At the End of New South Wales
Port Macquarie - Byron Bay, 23rd – 25th September
After yesterday’s close introduction to the Australian bush, the urgent medical procedures, and due to the never-ending tiredness of travelling, today should have been a chilled day without much sightseeing. And yet Port Macquarie has so much to offer!
Here, for example, they have a koala hospital - the only one of its kind worldwide, specialising purely in these animals. In my imagination that can only mean one thing - if there is a koala hospital right here, then they live in the area too. Well, I will spend every possible minute staring up into the Eucalyptus trees to look for them. Thus, you will not be surprised by my great disappointment when we don’t see any along the streets or even in the rainforest we visit ...
Let’s focus on the forest for a bit. We visited one yesterday and took with us a tick or two, but even without that negative experience, I can say that today’s one - Sea Achres is better organised. There is an entry fee which provides you with pathways lifted from the forest floor and therefore limits the paranoia from the surrounding fauna. The signs on the way introduce you to the local flora (information that we will know from the top of our heads by the end of our Australian trip). We see another guana as we walk through but not much can be said about it.
We leave the forest. Let’s head to the koala hospital! No Eucalyptus tree is left unscanned, but … not a single koala! The hospital is surprisingly a free entry - you just arrive and can walk through. In the beginning, there is a little museum with information about koalas as animals and the issues that most often cause the need for human medical assistance.
Despite the often comparison, the fluffy grey animals are not bears. The koalas are marsupial mammals (just like kangaroos and wombats) and can only be found on the Eastern and Southeastern coast of Australia. Usually, they live in a Eucalyptus forest as they only eat Eucalyptus leaves. Now, here’s a trick - the Eucalyptus is actually toxic for koalas which makes them slow, lazy animals that sleep 20 hours of the day. Why nature has created them with a constant need for intoxication - I do not know.
And on the other subject - the main reasons for hospitalisation are two: burns from bushfires (a normal occurrence in the Australian bush) or a genetic predisposition to Chlamydia which often leads to the animals going blind.
But one thing gets serious attention on every step around the hospital - however cute, fluffy and friendly they are, koalas are, after all, wild animals. Human touch, let alone cuddling (a common tourist attraction on the continent) is absolutely wrong. Even in the hospital direct human contact is restricted to urgent help only.
With a base knowledge of the endemic mammals, we start our tour. You cannot enter the hospital itself, however, there are koala enclosures attached to the main building for those that have to stay indefinitely under human care because of their disabilities as they wouldn’t survive alone in the wild. Out here, for tourists and school groups to see, are only those animals which have been in the hospital long enough to feel comfortable in such close proximity to humans. And they are the ones we can see - our first koalas in Australia, even behind nets.
Every enclosure is carefully signed with pictures of the tenant, the name, the specific need for lifelong human care, as well as their personality. Most say they are calm and friendly animals. And as mentioned already, we primarily see descriptions of burned paws, blindness, and one female had broken her claws in a fall and therefore has lost the ability to climb high for food and safety.
Many school groups are walking around with us, being led by hospital volunteers. They talk to them about the life of koalas not only in the hospital but in the wild too. It is obvious how passionate they are when showing the kids the way we humans should be treating the wild animals and how our personal wishes to do something just because we can (like cuddling koalas) could greatly harm a wild animal.
Interested in their professional opinion we ask one of the girls what she thinks about other Australian koala sanctuaries. We are planning to visit one after Brisbane and want to know if they support the way the animals are raised there. Unfortunately, she is not prepared to share opinions on other hospitals. We will have to form the view on our own then. (Though perhaps her reluctance to share should have been clear enough, we will talk more about that after Brisbane.)
With a good feeling about the correct care for the grey fluff balls, we head to the government services of New South Wales. The one that we couldn’t handle 10 days ago in Sydney, trying to go through all procedures of transferring the car to our name as they required more documents than we could give at the time. Now, fully armed with everything required we will finally register Bertie (our home/car). We are close not only to the deadline of two weeks after purchase, but we are almost at the border with Queensland and crossing it will mean we won’t have access to the New South Wales services. The federal country is one, however, every state is practically an independent country with its own laws and services. It’s now or never.
