Sunday, March 16, 2008

Melbourne to Sydney via the coast

Our first stop was Bega. They make cheese there, but it doesn't smell. Neither the cheese nor the town. It was just somewhere to stay to break up the journey to Depot Beach further North. There's not much else I can tell you about the place other than it was an 8 hour drive from Melbourne. Despite the name of the route, you don't see a whole lot of coast for most of the time. Actually it's really called Princes Highway, but you don't see any of them either.

It's a great drive though, much more interesting than the more direct Hume Highway. The landscape changed from red earth to dairy pasture as we moved though towns along the way, stopping every 150km or so for coffee or a meal: Yarragon, Lake's Entrance, and Cann River, before finally pulling up outside the Grand Hotel in Bega. Now the word 'hotel' in Australia usually means 'pub, with some rooms upstairs'. And we knew that and had no inflated expectations. But in this case the word 'grand' was not intended to mean 'Large and impressive in size, scope, or extent; magnificent'. It carried the more Irish meaning, as in 'ah feck it, it'll do grand'. I don't think I even took the car out of gear (let alone the gear out of the car) - we headed back to the motel we saw as we entered the town, the Southtown Motor Inn, a family-run operation, where we were very well looked after. The hundred dollar family room included the ability to watch videos, so the girls settled in to watch George of the Jungle, a truly abysmal movie which the girls duly gave the thumbs up.(I spent most of it trying to remember where else I had seen the actor who played the vain and stupid bad guy Kyle - before remembering that he played the vain and stupid trying-to-be-good guy Jack in the truly excellent Sideways).

The morning we checked out, I was sharing a joke with the lady of the house. She told me that she was from the New South Wales outback, near the dish in Parkes. They packed in everything to start up the hotel in Bega. She was clearly getting itchy feet again, but wasn't sure that she could convince her husband and son to make another move. "Have you seen any snakes?" she asked. Before I could answer, she presented me with a jam-jar containing a baby snake - dead and floating in meths - to show Nina and Sara. The cat had killed it recently. It was a Brown Snake, which despite the innocuous name is a highly venomous killer. When Letizia heard the story she was well impressed with the cat.

From Bega, we had a very short drive of about 120km to Bateman's Bay, and than beyond to Depot Beach, where Jamie had organized two nights in a beachside cabin. The drive was entertaining. I'm used to winding roads from back home in Cork, but here there were two extra elements: the up and down of the hills, and road cambers angled like the Indianapolis racetrack. It had everything that air travel can offer: pitch, roll and yaw.

Depot Beach has a great far-away feel to it, without actually needing to go the the GAFA (see glossary). It's run by the National Park which means that during the week, and outside of school holidays, the two-bedroom chalet only cost 100 dollars (70 euro) per night. We arrived to discover that our front garden was where all the roos like to sun themselves during the day. There were 10 or so of them, in various stages of languid indifference to the surroundings. The sight of a carload of pouchless, tiny-footed omnivores (ahem, that's us) didn't change anything.

During our stay in Depot Beach we played a game of Monopoly (a 'discovery' made by Nina and Sara in the Threadbo Youth Hostel) which lasted for 2 nights and finished with Letizia and I going bankrupt. I hope this doesn't presage our financial position when this trip is over (I don't think so - we are still on budget). Even if we do go bust, based on Nina and Sara's property speculation skills, and ruthless business practices, we should at least get a reasonably comfortable senior citizens' home.

We collected shells on Depot and Pebbly Beaches, when the rock pools are stunning. On either side of these sandy beaches lie flat tables of sedimentary rock (see Letizia's post for pictures). At least I think that's what you'd call this fruit-cake rock with currents of gravel and large stones, embedded into a dark substrate. The tide has been steadily undoing the stone so that now, the table is run through with fissures and pocked with holes, some perfectly circular, that hold on to the seawater when the tide is out. Each rockpool is decked out in its own way - some seem like carefully arranged compositions - and they all contain their own miniature landscapes. While the girls mostly searched for shells, I allowed myself to become transfixed by one rockpool after another, taking my time on each one. We weren't going anywhere in any hurry and I could spend as much time as I liked, almost in a trance. It had the advantage of being cheaper and less risky than using controlled substances.

We met or spoke to nobody during out time in Depot Beach, but at mealtimes on the veranda we did have company: the kangaroos came even closer, and the parrots joined us for dinner. They landed on my shoulders and wandered down my arm in search of food. Nina and Sara eventually hand-fed them crackers. The party was broken up by the local ruffians: three kookaburras buzzed us, flying across our table, wingtips in our faces, taking up positions on the railings of the veranda, centimeters away. The parrots legged it (well, winged it really). Kookaburras are big buggers, and carnivores too. They couldn't give a damn about the crackers and were more interested in the beef lasagne. There was a very uneasy standoff for a while - just picture big hairy bikers turning up at the vicar's village fete. I finally took the situation in hand by wielding my trusty foil - actually a roll of tinfoil - in the beaks of the gatecrashing birds. It was pathetic. Despite timourous nudging, the beasts remained unfazed, perhaps even a bit emboldened. I tried a different approach. According to Billy Connelly, the one thing in the jungle that lions fear is the chair. That's why lion tamers are seldom seen in the cage without them. I applied the same pristine logic to the kookaburras with moderate success. I was able to give the girls enough cover ("back, back I tell you") to clear the dishes indoors. We closed the sliding doors to the veranda and continued our meal inside. The birds watched us in our glass cage for a while, unlaughing, before getting bored, and presumably hungry, and flying off. I, in my role as indignant vicar, began to smoothen my ruffled feathers.

Princes Highway rolls through the highways, mercifully bypassing Wollongong (current home to a sordid financial and sexual political scandal), and traffic-lighting its way though Sydney's Southern suburbs, before finishing up in Newtown and leading onto King's Road, where Duncan had previously given us a tour. We had a coffee at Duncan's local there (texting him a thumbed nose as he was working in Melbourne that day) and continued to Rozelle where we were staying with Ludi and Gary (later to be joined by the previously insulted Duncan, fresh from the airport) for our Sydney last supper. Our last evening in Sydney was passed in the best possible way - in the warm glow of friendships that have survived time and distance. And not a kookaburra to be seen.

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