Down Under Down Under

Our guts celebrated their return to Australia with a final, furious salvo of the Delhi Belly that had been plaguing us since, well, Delhi. Call it a kneeling ovation for the India trip.

Luckily, we had Dad’s spacious place to recover in, and after almost turning ourselves nocturnal with some poor responses to jetlag, we packed up Steve and headed south once more. At the last minute we decided the Hume Highway, the main motorway between Sydney and Melbourne, was too empty, too brown and too generally depressing and steered Steve towards the optimistically-named Princes Highway instead.

It was indeed a princely road. The countryside rolled and swelled under a green carpet of bush and pasture, all of it thickened by the kind of rainclouds that send you under a blanket, by a window, with a good book. On most days our sitting room is Steve’s little cab and although he doesn’t leave much room for snuggling or blankets, the rain does patter upon his windscreen in the loveliest way, and the view is ever-changing.

The towns – pretty places with names like Bega, Eden and Ulladulla – disappear completely once you cross into Victoria, which we did after a night camped up a forestry track. The road meanders through tall bushland, steep on the feet of hills that will eventually become the Australian alps. The occasional dirt road enticed us toward the coast, but we had people to see in Melbourne and not much time to see them in. We hit civilization again at Lakes Entrance – Bill Bryson loved it, we thought it was a bit lame – and the towns became meaner as we barrelled down the Latrobe Valley towards the city.

Melbourne

We’ve already spent plenty of time in Australia’s second city, and we’ll be there again so I won’t waste much time describing it here. In a handful of days we managed to catch up with Karl (being mothered by his lovely housemates, yet plotting his escape), Rachel (practically a local around St. Kilda by now), Isabelle (caterer to the stars!), Henry (a schnauzer, which counts as a person in my family) and Ryan, Anne-Laure and little Louise just before they jetted off to Europe to see Oma and Opa.

Also, Hailee visited a hairdresser who specialises in curly hair and got it all chopped off! It was like walking the stickered streets with a whole new woman – albeit one who loves beer, chocolate and people watching just as much as the old Hailee.

All the visiting was grand, but we were really in Melbourne to, at long last, kick off our Australian adventures. Until now we had been on an extended Visiting Tour that took in most of the east coast between Brisbane and Melbourne (and we still didn’t see everybody), a few side trips here and there, a spell of working at a tomato farm in Guyra, and a trip to India that probably still counts as part of the Visiting Tour, seeing as we mainly went to see Hailee’s family.

But now all that was behind us, and no longer would we beat a path back to Mum’s place in Armidale. Now we were Travelling, and having left New South Wales from the south we planned to return from the north, having completed (hopefully) a loop of the continent.

First item on the Australian Adventure Agenda was:

Tasmania!

We probably shouldn’t have been surprised that the Spirit of Tasmania was so comfortable, considering how much we paid to get on it. The thing was huge – “like you’re standing on a piece of land” as Donald Trump recently said about another big boat – and it had everything: bars, restaurants, poker machines, tourist information, viewing platforms, a wide variety of lounge chairs, a playground and no less than five Xboxes. After this heaven, most of the children aboard didn’t want to get off when we steamed into sleepy Devonport nine hours later.

With an industrious-sounding name like Devonport, you’d expect the port town to be busy, or bustling, or at least have a few people prowling the streets of a Saturday evening. But it was none of these, despite being the main lifeline between the Apple Isle and the mainland. My only explanation to Hailee was a typical “mainlander’s” attitude: “This is Tasmania. Shit doesn’t really happen here.”

This, of course, is all part of the charm of the place! The cars are more beat up in Tasmania, the teenagers are more scowly and it’s a darn sight colder than anywhere on the mainland. But I’ll take it in exchange for the complete absence of the mainland’s bros and their identikit girlfriends, or the general absence of people, really.

Yet another of Tassie’s charms is the abundance of free campgrounds. We found one of them at a football field in the sleepy one-shop town of Forth, just a few minutes outside Devonport. If time went slowly in Devonport, it was positively going backwards in Forth, and our day and two idle nights there rejuvenated us as if we’d been resting a week. It was time to find a beach to camp on.

This was surprisingly easy as we followed the coast west. There is little swell on this northern coast facing the mainland, so the road often sits right behind the dunes. After stopping by the town of Penguin (as adorable as the name might suggest), we found a beach and its adjacent campground, and nestled Steven in among the grey nomad motorhomes and, as we discovered that night, a squawking warren of penguin homes.

A view of the Bay of Fires, with some local wildlife (greyus nomadicus) foraging in the foreground.

There are Baby Boomers in motorhomes all over Australia, but they seem to concentrate in particularly intense numbers in Tasmania. They poke along in old buses-turned RV’s, or shiny camper trailers that have been personalised with names and mottos. A selection of the ones we’ve come across:

  • Val and Dave – “Never lost, always an adventure”
  • “Gottaway”
  • Our Cosy Coaster
  • Wanderlyn (The turtleneck-wearing driver was almost certainly a Lyn)
  • Gen Y Nomads – “We are inspired before retired” (obviously not Boomers, but they’re sure acting like it)
  • Look’in back (on rear) and Look’in Forward (above the windscreen)

This last example belonged to a bloke named Barry Richardson, and was named so in tribute to the Slim Dusty Album of the same name – although the punctuation was Barry’s. For non-Australian readers, Slim was one of Australia’s finest country music talents, who sang classics like “Duncan” (“I love to have a beer with Duncan, I love to have a beer with Dunc” etc.). He was born on June 13, 1927 and died on September 19, 2003 and I only know these dates because Barry rattled them off like they were tattooed on him somewhere. Come to think of it, they probably were.

“Only a little older than me, he was,” Barry said, staring wistfully across the water. I made a mental note to listen to more Slim. I was to regret it later on.