This time we go through the procedures much easier. The lady kindly explains every step to us - it is clear she can tell from afar we are not locals and do not know how things work. She sends us to get the final papers and we quickly get a few hundred dollars lighter after insurance, registration fees and extending the road tax for a further six months. We are here, we might as well do it all at once. After 45 minutes we leave now officially as Bertie’s owners. Well, I do! Nic bought it for me, right? I can’t omit to mention that it is nice for the first car in your name to be a 4x4 beast that would take us along the 24,000 kilometres around Australia.
After a quick, delicious lunch our programme for Port Macquarie comes to an end and we set off again. Our main guide through the continent is the mobile app Space Ships. I don’t know how we would have made it without it. It has been developed by one of the many companies for van hire equipped with anything you might need to travel through Australia. It has everything! Paid campsites, free campsites, fuel stations, drinking water stations and most importantly - places of interest that you can visit on the way. Almost every entry is accompanied by pictures, detailed description, prices and reviews from other travellers that can help you get up-to-date on the latest situations. We travelled through the country without a printed guide and this app was our trusted helper. Everything that we saw and visited we first found on here. Well, okay - Nic found it and I followed him like a loyal puppy.
Guided by Space Ships, Nic has picked our next stop at Nambucca Heads. Over the years the place has established itself as an unbelievable attraction - locals and tourists come here to draw on the wave-breaker rocks on the shore and leave their messages, stories and inspirations.
After we observe in detail the art of our predecessors, we find a rock painted in white that matches all our requirements. For any sort of art, we are equipped with only two black Sharpies. Together we leave handprints that we fill with different motives and, of course, sign them underneath. We become part of history.
Even without the colourful drawings around us, this place offers a wonderful view with the surrounding ocean. Too bad that we don’t stay longer to enjoy it. Instead, we rush back to the car as if this was just a task on the list that we have accomplished and now it can be forgotten. Because of that thought on my mind and the fact that the campsite tonight is just an empty football field, we have to stop for a bit on the way. All of a sudden I have this feeling we are rushing so quickly through everything that we see, to the point that there is no sense in it. We don’t pay enough attention to the small things, we don’t feel them fully, we don’t enjoy them. We are rushing without knowing why …
We stumble onto a little park looking towards the ocean and we just sit on a bench. So we can simply look. So we can discuss plans. So we can pay attention to the details. This trip is not a list of tasks but a compilation of the little things in life. And I am glad that I felt that way, that we stopped - so we can make changes on time.
Today we continue the exploration of the Australian bush - now that we’ve started we can’t stop. Today’s trek is in Dorrigo National Park and it meanders down the hill to Red Cedar Falls. Unfortunately, I have probably not slept very well last night and already I can feel that today my typical headaches will be strong. But I am used to it so will just have to push through somehow.
The path snakes on the flat first and one of the info signs we see something I have only stumbled across on random online clips - scars from logging on the standing tree trunks. Because of the height of cedar and eucalyptus trees, the technique was to first cut out holes in the tree trunks where planks can be stuck in as steps. I guess that way the risk of a 70-meter tree falling on somebody's head is smaller. And the monkey I am travelling with uses the crevices immediately to climb high and stand in a victorious pose - that I have a picture of!
And now we start descending the endless turns. We try not to pay much attention to how far down we’re going as all this will have to be climbed back up. We pass through twisted lianas, low trees, fallen logs - typical for any forest walk, especially in the Australian rainforests. The non-typical thing is, however, that I am under constant stress - what poisonous spider will get stuck on top of me or what snake will cross our path. I know that you are probably fed up with my paranoia, however, I shall not spare you the feelings - you’re receiving the complete picture.
We successfully reach the falls and one thing can be said - it is worth it! A cosy green corner complete with tall, full waterfalls. So beautiful it can almost be compared to the Kalofer Falls in the Balkan. We climb, we photograph, we look, we enjoy.
