Saturday, 30 June 2012

We had our first swim today. Pretty momentous I thought, given it’s mid-winter here in Australia. We just crossed the 31st parallel, so officially we’re in the sub-tropics now.

Not that you’d know judging by the weather these past few days. Since we left Port Stephens on Thursday it’s absolutely bucketed down.

So much so that after just three nights under canvas (well, rip-stop nylon actually but canvas just has a jauntier ring about it don’t you think?) we  cashed in our one-night-a-week-in-a-bed chip early and headed for a roof, any roof, just somewhere to get out of the godawful rain.

Hat Head is where we ended up. Hat Head is a tiny settlement on the NSW mid-coast, about 400km or so north of Sydney. It’s not famous for much, apart from having a head that looks, well, a little like a hat I suppose.

So we pull in at the Hat Head Holiday Park (Fun in the Sun Since 1983) after dark. It’s wet, it’s cold, and there’s absolutely no-one around. The office is locked, but there’s a number on the door for after-hours arrivals. I ring it. No-one answers.

After about ten minutes of standing around looking woebegone, an enormous man in a polar fleece jacket appears, seemingly out of nowhere.

“Are youse looking for accommodation?’’ he wheezes.

No, we’re admiring the view.

Of course we’re looking for accommodation.

“Hmmm,’’ he muses, sucking his teeth. “A cabin? Dunno. Not sure if we have any. We might be full.”

Minnie Water Beach

I look around the deserted Holiday Park. Shutters are up, there’s hardly a light to be seen. Could he please check?

The man disappears, locking the door behind him. Another ten minutes pass. Finally he re-emerges. Turns out there is a cabin spare, and we can have it for the immodest sum of $83.

Any port in a storm.

The following morning the sun’s out, sort of, so we punish ourselves with an invigorating hour-long hike around a nearby headland, which rewards with stunning views of an angry Pacific Ocean and vistas to the north and south. It’s very boggy though, after days of rain, and in places the track falls away to sheer rocks and the sea below. We tread carefully.

Before leaving we check out the nearby settlement of South West Rocks, which in times gone by was mostly famous for its jail, Trial Bay Gaol. It’s called that because in convict times a bunch of prisoners tried to escape on a ship called the Trial Bay.

It sank.

So did another 27 other ships who founded on a nearby reef, before someone finally decided it might be a good idea to put a lighthouse there.

Australians. It can take them a while to work things out, sometimes.

Our campsite at Minnie Water 

We head north, passing more convict towns (who knew that Port Macquarie was once a penal institution for the people who were so bad they couldn’t be housed in Sydney?) and the infamous Big Banana.

Like small Kiwi towns, Aussie settlements share a predilection for large fruit and vegetables. Oakune has its giant carrot; Coff’s Harbour has its giant banana.

It’s a theme park, apparently, including a skating rink and various banana memorabilia. Bananas are big around here – they were the staple of the local economy until tourism kicked in during the 1980s. We pass by.

A couple more hours’ driving on the Pacific Highway takes us to Minnie Water, which is indeed mini. It’s a one-shop settlement right on the beach in the Yuragini National Park. No power, no houses, no cellphone reception. Perfect.

For the past couple of nights we’ve been camped alongside a few other wanderers whose impressive rigs quite frankly make us feel inadequate.

Solar panels, electric showers, gas fridges, and all manner of machinery and genius designed to take the actual experience of camping out of camping pour out of giant 4WDs. I’m dead jealous. 

And I thought we had a lot of gear.

But back to that swim. It’s freezing and dark as I write this, perched on a park table under a gaslight, and it’s 
only 5.30pm. But today was glorious, the sun shining from a clear blue sky and the mercury topping 21 degrees.

And that just a week past the shortest day of the year.

The water is bracing but actually no colder than Sumner Beach on an average summer’s day. We’re Kiwis. This is positively tropical.

Tomorrow we’re heading to Byron Bay, an easy couple of hours drive from here.

It’s hippy central, a blessed-out beach town where your lattes are made with organic soy milk and the mung beans come freshly squeezed.

Nearby is pot-smokers heaven – Nimbin, a weed town where most of the locals are, I’m told, permanently stoned.

I’ll let you know how we get on.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

And so it began. The Great Australian Roadie, the 12,000 oddessy across this great southern land, a once-in-a-lifetime overland journey of epic proportions from sea to shining sea ….

It was a shame, therefore, although strangely appropriate, that we got lost leaving Sydney.

I blamed my Chief (well, only) Wingwoman for not paying attention at the critical motorway juncture,
although in truth it could have also been because I was busy whooping and hollering and giving victory salutes having just discovered that the cruise control I’d spent the past two days installing actually worked.
I was also put out, truth be told, at the lack of any sort of official send-off to herald our departure. A minor civil delegation of some sort would have sufficed. The local mayor, or even a councilor.

But no. We packed everything we owned into the back of Chuck the Truck (putting everything that wouldn’t fit onto the roof), said goodbye to the safe warm haven of our apartment and eased our over-laden Nissan Pathfinder gently out and into the traffic on a wet and grey Sydney day.

