I was looking forward to the next ten days driving from Sydney to Brisbane taking in the sunny East coast. Also wondering how Kelly and I would do together, cooped up in a room on wheels.
Plus the basics: How would driving be in Australia? What if I hit a kangaroo? What if the van broke down in the Outback? Would I need to pee on Kelly like in the inbetweeners movie? Probably not I thought.
We schlepped down to the camper van pickup in deep Sydney through the thick rain. The Hippie Camper van company owned by Apollo, or Maui or anyone it seemed all thrown together in a makeshift cabin. The sales girl was British, her French counterpart on her first day of the job tasked with setting up the camper van. Gulp, thoughts of breaking down re-emerged.
As usual these things always cost more money, we needed toll fares, did we want to pre-pay petrol, how about extra insurance for hitting a kangaroo? Gulp. Yes please.
We then met our ride for the week, a small Hi Top camper complete with stove, microwave and fridge for our tour. We named her something cool, then promptly forgot what that was.
Our first destination would be 2 hours away at Katoomba in the heart of the Blue Mountains.
I was chief navigator and after a Google or two, I realised we’d be hard pushed to make it to Scenic World in time to see anything of the national park. Annoyingly that would mess with our tight schedule, one night in the Blue Mountains, one night in Hunter Valley on a wine tour, one night somewhere around Kempsey (just because) then we were booked onto Spot X’s Mojo Surf camp.
Wait we needed to book a wine tour, I should get on that.
Kelly loves driving so happily got us on our way, whilst I setup the important stuff, music. I’ve been compiling a playlist of tunes we’d heard during the trip and slapped them on for a motivating reminder of our holiday so far.
The trip involved rain, road and more rain. Driving on a motorway outside Sydney isn’t what I’d call the Ozzie experience. Plus Australian drivers love to overtake at high speeds then pull back in front of you and slow down to the legal speed immediately, causing Kelly to brake, and swear usually.
Now on the road I tried to book some wine tours for the Hunter Valley, our next stop tomorrow. “Fully booked mate”, was the canned response. We’d basically got to the point where we were catching up with our pre-booked plans and so might miss out. I fumed and tried to figure out a plan.
When we arrived at Katoomba it was 4pm and (we discovered) too late for Scenic World and too misty to see the Mountains even if it wasn’t closed. Today was a waste of time, I thought. All this driving and we’d have to set off too early to see the mountains to get to Hunter valley and not get to do a wine tour. Gutted.
Then Kelly came made the genius suggestion, we would spend extra time here tomorrow rather than immediately driving to Hunter, then stay two nights (instead of one) there and do a wine tour on the second day. I called the first wine tour operator “John” and booked the day after next. Boom, wine and Blue mountains.
This alteration however would involve a 5 hour drive to get to Spot X the following day, but it was worth it.
Kelly and I would spend the next few days solely in each others company so we had plenty of time on our hands. That night we attempted to play cards, but Kelly’s interest dwindled as the game continued. She was good at rummy, so that suited me fine.
After deciphering the Rubix cube of our camper bed we settled down. At this point I realised I really liked camping. The freedom, the road, the novelty, was all awesome.
The next morning we exited our campsite and got to Scenic World early. Not many people were there so we could easily shuffle onto the yellow cable car that straddled the valley below, a jungle of eucalyptus trees that emit a blue mist, giving the Mountains their name.
Still slightly rainy we trundled up the pathway to see the three sisters. Once there the clouds parted and we saw the wonderful view of the Blue Mountains in the distance. An opportune moment for a photograph, so I asked a Dutch gentleman to take a snap. He obliged but worryingly seemed nonchalant about risking my camera’s safety over the barriers to get the shot. Use the strap I thought, my voice holding as he then lifted himself onto the barrier and leaned dangerously over the edge to get the full view of us and the sisters. Now I wasn’t worried about my camera but had visions of a man plummeting to his death, committed to the cause of a great photo for a couple of strangers.
We decided to head back along the path to the cable car again, in order to get down the mountain. Along the way we followed a group of Chinese women slowly walking and blocking the path, patient but slightly determined to overtake them Kelly attempted to squeeze past only to received a loud fart from the last lady. Our looks were gold. Did that really just happen?
Time was escaping us and we still had a three hour drive to Hunter Valley, so hit the road. That night we were staying at The wine country campsite, less a holiday park and more a semi-permanent residence for some people who decorated their caravans with picket fences and gardens.
At night the cricket sound was deafening, only broken by hoards of cockatoos screeching in the trees above and the father of a family next door calling his 8 year-old son a Dickhole for something insignificant. It was a very Australian soundtrack to bedtime!
Early to rise we would be drinking wine for breakfast. Not a pleasant thought but that was how the Cheers Bus Hunter Valley wine tour would start.
Inside the bus were a family of Australians, a Brazilian couple and an Aussie man with his Polish wife who we chatted to at different points during the day.
