Right, erm breakfast at Sydney airport. How to say...it cost us the same as one night in a hotel in Asia. Acclimatising was going to be tough, although this is where we discovered toasted banana bread with salted butter!!
Zara had left the key under her doormat and told us to let ourselves in and make ourselves at home, until she got back from the dentists. We drove up to her house in a taxi. The neighborhood was pristine clean, with immaculate lawns cut with nail clippers. Not a motorbike in sight! The excitement of seeing her again was almost unbearable! After 10 years of not seeing each other, we had never seen each other's children.
When she came in through the door, needless to say it was an emotional moment!
We went straight to Zoe's (her girl) Easter Parade at her primary school, where she was winning a prize for being extremely enthusiastic about absolutely everything. And when we met her, we realized this too. She was like the Easter bunny reincarnated, jumping up and down with excitement at everything. She was to become Alana's new best friend and they were inseparable for the next 5 days.
In fact, Alana went to Zoe's school for the next 2 days, in uniform and all!
While she was at school, Jeje, Ruben and I explored the neighbouring bush walk, which ended up taking about 4 hours! Also, a bus ride to nearby Manley Beach...
We drank copious amounts of red wine and ate copious amounts of cheese every evening and Zara organised for a babysitter to come so we could go out just the four of us for a few hours. A treat for Jeje and I who have been with the kids non stop for the last 3 months. We ended up dancing "salsa" (badly) in their sittingroom when we got back. A fun evening. Went on a family walk with Zara's mum and her friend whom we'd met 10 years before, Anita, to the beach where Summer Bay is filmed and walked up the hill to the lighthouse for a beautiful view of the beaches below: one ocean side and one lake side.
Saying goodbye was difficult, especially when you know that we might see each other when we're 50...and our daughters 17...scary thought!!!
Australia is so far from the rest of the world.
The grand day arrived when we picked up our apollo camper van. It was a memorable moment when we saw our stupendous, enormous monster appearing like a great, white whale out of the car park. Absolutely perfectly clean, inside and out, equipped with oven, microwave, fridge freezer, electric bed, automatic gears, hot water, sink, gas stove, shower, toilet...the list goes on...
We learned that we had to pay half the amount we paid for rental, for the insurance and that even then, we wouldn't be insured for driving after sundown, for any damage to the roof or under the van, or for driving on dirt tracks... well, what's the bloody point of taking out insurance? But we had done our homework and found that other companies don't insure better so we had to give in.
The long road awaited us and after a mammouth shop we set sail with the whale!
We set off North and screeched to a halt after about 10kms after spotting 2 bikes thrown away in a dump in front of someone's house. One exactly Ruben's size, one exactly Alana's size. Tyres a bit flat and rusty but generally in excellent nick!
Our aim was to take 3 weeks getting up to Brisbane to see the family (again, whom I hadn't seen in 10 years). We could see that it had rained a lot in the past weeks: everything is so green!
So stubbie in holder, we set off on our new journey. Everything seems so easy after backpacking: we can stop and cook where we like, we can stop and sleep almost anywhere we like, all our belongings are with us all the time and we are free to drive anywhere we like. Total freedom!
We started to recognize all the birds we had seen 10 years ago and even found ourselves inadvertently retracing the same steps as last time in Green Pea, ending up on some of the same beaches and sleeping areas. We have managed to free camp almost every night, saving us 30$ per day off our budget. The shopping can be expensive though and after the 50 cent beers we were drinking in Laos, here, they cost about 4 times that!
Everything is clean and smart. Daily cleaned barbecues and toilets with paper in them. Every time you walk over a dune to get to a beach, you feel like saying "oh no, yet another amazingly beautiful, wild beach with no one on it and shells and parrots and gigantic lizards and echidnas and and and...!"
You have to look for all this but it is not hard to find when you have the time to look.
Surfers really are everywhere and we are now the proud owners of 2 boogie boards! After a visit to a second hand shop (to be seen to be believed: everything costs about a dollar and even then they do discounts of 50%), we also acquired 2 wetsuits in perfect condition for 2 dollars each for the kids.
But one thing was missing from the all Aussie adventure...the fishing rods of course! A frisbee was also urgently needed to complete the look.
