highway of having a rushed packing job just to move 2 cabins up.
This upset the apple-cart and negated the reason we’d chosen the cabin for 2 nights. We bit the bullet, packed up the van and decided to roll on out. We were shocked at Grahams stinking attitude when we returned the key as he became rude and ignorant to his mistake and simply couldn’t be bothered to even look us in the eye, never mind apologize for the inconvenience. This just turned into one of those, ‘go with the flow days’.
Hoking through our clothes, Miko had a laugh at herself as she donned her groovy purple socks, shorts, and flowery trainers for the ascent that would start in the car park. A four kilometres hike would see us reach the 1157 metre summit through the rain forests that inhabit the core of this ancient shield volcano. The Aboriginal Bungalung called this sacred place ‘Columbine’ meaning ‘fighting chief of the mountains’, who believed that thunder and lightening observed over the mountains were warring warriors and that landslides were the wounded in battle. Its anglicized name was given to it by Captain Cook as this monster could be seen from the sea and alerted sailors to the impending danger of rocky shores. The fertile volcanic soils gave a thick forested blanket to the mountain sides that were home to hundreds of bird species, including the endangered Rofus, Scrub bird, Lyre, and the Wompoo Pigeon.
Gradually the climb got steeper but with our minds concentrated and eyes feasted on the Sting trees, figs and Booyangs as well as the delightful flame trees, we kept going strong.
We spotted wild turkey’s that popped up now and again while sifting through the undergrowth. Snakes slithered across our path or simply curled up for a snooze along the well beaten trail as we excitedly got the camera out.
Tweeting birds and buzzing insects were generally the only sounds we heard as we kept up a good pace. Glimpses could be caught at the clearings of views that awaited us when we arrived at the challenging rock-scramble. This last few 100 meters was a demanding task as the rocky path became a 45 degree climb with the aid of a chain hand rail.
“Hold tight!” was Miko’s motto. “And be extremely careful of your footing”.
She didn’t care what she looked like to other hikers, as she muddied hands and knees and with sweat dripping crawled on with a pant. Knox had made it up a few minutes before and with moving pictures he recorded Miko’s progress to her aggravation. Stopping to catch a breath she waved him away as he chuckled. It was all worth it for the stunning 360 degree view from the top.
With a fairly clear sky we lapped up the breath taking sights far below, and where able to see the distant coast line. It was a pinnacle moment as we stood high above, looking out through the embrace of the fine mist, allured by this charismatic habitat and the depths of this sacrosanct world. It was an ecstatic feeling to reach the top and after 20 minutes of getting breath back it was time to reverse the journey. Descending was a tricky and dangerous business as feet slipped on mossy and unstable rocks almost tumbling one onto one’s ass. The shaky chain, caused by people below trying to find their grip, added vulnerability and heightened the hazard of the backwards trip to the path. Once one was on more level ground, most of the rest of the descent was done at a trot but we were wary of an accident the day before where the emergency services had been called into action to find a child that had gone off course and caused a small landslide. Thankfully there had been no serious injuries.
After 3 hours we were back in the van, and made once more for Lennox Head and Lake Ainsworth. We had a look at the caravan park but it didn’t suit us even though the afternoon was getting on. We took a dip in the icky brown waters of the lake, a colour of malt vinegar given by the bitter tasting tannin which dropped from the bark of the tea-trees. The cool water felt smooth as velvet and offered an aromatherapy skin treatment for the whole body. With life returning to the tranquil after the Easter break, we shared the lake with mainly a few paddling ducks and the graceful motions of a snow white swan. The bottom felt spongy as our feet sank into a substance which felt like a great thick shaggy carpet. After their cleansing, we stretched out and shook ourselves off before climbing aboard Miss Andrews to look at our options about where to park up for the night. With consideration we plumed for Brisbane as we felt this would allow us to get a comfy room for the evening. The next day we could get the camper’s niggly faults checked out, allowing us to get an early start into the second leg of our OZ tour, Queensland.
Darkness covered the land but the bright city lights lit the way. By 7pm we were knackered but we’d made it to the ‘Tourist Guest House’ with some fortunate and intuitive turns on the strange roads of this city. It was basic but we had our own bathroom and a fridge to store their food out of the ice-box. We conked out after a delicious salad dinner before taking in the unexpected fruitful day.
OZ – THE SOUND OF BLUES
This was just a quick one-night stopover in Brisbane because we would get a chance to see the city better when we flew from here in a month’s time.
The requirement for every Wicked Camper passing through Brisbane was to stop at their garage depot for a safety check, so we were up, packed and out before 10am. We envisaged a quick half hour check over for Julie Andrews with a chance to discuss and iron out a few of her niggly issues. Think again buster!
The hassle hanging around together with the frustrations of downed tools for a lengthy tea break got a whole lot worse with a bit of bad news.
“You’ll have to change vans,” related the mechanic, “she’s got bad engine trouble and we need to take her in for a complete overhaul”.
It transpired that she had cylinder head freak out forcing a separation of our paths. With sadness we lost her bright rays and were introduced to the altogether darker art of trumpeter Sachmo. The fixtures and fittings were all the same but the outlook suddenly became blue.
“I take it the van has been checked and we can get on the road now?” said Miko wanting to get on her way.
“Its checked but it needs cleaned before you can swap over your stuff. You need to swap over everything including cooker, cutlery and stuff” replied the mechanic.
