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15. Australian Road Trip: It Rocks on the Road
A new dawn
Somewhere north of Newcastle...
It's a Rocky Road to the Rocks
“Watch out for children… also old gals and spunk rats.”
“Hell is a Sealed Road” says the crude, hand-painted sign on an oil drum lid nailed to a tree on the side of the road that leads to the Rocks. Predictably, another sign appears a kilometer later, at a particularly rugged portion of potholed, boulder strewn track. It reads “Heaven is a Dirt Road” . I know what they mean. Despite the crash of pots and pans flying off the hooks in the back of Winnie, and the collective “Ooof!” that we all make as we return to earth after the biggest bumps, yes, I know what they mean. I empathise with the sentiment entirely; give me a dirt road that leads to Paradise anyday!
As we round the final bend another crusty sign warns us to “Watch out for Children…also old gals and spunk rats”. I am cut short in explaining my definition of a Spunk Rat* by the splendour of the panorama that comes into view around the bend. The thick bush opens up to reveal an expanse of ocean - glassy smooth but darkened by the setting sun. Ahead, at the rocky end of a beach, there is a tree-covered islet, joined to the mainland at low tide by a tumble of rocks. In the distance, on the horizon to the north, across a vast bay, a line of rolling hills are illuminated by the last of the sun’s rays. Along the rocky edge of the little islet waves are breaking and a handful of surfers are getting the most out the last hour or so of daylight on what has become a beautiful, cloudless day, our very first day on the road of phase two of our mammoth road trip from Sydney to Sydney via the rest of Australia. Our first Lap.
To our left the road skirts a pristine beach that runs from the island headland back around the curve of the bay for a number of kilometers into Myall Lakes National Park. In front of the headland there is a gravel car park and directly across the road is the Caravan Park. I was last here in January 1986 – and it hasn’t changed a bit!
We had left Sydney early the same day amid chaotic scenes of cheering crowds and brass bands, a fitting send off for such adventurous travellers. Well, maybe the scene wasn't exactly chaotic, and there were no bands either, but it felt like this was what we deserved. It is a mad undertaking that we are about to attempt, and so exciting. The thing is, I am the only member of our expedition who has any idea just how mad it is. Sheila’s son Sam and his girlfriend Sonia have no idea. They have only been in Australia for six days and that time was spent in Sydney. It was also time spent convincing them that there are no spiders, snakes or sharks to worry about when we head north - ha. They are here on holidays and are accompanying us on the first two weeks of our trip before flying back to Sydney from Coffs Harbour thence home to London.
On our return to Sydney after our six week road trip around south eastern NSW, Victoria and Tasmania, we swapped our little Toyota pop-top for a much bigger Toyota truck with a whopping great Winnebago camper unit bolted onto to the back, like a metallic snail shell, in which we envisage living comfortably for the next 10 months as we drive our way around the continent. We have affectionately, but unimaginatively named the vehicle Winnie (as in Winnie the Winnebago).
Earlier that day…
With the speed and grace of a clapped out combine harvester we plow our way up the mountain road that looms above Mona Vale on the north shore of Sydney and join the Pacific Highway (Highway 1) heading north. I pray as we climb the steep road, a huge tailback of traffic trailing along behind us: “Please God let us make it, at least to the top of this hill… amen”.
There is a God, and a couple of hours later we’re gobbling up kilometers as we grind past the Central Coast; and then the city of Newcastle is behind us and man, are we are cruising!! The day is mostly overcast and warm, sultry is the word, but as the afternoon progresses, tantalising patches of blue begin to appear in the leaden sky. As the day and the miles pass we chat and munch on various sweeties that Sam and Sonia have provided for the journey. Our seating arrangements are worth noting. I am the driver, Number One Man. Sheila won’t be driving this vehicle, especially after the “getting stuck up the alley” incident in Bundeena (long story, funny, but not now…). Sonia, being petite and light gets the hot seat in the middle. Hot because it is right over the top of the engine. It's reasonably comfortable though and thankfully the day outside isn’t so warm that she would burn her bum. Sam has the back all to himself. There is a seatbelt on the back lounge but we have fixed up a rather comfortable cushioned area directly behind the cab so he can be part of the conversation and see out the front.
