Hello, Australia!

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It was as if the travel gods were trying to tell us something.

We really hadn’t wanted to leave Saigon.  We were tired after an epic scooter trip around the Mekong Delta, and with a few friends recently arrived in town, would happily have stayed in Vietnam for several months more.

Still, onwards we had to go – in this case, to Australia’s Gold Coast via Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

We made it as far as the Malaysian capital before our luck with budget airlines ran out.  The departure from Singapore was delayed by 90 minutes … which happened to coincide perfectly with the amount of transit time we had at the other end.  Sure enough, we landed as our connecting flight was taking off.  Oops.

As responsibility for both the delay and short transit time lay with Air Asia, they had no problem with rebooking us for the next morning, putting us up in a hotel and even arranging taxis.  Kudos to them for not turning an annoyance into a major problem – they are still, by far, my favourite budget airline in the world.

Thirteen hours late, we arrived in the Gold Coast and after a quick overnight stop with friends, went to collect our rental car.  Car hire comparison company CarRentals.co.uk had kindly offered to provide us with a vehicle for our road trip, and after much tinkering with dates and locations, we’d selected a Hyundai i20 or similar to take us the 2000km or so from Brisbane to my old home of Melbourne.

While a small car like that would have done the job perfectly well, I wasn’t exactly upset when we found that we’d been upgraded to a larger, almost-new Hyundai i30 instead.  In fact, I was apparently ecstatic about it.

Hyundai i30 - Brisbane

Yes, that is the most uncomfortable smile I’ve had in some time.  Also, on an unrelated note, see how clean and shiny the car is? That was definitely the last time it looked like that.

After remembering how to drive something with four wheels again (no, you don’t twist the indicator column to make it go faster) and which side of the road to do it on, we were off.  Through the light mid-morning city traffic and out onto the highway we drove, the ever-present speed cameras and warning billboards meaning that I spent more time looking at the speedometer than the road.  Apparently in Australia that makes you a safer driver, or something.

I must have glanced at the road now and again, mind you – less than an hour out of Brisbane we saw our first kangaroo of the trip, bounding down a hillside, across several lanes of motorway and into the bushland on the other side. How it avoided all of the traffic, I will never know. That’s one lucky marsupial.

Byron Bay

With a mere 550km to our destination for the night, we didn’t have much time to sightsee along the way – but there was no way we could miss out on a lunch stop at Byron Bay.  While most of the hippies that made the town famous in the 70’s have now been replaced by shirtless British backpackers, it’s a place I’ve always loved.

Even with all of the changes in Byron, it’s still the kind of place you go for a couple of days and stay a couple of weeks.  The beach is still lovely, the surf still crashes, the sun still shines out of a perfect blue summer sky.

The only thing that seems to change is the amount of development, and the prices that go with it.  Ten bucks for a dodgy kebab a couple of blocks back from the beach?  We definitely weren’t in Asia any more.

Ozzie Pozzie

We were staying at Ozzie Pozzie Backpackers in Port Macquarie that night.  I’d actually spent a bit of time there a few years earlier, but under new ownership the place had received a major facelift since then.  Our private room was clean and spacious, the kitchen wouldn’t have been out of place in a small restaurant and it even had a large swimming pool.  And hammocks.

You can never, ever forget the hammocks.  Ozzie Pozzie is the kind of place that most hostels aspire to be, but generally aren’t.  Recommended.

Before leaving the following morning, we found time to wander along a half-hour nature trail (avoiding high-velocity guano from dozens of fruit bats along the way).  Once the traffic noise disappeared, it felt like we could have been in the middle of nowhere rather than a park in the heart of a decent-sized town.

Shelly Beach, Port Macquarie

It wouldn’t have been a visit to a beach town, however, without a visit to the beach.  Picking one at random (there’s nine of them), we disturbed a lazy iguana as we descended onto Shelly Beach.  It was a beautiful day, with perfect sunshine, and yet there was barely another person to be seen.  For half an hour we basked like that iguana, only forcing ourselves to leave because we had another long drive ahead of us.

With sand between our toes, and all through the car, we finally made our way out of town and turned south once more.

Blue Mountains, here we come.

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