One thing to note about driving in Oz: they like to go fast. The speed limit on most stretches of the Pacific Highway is 100 kilometers per hour. Some stretches even go to 110 km/h. Despite this being the major North-South route in the most populous region of Australia, it is mostly a two 2 lane, non-divided highway, with lots of 50 km/h zones. It is most decidedly NOT a freeway. And yet, the speed limits were the same as, or higher than the divided freeways in Canada. Channeling Mad Max, I took advantage of this wherever possible, trying to limit our travelling time.
So, on the one hand, you have the leeway to go really fast most of the time. On the other hand, they use photo radar quite frequently to enforce speed zones. I know this, because every so often, we would come upon a sign saying “Speed Camera Ahead”, and another sign right before the speed camera giving us another warning. You would have to be a bit daft to speed past these, but all it really does it encourages people to slow down when they see the signs, and promptly speed back up to 140kmh after they pass the camera.
Another thing that causes no end of delight for North American drivers are the roundabouts. Real, honest to goodness, European style roundabouts. Traffic lights? What a waste of time. Just drive into the roundabout, and hope you get out at the right exit. Missed something? Just go all the way around the roundabout and go back the way you came. I became quite fond of these, and soon was able to dispense of Theresa’s help as a navigator to make sure we end up in the right direction. Well, most of the time, anyway. Due to my aforementioned polarity issues, I occasionally ended up heading back the way we came, only to realize we had gone a little too far in our circular intersection, and would pull over, double back, and try again.
The similarity to all things British did not stop at their fondness for English traffic routing. For those of you familiar with English cuisine, Bangers or ‘Bangas’ (say it with an accent) are a popular form of sausage, similar to a hot dog, but fatter. As with many English traditions, this one has carried over into Australian culture. One day while browsing through the meat section of a grocery store, I was shocked to find the local variety of Bangas made with uniquely Australian meat. The name, if you haven’t guessed already, was ‘Kanga Bangas’. I can’t image that a giant rat would be the epitome of haute cuisine, but I suppose the necessity of survival in a harsh land would prompt people to eat whatever they could catch.
Aside from the preferences of deli selection, we were noticing more and more that the culture in Australia was very similar to that in North America. Sure, there are many small differences, but overall, they Aussies eat (mostly) the same foods, wear the same clothes, shop at the same stores, buy the same toys and gadgets, and even watch many of the same TV shows and movies. One of the only noticeable major differences was that the entire country seems to be set up for people on the go. There are no end of services and accommodations available for people who are traveling, whether it be from the other side of the country, or the other side of the world. Our options were never limited when it came time to find somewhere to set up camp for the night.
Our second night on the road found us in Crescent Head – halfway between Sydney and Byron Bay, and far less remote than Seal Rocks. Though it was midweek, the Crescent Head Holiday Park ocean side campground was packed with families, partiers, surfers and fellow travelers. It was our first night testing out our camping gear, which we soon discovered was adequate, but less than ideal. Cursing our decision to get a wagon instead of a camper van, we set up tent, and set about making dinner. Aussie ingenuity came through, and on a trip to the washrooms, I discovered the campground patrons had kindly thought to set up outdoor barbeque stations. Sharing a beer, a real beer, not a Fosters, with my fellow grill mates, we enjoyed some comradery and laughs over our cultural differences and similarities, and swapped some of our food for variety.
Australian hospitality is gregarious and enjoyable, and we ate our dinner by light of the rising moon on the edge of the beach in good company. Our enchantment was soon diminished, as we realized that many locals came to the campground in search of some good times. The noisy revelry went late into the night, and the rising sun was unforgiving in its timeliness. It was also beautiful enough to make it worthwhile. Taking advantage of our early reverie, we ventured out onto the head, a bluff rising dramatically from the beach, and watched the surfers line up on the point to catch some sunrise waves. From our elevated vantage point, we could easily see which breaks were worth catching, and played a game of guessing who was going to catch and successfully ride the sweet barrels without crashing into the jagged rocks at the edge of the head.
