I don't know what it is with us Brits - maybe there is some sort of chemical imbalance - but we do seem to have a strange desire to hire a camper van when we travelling around Australia. I don't like to play up to a stereotype but, here I was, Pacific Highway... in a camper van. I wasn't trying to be ironic or predictable - it just didn't make sense not to. It all started when I decided to head up to the Gold Coast for the Indy 300 race weekend at Surfers Paradise and, having booked my race tickets, I was shocked to discover the average room rate in town was running at around 500 bucks a night whilst the race was in town. Being the tight arse that I am, I wasn't prepared to pay that and frantically scoured the internet for alternatives. I soon discovered that I could get a camper van for three entire weeks for less than the cost of two nights in a hotel in Surfers. It was a no-brainer.
I was keen to end my first day on the road nice and early so that I could get used to the evening set-up routine whilst it was still light. After brief photo stops at the Observatory, on the Northern Shore and at St Kilda's Luna Park, I found myself heading towards Wyrrabalong National Park out on the coast. It wasn't that there was anything in particular there that I wanted to visit - in fact I don't think that there actually was anything to visit - it was simply the right distance out of town and, well, I had to stop somewhere. I decided to forego the tempting prospect of a visit to the Australian Reptile Park and instead headed straight to Dunleith Tourist Park in the wonderfully named town of The Entrance. I was sure glad not to be sleeping in my tent that night as the most spectacular electrical storm blew up and I have no doubt that both me and the tent would have floated off into the sea in the rain which followed.
It had been suggested that an inland route along the New England Highway was the best route to take up to Surfers Paradise - it was said to be far more scenic than the Pacific Highway - and the following morning saw me heading out through Singleton and Muswellbrook to Tamworth where I had planned on spending the night. For some reason, having arrived in the self-proclaimed Nashville of Australia, I felt compelled to press on a little further and ended up in the small country town of Armidale. It was a pleasant evening - I cooked a nice meal and had good neighbours in the form of Brad and Pammy from Coffs Harbour who suggested a couple of places to check out as I made my way north - and I went to bed happy.
All that changed the next day when, just a couple of kilometres out of the campground, the camper ground to a sudden and abrupt halt and refused to restart. After trying everything that I could think of - including swearing at it - I decided that I really had to phone for some assistance and called Dirk at Keen As Campers. He apologised profusely and called out the NRMA (the Australian version of the RAC) who arrived quickly and broke the news that the problem wasn't fixable by the roadside. Soon a wrecker arrived and towed me off to a nearby workshop which was staffed by the most disinterested bunch of monkeys that I ever had the displeasure to deal with.
It took the entire day for them to diagnose the problem but the news wasn't too bad: it was a simple matter of replacing the ignition coil. The problem was, due to the remote location, a replacement would take another 48 hours to arrive. Now Armidale wasn't a bad town - I had walked right around it, twice - but I really didn't want to be stuck there any longer than I absolutely had to be. Especially as it was bitterly cold and, unseasonably, snowing (the TV news reported that it was the coldest October day for 45 years) but I didn't seem to be in much of a position to argue. It wasn't all bad news though: Dirk had bought the ‘Gold' option when joining the NRMA and I found myself with a rental car and put up in a nice local hotel for a couple of nights. I'd much rather have been on my way to Surfers Paradise but as I sat in my nice warm room, with the miserable weather outside, I did wonder if being confined to barracks wasn't such a bad thing after all.
Determined to make the most of my ‘lost' day I headed off to check out a few local national parks the following morning. When I say a few what I really mean to say is, well, five! Oxley Wild Rivers NP, New England NP, Cathedral Rock NP, Guy Fawkes River NP and Cunnawarra NP were very scenic but, in reality, they would be called State Parks in any other country (later that evening I discovered that New South Wales has over 200 National Parks within its borders!) so they were pretty limited in options and were quickly ticked off the list. I headed back to the workshop just before it closed and was delighted to discover that a new coil had been sourced from elsewhere and we were back in business. I dropped the rental car back, collected the camper and headed for my second night in the hotel. I could have headed off a couple of hours down the road and in any other country I would have done just that but this isn't any other country. In Australia it is not advisable to drive at night as the local wildlife has a penchant for wandering (well, hopping) into your path as drive along minding your own business. And that is really going to ruin your day - just as much as theirs - when they are quite as bulky and unpredictable as they are.