Even at this point, Miko had a dubious thought about this check, as the whole situation seemed to be in a bit of a rush. A full tank of petrol had to be accounted for that had the trainee mechanic baffled as to how to swap it over and having to take a spin around to a local filling station to top up the new camper.
A phone call to Air New Zealand while we waited had a very uppity clerk raising her voice and, with an ignorant manner, refused to change dates without a fee on the flight out of Brisbane for next month. This just increased the irksome nature of the day so far and a lot of tongue biting was needed to prevent exasperation boiling over in a fume. Once we got the van on the road, we had to zip round to Wicked’s other depot in the city and pay for the extra days up front. We were already heavily delayed.
The time now was 2pm and we were leaving Brisbane a ridiculous 3 hours later than expected. We bit and snapped at each other as we had difficulties navigating the way out and the air in the camper crackled with thunder. A few deep breaths blew the clouds away and with calm restored we found the right highway to get motoring.
Driving at 100km/hr was fun, now that we felt we were once again getting somewhere, until the driver’s side head cloth enveloped Knox. We both breathed a sigh of relief on pulling safely into a rest area 15km out of the city and we were thankful that an accident didn’t materialize.we tucked the cloth temporarily in and Knox took the stop as an opportunity to ring Air New Zealand again. As he walked towards the main building, Miko reached into the back for the Australia guidebook to get a handle on where we would go next. It wasn’t there. Getting out of the van, we checked thoroughly through out possessions but still no sign. She hoped Knox had it with him.
“Sorted” expressed Knox triumphantly on his return, “No charge and No hassle!” Miko could see he didn’t have the book and Knox detected her annoyed look. “We’ve left the guidebook at Wicked,” sighed Miko bringing him back down to the troublesome day with a bump as he butted the steering wheel. I guess we can get the head cloth fixed properly then” he said philosophically as he prepared to turn back into the storm.
“We’ve checked everywhere, its not here” The mechanic told us.
“Are you sure you’ve looked everywhere, it’s not that long since we left?” asked Knox.
“There were a few vans in earlier. One of them will have taken it,” Opinionated the mechanic. “A few of the guys were very arrogant, I would say they’re your culprits. You might be able to catch up with them. They were either in ‘Batman’, ‘Lips’, or ‘Mans best friend’ camper. I think they were headed north as well.” He continued to feed them info.
“So you really think it could be one of them?” Miko questioned to make sure.
“Yeah, I’ll say that’s your best bet”.
At last we crawled out of rush hour Brisbane, blinded a bit by the loss of the guidance aid, annoyed and a tad angry at the thievery, as well as our own stupidity of letting the book out of sight during the van move, and feeling the wastage of the day.
On the plus side we were now back on a mission to do the long straight to Airlie Beach. 200Km later as it got dark we pulled off the Bruce Highway at the well facilitated Matilda Truck Stop, which had everything one needed; restaurants, internet, laundry, games and most importantly showers and toilets were on hand 24 hours a day. Ready to settle down among the enormous trucks, Knox fiddled with the TV for some head numbing entertainment only to find that the cigarette lighter for the adaptor to plug into was kaput. After establishing that it wasn’t the fuse, a phone call revealed the promise of a further delay tomorrow to be spent in a town they’d be passing through. AAGGHH!
The next day was one for driving. We both slept relatively well and were woken by sniggers at the logo on the back of Sachmo, ‘I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill’.
Our idea was to drive all the way to Airlie Beach/ Whitsunday Islands, the farthest north we intended going, and then to trickle down again, stopping at those beauty beaches on the way. 500km brought us to Rockhampton where we spent an hour hanging around in the late afternoon while the lighter was ripped out and replaced.
We put yesterday down as just a ‘baddy’ and, feeling more upbeat, looked at the progress we’d made.
Pulling up at Marlborough, 100km further north, we camped behind a hotel and paid the required $2 each for the shower. On the drive up, we had noticed changes in the landscape beyond Brisbane. Up here seemed dryer and even more sparsely populated. The parched scrubland bore less trees and less road signs matched the reduction in stop areas along what was now a mainly single laned carriageway. On top of this the heat and humidity had risen, making our tin can a bit oven like. The next day we would get up for dawn to complete the last 350km to the end of the line.
“Where’s the beach?” Miko asked as they rolled into Airlie and viewed the marina, rocky shoreline with lots of mud flats, and commercial resort activity.
“I think the tiny strip down there is it!” Knox pointed to a feeble un-secluded spot. It was not the idyllic picture we expected. The tour operators, shops, malls, bars, restaurants, hotels and the general activity of a stop gap town for thousands launching on boats to the Whitsundays had us driving on through.
We turned down a side road that followed the coast to search for any little coves that would prevent this jaunt being wasted but found a dead end after a km or so. There and then we decided to turn our ship around and start the trickle down the southern lane sooner than expected. Sachmo had other ideas.
Heading back to the main road, the camper was halfway up a little hill when automotive power drained and deceleration brought the van to the virtual standstill of a few km/h even after Knox had dropped right through the gears. There had been a feeling that Sachmo had been drinking a lot more petrol than even a sick Julie Andrews but this turn of events gave us confused looks as we inched to the summit where some power gingerly restored. We knew it wasn’t a ‘lack of petrol’ problem because we had more than half a tank on board but beyond that we had no clue as to what was serious enough to be choking the camper’s power.
