After becoming accustomed to driving for ten hours during a day and completing only a third of your journey we were mightily surprised when only a couple of hours after having left Sydney we arrived at our first destination along the East Coast. Port Stephens is a poky coastal headland formed around an inlet of water and formed by a cluster of small towns that are renowned for producing the best pies in the country – which in the Australian book constitutes being the best pies in the world. Having stopped for the obligatory sample we proceeded to Nelson’s Head, the most bustling of the conurbations, before tracing our steps to locate the beautiful and unspoiled beaches nestled way beyond view behind the ridges of the dunes. Eschewing the offer of camping in what seemed to be an eco-commune, despite the lure of its resident joey bouncing around the grounds, we decided we had seen all that Port Stephens had to offer and to take advantage of these shorter distances and continue up the coast. As a result our first night was spent in Taree which served only to dispel the illusion that strange caravan park residents are confined to the western states and prompted an unusual early morning start the following day.
Having had my notion of a sunshine laden Australian climate ruined by pouring rains, freezing temperatures and self-perpetuated storms the rumours of blue skies and blazing beaches promised by the eastern coasts offered a potential redemption for my tattered dreams. That day two of our travels were remarkable only because of the persistence of the rain and grey of the clouds hovering above us did little to undo this damage. The conditions were so bad that rounding a bend we had to stop to offer help to three Irishmen who had spun off the road and down the verge. One of the guys was trapped in the car while the other two had shakily called an ambulance and with nothing we could do we carried on breaking up our journey with stops at Coffs Harbour and a fantastic farm shop to stock up for the fortnight.
Eventually the rain cleared and we reached Byron Bay just as evening arrived and in true advent style there was no room at the inn for poor Stubby. We had been warned that we were travelling towards destinations favoured by schoolies (school leavers) for their month of decadence, self-indulgence and teen-angst shenanigans and true to the word every hostel and caravan park was packed with hordes of scantily clad youngsters abundant in alcohol, hormones and swagger that made me realise how long ago my own schoolies week to Faliraki was....After exhausting all central locations we found a field leased as an overspill for late arrivals and suffered the indignity of parking in a grassless plain of cow pats.
For the second morning in a row we were up early and sniffing around the town parks for the scent of departure and for our efforts nabbed ourselves a glorious spot in the First Sun Caravan Park right on Main Beach, the principal shore. Epitomising the anti-establishment attitude of the town (which in my mind deserves award for Town Of The World for its altruistic campaign by locals to prevent McDonalds building an outlet) we shunned the trimmed and tanned surf bodies packed together like battery hens and set off to the sleepier, more chilled Belongil Beach. Inhabiting a good half mile of golden sand and surftastic turquoise waves to ourselves we noticed a bevy of naked bathers playing around us and realised we had discovered the nudist beach. As they say “when in Rome...”
The evening was spent exploring the small hub of the town’s centre which in continuation of the anti-McDonalds stance is constituted of independently owned boutiques and quirky cafes with not a single chain (excepting a lonely Subway) in sight. The inhabitants wander around barefooted and it is a haven for hippies with impromptu jamming sessions forming around every street corner. This was just one of the many contradictions of the town which traditionally a base for non-conformists is now the major attraction for schoolies just as the residents despise tourists and do everything they can to resist them yet their whole economy is completely dependent upon the holiday income. Similarly our night began with cheap scooners in a backpackers’ favourite but ended with a picnic on the beach sat clustered on the sand with the wash of the lighthouse beam passing over us every few seconds.
Renowned for its surf the rest of our time in Byron Bay was spent brushing up on our board skills where you could hire a board for a twenty-four hour period that allowed us to surf all day and then get up early and catch the morning surf as well before we had to return it. This proved to be incredibly successful except for one small incident where I was so immersed in holding onto the wave I had caught that it wasn’t until I had ridden it all the way into the shore that I discovered that in the process my shorts had ended up around my ankles and the whole (packed) beach had been treated to a full frontal display....
We were reluctant to leave Byron Bay but wanted to explore further north as well and so set off for Surfers’ Paradise which only on arriving we discovered is to Ozzies what Magaluf is to Brits. It has a beautiful beach but this is framed by ugly sky-rise apartment blocks that stretch the length of the shore and destroy the natural attraction of the coastline. The centre itself is like any generic European 18-30s magnet with a plethora of tacky Irish bars, cheesy clubs and fast-food diners so we decided to camp outside of the city in a swanky caravan park on the northern beaches. The disappointment of having given up Byron Bay for this was represented in the sympathetic fallacy of the weather which turned from sunshine to pouring rain as soon as we stepped onto the beach and continued for the rest of the day forcing us to hole up in Stubby with our books and newly acquired Retirement Village card games.
