“The itinerary” for this trip has been a little on the dodgy side. When it exists, it does so only in weekly increments and only once I have made a reservation for something. Typically, it materializes as vague notations in my planner.
In the middle of the week, in the middle of February, I am considering a modified itinerary. The current version puts me in Byron Bay next week. I’ve already booked a place to stay, already reserved a bus seat. But the thing is, I met this guy.
But the other thing is, I want to spend a week in everyone’s favorite Aussie beach town before I have to be on the Goldie for the Quik Pro. Logic prevails and some uncivilized hour finds me stretching my legs in a gas station parking lot, after deciding that an oversized candy bar will make a fine substitute for actual food.
Twelve and a half hours is a very long time to spend on a bus–even when fortified by Milo bars. At least they showed a film on that bus. Do you know what it was? The First Wives’ Club.
Paddy, the genial proprietor of Byron Haven, has given me what I believe is an okay rate for a week in a studio in Byron: $650. He has also offered to fetch me and my many belongings (still no baggage charge!) from the bus along with his morning paper.
It’s still early and the room isn’t ready yet, so I walk into town and end up finding this great café. The waitress happens to be from Seattle. She’s living in a tent at one of the hostels. I feel like a yuppie, so I don’t tell her where I’m staying. She suggests I try BBQ sauce on my bacon, egg, and cheese. I must look skeptical because she says, “No, really, it’s delicious. Their BBQ sauce is different than ours and besides, it’s a very Australian thing to eat–you have to try it.” I’m surprised to discover that it’s scrumptious. She also tells me that I can pick up “wireless internet” (“Wifi” is met almost unanimously with “Ehh?”) at the Beach Hotel across the street. Thank you, Michelle!
When I get back to my pricey digs, I feel like even more of a snob and even less sorry for it. The studio is gigantic: Two king-sized beds, kitchen, flat screen… no roommates. Paddy asks if I need help with anything else. “Will you take a nap?” Half an inquiry, half a suggestion.
It is 80 degrees and sunny, and the waves are small but clean.
“Can you please tell me how to get to the beach?”
The walk takes 10 minutes. There is nobody on Belongil Beach. The waves are not as clean as I thought, but the water is nearly as warm as the air, so I surf.
And surf. And surf. I realize towards the end of the week that I have zero notes. I realize (a lot sooner) that I have become a regular at the Beach Hotel. With good internet connectivity, decent cappuccinos, dangerous wedges, a fantastic happy hour, and bouncers who will keep an eye on your surfboard, how could I be expected not to be there three times daily? I don’t know. The waves have improved; I will seriously consider it when I’m done surfing.
Just north of Main Beach, there is this big hunk of rusted metal sticking out of the sea. Most of the surfers who want to catch anything sit near it, and that’s where I tend to end up–even if I start to the south. For a bay, which is technically sheltered from the wily ways of the open Pacific, Byron has some outrageous currents. I’m pretty pleased with myself when I discover the tricks to surfing the waves breaking on this tetanus trap, which people keep calling a shipwreck. I’m surfing a shipwreck? Badass.
I alternate between wind-pitched, perfect lines at Clarkes Beach and wedge-y rights at The Wreck, mostly opting for the latter, which are, fortunately, compatible with my San Clemente board. I never get to surf The Pass, because it is just too far of a walk from the Haven. I do get to see it, though, when my friend Katy and I do the Cape Byron Lighthouse walk–it’s very close to the “easternmost point on the Australian mainland.”
My friend’s husband’s aunt, who I met once in Sydney, picks me up from Paddy’s and before she takes me home with her (kind of like a stray cat), we spend one more afternoon at Byron. Rita asks where I’ve been surfing as we sit at Main Beach. I gesture towards The Wreck. She says, “That is not a shipwreck; it’s a sunken pier.” Huh. Wait, what? I feel like this is something I should investigate. In case you’re as curious as I was, this guy at Southern Cross University says that The Wreck is the partially submerged remains of the TSS Wollongbar, which ran aground during a storm in 1921. In my research, I also learned that being maimed is a “potential hazard” of surfing The Wreck.
Rita and her husband Barry are extremely cool. They must be in their 60s, but they ride their bikes all over the quaint town of Pottsville, swim in the hellish Black Rock shorebreak just about every day, and somehow convince me that cane toad patrol is of grave importance. Also, foremost in my mind, they take me all over the place and show me the local surf spots, like Cabarita, which has “LOCALS ONLY!” scrawled across the cliff.