Although the day of driving was mostly a blur, our curiosity was piqued when we drove past a giant banana. I mean a King Kong Sized banana, as though a banana had mated with an elephant and given birth to this giant plaster monstrosity. In case we hadn’t noticed how large it was, it had the words “The Big Banana” stenciled on it. We were curious enough to turn around and gave Coffs Harbour a second look. Besides boasting numerous banana plantations, it had… well, lots of banana plantations. It was indicative of how far north (south?) we had come, that the climate was favorable to the growing of bananas, and Coffs Harbour made no small deal about this fact. The Giant banana was, in fact, a lure for passersby such as us, to give us the (potentially false) impression that were was some reason to stop and check it out. And in fact, there are many things to do in Coffs Harbour, but we made do with the tasks of buying groceries and finding a hostel for the night. Our first choice of hostels had several large tattooed dudes showing off their snakes in the front lobby, discussing the merits of various sharpened instruments for killing small mammals. Despite my fondness for tattoos, or perhaps because of my fondness for small mammals, we opted for a simple hostel which happened to be beside a park complete with water features for the kids, and several species of wild small lizards that would have made me think a reptile zoo had exploded if I had spotted them back in Canada.
Now close to our destination, we made the three-hour drive to Byron Bay the next day in roughly 6 hours, exploring some of the more interestingly named towns (Woolgoolga, Ballina and Bangalow) before finally pulling into our apparent destination. It appeared that Australia, like our home in BC, had made a habit of naming towns from a bastardized version of the aboriginal name. We had heard great things about Byron Bay, and were excited to be there. We pulled in early, and the first thing we noticed was the throngs of people milling about. For a town of 6000 people, there was a quite a crowd, almost as though it were a street party. The first few hostels we tried were all full. Hostels, full! We had been advised to book ahead for Byron, but brushed it off, thinking it overly cautious advice. To top it off, Easter was the following weekend, which also saw the start of the school break, but the real clencher was the annual Byron Bay blues festival happening over Easter, featuring a host of musical acts including Taj Mahal, Jack Johnson, Dave Matthews, Ben Harper, and numerous other amazing local (meaning Australian) musicians. It dawned on us that the coming week would not be a good time to be in Byron, as the population was going to multiply tenfold, and the prices for nearly everything, including bad coffee, were going to double.
Although we were tired, there seemed but one option for us. We had heard about a little town about an hour inland called Nimbin, which is well known as a town full of alternative lifestyles, hippies, and, well, grass. Weed. The devil’s lettuce. In the 1970’s, Nimbin was host to a counter-culture music and arts festival, and many of the attendees never left. The alternative lifestyle flourished, and now, more than 30 years later, the place is something like a hippie theme park. It has a reputation as the ‘town where pot is legal’, and this is somewhat true, as people sell it and smoke it openly in the streets and bars. Neither Theresa nor I had smoked marijuana in years, and although we may have dabbled in our past, we had come to find that our minds and spirits are clearer without the fog of weed to cloud it up. We have no problem with its use, whether as a psychological, spiritual, or recreational tool, but we had come to feel that the culture of marijuana clouds its use, and often leads to abuse. Potheads are very mellow, likable people, and are pleasant to hang out with, so we figured Nimbin would be a fine place to spend some time. We were also under the impression that a good number of the people in the area would be of like mind to us: alternative in mindset, but not needing to use drugs as an access to higher states of being.
