East Coast Drive:
Armed with a sat nav and a new phone we began our journey running up the east coast from Sydney to Brisbane, heading up the Pacific Highway and our first port of call was Belmont, a little lakeside town on Lake Macquarie. We booked into a hotel and next day we took a stroll around the huge lake then found a secluded beach, courtesy of the built in sat nav and phone, where we stopped off for a swim at Stephen’s Beach, which we arrived at via a very posh housing complex. The beach was all but deserted, perfectly situated in a sheltered cove with the clear blue water of the Tasman Sea gently lapping at the shore. While floating on my back luxuriating and enjoying the hot sunshine, Ray commented:-
“Not as cold as the Atlantic Liz,” to which I replied,
“No! But definitely warmer than Ruratonga.” Quite a surreal moment and not a conversation you think you’d ever be having.
Up along the east coast many of the small towns are much the same, with small communities, now catering mostly for tourists but they all have interesting histories. Most were colonised by the English, initially with penal colonies. The prisoners were used as labour to build the towns and factories for whatever industry they were developing in that area; mining, farming forestry. Recently, Tony Robinson presented a brilliant series called ‘Tony Robinson Down Under’ for Channel Four and I loved it, especially because we’d visited a good many of the places he reported from. It began with Australia’s discovery and how it has evolved and grown from the early days when the first convicts arrived, where they were sent and how their lives progressed. It moved up to present day and he interviewed many of the relatives of those early prisoners. Fascinating stuff.
We continued up the east coast with ease and stopped off at a place called Forster and found a motel. The receptionist was about to leave, it was around 7.30 pm but she kindly stayed and booked us in. She couldn’t get away fast enough. Our hotels/motels to date have been fine. All clean and functional, nothing luxurious but we weren’t looking for that. On the sign out front The Barkleigh Hotel boasted, a whirlpool spa in a king-sized room. This I had to see. In a very ordinary motel room there it was – a massive sunken jacuzzi stuck in one corner and it looked filthy. You could have got half a rugby team in it. A closer inspection revealed it was not unwashed but just ancient, pitted and badly marked with a whole host of dubious looking skid marks. Even the idea of it was ridiculous, so out of kilter for the whole place. What were they thinking? I wondered if it might have been used as a sheep dip in a previous life. I wouldn’t have sat in that tub for a million quid.. yuk! The carpet was stained and the bed rock hard. The complimentary breakfast consisted of stale bran type flakes and a mono syllabic woman serving toast, which was edible. On the way to the car we discussed where we should go for an early lunch.
This is one of the largest towns in the area, established in 1821 as a self sufficient penal colony. We paid a visit to their Heritage Museum containing an impressive catalogue of artefacts both indigenous and more recent, within the last 200 years, painting a colourful history of the people, their skills and how they lived. Again, the strong English/Irish/Scottish/Welsh connection and old ledgers with lists of the prisoners names who’d been sent to the other side of the world to build and populate the new country. Didn’t find any Players or Clohessys. Port Macquarie is just that, a port. Back in the day before roads were built everything and anything had to be transported by ship. Nowadays you’ll probably find more pleasure craft than working ships in the harbour. The whole of this coastline is dotted with national parks, steep hills and valleys, rainforests, lakes and ocean beaches. There is something for everyone.
Koala Hospital: (Port MacQuarie)
While visiting Australia I wanted to see both a Koala bear and a Kangaroo and because we weren’t venturing into the outback I guessed that particular desire might have to be satisfied in a zoo or sanctuary. The Koala Sanctuary/Hospital was a perfect place to visit. Free entry, managed by volunteers. They allow the public in twice a day at feeding time and give a running commentary about each case. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to hold one of the little bears. They are like inanimate objects, but so cute. One long term inmate arrived due to bush fires. He’d been burned so badly he could no longer climb, but against all the odds he’d survived and now they will keep him forever. Other bears that come in injured they will fix up, nurse back to health and set them free back to wherever they’d been picked up. They rely on donations to keep the place going. By late afternoon it started to rain so we decided to get a few miles under our belt and headed up to Coff’s Harbour. Ray’s in love with the sat nav and his phone; but is still insistent that I have a map on my lap, just in case. Talk about belt and braces.
We booked into Diggers Tavern in Bellingen. The accommodation was good and clean and we ate in the restaurant that was more of a canteen. Diggers Tavern was typical of the Taverns up and down Australia, but this was more of the old fashioned type. I had salmon and veg and Ray had a steak schnitzel. That’s a steak in a coating of breadcrumbs/batter. What! I hear you say. The Australian menu is something to behold. Not unlike English/American/European but they have some very peculiar twists. They obviously like the German schnitzel, which is usually veal in breadcrumbs so they’ve taken that and made a complete arse of it. His steak ‘thing’ looked rank, but he ate it because he was starving. The next day we had a look around the locale and hit on a farmers market. I bought a punnet of organic strawberries from a young woman who farmed locally and I can honestly say I haven’t tasted such lovely strawberries since I was a kid. Delicious! I ate most of them in one hit.