We edged back into town until we came across the first public telephone and made another call to John on the Wicked breakdown line.
“There’s a garage we use in Airlie, ‘Love Auto Repairs’, I’ll get you the number and you can give them a call,” drawled John after hearing what Knox had to say. “They’re a decent bunch there and should be able to sort you out,” he continued.
When Knox called the workshop, the receptionist got them to crawl the van to the other side of town. We couldn’t diagnose the problem on first inspection and it was clear a second day was now to be wasted as we had no choice but to wait in line, being asked to come back to pick the van up at 5pm. There wasn’t much courtesy as we were pointed in the direction of town.
“The bus stop’s there,” rattled the mechanic indicating the shelter on the long empty road.
“Oh, what time is it at?” asked Miko
“Don’t know, maybe every half hour or something” came the blunt reply as a few scarpered off in their cars for an early lunch, leaving us to it.
This certainly didn’t help the bubbling undercurrent and we sniped, taking the situation out on one another. Spits of rain dampened the spirits more as we aimlessly wondered around the town, poking in and out of shops, having a bite to eat at the chippy, and grabbing a chilled schooner to cool us down before busing it back to discover the verdict.
The mechanics conclusion was that the lines going into the fuel pump had been fitted the wrong way round so he reversed it and he felt this had fixed the problem. We took the van for a quick test run up a long steep hill and, although it was obvious the engine was not pulling at 100%, there was a vast improvement. We toyed with the idea of spending the night in Airlie as it would soon be dark but plumbed instead for a caravan park 40kms away as this would point us along the right course for the morning.
Travelling out of town, we were on a straight flat road motoring at a steady 100km/hr when loud backfires and juddering introduced the power reduction again. First Sachmo reared back to 60km/hr but when coaxed he managed to reach 80-90km/hr, and that was the best he could do with the accelerator pedal pushed to the board and even then it was a struggle to maintain. Sachmo had the sickly feeling blues and these blues flustered and drained us. With Julie Andrews we had not had these issues even though her engine was in poor shape. Like being put on the rack and spindled to a tighter tension, we had felt the strain of the last few days and felt our patience being stretched in our desire to be on our way.
We trundled a sorry Sachmo into O’Connell River Caravan Park to rest up for the night.
“That doesn’t sound healthy” the owner stuttered as Sachmo spluttered to a halt.
“Aye, we’ve had a few problems with the old boy today and more to be sorted tomorrow,” Knox informed as they nodded agreement.
“There’s another one of these here tonight” he pointed to the van. Wicked Campers were like a cult, always waving at each other when passing as a signal they ain’t alone.
“Do you have a phone I could use?” Knox asked.
“Yeah no worries, you can use the one in the office,” came the quick reply.
“Cheers, I’ll just park up first”.
The pretty park was run by a couple of effeminate owners who dressed the place in an old fashioned garish kind of way, sort of like one’s granny’s house with bright plastic potted flowers and doilies yet maintaining a lovely sense of security. The guys were quite funny in their way, complimenting Knox.
“Oh, I like your T-shirt,” one remarked. “It makes such a statement without being in your face.”
Knox laughed not knowing what to say and enjoying a spot of humour in the day while looking at his dishevelled state of attire.
Knox called John. He explained the hassles of the van and discovered that the garage hadn’t called Wicked’s Mechanic to give a run down of the work done. Knox also translated the couple’s frustrations of the last few days and how more time was now to be lost tomorrow. John affirmed his understanding of our feelings without much conviction before showing his surprise at the fault that Knox described. He asked that Knox phone him in the morning to allow him to arrange a return to the garage.
In the meantime all we could do was bed down in the nice wee place where the rubbery skinned bright green tree frogs and sucker footed lizards had a feast around the mozzie infested shower block.
It was late Saturday morn when we undertook the tedious journey back to ‘Love Auto Repairs’. A mechanic, different from the one who worked on Sachmo the day before was a bit flummoxed as to the cause, but he replaced the fuel filter, gave the air filter a tapping to shake out the dirt and gave the distributor a quick clean out. We kept fingers crossed that this would be the last of Sachmo’s health problems and end the nightmare darkening campervan dream.
It was now well past the midday hour and we were free to go, but a bad head replaced the fun for Knox, meaning he wasn’t really up for driving. Wicked had a few questions to answer.
We decided there was nothing else for it but to park up at O’Connell River for a second night and use the time to catch up with life’s little chores before setting on there way the next morning.
Up in the Airlie Beach area was a lot more green than further south, back along the Bruce Highway, and the humidity percentage was definitely notched up a few levels. A main industry right up this coast past Brisbane was highly evident and this was not just because of the tall thick green stalks that often crowded the road sides. The Sugar-Cane rail network spoke volumes or rather jittered volumes right through the body. Squared off, vast fields were intersected, as were many of the roads including the main artery, with narrow gauge tracks like that found in a kiddie’s amusement park.
At times the dinky toy feel of the lighted signals at the crossings or the little meshed box wagons that lay in out of harvest slumber along sidings, amused us. Other times we didn’t as these campers really didn’t cope well with humps and bumps, meaning Sachmo shuddered with nasty rattles over the rolling tracks. These weren’t the only things that made the van tremble as, apart from the dodgy pot holed roads, Sachmo had to deal with the speed ramps of some caravan parks that even at 5km/hr threw pots clattering in the back, and of course there was the engine!
