I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t a huge fan of Cairns. In fact, for the first few weeks I actively despised it. In fairness, this was mainly due to me coping badly with Sydney withdrawal symptoms and working in an English school hopelessly stuck in the 90s (I’m talking tape cassettes, actual tape cassettes…) run by a troll faced, miniature dragon lady who hated my guts. Let me explain… Sydney is my home from home, imo the best city in the world. It has everything, gorgeous beaches a stone’s throw from the city centre, cheap and efficient transport, a varied cluster of interesting suburbs and with it’s happening nightlife and cheap hostels it’s a backpacker’s haven. But I couldn’t stay in Sydney forever (as much as I wanted to). I was still an impostor in this faraway land of barbies in the arvo and if I wanted to stay here I had to do it the hard way, which meant leaving the big city and venturing into the back of beyond to work on a banana farm where I could trade my sweat, tears and sanity for a second year visa. But, due to a bad bout of banana disease and a hellhole of a hostel this plan didn’t work out and so, penniless, I was forced to head to the nearest ‘big’ town and desperately search for work. This big town was Cairns.
Cairns is an odd place. It has the feel of a once promising town that tried to go all out to become party central but lost heart halfway and just gave up. And so there is a curious mix of rowdy backpackers, bored locals and a heavy aboriginal population. Most of the action in the town happens around the lagoon, a pretty, saltwater pool complete with artificial sand, that tries its hardest to make you ignore the vast expanse of muddy estuary beyond it. (Note: even at low-tide do not venture out onto the estuary, you’re in croc country now mate. And it’s probably stinger season too.) Along the esplanade are an array of overpriced restaurants and cafes geared at holiday makers rather than backpackers, the latter sticking to the hostel bars or backpacker faves, Woolshed and Down Under Bar.
The main attraction of Cairns is actually what lies all around it; the Great Barrier Reef on one side and the sprawling Atherton Tablelands and Daintree Rainforest on the other, which spreads all the way up to Cape Tribulation over 100km north of Cairns. (See here about some of the brilliant trips you can do around Cairns.) A cute day trip closer to the town is a visit to Kuranda, ‘The Village in the Rainforest’. The village is tiny, and very touristy, but it’s worth a visit just for the lush rainforest views and driving up by car is cheaper and just as scenic as taking the train or the cable car.
Don’t get me wrong, Cairns has got its fair share of tourist trips and activities, and is definitely worth a spot on any Aussie road trip itinerary. But it is a town to pass through, not to linger in. Friends came and went, heading north to Darwin or south to the Sunshine Coast, or taking advantage of a cheap flight and heading straight to Bali. I had exhausted all the activities on offer and was now extremely bored, lonely and trapped working here in the sticky, tropical heat of a Queensland summer. (All while trying to teach hyperactive Japanese teenagers how to conjugate verb phrases when all they wanted to do was play volleyball and go off for a BBQ in the sunshine. I feel your pain guys.)
But then a strange thing began to happen. The more time I spent here I started to notice a secret side to Cairns, a low-key, quirky vibe away from the touristy bits. And I liked what I saw. Art exhibitions, market stalls selling homemade oddities, stands serving spicy curries in the enormous Botanic Gardens in North Cairns. I hadn’t even realised Cairns had a Botanic Garden, or a market, until my housemate took me with her to go garden gnome hunting. (A hobby of hers, she gives old gnomes a bit of well-needed TLC and restores them to their former glory. I guess it’s one way to keep yourself entertained in Cairns.)
One sweltering afternoon I found myself at the entrance to Graffiti Lane, a tucked away alley that wouldn’t look out of place in Melbourne. Here I found one of Cairn’s ‘secret’ coffee shops. Caffiend is a funky little spot filled with an eclectic mix of furnishings; think skateboards on the wall, a graffiti covered coffee machine and various art works for sale on the walls. The colourful alley wall serves as a backdrop to the outside seating area. You can even buy a t-shirt with the Caffiend logo splashed across the front. The place is pretty teeny and, despite its out of the way location, is constantly buzzing with locals. Unsurprising though, given the cool setup and the amazing menu. ‘European frittata on rocket salad’, ‘Balsamic, strawberry and goat’s cheese bruschetta’, ‘Poached eggs with wilted spinach, bacon and chili jam’ are just some of the options on offer here.
