Sunday, 15 July 2012

Steve & Rachel's Road to Nowhere

Winter holidays arrived to mark the end of Rachel's second term at Albury North Public School, and the halfway point of our year in Australia. Our plan was to explore the east coast, between Sydney and Brisbane, driving a camper van and staying at camp sites.

It was exciting and daunting in equal measure. After all, we'd be dealing with a manual gearbox for the first time in six months. Who knew what we'd find along the way?

Well, sit back and relax, because you're about to find out. To do this trip really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and to share the memories with my beautiful wife - just awesome.

After leaving Sydney behind, we decided to veer off the freeway and drive through the more scenic lakes region. This began at The Entrance, a small town which marks the start of this stretch of coastline. We weren't there in time to see the daily pelican feeding session, but it was a picturesque pit stop.

Although Lake Haven didn't quite live up to its name, we did make a successful collection of Rachel's birthday cake.

Driving on the narrow spit of land between Lake Macquarie and the sea was certainly more aesthetically pleasing than negotiating the freeway traffic. It also led us past some familiar names on the road signs. After stopping to eat in Swansea we drove through Gateshead and Newcastle - surely named by a Geordie when Europeans settled there in the 18th century. We had read a fairly scathing review of Forster, where we spent our first night, but we weren't there for long enough to pass judgment ourselves.

I had never heard of Port Macquarie before we started planning this trip but I'm so glad we decided to park up and walk along Lighthouse Beach (above). The power of the waves crashing towards us was immense and we almost had the beach to ourselves.

Our reward for climbing the steps up to Tacking Point Lighthouse was this view over the beach. Port Macquarie is framed by such landscapes on its eastern and southern sides and it was a treat for us to see them under sunny skies. To enhance the moment, we watched a dolphin dipping in and out of the waves below. Magical.

Friends had recommended this patisserie, Bittersweet, having passed through 'Port' a week or so before us. It surpassed even the lofty expectations their glowing reference had set. Click to enlarge the photo and take a closer look at the superb array of muffins and cakes on offer.

Our camp site experiences were generally good. Some were large, some small, some more crowded than others, but none could beat the view on offer at Moonee Beach (right). That's the moon, in case you're wondering.

You can't visit Coffs Harbour, or even drive through, without having your photo taken underneath the Big Banana. It's situated right on the side of the Pacific Highway so there's no way you can miss it. However, other than the regulation gift shop flogging tourist tat, there isn't really much else there.

Australia loves its 'Big Things', of which the banana is probably the most famous. On our travels, we also passed the Big Oyster, the Big Prawn, the Big Windmill and the Big Golf Ball. Don't ask. Just click here to see the full list. It's unbelievable.

Coffs is a slightly odd coastal resort in that its town centre isn't particularly near to the beaches. The road through town eventually turned into a car park adjacent to this jetty. Although the sky overhead was stunningly blue, my over-riding memory is that it was a mistake to step out of the van in no more than a t-shirt and shorts.

I think these two pictures compliment each other quite well. Here we are looking down from the top of Muttonbird Island, which is the grassy hill you can see in the jetty photo. It's probably the prettiest view in all of Coffs, surveying the harbour itself and the mountainous hinterland beyond. The jetty is to the left of shot.

After leaving Coffs, we made a quick detour via Woolgoolga, where the chief landmark is a large Guru Nanak temple. Of course, from the headland, more great views abounded. Quiet town.

Our only experience of Ballina was this intriguing scene at the clifftops (above): a woman leading an exercise class while rocking her pushchair. People parked alongside us in the car park had brought binoculars to spot whales but all we could see in the ocean were thundering waves roaring towards the rocks.

"Byron Bay's reputation precedes it like no other place in Australia." Our guide book was spot on; lots of people had raved about Byron Bay. But for some reasons its charms didn't seduce me. It wasn't that it was over-crowded with tourists or heavily commercialised, but more that too many people were walking around dressed like hippies or surf dudes because that was 'the done thing' here. It felt a bit false.

However, the lighthouse at Cape Byron - Australia's most easterly point - was unquestionably majestic. Framed by stormy skies on the morning of our departure, it somehow looked even more imposing.

Across the state border we drove, from New South Wales into Queensland. Where Byron Bay had left me cold, Coolangatta (below) was spellbinding. As the sun set over the Gold Coast skyline, surfers took to the water on their way home from work and rainbow lorikeets flashed over our heads, chirping noisily as they scrambled for the best roosting spots high in the trees. There was nothing pretentious here, just Australia at her stunning best. I wanted to capture this feeling and bottle it in a jar. We walked until it was dark, as far as the state boundary at Point Danger.

Life here has not always been easy for us; don't let the blog fool you into thinking that. But all the frustrations, challenges and obstacles, all of them were worth it for evenings like this. I could walk that beach a hundred times and never have enough of it. England is my home, my life, but it doesn't have anywhere which compares to this. You'll never be able to throw the 'whinging Pom' tag at me because I'll always hold my hands up when Australia plays these sort of trump cards.

The next day, up the coast at Burleigh Heads, the skyscrapers loomed larger and the surfers were out in their droves. On one side of the world, Saturday morning means dodging the divots at Hackney Marshes and on the other, it's all about wetsuits and waves.

It was fascinating to observe the surf etiquette and watch the locals in action. Was it really the middle of winter?

We walked the steep trails in Burleigh Heads National Park and emerged at this point, looking back down the coast towards Coolangatta. The picture above was taken by a friendly local chap who gave us a whistle-stop geography lesson of the area and admitted Queenslanders were lucky to have such great weather and beaches. So true.

