S: East coast roadtrip:Cape Tribulation to Sydney
Oct 20, 2004
We started our Australian travels in Cairns, Queensland located on the northeast coast of Australia. As we quickly learned at the Brisbane airport when trying to buy a ticket to Cairns, the Aussies don't come close to pronouncing the "r" in Cairns. It sounds like "cans" when they pronounce it. I kept trying to sneek an "r" into my varying pronunciation but finally gave up as clearly the Aussies had no use for this "r".
Cairns is like a movie set. It has a glamorous globally-influenced façade complete with seaside restaurants, smoothie shops, travel agencies and backpackers, but tucked just behind all this is a simple, friendly small town. The beachside esplanade was stunningly beautiful and crawling with people enjoying a swim in the mammoth seaside wading pool or nursing a cold one at a "people watching" café.
Cairns is a jumping off point for all sorts of backpacker adventures in northern and central Australia so it's loaded with young travelers including a dense population of Japanese tourists. There were so many Japanese tourists that one floor of a shopping center was filled entirely with Asian-focused travel agencies, Internet cafes running Windows in Japanese, and fast food joints serving up sushi, rice, etc.
Spur-of-the-moment tour agencies are everywhere in Cairns. From Cairns, travelers book trips to the central Outback region, north to the northeast tip of Australia, and all sorts of diving and snorkeling adventures on the Great Barrier Reef. There's enough printed travel pamphlets in Cairns alone that I'm surprised there's still any rainforest left in this region! Of all the places we've been on this trip, Australia hands down wins the coveted "Most Leaflets" award. If someone has a single putt-putt whole in their back lawn, there's probably a leaflet here telling you how exciting and worth the 2 hour out-of-the-way drive it is. Much like the good ol' USA I suppose.
Pub style ordering
We enjoyed dinner at the Rattle n Hum bar where we experienced prolonged hunger pangs til we deciphered the Aussie's hybrid of fast food and sit down restaurant service. A waiter will arrive and take your drink order, deliver your beverage and then will never be seen again. Ordering food is never brought up though everyone around you is devouring golden fish n chips with a smile. Turns out you have to go up to a counter to order and pay for the food which is often delivered by an entirely different waiter. Rattle n Hum gave us a pager and paged us when it was time to go up and get our food. The pizza oven gave out their own pagers so we ended up with two pagers which we immediately got mixed up. This whole experience nicely illustrates one of our many travel maxims, "just when you figure out how the system works, you move on to a new utterly mystifying system".
After months of planes, trains, taxis and a whole lot of hoofing it, we decided to rent a car in Australia. We were ready for the freedom of the open road. We got a one-way rental from Cairns to Sydney in a Holden Commodore, a GM vehicle akin to a Chevy Malibu. Given that I drive a matchbox car at home, the C'dore felt like a giant luxo-cruiser. V6, A/C, power heated foot massager, you name it.
We bought ourselves a backseat cooler and hit the road with the CDs we'd bought in Bali. When I spontaneously bought these CDs, I certainly didn't know they'd be our Aussie soundtrack. (No iPod input on the rental's car radio. That's so 2003.) So our roadtrip soundtrack was pretty much Sheryl Crow, R.E.M., Alan Jackson (repeat til head explodes). I do have a remarkably high tolerance for Alan Jackson however. I challenge all of you to an "Alan Jackson-a-thon". All Alan, 24/7. First one to rip off their headphones and holler, "Have mercy! Make me deaf!" loses. Any takers?
There's more to driving on the left than driving on the left
Driving in the left lane is only half the battle. With the entire dashboard, steering column and mirror system flipped, it's more akin to having a doc sew your right arm onto your left side and vice versa. Every time I wanted to use the turn signal on the steering column, I turned on the wipers. And complex intersections can throw you for a loop til you figure out who might have the rightaway. This applies to walking as well, by the way. Every time I exit a public toilet, I seem to bump into someone coming in. I simply don't know how to open a door with my right hand and keep left while exiting. It's a skill I have yet to master.
The Rainforest of Cape Tribulation
From Cairns, we headed north towards Cape Tribulation where the tropical rainforest meets long windswept beaches. Along the way, at Port Douglas, we took a snorkeling trip which Dana wrote about. The drive north to Cape Tribulation was beautiful as it often went winding along the ocean between forests and beaches. Cape Tribulation is the northernmost point you can go along the coast in a rental car. Further north requires 4x4s as it is mostly unpaved.
Where the blacktop ends, we stayed at a quirky place called the Rainforest Hideaway. We drove down an unpaved road into the woods a bit to get to it. The place was largely an open air common space with two rooms for rent. We ended up in a third accommodation, an open-sided cabin in the woods which the owner didn't always rent out to visitors. We soon learned why. It was the real rainforest hideaway, no softie tourist amenities in this one. No freebie shoeshine kit here.
The three-tier loft-style wooden house was a 15-minute walk deep into the forest and didn't have any outside walls. It was awesome during the day as it was completely surrounded by lush green palms. The shower and toilet were open air as well. You could shower with the critters. Turns out, after dark, the forest gets loud and active.