BUT! The problem is great! In a situation like this on any European walk I would lie down to sunbathe; relax to eat my sandwich; if I had brought one, I would even open up my book. Well, tell me exactly how is that supposed to happen here? Anything can crawl on me … Standing up I feel fine but the moment I sit down I am overcome with anxiety. No, we’re leaving. We have enough pictures now, right! We start ascending the endless meander. To motivate ourselves we count on the map the 15 turns we have to go through to get back on the flat path. 1, 2, 3, … , wow this ninth one is endless, 10, 11, 12 …
I jump! I scream! The whole forest hears me!
Most importantly, the snake in front of me, comfortably sunbathing on the thirteenth turn. It hears me so well that it too jumps just off the path! But not enough - I would definitely not dare walk past it. And now what? I take a twig and throw it at it, hoping it would shift. Nic, my protector: “Wow, don’t throw sticks! At least get a big one so you can defend yourself.” He finds a big branch and with small pushes manages to move the snake far enough for us to walk past and leave a great distance behind us. And I trust him: “Look at how small and harmless it is, it can’t do anything to us!”
Let that be a lesson to everyone!!! THERE ISN’T AN AUSTRALIAN ANIMAL THAT CAN NOT KILL YOU IF IT WANTS TO! Every single one has the ability, and most - the will too. With the first connection to the Internet, I Google “grey snake Eastern Australia” and the first post that comes up is, of course: “The 10 deadliest snakes in Australia!” I recognise it - Eastern Brown Snake. To this day I am grateful to the Universe that nothing bad happened. Later on, we found out the most deadly cases of snakes in Australia are of confident men with sticks. Well, we were close, weren’t we!
And as we’re on the topic, let me tell you the rules for Australian snake bites. Firstly (applicable to spiders too) you should remember and even take a picture of the pest as every different snake requires its own antidote and you will have to describe in detail in the hospital exactly what attacked you … if you even get there. Which leads to the second rule: after a snake bite you should immediately lie down still. In most places around the world, the snake venom goes in the bloodstream and therefore we know that sucking it out and applying a tourniquet is the best method for first aid. Here, the snake venom is transferred through the lymphatic system which is why stillness is vital. You just have to pray there is someone that can drag you to the car which isn’t far from a hospital. (Though in our case neither was applicable!) Just so you know!
With eternal gratitude, we return to the main path. My migraine has now reached its full capacity. And after a quick coffee at the local visitors centre, we decide to go further North than planned which suggests another 4 hours of driving. However, I am in no condition to even sit behind the wheel for 30 minutes. Wonderful - 4 hours in the car, 2 of which on windy mountain roads, and my head is about to explode! Fortunately, Nic is never tired and always likes to drive, so he has no issues to take up the responsibility. I will just sit next to him in agony and sniff on a bottle of Eucalyptus oil.
After a few stops and some napping, we arrive at the campsite … after working hours. Not even for a minute can we start worrying because of the great attitude and endless friendliness and will to help of the Australians. We call the number on the door, the lady arrives immediately and not only does she set us up quickly but also gives us a 10% discount. Currently, there is a school break in Queensland which has raised the prices in the campsite. However, we are clearly not here because of the break and therefore get a discount. Does this happen anywhere else?
At this point in time, all I crave is to go to bed immediately, however, we need to first set up the tent and then cook dinner. The campsite is huge and super luxurious - perhaps the best-equipped one we have been to. A large kitchen with many fridges, a mini-golf course, a few pools, indoor video games and so on and so on. I sometimes wish that we could spend more time in the places, after all, we do pay for it. However, we are usually on the hunt not for mini gold but for a local sight. And we have had enough today, anyway. It is time for bed.
We wake up in Ballina (with a stress on the first “a”!) and I feel the migraine once again. I have never before lived with a migraine for two consecutive days. I am not sure what my body is trying to tell me but it is shouting it pretty loud. And I, even after 25 years, haven’t learned to speak that language fluently. With or without a headache I can’t stop. There is too much to see and the time is precious.
