There are places that have a certain allure to them, countries that seem impossibly exotic. Hawaii for example. Fiji, Bora Bora. And Bali. Bali has an irresistable appeal, the name conjures up images of pristine beaches, delicious food, monkeys and jungles, rice terraces and temples. I tell my Sydneysider friend that I’m heading to Bali as soon as my Australian visa expires expecting her to be green with envy and beg me to take her with me. Her reaction is unexpected. ‘Why would you want to go to Bali?’ she snorts, ‘it’s horrible. Full of drunk Aussies getting into fights and pissing in the street.’ Apparently Bali is the Aussie equivalent of a cheap holiday to Magaluf. In other words, a hellhole.
Determined to keep an open mind however, I jump on a plane from Sydney, boyfriend in tow and land a few hours later in Denpasar. Sticky heat envelops us as soon as we walk out of the airport and are immediately accosted by insistent cab drivers. Our cab weaves through Kuta’s late night mayhem, narrowly avoiding mopeds, pedestrians and stray dogs, passing busy bars with flashing neon lights. I worry that, maybe, my Aussie friend was right…
We have booked a room at the great value Island hotel in Legian, the halfway point between the two hotspots: crazy Kuta and posh Seminyak, hoping for a mixture of the two. Our cab stops at the top of a dark, narrow alley. ‘Your hostel, down there’, our driver points into the darkness before speeding off. We exchange concerned glances before heading down the alley where we find ourselves at a dead end. Eventually we realise, after a few frantic phonecalls, that the hostel is right next to us, the entrance hidden behind a huge bamboo curtain. The website wasn’t kidding when it said this place was tucked away.
In the morning, we wake up to brilliant sunshine and the thick, sticky humidity that is typical of SE Asia. Our room looks over a small courtyard with a pool and beanbags dotted around. Tucked away in a corner sits a sacred shrine, flowers and offerings at its base, filling the courtyard with the sweet scent of incense. There are hundreds of these shrines scattered around Legian, hidden down narrow streets, tucked unassumingly into corners or holding pride of place in gardens and at shop fronts. Each morning, the locals place small offerings on the shrines and in the doorways of their homes and businesses, small woven baskets of incense, flowers and some form of food (often, for some reason, packets of mentos.)
During the day, we explore the streets of Legian, peering down the many little alleyways, or ‘gang’ and stepping over countless offerings scattered over the ground. We walk until we find ourselves on Seminyak beach, a long stretch of white sand sprinkled with chilled out beach bars and colourful parasols. We pick a spot and try the famous Bintang beer and fresh coconut milk. Later, in search of food, we try hiring scooters. Originally we decide to take one each but it becomes very clear, after I almost crash into a sunglasses stand and at the insistence of the very concerned shop owner, that this may not be the best idea. So instead I hop on the back and cling to my boyfriend as he navigates the way through the narrow, bustling streets that seem to have no traffic rules whatsoever, (overtaking from any direction, 4 people and a baby squeezed on a moped, no helmets etc…)
It’s chaos, but everyone we meet during our brief stay here, especially the hotel staff, are smiling, open and friendly and despite the traffic madness and the night life, I wonder where Kuta’s unsavoury reputation has come from.Give me Kuta over Magaluf any day…
After exploring our Balinese starting point we go to sleep early in our hidden away little hostel. We wake up at dawn the next day to board a hot, stuffy bus to Padang Bai where we board an equally hot and stuffy boat that will take us to our next highly anticipated destination, the enticing Gili islands…
I love Sydney. I love Kings Cross, where ultra-hip, ultra-rich 20 somethings and gay, retired millionaires walking their ridiculously tiny dogs up and down the tree-lined streets of Potts Point coexist peacefully with the scantily clad prostitutes and down and outs who litter the infamous Darlinghurst Road. This is where I called home for 8 months at Zing backpackers, conveniently located near the subway (2 stops one way and you’re in the CBD, 2 stops in the opposite direction and you’re in Bondi), Mr Liquor (whose $4 bottles of red will be sorely missed) and opposite the Golden Apple (one of the Cross’s most reputable brothels apparently, if you’re that way inclined…)
I had a great job teaching at an English Language school, great friends and my days off consisted of barbecues on the beach, taking day trips to exciting places and drinking too much previously mentioned $4 wine. Life was good, albeit a bit stressful at times. It’s hard to keep up with a ‘proper job’, marking homework and planning lessons while living in a hostel, but I couldn’t have left Zing if I tried. That place has some kind of magnetic pull that prevents people from leaving. A few days turn into a week, then a month, and before you know it you’re in a long-termer dorm, using an inflated goon bag for a pillow and on first name terms with the cockroaches in the kitchen.
