Triplogue - Australia II

6 March, Wingham to Comboyne, 42km (f)

Who’d have thought our day would end up this way? Relaxing on the porch of our house, playing backgammon, drinking a few cold ones and watching the sky perform its nightly lightshow. The day certainly had a different beginning.

First, it had been decided, Niels and Tomas were not going to accompany us for the rest of our voyage acting a scouts and carrying our bags for the rest of the year as we had expected. They had more of Australia to see than our measly 100 kilometers-a-day. Disappointing as it was, we had expected this day to come. We’d both become accustomed to riding our bikes without baggage to burden us. So much so we began to comb through our gear this morning for things to lose. We managed to find nearly seven kilograms between us to ditch at the post office for a slow return trip to the good ol’ U.S.

Whatever weight we managed to shed the bikes still felt far heavier than the days leading up to this one. It was easy to forget the effort required to pedal as we marveled at the lush green beauty of the rolling hills around Wingham. As lovely as it was nothing could make us forget what was in store for us. It came as no great surprise: we’d been warned that this would be the most difficult day of our trip in Australia. What I found was somehow ruder than I expected.

At km 15 the road unceremoniously dissolved into a rock and gravel path that climbed unrelentingly for kilometers and kilometers. We topped out at 765 meters, having started below a hundred and ascending over 1000 meters total for the day. The bulk of work was on a soft and crunchy track, though our guidebook had told us it was to be on a dirt road "as good as bitumen."

When we finally made the top we didn’t even get the full pleasure of descending for the first part of the trip, having to negotiate the same winding dirt road down as up. Finally we reached pavement and our rattled bones jumped for joy as our eyes were treated to the most beautiful pastureland I’ve ever seen. We stopped for what we thought would be a late lunch at the Udder Cow Café, a cute Holstein-influenced watering hole. There we met Sean and Kris, an extraordinary couple who worked in a coal mine near Newcastle before moving to Comboyne and creating a tourist infrastructure in this beautiful place. As well as operating the restaurant, they offer several options for accommodation, organize adventure outings in the surrounding wilderness and provide venues for corporate events. (For more information on what Sean’s story, and on what wonderful Comboyne has to offer, click here, or visit his website at: wwwxxxyyyzzz.) Sean --an inveterate entrepreneur-- made us an offer we couldn’t refuse: a free night in a nearby house he owned if we’d write a little pitch for him on our page. "Yes!" was all we could manage when we thought about it for two seconds. The idea of washing off the salty crust that enveloped our bodies sounded great. The place turned out to be wonderful and charming. At the back of our house a hardwood deck looked out on the pastures. There we whiled away the hours before sunset before treating Andrew to his first RSL Club experience. After that perhaps he’ll understand what real rural Australia is all about.

The long road to Comboyne ...

... and the reward at the end of the day

All dressed (almost) for the Comboyne Country Show

Frith and Alan get digital

7 March, Comboyne to South West Rocks, 127km (a)

The RSL club (Returning Services League) was truly an experience, though not quite as raucous as I had expected for a Friday night out at the only bar in town. We found Sean sitting with his friend Lenore, a lifelong Comboynian who works at the local cheese factory. Her kids were there too, kept in the larger hall area in back of us by an invisible fence. All the pubs we’ve seen in this country are loosely divided into a series of rooms or areas. Some areas are more family-oriented than others, and kids are always forbidden access to the room holding the inevitable row of slot machines. RSL clubs impose yet another rule requiring any non-member to be sponsored by a member. Sean signed us in the big book at the entrance, just to make it official. He introduced us to another friend who had recently moved to Comboyne from Sydney. In stark contrast to the drunken farmers sitting at the bar, she was stylishly dressed, articulate and instantly friendly, explaining to us some of the complications of local politics. Noticing a few hostile looks coming from the bar crowd, I wondered how much Sean and his bunch are considered pariahs in this traditional little place.

The nightly dinner special was only five aussie dollars, served up by a pair of friendly women in the kid room. One was about two hundred pounds overweight, while the other’s upper plate of dentures kept slipping as she chastised the boy in front of me for driving too fast the other day with only a "P" permit (new drivers aren’t allowed to exceed 80 km/h, I learned). As we waited for our food, the night’s big event began: the weekly meat raffle, in which two men (presumably officers in the club hierarchy) drew numbers and announced winners over a P.A. system with great ceremony. Prizes included a pound of ground chuck, lamb chops, steaks and pigs feet –all wrapped up in cellophane just like in the supermarket.

