In mid April we packed our van again, and left Moss Vale and lots of new friends behind, and began chipping away at the mammoth 2800 km trek to Cairns. We worked out that we would probably drive about 20,000 km in the next 4 or 5 months as we did an anti-clockwise circuit of Australia’s Eastern half.
Our first couple of nights we’re spent in a little rest stop at the Northern end of the Hunter Valley. We’d heard that the Hunter Valley was the place to go for grape picking or vine pruning work. We had started asking about jobs in Cessnock, the biggest town in the area, and practically got laughed out the door by some folks as they told us there was no work – the season had ended a month ago. So much for hearsay.
We made the most of our time in the Hunter Valley, though, and spent a day driving round as many wineries as we could fit in. There are literally hundreds, and we turned out of one, drove 100 metres down the road, and turned into the next one. We finished our day, slightly wobbly, after 6 wineries, 2 cheese shops, a chocolate shop, a liqueur shop, and with 2 bottles of Muscat tucked safely away in the van.
Moving gradually North we discovered 2 problems. The first was that our van was burning 2 litres of oil every few hundred kilometres. The second was on the job front. No amount of ringing the National Harvest Info line, or asking around in towns we passed through got us even a hint of a job. Everyone was saying, go further North; there’s work up there. We arrived Further North and got told “Go Further North”. And so on…
On our way up the New South Wales coastline we found pelicans at Boomerang beach, went to a Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie, and went bodyboarding at Coolangatta and Byron Bay. Byron was such a chilled out, relaxed place, with loads of cool shops selling local art, photography and copious quantities of board shorts.
Straddling the border of NSW and Queensland is a town called Tweed Heads. It is a nice enough place, but quite strange for half the year as one half of the town runs on Queensland time, and the other on EST. This means that for 6 months of the year one half of the town is an hour ahead of everybody else. We happened to arrive 5 minutes before the road was shut off for the ANZAC day parade, and we were treated to a procession of the Armed Forces, Youth Organisations, classic cars, and bands.
Pretty much as soon as we crossed the border into Queensland, it rained. And continued raining. We couldn’t help but notice that everybody had number plates on their vehicles with the tag line “Queensland – The Sunshine State” across the bottom. Sunshine State, my arse!
From Coolangatta we could see across a massive bay to lots of skyscrapers in the distance, and we assumed this modern, high-rise skyline was Brisbane. It wasn’t. The Aussie distances had got us again. It turned out to be Surfers Paradise, which is 90% hotels and 10% surfer bums.
We Couch Surfed in Surfers Paradise for 2 days with a Russian guy called Alexey and his flatmate Pavel. We spent a great couple of nights talking life, politics and Russia, as well as eating burritos and drinking the cheapest beer we could find.
While on the Gold Coast, we turned inland briefly, heading for Canungra and Mt. Tamborine. We drove South from Canungra to O’Reilley’s Retreat in Lamington National Park, and spent an awesome overnight feeding the Crimson Rosellas, walking the skywalk in the rainforest, and photographing the wild Pademelons, a very small Wallaby that grows to about 3 feet in height.
The next day we walked Mt. Tamborine’s Gallery Walk in the rain. It is a long street lined with Cellar Doors, fudge shops, local arts and crafts. At one of the wineries we were served by a lady from Glenavy. Small world! After as many free samples of vino, cheese and fudge as we could blag we wobbled our way to Curtis Falls, then back to Canungra Showgrounds for another night with rain drumming on the van’s tin roof. Lesson: don’t park under trees when it’s raining.
We splashed out on a Super Pass, which gave us unlimited entry to Wet N’ Wild Water Park, Warner Brothers’ Movie World, and Sea World. These are 3 of the 5 theme parks on the Gold Coast. The first day it poured with rain, absolutely torrential, so we decided to hit the water park, since we’d be getting wet anyway. It was good fun, but really, really cold. They heat the water through the winter from the 1st of May, which would have been all good, except we went on the 28th April! A couple of the rides had warm water, so we stuck to those, venturing out into the cold only occasionally. They shut the park early, so we crossed the road to Movie World and played on the rollercoasters. The weather kept the crowds away, so we got lots of front-seat runs, but we quickly learned that rain at 90 mph really hurts!