We left fairly early on the southward trail and had travelled about 70 easy going kilometres when a sudden Bang! Bang! followed by many more farting put-puts together with a renewed bout of vigorous jitters informed us that all was still not well.
Along with these symptoms came that ‘Power Reduction’ thing again but to a more severe level. If we tried to go above 65-70km/hr on a straight the van shivered violently and on hills that speed would be an embarrassing 40km/hr tops as the traffic snaked behind.
“Can you not just carry on at 70km/hr?” stated John with an unconcerned and unsympathetic tone when Knox called after the 30km drive that took them into the city of Mackay.
“That’s completely impractical, John, on the main North-South highway” an exasperated Knox responded struggling, but managing, to remain calm. “It’s hardly as if we are tonking it anyway at a steady 100km/hr. It’s got farcical now. This is our holiday and four days have been wasted on top of the extra money we are shelving out for the petrol Sachmo is gulping, the danger caused by the flapping head cloth and the missing guidebook. We need to resolve this ridiculous fiasco,” Knox stood his ground.
“You’ll have to sit tight there, it will be tomorrow before a guy in the area can have a look at it because things are shut on a Sunday. In the meantime I’ll draw up a report, mate, and send it to head office” John explained with a bit more awareness.
“Thanks, I’ll give you a ring in the morning for directions,” finished Knox.
By now we had lost a lot of faith in Sachmo and more importantly Wicked Campers. We became aware of the distinct possibility that the van they were given in Sydney could well have been the lemon that the telephonist had mentioned about needing brought up quickly and cheaply to Brisbane for work to be done on it. Julie Andrews’s replacement was on hand very promptly and had been a lame duck from the start, giving us real concerns about the quality of checks during each camper’s inspections.
We smelt a rat with the fact that we seemed to be given this very quickly! The cigarette lighter may have been trivial but it was essential to one of the companies marketing ploys i.e. the TV. This brokered the question of what other essential matters had the mechanics failed to spot since the cigarette lighter hole glared them right in the face and a simple phase test would have highlighted the fault.
That night we opted to check into a cabin in a caravan site to give us space to ease our troubled minds and allow both to recover from the 1500+ broken down kilometres we had driven over the previous 5/6 days. It had been a very mentally draining period of time.
“I can’t detect the full extent of the problem as I would need to run a much longer diagnostic on the van for that, but these last blokes were a bunch of ‘Gullahs’ changing over the lines running into the fuel pump,” explained the mild mannered mechanic in Mackay. He was much more genuine and had asked the pleasant lady at the front desk to run us into town while we waited, which she had done with a bit of chit-chat, a smile, and a few directions.
“So how’s it going now?” asked Knox.
“Well the van isn’t going to be a smooth ride as the engine isn’t in tip-top condition but it should work better now than before. I’ve reversed the earlier work while at the same time removed the air filter altogether at John’s request,” came the answer.
“Yes, John had said to me on the phone that these vans seem to have a problem with the air filter and that he had told the Airlie Beach bunch to remove it but they hadn’t listened and that irritated him,” Knox confirmed.
“Well it was his call but I don’t think it really solves the long term problems of this vans engine,” finished the mechanic before we departed.
At last we were back on our way and, although the engine was never 100% or near it, Sachmo was useable now without being a nuisance or an embarrassment.
We started eating the kilometres and enjoying the scenery. Like a sleeping Dinosaur, the hills lay Tolkenesque to the right of the southbound lane, across a flat plain, as the trees played the part of a spiky spine. This mountainous slumber watched the eagle eyes and curious crows scavenge on the plentiful carrion lining the wayside or splattered in the middle of the rough tarmac. Night time didn’t halt the thunderous passage of the Macks and Volvos with their piercing lights of Jagannath’s eyes and blaring honks that were too late to warn for the timid Kangaroos wanting to cross.
400kms on, we pulled up for an evenings sleep at Yaamba rest stop. Nerves had been frayed by recent events and we were happy to seek solitude under Orion’s gaze as well as the fabulous Milky Way. Light pollution here was at a minimum within a stones throw of the camper, leaving us appreciative of the wondrous universe we were part of.
Thoughts turned to Anzac day and the sacred remembrance of sacrifices. How many wars must a world have before everyone reveres just how precious this gift of life is? The blame lies with each and every one of us and not just the ‘small minority’ of trouble makers who ruin it for the so called ‘decent people’ of the world’s societies. Every single one of us need to lead from the heart rather than being led by lies and opinions that are not our own. Remember the dead and the lessons they teach us. Live life joyfully.
Personally we were finding it difficult to get out of the doldrums. Tensions around had tainted this part of the trip and every time there appeared to be clear sky another crack filled the air. Life was trying to imitate the dodgy Ulster weather, which didn’t suit the beautiful sunshine above. The week had been arduous and zapped the fun filled nature of the experience. To counteract this, Knox worked on smiling while driving along in an attempt to remove his grumpy brow furrowed face. It gave us both a chuckle as he played with his big lips and facial expressions, although he had to imagine the look as staring into the rear view mirror while driving ain’t exactly the brightest thing to do. It does lighten the load when one is able to laugh at oneself and this brighter outlook not only gave us encouragement but allowed us to think the situation through clearly enough to draw up a feedback letter to Wicked Campers customer service department.