This morning served up more country fun. It’s the annual Comboyne "show" –a country fair and exposition. Sean said he’d be there in a cow suit promoting his café, but we were disappointed to learn he had run into town (Port Macquarie) on an errand. Kristine predicted that old Noel at the gate would let us in for free, and she was right; we were waved through without hesitation. We were there a little early, but did get a chance to see everyone setting up their displays, including the brave local firemen dressing up a mannequin in firefighting gear.

Not far out of town the road dropped precipitously. It wasn’t a very satisfying descent, hurting my hands from squeezing the brakes so hard. At the bottom, after meeting Sean on his way back to Comboyne, we stopped for a second breakfast at a funky café and art gallery amid a little cluster of houses known as Byabarra. Our hosts –Alan and Frith– were distinctly hippyesque in appearance, and a tad less capitalistic in their approach than their Comboynian counterpart. Both the food and the art were surprisingly good. In a flowing dress and wild hair, fifty-ish Frith described for us her lifelong dream and ambition to drive a herd sheep on horseback across Australia to Perth. "Isn’t it kinda dry and boring in the middle?" I asked incredulously. "Oh we’d just ride around that part," came the blithe response.

The next fifty kilometers undulated wildly through forests and fields, never giving us a chance to catch our breath with a flat stretch. We rejoined the Pacific Highway at a place called Telegraph Point, steeling ourselves for the worst. With a strong tailwind, we made good time on a 30km piece of road remarkable only for its heavy traffic, comparatively civilized grades and exotic marsupial roadkill. Sean had described Kempsey as "a shithole"; Frith called it a "slum" and our guidebook referred to it as "a large town.’’ We took their words for it and skirted the city’s center before heading back into green cow pastures, once again along country roads.

We arrived in dinky Gladstone exhausted and famished, urgently seeking the café Frith had recommended, in an old Masonic lodge attractively situated on the banks of the Macleay River. My mouth watered in anticipation of the salmon crostini I had selected from the menu. Then a bimboid waitress materialized to take our order and informed us that only tea was served at this late hour. After a tasty but unsatisfying late lunch of carrot cake and iced coffee, Fred changed a flat tire (his first since leaving the States) while I checked out the beds at the local pub –Gladstone’s only accommodation. Initially we had thought we’d camp out tonight, but a ripping wind and threatening skies made us postpone yet again. Besides, I have wanted to spend at least one night in a traditional "hotel" (Australian for bar) since arriving here. So it was with bitter disappointment that I discovered the beds to be entirely unsleepable. While the $10 price tag was certainly attractive, the thought of sleeping in a hammock-shaped bag of springs was not.

Wearily, we remounted our bikes to head for the nearest real beds, in South West Rocks over 20km away. Thankfully, it was mostly downwind and pancake flat, following the course of the wide river through fields of startled-looking cows.

After hearing several people wax rhapsodically on the place, South West Rocks came as a bit of a disappointment. The place reeks of downmarket holiday paradise, a prefab little town with little to offer beyond a beachside setting. We found a sleazy overpriced room in a hotel whose most interesting feature was that reception doubled as a liquor store ("bottle shop" in local lingo). At least it had decent beds…

Also decent was the Chinese dinner we wolfed down. Afterwards, we thought we’d check out the local pub (conveniently located in the same complex as our lodgings), but we turned around after just one peek. The place looked like purgatory and the only sound we heard when we entered was a thundering belch that was most likely manufactured as a greeting to us. Deciding to forego SWR’s elegant nightlife, we retreated to our cavernous hole of a room for a glass of scotch and an initiation to the televisual joys of "Xena: Warrior Princess."

8 March, South West Rocks to Coffs Harbour, 114km (f)

I’d thought I’d never hear the words from Andrew, "Let’s just take the main highway." But I did this day. We awoke in SWR to the sound of gulls. In fact I’d woken up in the middle of the night to the sound of drunks returning home from a rough night in the pub. The knocked on each door of the hotel looking for their friends and then had a row about the amount of noise they were making. Reminds me of college days and nights. In fact the whole of Australia seems as though it is governed by Frat Boy values.

