A Much Needed Update: Dispatches From the Backpacker Trail
RAINBOW BEACH, AUSTRALIA- It’s been a while since I’ve updated this thing (internet down here is atrocious), so I’ll try to concisely pack as much relevant information into one post as is reasonably possible. Last time we spoke, I was in the middle of a 6-week stay at Beachside Backpackers in Port Macquarie, living the Australian life. I ended up spending Christmas and New Year’s there since my stay in Port seemed more like I was spending a few weeks at a friend’s house for an extended sleepover party than traveling far away from home…it also didn’t hurt that I was working a few hours a day in exchange for free accommodation, keeping the cost of living quite low.
Despite being just about the furthest thing from a White Christmas imaginable, everyone managed to maintain an air of festive joy replete with our Christmas tree, Santa hats, and a Secret Santa gift exchange. Unfortunately, the weather on Christmas Day itself was a bit cloudy and unseasonable, but the best was made of it, and everyone still made a trip to the beach. The days between Christmas and New Year’s were passed in that familiar languid daze until midnight struck on the 31st, which found my friends and I on the roof of the hostel with a few bottles of cheap champagne (a real holiday treat), some sparklers for celebration, fireworks in the distance, and a nonchalant attitude towards the actual countdown ‘til the New Year. The holidays are always a time to be wistful about missing your family and friends back at home, and this time was no exception- it was the first time I’ve ever spent Christmas on my own, and the first NYE in four years that I wasn’t planning a big party with Thea and Olivia. Yet this trip is about new experiences, and celebrating the holidays during summer was certainly one of them.
The New Year is always a time for change, even on the road, and it was high time for me to leave Port Macquarie before I ended up spending the duration of my visa there. After an afternoon planning session, I decided on the following itinerary. My friend Lauren is a member of a Help Exchange website which essentially serves as a type of Craigslist to connect travelers willing to work for room & board with families and businesses looking for these sorts of folk. She had spent a few weeks in December with an Australian family, helping out around the house and looking after their children and ended up becoming good friends with them. Beck & Trent spent the beginning of January on their own little road trip, taking the kids to visit friends & family along the East Coast. It turned out that they would be visiting Trent’s parents in Yamba, which was a town my friend Ryan had highly recommended to me, around the time we would be passing through. Trent’s parents, John and Rae, are travelers themselves and often have visitors staying in their basement apartment, even going so far as to befriend backpackers waiting at the local bus stop and inviting them to come stay instead of crashing at the local hostel. We received an open invitation to come stay with John & Rae in Yamba, which seemed like an ideal opportunity, and one we could not pass up.
But first I needed to make a stop at “Spot X” surf camp, to redeem a 2-day lesson voucher that came with my Greyhound bus pass. I won’t expend much energy on the time I spent here (other than that I took some cool photos), other than that the majority of the “deals” and “camps” available to backpackers are complete rip-offs and offer experiences which are far better when pursued with your own agenda…the experience that they offer is two two-hour lessons starting at 8 am and 6:30 am, each with 35 people in the water and three instructors to show you around, not to mention the fact that we didn’t have the same instructor on the second day and there were no boards to rent until 5 or 6 at night, since they were all being used for the group lessons. Note to anyone out there that’s looking for a business opportunity: come to Australia, or any backpacking destination for that matter, and sell packaged deals for “exotic experiences”, and you can print cash with relatively little effort once you find the right people to run the place. After Spot X, was Coffs Harbour for a night—a smaller little town where we spent maybe 12 hours, and it was raining most of the time, so I really can’t say much more about it other than that if I’m ever back in the region, I will give Sue & Wayne a call (friends with my Sylvie, my Aunt Liz’s friend) and definitely meet up this time!
After Coffs, we made our way to Yamba and arrived early in the morning, again, while it was raining. Thankfully, Trent picked up Lauren & I at the bus stop, but not before I made a serious, serious mental note to buy a rain cover for my bag…Yamba is a beautiful little seaside town, and in my opinion the best thing it offers is that it is off the beaten backpacker trail. There are places here in Australia that are crawling with travelers, Germans in particular, and my personal imperative is to avoid those towns are much as possible in favor of those where you can meet the locals, which is exactly what Yamba afforded us the opportunity to do. John & Rae graciously allowed us to stay in the basement apartment, and we were welcomed into the family for three days, while Beck & Trent were also visiting with their two young sons, Tiger and Townes. It was a great experience to be able to stay with Australians, particularly three generations of them and experience life as they live it. Yamba is a charming little town, which personally reminded me of Stone Harbor; perhaps that’s why I like it so much. Our plan after Yamba was to take the bus to Byron Bay, and meet up with the rest of our friends who were staying at a hostel called the Arts Factory.