Now we were really ready to brave the waves and join the Ozzie campers!
First sightings of Pelicans, brightly coloured Lorikeets, the warbling Australian magpies...on one campsite Ruben came rushing out of the bush shouting "a Komodo Dragon, I saw a Komodo Dragon!"... we all ran over to look and sure enough there in front of the van was a huge, beautiful lizard, the Goanna. Sweet though that he recognized it as its larger cousin.
Mid April we found ourselves in the middle of the Easter hols with kids and families everywhere. The average Aussie on holiday is a sight to see: up at the crack of dawn. At 6am you look out of your window, eyes, still stuck together and drowsy, and what do you see? On the right, an Aussie, wading out of the depths of the Tasman Sea with a harpoon and a string of fish. Right in front of you, another Aussie energetically launching his speed boat into the Ocean, with 5 fishing rods, 2 giant Eskies and a thermos the size of a bucket. A little further away on the left, yet another Aussie, taking a running jump off the rocks with his surfboard into waves so high you're scared even looking at them. They're game these Aussies, that's for sure!
After a few nights on the coast, we drove inland a bit for a change of scene, then made our way back to the waves after a couple of nights.
We were invited to dinner one evening by a couple Gay and Alan, who live right on the coast in a beautiful house. Both retired, their 5 children all grown up live far away and they said when they had been to Europe in a camping car, people had been so kind and helpful and they wanted to return the favour. We found that people's attitudes towards us are completely different, living in a huge rented Motorhome with children. They are always ready to help and often come and talk to us, whereas 10 years ago we got the feeling sometimes people didn't really want us there!
Also we are a lot more conspicuous in this white whale. Musn't forget the height restrictions on bridges and supermarket car parks!
The names here are funny too like "Ducks Knob", "Booti Booti National Park", "Missabotti", "Bollanolla", "Moonie Beach"...the list goes on! There is even a village called "Hell Hole"!
We stopped at "Jews Point", in "Broken Head", but it could just as easily have been "Jews Broken Knob Head"!
We drive about one or two hours per day, so plenty of time to rest, swim, cook and eat. But the sun goes down at 5:30 so we have started getting up early at 6am to make the most of the day.
It is easier to school Alana as we have constant use of a table and noise free guaranteed.
The temptation is to stay longer everywhere and explore every road that goes near a remote beach or waterfall. Incredible as it may sound, we just don't have the time!!
Travelling is nothing like in SE Asia. Here it is so easy to move anywhere with the van. You just up and leave and move on. There is not much to see or explore in the way of temples or history like that, so you don't have to look anything up on where to go and what to see. It can seem a bit bland at times though, because the houses and developed areas all look pretty similar, whether you're in Sydney or Brisbane and they are 1000kms apart! It's nature you come here for and there is heaps of it at your doorstep around every corner.
Next stop, Brisbane and the family!
Brisbane Family Rocks!!
Arrival at Ines and David's was a wonderful memory: a blonde Astrid and a slightly greyer than last time David running down to the end of their drive in the sun to greet us! Further towards the house, Ines and her "chooks" and a warm, motherly hug!
"Do you want a bite to eat?", as she pulled out delicious dish after delicious dish, until we had to say no, stop, that's enough (there wasn't enough space left on the table!).
We visited Astrid's Steiner school where all the games and furniture are made from natural materials like knitted dolls and wooden tables and chairs; no plastic to be found anywhere, even the building is natural.
When the hipster Owen (he'll hate me for saying that) arrived back from work (OMG he's at work, last time we saw him he was 12, jumping up and down on a trampoline!), we all sat round the fire in their garden and drank beer and ate crisps and talked.
Next day, a big family party was arranged by Ines and everyone turned up with a different dish: Margaret brought a salad, some swordfish and the most delicious prawns I've ever tasted, and Helen, being Helen, turned up with presents for the kids, and spag bol and best of all, biscuits she and Katie Rose had made in the shape of the Eiffel Tower!! We had a feast and a brilliant afternoon in the sun, chatting, laughing...and drinking red wine (that was thanks to Alison!). It was amazing to see Pat again after 11 years and she was looking bright and gorgeous as ever. We also met Tony Helen's hubby who has now returned from Thailand!