When we finally got ourselves on the road we had to backtrack 11 kilometers to make it back to the turnoff towards the main highway. All the way we fought the sturdy wind that had blown us home the night before. As we turned onto Highway 1 and the wind blew us down the road, Andy suggested taking the most direct route, on the Highway to Coffs Harbour.

At first the road was quiet with a big shoulder, leaving us to appreciate the grassy meadows and hilly gum forests against a big blue cloudless sky. Slowly the wind died and left us pushing ourselves along up and down the hilly terrain. Complicating matters further the road periodically narrowed, leaving us in the lanes of the increasingly busy highway.

Thankfully Macksville came along, where we’d planned a lunch stop. There we sat on the veranda overlooking the river, drinking beer, munching calamari and hanging with the locals. A young couple gave us advice on a route, suggesting we avoid the much-heralded town called Nimbin in favor of the trendy beach station of Byron Bay. Andy really wanted to see the Marijuana museum, but they convinced us otherwise, telling us that the only real attraction was "feral hippies" --and we’d certainly had enough experience with those back in Santa Cruz.

After achieving a mild beer-buzz we decided to get off the big road and head for the hills. We wound around up and down trying to spot a koala or two in the trees. It was nice to be able to concentrate on something other than where your wheels are rolling and how close cars are coming to you for a little while.

Our blissful rest from the highway soon came to an end and we were back on bad ol’ one again. Andy figured out a way to get off the road once again, though it would take us 6 kilometers instead of three on the main road. A small price to pay for the peace. There were more than a few surprises on the route. Just a few hundred meters off the road we saw a family of roos boinging along. It was only our second live kangaroo sighting this trip. Another bonus was the view of the coast when we reached Hungry Head. White sands stretched in either direction as far as the eye could see. Just before rejoining the wretched road we stopped for a snack in Uranga, where we almost stopped for the evening. Instead we continued onward, both anxious to see a little urban culture after so many nights in small towns.

The highway was even more bothersome than before, but we had a little stroke of luck. A long new stretch of highway was just about to be opened and we managed to sneak onto it. Two lanes in each direction were reserved only for BikeBrats usage this day. Because it was a Sunday there were no roadworkers to contend with either. After only 5 or so kilometers we were back on the evil road again. The traffic was still bad and the road was worse, shoulder-free as it wound through eucalyptus forests. Both of us were literally run off the road by trucks more than once on this segment. Finally we found our turnoff to Coffs Harbour and meandered through the suburbs before finally reaching our destination. Riding our bikes through the Palm Court, the central mall, we were disturbed to find the town completely empty. This was supposed to be one of the biggest towns on the coast. It must be pretty big because it had the biggest Ex-Services Club I’d ever seen. Across the street from the club was a men’s hairdresser named "Peter Titcum" which was next door to the "New Start for Under Achievers Foundation" --giving you some idea of the possibilities in Coffs Harbor.

We found a great dinner at the local pub. A pair of Thais had rented out the "bistro" (every pub has one) and were serving simple meals of composed of very fresh ingredients. Hopefully this would be a preview of our times to come in Asia. We washed it down with a beer, of course, and treated ourselves to a free game of pool.

Guess where to find the wallabees

On the bike superhighway

Agouti post office in Glenreagh

Grafton's historic Crown Hotel

10 March, Coffs Harbour to Grafton, 85km (a)

Yesterday’s break from riding was essential and went very quickly. As far as we were able to discover, there’s not much to Coffs Harbour beyond a great climate, a couple of decent beaches, and a forlorn pedestrian mall peopled principally by derelicts. The town’s premier tourist attraction is the "Big Banana," a giant fiberglass replica of the region’s chief crop. Neither of us had the energy to do anything beyond laundry, phone calls and a short visit to the beach (where we yoga’d while watching three kookaburras compete over a still-writhing snake).

Today was another story. We woke up early, delighted to see that the southerly wind had lasted through the night. Hitting the road at the unusually early hour of 9am, we cycled out of town over a steep ridge. The climb caused our energy and enthusiasm to flag only temporarily, for today’s route was easily the most cycle-friendly road we’ve seen thus far in Australia: a good surface, rolling hills, pretty countryside, and –most importantly—a dearth of motorized traffic. The only disappointment was the lack of kangaroos and other marsupials live or flattened. A woman who runs a gas station in the middle of nowhere (literally) told us you usually see them early in the morning or at dusk, and that the big ones can get quite aggressive.

