I’m at Pancakes on the Rocks. Again. Mildly hungover and/or sleep-deprived. I order the most embarrassingly big breakfast. It literally arrives on two plates. There are chocolate pancakes involved. The shame is heightened by the fact that I am sitting by myself. That, and, the way the waiter looks at me–like some kind of curiosity; a bottomless pit at which to marvel. A half hour later, I’m slumped on a bench near Campbell’s Cove, unsure whether the massive brekky will help or hinder my recovery and hoping for some noticeable vitamin D absorption; the sun is brilliant. The harbour bridge is just behind me and the opera house is right across the water. It’s just so pleasant in Sydney. It’s just so clean, so temperate, so… not Cairns.
Over the next few days, I spend an inconsiderate amount of time with friends, avoiding hostels by sleeping on a vintage love seat in Adam Mada’s living room somewhere near the beach in Sydney. I share the room with his magical fish and Emily’s mom, Eileen, who sleeps on the floor. Kindly, no one makes me feel like the spectacular mooch that I am.
Adam, a magician by profession, is Emily’s brother-in-law and he has allowed me and, pretty much, their entire family to invade his home. One morning, Adam plans to take us on an alternate coastal walk–the route is known only to him, so the whole crew sets out, blindly, on foot from Bondi. We walk through a ritzy neighborhood, past many bays full of sailboats and pontoon planes, up hills. Up more hills. We stop to swim and it’s lost on no one that Sydney Harbour is more notoriously populated by sharks than the ocean. Thankfully, this swimming area has a net around it, but Eileen wonders, “What if a baby shark swam through the net and grew up?” It’s so hot that we swim despite the remote possibility of a shark outsmarting a safety net.
We continue walking: even more hills. After a while, we are begging for coffee and a place to rest our weary feet. Adam promises tea on a cliff overlooking the ocean, so on we trek. Several hours later, we are sunburnt and mutinous.
“Where’s that cliff-side café, Adam?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You said if we kept walking, we’d be rewarded with coffee and a fantastic view!”
“Oh. Yeah. I don’t know, I just figured we’d find something like that.”
THERE IS NO CLIFFSIDE CAFÉ!
We are rapidly losing faith, but still, we follow Adam. When we turn up at Bondi Sewage Treatment Works, which, admittedly, does have a great view but, you know, also processes shit and is probably a little toxic, we abandon our fearless leader and find comfort in body surfing, followed by beer. Later, looking at a map, I still can’t figure out exactly where we walked. But I do know that it was almost entirely uphill and it took about 6 hours. Possibly longer.
Bill Bryson (and just about everyone else in the world) seems to loathe Canberra. Em and Russ live a lifestyle untainted by Canberra’s ennui. Actually, it defies it. Daily life is a whir of BMX practice sessions, coffee runs, raw cooking, vegan baking, dance classes, dinners with friends, tattoos, hiking, roo spotting, and organic fruit selling. They love their ACT suburb and so do I. They show me everything that I would have missed if I had come here unknowing and alone: everything.
Internet is harder to come by in Canberra than in most other places I’ve been–even in Australia. And since it turns out that Australia straggles behind Estonia, Singapore, and Georgia in the world ranking of internet connectivity, uhh… it’s really fucking hard to come by. It’s also really expensive. Oddly enough, Macca’s is one of the few places that offers free wireless. Probably because it’s taking over the world. Globalization, blah blah blah. I walk a mile or so to McDonalds on a daily basis because I actually need to use the internet for “work.” I’m not just addicted, I swear. I may as well upload photos to Facebook while I’m sitting here.
Emily offers to deposit me in the city center after delivering cupcakes early one morning, so that I can explore, shop, and (obviously) find a place with free wifi PLUS good cappuccino MINUS social stigma. It’s very early in the morning because the places that buy Emily’s cupcakes cater to sunrise bikers and pre-work coffee fiends. The sun is just creeping up over Lake Burley Griffin, illuminating hundreds of hot air balloons with its acutely angled rays. Hundreds. They linger in the tangerine air above the weird “White House” that reminds me of a spaceship and the “fountain,” which essentially amounts to a fire hose frozen in a concrete pedestal, plopped in the middle (not even the exact middle) of the lake. I thought every detail of this city was planned? Science fiction landmarks and feeble national monuments aside, on this morning, Canberra is breathtaking.
I still haven’t seen a [living] kangaroo. I have been in the land of roos for nearly two months. This is beginning to reek of tragic irony: People who take week-long group tours of Oz see endless kangaroos (or so I imagine) and I am taking my time, thoroughly exploring this continent (half of it, at least) and I am yet to see one. Emily takes me to the top of a “mountain,” where we look out over the entire city. On the way back down, we see a group of people gathered on the far side of a guard rail. Em stops and I climb out of the car to ask what they’re looking at, hoping it’s something really Australian. Like a kangaroo.
“We’re waiting for the moon,” they inform me.