Sea World was well worth a visit, and we spent a day watching guys on jetskis doing an awesome show, much of it upside down, being amazed by the grace of the dolphins and the bond they have with their trainers. A day or so later the weather finally turned decent, so we went back to the water park and Movie World to make the most of the tickets, then left the Gold Coast behind.
In Brisbane we visited the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. They had a huge array of Australian animals, reptiles, and birds. Chrisie even got to hug a Koala named Hugo, and I saw my very first crocodile. There was also a paddock full of Kangaroos that you could wander around in.
Above Brisbane life got a bit more sparse; the roads got longer between bits of civilisation, and we nearly ran out of fuel and oil on several occasions. On the oil thing, we discovered that as long as we didn’t drive over 80km an hour, the oil was fine, but as soon as we went over that burned 2L in the space of 50km. We are now officially the slowest thing on the road, and have made enemies of most of the truckers in the North!
We almost got a couple of jobs, one working 5 hours into the outback near Mt Isa laying irrigation pipes for a cattle ranch, which was about 1800km from where we were at the time, and another vine pruning in Emerald. The first one found people closer, and the second said they didn’t want us because Chrise is a girl and they didn’t think a girl could hack it. Chrisie lasted several hundred K’s steaming about that one!
Eventually we arrived in Bundaberg, the fruit-picking Mecca of Australia. We rang working hostels, we went to the library and rang every farmer in the phone book, we rang job agencies, and we hung around for a few days waiting for replies, but no luck. We spent those days chilling on the beach, barbequing epic burgers and doing a geocache or 2. Finally the replies came: Still no work to be had! We weren’t desperate for cash, but we needed the work to fund the Asian section of our trip, so we cut our losses and carried on driving North, ever hopeful that something would turn up.
We arrived in a place called Eumundi, and found cars parked everywhere. Not knowing why we parked up and went to investigate. It turned out we had stumbled on the world-famous Eumundi Markets. We met a white Aussie who made and sold his own didgeridoos. He spent an hour teaching us the basics of circular breathing and how to play, as well as what to look for in a Didge. We also found a guy selling Golliwogs. Anyone who knows their history will know that these are not the racist icons they are assumed to be. The result of that misconception has meant that they are few and far between in the UK, so when I asked the guy if I could photograph them he was more than happy. Then when he heard the accent it turned out he was from Belfast! Small World no. 2!
One of our goals for Australia was to get out to the Great Barrier Reef, and we drove to the vibrant backpacker resort of Airlie Beach to see if we could get out to it somehow. We ended up spending a bit extra and opting for a “Reef Sleep”. We stayed the night in a nearby caravan park (with a very inquisitive baby possum), then got picked up and taken to the port. We cruised out to the Whitsunday islands, picked up a few more passengers and spent a hour feeling seasick as we crossed open ocean on our way to the Hardy Reef.
Once there we were greeted by our host, Nina, who gave us as much free coke, beer and ice cream as we could handle, and got us sorted with ridiculous-looking stinger suits in case of jellyfish or rays. We wouldn’t want to go all Steve Irwin now, would we? The pontoon was anchored right on the reef wall, and the snorkelling was incredible. We even went for a scuba dive down the reef wall and played underwater rugby with a sea cucumber! In the deeper water we could see Giant Grouper, measuring up at over 3 metres!
Later on, all the day guests left, and we were the only people staying, along with the crew. They treated us like king and queen. We had a private submarine tour, a candlelit dinner underwater, an awesome afternoon cheese platter and a huge cooked breakfast.
The next day we were back in the water for more snorkelling, and we ended up finding a giant clam that was easily a metre and a half across, and the highlight, swimming with turtles! We finally found turtles, after hunting in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Fiji!
A few days later, we arrived in Ayr, the biggest town in the Burdekin region. We tried the main hostel, who said there was a 3 week wait for work, and we had to pay $140 each a week to stay so we could be on the waiting list. 3 weeks at $280 between us, with no work? No thanks! Just as we left in disgust, a guy in a pickup truck drove in, spotted us, and said did we want some work? Hell yes! So we spent 5 hours scraping glue off a shop floor. And that’s how we met Trev…