Further up the alley, what appears to be a dead end is actually the courtyard and back entrance to La Creperie. This French inspired cafe serves up a great selection of sweet and savoury crepes and unmissable milkshakes. As for the evenings, tired of the same old bar crawl along the ‘strip’ I ventured beyond the brightly lit lagoon and found Salthouse perched at the end of the boardwalk by a little harbour. This became my favourite spot, drinking coffee, marking homework and looking out over the harbour on sunny afternoons and working my way through the cocktail menu in the evenings. It seems that the backpacking crowds haven’t descended onto this spot yet and it retains a chilled, chic vibe that is one of a kind in Cairns.
4 months later, and a year after arriving in Australia, I was finally able to leave my shitty job and fly off to the sunny shores of Bali for a much needed holiday. But I realised that I would miss the strange little bubble that is Cairns and all it’s tucked away places waiting to be discovered. Look hard enough and you might just find them…
Thailand has always had a special place in my heart. For years I had dreamed of visiting this enchanting land of elephants, jungle fringed beaches and spicy noodles and when I finally did visit, it was my first taste of somewhere truly ‘exotic’. The first time I had ventured, completely alone, into the unknown. I was 22, fresh out of uni and keen to start teacher training. I knew I wanted to take a course in teaching English as a foreign language. I also knew I didn’t want to do that at home when there were so many CELTA courses on offer in countries all over the world.. Of course, I chose Thailand but instead of flying off to bustling Bangkok I chose a school in Phuket where, I reasoned, I could island hop and bum around on the beach on my days off.
This was one of the best decisions I’d ever made. Upon arriving in Phuket, I coincidentally connected with a French friend who was working on a nearby island. Ignoring my jetlag, we met up and immediately hired mopeds to explore historic Phuket Town and some nearby beaches. Sitting on the sand, watching the sun set with my first ice cold Chang and a bowl of something spicy and delicious I had a pinch me moment. Here I was, finally, in this beautiful, otherworldly country that had been on my wish list for so long. And I was here for 5 weeks.
My French friend assured me that the place to party in Phuket was Pattaya, an infamous party province. By this point I was ready to crash, my jet lag well and truly set in, but not wanting to miss a chance to party we took the mopeds along the winding coastal road to Pattaya. 10 hours later, after a blur of buckets, ladyboys and promises of ping pong shows, not to mention almost hammering a nail through my hand and a moped crash which involved a smashed set of front teeth (luckily not mine) I finally staggered into my hotel room and passed out. I had survived my first night. I managed to behave myself for the next month, settling for a couple of cold Changs in the evenings with my fellow trainees. But at the end of the course there was still a week left until Christmas and I was in no hurry to rush back home. And so, with my straight talking, Californian classmate Sara, we took a boat to the island on every backpackers itinerary, Koh Phi Phi.
Phi Phi was my ultimate destination of choice. I too wanted to follow in the footsteps of so many over-excited teenage girls and find the exact patch of sand where Leo DiCaprio had sat in The Beach. I wanted a piece of the paradise. I also wanted to party and had been informed that Phi Phi was the place to do it.
The island did not disappoint. From the moment I jumped out of the boat into the crystal clear water I was in love. The narrow streets were hectic, backpackers fresh off the boat hauling their luggage through throngs of people. A guy cycled past with a monkey dressed in a suit on his shoulder. Vendors called out to us, beckoning and smiling. I had never been anywhere like it. We spent the day exploring the island, taking in the lush scenery and lazing on the beach. A longboat trip took us to neighbouring Phi Phi Leh where I finally visited Maya Bay, snorkelled with turtles, fed wild monkeys, had a beach party in a private cove and swam with bioluminescent plankton. I was drunk on sensations (and a copious amount of cheap alcohol) and convinced that this island was paradise.
Pattaya had somewhat prepared me for the party scene of Phi Phi, but I hadn’t quite become hardened to the buckets. (Basically a small slug of energy drink mixed with an entire bottle of vodka in a bucket with a party straw.) And so it came to be that on my last night on the island we made our way to Slinky’s beach bar and from that point on the night became a blur. When I eventually sobered up enough to realise where I was, I found I was sitting waist deep in the sea with a South African guy talking about the meaning of life and watching the sun come up. I had a nasty gash on my foot. I had also lost my bag, (which I later found empty and discarded on the beach) and, undoubtedly, my dignity. I managed to drag myself up to our hilltop hostel where I found Sara asleep on a pool lounger. I had managed to lock us out and lose the keys. After breaking into our room we passed out and woke up with the worst hangovers known to man. I still don’t know what I got up to that night, and thats probably a good thing. But I was young and wild and if you can’t be stupid and irresponsible when you’re 22 then when can you? I’m still eternally thankful to Sarah for lending me money for a hotel room and cab to the airport the next day, not to mention some weird medicinal powder for my bloody, infected foot. And so I bid farewell to paradise and fly home for Christmas, dazed, hungover and with a doctor’s appointment for my foot (and probably my liver.)
