Travel Diary: Cairns to Sydney - Part 2

The Bruce Highway Dash


In the last issue, you read that we left Sydney for Cairns on the day the South East Asian tsunami struck. You read about our stay in Cairns, the beauty of Bruce Highway, the Sugarcane fields all around, Road safety and how drivers help each other, Cost of the trip and Rockhampton. Read on for the rest....

Passive-Aggressive Drivers
Back on the road, it is interesting to see the behavior of these drivers on Bruce Highway. They drive exactly at or even slightly under the speed limit of 100 or 110 kmph. So I wait for the next overtaking lane to show up, so that I can pass them. And just when the overtaking lane shows up, these drivers step on the gas. So I have to do 120 or even 130 to pass them. We can’t recall other places where this happens, but this behavior seems quite common in this part of Australia.

Seeing Stars
We are moving along at a good clip, and Rupal reads about two places that are nearby – Rainbow Beach and Tin Can Bay. It is nearly 80 kms of detour, but we feel we can afford the time.
When we do reach by late evening, we find that the beach is just like any other. We have already seen dozens of spectacular beaches in this drive. Disappointed, we drive back from Rainbow Beach. It is 90 kilometers of wasted driving. On both sides of us are forests of trees, tall and straight looking like extra-tall lamp-posts. It has grown pitch dark. There is no light in the road except for our car headlight. The speed limit is 90kmph, but I cannot see far and so I drive well below the speed limit. It would be terrible to have the car breakdown here in the dark. The other cars have long since ceased. It seems that the Aussies do not drive in the night, the way they do in the US.
             “I don’t want you to look up, but there are 1000’s of stars visible,” Rupal says, excitement in her voice. I am worried about finding accommodation for the night, so I keep on driving.
             “You should really see it. Stop the car,” she tells me.
             “Here?!” I ask, because there is place to pull over. I stop on the road itself. There is no traffic, and we would be able to see anyone coming. We even switch off the headlights, even though the car is right on the road. It is pitch dark all around us.
             The black sky above us is filled with starlight, a magnificent sight for us city-dwellers. There is a 3-D feel and closeness to the stars. It feels as if I can reach out with my hands and touch some of them.
Rupal wants to spot the Southern Cross, but both of us don’t really know what it looks like. As a consolation, I point out Orion to her. It is already past 8 o’clock, and we have to get to a town called Gimpy and look for a motel.
             We keep moving.

Gimpy Town Blues
Late that night, standing in the desolate main street of Gimpy, it is easy to see the aptness of the cliché: the town that time forgot. In one pub-hotel, when we ask for a room to stay we hear old rock songs being played live. A one man Rock performance is on. He finishes a song by The Doors and starts one by Pink Floyd. Here in a no-name place in southern Queensland, people are listening to the same songs that I listened to in college. The guy who’s strumming the guitar and singing it is earnest, but he’s doing an awful job. I am very tolerant of singers, but he is simply butchering the song.
             We decide against staying above the pub and enduring the noise for another 3 hours. It is important to rest and get some sleep. Though it is really late, I call another hotel in town and the owner directs us to his motel.
             The lady at the reception in Gimpy Motel is surprisingly friendly. We have arrived late, and used the night-bell, disturbing her from whatever she was doing inside. She could have easily said goodnight and gone back once we had paid.
             “There is some UHT in the room. But would you like some milk?” she asks us. Yes, we would. “Skim or low fat?” she asks. Low fat would be fine. And so, she walks with us to the room and puts a small jug of milk in the fridge and leaves. I cannot ever recall anyone being this hospitable to us in a motel before.

Race to Brisbane
We get out of Gimpy, and for the first time in the entire trip, are pleasantly surprised to learn that we have less than 200 kms to do for the day to reach Brisbane. This is the day that we have the smallest distance to cover. I have heard the Aussies pronounce the city name as “Briz-bun” and I practice saying it a few times.
             Our destination for today is very specific – Govinda’s Restaurant on Elizabeth Street. There is a vegetarian lunch buffet there, and the more we read the description in Lonely Planet, the hungrier we become. I have visions of delicious dishes, and we don’t want to risk missing the lunch time slot and arriving late only to find that the buffet was closed.
             We decide that 1pm is the cut-off and practically race to reach the restaurant in time. When we do get there, we find that the restaurant is closed for the whole week.

             When we entered the city from the north, a sign proclaimed “Welcome to Brisbane, Australia’s Most Livable City.” In our short stay there, we will find that statement to be very true.
Brisbane is beautiful enough to provoke thoughts about architecture and location. The city is buzzing with people and activities. The Brisbane River is clean and we take the CityCat ferry service boats to get around instead of driving.
             “Name one great city that is not next to a water body”, Rupal challenges me. I try several and find that they are all indeed by a sea, lake or river. The best I can come up with is Denver. “Denver is not a great city,” Rupal says, dismissing my counterexample.

That evening, there is a huge New Year’s party open to the public. Thousands of people are attending. College boys and girls from Sri Lanka, dressed in white are shaking tin cans asking for coins for the Tsunami relief efforts. No matter how many coins I drop in these cans, I can’t get over the feeling that it is inadequate.