The second day saw little improvement in the weather so we explored the city enjoying the wares of Chinatown and the hundreds of Gelatos before having to hide from the crazy man running amok in our amenities block. We took it as the final sign to move on and enjoyed our final morning on the beach where entertainment was provided in the homoerotic physical conditioning of the university rugby team and a highly competitive surf competition. We were all set to leave when Stubby decided not to start...once again our RAC cover proved its worth and we were visited by a true Kath-&-Kim ‘Sharon’ who turned up in her dungarees after having been water-skiing. We had in fact been flooding the engine when we started it and so she showed us how we had to start Stubby to prevent this and so a little red-faced we fled the campsite and headed to Brisbane.
Described as the most loveable city in Australia Brisbane is unique in that it is not set on the coast but inland on a water inlet. Characterised by the tropical climate of Queensland it is lush and green and we secured a cute little campsite on the fringes of the city and caught the bus into the centre. The main shopping arcades and markets were comparable to all the other Australian cities we had been to but the South Bank stood out as its most distinguishing feature. Walking over the bridge it felt like I was crossing tower bridge and entering London and this effect was compounded by the collection of galleries, libraries and museums clustered along its waterfront. We had a brilliant afternoon exploring the weekend market, sampling the frozen yoghurt from the New Zealand Natural shop that I had been longing for for months and taking pride in the inferior Eye they had erected over the river as we sunk a scooner in one of the many live music bars in the evening sun. The day was rounded off by stumbling upon the Queensland Police Carol Concert in the Suncorp Piazza which we duly queued to get in lured by the sound of brass, red felt hats and reindeer antlers! I had been searching for a good carol concert to attend as I felt I was missing out on the traditional Christmas build-up back home and it certainly didn’t disappoint! Primarily a family affair it drew together the collective talent of the state with a mixture of angelic voiced sopranos to local choirs and school groups all supported by the Youth Orchestra. By no means a polished affair I loved the amateur-dramatics nature of the concert with everyone chipping in to celebrate from staid police officers performing the YMCA to their re-written version of XMAS to the cheesy father and son compeer act. As it was a family show we were also treated to a small pantomime of adult-sized koala bears (called Klancy), emus, frogs and a beat-boxing kangaroo calling on the crowd to help them locate Santa who then distributed sweets amongst the crowds. The police chaplain delivered a brilliant story about the wombat who wanted to take part in the nativity but was continually ignored for each part he auditioned for because of a variety of reasons until he was cast as the sleeping babe and we were also introduced to the Ozzie versions of Jingle Bells and the Twelve Days of Christmas which involved a menagerie of dancing dingoes and leaping kangaroos which the poor signer nearly collapsed trying to keep up with the translation of for the deaf children in the audience. Even though we were all in shorts and still dripping with sweat as we chimed in for the first time I felt for the first time that I had entered into the Christmas spirit.
The following day I went to the local church where mass was celebrated by one of the most bizarre priests I had seen who looked like Jesus, acted like Johnny Depp and alternated from deeply religious silences and prayers to unabashed intellectual contempt for his parishioners in a manner that suggested he loathed having to be amongst such inferiors! We then headed straight back to the South Bank for a picnic lunch in the gardens and then hired roller blades and had the most hilarious afternoon exploring the city by in-line wheels. Unfortunately neither of us could really brake properly and there were many an occasion where caught by a slight incline we ended up hurtling into bushes and hedgerows to break our fall. The climax came when we tried to cross the beach. Drenched and exhausted blading up to the peak of the bridge the only way to negotiate the downhill half was to cling to the rail and haul lower ourselves down much to the laughter of everyone else crossing the bridge. We rewarded our weary muscles by taking a dip in the Street Beach, a brilliantly innovative man-made beach next to the river which is so shrouded in palm trees and comes complete with Surf Rescue and sunbathing spots that you forget you’re in the middle of a city so much so that I ended up taking the bus home in my sarong and wife-beater!