The last days had passed in a stupor and the icy tensions between us caused by the frustrations, finally began to thaw. Quiet seaside recuperation was in order so when morning came we followed the close at hand trail of the Capricorn Coast. Bell Park Caravan Park at Emu Beach was our recovery sanctuary.
The small town had a nice ring to it although nowadays the wild emus hankered for tranquillity beyond the human habitation in the undulating scrubland between the coast and the distant hills. Trundling into the caravan site beside the sweeping beach, we had no difficulty finding some serene living space for ourselves. The beach couldn’t be seen past 15 metre deep stretch of thorny, dark green bushes and trees, which persuaded us that this was a good spot as it meant there was privacy for lying on the sands.
The nights were cooler in these parts but we both felt warm inside. Beneath the delightful fiery red and orange sky we would rise with dawn breaking to hear the gentle autumn breeze rustle in the leaves. We boiled water on the camping gas stove to make a hot cuppa to wash down with warm toast and honey as the sun heated up in the blue blanket above. We were feeling more like ourselves again as we reclined in the posh camp chairs acquired at the swap over, enjoying the company of the birds, insects, the peaceful greenery and the sound of lapping waters washing the shore of Emu Beach.
We had missed this since Sachmo took over. Access to the beautiful beach was via a natural tunnel of gnarled and twisted woods that opened up in brightness. The shore line was different from others we had been to on this tour with respect to the tide and water displacement. On this crescent, the water receded by more than 100metres at low tide were at others both here and in India the seas remained close in giving the feel of so much space as well as a long walk to dip the feet.
With it being the off season it was deserted apart from a few healthy dogs and their human companions. We tenderly lifted each other, choosing simple gifts of beach memorabilia, like shells and feathers, and writing words of encouragement to share the senses. The ambience induced butterfly winged poetry and invigorating runs up and down the golden stretch breathed love and life back into our hearts and refreshed our minds. We could easily have extended another few days here but hoped to see more of what Queensland had to offer in the remaining two weeks. We hoped to find other beaches as secluded and sedate as Emu but, as we left the cocoon heading for the Bundaberg region, tensions started to ride again as if this little van had a curse clouding over it.
Indecision and dis-satisfaction had us moving from pillar to post, as well as further and further south towards the busy beaches either side of Brisbane in their search for the perfect hideaway.
A 350 km drive saw us reach Bundaberg where we managed to get a parking ticket while using e-mail. Fortunately this was cancelled because of an error on the ticket by the traffic warden creating a loophole escape. The indiscretion was ours though so they pledged the money to a charity of their choice. Refraining from the famed Bundaberg Rum, we took a further drive, stopping for one night at Turtle beach. Even though turtle laying and hatching was over there was still plenty of business in the site. The next day was worse as an early start saw us pass up the opportunity of peace and quiet at Moore Park for a 500 km wild goose chase.
From Turtle beach we drove through Bundaberg to Moore Park, back through Bundy to Baraga, Bernett heads, Coral Cove, then out of the Bundaberg area, through Childers, with a moment of remembrance for the Palace Backpacker Hostel fire that killed 15 people, all young foreign workers in the local industries.
From Childers we drove on into Burnem Heads, Marlborough and through Rainbow Beach only to end up at the Matilda Truck Stop for the night. Danger signs warning of crocs or other animals hazardous to human life had made us wary of some of the isolated little coves found through the day while other beaches lay wide open, being viewed by coastline buildings. Our hopeful belief in the brochures and guides that Rainbow Beach would be heaven sent was a dark hole of disappointment and a long detouring, pine forested drive. Yes, if one could see that the strand without the four wheel drives or trail bikes speeding along, it would be a magical haven but, in its present state, it wasn’t our idea of heaven.
By now Sachmo sounded like an old tired bed after developing a squeaky set of springs in his suspension, he’d probably had enough by now as well.
Brisbane was practically upon us now so we bit the bullet and made for the NSW border. We decided to stay around the Lismore area, heading through Moo Ville with its crazy black and white cow design painted everywhere and then to Pottsville on the Tweed coast to spend the morning lounging and contemplating. The main part of the beach was just around the corner from where we lay on the beautiful white sands by the calmer, crystal clear lake like pool of the estuary.
We lay on the cool strand with a backing of greenery and rocks letting the sun kiss our flesh offering a rejuvenating glow to the skin and soul. Unusually no insects busy bodied around as if the sand had been swept clean on a daily basis. In the afternoon, a bit of retail therapy was actually enjoyed in the tawdry of Byron Bay, where there were still plenty of clientele but definitely not the jam-packed craziness of the blues fest.
A smooth ride to the evening park up at Broken Heads caravan site gave us great temptation to get another cabin but none were available so they bunked down in the van. Even though the cramped conditions of the titchy camper was becoming a bit of a drag and Sachmo’s tendency towards all work and no play, we were in better humour now.
The possibility of venturing into Nimbin for the villagers big celebration of the year, Mardi Grass, was more distinct. It was this weekend coming but after a few phone calls it was clear that accommodation was turning out to be a stickler as the few places to stay had been booked up months in advance, including the caravan park. The word on the street though, was that cancellations may happen and the other theory was that if not then park up on the street somewhere and you’ll be okay. This last option looked most likely, yet wasn’t particularly wanted and would mean a one night stay at most. All we could do was hope that we could turn up the right stone. In the meantime we put it on the back burner and, returning to Pottsville the next day, booked a cabin for a couple of nights.