It was fantastic for us all to meet up like that in Australia and for them all to meet my little family. We realized that not only had Margaret never met Alana and Ruben, but she had never met Jeje!! A real occasion: one that I will never forget.
That night, an earlier night than the night before, but another lovely evening with David sitting round the fire listening to Jack Johnson, eating corn on the cob cooked in the bonfire.
Big thanks to David and Ines for letting us camp in their garden and putting up with us for 3 days! Very sad to say goodbye, I hate saying goodbye to people when you know you will not see them again for a very long time, maybe even never again...but we musn't think like that. So with a few tears, but a smile and a hug and a wave, we set sail again in the white whale to head further North.
Next stop Glasshouse Mountains and Australia Zoo (a generous gift from Margaret).
Spent an entire day in the zoo: crocs, cassowaries, koalas, wombats and Ruben did really spot a Komodo dragon this time (behind bars)! We thought the lizards had escaped from their cages but the staff said they were just wild ones running about!
That same day we found a beautiful camping spot on Noosa North Shore, just North of the Sunshine Coast, where we camped almost directly on the most secluded, wild beach. Kangaroos, Lorikeets and cockatoos were there to greet us in the morning. The kids rode their bikes along the beach and I went for my morning stroll looking for shells, coffee cup in hand. We stayed 2 nights but weather turned bad, so Jeje went on a mad cooking spree and made crepes and a yoghurt cake in the whale.
One of the highlights was a rainbow coloured lorikeet perching on Ruben's forearm.
France was electing a new president which we followed from afar, watching the debate between Macron and Le Pen at 6am... when we asked the kids who they'd vote for they both said "the man" in unison!
Fraser Island was too expensive so we settled for a sandy beach campsite just South
called Rainbow Beach, because of it's coloured sand dunes. Jeje's hidden desire to have a 4WD forced him to actually believe he was driving one and he headed off into the clearly indicated 4WD campsite with SANDY pitches and inevitably got stuck in the sand! But nothing stops a Jeje in action and he soon had the whale out of the sand again (although this event did calm him down a bit and avoided future possible sand sticking incidents)...
The fact that there was not that much going on past Fraser Island and the week of bad weather we were about to witness led us to drive about 700 kms further North towards Townsville. Our next stop was Magnetic island. We drove straight to the ferry port, where luck would have it, the ferry was leaving in exactly 7 minutes time!
It was worth the extra budget we splashed out to take the whale out there and camp. Secluded beaches, headland walks with beautiful views, wild koalas, a great little backpacker campsite, rock wallabies...there were even 2 possums which came right up close to get food while everyone was cooking in the camp kitchen in the evening. Funny coincidence: as I was stirring my potatoes in the kitchen one night, I noticed that a girl was taking her food bag out of the fridge and on the label I spotted her name: Hester!! She was from North London and we had a good chat. It was funny saying "goodnight Hester" to somebody else. I haven't met anyone called Hester since I was 18! Anyway, an event for us Hesters but nobody else seemed that interested!
We baptized a bird in this campsite to be called the "1,2,3 soleil" bird. It's actually a night curlew, but every time it walks it takes about 2 or 3 cautious, quick steps before stopping dead still as if to say "you didn't see me move, I didn't move a muscle!". Very funny to watch.
On the 3rd day on the island we went off to explore a hard to access beach, except this time we didn't get stuck in the sand, but nearly lost the kids to a hammer head shark! Let me explain: Jeje was in the whale making lunch and the kids had found somebody's paddle boat, which they were playing in just off the beach. I heard some shouting and then a fisherman came running up the beach frantically throwing his line into the water. When I looked out to the water, I made out 2 fins in the water, moving in Alana and Ruben's direction. One was a large fin moving steadily and straight and the other, slightly smaller behind it moving from side to side. It was then I realized it was the same bloody fish! Huge it was! At least 2.5m long. I shouted to the kids to get out of the water and went to talk to the fisherman. He had just witnessed 2 hammerhead sharks killing something in the water, as he had seen a large pool of blood emerging to the surface and the sharks energetically jumping around on a fervent killing spree. When I thought about how I was considering going for a swim in there and how Alana and Ruben were close to the beach, but could have easily drifted a bit further out, I realized how stupid I had been. No more risks were taken from then on!
