We spent the last week of 2004 flying into Cairns and driving along the east coast of Australia down to Sydney, a distance of over 3000 Kms. The drive turned out to be quite hectic, and in retrospect we should have taken 2-3 weeks for the road trip. In the same week, the Indian Ocean Tsunami struck Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka. Here are a few assorted clips from the travel dairy I kept during that trip, with some observations, experiences and thoughts.
Boxing Day: Sydney to Cairns
While we are busy flying north from Sydney, the South East Asian tsunami has struck and claimed thousands of lives. We don’t even learn of the Tsunami until after we had left Cairns.
It is the peak holiday season, and we are traveling standby – Sydney to Cairns, with a stopover at Brisbane. On the Brisbane to Cairns flight, we sit to the right as the plane steadily headed north, and we get some spectacular aerial views of the Great Barrier Reef. Initially, it looks like shallow marsh, and only by comparing it with pictures in our guidebooks do we confirm that what we are seeing is indeed the Great Barrier Reef.
At the Cairns airport, we are told that Rupal’s luggage hasn’t showed up. Mine arrived just fine. The Qantas guys said they’d deliver it to our hotel. We call all the hotels on the board and settle on one mainly because they threw in a free pick-up from the airport.
We have given ourselves a day to get oriented in Cairns, before renting a car and driving south. The cost savings of renting from the city instead of from the airport is considerable.
That evening, we are groggy with jet lag while we wait for the baggage guy. The Qantas baggage guys show up late at night, as they’d promised. Rupal was happy to finally have a change of clothes. I am so tired I think I hit the bed sleeping.
Cairns is a stereotypical tourist-friendly city – which translates to many hotels and multi-ethnic restaurants, with lots of public places for pedestrians to wander about. The Olympic torch for the ’56 Melbourne Olympics had started its road journey from Cairns. People had carried the torch by foot, walking or running, all the way to Melbourne in 14 days and nights of non-stop progress. We will be taking the same route as the Olympic torch.
During the day there aren’t very many young people around in Cairns. From the number of adventure activities advertised everywhere, apparently all the young people have gone off to try one. There are a few sporadic tourists meandering about.
Right beside the sea, there is a manmade “lagoon” with its inviting water. They’ve built these safe havens all along the coast, to keep the bathers safe from stingrays. It is not safe to venture into the Ocean without these nets.
We pick up our car from Hertz and we are off south.
We haven’t even driven 4 blocks when the rain, which had been soft and manageable, comes down in torrents. In that rain, we stop at the hotel to collect our bags. It is tempting to linger in Cairns, but we have to keep moving.
We stop at the RMAQ office (automobile assistance) to pick up some decent maps. It is very difficult to navigate with just the guidebook map. But the offices are closed, this being the time between Christmas and New Year.
I have to remind myself to keep left as I drive. I kept getting the wipers switch and the turn signals mixed up. We follow signs to Innisfail, where we’ll join the Bruce Highway. That same highway will take us pretty much all the way to Sydney. When I peer out of through the windshield, the pouring rain makes everything look like a Monet painting.
A Good Christmas
The first time someone asks me “Did you have a good Christmas?” it sort of throws me off. I’d never been asked this before. Yes, is the only possible answer to that question. Only when I am asked that for the third time in the same day does it occur to me that this is another Oz-ism, their way of saying hello this time of the year.
As we drive along, we find ourselves falling in love with this huge state. Its citizens are such a hardy, proud bunch. Bruce Highway is a national highway with a rural road feel to it. We get used to the ‘incongruence’ of seeing tropical vegetation mixed with Australian flora. They are selling mangoes everywhere, and the prized variety seems to be ‘Bowen Mangoes.’ There are vast banana groves, with the fruit bunch protected with blue plastic sheets. Gum trees with ghostly pale bark line the highway.
We pass little sleepy towns dotted with crumbling WWI and WWII obelisks, memorials to livelier days honoring Anzac veterans. In every town, we see lots and lots of ads for beer, and I notice glum-faced aboriginals shuffling around, betting on OTB greyhound races.
A Sea of Green
The highway is relatively quiet, hardly any trucks at all. All around us are sugar cane fields, to the left and the right. To the east, all we can see are the cane fields, wavy fields of bright green, stretching for miles until the green merges with the mountains. These mountains are the Great Divide, and it is interesting that the continent dividing mountains are so close to the ocean, practically pushing the entire population of Australia to reside along its east coast.