We struck lucky with a garden cabin in Pottsville North Caravan Park that looked over the quiet leafy picnic area. It felt good to pamper ourselves in the good old homely comforts and this was definitely among the best accommodation we’d stayed in throughout all of their OZ trip. At last we picked up a couple of corn cobs, some veggie burgers and buns. Since arriving in Australia we had been dying to take part in an Aussie institution, the BARBIE! A lot of places had BBQs set up for public use but these weren’t always the cleanest as fat and dripping from previous meat eating users had been neglectfully left behind. In this caravan park the barbies were positively gleaming so in the quiet of mid-week Knox donned his chef’s hat and fired her up.
With a nice sizzle going he slapped on the corn and the burgers, stoking up a scrumptious meal to go with their bottle of bubbly. We ate on the veranda as the early evening sun hung on to the coat tails of the lengthening shadows and radiated its last ounces of energy for the day. We thought about how lucky we really were and deliberated over the internet time that day.
Wicked sent uS an offer of two days refund plus $50 of petrol refunded, about a tank full at the inflated prices of the time. Since we had lost 4 days plus, we thought it only fair that the company should reconsider and increase the offer, especially since Wicked now admitted that one of their staff had taken out guide book, not owning up when we returned to retrieve it. This last point really irked us as the Brisbane mechanic had encouraged us to chase down fellow travellers to demand their missing book back as well as the fact that replacement value of the book would have been round the $40 mark.
A straight forward e-mail explaining the full situation with level headed negotiation was sent in reply. More striking news while clicking the keys at the net concerned a 7.8 Richter scale earthquake in Tonga with a tsunami warning to heighten the danger. This was where we would be heading in a week and a half’s time, ringing alarm bells in their heads. A deeper investigation revealed that the epicentre had been in the ocean and not on land and thankfully with no casualties, damage or tsunami. It was a story that would have to be monitored though.
Nimbin was quiet when we arrived on the Friday and the atmosphere was one of preparation with little else happening. Construction of a stage, food outlets, shops and a bordering fence to enclose the whole arena was in full swing beside the public pool. It was here that the action rally, music and of course the Hemp Olympics would be held but the fun and games wouldn’t really kick off until the Saturday.
We strolled around looking a bit lost trying to arrange somewhere to stay yet the early afternoon wasn’t dotting any ‘Is’ or crossing any ‘Ts’. The fields at the Rainbow Power workshop had room for more campers and was a cheap $20 for the weekend but we were put off by the rudimentary facilities; one loo for the tens of people and a shower behind a covering sheet. We clung to the hope offered by both the Caravan Park and Grey Gum Lodge who were still waiting to see if any no shows would allow space.
Our persistence did put us top of the waiting list. On the dander back from Grey Gum Lodge at the edge of town, we were wondering if we should park up by the curb side as many people were doing or come back the next day when we bumped into a familiar face,
“Hey Irish!” came the mimicking accent of George, the Jim Morrison look-alike as he popped his weary head out the window of a rickety camper. We waved, laughing as we walked towards him. He stumbled from side to side while extracting himself from the van bare-chested.
“I’m out of it,” he told us as his eyes glazed over “I’ve had five cookies this morning plus some bongs” he trumpeted with a wreaked shake of the head.
“Aye you look like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards” we chuckled.
“Oh, this is a friend” George said as he noticed them spotting the young, black eyed, love bitten blonde covering up on a mattress in the van.
Miko’s watchful eye hoped that the girls shiner wasn’t the handy work of look alike Morrison. We never did find out as we went on our way.
“I’ll see you around” He thumbed up.
With not much happening and no guarantees of a place for the night, we hedged our bets and drove 40 kilometres to the area’s main town of Lismore. The comfort Inn did exactly what it said on the tin, offered comfort, even if it was a throw back to the 80’s dynasty style.
Its huge room gave us space to mull over the options and a local free paper gave lots of information on Nimbin’s event, so our appetite was whetted. By evening wE had established that the caravan park had a place available for us, but we would have to wait for an answer at the favoured guesthouse. With the morning phone call we hit the jackpot as a room was free at Grey Gum Lodge.
“I’ll leave the key under the mat for you”, came the relaxed tone of the lady owner.
“I’ll be out most of the day, so just come up when it suits you”.
It was wonderful the way things were working out, and it afforded a light-hearted drive back up.
Long before we entered the main street we could see the town was heaving as cars were parked up bumper to bumper along the grass verges, easily a kilometre from the centre. Even though it was an extra 40 dollars a night because of the celebrations, we were double glad now as we turned into the lane and parked up outside the lodge. It was a cosy wee place that offered about 6 rooms, a colonial air, and most importantly a tranquillity on the edge of the town, far from the maddening crowd. Outside wooden steps climbed a level to the shared veranda, where a few chairs and tables tendered a comfortable position to breath in the vista of rolling hills, acres of pastures, a stilted farmhouse, woods, and the nodule of Lillian’s rock. The dark wooden door of no2 opened off the corridor to reveal a French feel with quaint furniture, chic paintings, vanity mirrors, a private bathroom and enticing French doors leading out to the veranda.
