Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Cairns to Sydney in a camper van

There's no getting away from it. Australia is a big place. And, on the morning we arrived at a motorhome depot in one of the shabbier corners of Cairns, it had never seemed larger. In front of us stood the camper van in which we would traverse almost 3,000 kilometres before catching a flight out of Sydney. To give a sense of perspective, this equated to driving from London to Moscow - but where that journey would take in eight countries, just a single state border lay ahead of us. Did I mention Australia was big?

Before we had even left Cairns behind, we were dealt a shattering blow when it was discovered that all music and podcasts had been wiped from my iPod. The horrible realisation dawned that we were at the mercy of Australian local radio for the best part of 32 hours on the road. I swigged deeply from the bottle of iced coffee beside me as the bitumen raced beneath us.

Cane fields continued to dominate the landscape until we turned off the Bruce Highway for a stroll along Mission Beach. A myriad of pinpricks in the sand told us we were massively outnumbered by tiny crabs, who occasionally popped up for air. We sidestepped several electric blue jellyfish, washed up on the beach, as we took our leave.

Our first campsite was on an industrial estate in Townsville, although the city was larger and more attractive than first impressions suggested.

I liked Townsville - what we saw of it, at least. The esplanade has been modernised and seems to be a haven for joggers and cyclists, although the unfriendly skyline of cranes at work in the docks spoils the laid-back ambience somewhat.

Airlie Beach (above) was more picturesque, tempting in tourists like bees to a honey pot. Look closely and you'll see this sand-sculpted dragon actually was breathing fire - fairly apt on a day when the sun beat down on our backs with real intensity.

Just down the road, Mount Rooper loomed large and Lonely Planet recommended a 2.4km walk up to the lookout. An interminable climb to the summit did offer views of the Whitsunday Islands but by the halfway point (above), we were red-faced, over-heated and short-tempered. Was it worth it? Probably not.

I can't say that Mackay stands out as a particularly memorable stop on our journey, except for abundant birdlife at the caravan park. There were rainbow lorikeets having the time of their life in a giant hamster wheel as we collected keys for the amenities block.

Often, there was nothing more between towns than one of these primitive petrol stations. Dotted all along the highway are signs urging you not to drive tired and ushering you to rest areas. Such are the distances involved and so few are the visual stimuli for drivers. Turning into a driver reviver site, finding it open (rare), and sipping a free cup of coffee felt like being handed a glass of water in the desert.

Most days in the van were an adventure but the one which began in Mackay was more of an endurance event. Lunch by the side of the road in Rockhampton followed almost four hours of incredibly bland scenery and the lady in Tourist Information forecast roadworks and heavy traffic for the afternoon. She was right.

A near-empty fuel gauge meant we took a detour through Gladstone, which turned out to be one of the most depressing places we've seen in the whole of Australia. Mining blackened the landscape as we approached and barely a soul walked the streets when we entered the town. We were thankful to be on our way.

Even then, we were still a long way from our destination. Leaving the congested Bruce Highway was a relief but the quiet country roads did little to help keep me alert. Rachel's directions were spot-on, though, and at least spared us a wrong turn on the way to Bundaberg. After an exhausting 630km, we slept well that night.

Those exertions did ensure a shorter run into Brisbane the following day, where familiar figures were waiting to greet us.

Rachel has family scattered around Australia and this was the second time Guy & Carolyn (above) had hosted us. It was a treat to sleep in a 'proper bed' and sit round a 'proper table' to eat our meals! After days of navigating unchartered waters (for me, at least), Brisbane felt familiar and welcoming. That may sound odd when I'd never visited the city until four months earlier, but that's the kind of crazy year it's been. Most welcoming of all were the friendly faces, and the chance to share our travel tales.

Having scheduled a day without driving, we made the most of our time in Brisbane by watching cricket at The Gabba. Two entertaining sessions of play between Queensland and South Australia in the Sheffield Shield (state championship) took place in front of approximately 200 spectators...

...including my former colleague Tom Howard and his girlfriend Chelsea Woods (above). Both were in Australia to cover the Bathurst 1000 race that weekend and the cricket served as a low-key sporting aperitif. Catching up with Tom in such circumstances should have felt a little surreal but good friends simply pick up where they left off and that's how it was. The action out in the middle was almost an aside to our chatter beyond the boundary, but we were entertained by the batting of Queensland's Ben Cutting, who smashed 109 off 78 balls.

We left Brisbane behind and swung inland. Now, the roads - and what lay on either side - became interesting. The contours and curves of the New England Highway carried us into Stanthorpe and then over the border into New South Wales. Wineries abounded in the approach to Tenterfield, our lunch stop, before we plunged further south to Glen Innes. Here we discovered the Australian Standing Stones (above) and a small town where time stood still.

The road trip was fun once more.
An adventure, not an assignment.

We read that Armidale had 'excellent delis and coffee shops', so it seemed only right to examine these claims. The town was peaceful and pretty and its food didn't disappoint, even catering for Rachel's recently-discovered wheat and yeast intolerances.

There is probably an old by-law somewhere which says you must have your photo taken with the Big Golden Guitar if you pass through Tamworth. The self-styled 'country music capital of Australia' had little else to offer us but it was a handy stop as we continued to tackle the terrific New England Highway.

Sandy Hollow was somewhat off the beaten track and we almost hit a blundering wombat on the quiet back roads. Our final compsite was humble and near-deserted but these were no bad things. Dinner was 20 yards down the road at a wonderfully unpretentious jack-of-all-trades emporium which served as a petrol station, post office, chip shop, cafe and general store.

An overwhelming reluctance to join the masses on the Pacific Highway meant we stayed inland for as long as possible on our descent towards Sydney. Wineries and chocolate shops may be plentiful in the Hunter Valley but what we didn't expect was large-scale mining. The juxtaposition of fertile vineyards and harsh coal pits made for another interesting day on the road.

The Great North Road was built by convicts and they did a magnificent job. If Top Gear have never been here, someone should get on the phone to Jeremy Clarkson. The road soared and dipped alongside vast fields of cattle and tip-toed through hamlets. It dragged us up steep hills, squeezed us round hairpin bends and sent us flying down the other side. Finally, it spat us out onto the freeway, where the glut of traffic told us we were closing in on Sydney.

We'd made it. Stepping out of the van for the last time, it felt like we had conquered something huge, achieved something really significant. Our guide book was full of yellow felt-tip pen and the memory card in our camera was digesting around 400 images.

On the wall of the depot office was a gigantic map of Australia. In an instant, our escapades were shrunk into proportion. We can tell ourselves we've worked out this great southern land, but the reality is we've only tickled the edges.

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