On my first day in Oz, I remember getting three bits of advice from travellers in my Kings Cross hostel: a), “Mate, mullets aren’t cool anymore – get a haircut”; b), “You must be a Brit – perhaps you should invest in some suncreen”; and, c), “There’s nothing worth stopping off for between Sydney and Byron”.
Two bits of advice were well worth listening to. The other was more wrong than an Olympic Games in China. (So I kept the mullet).
Indeed, when I went up the east coast, I did what everyone else seemed to be doing and hot-footed it straight to Byron Bay.
Later, as I slaved away at TNT Towers, Sydney, I met more and more travellers – and Aussies – who tipped me off about various New South Wales coastal secrets. In bypassing that part of Oz I’d missed a trick.
So I hacked off my mullet, grabbed a girl (any would have done, but my girlfriend was closest), my iPod, my notebook full of tips and the mandatory box of goon.
We jumped in a campervan and slammed the pedal to the metal. (Turns out you have to turn the engine on first).
Having escaped Sydney’s tentacles, we scoffed down delicious, cheap oysters in Port Stephens ($12 for 12, from Holbert’s Oyster Farm, Salamander Bay), still dripping with salt water.
North of Newcastle, we parked up at Seal Rocks, in Mayall Lakes National Park and had to stay the night – it was too gorgeous to carry on.
The beach is a perfect seductive curve, backed by bush-clad hills, with a see-through sea and hardly any bugger about (follow signs to Treachery Camp for another great camping spot).
In Port Macquarie we drank and ate in a friendly Irish bar that made me regret culling the mullet.
Everyone seemed to be on a girls’ night out and they all had 80s hair – I would have blended in (apart from the being a man bit).
We parked the van up and slept by the beach again, opening the curtains in the morning to see the sun leap up from the sea and a handful of hardened locals dash into the water at 6.30am.
We called in at the town’s famous Koala Hospital (free entry), the first in the world, and saw various ubber-cuddly grey cushions in various states of recovery.
It was heart-warming stuff and I had to usher the cooing ladyfriend away before she stole one.
Australia is curiously big on Big Things and I’d long wanted to see Coff Harbour’s Big Banana (stop that). So brilliantly silly.
It’s like they completely misunderstood Field of Dreams: “‘Build it and they will come?’ Build what, mate? Dunno, mate. Maybe just sumut… er, big”. So they did. And they do.
But it was a disappointment – it wasn’t a very big Big Thing.
Nethertheless, I’m the wacky sort of fella who likes to choreograph a hilarious photo looking like they’re holding the hefty icon in their puny hand.
In contrast we went cock-a-hoop for Ballina’s Big Prawn. The BIG, pink, beady-eyed monster loomed over the top of a store at us (making me shriek like a girl and swerve the van). Now, there’s a proper Big Thing.
We followed the scenic Tourist Drives (brown roadsigns) wherever they popped up and were rewarded with some memorable routes (stop it), spectacular off-the-beaten-track beaches and cosy coastal towns.
Top spots included Arrawarra (vast surfing beach with not a soul about), Crescent Head (family-centred holiday spot with beaches and bush aplenty), South West Rocks (cute little town famous for its diving), Bellingen (inland, but quaint and homely with a great hostel and pub), Yamba (possibly the next big thing said our guidebook – a prediction of popularity, rather than a big plastic toothbrush I hope) and, of course, Byron, which as everyone knows, is indisputably ace.
Aside from the amazing scenery and the wonderful sense of freedom your own wheels inspire, there are plenty of plusses to roadtrippin’ in Oz.
There are all the hastily-named places (Piles Creek anyone?), the baffling number plates (“Queensland – the smart state” is surely ironic), and the radio.
When the iPod tired, we tuned into local stations to cop a feel for local regions. Among my favourites was the female DJ, aged about 70 (she… spoke… very… very… slowly…) blithely playing death metal (“and this… my dears… is Slayer with their delightful new song… “We Will Eat Your Brain””).
Nearer Byron we tuned into Planet Luv, where a spaced-out presenter called Sunbeam (probably) explained how the planets were promisingly alligned that day.
We soon learned how to read the roadsigns, too. Those classic kangaroo and koala signs don’t mean “drive carefully – look out for koalas and roos”, but rather, “drive faster to get to the bit where the koalas and roos are, because you won’t see any here”.
The real highlight of the trip happened everyday. We’d stop off late-afternoon at a beach, often shared only with a few friendly pension-age fishermen or surfers, have a swim, a coldie, watch the sun sink, then food, wine and a DVD in our clever and loveable little portable home.
After months of hard yakka in Sydney it was the perfect way to wind down (apart from a few cliched boy-girl arguments about the map, naturally: “No, U Turn Bay doesn’t sound appealing”).
I had been wrong about the northern NSW coast and thrilled to have had a second chance.
My advice for anyone new to Oz? Wear sunscrean, don’t wear a mullet, and take your time between Sydney and Byron – there’s plenty to see.
The damage & the details:
Spaceships cost from $45/day. Ph: 1300 132 469 Get a 10 per cent discount by booking early.