But all good things come to an end, and as other longtermers started drifting off to various banana and mango farms around the country I realised that if I was going to attempt getting a second year visa I had to act now. The original plan, of course, had been to travel up the coast to Cairns, (which I did) then stick around in northern Queensland till I found work on a farm , (which I didn’t.) After a few days of sticky heat and strange aboriginal people shouting at us in the streets my friend and I decided that Cairns wasn’t for us and we hotfooted it straight back to Sydney. (Which turned out to be the best decision I could have made, as this particular decision led me to a posh boy from Essex, aka my boyfriend.)
Following a friend’s advice, I called mysterious John who owned a working hostel in Innisfail, land of abundant bananas ripe for picking by enthusiastic backpackers. So a month later the new boyfriend and I are on a flight to Cairns and a Greyhound bus to Innisfail. John who turns out to be a bald, middle-aged Aussie, picks us up from the bus station and takes us to the hostel where we eagerly sign the workers papers with our visa and bank details. We are a bit confused when John says, in between explaining the correct way to ‘hump’ bananas, that there might be a bit of a wait for work. OK, how much of a wait are we talking here, I’m dangerously close to my visa expiring and I need work straight away (which we’d been led to believe we’d be getting on the phone.)
‘Oh you’ll most likely get work in the next couple of weeks, if not sooner” John assures us, avoiding most of our questions, before giving us a quick tour and showing us our dorm room. To call it a hostel is generous, this place makes Zing look like a 5 star hotel. The set up looks like a prison, the dorms are located in different coloured blocks, A-F which surround a large, square patch of grass in the middle. There is a filthy kitchen with one functioning hob, a dilapidated room with a couple of chairs with the stuffing ripped out and a couple of weights in the corner, which John introduces us to as ‘the gym’. That is it.
We are shown to Block F and a 12 bed dorm. As we meet our room mates we realise that, unsurprisingly, John may have been telling a few porkies. This place is full to the brim with jobless, pissed off backpackers that have been spun the same spiel as us and led to believe that there was plenty of work when the reality is quite the opposite.
I’ve been waiting 5 weeks for work’ one girl says with a shrug.
‘Why don’t you just leave?’ I ask her. ‘Go somewhere else?’
‘I’ve waited this long, there’s no point in going anywhere else now. I’m next on the list and work’s picking up. I reckon I’ll be working next week.’
This is the mantra here. I’m next on the list. Work is picking up. I’ll have work next week. People here are so desperate for their second year visas they refuse to admit that they’ve been royally screwed over by a very clever conman who takes rent money and promises work that doesn’t exist. There’s simply too many people and not enough work. Those that do have work are given half days, or 3 days a week at the most, only earning enough to cover their rent and maybe a box of goon for the weekend and then, after a couple of weeks, are told that their farm doesn’t need them anymore. This means that instead of 3 months on one farm (where your days are counted even if you don’t work every day of the week) they then have to start on another farm and complete the 88 days required to get their visa signed off. 88 days, when you’re lucky to get a couple of half days a week, means these guys are going to be stuck in this hellhole for a very, very long time.