Stopping only a few times along the way for cold drinks, we made it to our destination in time for a late lunch at a funky old pub/hotel on the banks of the surprisingly wide Clarence River. While we thought we’d spend the night in a campground listed in the Spartacus Guide (which sounded kinda intriguing), the riverside location won us over. Tonight’s action-packed agenda includes a walk around this supposedly historic town ("oldest city on the Northern Coast" proclaims the sign coming into town) and another sunset bat vigil. The local tourist literature hyperbolically describes the flying fox colony here as "largest in the southern hemisphere," thus explaining why all the fruit orchards we passed today were entirely enclosed in netting.

11 March, Grafton to Casino, 106km (f)

I awoke early to the sound of the tradesmen starting their trucks. Miraculously I was able to rouse Andy early and we had our breakfast before seven and were on the road before eight. Leaving Grafton was somewhat harder than finding it. In trying to find a more quiet road out of town we got lost and had to backtrack to the main drag out of town. At first I was a bit worried about the amount of traffic though it died down to but a few cars within a few kilometers of the highway.

Today’s trip was to be a very quiet one. There was one town of consequence between Grafton and Casino. Otherwise there were just farms and forest. I’d hoped to see a couple of big kangaroos but the noisy squeaking of Andy’s loose front rack scared all the animals away. In spite of the racket I heard the sing-song chirping of the birds and not much else for the first half of the day. Blue skies dotted with occasional clouds overhead, we sped across the vacant countryside.

As we arrived in the only civilization between our starting point and destination –a three house "town" called Whiporie-- the sun was just getting hot and it seemed time to take a break. We purchased some water and snacks from the least social store operator we’d met in Australia. Normally clerks in general stores are likely as not to tell you their whole life story just after you say hello to them. This clerk grimaced, showing his rotting teeth and was not really very welcoming. The warmest moment was when he dressed me down for not knowing that the covered oil barrel in front of the store was actually a trashcan. He stopped short of punctuating his sentence with "stupid".

The latter part of the day was spent riding through more lovely territory. Far less hilly than the early morning and equally untrafficked it was easy to retreat inward and spend some time in my inner space. The mounting heat helped me space out. I found myself just a little homesick, if that is the right term. Not sure exactly where home is at the moment but I am missing in some small way Americans and American culture.

Before I managed to dwell on that thought for too long we’d made it into Casino. Casino was actually named for one of the founding fathers of the town whose name was actually Cassino. Casino is the capital of beef farming in the west we were later told by Kim the helpful tourist information officer. Kim is actually not a worker in the tourist office, however she is a Noxious Weeds Inspector. We weren’t sure exactly what that meant, but assumed she’d be better located in Nimbin amongst the "feral hippies" with a job title like that. The Noxious Weeds Authority shares their offices and function with the tourist office. They are charged with ensuring that farmers control the spread of foreign introduced flora and making sure foreign fauna can find the sights in Casino. Kim and her coworker agreed that Casino is probably the most boring place in Australia in one sentence and somehow convinced themselves that it has a bit of everything in the next.

Kim’s hospitality was unparalleled. She invited us to spend the night out at her place in the country within a few moments of meeting her. The only problem was that her place was about 30k beyond Casino and we were about to expire from heat exhaustion. We found the best option to be crashing at the "Beef Capital Motel" across the street from the public pool, taking a dip and having a nap.

We had the misfortune of missing the big event of the year in Casino. "Beef Week" features such exciting events as the Beef Ball, Fashion Parades, Beerfest and the famed "Hoof and Hook" contest. The latter is a contest among young people who lovingly raise cattle for a show where the cow is judged for its looks. Kim the noxious weed inspector told us that the cow virtually becomes a member of the family and is cared for as a sibling. Unfortunately for the cow and the family the last part of the judgement of the event is how good the beast tastes.