The further North you get, the more dangerous swimming becomes. There are special netted zones you have to swim within where you are few from marine stingers (deadly jellyfish), crocs and sharks!
As we were driving off the ferry, the guard gave us a tip off to go and stay at Big Crystal Creek....so we did. It turned out to be the best campsite we went to.
The National Park campsites are our favourite ones as they are remote, you can often have a fire there, and they are free. Well you are supposed to pay but there is no guardian and when it is low season, the rangers don't seem to check, as long as you don't stay more than one or two nights. Big Crystal Creek lived up to its name. There was a direct access to a crystal clear river where you can jump in off the rocks and see fish and tortoises/small turtles and even eels swimming around. It was Sunday and there was a small group of lads drinking beer and laughing. They told us one of them had lost his silicone earring in the bottom of the creek so we all put on our goggles and started looking for it. Jeje found it after about 30 minutes and earned one of their beers. About 5 minutes later, he lost it again! And Jeje found it again! A laugh was had by all and Jeje's earned another beer. This could have gone on all day, had it not been for the fact that they ran out of beer and went home!
2kms up the road was a sign saying "Rockslides" which was intriguing to say the least. Wow! We got there at about 8:30 the next morning in the bright sunshine and we're the only people there. It was a Monday morning, and I remember thinking how lucky I was to be there and not sitting in front of a computer in an office! There were large slippery rocks with waterfalls where you could slide down and fall into the pool below. They were small enough for the kids to have a go too, so everyone had fun. Believe it or not, we had a schedule to stick to so we couldn't stay there but we would have liked to...little did we know, we were to return about 2 weeks later, on our way back down to Brisbane to take the whale back.
We left the campsite and stopped off at an amazing ice cream shop called Frosty Mango, where not only did we eat some great ice cream (I had ginger flavor), but we also bought the largest pineapple I had ever seen for 3€ and a strange looking fruit called a canistel, which we later found out was not the kind of fruit you put in a fruit salad! Beurrrrkk!! Yuk!
The next adventure was the next day, when we were looking for another NP campsite and followed a dirt track for about 15kms, when we realized the GPS had led us up the garden path and in fact it was on the other side of the river, along another dirt track for about 15 kms. It was getting late so we had to decide what to do. It is in these stressful moments when the kids play up the most and make it all just a bit unbearable. Until you get to the campsite and then you spend the best evening ever singing and dancing around a huge bonfire in the middle of nowhere under the stars!
We were getting closer every day to our final destination up the East Coast and the memories were flooding back, especially when we got to Mission Beach and found the same little unchanged campsite on the beach at Bingil Bay, where 11 years ago we had met a couple called Becky and Michel, who have become our much loved friends and in whose garden near Cairns I spent 3 weeks on my own in Green Pea when Jeje went back to France to go to his best friend's wedding.
This time we met another extraordinary couple, Glen (from South Africa) and Yvonne (from Oldham), travelling with their children. They are nomads and they live in 2 tiny little dome tents hardly big enough for one person each, except they live in them with their 3 children! From time to time they pick fruit or busk to get some money to rent a car to get around. They move from place to place, in Australia or Asia or elsewhere. Their children are all home schooled. They have just heard of some land they can stay on in Costa Rica where they will now try to move to "for a while"...It is a choice of a way of life so different to anything we can imagine and so far removed from our commercial society. Big respect! This is indeed where hippie Australia comes alive.
When we got there it was chucking it down with rain and it poured all night, so we decided again to head North in search of the sunshine we remembered so well. Our next stop was Cairns and a very emotional surprise was in store...