“Huh.” We continue driving.
Em says this military college (I think) is where all of the kangaroos like to hang out when the streetlights come on. I see heaps of them. They’re mostly little. They eat grass like deer and stare daggers at nosy tourists. If their stern looks don’t move you along, they’ll just turn and hop away. They don’t give a shit. They’re kind of smug. And cuddly at the same time. I want one.
I am elated by my at-long-last native animal sightings. And then there’s the moon. Now I get what those weirdos were talking about. The moon is closer tonight than it has been in approximately a zillion years, and it looks utterly gigantic. I don’t know that it would have been necessary to congregate on the side of the highway to appreciate it (you can pretty much see it from anywhere)… but yeah, it’s impressive.
It’s starting to get cooler in Canberra. The climate here reminds me of home. It’s fall. Except they don’t say “fall” in Australia; they say autumn. I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t mailed most of my sweaters and jeans home from Cairns. (Fucking Cairns.) I spend as much time outside as weather will permit. If someone is home, the girls (the chickens) are allowed to roam the yard and eat tomatoes from the garden. Watching them makes me re-evaluate eating chicken.
Above the garden hang clotheslines. When I do my laundry, which, believe me, is not very often, I hang it on these lines to dry. I did this in Pottsville and forgot to take my clothes in for the night. When I gathered them in the morning, there were giant moths hiding in my t-shirts. I try not to forget my laundry overnight anymore.
Moths are a minute concern; Spiders are the issue in Australia. They are large, numerous, and dangerous. One morning, I rise exceptionally early and as I’m making my bed, I have an inexplicable desire to check the sheets. I discover (literally uncover) a spider the size of a ping pong ball. He’s brown and fuzzy. I scream (probably waking the entire house) and he makes a run for it. I try not to murder spiders, but this guy has to go. He is just too big to corral and escort from the premises. I swat at him with one of Russ’s DVDs. Violently. His body doesn’t splatter like an insect; it crumples. He slumps, visibly lifeless. It’s almost sad, in a way, but also a huge relief.
“I felt bad killing him,” I later tell Emily.
“I wouldn’t have tried to save him!” she responds. “Spiders in Australia can kill you. I wouldn’t touch any of them.”
Back in Sydney, before my foray to Cairns, I had mentioned to Em that I’d been wanting a tattoo for years. That is not an exaggeration. I’ve been wanting the same tattoo for years, but my mom is repulsed by the thought and has threatened to make me a vagabond if one ever appears on my skin. In Sydney, Em had tempted me with an offer to get me inked if I visited Canberra, since her friends are tattoo artists. Now that I’m here and I’m already a vagabond, we make an appointment with Max. He can squeeze me in at 2 p.m. on March 30th, the day after I get back from Melbourne and the day before I leave for Sydney.
[One day while I was exploring Canberra (read: sitting in a café and reveling in the freedom to download music and upload photos with speed approaching–dare I say it? High.) I thought to myself that I’d really like to see Melbourne, after all. I was not so far away, and I don’t really have to be anywhere specific at any specific moment–at least not until Jess gives birth to my niece. I’d like to be home around that time. Anyway, I figured I’d be a moron not to visit Australia’s other major city while I’m here. Within an hour, I had booked a round-trip flight for about $250 and was working on a place to stay. My friend Alexa, who’s more or less from Melbourne (she’s had a complicated, multinational trajectory to her present home of New York), said The Nunnery is cheap and clean. And in a cool neighborhood. Done and done. I also found a cheap-ish flight to Kauai in April, so I booked that as well.]
The Nunnery is affordable and it is clean–very much like staying at a distant aunt’s mansion, actually. With a bunch of her other wayward, young relatives.
Now, if Cairns taught me anything, it was to find and/or make my own entertainment. Fuck it. I’m spending some money on activities, because brewery tours, Imax theaters, museums, and The Great Ocean Road are better than seul cups of tea and journaling in the rain.
So I do all of those things. And I wander. I decide that Melbourne is Madrid meets New York, with touches of Paris and all of the good parts of London. Charming row houses, boulangeries, subculture, and thrift shops. The beer is incredible. The food is incredible.
I’m staying in Fitzroy, which is a lot like Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Coffee shops, tight jeans, and street art abound. No, scratch that: street art rules. The city of Melbourne loves its graffiti and not only allows it in certain places, but commissions it in others. Trust me, it doesn’t take the fun out of it. When you least expect it, you’ll look up and glimpse little, paper paratroopers suspended in a sky of brick, 30 feet off the ground. How the hell did they get there? Fafi and Banksy and Ha-Ha. As I explore the city, I feel like I’m constantly on the prowl: rounding corners with bated breath and exhaling with relief upon finding yet more astonishing artwork. The museums are great, but they don’t even compare to the vibrant streets of Melbin.