Big sky country

Kim trying to re-enact her driver's license photo

Cranking under the canopy

A view from the top

12 March, Casino to Byron Bay, 86km (a)

In the cow country to the northeast of town, we ran across Kim on her way to work. Smiling broadly, she bounded out of her truck and quizzed us on our plans. She even gave us a bit of her life story, how she moved up from The Entrance near Sydney, and came up north in search of an agricultural job. Being a noxious weeds inspector can’t be beat, she explained: "I can wake up and go to work when I like, and drive around in my government-paid truck wherever I please. I get to hassle anyone I want to about clearing weeds off their land, and when I don’t feel like seeing anyone I can go way into the national parks and write up the rangers. I love it." In mentioning her husband, she answered a couple of questions we’d been musing upon since yesterday. When we told her we’d most likely head for trendy Byron Bay over extra-crunchy Nimbin, she maintained we’d still get to see plenty of hippies. "Lots of ferals in Byron Bay, too. Just keep an eye on your bicycles." Fred and I could have spent hours by the side of the road with this wonderfully enthusiastic creature, but at 8:30am, the sun was already baking down on us. Puffing up the three nasty hills that lie between Casino and Lismore, I felt like a stick of butter in a hot skillet.

Lismore struck both of us as surprisingly vibrant and bustling, yet we didn’t stop to tarry in this agricultural and educational center, anxious to get our butts on the beach in Byron Bay. To reach our destination, we followed an amazingly quiet series of narrow country lanes, with nary a car in sight for nearly fifty kilometers. As we approached the sea, the terrain became progressively hillier, but the steep climbs were shaded for the most part, and the views from the top over the rolling fields, orchards and woods were spectacular. Butterflies danced under a perfect partly cloudy sky; birds of every color flew and squawked everywhere, and the breeze blew deliciously through the leaves of exotic trees. In cycling nirvana, I kept hearing the first strains of Beethoven’s sixth symphony swell inside my head.

Eventually our path led us back to civilization, which materialized in the form of a crossroads general store just steps away from the too-familiar drone of the Pacific Highway. We stopped for our first-ever taste of jaffles, an Australian snack food consisting of stuffed toast pockets. Not exactly gourmet dining, but better than your average gas station fare, and filling. The friendly, slightly hippiesque woman behind the counter counseled us on the best route to Byron Bay, which avoided New South Wales’ Pacific Coast Highway entirely, but contained yet more evil hills. The narrow strip of bitumen went straight up to the top of a hill, then plunged 150 meters to a broad, flat marsh, only to climb steeply into the forest again. After repeating this process several times, we found ourselves panting on the outskirts of Byron Bay. We stopped at a B&B sporting a queer flag and checked out the premises. An obviously stoned young lad called Paul explained he was running the place while the owner was out of town. He showed us a pretty basic room and told us we’d be the only guests. Tempting as the swimming pool in the yard looked to us, the rest of the place smelled like a broken in bong, and had a lugubrious air to it. We wisely decided to investigate our options in town and were soon checked into the first glamorous digs we’ve indulged in since arriving in the Antipodes almost a month ago. After a seemingly endless string of basic motel rooms, our huge and elegantly appointed room at the Beach Hotel feels like heaven. And since Byron Bay most likely marks the end of our tour in this part of the world (the road from here to Brisbane through Surfers Paradise sounds like Cyclists Hell), we feel like we deserve it.

After a couple of hours of indulging in our hotel’s amenities, Fred and I felt fresh enough for a walk around this extra-groovy little beachside resort. Kim was right: the "ferals" are out in full force. Smells of patchouli, incense and dope waft through the main street, whereupon an endless stream of barefoot, dreadlocked, surfboard-toting, tattooed, body-pierced humanity parades back and forth along its two-block length. Filth-encrusted didgery-do players compete with acid house music blaring out of Sri Lankan noodle houses, taco stands and cappuccino houses; and all the dogs here sport bandanas. Though perhaps a bit too poser-y for my tastes, I find it all to be tremendously refreshing after ten days in the totalitarian ethos of the Australian hinterland, which tends to feel like a giant frat party.

14 March, Byron Bay to Brisbane (f)

Waking before the alarm I spent the first moments of the day on the balcony staring out at the steel blue and pink sea reflecting the morning sky. As amusing and comfortable as it was, I was ready to leave Byron Bay this morning. Andy was just a little bit harder to rouse for we’d both slept fitfully in the oppressive humidity and stillness complicated by slight sunburns and the noisy revelry of the bongo banging wanderers on the beach. I was a little embarrassed over misreading the opening time of the breakfast room. We arrived there a half-hour before they began to serve but used the time to pack up for our trip to Brisbane.

