Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Sunshine Coast (Travel Writing)

My grandfather is a “digger”, a Bondi boy, a man who spent Christmas dressed in a charcoal tuxedo, his girl of the moment in a tulle gown, surfing until dawn. His tales unfold on the outer shores of Sydney and glitter with golden-brown promise. Though he moved to Scarsdale, New York at least 50 years ago, he still bears all the marks of a tried and true Australian. He’s tan. He’s unflappable. His speech is littered with strange words and phrases.

She’s as ugly as a hatful. Hand me the drink, not the billy. Bugger off. He’s said it all and more. One Christmas he asks me why I’m hanging around with all the old folks (himself and his daughter--my mother--included). I shrug, say I just want to be around my family, even though I don’t. He says there’s plenty of time for that later, and I need concentrate on being young. He punctuates this advice with a story about surfing in evening wear. It’s a moment between us, and it clicks. This is in my blood, and I have to get to Australia, land of the wild, bizarre and sunshine, one way or another.

The summer between my junior and senior year of college I charge a ticket to my first credit card and embark on a big, rumbling jet. On the flight I doze on possibilities. I sign up to Work Australia under the premise that after a few relaxing days by the harbor, I’d be set up as a bar maid, sashaying brews back and forth to dapper business types and crusty fisherman alike. Barring that, I figure the fantasy could be rewritten using lattes. In between sunning myself and pocketing tips, I’d sightsee, maybe take a walkabout or two.

But what I didn’t count on is that while I am enjoying a complimentary bag of peanuts, Sydney is just beginning its decent into a Seattle-like winter. Or that jobs are scarce and few between. Or even that I have no experience behind a bar or as a soda jerk.

My program instructors tell me to “follow the sunshine”, trek up the Sunshine Coast and find fruit-picking work. An added bonus is the weather warms the more north I go. I buy a one-way bus ticket up, and follow when the British jump off.

We stop in Nimbin, a rolling emerald town not unlike Amsterdam in its marijuana-embraced mentality. A kid, no more than twelve solicits me for mushrooms. Another pushes something I’d never heard of. Cops drink Victoria Bitters amongst old stoners swaddled in ratty tie-dies.

Next up is a stint on Hitchinbrook Island, where a man teaches me to “bite the arse” off of one of the soldiering giant green ants that attack us, pinching red welts on our back through our shirts. It isn’t revenge, as I first figure, but a chaser to the shot of tequila ending this exhausting day. Never mind that limes are readily available. My hard labor, dragging branches teeming with the dreaded ants, is rewarded with four hours on the island’s private beach. The flat sand, the clear waters lit with white and blue, and the fossilized version of a crab several million years old is payment enough.

When I move on to Cairns, I hear of sweat-soaked bars like The Woolshed, the open gate to the Great Barrier Reef, and the meat pies. What everyone fails to mention, or maybe I just fail to hear, is the gang of giant bats that literally fill the trees like ominous crows every evening at dusk. They’re fruit bats with faces like sweet dogs and three-foot wingspans. They fly low, nearly hitting me in the face mid-flight, one streaming urine as it soars over a crowd of tourists. At a sanctuary nearby, I feed one a slice of chocolate pudding fruit, and he delicately nibbles at it while hanging upside-down, never taking his large eyes off of me. When I go diving, a white-tipped reef shark swims by as my foot is clamped down in a giant clam’s mouth. The scuba coach pries me free.

In Cardwell I find my calling, driving a tractor on a banana farm. I wield a weapon, a machete, running through fields slashing the young plants. The men that work on the farm with me are barefoot, letting the rain wash their filthy feet. One day they pull a six foot long blue snake from the depths of the banana clusters and proceed to throw it at each other, laughing as it sinks its fang into their bare legs. Another day they play baseball, batting a wasp’s nest with banana bunches. I tell my mother. She finally sends money.

On Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world, I slog through shin-high sand to get to my campsite. Once at the shore of the freshwater lake, the sand is flour and the water is so clear it’s just as white. Near the middle it seeps up the blue of the enormous sky, the biggest sky in the entire world. The sun is too hot and the water too cold, but it’s still the most beautiful place anyone has ever imagined. Later that night, a dingo eats all my food out of the front of the tent while I am sleeping. I share a fellow camper’s baked beans on toast.

On my way back down the coast I rent a car. I see dead kangaroos littering the highways like deer back home. I pass an enormous hump at sunset, thoroughly convinced that it is, indeed, a werewolf. I turn back and inch towards it in my tiny compact, seeing a mass of matted red-wet fur and tusks. It’s a boar, a ferocious-looking giant boar, that probably weighs around 400 pounds.

I hold a sleepy, heavy koala and she digs her claws into my shoulders slightly, so that when I let go, she’s still hanging on me. I feed a giraffe through a broken zoo’s fence. I chase a wallaby around a tree. I crush a giant cockroach and sidestep a spider the size of my head.

I come back to the States to find my friends completing prized internships that will surely lead to illustrious careers. They think all I’ve got is a burn that takes three months to fade. But, I’ve gotten much more. Sure, the self-assuredness that comes from backpacking across a lonely desert. But more importantly, because of the tractor, I can now drive stick and I’ve got some new slang.
And I'll be back to surf in a dress.


Sober In the City said...

I know exactly how you feel.

I've chased the sun. I've packed it all up and moved West for the open country. I've jumped from job to job and adventure to adventure...

You are an amazing writer.

K said...


Thanks so much for the praise, I really appreciate it. I'm now contemplating the merits of another sun-drenched adventure (as if New York wasn't adventure enough?). I wonder if once you realize it's in your blood, can you ever escape the itch?


60 and counting said...

Thanks for the visit.

I like your style of writing and can see at least 5 books in this article.

If you don't have enough in your memory, come back and visit again.

Jeezelady nowunnerdeverbeleeveit ifanossieroteit.