(Its ok, this doesn’t end badly….)
Having travelled alone for almost 5 months now, visited 11 countries and taken numerous modes of dubious transport in various places, it may come as a surprise that the most scared I have been on a journey is the day I borrowed my cousin Julie’s car. I stayed with her and the family in Canberra for a week, getting some quality family love down under. As cars go, Julie’s new Lexus 4WD is a thing of beauty (I don’t count porsches or supercars as they are things of testosterone fuelled inferiority complexes*). When she told me I could drive it, I pointed out that I hadn’t driven since September and since it was rather a nice car I was quite happy getting the bus. But she told me not to be ridiculous. So I went out in it on my last day in Canberra. Julie’s 18 year old son looked at me incredulously as I walked towards the garage. “Mum’s letting you drive her car? Do you know how many times she has let me drive that car in the year she has had it? Twice. Twice (he repeats, for emphasis) It is her pride and joy”. Oh shit. I didn’t need to hear that. I preferred Julie’s version of “Don’t worry, its only a car”.
It was so weird getting behind the wheel. Julie’s sat nav is now set to a variety of random destinations as I tried to work out how to set and reset it. Rather annoyingly, it would switch off once it thought it had taken me to where it thought I needed to be. You have reached your destination and the navigation will end here. NOOoooooo, reroute me, please, I don’t know where I am, I don’t know what my destination looks like, and am someone who is perfectly capable of getting lost on a straight road. So I admit I did drive round in circles for quite some time, sweating and swearing a lot and frequently switching on the windscreen wipers rather than the indicators (stupid Australian cars with the instruments on the wrong side), but eventually found my way to where I wanted to be (a shopping centre because when in Australia, buy Uggs, of course). And I returned the car in one piece, despite Alex’s attempt to convince me I had scratched it when I got home.
I don’t know what is worse, Alex putting the fear of god into me about driving the car, or the manager of the hotel in Airlie Beach, from where I was heading on my Whitsundays sailing trip, saying to me with a concerned look on his face “you do know that its just a load of young people that go on that boat?”. What was he trying to tell me? My mood wasn’t assisted by the weather forecast – pouring with rain and, according to the totally bonkers bus driver who had picked us up from the airport, a cyclone was coming. Said bus driver had not allowed us on the bus until we all did a suitably enthusiastic response to his “Hi-De-Hi”esque “WWwwwelcome to the Whhhhhitsundaysss” (imagine a desperate pantomime dame trying to rouse a silent unresponsive crowd who have landed in a blowing gale in what they thought was supposed to be summer) and then proceeded to give a running commentary on the rain, the flooding, the vermin that are wallabies “We can’t shoot them fast enough here, I run over at least 10 a week“….
So I was feeling miserable and wet the day I was due to go on the boat, and was seriously contemplating bailing on the trip. And as I sat having dinner and watching the England v Australia cricket game I realised that I was sat there, in an Italian restaurant, on my own, and it was Valentine’s Day. Between that, the weather and the manager’s comments, I had a one way ticket to Loserville, clearly**. So nothing to lose except to get on the boat.
And I am so glad I did. The most fun, ever. An eclectic mix of 24 travellers, ranging from a Swedish couple travelling through Australia and NZ with their 3 beautiful children (because in Sweden men get paid paternity leave for 6 months, too!!), to a private jet pilot from the UK, a dutch musician and a range of ‘young’ backpackers from all over the world. The first night it was so windy we didn’t even leave the port. When the engine started at 6 a.m. then next morning I raced tactically to the deck to stare at the horizon. Not something that worked for everyone, with a quarter of our group being sick that morning as we set off in 35 knots. It was proper sailing all day that particular day, hair-raising and exhilarating in equal measure, especially when we were accompanied for a small while by some dolphins.
I had last been to the Whitsundays when I was in Australia in 1997 and then I had visited the picturesque Whitehaven beach in the Australian winter, on a day when it was too cold to swim and my photograph included a big grey cloud. So one of the main reasons for doing the sailing trip was to go back there and see Whitehaven Beach at its best. Or so I thought… I hadn’t appreciated there was a rainy season as well as a summer, and the beach was in cloud and the sea very choppy as we arrived. Clearly I am destined to return again for that perfect sunshine shot, preferably when there isn’t a cyclone on the way (we arrived back 2 days before it hit, luckily). Still, pretty bloody beautiful, cloud or no cloud.