The bus was supposed to leave early on Saturday morning, which was coincidentally the day Beck & Trent were scheduled to head home as well—they live in Brunswick Heads, a smaller town outside of Byron Bay. Trent plays in a band, and had a gig Saturday night, which he needed to be back for. He had invited us to come and see him play, but logistically it didn’t seem as if it was going to work since we don’t have a car and Beck & Trent had a French couple housesitting while they were away, and couldn’t offer for us to stay with them for the night. Yet sometimes the universe works in wonderful ways, and the Greyhound bus was 2 hours late (which also gave me the chance to wander about town, and incidentally meet Jim, the owner of the local golf shop and a PGA professional)—Beck & Trent had gotten home before we even left Yamba, and reported that the French couple had left and we were free to stay with them for the night so we could go see Trent’s show; Beck could pick us up from the bus station that afternoon.
We spent Saturday evening at a drinking establishment that Australians refer to as a “hotel” (or bar, in American English), sitting on picnic tables scattered about a grassy area in front of the stage as Trent and Diego, a.k.a. Heartworn Highway, jammed away on banjos, guitars, harmonicas, and all other kinds of instruments. I can honestly say that we were probably the first non-locals to hang out at this place, and it was a great experience to look around and see life how local Australians do—bringing their children, dogs, wives—the whole family out to the hotel to see their friends play music. Diego’s mother, Sophie, was visiting from Canada. He’s from Vancouver, and married Ellie, who is from Melbourne. They now have two little children, and live together in an awesome one-story house built on stilts, that looks out on a small rainforest. I also met Cam, another Canadian who married an Australian—he owns a café in Brunswick Heads, and has three little kids of his own.
The next day, we were invited to go to the beach with everyone and their families, another offer that we couldn’t say no to (we ended up staying in Bruns for four days). We went to Christmas Beach, a smaller, secluded spot only the locals know about with absolutely stunning views of mountains in the distance, the channel leading to the ocean, and pristinely blue water. Another day spent in the life of an Australian family; we just hung out, chatted, and played with the kids all day. Leaving Beck & Trent’s house was a sad parting- the kids were sad to see us go, and it was a very comfortable environment where we felt incredibly welcome, but the time had come, and Beck, Tiger and Townes dropped us off at the Arts Factory hostel in Byron, where we planned on camping for the next five days.
Byron Bay markets itself as being a small town with an alternative lifestyle- very free spirited, environmentally conscious, artsy- reminded me very much of Davis, CA-By-The-Sea. I have to say though, I was a bit disappointed with what I found- there’s a thing called the Lonely Planet effect, where travel writers or adventure seekers will find a small, secluded place and write about the wonders of it, thus attracting the masses and eventually destroying the charm and aura the originally made the place so special. I fully admit that I am indeed one of the “masses” attracted by what everyone has said about Byron, but I did feel as if the town had been overly commercialized, especially when they market themselves as being so alternative. It’s one of those feelings that is difficult to actually explain when I sit down and try to put it into words, but I hardly got the relaxed aura I expected when I got there. The Arts Factory has campgrounds where a spot is available for $15/night- well worth it considering it was $42 to stay in the dorms, so needless to say that’s where Lauren, Chris, Hans, Vilde and I were all staying.
Personally, I have no problem sleeping on a mat in a tent, in fact I slept 9-10 hours each night with no problems. I am also blessed, for no reason, with a seemingly superhuman-like immunity to mosquitoes. For whatever reason, they just don’t like me, though it’s an absolute certainty that I need only write these words to magically transform my blood into something resembling the elixir of life for these little pests. Thus the two most common issues plaguing campers are really not an issue for me; however anyone who knows me well can attest to the fact that I can’t go for more than an hour or two without having to use the loo. Thus, I found that the worst part of the camping experience was having to force myself back to sleep after getting up in the middle of the night having to pee like there’s no tomorrow, though if I was able to time things right I could see the sunrise right down the little path that our tents were situated upon.
