Our first step in exploring the great continent of Australia was to find a suitable vehicle. But we still weren’t sure how long we wanted to stay in Oz. We had talked about having an extended visit, trying to get work visas, or even WWOOFing, which we could do with the tourist visa we had. WWOOFing stands for “Willing Workers On Organic Farms”, where you trade several hours of work daily for room and board. Giving the kids some real life experience (ie HARD WORK) is something we are always more than happy to do and it would fit in well with our homeschooling routine.
After much debating, we decided to give Australia one month at the least, look for some WWOOFing opportunities, and see how we felt. It became apparent that navigating a county that is a continent in its own right would take some form of efficient transportation. We needed a car. Our choices were slim: to rent or to buy a vehicle. After the amount we spent on our rental car in Hawaii, buying seemed a good option, as you could pick up a beater for nearly the cost of a monthly rental, and then recoup most of the cost when you sold it. On the other hand, buying could also leave you stuck trying to sell the vehicle when you were done with it, a prospect which could extend your stay indefinitely, and should anything go wrong with it, you were on the hoof for the repair bill. In Kings Cross, there is a used car mart mostly consisting of backpackers trying to sell their vehicles, many of whom had been there for weeks. This also seemed a bit constraining, so we opted for rental.
The word on the backpacker circuit was that the place to rent a vehicle cheaply was Travelers Auto Barn – http://www.travellers-autobarn.com.au/ You can rent or buy from them, and if you buy from them, they will buy back the vehicle for 40% of the purchase price, guaranteed. This option only makes sense if you’re keeping the car for more than 2 months, so it came down to renting for us. Their rentals were fairly cheap, so it felt comfortable and worry free.
The only real snag was that we could only get a rental on Monday and our hostel had no rooms for us as of Sunday night. Taking that as a sign that we should leave Sydney, we booked a room in a hostel in Manley, a nice seaside town about 45 minutes North East of the city. We just needed to get there, which can be a real challenge with 2 kids and lots of baggage. I made the executive decision to rent a car for the night, take us out to Manley, then come back into town Monday afternoon to get our monthly rental.
In a twist strangely reminiscent of our arrival in Hawaii, there were no reasonably priced cars available in downtown Sydney from the major rental agencies. Our options were limited to SUV’s for ridiculous prices, which made me wonder if the agencies were all conspiring on vehicles and prices. After walking around for several hours, I finally found a dingy office which advertised car rentals alongside architectural services and travel advice. It looked like the office had been set up that morning, and might just be gone the next day. Nigel, the heavily mustached portly man behind the counter, assured me that everything was on the level, and did I want some travel advice? Or perhaps I needed some plans drawn up for a beachside villa? Declining his kind offers, I took the only vehicle he had available, signed the papers, and checked out the car. Cheap, for sure, but the station wagon was a beater, and smelled like pee to boot.
And then there was the small matter of learning to drive on the left hand side of the road. It was like being sixteen all over again. My words can’t truly convey to you what it’s like to reverse everything you know about being behind the wheel of a car. It takes moment to moment concentration, and you constantly feel as though you are about to hit someone or something. And then, as is inevitable, unless you are on a closed circuit track, you have to turn. Making sure you end up in the proper lane is quite a challenge, and all I can say is that I was damn glad that no one was coming down that one-way street I turned into, going the wrong way.
It didn’t help that my first driving experience was in downtown Sydney. As I fended off the glares from pedestrians and fellow drivers, I could only shrug, and yell “Sorry, I’m American!”, as though that were excuse enough for any misdemeanors I might commit. Safely navigating my way back to the quiet streets of Kings Cross, I parked the car, attempted to stop my hyperventilation and slow my beating heart, and plucked up my courage for another outing. I spent the next half hour going in circles around the block until I felt sure I could navigate the streets without risking too much danger to my family or others.
Heading back to the hostel, I gathered up my family who were thankfully oblivious of my newfound lack of skill at driving southpaw, and loaded our belongings. Violet thoughtfully asked “Why does the car smell like pee?” I thought of explaining to her that a gypsy family had previously lived in the car for several months, and had found it simpler to urinate in the vehicle than to take rest stops, a la Mad Max, but thought better of it, realizing that this would only lead to more questions. “The owner’s cat had a weak bladder and couldn’t hold it in.” I replied, hoping that an animal reference would soothe her troubled mind.
Apparently it worked, and we set out through the heart of Sydney, crossed the harbor bridge, and marveled at how the narrow cobblestone streets and tightly packed buildings seemed as though they were imported from London. Without too much trouble, and, more importantly, no traffic mishaps, we found our hostel, which turned out to be more like an English guest house in a quiet neighborhood than what our concept of a hostel was at that point. It was somewhat of a welcome relief from all the comings and goings of the backpackers hostel, and we treated ourselves to a nice Italian dinner at one of the open air beachside restaurants. Everywhere we looked, it seemed like we were on the set of a movie set in Paris or London. For such a young country, Australia has a lot of old world charm.
After a pleasant (and quiet) night in the hostel, we enjoyed a lovely English breakfast with our hosts, who seemed and treated us more like they were our kindly elder relatives than hostellers. Theresa and the kids then enjoyed some time at the beach, while I found my way to a yoga studio. As much as I’ve always appreciated yoga, I hadn’t spent too much time practicing it, other than doing the odd sun salutation at home. I’m not sure if it was the sweat pouring off of me, or my foreign accent, but I seemed to draw a lot of attention from the rest of the class, who all seemed to be familiar regulars. Being as I was one step below being a novice, the extra attention wasn’t exactly warranted, or desired. However, by the end of the class, I decided I liked this yoga stuff, and would definitely make time in the future to attend some more classes.
Returning our pee-scented car to Nigel, we made our way conveniently across the street to the showroom of Traveler’s Auto Barn, which was unsurprisingly not anything remotely like a barn at all. They did, however, have a great selection of vehicles, which you could inspect before you rented, and I was pleased to note, none of them smelled like pee. I was quite taken with the jeep that had roof mounted exhaust for crossing deep rivers, but my wise wife pointed out that deep river crossings were not on the agenda, now or ever, and we settled on a lovely green Ford wagon. I had half a notion to rent a Westfalia van, but knowing their reputation for reliability, or lack thereof, we decided to play it safe. A wagon it was. What better way to pioneer the wilds of a desert country!