Most nights everyone who actually has worked on a farm all day are in bed by 8.30 and the lights turn off at 9pm, so other than sitting around in the dark and damp feeling miserable there’s really nothing to do, unless you feel like fighting a bunch of lads for the only Xbox control, or risking cooking anything in the filthy kitchen. (Even the nearest liquor store is a 40 minute walk away.) When the weekend finally rolls around though, it’s like a break out from the zoo, a hundred or so boozed up backpackers, released from their cages, on the loose in Innisfail town centre and the only nightclub in town, Rumours. (Think groups of menacing looking Aboriginal men, 50 year old women dressed as 20 year olds drinking alcopops and dancing in the haze of a smoke machine. Depressing to say the least. I last about 10 minutes in Rumours before heading straight to Maccas with a fellow inmate from Cell Block C, (equally cramped and mouldy as Cell Block F). Maccas is only open for drive-thru (unsurprising really, I’d want to be separated from anyone in this town by a thick sheet of glass too). Help comes in the form of a real-life hillbilly, complete with mullet, buck teeth and a pick up truck who takes us through the drive-thru and drops us off at the hostel where we wave him off, greasy paper bags in hand. So at least the locals are friendly, if slightly odd…
As it turned out, I lasted a week before escaping.
Back at the Nomads hostel in Rainbow beach we have a few days to try out some of the activities on offer in this teeny tiny town. We attempt sand boarding on the huge sand dunes nearby, without much success, and wake up super early one morning to drive over to Tin Can Bay, a small spot where, every day without fail, wild dolphins swim into the shallows to be hand-fed by enthusiastic volunteers. It’s a cute place to visit, but word to the wise, don’t eat at the café…
After 2 days in Rainbow we seem to have exhausted all the possible activities on offer but our Australia map doesn’t show much between here and Airlie Beach, our next destination, nearly 1000 km away… (We are fast realising just how big Australia is. Here, ‘up the road’ means, at the very least, a 2 hour drive) We decide to drive up to the tiny sister townships of Agnes Water and Town of 1770 after a brief stop in Bundaberg, which may be the most depressing town on the east coast…(sorry Bundabergans).
1770, so-named for being the (second) landing place of Captain Cook, seems to consist solely of a hill with a beachside bar perched on top. Agnes Water is just as tiny and charming, with a handful of souvenir shops and a hidden gem of a beach where we have a 3 hour surfing lesson with the Reef 2 Beach surf school for just $17. I think it’s safe to say I’ll never be a pro surfer. By the end we are battered, bruised and exhausted, but manage to muster enough energy for a group photo.
To save money, we pitch our tent in a super basic campsite for $6 a night. The campsite consists of one toilet full of insects, an outdoor shower in the middle of a patch of grass and a few sandy plots to pitch tents. This would have been fine if a huge storm hadn’t blown up during the night and we had nowhere to shelter except the tent which was trying to fly away, or the car which was full of crap and already soggy from wet towels and bikinis strewn everywhere. Not the most comfortable nights sleep. The campsite had a well kept secret though. A short walk through some overgrown bush (avoiding cobwebs housing enormous spiders stretched across the path) led to a tucked away little beach, where we spent a chilled day soaking up some sun with some cold ciders.
After a few days in Agnes Water we leave for Airlie Beach and our Whitsundays tour which we’ve booked in advance. Things have been going pretty smoothly so far, apart from the car continuously leaking oil, but this is where our road trip hits a hitch and it seems our luck may have run out. The storm that hit us in Agnes Water has been building up off the coast of Airlie, slap bam in the middle of the Whitsunday islands. The weather reports are predicting it will turn into a full-blown cyclone. No boats are going out. Our tour is cancelled. We decide not to wait around and, grudgingly, leave Airlie behind us to drive up to Townsville where a ferry will take us across to Magnetic Island. Despite our disappointment about missing the trip, it’s hard to feel down on this small, beautiful island covered in lush tropical bush. The renowned BASE hostel we’re staying at feels more like a hotel than a hostel, right on the beach with views over to the mainland, a bar-side swimming pool and cute little bungalows serving as dorm rooms. (Also, possums. Cute, furry possums everywhere.)