I hadn’t realized that Queensland was such a big cane producer. The fields are so stupendously large that I am surprised that Australia doesn’t produce sugar for the whole world. There are even rail lines laid out just to haul out the sugar cane that is cultivated. Our highway periodically crosses tracks, with the signs saying “Cane Train.” Another very common sign in north Queensland says “Watch for Slow Trucks hauling cane.”
The manned “Driver Reviver” rest areas are a welcome occurrence to break the monotony of the long drive. There are friendly senior citizens offering free coffee and biscuits to all drivers and there is a donation box in every Reviver spot.
Australia takes road safety very seriously. All along Bruce Highway, there are signs saying “Rest or RIP,” and “High Speed, Low IQ.”
Friendly Neighborhood watch
Just when I get settled in the car, not too many kilometers out of Cairns, I see a driver in the opposite lane flash his headlights at me. Within seconds, another driver does the same. I immediately start checking the dashboard to see what I am doing wrong. Everything looks okay, and then we spot the cop car with the radar detector waiting to catch speeders on my side of the road. These drivers had been warning me about the traffic cop ahead.
Australia employs a system of penalizing speeding with “demerit points” and during the Holidays the punishment is higher with “double demerits.” The drivers are all watching out for one another. Pretty soon, we join in the game, and the next time we pass a cop, I too warn a lot of cars going in the opposite direction, winking at them with our car lights.
Hedonism vs Tsunami
By the third day, we are falling into a rhythm, taking turns driving. Rupal asks me to drive carefully, and takes a nap. I am cruising at 100 kmph and K J Yesudas is belting out Hindi film songs from a CD. My thoughts turn to the tsunami and to aid.
In Townsville, the people have voted to cancel their New Year’s fireworks and have chosen to donate the money for Tsunami relief. This is happening in many towns across Australia. I think it a wonderful gesture by these town councils.
The Aussie government has promised $15M, but there is a widespread feeling in the newspapers that this amount isn’t enough. I wonder if I even have the quantitative framework needed to assess whether or not $15M is sufficient.
As I drive, I feel a sense of guilt come over me as I think about this essentially Bohemian trip. Hundreds of dollars in plane ticket costs, a few more 100s for the car rental, and again over $300 on gasoline. Shouldn’t we instead be giving this money to the tsunami relief, and sitting at my uncle’s place in Sydney? Usually, I justify my travels by the belief that any money we spend goes to boost the local tourism, therefore keeping the wheels of economy turning in a miniscule way. But I am unable to shake off the feeling that this trip is particularly excessive. Another Driver Reviver shows up, I switch off the cruise control and Rupal wakes up because the car slows down. It’s time for another cup of Bushell’s coffee.
What is this trip costing us, I ask Rupal. She calculates for a moment and says, “Over 2000 dollars.”
“Australian or US?”
“US dollars,” she tells me. She has a head for numbers. Hearing the amount depresses me further, because it seems such an irresponsible way to throw away money, especially in light of the unfolding tsunami catastrophe. But we are well into our road trip, and turning back and flying out of Cairns would be just as expensive if not more. No way but onwards, I rationalize to myself.
We move on.
Unbeknownst to us, we have crossed the Tropic of Capricorn. In the map, I see a long road running west, called the Capricorn Hwy. If life was longer, I’d have liked to have driven that highway and headed into the Outback.
In Rockhampton (Rocky to the locals) we are welcomed with huge statues of cows. This is the Oz beef capital. Two million heads of cattle are located within 250 Kms of Rocky, to satisfy Australia’s appetite for beef.
In Rockhampton, we are staying directly above a 100 year-old pub. The room is wonderful, opening out into a wraparound lace grill balcony. There isn’t anyone else staying in the hotel, as far as we can tell. So we treat the whole floor as our own place. Even at night the weather outside is pleasantly balmy. Rupal takes a chair to the balcony. I am inside watching TV, unable to turn away from the tsunami coverage. The full extent of the carnage is being revealed.
One Month Makes All the Difference
On TV I see images of Patong beach in Phuket, Thailand. We were there, in that exact same beach, last month. On 26th November, we spent the day walking the beach in Phuket. On 26th December, the tsunami struck and Patong beach has pretty much been wiped out.
(To be continued)