Chapter 17: The Oz Experience. And hippies.

Trip Start Oct 01, 2003
Trip End Nov 2004

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Sunday, December 21, 2003

Whoa, it seems like weeks since my last entry, and I haven't even made it much further up the coast! Let's see if I can remember all the way back to Sydney...

Saturday night after dinner (chicken burger - I'm addicted) I decided I'd spent enough money for the weekend, so I just strolled up and down Oxford Street in lieu of dealing with cover charges and bar expenses. The sidewalks were so packed with people all night that it felt just like being in a friendly, crowded bar anyway! Sunday I slept in, had some curry for lunch, and then walked to the Kathmandu travel store to find Yan, a guy I'd met in Queenstown, NZ. He was working all weekend, so we caught up and he gave me some advice for the trip north. After picking up a travel umbrella there, I moved on to the big shopping centers downtown to look for some clothes. The network of stores in downtown Sydney reminded me of Montreal: you can walk forever through the malls via connecting passageways and cover great distances without having to cross a street. In the end I put off buying any new shirts or shorts, because the only ones I liked were by Australian surfwear companies like Billabong, or Quiksilver, and they were all very expensive. With the exchange rate as bad as it is, I need to think long and hard before plunking down $82AU for shorts!

Monday morning at 7am I was standing on the George St. sidewalk with 15-odd other backpackers, waiting bleary-eyed for the Oz Experience bus. The first guy I met was Gareth from the UK, who was chatty and friendly. Our driver was Shooey, a late-20's Sydney native who was back on the job for the first day after 10 months away. Shooey turned out to be one of the best guides I've had so far on my trip, and his interest in music and disc jockeying meant we always had good conversation material. We finally left Sydney around 8, and struck off for the middle of nowhere.

I was surprised that there were only 16 of us on the bus, but it turned out to be a good thing because we all bonded quickly. In no time I met Simon (UK), Timmy (Ireland), Jack (USA), Soern & Toke (Denmark), Simone (Switzerland), and several others, and everyone got along well. Shooey helped break the ice by running a trivia game where everyone on the bus had to write a question (and the answer) and then put it in a hat. He called us up one by one, interviewed us on the mic to get some background on each passenger, and asked us one of the questions. The one I got had something to do with an Australian star who keeps his youthful appearance by...? ...drinking his own pee. I got it wrong.

The other thing that helped was another wine-tasting stop. This one was far more educational than the Autopia winery visit, as I actually learned a little bit about wine-making. I also got lucky and walked out with a free battery-operated muscle massager, which is one of the odder promotional items i've run across in my day (and that's saying a lot!). The downside is that we only tasted 4 varietals of wine instead of 15, but I think the tradeoff was worth it.

Eventually our bus pulled into the Warrumbungles National Park area, which is a long day's busride to the northwest of Sydney. We spent the night at the Warrumbungles Holiday Park, which had the architectural design of an outback prison, but was warmer in spirit. 10 of us shared a dorm room, and after we freaked out over the 6-inch spider above the door, we had a filling dinner cooked for us by the staff. Then we filled the classroom (?) for a slide presentation about star-gazing, which was awesome since my interest in the night sky has been steadily growing. The Warrumbungles area is world-renowned for being a star-gazing mecca, and the largest telescope in the southern hemisphere is up there on a hill. There's a 4-year waiting list to go up and have a peek through it. The shifting clouds that night prevented us from seeing much besides Orion & Mars, so we retired to the kitchen area for the wine we'd bought that afternoon.

Tuesday morning we hiked on a trail in Warrumbungles, which is a difficult word to type, by the way. The park was full of the kind of outback scenery I'd come to Australia hoping to find. The rock formations were other-worldly, and the exotic forest & scrub covered everything without being too dense. We ran across a wallaby by a stream, and then found a goanna (big 2-foot-long monitor lizard) that lazily scampered up a tree as we approached. After wearing ourselves out in the heat we napped on the bus before stopping for lunch at a Subway in a tiny cotton town that reminded me of Alabama. All of the backwater towns here have the same appearance: frontier-style storefronts, wide streets, low architecture, and a sad, my-best-years-have-passed look.

We took to the dirt roads for the drive to Bingara, and aside from the bumping it was a nice ride. By this point we were all comfortable with each other, so if I wasn't dozing I was chatting with Soern or Simon, or lending Toke my Gameboy (he played so much over 3 days that he passed the spot in Super Mario World that had taken me 6 weeks to reach!). We drove pretty far off the beaten path that afternoon for a 1/2 hour stop at a "swimming hole." Actually it was more like an oversized creek that pooled unattractively at the base of some rocks, so I chose to skip the swim. Good thing, as everyone who went in reported feeling "slimy" afterwards. Instead I went looking for snakes, since the landscape (big rocks near slow-moving water) sounded perfect for them. No luck - just more lizards.

We got to Bingara by 5pm, and settled into a massive (40-bed) dorm. Bingara is famous for its horses and riding by the river, and that's about all the town has to offer. We had a BBQ and then piled into the hostel bar for a long night of drinking, playing pool, and programming the jukebox. A few locals joined us, which was hilarious. They sported crazy mullets and kept picking Guns 'n' Roses songs on the jukebox. Shooey taught me the wonders of Bundaberg Rum & Coke drinks; Bundy is the local rum, and it's delicious. The next morning we had the option of taking a 2 1/2 hour horse ride for $40. Soern and Toke and I declined, so we stayed up the latest and then got to sleep in until 10. I'm glad we skipped the ride, because everyone came back at 11 looking like they were in serious pain. Poor Gareth even got pantsed by his horse-leader after being convinced to stand up on his horse!