At about 5pm we finally reach the country town of Bulladelah. The Freeway out of Sydney is far behind us and for the last hundred and fifty kilometres we’ve been on the typical two lane highway that runs up the east coast of Australia+. At Bulladelah we pull in to buy groceries at the IGA (Independent Grocers Association) supermarket. As driver and renowned shopperphobe, I wait outside and smoke a couple of fags while the rest of the posse stock up on supplies. After about an hour I’m getting worried so I venture in. Sheila and her son are great shoppers. They really know how to buy and spend. There are two large trolleys overflowing with every imaginable item and a third on its way to fulfillment. The shelves look decidedly bare and I can’t help feeling that they have cleaned them out. A few hundred bucks later and I am faced with the awesome task of packing the groceries away. This is a job that I will get better at as the months pass, but for now I just say “Forget it… lets get to the Rocks before dark!”
It’s still a long way to go through mountainous terrain between here and the coast. On the way we drive through a heavy downpour and I am getting worried at the lack of road signs. It’s a long time since I’ve been to this place and I don’t know how much it has changed. Then, at a little hamlet of shacks and shop I see the insignificant, poorly signed turn-off, it looks like we're going to make it.
Two out of three not bad...
We park Winnie in a grassy corner of the campground. A thick, impenetrable jungle forms a wall around the park, and against the far edge the forest rises majestically up the side of a ridge. The place is relatively empty as the school holidays are over, but there are lots of older people staying in the static caravans that form a small village in the heart of the park. There are also a few surfers and other travelers scattered about in camps on the grass field. We set up our big tarpauline off the side of the truck and furnish it with table and chairs and hurricane lamps. Our first night is so exciting for all of us, out here, miles from the city, surrounded by huge bush and the ocean. Sheila has bought all kinds of yummy foodstuffs and bottles of red wine and beers and we just sink very quickly into relaxation-mode.
Sleeping arrangements are straightforward. Sheila and I sleep in the double bed above the cab. Sam and Sonia have to make up their bed on the U-shaped sofa set-up. The biggest problem is the size of their suitcases – we had advised them to travel light but people never listen, do they? Anyway, the large, hard-cased trunks just squeeze into the cab of the truck, and we aren’t going anywhere for a few days, so problem solved.
Animal sightings so far: Bush Turkeys, some dolphins, a large stingray, a dingo, several huge monitor lizards and a giant sea turtle. This must be a fantastic first day on the road in Australia for my English travelling companions.
It is one of the most perfect days imaginable. A cloudless blue sky, a balmy 30°C, a silky ocean with a temperature just below that of the human body and for me, a tidy little wave breaking off the point on the headland. I spend hours out there in that heavenly ocean, riding my mini-mal on countless waves with total abandonment. It’s my childhood, my teens, my twenties and my thirties all rolled into this one magical day.
Marginally less fair than day one. A breeze has blown up. It’s not such a problem as there are lots of sheltered areas and the sun and sea are warm. Sam and I take the bikes and ride up the dirt road to the lighthouse at Sugarloaf Point. The rocky bluffs loom above the ocean and from the base of the lighthouse we can look south over the magnificent and uninhabited Treachery Beach where we spot a large pod of dolphins frolicking in the crystal-clear sea.
Day three is awful.
The wind has whipped up to gale force and turned the pristine sea into a brown, weedy soup. Low clouds scud across a leaden grey sky and there’s nothing for us to do but hit the road. We pack up and by mid-morning are on the move again, following the coast track north towards Port Stephens and on to the large country town of Kempsey. We visit the big supermarket there and add even more goodies to our larder before heading back to the coast and our next destination, another surfing town - Crescent Head.
East Coast Magic
* Spunk Rat - Aussie slang term for a sexy, attractive person (male or female)
+ The Pacific Highway (Hwy 1) is the main route up the east coast from Sydney to the Queensland border. When we drove it on this journey in 2006 it was mostly a two lane road. In 2012 Sheila and I drove down it from Qld to Sydney and were amazed to find much of the highway has been turned into four lanes (dual carriageway), a phenomenon known as Progress.
Grommet - A young surfer