4 years later, I come back to Koh Phi Phi. This time I am older, wiser and I’m not going anywhere near a bucket. I’m excited to show my boyfriend this crazy island eden where the waters are clear turquoise, the beaches beautiful, the people friendly and the nightlife wild. But the island is not as I remember it. Far from being an unspoilt backpacker’s haven, the beaches and streets are strewn with rubbish and evidence of last night’s debauchery. It is pouring with rain and the locals glare at us, not a hint of the famous Thai smile here. I locate the notorious Slinky’s beach bar which had been the starting point of our wild escapades, where I first saw a tattooed teenager walk a tightrope while juggling flaming batons, smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer simultaneously. The relentless rain has put a stop to the fire shows and the bar sits, dark and dingy, on the polluted beach. I realise that the island probably hasn’t changed that much at all, but that the younger me was seeing everything through rose tinted glasses, not to mention bucket goggles.
We leave the beach and hike up to the famous viewpoint, passing a sour faced woman at the bottom who snatches our proffered money as we pass. Giant, ugly hotel complexes have popped up around the island, large areas of bush bulldozed to make room for these monstrosities trying hard to ruin the once breathtaking views. I am confused and saddened. It seems Phi Phi really has lost its charm. Maybe, as many will tell you, it lost it decades ago. We don’t linger on the island, heading instead to Koh Lanta which, we are told, is still truly unspoilt. But as the boat speeds away from Phi Phi I still feel a familiar pang in my chest as I watch the island recede into the distance. It may not be what it once was, but the island will always remain special to me as my first taste of paradise, of reckless abandon and, when I’m old and grey, a reminder of what it felt like to be young, free and completely, wonderfully irresponsible.
I have been wedged between my boyfriend and a sweaty stranger, my bare thighs sticking uncomfortably to a plastic seat, for almost 3 hours. The window nearest to me stubbornly refuses to open more than a crack and the colour of most of the passengers faces combined with the relentless rocking of the stiflingly hot boat explains the pervasive smell of vomit. A wooden dock comes into view finally, and the overloaded boat slows down to moor beside it; exquisite turquoise water lapping at its sides. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief before the captain calls out, ‘Lombok.’ Around half the passengers scramble to the exit, leaping from the side of the boat into the cool, clear water, bags in tow as the rest of us groan in our seats, reluctantly moving over as a new load of passengers embark. Apparently this is not a direct service to Gili Trawangan island I grumble to my boyfriend reminds me of that classic paradise found, paradise lost movie The Beach. Remember the beach was a bloody faff to get to, but it was worth it in the end he points out. I decide not to mention that most of the characters in that movie ended up dead.
Another sweaty hour later the boat finally docks at Trawangan. As we walk up the jetty and onto the island I forget all about the hellish journey that seems to have brought us to another world in another time. Colourful horse-drawn carts, or cidomo, trundle down dirt tracks, carting tourists and supplies past open store fronts and beach bars, passing under decorative umbrellas suspended overhead. There are no proper roads on the island and so no motorised vehicles. It’s a relief from the chaotic mess of taxis and motorbikes back on the mainland in Kuta, however we soon realise Gili T has a madness all its own. We dodge cyclists and jump out of the way of the horses, their drivers incessantly honking their little plastic horns. But as we venture away from this bustling drop-off point the crowds disperse and the ‘road’ becomes practically empty save a few locals.
We discover our hostel tucked down a dusty side road, the Woodstock home stay, where we check into a wooden bungalow nestled in greenery by a shady pool. This place is a peaceful haven, away from the bustle of the harbour, run by a super chilled German lady and a handful of friendly locals. Each bungalow is named after a classic band or singer: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix or in our case, The Who. We try a plate of delicious mie goreng (Indonesian fried rice) and fresh watermelon shakes as we sit by the pool, petting the resident cats.
The quickest way to get around the island is by bike, with the island only 3km long and 2km wide you can get from one side to the other in less than 20 minutes. The Woodstock home stay offers free bike hire and we head inland, over dusty tracks and scrubby, undeveloped patches of land. The locals eye us curiously as we pass. It seems that unlike other popular island hot spots, such as Koh Phi Phi which has been all but destroyed as a result of over-development, pollution and too many tourists, the Gili islands still remain relatively obscure and untouched, though sadly this is bound to change. For now the tourist scene is confined solely to the beaches on the edges of the island. But venture further inland and the heart of the island lies quiet and unexplored, reserved for the locals leading a simple life, unmoved by the steadily growing tourist presence and building sites cropping up around the tiny island.