One thing we were looking for was a little peace and quiet. We wanted some time to reflect on our journey, and to figure out our path. We had thus far been travelling on a whim, and hadn’t taken the time yet to let our internal compass guide us to our next destination. And with Byron Bay seemingly unavailable, at least for the next week or so, some down time would be much welcomed. Nimbin itself seemed overly busy and quite frankly, overrun with drug dealers, so we consulted our oracle of wisdom, Lonely Planet, and found a nice hostel called Nimbin Rox, which was on a hill high above town, and had (some of) the tranquility we were seeking. It had a nice view of the Nimbin Rocks, ancient rock pillars that rise out of the valley behind Nimbin, which have great significance to the local aboriginals as the home to the Nmbngee, or Clever Men. They were also the initiation grounds for young boys. Nimbin itself can only be described as a phenomenon, a circus of freakiness with funky shops and hemp-cafés. There was an element of sleaze that had permeated the town, a layer of dealers that abuse the openness of the town to make a profit, but this didn’t completely obscure the free and beautiful spirit of the town.
At the Rox, we began to notice that most people were either smoking pot, had just smoked pot, or were getting ready to smoke pot again. Now before you wonder what exactly we are teaching our children, remember that we don’t think there is anything wrong with occasional marijuana use. This did lead us into discussions on the abuse of the drug, and how smoking anything is bad for you. It did give our children a chance to see how pot heads could be very present and considerate people, and it did give us the peaceful environment we were seeking. (Well, almost. More on that later.) There was enough space at the Rox, and enough nooks and crannies to hang out in that we (and our children) were not subjected to the perils of second hand reefer smoke all the time.
This is not to mention the other phenomenon we noticed in Australia, namely that everyone seemed to smoke cigarettes. The fact that Australia has the highest skin cancer rates in the world might have as much to do with that than with the strength of the sun there. It was quite a shock, after coming from Hawaii, where smoking is illegal in any public place, or within 30 feet of any doorway of a business. It seems as though the whole ‘smoking is bad for you’ message hadn’t sunk in yet. This is also a country whose (then) Prime Minister John Howard had been quoted as saying that global warming ‘may or may not be a real issue,’ and that ‘we don’t want to jump the gun on chasing phantom problems.’ Despite detailed reports that new environmental technologies would generate new income and improve the economy, lowering energy costs, and preserving the planet for future generations, he still maintained that his prime focus was on ‘the economy over the environment.’ I guess they must use Diebold voting machines in Australia too!
Meanwhile back at the Rox, the resident caretaker Bruce (no really, his name was Bruce,) was spending considerable time educating Cyrus about the indigenous plants and animals. We spent several hours trying to find the live-in python, who apparently liked to hang out by the pool. One morning while checking out his favorite sunning spots, we heard a shriek from the forested walkway leading to our room. It had the blood curling sound of someone in trouble, someone who was hurt or in imminent danger. To my horror, they were the unmistakable shrieks of Violet. Now bear in mind that the 10 most poisonous snakes in the world all live in Australia, as well as several deadly species of spiders, crocodiles, etc, and you can imagine what sort of horrors were running through my mind…
Rushing up to deal with who knows what sort of creature we may be facing, Violet met us halfway, crying, and partially in shock. “Bwaahh-haaaa-haaaa-it was this big and huge and do snakes bite ahhhh don’t let it get me bwhaaa haaaa…” It didn’t take long to figure out that Violet had found the elusive python. By almost stepping on it. Luckily, it didn’t bite her, which would have been painful but non-poisonous. We had a little talk about how she probably scared it as much as it scared her, and that as long as you respect a snake and leave it alone, it will probably leave you alone. She calmed down a little, and to this day, is the only one of us that had seen the Python. Of course, this whole event did little to stir the potheads, who were busy with their favourite pastime, which made us feel that maybe we should be getting on our way.
The day that Violet and Cyrus came up to us and described in detail the ‘new technique’ they had seen for smoking marijuana, which involved cutting open a plastic two liter bottle, and fitting it with some ice cubes and some hose, we knew it was time to leave. Again, we are trying to teach our kids respect for themselves, and respect for other people. This includes respecting their faults as being part of their journey, and if that means they see some things that the law disagrees with, well so be it. If we can use these things to teach them how self-abuse can be subtle, and they can see that we don’t do these things, we feel there is no harm done. We are, after all, only as great as our faults.