We ate while reading the increasingly alarming reports over the political and economic situation at our next country of destination. Suharto and his regime are coming under increasing criticism for their governance, alleged corruption and handling of the recent and perilous fall of the rupiah in Indonesia. The Australian press detailed the plans for their ex-pats to escape if the need became real and we began to question the logic of our itinerary. At the same time I find myself longing to shrug the comfort of traveling in the former colonies of the British and have a real adventure.

Today, our trip to Brisbane has nothing to do with adventure or intrigue. The closest we come to excitement is our debate as to whether we’ll have to disassemble the bikes to load them on the bus to the capital of Queensland. We arrive at the bus station before nine and the sun is already so hot and the air humid I must change into a tank top to avoid drowning in my sweat. Though the town is seemingly dominated by tattooed, pierced, dope smoking and patchouli drenched hippies the bus station is populated only by squeaky-clean tourists. Perhaps there is a "hippy only" service later, maybe that is why the ticket clerk wouldn’t sell Andy a ticket on the eleven a.m.

The bus ride is unremarkable save for the huge tracks of tall apartment blocks in Surfers Paradise and the perilously narrow un-shouldered highway we avoided riding by and on. The suburbs of Brisbane begin far from the city and it is obvious that we are entering a city of consequence. I remembered having a fun time the last time I was in town with Mike, now nearly a decade ago. We’d arrived at night, had dinner and stayed out until dawn carousing with newfound friends. We piled into the van and made our way south that day, barely able to keep our eyes open.

Fatigue and heat both troubled us today as we rode into town. Our path took us through a street bazaar where Irish folk singers crooned in celebration of St. Patties’ day. We stopped for sushi in honor of the event, neither being fans of the holiday or its revelers. Soon we arrived at our digs in Brisbane in a quiet little neighborhood called New Farm. At the Edward Lodge Gary, our host Gary treated us to a most comprehensive orientation to the city and pointed us in the direction of where Andrew could finally see a koala bear. To our grave disappointment our trek to the old Brisbane World Expo Grounds was fruitless. Though the bears were still present at the mini-zoo, the place was closed indefinitely due to unprofitability. The animal keeper outside didn’t respond well to either of my suggestions – selling us a koala or sneaking us in to see them.

Instead we walked the massive Victoria Street Mall, fighting the US Navy for tacky souvenirs. A massive aircraft carrier had docked and the boys (and I suppose girls, although they are not as obvious) were out in force. It had been a long time since we’d had a "night out on the town," so we made our way back to the guesthouse for a disco-nap in preparation.

All in all Brisbane is far more to my taste than Sydney. The folks here are as charming and approachable as in the countryside and there is none of the pretense I find so boring in Sydney.

We’ve become accustomed to Australian hyperbole. I am almost to the point of not noticing that every town, restaurant, street, house, tree, dog, cat or anything else always has an adjective with "est" attached to it. Tonight we went to the Wickham Hotel (Hotel = drinking bar) the, of course, oldest gay drinking hotel in Brisbane. The crowd spilled into the street and the music could be heard blocks away. As we arrived three really beefy security guards were expelling a drunkard. I became a little alarmed when the biggest and butchest of the three, a platinum blond bull-dyke with a flat-top, accosted me upon my approach. "Have you been here before?" she asked. Wasn’t sure how to answer this but her posture dictated that it should be sincere, deferring and respectful if I wanted to live through the experience. "Yes", turned out to be a good answer and she stepped aside. I wanted to ask her why she stopped me. Did I look that straight, dangerous or drunk? I couldn’t find her to ask her but it kept me on guard throughout the evening.

Later we met several Brisbanians who all approached us for some reason or another. The second, a straight girl, Rebecca, out dancing with her brother Jason. She and his friends gave us a Brisbane nightlife primer. Their friend John took a liking to Andy, who was able to see past some really nasty facial bruises and cuts to his charms. Seems John had a bad night drinking and fell down a flight of stairs a few days before, thus our nickname for him "escalier boy". Walking home I found myself, for the first time in days, not moist with sweat. The evening air cooled me as I walked the empty streets leaving me to wonder about our days ahead in Asia.

Fake beach in Brisbane

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