“WELL, IF YOU’D have kept up with your blog, then you’d be able to remember all these things, David.” So said my mother as she sat opposite me in our cabin in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territories, Australia, and quizzed me about our year of travelling. “Your fans are waiting.”
Yes, well. Thank you mum. Sorry all for the interruption. Been busy travelling and seeing things and that, which I appreciate is a departure from my 2014 normal of just sitting and reading in different places. Hope that you’ve got along just fine without me.
I CANNOT TELL you how strange it is to arrive in Australia after eight months in Asia, eight months of being different. You’ve journeyed from London to the other side of the world; you’ve seen sights, eaten foods, learnt strange new things; and then you arrive in Melbourne to find Woolworths and pie shops, fish and chips and hipsters. And everybody kinda looks like you.
It’s a wonderful, awful, comforting, uncanny thing and we were so happy to be here. After nearly six weeks in Bali, drinking water from the tap and having a refuse disposal system that didn’t involve burning plastic on every street corner was a joy.
When we first booked our flights for this year, I said to our guy at Travel Nation (who worked their airline ticket magickery and got us an excellent deal) “but what are we going to do in Australia for two months? Do you think we’ll be bored?” I imagined Australia as being a few big, western cities, a lot of beaches and lots of red scrubland.
Sorry Australia, I had you all wrong.
And I guess that I was wrong about what we’d want at this stage of the trip. I’d imagined leaving Indonesia as the end of the “proper” travelling. It’d all be easy from now on and we’d have a gut wrenching nostalgia for eating dirt cheap street food on tropical beaches, floating from place to place on a cushion of camaraderie and travelling awesomeness. Well, it wasn’t quite like that. It was amazing, obviously. But when everything is amazing all of the time, things stop being, well, amazing. After a while you become a bit jaded and find it hard to get excited about things. It’s a sort of travelling impotence – you just can’t get it up for anything anymore.
So we spent five weeks in a bungalow on a family compound in Bali, our days filled with hammock swinging and reading, cake eating and writing. I probably won’t have so much free time all at once for decades, possibly ever. If anyone reading this is considering going travelling long term, I urge you to build in time to rest and do the things you want to do without worrying about going to visit that temple or those rice terraces. You won’t have the chance to do it again for a long time and you probably saw a better temple in Burma anyway. And when you start thinking thoughts like that it’s time for a holiday from the tourist duties.
So when we finally did arrive in Australia, not only was I well rested and a lot better read than before, I was also excited to see new things. And more than a little glad to be met at the airport by our Melbournite friend Catherine.
Later on that week we met up with my parents who’d flown out to see us and also, I should’ve known, as much bird life as possible given that they were accompanied by their reluctant, none-twitching son and daughter-in-law.
AFTER MELBOURNE, ROAD. But don’t be fooled – the Great Ocean Road, heading west from Melbourne, is about more than the coast. Or it should be anyway. Yes, there are amazing clifftop views.
But unless you fantasise about being in the landscapes from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, being seaside on a rainy day when everything is the colour of tumble dryer lint and the rain stings like a swarm of kamikaze bees is not that much fun. Instead, on one day, we followed a winding, decaying road into the Otways National Park, taking nearly an hour to travel 18km and wandering whether we’d just entered into a different kind of hell, the kind where a T-Rex might jump out and attack the car.
The Otways is a temperate rainforest that elected to skip the last 60 million years of evolution. Enormous ferns loom overhead, lorakeets squawk out of sight and Giant Myrtle Beech entice the unwary into their cavernous, hollow inners, offering far-too-convenient path-side person-sized crevices that surely bring only a spidery death (this is Australia, after all). When we were there the reluctant sun broke into a crusty light, falling between the leaves, fronds and twisted tree limbs, and we idled amongst the prehistoric fauna, feeling more than pleasant. This was my favourite part of the Great Ocean Road.
Venture further into the Otways and you will find a forest of Californian Redwoods, planted in 1939. They stretch up to the sky, eerily uniform in their giant, branchless reach upwards. There was no one there when we went, and we just stood amongst them, dwarfed, watching a tiny, Pink Robin proudly show off its fluffy fluorescent chest. It was still there when we left, alone amongst the redwoods.
IN TRUE ROAD trip fashion we didn’t book any accommodation for our time on the Great Ocean Road, and instead just rocked up at wherever took our fancy. We never had any trouble finding somewhere and were never disappointed with where we slept. One night, curled up in front of a log fire in the common room of our B&B in Port Fairy, we were roused from our reading and sipping of peppermint tea by a raucous party of seventy-somethings returning from a Tuesday night out. “Hello and who are you?” asked the man who had come to sit on the sofa, breathing alcohol over me in a friendly manner. “I’m 70,” he said, lowering his voice conspiratorially, “you wouldn’t guess would you?”
We sat with them and talked about “the old country,” as they called the UK, including its relative merits (“Europe on the doorstep”), its de-merits (“the rain, and the awful food, or it was when we were there in the 80s.”) and what we did there for employment (“and are you far enough along to have any influence?”). Britain persists in the mind of many Australians as a strange historical anchor that many think they know and perhaps did thirty or forty years ago; it’s glimpsed through the news and through the ex-pats that never quite made it home. I lost count of the amount of times that I had conversations with people about what the weather had been like in the UK this year and last – they knew more about it than me (“those floods were awful.”). And yet small town Australia can feel like the Britain of forty years ago, stuffy and unapologetically blue-collar, all shops closed on Sundays and a varied cuisine provided only by the changing of what the pastry walls of pies hold. People eat mysteriously early here, and it’s not uncommon for restaurants to close at 8.30pm. At one restaurant in Brisbane that we visited with friends on a Thursday night, we were the last people there at 9pm and shortly afterwards were asked to leave as they were locking up. All of these things feel like an echo of a Britain passed – the greatest irony is that “the old country” is now found only in Australia.
BUT THE TOP End is not like any part of Britain, now or then. After driving all the way to Adelaide we flew to Darwin, in the Northern Territories, 3,000 km north. Then we headed into the bush. Kakadu National Park is exactly as you imagine Australia to be – long, straight roads, red earth and man size termite mounds. Oh, and hundreds of crocodiles, just waiting to eat you.
But more about all that another time.
NEXT TIME: Crocodiles! Long Roads! More Birds Than You Can Shake A Stick At!
This post has been a long time in the writing, mainly because I’ve been so busy. It was started in Lismore, in the Gold Coast hinterland, NSW, Australia, and finally finished in Christchurch, New Zealand.