There is a strange phenomenon on the island that is the Barbie ‘Topless’ car. For around $100 you can rent toy-like, open-top cars in various neon colours and speed around the windy island roads. However, with money starting to run a bit low, we opt for the budget version. So, while everyone else zooms past us in their fluorescent pink cars, music thumping, salty air in their hair, we penny-pinchers wait patiently at the bus stop.
When the bus finally rolls up (everyone here is on island time), we visit the Koala Sanctuary where we get up close and personal with some Aussie critters, holding lizards, crocodiles and snakes, petting koalas and feeding talking parrots. On the way back, we battle the late day humidity and take a short hike up through the bush to a lookout point with a beautiful, almost panoramic, view of the island.
Just as we’re easing into island life, I get an unexpected call from Peter Pans travel agents back in Kings Cross, who’ve managed to do the impossible and squeeze us onto a Whitsundays boat the next day. So we say a fond farewell to Maggie, retrace our steps back to Airlie and finally board the Condor, our home for the next 3 days.
The Whitsundays trip is as amazing as expected. At first we are dubious about the overwhelming amount of loud, young German boys that board with us but they turn out to be great fun and become our drinking buddies for the next 3 days. We spend the days sailing blissfully between hundreds of tiny islands, stopping to snorkel and eat freshly barbecued lunch on the deck. The highlight of the trip is, of course, the famous Whitehaven beach, pure white swathes of sand and impossibly turquoise water stretching out for miles. In the evenings, we drink, (a lot, we run out of alcohol after the first night… note to self: you can never bring enough goon) and listen to music as dolphins swim laps around the boat. The nights are hot and sticky, the problem with living on a boat is that you’re never really dry and are constantly aware of how salty and damp you are. It’s impossible to sleep below deck in the cramped sleeping area, so most people drag their mattresses onto the deck and sleep beneath the stars. After 2 nights the trip is over and, though we’re reluctant to leave the party boat behind us, I’ve never been more grateful for a fresh water shower.
Our next destination is Mission Beach, where, on an impulse, we’ve booked a skydive. We take an obligatory pitstop along the way to take photos of another giant piece of fruit, this time it’s (drumroll…) The Big Mango! The mango is a much nicer pitstop than the poor pineapple. It even has it’s own café, complete with coffee cups with little mango men on them. We have ice-cream (mango flavour, of course) and then continue driving until we reach ‘Cassowary Country’ and Mission Beach. Signs along the roadside instruct us to slow down and watch out for cassowaries, though I’m yet to meet anyone who’s ever actually spotted one of these elusive, dinosaur like birds in the wild.
Mission Beach is all hilly, jungly tropicalness. We check into the secluded Jackaroo hostel, a 10 minute drive up a long, winding road from the beach. The hostel is nestled on a lush hillside, practically in the jungle, with amazing views out to sea. (Aussie hostels have really upped their game, European hostels, take note.) The small dorms, lounge area and kitchen are on the second floor, looking over the pool and sloping garden filled with hammocks and a canvas screen for open air movies. We relax, and I mentally prepare myself for the following day, half hoping there will be a freak thunderstorm and it will be cancelled..