Coff’s Harbour, a sub tropical holiday town known for its banana plantations and great fishing. We’d left early and arrived there at around 9.00 am. We drove straight to the harbour and went to the Yacht Club where we had a delicious breakfast after which we took a leisurely walk along the board walk and made our way up the hill to the nature reserve of Mutton island. It’s pretty steep and we definitely got our cardio in for the day. There were some interesting facts posted along the way about one of Australia’s most interesting migratory birds that nest on the island; the shear-water. They nest in burrows, which were clearly evident.
As we drive up the M1 dipping out and back to the coast road I’m still fascinated with all those aboriginal names, blending in with the given English ones. Broadwater, Evans Head, Murwillumbah National Park, Wooyoung, Mullumbimby to name but a few.
Stayed the night in Ballina on the way to Byron Bay. We had our breakfast in a very nice restaurant with a lovely outside terrace. I had granola (a strange affair) and Ray ordered fried eggs on toast. They came with balsamic vinegar and rocket on the side and some kind of spicy salsa. Like I said they take a perfectly good dish and mess about with it until its all wrong. My granola was dry and dusty but came with yoghurt and honey on the side, which was fine. I had to ask for milk. Byron Bay was only 10 -15 miles away so we got there nice and early.
Stopping along the way to take in the sights was well worth it as you will see from the photographs. The coastline is stunning. Byron Bay, named by James Cook, Cape Byron, is mainland Australia’s most easterly point. Byron itself is a low rise town and the locals seem dedicated to preserving its small town soul. It reminds me of old hippy towns like Key West in Florida and St. Ives in Cornwall, as they used to be back in the day. All of that mixed in with the surf culture provides a vibe that attracts teens by the score (apparently). Candle and soap shops, dream catcher sellers and art galleries all seem to be making a living. Byron is the place to be seen, for the young and young at heart.
We made our way up to the lighthouse where the views were spectacular and the little museum although small was really interesting. A volunteer filled me in with some fascinating facts and while she was telling me that the whales were still migrating down the coast, heading in a southerly direction and she’d been lucky enough to spot one from her kitchen window that very morning; in the meantime Ray was outside with a German tourist who offered him his binoculars to take a look at a whale, not too far away, breaching in spectacular style. I missed that one too. The views from the summit of the lighthouse were breath taking. Information does say that you might see dolphins, year round. Didn’t see any of them either. They probably popped up while I was having a cup of tea in the café. The place was packed with tourists from all over the world, although we didn’t come across any other British. It was surprising that the random people we did speak to, Australian mostly, seemed to delight in pointing out that England had just been knocked out of the Rugby World Cup… like I could give two hoots.
THE GOLD COAST
Heading for the Gold Coast we stopped off along the way at Hungry Jacks for burger and chips which I thoroughly enjoyed. Don’t often eat fast food but it did the trick. We arrived in Surfers Paradise late afternoon and parked up to take a walk along the seafront. Approaching the main town the high rise buildings in the distance looked positively space age. The locals have objected strongly in the past to all the building work but the high rise buildings have been going up since the sixties and a place where Australians holiday and have second homes. All along the seafront I stopped to read lots of the plaques, commemorating past wars, sporting heros and something I’d been telling Ray about as we drove into town. The Meter Maids. Set up in the 60’s the maids would patrol around the town helping out unsuspecting tourists and topping up their parking meters. (Ray queried this and disbelieved, but I’d actually seen it on TV). Low and behold there was a massive board with the original maids, in their bikinis, patrolling the streets of Surfer’s Paradise. A facility still in place today and quite a tourist attraction. We didn’t get to see a real live one though. The local council pay for it and although in today’s ‘PC’ climate it does appear just a tad sexist. I guess it’s still going because it was put in place back in the 60’s by a local female councillor.
It was early evening and along the beach-front we saw two men getting ready to cook on one of the public BBQ’s. They are a free facility and you will find them in every little seaside town. It’s a brilliant set up. People are very respectful and will clean up after themselves and take away their rubbish; if they didn’t I’m absolutely certain that your average Aussie wouldn’t stand for it and tell them in no uncertain terms how it is.
As the sun went down the locals of Surfer’s Paradise were out in force along the sea front; cycling, running, exercising on the park areas between the road and beach, cooking and making the most the beautiful climate and fantastic facilities available. We on the other hand were contemplating the final leg of our journey back up to Brisbane and picking up where we left off with Charlotte and Brian.