The pace really changed when we reached Surfers Paradise, the party capital of the Gold Coast. It was chaotic, with overseas tourists everywhere. Never mind surfers, it was a pickpocket's paradise with the amount of bags, cameras and wallets left lying around while people gawped at the ocean and the tower blocks. The whole place was soulless and trashy. It would make a great location for another chapter in The Hangover film series.

One attraction in Surfers which did take our fancy was Q1, the tallest building in the southern hemisphere. We paid our monies and were crammed into a lift before rocketing 230 metres to the viewing deck. The views were spectacular, with the ocean, the never-ending beach, the city and the hinterland sprawling out beneath us.

I couldn't resist taking a closer look at some of the amazing properties on 'Paradise Island'...

...where even the rich and famous clearly have their bad days.

By now, I had gone almost a week without watching any live sport. As it turned out, though, the AFL fixture computer was smiling on us, with our team - Geelong Cats - in town for a game against the Gold Coast Suns the following day. In our hunt for tickets, we stumbled upon the world's worst tourist information booth, where one staff member said she had "absolutely no idea" where the stadium was and her colleague suggested we "get onto Google". This extraordinary incompetence was only a temporary setback, however, as we tracked down a newsagent which could book us tickets and point out the appropriate bus route to get us from our camp site to the game.

The buzz of live football is very special. I love visiting new grounds and we also had the privelege of watching the AFL's best player, Gary Ablett (left), strutting his stuff for Gold Coast.

Geelong, the reigning premiers, came into the game as red-hot favourites, while the Suns sat at the bottom of the ladder without a single win to their name all the year. However, things weren't following the script at half-time. Gold Coast were in front and the PA man announced that because the Suns had won the first quarter, every ticket-holder could claim a free quarter-pounder at their local McDonald's after the game.

Although Geelong were the visitors, the number of Cats fans inside the ground made it feel more like a home game. We sat at this end, under the big screen, where the cheer squad and many of those in blue and white had congregated. Rachel had bought me a Geelong scarf for my birthday and I felt like I fitted right in.

Despite the earlier scares, the Cats used their experience to ease home by 14 points. Steven Motlop (above) kicked this goal after the siren had gone at the end of the third quarter.

I was impressed by Metricon Stadium. There was lots of pre-match entertainment outside the arena itself and access around the stadium was incredibly easy. Gold Coast are working hard to establish their fanbase, having only formed in 2009, and although the ground was far from full, the home supporters did make a decent racket when their side was on top.

Metricon Stadium will host athletics and the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. After the final hooter, we found a queue of special buses lined up outside to take supporters home. We showed our match tickets, were charged no fare, and the bus dropped us off close to our camp site.
Great service - top marks to all involved.

On the way back down the coast, we deliberately stayed at different places to those we'd already passed through. The fishing village of Iluka (above) was wonderfully tranquil and almost untouched by the tourism machine. We had some great results on the food front, too. Fish and chips - from a small shop next to where the fishing boats came in - cost just $5, and the bakery sold Rachel a reasonably large scroll of fruit-filled bread for a dollar.

We also wanted to visit Yamba, across the bay, but getting there wasn't going to be straightforward. By road, it was quite a detour, and if we took the passenger ferry across the water, we would have to double-back to collect the camper van. In the end, we decided a Top Gear challenge was in order. An FA Cup-style draw determined that I would take the ferry while Rachel drove. The next morning, we went our separate ways at the Iluka ferry wharf and the race was on.

My route was direct but slow.

Rachel had much further to travel but at least she could step on the gas.

My cause was not helped when the ferry arrived 10 minutes late. Rachel was already on the move and I was playing catch-up from minute one.

The winner would be the first to reach the lighthouse in Yamba. After the ferry driver had pointed out the quickest way to get there, I ran up the hill from the wharf and pelted into the car park, only to be greeted by this sight. Rachel had beaten the roadworks and arrived first. Clarkson 1, Captain Slow 0.

We saw lots of pelicans while we were on the road, but they were especially prominent in rain-swept North Haven.

Back in Sydney, we headed for the Northern Beaches. The sand at Narrabeen was like a slate, being washed clean the by waves every minute or so. Sometimes it was firm beneath our feet, other times it was like treading in treacle.

Behind the oceanside homes, Sydney suburbia went about its business, with the surfers and fishermen heading our way.

Palm Beach is regarded as the northernmost point of Sydney, although we know it better as the setting for Home and Away. You can't walk any further north than the Barrenjoey Lighthouse (above), which we could only reach by climbing the horribly steep Smugglers Track.

It was worth it, though. For Home and Away fans, the Surf Club is two-thirds up the beach on the left, while The Diner and Alf's Bait Shop are at the start of the jetty on the right.

Our penultimate stop, on my birthday, was at one of Australia's great tourist attractions: Bondi Beach. Under cloudy skies, it was a far cry from the huge summer crowds and the pandemonium of Christmas Day, but its aura remained.

One of my favourite Aussie TV shows is Bondi Rescue, which follows the beach lifeguards at work during the busier months of the year. With almost no-one swimming in the sea on the day we visited, they were in for a pretty quiet shift, but I did spot a couple of familiar faces heading up and down the steps.

And so to the end of our journey. We signed off with two rounds of Pirates mini golf (Caves Course and Shipwreck Course) and were pleased to banish the already forgettable memories of our last mini golf outing - on Rottnest Island.

What a cracking fortnight. I can recommend both the east coast of Australia and holidaying in a camper van. Best of all, combine the two.

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