On the first day of the Quik Pro Gold Coast, Rita drops me off at Snapper Rocks. The waves are less than inspirational, but Kerrzy and Kelly still kill it. Parko is mesmerizing, as always, but I think this is the first time I’ve ever watched him surf in person. Isn’t it crazy, all that is lost in transmission?
The Quiksilver Pro, and generally, Coolangatta, is much like Southern California in that the entire surf industry is present. I bump into Todd Glaser, Ryan Miller says, “Hi Sunshine,” and I wind up eating lunch at Café D’bar with my friend Kevin Voegtlin and his friend Charly Martin. I’m supposed to catch the bus back to Pottsville by 6 p.m. Yeah, okay. Instead, this happens.
The wave situation is dire. My allotted week in the Gold Coast area is quickly dwindling and the comp hasn’t run since Day 1. In accordance with my week-in-advance itinerary policy, I am flying to Cairns the morning after THE Innersection party in Cooly. People keep asking me why the fuck I’m going to Cairns–their words, not mine. I keep telling them I want to see the Great Barrier Reef. Plus, my friend said it was a “cool city.” Plus, that guy is there.
The Innersection party is a magnificent, alcohol-fueled affair (but you already knew that). The party afterparty is even better. Eventually, I wander over to check out Thanks for the Dinner and the Sex’s afterparty at Neverland. I try to convince Warren Smith to snorkel the reef with me. He says maybe. In the early morning hours, I am in a cab by myself and a couple of hours later, I am hauling my suitcase through Gold Coast Airport’s never-ending parking lot. I just turned down a ride from a stranger. You’re welcome, mom.
Well, I left my board in Pottsville because there is no surfing in Cairns. And there’s not much of anything else, either, unless you count souvenir shops, tattoo parlors, and depressingly off-course Aborigines. On my third day (which is all I had put in the itinerary) I haven’t seen the guy, but I have met a couple of awesome old men. One of them was 78 and selling ceramic sea creatures at the market. He told me that he first visited Cairns when he was a sailor. “I left my heart here,” he said. He later had a family here, but his wife took his children and left him after “17 months and 17 days.” He couldn’t leave Cairns: “You have to live somewhere you love.”
John, who is 83 years old, asked if he could join me for breakfast and then sat down with his cornflakes. He called me Casey Jones and observed that lots of young people in this city have tattoos.
“Yes, they do,” I replied.
He pointed to a bluish splotch on his forearm that was partly covered by a Band-Aid and said that he got one when he was young and stupid.
“What is that?” (I actually couldn’t see it.)
“Oh, that’s a bruise.”
“Well, yes… but, what’s that tattoo next to it?”
“It used to be a heart,” he said. “With a name.”
I laughed and said, “Used to be?”
He showed me his arm, on which a name beneath a saggy heart was literally scribbled out.
“What was the name?”
So the thing about Cairns is, it’s sort of heartbreaking in an indescribable way.
I begin to think I need to just see the reef and get out of dodge before I lose my mind in all of the rain and none of the guy. As luck would have it, the incessantly inclement weather forces me to wait a few more days before I can don a stinger suit and snorkel the shit out of the GBR. That reef is one of the principle reasons I’ve always wanted to visit Australia, so I am not about to let some Irukandji and cyclones stand in my way. In the mean time, I drink a lot of beers and talk to a lot of strangers and don’t spend any time in the ocean. I also spend farrr too much money on absolutely nothing at all. On my sixth day, I break down and go to the Botanic Gardens in the torrential rain, where everything is flooded and I am, perhaps irrationally, afraid of crocodiles. A very kind stranger offers to drive me to see some waterfalls and, as she reminds me of my Aunt Kathy, I agree. In the car with Helen, I see my first kangaroo! It’s dead. Feet up in the air like some ghastly cartoon. I decide that the allure of Cairns (if it does exist) lies outside of the CBD and outside of the wet season. That night, I see the guy. I wear the adorably slutty dress I found in Byron and he says it has cute pockets. Thanks?
The Great Barrier Reef is a wonder of the world for a reason. I keep going, “Ohhh my GODDDD” into my snorkel. It must be the most breathtaking thing I have ever seen–and not to boast, but I have seen quite a few breathtaking things. The best way I think I can describe it is by saying this: it’s like the most colorful and exciting aquarium your mind can conjure up–except you’re not in an aquarium. How great is that?
In my reef euphoria, I almost want to say that Cairns, maybe, isn’t so bad. No, that’s a lie. It is that bad.
So long, Cairns, and thanks for all the fish.