We left Brisbane the next day to enjoy our last couple of days of the trip back in Byron Bay where the prices had suddenly hiked up for the arrival of the Australian holidayers who traditionally leave for their vacation just before Christmas and only return home at the end of January. The First Sun Holiday Park was packed with the most elaborate vans and tents with families bringing along their whole fridge-freezer unit for the month. We spent most of our time back on Belongil Beach burning inappropriately and enjoying our new cocktail of whisky and pineapple and mango crush.
We arrived back in time to wave Paul and Sindy off and found ourselves in charge of a multi-million pad with swimming pool, spa, home gym, theatre room and bar which proved most distracting when we should have been spending our time hunting for jobs and a place of our own. In return we had to feed the cat, Tashie, a half-Begal male, and Bubby, a cross between a red setter and a spaniel female who was a rescue dog. Having grown up together they play-fought like cat and dog with Bubby taking Tashie’s head in her mouth and dragging her all round the house until Tashie escaped and climbed onto a sofa or table to pounce, claws out, on Bubby. When I wasn’t picking up broken ornaments from their fights I managed to get another interview for an independent production company making a Rescue show for Channel 9 which went as well as it could have with the Executive Producer telling me that she would love to hire me but was concerned about my lack of local knowledge and so would think about it over the holiday period and let me know. The rest of our time was spent by the pool or taking advantage of the luxury of having an oven!!! Continuing the pursuit of the festive spirit we had one night with the Carols from The Domain playing on the television while we baked two Christmas puddings (from Granji’s restaurant), thirty mince pies, a platter of Florentines, a vat of mulled wine and personalised gingerbread men as Christmas presents!
For Christmas we ended up driving to Melbourne, which at a mere 850km each way seemed like a doddle, and spent it with Rich’s family. They closed their restaurant on Christmas Eve for three weeks and brought home literally mountains of leftover food that they share amongst their family and friends in a big Christmas Day extravaganza. Trying to maintain as much of the English tradition as possible we opened stockings in the morning and then went to church only to discover the church I had found had been burnt down and the replacement service was on the other side of the town which b we opened stockings in the morning and then went to church only to discover the church I had found had been burnt down and the replacement service was on the other side of the town which when we finally got there entered just in time to hear the closing blessing...Undeterred we ended up driving into central Melbourne and catching a 4pm service at St Francis’ church which was beautiful. This had no impact on the family celebrations which owing to the daughter having to work at the Customs Dog Centre all day had been strictly postponed until 6pm which meant we all arrived back at the same time. Dinner was had outside and began with traditional sea-food platter which was followed by a bizarre concoction of deep-fried left-overs before finishing with trifles, pavlovas and our Christmas puds! Boxing Day, far from running around in the mud and cool, was spent chillaxing in the spa before we headed back to Sydney the following day.
Arriving back to Paul and Sindy’s the first thing we saw was a pea-green pool...the second thing we saw was two bedrooms full of dog pooh! Flooding the pool with a gallon of chlorine and shovelling away the dog pooh we realised that our invitation to stay might not be extended when they returned and so began our own house search. Unfortunately this was just a dire sequence of apartments ranging from hosting screaming matches between a Chinese husband and wife couple while their newly arrived parents sat politely on the sofa to grunge pits where mattresses on the lounge floor served as bedrooms. Suffice to say we were pretty disgruntled and spent all our time flitting between viewing houses and meeting potential buyers for Stubby who we had with much reluctance put up for sale as soon as we arrived.
Fortunately we had the distraction of being taken up to Palm Beach and dining in the Burger Shack by family friends of Rich’s first and then New Year to provide some respite and with Rich’s friend, Isobel, visiting from Melbourne, and my old primary school friend Felicity started the day off in style in the spa before progressing to the slide on a variety of inflatables and enjoying a BBQ in the sunshine. We then headed into town where we had been invited to champagne drinks at a friend’s apartment before heading onto a fancy dress wig and sunglasses party at another apartment overlooking the harbour bridge where we stayed for the 9pm fireworks display before moving once again to an even better location on the north side of the city in a flat virtually sitting on the bridge where we crowded onto the balcony at midnight for an unrivalled view of the breathtaking fireworks. Getting home was slightly more traumatic as we caught a train to Chatswood and then spent half an hour fighting for prime taxi-hailing spots before eventually persuading a lovely Chinese dude to take us back to Forestville!