Wednesday was another long day on the road. It was entertaining for me, though, because once Shooey learned I had an I-pod (and that our music tastes were similar), he asked me to program a few hours of tunes on my player, which he connected to the bus stereo. We had lunch at another non-descript backwater town, drove through vast expanses of farmland and wilderness, and played more games. I was the champion of "bus surfing" - a not-quite-legal sport where the players stand in the aisle of the bus during a twisty stretch of road and attempt to be the last person standing without touching any seat for support. My prize was a few free drinks that night courtesy of Shooey. Maybe I should try smoe real surfing lessons while I'm here?

We finally arrived at Byron Bay at 7pm. I had pre-booked my hostel, so I was the only one not staying at the Holiday Village (which was just as well, as the HV reception screwed up the Oz Exp booking and had everyone in separate dorms). I stayed at Cape Byron hostel, and quickly made friends with my three new roomies from Melbourne: Matt, Rod, and Daniel. I was supposed to meet the Oz crew at 8, but got waylaid by my new Cape Byron friends for a few hours. We went down to the beach and checked out an incredible sand castle that some guy had built that afternoon - it was so detailed with seahorses and dolphins and such that I couldn't figure out how it was made!

Eventually I found my way to Cheeky Monkey to meet Shooey & the guys from the bus. CM was an awful, cheesy place aimed at the worst stereotype of backpackers: Joan Jett blasted from the stereo, guys were stumbling around with greasy $5 plates of food, and an MC was trying to get drunk girls up on the tables... so we left and went to the Beach Hotel, a much cooler place by the shore that was packed with more discriminating 20-somethings. After collecting my bus surfing prize there, we went to C-Moog, which is more of a full-on danceclub, with techno & drum 'n' bass music pumping through an enormous soundsystem.

Thursday I had scheduled a side trip for 28 hours to Nimbin, so I caught the shuttle bus in central Byron Bay at 11:30. Nimbin is the center of Australian counter-culture (read: hippies & drugs) and it's about 1 1/2 hours to the northwest of Byron. The place has to be seen to be believed. The tiny main street is lined with hemp shops, head shops, and lots of places to satisfy the munchies. There are weird painted murals on every storefront, and every 10 steps you take someone offers to sell you drugs. "Lookin' for a smoke, man?" and "Ganja cookies!" became frequently-heard mantras over the next day. The funny part is how open it all is. The Nimbin police basically turn the other way, and so aside from a few undesirable junkie-types who have moved in, the town is spectacularly mellow and friendly, and everyone is is obviously high ALL THE TIME. I'm not exaggerating... you could walk down the street smoking from a 3-foot bong and no one would blink.

The depressing thing is when you notice the people who came to town years ago - probably just passing through - and never left. I wondered if that would be the fate of the kind hippy women who ran my hostel. I got the impression most of them were just traveling around until they decided to "hang out" in Nimbin for 1,2... 8... weeks... months. For all the positives about Nimbin, there's no escaping the fact that there's only 2,500 people living there, so unless your only ambition in life is to sit around and smoke weed in the open, there's not much to do there after one night. Luckily there was a great pool at the hostel, and I eventually ran into a few other backpackers amongst the flower children. Lauren (Minnesota) and Amy (Toronto) were lounging around with two Dutch guys they'd met up north, so I had some people to talk to on Thursday night besides the local crazies (and there were many... one guy reminded me of a hippy Mat Yap without the talent or brains, and he'd been living in a tent out front for months!).

The hostel could best be described as "rustic." The facilities were nice, if basic, but there were bugs everywhere. Supposedly they had a brown snake infestation a few months ago by the garden pond ("We had to have them taken out, because, you know, they're like, deadly"). Stoners and poisonous snakes are a dangerous cocktail. I woke up friday morning with a spider the size of my hand sitting on the wall 2 inches from my face. I probably don't need to describe my reaction.

The shuttle bus didn't head back to Byron Bay until 4pm, so I had no choice Friday but to walk into town with a few of the nice hostel hippy-ladies. (Lauren & Amy, 2 days later: "Ew, you hung OUT with them?! They smelled sooooo bad!") It was a fun day, actually - I saw a water snake, met 2 awesome Norwegians (Andrea & Marie), learned lots about Nimbin, and soaked up the scenery, which was beautiful. The Nimbin Rocks looked sort of like Warrumbungles.

I took the bus back to Byron feeling decidedly "floaty," and checked into J's Bay hostel for 4 nights. It's been great to settle down somewhere to relax for a few days, and Byron Bay is amazing. Beautiful beaches, laid-back vibe, lots of sun. Yesterday I sorted out my next 2 weeks at the travel agency (Byron-Mooloolaba-Noosa-Hervey Bay-Fraser Island-Hervey Bay-Bargara-Dingo-Airlie Beach, for those with an atlas). I should be spending X-mas in Noosa, and New Year's Eve in Airlie, before meeting up with my friend Tom around the 2nd. I spent the rest of yesterday at the beach, and then went grocery shopping at night. Self-catering is sort of silly for me, though, since I always buy expensive meats & pastas & sauces & such, which defeats the purpose. Last night I ran into Eva & Francesca from the Autopia tour, and it was fun to have a little reunion.

Today I walked the Cape Byron Lighthouse track, which was about 6km round trip and included some great rain forest sections. Along the way I walked out to the easternmost point in Australia, and saw a manta ray cruising along in the waves far below the lighthouse. I'm so happy to be back in the sub-tropics finally! My camera is getting tired of taking photos of beautiful beaches, but I'm not.

So what's going on back in the States for the holidays? It's weird that it's Christmas in a few days - I've hardly heard any X-mas songs, and it's 85 degrees & sunny! I think I need to come to the Southern Hemisphere every year for the holidays! Anyway, keep me up to date... I miss you all back home!

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