We plunged ourselves onto the high, iron bed, among the half a dozen plumped up pillows and cushions, matching the big warm duvet, to complete the boudoir and stave off the cold of the night. Chuffed we eased into the place, listening to the echoey loud speaker in the background of the gaiety getting underway.
The main event of Mardi Grass protest parade wasn’t until the Sunday. In the meantime different sources were holding their own little something to correspond with events at the arena. For us Saturday was very much for relaxing in the boudoir, being uplifted with talk about our dreams over a few bevies and refraining from going overboard. We felt enriched by simple acceptance of the path we were leading and understood that hurdles were there for a reason.
The chilled ambience was much better as we enjoyed conversation with each other and, like good possums, were nicely tucked up in bed by 9! We drifted off to the sounds of the party goers on the street.
Lazing in the morn we strolled the 5 minutes into the centre of town to catch up with what was happening. Glorious sunshine breathed vitality upon the environs with people sauntering along the crowded street imbuing themselves in the bright hues that rayed through the happy air of the festival.
A jaunt down Rainbow Lane brought us to a grassy area at the rear of the Hemp museum. Little green fairy Miko, impishly smiling in her spotty dress, and green grass Knox found our own wee patch in the sun. Around them life mingled as mellow reggae wafted from the PA system. This was much freer than a crowded bar as dreadlocked Rastas, hippie adventurers, Byron bay gawkers, and happy campers blended in to make a vividly rich cocktail of sun drenched swayers. Long, thick spliffs were toked as ‘Pass the Dutchie’ gave a head bobbing beat. It was a case of lounging where you could, on the rocks, the grass, the benches, or across logs, as folks kicked back and stretched their limbs.
The allotted time approached so we floated back towards the street in preparation to catch the parade. There were no barriers as the onlookers lined the road side. We got a good position, sheltered from the melting sun, on the ramped walkway to the village’s quaint doctor’s surgery that raised us above the footpath and enabled a view over others heads.
Beating steel drums and jangling tambourines introduced that the carnival march was in full rhythm as it danced towards its array. The famed green ganja fairies were embellished in eye catching costumes of weed like puff shirts, angel wings, fluffy bra’s or tops, and carrying hash printed umbrella’s to shield them from the sun. Banners, placards and flags, with slogans such as, ‘Legalize hash’, ‘Peace for pot’, ‘I am not a criminal, the law is’, ‘Freedom of choice’, and ‘It’s legal in California ’, bore the issue of the day. Green was predominant as leaves were flourished in the air but the full spectrum of colours smiled proudly through the good humoured protesters. Jugglers added to the festival atmosphere as did a brightly rigged-out, stilt walking fairy, who danced gracefully with large green wings fluttering in the gentle breeze. While, a walking croc, a legion of imps, witchy earth lovers with pointed emerald hats, leotard jump suitors, and knights in armour jigged, sang, and chanted below her on the way down the road.
Children walked with mothers and fathers, fingers high demonstrating the peace sign, along the curb side. The rally of course was backed up by the ‘four horse men of the cops that followed a demonstrator’s car with the simple slogan, ‘QLD PEASANT vs. QLD LAW’. The peaceful tone was adhered too as organizers had requested for respect to be shown and not to be puffing in the faces of the police. We captured the show for the cheering carnival, as well as sweltering in the intense temperature. We both loved the whole lot.
The sky looked as if it was on fire as we dandered back to grey Gum lodge after checking out a mediocre band over a couple of jars in Nimbin hotel. Watching the ‘alternative tours’ rush back for ‘in your face’ Byron bay, the pair settled to the going down of the sun creating a lovely orange aura over the picturesque countryside. With the open French doors Miko flopped on the bed and soaked up the dramatic scene while Knox spliffed the weekend to a close. The memory was awesome. What we collected from this vivid spot, so unlike the regular Australia, gripped us like a home from home. As Sachmo juddered uS out the next morning we waved goodbye to this sweet bewitcher with a tinge of sadness stalking us as we cornered the winding roads.
The Monday brought uS within an hour and half of Brisbane to the seaside town of Kingscliff. We took another cabin in the caravan park, one that looked over the quiet beach, and gathered ourselves together. This would be our prestigious send off from OZ’s east coast.
On the Wednesday we would be leaving Sachmo back to his base, and we were not particularly sad to see him go.
We hadn’t enjoyed Sachmo as much as Julie Andrews and, by the time his problems had been sorted out, our taste for Wicked Campers had been soured. The situation hadn’t been resolved because of the complete lack of response to emails we had sent, which gave the impression that they didn’t really give a dam about the situation and that Wicked’s motto was grab the money first then shut up shop.
Finally after several phone calls and lots of vagueness surrounding Sachmo’s predicament, Knox got speaking to the sales manager who apologized, explaining he would be in the office the next day and would listen to our story. The whole dragging matter had become a needle sticking into us and we simply wanted favourable closure.
The sun rose beautifully over the white sands and the blue pacific. Miko stepped through the shutter and onto the sun washed veranda were Knox sat admiring the panorama and contemplating our journey over the vast ocean. With warmth she wrapped her arms around him and gave him a loving good morning hug. A bright smile stretched across her lips as her dreamy eyes sparkled in the radiance of the early morn and they looked at each other with knowing smiles, of open hearts, breathing in the freedom of spirits.