The drive to Surfers Paradise was around 500 km and would take much of the day so I checked out and headed off early on Friday morning. My route took me back along the Waterfall Way (the route that I'd travelled the previous day) before turning on to the 106km back route from Ebor to Grafton. I hadn't realised just what a tricky proposition this section would present - particularly the section through Nimboi-Binderay National Park - and would have given anything to be in a well prepared Lotus rather than the lumbering beast that I was driving! But I made it to the end and turned on to the Pacific Highway to complete my journey north.
Shortly after passing Byron Bay the exhaust note started to deepen and sound a little more ‘manly'. But there was no stopping me now - I had to get up to Surfers Paradise before the end of day (I had missed two days of the meeting already) - and I'd worry about this new problem in a couple of hours once I'd arrived. Life is never that simple, of course, and it would take me more than a couple of hours to get there as going up a hill, with huge road trains bearing down on me, the van started to misfire and the engine died. I managed to re-fire it for long enough to drag it to the top of the hill from where I was able to coast down the other side and roll into a rest area before it died again. My attempts to re-fire the van were starting to draw a crowd and, realising I wasn't going anywhere quickly; I hit the steering wheel with my head. It didn't help. One of the spectators wandered up - smoking something which in most countries will get you arrested - and lent me his mobile phone to call Dirk again. He suggested a couple of things to try but we had no choice but to resort to calling the NRMA.
The guy arrived quickly enough but his attitude wasn't helpful in the least: when the van re-fired on the first turn of the key he shrugged his shoulders before announcing, "seeing there's nothing for me to fix I might as well get going." Gee, fella, thanks. I pressed him for suggestions and he eventually settled on the idea that the hot gasses from the leaking manifold were causing the fuel in the system to evaporate and the engine to cut out. It seemed plausible - especially as I was now underway again - and I headed off with the passenger seat (which doubles as the engine cover) cranked open to aid airflow to the engine. The noise and the heat were pretty much unbearable but I eventually made it to my destination. The looks from pedestrians were mildly amusing but the looks from the police as I drove through the centre of Surfers Paradise were less so. I think I was quite lucky to get away with that one!
I finally pulled into my home for the next four nights - Broadwater Tourist Park - around four hours later than planned. To celebrate, I headed to the liquor store across the street to pick up a bottle of Jack. In deference to the sponsors of the DJR team, I decided to change the habit of a lifetime and picked up a bottle of Jim Beam instead. After such an epic effort to get there, it went down an absolute treat!
Raceday came and I was somehow less than excited about the prospect. I'd spent the previous day up at the circuit and I was soon to learn that it was no Bathurst when it came to viewing possibilities. I was relieved that I‘d booked a grandstand seat - something that I very rarely do as I like to roam around the circuit - otherwise I wouldn't have stood a chance of getting so much as a sniff of the cars much less actually being able to see them. Of course, if I hadn't been able to see them, I wouldn't have been so disappointed in the procession that played out in front of my eyes. Still, after such a run of great racing experiences, I shouldn't be complaining. And, despite the lack of action on-track, we did get the odd bit of entertainment such as Fabien Coulthard running off the road in front of us and causing a log jam of cars whilst the officials did a laughable job of sorting the problem out.
The best bit of the day? It was tough to decide between the unbelievable pre-race air display, the crazy Red Bull motorbike stunt team and the lump-in-the-throat when they sang the national anthems. But the winner was... the return to what I would know as Australian weather - and it was about time after the cold, rain and snow of recent days!