Before we fold away the tent we walk to Ballina’s beach where people often observe whales. Walking on the pier into the ocean we see some things jumping around. Unfortunately, it isn’t whales but it is a whole dolphin pod. They have come into the bay to enjoy themselves surfing the waves. Sometimes even I can’t believe how intelligent, sentient and close to us humans the dolphins are. How much their desire for happiness, play and togetherness influences their lives. It takes us a while before we can step away from this spectacle. We try again and again to take the best picture of a jumping dolphin (even though imperfect I wouldn’t say they were unsuccessful). However, human life is upon us and the campsite checkout time has almost come - the tent is still open on the roof. We fold everything away and drive into the centre of Ballina to find some lunch.
It wasn’t planned, but we also do another, more important, task, that should have been done months ago. We create a little table to predict where we should be on which date, how long travelling would take and where we can stop to sightsee. Once we start filling in the date we quickly realise that we are already behind on schedule and we will have to skip a few places to reach others on time. Ahhhh! Not good, but if we have to!
With that in mind, the distance to today’s next destination is a serious one! 30 entire minutes! Yep … it isn’t very far but is on the list of important sights that everyone talks about and everyone should see. Today we are in the famous Byron Bay - a haven for surfers and hipsters.
As soon as we arrive we are surrounded by the surf shops of the biggest brands, shops for beachwear - for sporting or showing-off individuals, juice and sandwich bars, craft breweries, hip restaurants … So many young people walk around - with wetsuits half on (or off) and surfboard underarm; with long messy hair - with or without dreadlocks; in shorts and shirts tied over the belly button … Well, it’s not like other places. I am not even sure if non-surfing individuals like us are allowed in the area … But at least we live in our car which should be hippy enough even without dreadlocks to the butt. Yep … endless stereotypes!
After some wandering and lack of space for us here and there we eventually get ourselves settled in a small campsite which is one of the cheapest options in the area but for whatever reason is almost empty. That hardly bothers us really. As the first order of business, we put on the bathing suits and head straight to the beach. I hope that today we will manage to dip into the Australian ocean.
Well, we don’t have the luck. Or more precisely - we don’t have the courage. It is cloudy, it is windy, and the water is indescribably cold. I am not sure what the surfers in the water are made of. We will just sit on the sand. Fully clothed as we are freezing, but we’re on the beach, right? And there is our prize - whales in the distance. (When I say that please don’t picture anything super special - just over there on the horizon a few black dots come in and out of the ocean and a local says it is whales. We, of course, believe them.)
Walking back from the beach we drop into a few shops. After all, we are surrounded by commercialism, we might as well submerge. We buy nothing but that doesn’t mean we can’t look. We pass through the supermarket to figure out dinner - the sushi fridge does the job. We also go to a big camping store. We haven’t yet admitted it, however, our camping table is completely unusable already (12 days after the first use). Its cardboard top - very soft and falling apart. We think the mistake might have been leaving it out in the pouring rain and letting it get snowed over on that night in Oberon. We think … not sure yet. However, we don’t like anything that is compact and cheap enough. We will keep looking.
Back in the campsite, everyone is taking on their own tasks - Nic takes apart some parts of the tent to change the screws that the useless man first gave us and dented marks on Bertie’s roof. I, in the meantime, tidy the wardrobe, the kitchen, the cupboard and the fridge (a.k.a. the back seat), I edit some pictures and prepare dinner - boiled corn on the cob and ready-made sushi. What else does a person need?
A little after sunset we are struck by some new representatives of the Australian fauna - bats. But they’re not like our bats that fit in your palms. This is a grey-headed flying fox with a wingspan of one meter. Is it a bat or an eagle? Huge creatures. And we don’t just see one or two - there are tens of them. Against the pink sky, they are even a bit scary. I am picturing Dracula at sunset …
While I cook I miss another new bird. As Nic is fixing up the tent and observes the bats with our site neighbours, something lands on top of the open boot. And it isn’t a bat but a little owl - very cute. Well, of course, Google says that only uneducated non-Australian tourists would think it is an owl. The bird isn’t even a bit of an owl but is a tawny frogmouth. Aha, that’s what you thought too, right? We’re so ignorant, Nic and I!
If not anything else today we at least can’t complain about all the new representatives added to the “New Animals” list - it is getting satisfyingly long.
Tomorrow we arrive in Queensland!
Vassya (and Nic)