This uni holidays was supposed to take me to Asia. India! Bangladesh! Sri Lanka! Laos! Philippines! They all screamed at me from airline booking sites and the Lonely Planet section in Dymocks. Then Mum booked an operation to get my wisdom teeth out come January something-th, with a dental appointment in mid-December to boot. And you’d be forgiven for thinking she’d participated in some sort of round-robin gladitorial contest, last mother standing gets to see a dentist, so it’d be a brave man who misses that appointment.
Anyway, my 3 months in Asia was narrowed to a one month window. Then I realised I don’t have a valid passport anymore. So the trip was downsized again as my good mate of 15 years and serial travel buddy Karl and I ended up deciding to go roadtripping and see some Oz. I had visions of camping in the desert, huddled round a campfire in a vision of glorious solitude, trekking in the Top End, escaping from Ivan Milat’s even more demented cousin.
Then I remembered the craft we would be navigating across the wilderness: Karl’s grandmother’s hand-me-down Toyota Echo: Casper – the little hatchback that could.
Or couldn’t. Much as he’d like to, little Casper just wasn’t up to that kind of adventure. And, let’s face it, with boards in the car and having spent most of the past year pent up in the barren, urban, surfless desert that is inner-city Brisbane, we weren’t going to be leaving the coast unless we had to.
We headed south and spent a couple of days dodging schoolies around Byron Bay, drinking beer and camping at beautiful Broken Head. The waves were small so we allowed ourselves a short inland trip to Nimbin (where else?). Nimbin’s a place trying really hard to believe it’s a hippy paradise, the Hemp Museum being a perfect example. The first room covers the Aboriginal people who lived in the forests before European settlement – all Aboriginal paintings, idealised murals and some interesting text. The next room announces itself with the foreboding words “…then the Europeans came” – cue the painted Noam Chomsky quotes, the old photos of logging and hunting – doom and gloom. The next room is the clincher: “…and then the hippies came”: Murals of houses in the bushland complete with solar panels and veggie gardens, skinny dippers in the rivers, black and white people holding hands under rainbows. All very nice.
Then you walk into the street. The dealers look more like Scott Storch (see photo) than anything from Woodstock, and the hustlers and touts on the street are more reminiscent of desperately poor Egyptians in Luxor than the bizzare coolness of Dutch coffee shops.
The alcoholics in the park and the gentleman who told us he hadn’t slept in 3 days, that his tabs were “the craziest shit bra” and who we later saw having a very public disagreement in the street with the missus – it all seems like the hippy dream in Nimbin has gone the way of most hippy dreams: a few brief glorious years before the tourists showed up, and everyone’s too stoned to save it or care.
My favourite part of the whole thing was a video playing in the Hemp Museum on how to grow weed without getting caught, hosted by a gregarious bearded fellow full of practical tips: “While you’re growing, don’t smoke your own produce. You’ll get paranoid and probably do something stupid.”
Still, the area around Nimbin is beautiful and after putting Casper through some serious paces we ended up at Protesters Falls. We sampled some of the area’s finest produce and had a blast.
We drove south to Yamba hoping to score classic Angourie Point and instead got rained on surfing main beach at 2-3 foot, clogged with seaweed. I was daydreaming as Karl drove us into town from the highway.
“Damnit,” he says with a resigned sigh.
He nods ahead, where four extremely attractive young European ladies stand, trying to hitch a ride.
“Damnit Casper, grow some seats!”
“They won’t have any trouble getting a ride.”
We stayed in a pub, bartered a massive discount on the room and then squandered our savings at the bar.
Demoralised by the rain, we spent an entire day speeding south toward Newcastle, where family and dry (free!) beds waited. Over the weekend we scored sunny, uncrowded central coast beaches with my older cousin deep in national parks. We spent the days alternating between swapping boards in fun surf and stretching out deliriously on the sand to rest unfit arms.
The sun had returned and we headed north again to Seal Rocks, a tiny fishing hamlet nestled in a national park south of Forster. A back beach, ominously named Treachery, was offshore in the prevailing nor’ east winds and again we scored some fun surf, sharing the best waves with pods of dolphins and very few humans. In the evenings we cooked, drank beer and sat quietly listening to the silence. You often don’t realise how oppressive city living is until you leave it.
Heading south again as the weather turned sour, and unwilling to enter the belly of the beast that is Sydney, we detoured to the Blue Mountains (Gasp! Inland!) and ended up having a blast. Katoomba is actually a damn cool little town, but it was freezing for December. We were optimistic and pitched the tent, drinking plenty of red wine and beer to warm the bloodstream and feed my alcoholism. Karl had his sleeping bag. I didn’t have mine. It was cold and he wasn’t sharing, so I had a little fleece blanket and all the clothes I could fit on. After two minutes I actually felt warm… “No wait, my feet are numb”. The next night found us in a hostel.