We have dinner at a beach restaurant, nestled on cushions in a little wooden hut. The restaurant is almost empty and we see only a few other tourists wandering around. Peaceful though it is, I am confused. Isn’t Gili T supposed to be the party island of the 3? I wonder. This is high season, where is everyone? All becomes clear after dinner when we follow the road further around and find ourselves suddenly in the hustle and bustle of Trawangan’s main ‘strip’. Here, there are heaps more restaurants, bars, gelato stands and many a painted sign freely advertising ‘Bloody good magic mushrooms.’ It seems islanders have taken liberty with Bali’s strict drug laws. We decide to skip the shrooms and opt for the open air beach cinema instead. Tonights movie is, of course, The Beach.
We wake early the next day (hard to sleep in with the island’s only mosque so close by, the reverberating call to prayer can be heard all over the island) and head off on a snorkeling trip. The clear, warm waters around the islands are perfect for spotting fish and turtles, just be careful if you opt for a lunchtime cocktail. Pretty wobbly legs after a Gili island ice tea, they don’t muck about with their measures! In the evening, it’s time to to see if Gili T deserves its title of party island. After a delicious plate of cheap eats at the night market we head straight to the infamous Sama Sama bar where we get talking to English Sam, who dreams of living a nomadic life in the Peruvian hills and Nora, his statuesque (6ft2), Californian girlfriend. After making the most of the ridiculously cheap cocktails the night passes in a blur of beer pong and pulsing music and we spend the next morning sweating out a pretty heavy hangover by the pool. But hey, there are worse places in the world to deal with a sore head! By the afternoon we have recovered enough to cycle over to the other side of the island where we perch on the famous Lombok Swing and watch a spectacular sunset over distant Mount Rinjani.
The next island on our itinerary is just a hop across the water. Gili Air is Gili Trawangan without the party, a favourite spot for couples. (Fun fact: ‘Air’ actually means ‘Water’ in Indonesian.) We check into the tranquil Toro Toro bungalows, tucked away down another little side road near the beach.(Of course, everywhere here is near the beach! Air is even smaller than Trawangan) This island is much quieter, sparsely scattered with tourists and here the roads are lined with seafood restaurants and beautiful hotels rather than bustling bars. The gorgeous white sand beaches are almost empty and the water is clear and unpolluted. Huge turtles swim lazily beside you in the shallows, only a few feet from the sand. Here, the locals go about their daily business, hauling their fishing boats out or loading building supplies onto the cidomo.
This time we skip the bikes and explore the island on foot. It’s become second nature now to dodge the cyclists and horses charging down the tracks. We stumble across a cooking school and decide to try our hands at some Indonesian cuisine. We start with kelopon, sticky, coconut based desert balls which look like playdough (and kind of taste like it too.) We make delicious fried noodles, or nasi goreng, and a spicy peanut dipping sauce with crushed peanuts, palm sugar and chillies. So simple, but so tasty.
The days here are spent in typically indulgent island style, sunbathing, strolling around, taking lazy swims and eating everything we see; refreshing coconut gelato and the local specialty pepes ikan, spicy fish wrapped in banana leaf with fragrant rice.
On the last night we have dinner on the beach, the tables sat inches from the ocean, the surf lapping lazily around our ankles as we eat. One thing is certain, these idyllic islands were definitely worth the journey and I’d happily stay here another week, or a month, or maybe just build myself a little beach shack and live on island time forever! I’m sure I’m not the only one with the same idea though.. so word to the wise, check out the Gilis sooner rather than later. Something tells me this little patch of paradise won’t stay this way for long…
Getting there: We booked through The Island hotel in Kuta, this included the bus to Padang Bai and the (very) slow taxi boat to the Gilis. Fast boats are available if you don’t mind spending a bit extra. Boats between the islands are quick, cheap and run often.
Where to stay:
Woodstock homestay, Gili Trawangan – super cheap, super chilled and in a great location. Definitely on my list of favourite hostels.
Toro Toro Bungalows, Gili Air (also confusingly known as Limitless hostel.) Good value, lovely bungalows, no pool but with the beach so close you won’t miss it!
What to do:
Anything that starts with an ‘S’: sunbathe, snorkel, shop, swim…!
Gili Cooking classes, from 275,000 Rupiah (about £14)
Eat at the night market
Watch a movie at the open air cinema next to Villa Ombok, for a couple of dollars you get a beanbag, free popcorn and drinks service
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.