Our OZ adventure was near at an end and it had been a tremendous experience that opened up new ideas and possibilities. For now we would pack, clean, stroll the strand and put our feet up with a bottle of bubbly in organization for the next steps we were to take, a tale of two cities.
11th May 2006 should be called the complaining day! Making it up in good time to Brisbane with Sachmo spick and span we first called into Wicked’s garage to see if we could retrieve the guidebook, the one Wicked staff were so keen in blaming their customers of taking. It was no surprise to find the real culprit, a van cleaner, had vamoosed on her own Australia tour and of course the book was nowhere to be seen.
With a detour to the Best Western Astor Metropole Hotel to unload our bags in the lobby because check in wasn’t for another couple of hours, we made our way round to Wicked’s prefab office and small parking lot. The sales manager, Adrian, met us there, coming over in what appeared to be a genuine manner. He acted shocked when we yet again told the gruelling story of Sachmo, the Gullahs of Love Auto Repair, the missing guidebook, the poor compensation offer, the ignored e-mails and being shoved from pillar to post.
He stated how his job was made more difficult by the sloppy actions of Wicked’s so called “Customer Care’ department as he jotted down the long list of feedback. He put it bluntly that the company had grown to the point where one department didn’t know what the other departments were doing but that he was heading into a board meeting and he would highlight the problems described. Adrian assured us that he would personally request for the company to refund another day.
We did find it strange when he was told that the original offer had already been refunded since there had been no communication of this from the ‘care’ department. We appreciated what he had said but explained that although an improved refund would be acceptable it would not bring back the lost days so we wished the company would take strides to improve their services for fellow travellers who would follow the Wicked path.
“When do you leave Australia?” Adrian asked as he left us to the door. Our answer was that we would be leaving in a couple of days and Adrian’s limp handshake made Miko’s instincts not buy into his salesman patter, leaving her feeling that we’d never here from him again.
The return to the 3 star hotel proved a very poor choice indeed and if the other hotels in the locality hadn’t been booked solid we would have not stayed at Astor Metropole. The scour around did give us a few laughs as we completely lost track of the day of the week while investigating the Novotel Hotel.
“Why’s it so busy, I suppose it has something to do with the weekend?” asked Miko
“I’m not sure” replied Michel the concierge without a flicker, “I think we have a few conventions in town he continued.
“I guess the weekends are busier anyway” Knox put in before we thanked the man’s efforts of contacting a few other hotels and left to go back on the hunt.
It wasn’t until the evening when we were resting up in bed journaling when it clicked with Knox.
“Miko, do you remember in Novotel when we were asking for room availability and we put part of the reason for the full house down to the fact that it was the weekend?” he spelled out his enquiry.
“Yeah” replied a still unsuspecting Miko.
“Well do you know it is actually Wednesday” he gave the answer for the light to beam brightly. Miko burst into uncontrollable laughter at their faux pas.
“I can’t believe we said that” she giggled hysterically, folding in two and having great fun at her own expense.
This was the silver lining to the dire accommodation we found ourselves in that made us wonder who was responsible for the star* labelling. Where-ever in the world, we preferred to check out the room before signing in. Our eyes didn’t need to be beady to catch this sight.
The whole room had a very worn look about it that was evident from the second they entered as rickety cupboards, a mankey fridge, a threadbare settee and a heavily stained carpet that appeared to have not been cleaned after a gory murder, struck their vision. This theme just continued the further we explored the ‘chamber’ as we went on to discover ripped pillow cases, marked duvet, hairs under the covers, scuffed peeling paint work, flaky ceiling, unfinished plaster work and holes in the bathroom floor tiles that would be a nasty trap for heeled shoes.
“What do you expect for $89?” was the crass response of the desk clerk with no name tag as he lifted his head to meet our dis-satisfaction.
We were fuming at this comment as we both didn’t expect 5* but did know that 3* does not mean a lack of cleanliness or extremely poor up-keep.
“You’ll be lucky to find another hotel, shall I hold the room for you?” the clerk asked sardonically.
We were prudent enough to take his offer and get him to hold it. The package was made even worse when room problems were compounded by road works that started at 20.30hrs and went on to mid-night.
An attempt to contact the manager face-to-face was fobbed off and an e-mail sent was ignored, unlike when we had requested a booking but we decided to calm down and let it be for now.
Our worries about the Best Western booked for Auckland were appeased by an understanding e-mail from that particular hotel and we decided to stick with it. It was time to hang in the city. The impression of Brisbane as we strolled around was that it looked pretty ordinary and even the shops, bars and restaurants in Belfast beat what was on offer here, and that was saying something! It did give Miko the time to get some therapy on her hair though, while Knox supped on a pint in the bar. A refreshed Miko met him for lunch in Mick O’Malley’s that had lots of nooks and crannies and even a coffin for a table with a stuffed character inside who obviously wasn’t ready to leave his wake yet.
Our OZ rollercoaster came to an end leaving an interesting mix of flavours lingering on the pallet. The weather had been decent in the main and the extra month had been appreciated even though not everything went to plan.
Cest la vie! Auckland now beckoned briefly along with the real deal for this journey, the South Pacific. The earthquake in Tonga hadn’t changed plans as we asked ourselves what were our troubles really when one considers the difficulties of the world and the extreme boredom we had felt in the UK?
Excitement reigned and out path continued to open up before us.