I’m in a quad at The Nunnery and my one constant roommate is a middle-aged guy who claims he’s Australian, but has an accent that sounds awfully German. He’s in the habit of taking an enormous, plastic turnip to the bars with him (“It’s a great conversation starter.”) and going for coffee at 4:30 in the morning. One day, my mom has a time-zone awareness lapse. Later, turnip guy (whose actual name escapes me) says, “How’d you sleep? I woke up at 3:30,” with a weird expression on his face. Uh, sorry? It’s not my fault you’re living in a hostel, where people tend to come and go on erratic schedules. As he is (usually) up all night long, he sleeps until lunchtime and now I feel guilty making any sound pre-noon.
The Wildlife Tour of the Great Ocean Road seems to go all of the places I want to go. It also spans a single, very long day–and is reasonably priced at $95. While I’m sitting in a café in St. Kilda, enjoying a gigantic piece of ultra fattening “famous chocolate kugel houpf,” a woman from Wildlife Tours calls and asks if I’d like a free upgrade to a two-day tour, which also stops at The Grampians National Park and a winery. Yes, I would like that. Please. Thank you.
I intend to wake up before 6 on the morning of my GOR tour, silently slip out for a shower, and back in to grab my bag, which I’ve pre-packed. The bus is picking me up at 7:05. In an attempt to be a courteous roommate, I promptly switch off my alarm at 5:45. And promptly fall back asleep. I wake with a start at 7:01. I utter (loudly) a string of obscentities: “Fuck! Fuck! Shit! Fuck!” I flip on the lights, disgruntled roommate be damned, throw my toothbrush in the bag, pull on some jeans, and fly down three flights of stairs to the front door. The van is waiting.
“Are you the Wildlife guy?” I half breathe, half scream.
“Yeah, you must be Casey. I was just about to call you,” says the driver cheerfully.
“I’m so sorry,” I say.
It’s not quite light outside. I avoid eye contact with the Indian guy in the neighboring seat while I yank on a bra and try to tame my hair. I also resolve to not speak with anyone until I find some gum.
I begin to feel less guilty about possibly flashing the Indian guy as he proceeds to spend excessive minutes on his mobile phone. There’s almost nothing worse than listening to someone blab (loudly) into a phone. I say almost because it’s even more infuriating when done in a foreign tongue. Also, if you’re planning to receive many consecutive calls at 7:30 in the morning, put your GD phone on vibrate already, would you?
Mad Max house. Bells Beach. Rainforest. Koalas. Shipwreck Coast. Twelve Apostles. London Bridge. No big deal. Just kidding. The biggest deal. The Great Ocean Road ties with Oz’s other Great as my favorite Australian experience.
Need I reiterate Bells? As we pull up, the tour guide, Hemming, gives an interestingly mainstream synopsis of Point Break and plays a sound clip from the famous Bells scene. He also tells us that the movie was filmed in the U.S. What a disappointment!
The waves are “small,” but they are still slow-rolling mammoths. It is suddenly cold and windy and I’m glad I’ve brought a hoodie, denim jacket, and scarf. Because I’m now wearing all of them. We’re only 3,500 km from Antarctica–that’s closer than Darwin at the top end.
Lorne is a Surf Coast town about 40 km from Bells. Cockatoos live here, uncaged. As in they’re native. House prices evidently don’t dip below the $1 million mark in Lorne. Probably because of the cockatoos.
My favorite thing about Lorne is that it’s known for its “Pier to Pub” open ocean swim–the largest open water swim in the world. It is a daunting endeavor that, apparently, began as a challenge among members of the Lorne SLSC. They dared each other to dive in at the pier, swim 1.2 km across the bay, and bodysurf to shore. Then, they would go get sloshed to celebrate. Now, the race draws more than 4,000 swimmers every year. The routine is still, more or less, the same. Genius.
Our tour group stays the night in a tiny hostel. It’s kind of ghetto. I mean, actually, it’s homey, but it’s literally in the middle of nowhere and we are legitimately concerned that the bunk beds may collapse and suffocate the bottom bunkers. That would include yours truly. Also, you have to brave whatever is lurking out of doors to get to the bathroom (outhouse?) for our little cabin, which is to be shared by 5 ladies and one gentle, gentle man. But it costs like $27 and it serves its purpose.
The next morning, we hit the road for The Grampians, where we do an “easy walk.” When Aussies say you’re going for a “walk,” ready yourself for a full-on mountain climbing experience. From the heights, we can see vineyards stretching out below us. That’s our next stop, and then it’s back to the city with hundreds of stunning photos and a slew of new landmarks under our collective belt.
Back in Melbourne, I finally arrange to have my board shipped from Pottsville to Coogee. This will prove to be much more difficult than I thought.
Back in Canberra, I finally get my tattoo. I am the epitome of stoic bravery. And by that I mean that I don’t cry. The next afternoon, Em and Russ drop me off at Sydney’s Central Station and I catch a train to The Rocks. One more week before Hawaii.