On the way up to Cairns, thoughts of finding Becky and Michel, a reunification, the memories of all those years ago, parked in their garden for a month, not knowing if they would still be there...as we neared Holloway Beach, the memories came flooding back, streets that were so familiar, the bottleshop and post office and newsagents were all still there, as if frozen in time. When we drove up to Hibiscus Lane, the anticipation was unbearable. The kids asked whose house we were going to: I answered "an old friend's". As we approached their house we found it derilict with an overgrown garden where our Green Pea had once stood. No one was home. I feared the worst and welled up, when suddenly a neighbour pulled out of her drive and we asked her what had happened. She knew B & M and told us they were now living a few streets down! She didn't know what number and we were sent on a wild goose chase until finding their new house. We saw Michel in his front room sitting at his computer and as we knocked on the window and he looked up, he didn't recognize us at first. In fact Becky and Michel had no idea we were just going to drop by after 11 years! Needless to say what followed was a series of hugs, kisses, introductions to the kids...it was a relief to see them again, Michel as fit as ever and Becky as feisty as ever! We once more parked our somewhat larger camper van in their somewhat larger drive! Michel having to cut down a few coconut tree branches on the way to let us in. Michel immediately pulled out a bottle of rosé for us and some homemade banana ice cream for the kids. That night we ate outside our van, in their drive, reminiscing and sharing photos and memories of a happy time when we were all young and beautiful!!
After a couple of nights we were off to Kuranda to buy a didgeridoo, a hammock and see some hippies.
We weren't actually planning on buying a didgeridoo there, but we stumbled across Jimmy's Didges and turns out jimmy is a creole french guy from Nice! Really nice bloke, who fights a never ending battle to conserve aboriginal, traditional ways of producing didgeridoos, so that the money goes back to the person who made the instrument as soon as it is sold. They are not factory made and he has a photo of each person who makes them. Each one has a history, a symbolic significance, almost a soul! We spent hours in his shop trying out different ones. The kids were much better at getting a sound out than us. The key is to be completely relaxed and think of nothing...a kind of meditation. We said we would think about it (the price was more than we had reckoned with) and come back after our visit to cape tribulation. Which we did...
The road North of Cape Tribulation is for 4WD only, so this was our final destination on the East coast. It is hot and tropical, crocodiles, palm trees, white sandy beaches, mangroves, and one of the weirdest dinosaur birds lives here too: the Cassowary. It is a big, muscly bird about the same height as Alana, but fatter and scarier. It also has a kind of rock like thing on its head and its throat and head are flashy blue and red colors. We were strolling to the end of our little boardwalk through the mangrove and what did we see? Ruben saw it actually, heading straight towards us on the boardwalk and asked me quietly "mummy, what's that?" And mummy said "run! It's a Cassowary!". We later read on the traditional Australian warning sign, the things not to do when you see a Cassowary, and one of them is not to run! They can be dangerous and have these dinosaur like feet and claws which will rip right through you if you annoy it. But it just wandered past us, swallowing what looked like a gigantic blueberry and meters later, shitting it out whole on the boardwalk in front of us...ummm...nice present, Thanks mate!
A wonderful campsite, with green grass, next to the beach, children for the kids to play with, their parents for us to drink with!
In the morning, eating breakfast in the camp kitchen, a girl and her mum walk u to me and Alana and say "bonjour Hester"... took me a while to figure out who it was, but it was no other than the French family we had met in Cat Ba Island in North Vietnam and with whom we went on a motorbike adventure during the new year about 4 months before! Couldn't believe the world is such a small place!
They were going to be heading South to Sydney and us to Brisbane to take the whale back, so we decided to journey together for a time.
We went our separate ways as me and jeje wanted to buy that didge back in Kuranda, but we promised we would meet up again soon and keep in touch. We did just that and because we knew all the good campsites now, we knew where we could have fires, if there was a river we could swim in etc... so we spent a few nights together, singing by the fire and having spaghetti bol competitions, until it was again time to separate as we wanted to go to the Whitsundays which we were unable to do on the way up due to bad weather and then explore inland towards Sapphire. Sylvain, Laurence, Justine and Eliott were off to Fraser Island. We said our goodbyes and vowed to keep in touch.
We managed to book a beautiful wooden, 2-mast sailing boat in the van on the long journey down to the Whitsundays. It was early, cold and cloudy the next morning at 7 am when we met the team, but we set off full of energy and joy on Providence V.