Everyone says if you have done a bungee jump then a skydive will be a breeze. ‘You don’t even have to jump yourself, you’re attached to a professional, it’s totally safe yada yada yada.’ These people are lying. Doing a skydive is terrifying. And completely different to a bungee. Yes true, you don’t actually have to will yourself to step off into nothingness, but you do have to take a small, bumpy plane thousands of feet into the air (with the door open), and watch as other people hurtle over the edge strapped to another human, looks of sheer terror on their faces until its your turn. OK I’m making this sound like it was a horrible experience, which it wasn’t. It was brilliant because it was equally terrifying and exhilarating. And, like with a bungee, I’ve found that at the point where you’re about to fall your brain kind of stops worrying and switches off and pure adrenalin takes over. And after the initial over the edge, heart in mouth, ’oh my god what the fuck have I done?!’, moment passes, suddenly it’s the best experience of your life. Free falling through a clear blue sky, over a vast expanse of turquoise water, studded with islands (even if your goggles keep riding up over your head making it nearly impossible to see…) And when the parachute goes up you can take off the stupid goggles and really appreciate the indescribable feeling of being suspended in mid-air, taking in the view and the stillness, feeling like a bird. A few swoops and a gentle glide and we land on the beach. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Same goes for a bungee jump. The rush more than makes up for the fear. I think the only thing I wouldn’t do again is Zorbing, which I attempted at Rotorua in New Zealand. Getting tossed around and around in an inflatable ball filled with water with your friends feet in your face. Like being in a washing machine on spin cycle. Horrific.
Just over a month after we left Sydney we arrive in Cairns, our final destination, amazingly with the car still in one piece despite it constantly leaking oil everywhere. Cairns is an odd place. The esplanade and lagoon are pretty, especially at night when everything is lit up and there are a few nice places to eat and drink along the esplanade. But the rest of the town seems a bit faded and shabby, built for tourists but somehow not quite right. There is a noticeable Aboriginal population here, and they tend to roam the streets at night, slurring drunkenly at passers by who ignore them. For the most part though, they seem harmless, and there is something sad about them and their resistance to modern life and integration. Cairns is definitely a town to pass through, do a couple of trips, get drunk at Gilligans and Woolshed and then leave again. (I realised this when I ended up stuck working here for 4 excruciating months a while later.) But we do make the most of some of the brilliant day trips that Cairns has to offer.
The first trip we do is a day in the Daintree Rainforest on Uncle’s Brian’s Fun, Falls and Forest tour. This trip actually turns out to be the highlight of our whole east coast trip. We make the mistake of drinking far too much the night before and rocking up to the bus very hungover, very early in the morning. We are welcomed onto the bus by Cousin Rob who is a ball of energy and tells us that today will be filled with lots of walking, swimming and singing. ‘Oh God. What are we doing?!’ is my first thought, but as we head off, Rob’s infectious energy rubs off on us and our hangovers miraculously subside as we sing karaoke and pass ‘magic’ polos around the bus from person to person using only a toothpick between our teeth… yeah there’s no other way I can explain that. We spend the day chasing waterfalls, stopping off at Victoria falls which looks like a scene from Tarzan and has its own natural water slide and Milaa Milaa falls, the famous Herbal Essences waterfall, (yes, yes, YES) and set of Peter Andre’s ‘Mysterious Girl’ video where we attempt the ultimate hair flick.
We can’t leave Cairns without visiting its ultimate attraction, the Great Barrier Reef where I try diving for the first time (after waiting around for my diving buddy, a Chinese guy who apparently hadn’t realised that diving involved putting your head underwater and was having a slight panic attack. He ended up back on the boat by the free buffet where he seemed much happier.) As the boat speeds back from the reef after a blissful day of sun and snorkelling we realise our trip has come to an end and, with now very empty pockets, we have to decide what to do. We contemplate sticking around in Cairns and finding work for about 30 seconds before deciding there’s only one place we want to go. And so we sell the faithful rustwagon and scurry back ‘home’ to Sydney, penniless but with impressive tan lines and many a road trip tale to tell.
Sydney, I’m back. And where else would I check into than Zing backpackers in good old Kings Cross. I expected to only stay for a couple of weeks, but ended up calling it home for the next 8 months. I never thought I could live in a hostel for so long, but while I thought about Continue reading “Sydney Round 2, Hostel life ain’t so bad”→