Unintentionally I am working backwards in time in this post. When I arrived in Australia, my first stop was Lord Howe Island, a place located a 2 hour flight out of Sydney in the Tasman Sea at the southern most tip of the coral reef, with tourist numbers restricted to 400 at a time, and designated as a place of outstanding natural beauty. LHI was something I had booked with much excitement before my trip began, but I had not wanted to think about it too much, partly because I didn’t want to be disappointed when I got there, and also because being there would signify that I was nearing the end of my trip, which I simply could not contemplate. We flew in a little 36 seater plane, a real test of whether I had truly overcome my fear of flying, especially as I was wedged in the corner at the back (and apparently I haven’t). The flight however paled into insignificance when the island came into view – wow, wow, wow.
And that is basically what I said for the next 5 days. I can honestly say I have never been anywhere as beautiful, or as friendly, as Lord Howe. It felt unreal, as if I was an extra in the Truman Show and at any point someone would tear down the turquoise sea coloured wallpaper to reveal the film set behind the scenes. But it was real, and it was truly extraordinary. I think the photos speak for themselves. I arrived to be greeted at the airport with a hug by the manager of my lodge, who then chatted to me like an old friend as we made our way there. That friendliness set the tone for the rest of my time on the island. I had a bike and cycled round the island, feeling as free as a bird. Someone described cycling there as a return to childhood and perhaps that is why it felt so good. In the evening time I never dined alone, that is how lovely people were.
I was adopted by a fantastic family from Perth who were over for their son’s wedding and spent several evenings with them and the newlyweds (yes, they were on honeymoon, yes I did feel like I was imposing, but they promised me I wasn’t and we drank through it..). Western Australia: another place I need to go and visit, if everyone there is as fun and nice as the Hammond family. Another evening an American couple invited me to join them (hello Hal and Linda if you are reading this) who reminded me very much of my parents (that’s a good thing!). I think that is another reason I enjoyed my time so much – I felt part of a family again, one of the few things I am looking forward to returning to the UK for. Whilst in LHI I dived, snorkelled amongst the most amazing fish, went turtle watching (they were HUGE!), climbed another (small but steep) mountain, and did lots of walking. I literally didn’t stop – the lodge staff had to drive to pick me up on my bike on the last day as I was going to miss the flight, such was my excitement on the last morning at finding a bay full of parrot fish when I was only knee deep in water. I was so sad when I left, I cried. If I ever get married again, I want to go back there on my honeymoon. Appreciate that’s a bold statement in many respects, but just saying….
In between Lord Howe, the Whitsundays and Canberra I have spent almost a week in Sydney and in keeping with my whole Australia experience, have fallen in love with this city, too. It really does tick the boxes – a fantastic combination of city and beautiful beaches pointing towards an enviable lifestyle for those lucky enough to call it home. I met up several times with my friend Helen, who I used to work with back home and who now lives there. On our last night we went to see Tim Minchin perform on the steps of the Opera House (aka I crashed a date night with her boyfriend, thank you both). A musical comedy genius (if you don’t know him, google him on Youtube and be entertained), on an iconic landmark, on my last night in this wonderful city. It doesn’t get much better than that.
If all this sounds like a saccharine account of happy times, I apologise. But Australia exceeded all my expectations – perhaps because I didn’t really have any, I only went in order to catch up with Julie and her family whilst I was vaguely in the area. But I am a total convert to the country and the way of life and it is gut wrenching to leave (I am typing this at the airport en route to Singapore). Gut wrenching too as I inch closer to the end of my trip and the return to reality beckons. Had I not added on my forthcoming ski trip to Japan on, I would be on my way home now. Thankfully that has been delayed by 2 more weeks and I am headed back to Singapore (I think Faye is getting bored of me now) and a group of us are flying to Tokyo for the weekend and then on to Niseko for a week’s skiing. Its going to be cold…..
With that in mind, I think my next post will probably be my last. Is that a good thing??! No longer will you all have to hurriedly read the latest instalment before sending me an email or being in touch, or pretending to have read it when I ask… I will try and make it a goodie.
*A test to see if my friend Pete is still reading the blog.
**Although for the avoidance of doubt I would make clear that I wouldn’t be seen dead in a restaurant with a man on Valentine’s day, but you get my point.