The next day, after having hardly scratched the surface of the city it is already time to leave Brisbane. We could have easily spent a couple of days more, but time is one thing we don’t have. Someday, I will come back and spend some time here. Meanwhile, the Gold Coast beckons.
             We move on.

Wildlife Crossings
The first exotic crossing signs that we saw was of a big called the Cassowary, on our second day of driving. The yellow sign has a blue coloring for this emu-ostrich like flightless bird. We were quite excited at the prospect of viewing one of these rare birds. That was until I read in one of our guidebooks that only 45 of these birds were believed to be in existence in all of Queensland. We didn’t have much hope of a sighting.
             The kangaroo crossing signs are so ubiquitous that they’ve become symbols of Australia. That said, in our entire 3000+ km journey, we didn’t spot a single live kangaroo, though we did see an occasional road-kill.
             The next exotic sign to us was of koala crossing. Again, we saw not one koala, but the signs kept us vigilant. Then there were many, many wallaby crossing signs, but again we only saw dead ones hit by passing cars.
             A few 100 miles south of Brisbane, I saw a sign which had the silhouette of a horse on it. The wording below read “Wild Horses Next 10 Kms.” I kid you not. This is a country that apparently has wild horses running around near their highways.
             Of course, we never did spot a single sample of fauna of any sort. So I have the mental image of Australian sign-painters having fun at the expense of gullible tourists like me. “Hey Ned, look at this sign I painted!”
“Horses?! Ha ha ha.”
“Do you think it’s a bit too much?” asks the painter.
“Nah, not at all. These tourists will believe anything about Australia. Let’s place it south of Brisbane!” And so the sign shows up in its current location. At least that is my theory.

Gift Giving versus Donating
All through the trip, we have been looking for something to buy for my uncle’s house in Sydney. We browse shops, looking at framed photographs, paintings, wall hangings and decorative items. Rupal wants something nice that will look good in their Blacktown house. If Rupal suggests something, then I feel it isn’t appropriate or worth it. Nothing seems quite right to both of us.
             Also, the tsunami news is constantly in my thoughts. After thinking about it for 2 days, I share my idea with Rupal. Instead of giving them some decorative item which they may or may not like, we should donate to the Relief fund in their name. Her initial response is to veto the idea – she feels that it isn’t right to not give gifts and choose to donate to causes we care for. We debate for quite some time about the ethics of doing that, but I prevail.
             I read on the net that we can pay by credit card to The Hindu newspaper, and if it is above a certain amount they will print the donor’s name. In the end that’s what we end up doing – donating in my Sydney cousin’s name in lieu of buying them a decorative item.

Surfer’s Paradise
It is New Years Day, 2005. We are off to the Gold Coast. I have heard of Surfer’s Paradise and want to see what the fuss is about. It all comes down to marketing. Surfer’s Paradise is a great name for a place. Back in the 1960’s, someone in this sleepy town had a brainwave. He hired several damsels, made them strut around in gold lamé bikinis with a diagonal sash labeled Surfer’s Paradise. They soon became famous all over the world as the Surfers Paradise Meter Maids. They would walk around and feed the expired meters of parked patrons. The idea worked beautifully and people still come to this town in droves.
             Escaping the mad throng at Surfer’s Paradise, we drive along the coast, pulling in and out of small beaches equally nice until we come to the town of Burleigh Heads. BH has one advantage over its sister beaches in the North – it is situated at an elevation. You can drive your car up a small hill and you get a spectacular view of the coast, seemingly right up until Brisbane.
             From Burleigh Heads, we headed along the Pacific Coast Hwy. Our goal for the night is Cuffs Harbor. That is the only way we could reach Sydney the next day. Signs for Sydney have been showing up, right after we crossed Brisbane. We have been on the road daily, and this is out sixth day, and it is depressing to still see big numbers like 970 Kms to Sydney. This trip is just one long drive.

Another State
Without prior warning, a welcome to NSW sign flashes past us. Even though I laugh at people who pose proudly in front of signs and get photographed, this is one sign I would have liked to have snapped. After 5.5 days of crazy driving, it feels good to cross at least one state border. This is one large country, mate.
             We have been looking forward to Coffs Harbor, but there are so many wonderful places all along the coast, that we are getting jaded with even the most beautiful sights.
             A place called Nambucca Heads is an exception. From our perch on a hill by the sea, we see the soft sandy delta where the river meets the lovely blue Ocean. We drive down to the V-wall. Painted on a rock here, I read the very apt graffiti: If God’s tapestry is Nature, then Nambucca is his masterpiece.

Finishing Line
My Sydney uncle is impressed by the trip. As part of his job, to perform audits, he’s flown to most of the cities that we stayed in or drove past. He understands the distances involved. We have driven 3450 kms in exactly seven days. “That’s quite an achievement,” he tells both of us. Personally, I am ambivalent. I would have certainly enjoyed the trip more, if the tsunami hadn’t hit the same week, and if we had more time to savor the places instead of rushing past them. But I am relieved that the trip is over. And at the thought of not having to drive another 500+ kms the next day, I am actually elated.

Ram Prasad
April 2010

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