The captain gave us the reigns and we sailed the boat for a good hour or so. Though we did get looks from the other 10 passengers, when we started to veer slightly too much to one side...we tried to look as though we knew what we were doing!
We noticed along the way that this area has been badly affected by the recent cyclone, leaving jetties broken in two, trees blown so hard all there was to see on the hillsides were their brown branches, majestic sailing boats half sunk near the harbour...one of them called "Magic Dream", now nicknamed "Tragic Dream" now lies on its side, its 3 masts sticking out of the water just a memory of past luxury cruises.
But business had to get back to normal to bring in the rehabilitation money.
The snorkeling expedition turned out to be a complete failure, as the coral had mostly been killed back by the cyclone, visibility was useless and there wasn't a fish in sight. On the way to the most famous, gorgeous, white sand beach we did see 2 turtles getting it on, which was an indication that life was still on the move.
After all the crap weather we'd been having by the coast, we were in desperate need of some desert sands, some sun, so we decided to turn right after MacKay to bypass all those fast roads with no tourist drives and no beach access anyway, and drive to Sapphire, something I never thought we would have time to do, as it is quite a detour, being about 250 kms from the coastal highway (which is called the Bruce Highway by the way...and no, they don't have a Sheila Highway)!!
We chose one of the many gem digging allotments at random and were given a spade and bucket and led to a pile of rubble in someone's back yard. Looking at it, it didn't look like the kind of place you would find a sapphire, but we got stuck in and started washing and sifting our dirty stones and rocks. You then lay them down on a mat and peel you eyes for bits that glisten. Was it going to be our lucky day? Were we going to be that lucky family who unexpectedly wanders in and comes out, running and cheering, holding up a huge, deep blue, gleaming rock, jumping and shouting hooray, a crowd of envious followers, cheering us on from behind....
Um the answer is No.
We did find a few, but unfortunately the jackpot was nowhere in sight! Gone was that glimmer of hope of finding the biggy and continuing the journey and never going back to work!
We spent a whole morning bending over a small table, squinting and picking out tiny scraped versions of sapphires with a pair of tweezers. But it was good fun!
We had to head back to the coast road again soon, so we joined the Australia Country Way which was a beautiful road. Once we reached Hervey Bay, we booked into a "real" campsite on the beachfront, in search of a hot shower. We were just nearing it, when we saw the French family driving the other way! We immediately called them and they came round to our campsite and had an impromptu lunch with us!
That evening we put a wash on and hung the clothes up overnight to dry on the line just outside the laundry. Next morning...oh dear, half our laundry was missing!
We went to check out and when the lady said "G'day mate, howz it goin?" I was getting ready to start having a go, when she pulled out a bin liner with all our missing clothes in it! Apparently someone had tried to steal them, but had been caught in the process. Shame, I thought, as I was kind of getting used to the idea of having an excuse to buy some new clothes! Never mind, I guess I'll have to wear these smelly old holy ones a bit longer...
Our next stop before Brisbane was Aunty Margaret's house, which was located in what looked like the Australian version of Beverly Hills. On a little suburban island, she has a deck out back which accesses directly the water, so she can actually go fishing in her back garden! We had a lovely evening talking, something which we hadn't ever done before really, so very special. We stayed one night and then were off again in the afternoon after having packed up our didgeridoo with miles of bubble wrap and sellotape, ready armed for taking the plane to Perth from Brisbane.
In Brisbane, for our last two nights on the East coast, we stayed with Aunty Pat. It was luxury sleeping in a proper bed! We sent off another huge seven kilo parcel to France, and all the Brisbane family came over to say goodbye in groups. We looked at hilariously funny photos from the eighties of Helen and her hair and the dog who used to follow her to school, David and his home made Halloween pumpkin outfit and other absolute beauties... on the day we were leaving Katie-Rose laid out a continental spread on the kitchen table with cheese, salami, cherries, crackers, bread, and our infamous box of port which of course we had to finish before leaving and of course we absolutely had to force it down Katie-Rose's throat...and Pat's for that matter!!
Many a laugh was had. We took the van back and then it was time to go and get that six hour plane to the other coast to our final destination of the long voyage: Perth and Western Australia.
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