Oh well, the longest journeys start with the smallest step, right?

After our unscheduled diversion through Western Sydney we pointed Chuckie north and hit the freeway. Astoundingly nothing fell off the roof and we didn’t have any accidents leaving the city this time (another story).

We did, however, manage to misjudge the amount of time it would take to get to our first overnight stop, the beautiful hamlet of Port Stephens, around three hours north of Sydney as it turns out. Consequently we got to experience putting up our brand-new tent in the dark.

The girl assured me she’d owned a tent of this type before, and to leave the whole thing to her, so I went off to unpack the car. Upon returning, she was still frowning over the various sets of poles that came in an assortment of lengths and colours.

After an unsuccessful attempt at claiming the set of yellow poles were “spares’’ the girl rallied and with the aid of a set of instructions which I dug out of the tent bag we got the thing up without getting too wet.  Oh did I mention it was raining?

That was enough drama for one day so we spent today exploring Port Stephens. The area is famous for its shipwrecks, sharks and sand dunes but unfortunately all three were nowhere to be seen in the rain. Stockton Beach has some of the best beach 4WDing in NSW but to my disappointment it was closed due to massive storms that have made the beach unsafe for driving.

You can also go whale-watching in Port Stephens but to be honest, if you’re Mainlanders like we are, you can’t go past Kaikoura. Plus, we both have itchy feet. We want to head north, out of NSW, out of the rain and cold, out of winter.

The plan is to get as far north as Woli on the northern NSW coast tomorrow before hitting Byron Bay for a spot of surfing and hopefully some sunshine in the hippie capital of Australia.

I’ll keep you posted.

One Mile Beach, Port Stephens

Josie the Joey outside our tent

Monday, 18 June 2012

So D-Day is almost upon us - or R Day, roadie day, the beginning of the grandiosely titled Great Australian Roadie. The girl and I will take to the Australian highway armed with nothing more than 4WD packed with the kitchen sink, cupboard and sideboard and every possible 4WD product available at SuperCheap Auto, from a folding shovel to a crocodile alarm.

It all seemed like such a long time in the future when we first hit on the idea of driving from Sydney to Perth the long way (ie via Cape York, and Darwin rather than straight across the Nullabor) but I must say it's come up rather fast. One minute you're pootling around Sydney in a modest hatchback wearing a suit and tie and the next you're clanking about in a smoky Nissan Pathfinder with wheels as big as small children and a blind spot the size of a small car (sorry about that dent). Dressed in Kathmandu's entire winter sales clearance.

In a nutshell, the plan was to chuck in our jobs (check), swap the hatchback for something a little bigger (check), and point it north out of Sydney's winter gloom for the sunny skies of Queensland and beyond (we'll come to that later).

Resigning on the day Fairfax announced 1900 job cuts and while News Ltd is embarking on similar retrenchment was a nice irony, I thought. Let's laugh in the face of the GFC (Australia's having its crisis a couple of years after everyone else) and quit before they can sack us. At least that way we keep our pride ... although the redundancy money would have been nice .... oh well.

So far all's going according to plan. News Ltd accepted my resignation with regret delight (thank you Colin! One less salary to pay! Oh and thanks for your work). The landlord grudgingly accepted the termination of our lease. And it's true - you really can't get enough of SuperCheap Auto.

After discovering there was simply no way of fitting everything we'd bought into the back of even a large 4WD, I've fitted roof bars and a basket to the top of the Nissan (called Chuck, partly because it rhymes with truck but mostly because the girl gets carsick) so now we look like a giant white shopping trolley. Not sure how it's going to handle the corrugated roads of the Outback, but we'll soon find out.

The first stage of the G.A.R is an easy drive up to Port Stephens, an idyllic hamlet around two hours' north of Sydney. At least, it was idyllic last time we were there. Mind you, that was summer. And it's now cold and raining. And we've only got a tent. But it's bound to get warmer as we head north, right?

Then it's Brisbane via Byron Bay, where a bloke called Jasper is waiting to fit a bull bar for us. I have no idea why we need a bull bar. I'm not planning on encountering any bulls. Or shoving anything. But several Australians have looked at our vehicle and mused, 'strewth mate, ya gonna need a roo bar on that where you're going'. So given such sage advice, who were we to argue?

After that it's Fraser Island, the Whitsundays, Cairns, Cooktown, and on up to the tip of Australia - Cape York - which from what we've been told is pretty much crocodile-infested swamp, bush, raging rivers that we're expected to drive across, mud, and at the tip, a corrugated iron shed with a sign on it congratulating you on reaching the northernmost point of the Australian continent.

If we survive that, we'll point Chuck west and head across the Savannah Way to the Northern Territory and the delights of Uluru, Kakadu, and Tenant Creek. Oh and Darwin. Then it's through the Tanimi Desert and up to Broome via the infamous Gibb River Road, which should shake loose what we haven't already lost off the roof earlier in the trip.

The plan is then to track down the west coast of Oz to hit Perth later in the year. 12,000km, 30 tanks of petrol and god knows how many spare tyres later.

I'll keep you posted.

PS I was kidding about the crocodile alarm. Although it would be useful.