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17. Australia Road Trip - Beyond Coffs Harbour - Blood Red Rock
As Aussie as anything
Where are we now? New South Wales still?
Welcome to Episode 17 of my Australian Road Trip Hub. In case you can’t be bothered to start at the beginning, or you can’t figure out which one to read first, let me bring you up to speed. My name is indeed Mick (or Mike or Michael) and my companion/partner/friend/lover/fellow traveller is indeed an Englishwoman named Sheila. I am an Aussie who has lived in England for quite a few years and together we have come to Australia on what has subsequently become known as our "Grown-ups' Gap Year". So far, starting in my hometown of Sydney, we have travelled down the Southeast Coast, to Melbourne; then across to and around Tasmania; then back to the mainland and along the Great Ocean Road. We returned to Sydney via Ballarat and over the top of the Snowy Mountains, where we broke down in a really inconvenient place. Back in Sydney we swapped our little pop-top campervan for a Toyota flatbed truck with a Winnebago camper mounted on the back. The new truck is a bit of luxury for my English Rose, shall we say.
We left Sydney again in early February with Sheila's son Sam and his girlfriend Sonia who have come from London to share two weeks on the road with us. This travelogue is now following our progress as we head north up the New South Wales Coast. It’s a long trip with no real time frame… but hopefully the story will evoke a sense of what Australia is like, beyond the guide books. Oh yea, This chapter is set in a typical nowhere slice of paradise called Red Rock, NSW.
Red Rock is here
Red Rock is just another one of many beautiful, unspoilt beach hideaways in New South Wales... but it does have a dark and bloody history too.
Nothing here except serenity
Rain? In Red Rock?
“It never rains in Red Rock,” reckons Shorty.
I bet he’s not a gambling man though. Mind you, he is short enough to be a jockey, which is why, presumably, he is called Shorty. Curiously I find myself wondering – does have a real name or is Shorty what he always calls himself? Because there is no Mrs Shorty, or Mate-of-Shorty about to say “Hey, Shorty…” I wonder, does he refer to himself as Shorty out of lifelong habit, or perhaps he has learnt to call himself this dimunitive name as a defense against bullies and those who might unintentionally or insensitively draw attention to his shortness. I don’t know and I’m not going to ask, that would be wrong.
So Shorty is a little old guy; a widower, who lives the grey nomad lifestyle in its purest form. He is a retired Bus driver from Far North Queensland who for now, is living alone in his caravan at Red Rock. He tells me that he spends a few weeks of the year here and the rest of the time migrating up and down the length of the country, particularly between Melbourne, where his kids live, and Cairns, where he winters. At dozens of campsites in between he crosses paths with his nomadic mates, drinks a beer or two, fishes a bit, and works on his leathery tan. Shorty is one of Australia’s many characters – regular folks who have long since gone troppo - you come across them everywhere, strung out along the endless highways that vanish to points on the horizon.
We pitch our classic Winnebago-based encampment on the Red Rock campsite, which is a large grassy field tucked behind the bush-covered sand dunes that fringe a long beach. There are sandy trails through the sheoaks and banksias with bleached wood palings laid as steps to assist walking in the soft, hot sand. We are parked in a small copse of acacia with a perfect tarpauline shelter erected off the side of the truck. Beneath the tarp we have created a cool den with sarongs hung on the sunniest side to provide more shade. Our table and chairs add furnished comfort and at night the space takes on the aura of a Bedouin’s tent in the soft light of our kerosene lamps. It’s a perfect set-up and one in which we plan to spend the next three days relaxing out of the blazing heat.
Red Rock has a five kilometre beach to the south of its eponymous headland and another golden strand of similar length disappearing in the sea mist to the north. There’s a big tidal lagoon behind the beach and a broad creek that flows into the sea past mangroves and pandanus palms. It promises to be a languid few days where we can hangout on the near deserted beach, take cycle rides around the quite streets lined with empty, out-of-season holiday homes, or explore some of the bush trails in the forest behind the lagoon
Shorty had one just like it.
Shorty came up to us and introduced himself – “Gooday, I’m Shorty…” - when we were setting up camp. He thought that our truck was actually his old Toyota/Winnebago.
“Had one just like it,” he says, “drove it all the way round a few years ago.”
So me and Shorty get to chatting and it transpires that he used to own and drive the only bus that plied the 600 odd outback-miles between Karumba and Cairns in Far North Queensland. This is, in itself, a useless piece of information, but it just so happens that I rode in that very same bus back in 1982, after 'jumping ship' in Karumba to escape from a job like a prison-sentence on a fishing boat in The Gulf of Carpentaria. It was no ordinary bus ride, more a trek across 800 kilometres of dry and dusty outback tracks. And this fellow, little Shorty, was at the wheel.
“Yea, I remember a couple of deckhands leaving Karumba on the bus,” says Shorty.
As sweet and on the ball as he is, I find it difficult to accept that he can actually remember me and my two ship mates slinking away from that mad job on the Carpentaria prawn beds all those years ago... but then, why not? I’d like to think he remembers. Later that afternoon, I grab a couple of cold tinnies and visit Shorty in his Caravan where he shows me a photo of his old Winnebago-on-a-Toyota - it looks almost identical to ours. He then shows me his photos of the West Coast: various spots from Broome to Perth. He even writes down a list of must see places for when we finally make it over there, though that prospect seems like an impossible journey, parked here in the heat of Red Rock in north central New South Wales
“They call me Shorty cause I’m short.” He tells me.
I can’t help grinning like a fool, but he only stands about five foot tall, has a full head of white hair, skin like a sun-tanned lizard and is dressed in nothing more than a translucent pair of baggy old salt-bleached, skin-thin speedos. He may be old and short, but I am nevertheless awestruck in his presence.
• • •
Once we are done roaming the beach and sloshing about in the crystal clear creek, we spend the super-hot afternoons and evenings sitting under the tarp, playing cards, drinking beer and gradually sinking into the first phase of that wonderful state known as Troppo. It is a subtle change for me, but for the visiting son, Sam of London, it is more dramatic. He has stopped using hair products and has just sauntered off to the shower block wearing only his underpants.
Thunder Down Under
“It never rains in Red Rock.” I wouldn’t bet on it Shorty. The storm we watch is erupting in the mountains down near Dorrigo, about 40 miles south, but it is one of the most dramatic lightning shows I have ever seen. Forks are scribbling across the black sky like apocalyptic graffiti and the barely audible rumble of the thunder must be what the Western Front sounded like when heard from as far away as Dover. That particular storm doesn’t hit us, but the rainy aftermath does. Torrential is hardly an apt description. It tips it down for two days in Biblical proportions. We are soon confined to barracks as our tarpauline shelter is fit for little more than storing our flip flops which eventually float away in the torrent. Endless games of cards consume us while other campers pack up and flee the deluge.
The rain eventually ceases on the afternoon of the third day so we take a long bush walk on the muddy trails while thirsty mosquitoes bleed us dry. The next morning it is time for us to head back to Coffs Harbour as Sam and Sonia have a plane to catch. Sheila and I, on the other hand have roads to drive, sights to see and a little old man called Shorty to inspire us to keep on road tripping.
The red rocks of the headland are an Aboriginal sacred place – the scene of a massacre by the white settlers when whole families were driven to plunge to their deaths off the jagged cliffs – we were never taught this history when I was in school. Red Rock is also called Blood Rock.