All in all, things weren’t so bad, however after re-entering the “backpacker scene” (something I’ll write more about at a later date) from the past week spent with an Australian family was a little bit tense, for me at least. I am quite a sociable person, but I do need my downtime. I don’t need a lot, but when I don’t get it, it becomes more and more important that I get a few hours a day where I am just not bothered by other people. I certainly wasn’t getting that at the Arts Factory, and Lauren is the same as me in this sense, so one night we snuck off into town to just get dinner away from everyone else. Walking down to the promenade by the beach to eat, we saw a camper van with the top popped up, and weird lights flashing on it. It looked like there were guys setting up a DJ table up top, and we figured, great, here we go to just chill for a little bit and there’s going to be an Electro-Party raging right next to us. After a few minutes of closer inspection, however, we realized that this just might, in fact, be a silent disco. Now for anyone who isn’t familiar with a silent disco, it’s a dance party where instead of music being played out of speakers, everyone is given an individual set of headphones which broadcast the same music being spun by the DJ, meaning there is zero outside noise created by the music. Doubling as an absolutely ingenious idea to avoid noise complaints, it’s also a wildly cool experience to be at a silent disco.
After bucking up and paying the $10 fee, an absolute fortune for me and my compadres, we donned our headphones and headed to the beach to dance. Now, if you had asked me six months ago, EXACTLY what my soul needed for eternal salvation, it’s a very likely possibility that my answer would have been “to start a silent disco dance party under the stars, the night after a full moon, on the beach and in the surf on the most easterly point of sand in Australia”. Well, I guess I can consider myself saved, since that’s exactly what I got. While there were only about 30-40 people on the “dance floor” at any given time, that was more than enough for a memorable experience I won’t forget any time soon.
After Byron Bay, I spent a night in Surfer’s Paradise, where I met up with Kara & her boyfriend Steve. Kara is good friends with my friend Abby, and has been in Australia since February. She’s served as my point of contact for any random little questions I had before coming down under, and I jokingly refer to her as the girl who convinced me to move to Australia. Needless to say, it was nice to finally put a face to the name, and Kara, Steve & I spent a fun night out swapping stories.
Of course, one can’t actually spend time in Australia without visiting the Australia Zoo, a.k.a. the Steve Irwin Zoo. This led Lauren, Chris, and I to the little town of Mooloolaba for two nights for the express purpose of visiting the hallowed grounds of the Crocodile Hunter himself. Unfortunately, I have to say that the zoo itself was a bit of a let-down. Having already been to the much-larger Taronga Zoo in Sydney, I had seen most of the Australian wildlife held in captivity which the zoo had to offer, though it did afford me the opportunity for some sweet photo ops. It also didn’t help that it was at least 105-110 degrees, and we spend a good deal of time looking for sprinklers to douse ourselves in…it was a heat I had only previously experienced on the 1-train to Hell with Mr. Savoca. Either way, it’s an experience that I would have been far more disappointed to have never had.
This brings me to where I am today, which is Dingo’s Beach Resort in Rainbow Beach, QLD. Tomorrow morning we’re taking an early morning ferry to Fraser Island (the world’s largest sand island!) for a 3-day, 2-night 4x4 tour, which should prove to be quite an experience. I’ve been taking this trip quite slowly, and this is one of the first big organized adventures I’ve embarked on. I could hear the early morning briefing this morning as I lay in bed, and the most notable tip that was given was that you should always travel in pairs. Why, you may ask? Well because when in pairs of two or more, the wild dingoes see humans as a threat, and will run away. Left alone, however, you are seen as prey…but don’t despair, Dane, I will not let the Dingoes eat my baby, or for that matter, myself.
I hope to update this more often than I have been- my next big stop are the Whitsunday Islands for the first two weeks of February, where Lauren, Chris, Hans and I will be staying at a resort, working for 4-5 hours a day in exchange for accommodation. There are still a ton of pictures to upload and stories to tell, but this has been more than enough for now- I hope everyone at home is doing well, and I’d love to hear from any and all of you how you are doing and what you’re up to!