Although they came from Mole Creek (two hours’ drive away) and not the mainland, Barry and his wife Joy were typical nomads. Joy would sit inside, or poke about on the beach looking for sea glass and shells.

For his part, Barry would do what all Australian men do with their campers: crack a beer and walk around it. Occasionally he would inspect something close up, then he would step back and inspect it from afar. At one point he wound out the awning that shades one side of the camper. He then spent an hour looking at it; from a distance, from very close by and from somewhere in between.

Watching Australian men with their campers has quickly become one of Hailee’s favourite pastimes. She reckons it ought to be a spectator sport.

Troubles with Steve

It was under Barry’s directions (go towards Mole Creek from Deloraine, turn left at the big milk jug) that we found a mechanic who helped Steve through his latest tribulation.

Steve had sat mostly idle for almost two months before we returned from India, which meant his second battery hadn’t had a chance to charge in that time. What’s more, it turned out this battery was a starter battery and not the deep cycle variety that is usually used for powering fridges and lights, charging devices and all the others uses we were putting it to. The result was that since Sydney we had been without a fridge (how quickly you get used to such luxuries!) and had been driving around hoping that eventually the battery would charge again.

The milk jug mechanics ran some tests and confirmed our fears: the weeks of idleness had damaged the battery beyond repair, and it would no longer hold charge. The only option was to replace it.

Now, this sort of thing used to happen from time to time when I was cycling through North and Central America. I would notice something wrong with my bike, Baxter, and my failure to fix him would demonstrate my ignorance of some new, previously unknown terrain of bicycle function or maintenance. I would go to a shop to buy a part, or a tool, or even to have a professional patch him up for me, and in the process most of those clouds of ignorance would clear. Now I was equipped, more or less, to fix the problem myself if it arose again, and the whole experience had cost no more than $50.

Automobiles, however, are vastly more complicated than bicycles. For example: I understand the basic theory behind, say, acceleration. But just how Steve actually speeds up when I push that pedal is still basically magic to me. We’ve had mechanics fix a few different things on him – a cracked exhaust manifold, an old fan belt and now this battery – and my understanding of those concepts has deepened considerably in the process. But certainly not to the point of actually understanding them or, heaven forbid, having to fix them myself.

What’s more, each of these enlightening experiences comes with a horrendously unforgiving price tag. We love him dearly, but we’ve also sunk most of our savings into Steve-related costs by now (Australia’s astronomical cost of living doesn’t help) and they will be pretty much gone by the time this trip is up. In a moment of despair, as we waited to hear the word on the second battery, I asked Hailee: “Is it worth it? Are we having enough fun to make all this worth it?”

But then he had a new battery, we had a fridge again and we knew how to avoid that problem in future. We celebrated by driving across the island, in a roundabout sort of way, to the evocatively-named…

Bay of Fires

Imagine a tropical paradise: deserted white sand beaches, lush vegetation, dazzling clear water, abundant marine life. Now take away all the biting insects, the humidity, the unbearable heat and any of the other unpleasant aspects of tropical paradises.

Got that? Okay, now make the water bitingly cold and fill the rocky outcrops with kelp. That is the Bay of Fires. We didn’t do anything particularly interesting during our three or four days there, but that’s sort of the point, I suppose.

Hobart

We had an appointment to keep with Karl down in Tasmania’s capital that weekend, and so down we went, leaving the famous Freycinet National Park for another time.

We found a free campground at a jingoistic RSL (Returned Serviceman’s Leagues) Club, then explored the South Arm peninsula that heads off the River Derwent across the water from Hobart. From the tip of the peninsula we could see mighty Kunyani (also known as Mount Wellington, but “Kunyani” sounds cooler) towering over town, but we couldn’t see the city itself. We spent a short afternoon with Karl at Clifton Beach in splendid weather, and it seemed half of Hobart’s pale-skinned citizenry was there, furiously trying to burn themselves brown ahead of the coming winter. The next day we ventured in to see Tasmania’s capital city.

Hobart has a stately, maritime feel and bustles like you’d expect any city would. Any other capital in Australia would feel squished into the narrow bit of inhabitable land between the River Derwent and steep Mount Wellington, but Hobart suffers no such pains. Drive twenty minutes in any direction and you’ll likely find yourself in pristine bushland. What’s more, there are stunning views from almost any street – of the water or the mountains, or both. On a sunny morning it feels like the most beautiful, most livable city in the world.

Karl had turned us on to the existence of a certain hut on Mount Wellington. I won’t tell you the name or the whereabouts because apparently you’re only supposed to confide its location to two new people per year, and I know for a fact that three people do read this blog. Besides, it’s much more fun to find it yourself, or with the help of a friend.

Anyway, the hut is tucked away in a not-so-remote patch of bushland, a little A-frame of eucalypt boughs and corrugated iron. The logbook stretches all the way back to the late 1990’s, and is full of serendipitous arrivals, kids’ birthdays, freshly released ex-prisoners, people dashing out the door for work in the morning and others on some sort of Journey. Ours was a cold, misty night and we lit the place with candles, listening to the wind sprinkling dew from the trees onto the roof.

The world is full of little treasures like these – Golden Gate Park’s Faery Door and the tree houses in the hills above Berkeley are two Bay Area examples. Sometimes – when Steve is being cranky, or Banjo’s (Tasmania’s Starbucks, and without doubt the Worst Coffee Chain in the World) burns my coffee for the third time running, all I have to do is think about those places, and the benevolent souls who put them there, and everything seems right with the world again.

One thought on “Down Under Down Under

  1. I enjoyed hearing about the foibles of the greyus nomadicus, particularly the description of their favoured pastime…. checking the rig!

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