Just before bed, we watched a healthy size rat scurry through our "living room", and I saw a spider nearly the size of my hand clinging to the 2x4 above our bed. We put down our mosquito netting, the only wall-like cover we had, and tried to go to bed. Then, I lay awake most of the night listening to every nocturnal critter in the forest dig through the leaves surrounding our cabin. The woods had cassowaries, a large endangered bird resembling a cross between a peacock and an ostrich standing perhaps a yard high. I was convinced they were hungry, attack cassowaries with mutated beaks gathering in the woods to stage a mass feeding on the unsuspecting Americans. I didn't sleep much in this tropical paradise. Very cool but not very restful. So we checked out first thing the next am, and I started the day by backing our car into a tree trunk in the ultra narrow dirt driveway (you have to look left to find the rear view mirror!). I would wear the resulting trunk dent for the rest of the week as my ribbon of driver shame.
The Road South
In Cape Tribulation, we made a little calendar timetable for our time in Australia and realized we better get moving to be in Sydney on the day we'd originally planned. We also read in our guidebook that it's 1636 km from Cairns to Brisbane and another 998 km to Sydney. We never really sat down and did the math for how far it was and how long it would take us but I now present to you a simple variation on a time-tested formula:
Distance / Avg. speed = hrs. of driving
Australian edition of this formula:
(Distance you think it is * 2) / (Avg. speed you think you'll go / 2) = hrs. needed for drive + extra nights at tiny towns along the way
The drive down the eastern coast of Australia is beautiful, slow going and much further than it may strike you. Until Brisbane, it was a two-lane country road that pretended to be 100 km/hr. but frequently went down to 50 or 60 km/hr. as we passed right through small town Australia. The beaches are beautiful, the sunsets fabulous, and the towns charming in a "fell asleep before 6 pm" kind of way. I imagine this drive might be a bit like traveling Route 66 in the States before the freeways came through and Gas n' Sipped the charm out of the drive.
This sure is a pretty town, officer. Just real friendly-like...
My goodluck with our C'dore rental continued as we rolled through a tiny town on Sunday morning. I can't recall the name of the town but it was between the field of sugarcane, and the other field of sugarcane. Like all the small Aussie towns we passed through on Sunday, the sidewalks of this town had been rolled up for Sunday and not a sole was in sight.
But the speed limit on the 2-lane went from 100 km to 60 km in a heartbeat and Mr. ShinyBadgeCop was on duty with his radar gun. And he was pleased to give me a $150 ASD (~$115 US) ticket for blinking and not noticing I was in his town. I smiled and gave him my charming American "hey give me a break, I'm a tourist in these parts" accent, and he slapped me with the big fine. All I could think was how we'd just spent less than that for an entire week's bungalow accommodation in Bali. Because we were still adjusting to first world prices in general, this ticket stung smartly.
Since that day, I've never exceeded the speed limit in Australia. I use cruise control to make damned sure I don't exceed the 50 km/hour while watching old ladies with walkers walk pass us.
Other than the policeman who won't be getting a Christmas card from the Armstrongs this year, the Aussies have all been incredibly friendly, helpful and pro-American. They like us, they like tourists, and they like Americans. And unlike Indonesia, they don't all call me "Boss" and want to sell me a watch. All of our interactions with locals have been a real pleasure.
Speaking of watches, I'm still wearing the "Q&Q" cheapie digital watch I bought in Budapest after my watch I bought on the streets of Cairo lasted only 4 days. My functioning "Q&Q" watch can no longer be set, so I've learned to "add 3 hours and subtract 10 minutes" to properly calculate the time after reading it. I have no idea about the day and date. I just live on "Q&Q time" like I'm in my own little universe.
Road Tripping - Beaches, koalas and 'roos
Our trip down the coastline included nights in Cape Tribulation, Cairns, Townsville, Mackay, Hervey Bay, Brisbane, Port Macquarie, and then Sydney. In the north, we passed sugarcane farm after sugarcane farm with the ocean a few miles to our east and some small mountains off to the west. It made for scenic sunsets.
All along the drive, there were turnouts leading to magnificent beaches with often not a sole in sight. Australia is definitely blessed with breathtaking beaches. The famous ones seem to be famous only because they are more developed for dining and surfing, etc., not because they are more beautiful. We strolled down several unpopulated beaches that were grand. That said, the Noosa Heads beach resort area was a-ok in a fancypants tourist shopping kinda way. We had a great run in the oceanside park with dramatic cliffs overlooking the waves.
Along the drive, we kept hoping to see kangaroos but, alas, we never did. But we saw plenty of roadkill 'roos alongside the road. The pour fellas are nocturnal and easily hit when cruising Australia's long distances at night. We eventually saw them in the wild in Tasmania (in the snow!)
Outside the town of Port Macquarie, we visited a koala sanctuary. Along the roads, there are signs to be careful and not hit a koala. We never saw one in the wild but unfortunately many cars end up hitting the sluggish little bears and they end up at places like the sanctuary which nurse them back to health. Without a doubt, they're cuddly little critters who are quite lethargic in their slo-mo actions.
We spent two nights in Brisbane and enjoyed a blast of city living. Brisbane seemed very livable and a nice, clean, well planned midsize city (population 1.5 million. Sydney boasts 4 million people). We took several good walks through the Botanic Gardens park and both went for a run that routed us all along the Brisbane River at dusk on a Friday evening. There's a super winding park area along the river that includes cafes, playgrounds, outdoor concert stages, etc. People were everywhere enjoying the evening.