We went to 4 wineries, the most memorable being Iron Gate. Run by a former petrochemist who uses his knowledge of chemicals to make great wine. Our day ended with a trip to try smelly cheese and vodka. After an extremely hot day, drinking wine, we headed to the pub over the road for a cool beer before going back to the van for dinner.
Tonight’s game of choice was to be 20 questions. This didn’t work out very successfully. Kelly adopted a tactic of picking famous people she didn’t quite know well enough, like Michael Jackson (not him, the beer critic) and Rod Stewart, in order to throw me. The poor knowledge resulted in some dubious yes/no answers, that will be debated forever more. A memorable night and an early bedtime for our long slog to Spot X, and my first stab at driving.
Kelly is a nervous backseat driver we discovered. She became a driving instructor barking orders where I was doing just fine. “Indicate left”
“Go down a gear”
“Merge lanes up ahead”
“I’m going to thank you!”.
I found it all very amusing, and slowly began to enjoy driving. It was still sunny, but that hadn’t quite dried up the roads after some had flooded, so we had to drive through some waterlogged roads.
It’s really a long way to Brisbane I thought as we bundled along the motorway, dancing to Peanut Butter Jelly.
Once at Spot X we entered a hostel type hippie village by the beach. We were there for two days for a surf camp and the first lesson started at 10:30. Which was good as I woke up a bit nervous or excited (I couldn’t tell which).
The first day is mainly theory, we learnt about rips, tides and hand signals like fist up (Citizen Smith style) means help. Also our objective was to look cool for the photographs so we had to stick out little finger and thumbs up like a famous surfer in Hawaii who had his fingers bitten off by a shark.
Next up we drew boards in the sand and practiced two methods of getting up on the board. They’re completely different techniques to the one we were taught in Waikiki, one of which we were warned about in case we ripped a toenail off!
In the water I had small board, which was frustrating as I spent most of my time battling it and only stand up once. One girl stood up again and again but distracted everybody constantly by screaming at the top of her voice each time. Chill out love. I thought.
Predictably as we are called back inland Kelly is there already, having lost a toenail. She is calm, so it seems to be more annoying than painful. Especially as she’s told not to surf tomorrow during our second lesson.
To perk us up there’s a free lunch then we headed back to the camper, where I’m confused about whether or not there’s an afternoon surfing lesson. There isn’t.
Eleanor a girl from our lesson comes over to the camper van and we join her and her fiancé Dom for a game of cards. After an evening of Wine and chat we never get round to playing cards. They were working in Melbourne before travelling up the East coast and to NZ. We talk about all things travel and weddings, given they have the unenviable task of planning one when they get back home.
Next morning I wake and left Kelly in bed, as she with nine toenails couldn’t partake. The second lesson involves a game called chase round a square in the sand. It’s rules are really confusing but in teams we have to run round a square in the sand and tag people out, I’m not really sure what the point was.
After this ‘conditioning’ session we perform our 4 pre-checks for surfing:
1) what type are the waves?
2) what is the wind doing?
3) are there any dangers?
4) is it high or low tide?
I got a big board and began to nail standing up and surfing. I have trouble catching the waves as I keep attacking ones without enough power for my ample frame, so my German teacher explains that the waves I need to catch are the powerful ones that have broken completely white. Good tip, that delivers results.
Immediately after lunch we set off for Byron Bay. I am now the camper van driver as Kelly is an invalid. It’s fun again and Kelly has developed into a good passenger and DJ.
Once we are setup at the campsite we sit playing cards outside. Nature however decided that we were on its patch. Three bearded dragons kept making their way towards us playing a game of statues every time we turned and looked at them. Cookoborough birds landed in the trees around us and sat staring at the people on their territory. Once night descended, something big, furry and black ran under our van. We hoped any spiders nearby were friendly.
As the news broke that David Bowie had died we stuck on his greatest hits whilst playing cards.
In the camper it was a humid and hot night, the windows all open didn’t help very much. So the next day we started late getting into Byron beach town at 12.
Car parks here were expensive, about $4 an hour (£2) so we only stayed for a few. The beach was pleasant enough, not too crowded, allowing us to chill on a grassy hill for a few hours before heading back to the camp site.
Back there we treated ourselves to steaks and named our bearded dragon friends Gordon, Martin and Charlie. I kept trying to get a photo of the biggest (Gordon), but he got the drop on me and crept up alongside my chair. In my manliest moment I screamed and scared him off, losing the best photo opportunity.
Next door a couple of nice but drunk Scottish girls regaled us with stories of frogs climbing up the toilet and other horrors from living in Australia.
Early that morning before we left for Brisbane I bumped into Dom on way to the toilet, they arrived late that previous night, so we arranged to meet up in Brisbane at some point.
On the way to Brisbane we popped into Surfers Paradise for lunch, a place I had pictured being a small hippie commune turned out to be a bit of a metropolis with skyscrapers and a large beach.
Once in Brisbane to drop off the camper van I was glad to have a proper bed for the night but sad to see the back of the van, and the camping lifestyle we had become used to.