The weather just got better and better for the next couple of days which is more than can be said for my mood. Dirk had booked the van in to a local garage for 8am on Monday morning to have the manifold fixed but I didn't get it back until 4pm that afternoon. I'd decided that morning, as I drove across town to drop the camper off, that I would take the bike that I had rented and explore town but, having done a couple of laps of the Indy circuit - now re-opened to traffic - the wheels came off that idea. Actually, it wasn't the wheels; it was the pedals. Yes, believe it or not, the bloody pedals fell off the bike and I was forced to walk back to the garage and wait it out. Eventually I managed to persuade the Neanderthal that was charged with fixing it to, erm, fix it and I headed back across town to the campground in blissful silence and sat on the beach to soak up the sun for the last few hours of the day.
When I woke on Tuesday morning I was in a far better frame of mind and hurriedly packed up the van and headed north towards my next destination: Australia Zoo. This was one of the first places on my ‘must visit' list when I decided to come to Australia so I was happy to put the mechanical disasters behind me and be finally heading in that direction. Besides, overnight I had received an email from Dirk apologising again for all the problems and offering a $500 discount on the rental. I was very happy with that - he didn't have to offer anything at all - but he was really looking after me as he had all along. I admire that. As I said in my reply to him, "the true mark of a company is not that these problems never happen, it is how they are dealt with", and he dealt with them admirably every time.
20km down the road the unbelievable happened: I broke down again! Dirk called out the RACQ and, sensing my frustration, he also sent a mobile mechanic to make sure the problem was fixed once and for all. The guy from the RACQ determined that the problem lay with an intermittent spark and, as the guy0 from the NRMA had before, announced that there was nothing that could be done at the roadside and that I would have to be towed in to the workshop again. I could have cried. With that - like a knight in shining armour - the mobile mechanic arrived and quickly spotted the problem. Unbelievably it went back to the cretins who fitted the replacement parts back in Armidale who, despite having the thing for two days, neglected to tighten two electrical terminals properly. My heartfelt thanks must go to Graham Betts Holden of Armidale for making such a tits arse of what should have been a simple job and ruining four days of my holiday. Regardless, I was now on the road, and I felt mighty relief at that.
As I hit the road again, with the van now running better than ever, I suddenly felt an overwhelming feeling of freedom. I continued north but, as it was now too late in the day to head for Australia Zoo, I stopped at a visitor centre to seek their advice on what I could do for the rest of the day. A visit to Glasshouse Mountains National Park was suggested and, although never having heard of it, I was suitably intrigued to go and visit. I was very pleased that I did as the collection of 20 million year old volcanic cones presented a stunning sight emerging as they did, Jurassic Park style, from the flat green surroundings. I was able to get a little bit of proper hiking in and it felt good to take out my pent up aggression on the hill!
I am sure that we've all seen Steve Irwin's appearances on TV and most of us will have felt that we knew him to some degree - me included - so it was a fantastic feeling to finally drive through the gates of Australia Zoo. The Irwin family have built up an amazing facility and, even though I don't normally like zoos (I don't like to see animals caged up), this one was very well done. All of the animals were very well cared for and had plenty of room to roam around and live as natural a life as possible. Some of the enclosures - though not the ones containing the Bengal tigers or crocs, for obvious reasons - were open for the public to wander through at their leisure. Push through a big metal gate and you suddenly find yourself in kangaroo country. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience; even though I kept imagining I might bump into Steve as he went about his business. I felt sad in the realisation that it was something that was never gonna happen and I only wish that I had been able to visit a couple of years ago. Wherever you are, Steve, you did those animals proud.
Before I headed off from Australia Zoo I sat in the car park for some time looking at my travel guide and my road atlas. I really wanted to push on north to visit the Great Barrier Reef but the reality was starting to sink in: with the lost days, it was simply too far. I couldn't make my mind up which direction to head and, eventually, settled on closing my eyes and pointing to a random point on the map. When I opened them again, my finger was sat right in the middle of Hervey Bay - four hours away - so off I went. Energised by my day with the animals I completed the drive in one sitting and arrived on the Happy Wander Campground just as the office was closing for the evening. Even though I had delayed his departure for the evening the guy was happy to stop and chat as he checked me in. When I mentioned that I fancied heading over to Fraser Island, he even offered to call and book me a slot. His enthusiasm was infectious and I knew then that I was gonna enjoy my stay in Hervey Bay.
Originally published on - and Copyright retained by - Boogity, Boogity, Boogity
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