Australia is a very big country. With only two and half weeks to spend in it, we had too many options. There’s the Great Barrier Reef, the Outback, Tasmania – the list goes on, and on, and on. Barry Schwartz calls this phenomenon the paradox of choice. Faced with a hundred brands of cereal, the paralyzed consumer begins to whine and bleat, and scurries home empty handed, where he prepares a breakfast of dry toast.
We were starting to feel like we were standing in the cereal aisle at Safeway. How on earth should we allocate our precious time in Australia? Sydney was great, and we knew we had to end up in Melbourne, because that’s where our next flight leaves, but we had no idea what to put in the middle of the sandwich. With any number of exotic and complicated air, sea, and land itineraries in front of us, we decided to just rent a car and drive to Melbourne, stopping along the way at places that seemed interesting. It’s kind of like traveling to the U.S., driving from LA to San Francisco and pretending that you actually saw the U.S., but so be it. After 182 days away from home, sometimes the simple choice is the best choice.
Besides, after almost three weeks of hitting the open road in New Zealand, we were getting used to being footloose and fancy free. Driving in Australia has not been without its challenges, however. For one thing, the car rental company only had cars with manual transmissions. We both have driven stick shift cars for years, and we’ve been driving on the left side of the road since South Africa, but having to shift with our left hand threatened to add a layer of complexity that resembles patting your head, rubbing your belly, and reciting the alphabet backward while tap dancing. I should add, respectfully, that Aussie drivers seem ever so slightly more caffeinated than Kiwi drivers do. Basically, the speed limit appears to be a floor, not a ceiling. If you drive at the speed limit, expect to see someone very close in your rear view mirror, looking impatient.
No matter – we’re intrepid! It’s only about five hundred miles from Sydney to Melbourne, but we decided to take a week to meander down the coast, stopping when the spirit moved us to stop, if it even works that way. Our first stop was Jervis Bay, a white sand crescent about a couple hours south of Sydney. We found a cute little cottage on airbnb and watched the sunset on sand so fine that it squeaked underfoot.
The next night we wandered into little Huskisson and discovered a tiny village movie theater holding a special showing of Just Alice, the Julianne Moore movie about Alzheimer’s. I really have to be in the mood for downer movies. (“Hey honey, what do you want to see tonight? How about Shoah? Ooh, sounds good!”) Janine has been on a quest to see as many Oscar performances as possible before the awards are announced, and it was the only thing playing, so we went.
The showing was part of a fundraiser for the local Alzheimer’s nonprofit, and fifty or sixty concerned members of the community showed up, ate potato chips and little squares of cheese, and asked thoughtful questions in the talkback after the show. Frankly, we don’t get nearly as many chances as we should to breathe the same air as folks who have nothing to do with the tourist industry. We were in a shy mood, though, so we merely lurked, but it was nice to see real people going about their real lives for a change. Mostly we spend time with waiters, cabdrivers, innkeepers, and other tourists. The two questions that everyone asks are “Where are you headed? and Where are you coming from?” Sometimes we give minimalist answers and sometimes, if we’re feeling expansive, tell people that we’re on a nine month trip, which tends to get the party started. By the way, we’ve run across more than a few people who are on similar journeys. One Dutch couple we ran into was traveling for twenty months, and they brought their own tricked-out Range Rover, which they’d converted into a travel camper, and which they would load on a cargo vessel and ship from place to place. They had already spent a year driving around Australia and were now in New Zealand for the next several months. I’m happy to report that they still seemed to be having fun.
Our next stop was a little burg called Narooma, where we stayed at a funky, slightly dowdy motel that was redeemed by the show put on by a group of flamboyantly colored parrots that live there.
For dinner, the owner of the motel also recommended something called Club Narooma. Okay, this was a cultural experience to be sure. I’m not quite sure I fully understand the concept, but anybody can “join” the club by signing a piece of paper, so I don’t really know what makes it a club. I suspect that it’s a way to circumvent liquor licensing laws. Anyway, the place felt more or less like your basic not-quite-ready-for-Las Vegas casino, with cheap food and drinks, slot machines, and a country western singer warbling on the outside patio. There, a single pair of seniors two-stepped with serious concentration. The food won’t win any awards, but for local color and David Lynch-y strangeness, it couldn’t be beat.
On our way out of town, we took a detour toward the teeny village of Tilba, which is one street of Victorian buildings that house tiny shops and tea houses and a small hall that was holding a smaller farmer’s market, where we bought veggies for dinner, a smashing little asparagus and tomato tart, and pair of knitted Australian wool gloves for Maggie, who is currently freezing her patooky off in New York. Tilba looks like the hippie enclaves that dot the Northern California coast, complete with a shop that featured lots of tie-dye and hemp products (and which was showing a loop of a pro-hemp documentary just in case you didn’t get the memo).
From there, we detoured to Mallacoota, where we stayed at the Karbeethong Lodge, an absolutely perfect little hotel high on a hill overlooking a gorgeous inlet. The building has been an inn since the 1920’s, and it has retained all of its charm. There’s a long covered porch with comfy chairs and a big communal kitchen for guests, like me, who like to cook.
I could spend a month on that porch, staring out at the water and doing nothing at all. Mallacoota is next to a beautiful national park with great hiking trails, the golf course is overrun by kangaroos, and there are more squeaky white sand beaches than you can count.
One, called Shipwreck Beach, is at the end of an 8 km dirt road and is as isolated as it sounds. When I was certain we were alone, I took off my suit and danced around in the altogether, just because I could.
After two days in Mallacoota, we pressed on, stopping at yet another goofy motel in a place called Lake’s Entrance. There’s not much to do here, but we stopped because Janine wanted to watch the Oscars (we’re nineteen hours ahead and the Oscars were on in the middle of the day on Monday), so we grabbed the first place with a television we could find. I like the Oscars as much as the next guy, but this was my chance to sneak in nine holes of golf. I was able to find a nearly empty golf course next to the ocean where my round, including greens fees, balls, tees, and club rental, came to a whopping seventeen bucks. I tried my best to keep the ball in the fairway, since as I was heading out to the first tee, the woman in the golf shop warned me to be on the lookout for snakes.
And so we make our final push for Melbourne, having seen the tiniest tip of an enormous iceberg. But I have eaten surf and turf at an Australian casino, watched a paranoid pro-hemp video, attended an Alzheimer’s fundraiser, and danced without any pants on a vacant beach, so there’s that.