We met some interesting characters in the Blue Mountains. At one particular lookout a local guy who must’ve had a few screws loose had latched onto a couple of young American travellers.
“So do you girls go to university?”
“Yeah we go to Oklahoma Christian University.”
“Oh cool, so what church are you guys from? Is there many religious schools over there?”
“We’re Protestants, and yeah we’re from the Bible Belt, so there’s a lot of religious institutions and people where we’re from.”
“Nice, yeah, Christian people are always nice. I was on a Christian dating website the other day, met some really, really nice girls… then I realised the bastards were charging $16.95 a month!”
“… So what’re you girls doing later?”
We saw the Three Sisters and did an awesome bushwalk around the rim of the cliffs upon which Katoomba and some smaller villages sit. On the second day we ventured further afield, into the Grose Valley. The track opened with a bang, throwing us off a sheer cliff below a perilously high waterfall. The rest of the day involved countless cliffs, lookouts, waterfalls, valleys, a snake and almost no humans.
I have this odd habit of smiling like an idiot, or even laughing hysterically whenever I’m in a potentially dangerous place or I’m seeing something especially beautiful (it goes some way to explaining why the fairer sex generally thinks me a little odd). For example, it happened a lot travelling through Iraqi Kurdistan last year, or when we thought we were about to be hit by a train in an Italian tunnel during the same trip. So chances are if you came by me in the Blue Mountains, scrambling down off the track “for a better look” or trying to get as close to waterfalls as possible you would’ve found me giggling like a maniac, with Karl standing placidly behind, rolling his eyes, being the voice of reason.
After 8 hours or so of trekking, as my hiking volleys were about to die we emerged back at the car park. Danish tourists blasted dull, thudding techno and did burnouts in their hire cars. Beyond the cliff’s edge, Mother Nature was looking mighty fine, strutting her stuff but going largely ignored. Damn humans.
A few days later the amber eucalyptus forests of Murramarang National Park enveloped Casper as we turned off the Princes Highway just north of Batemans Bay to find the rather oddly named, quite sandy Pebbly Beach. The air’s stiff and the water stiffer down there, and the coastline’s rougher than up north, where I spend most of my time in the ocean. The long, sandy pointbreaks and easy beachies are replaced with offshore reefs and islands, gnarly, unforgiving coastline and surf spots with names like ‘Massacres’.
We trekked along the coast looking for surf and found a suicidal ledge breaking at around 4-5 foot (my height, and then half again), 10-20 metres from dry rock. A perfectly square, short, ledging barrel ended in a deathly dry end section, where seaweed on the reef would wave at you as the swell threatened to pull it over the falls. We watched, we hooted, we were way too yellow to paddle out.
After scouring the coast for any sign of a rideable wave the township of Bawley Point finally had a couple of young surfers threading impossibly heavy pits at a reef helpfully called ‘Guillotines’. Disappointed at our own fear, we failed again to break our south coast reef virginity.
Chilling at Pebbly Beach was uneventful, besides a much needed break from what I call refreshments, and Karl what calls alcoholism, and Karl getting himself a tick, which was later yanked out by a cheerful Chinese doctor in Batemans Bay (“Keep him, is a Christmas present!”). The nights were cold and I was forced to abandon the tent and curl up inside Casper. The rain came again and, cursing and shivering in the company of some amiable French dudes, started the long trek north, finally breaking our virginity at a reef near Ulladalla. The sun came out, the wind was offshore, the waves glassy and overhead, breaking over a colourful reef that shot underfin as you weaved through section after section, ending with a heavy shallow closeout. As happened many times on this trip, a pod of dolphins turned up moments before the wave of the day rolled in, and we could only watch from the shoulder as they jumped and twisted through it. They hung around for a bit, and we sat underwater listening to their sonar between waves.
The rain forced us again to the refuge of family and dry beds in Newcastle, and we ended up scoring epic waves. Newcastle’s Cambridge Hotel had a Saturday arvo/evening gig of up and coming local bands, so we hung around to make up for the beer we’d missed down south, play pool with lead singers, dance like idiots, fall in love with female guitarists and emerge bleary eyed to a bright morning and fun surf at Dudley.
We went to places we knew all to well, as well as some new spots, never really venturing too far off the beaten track. But after a year of living in an inner city box listening to the echoes of drunken uni students and dreaming of escape, it was just what the doctor ordered.
Until next time amigos,