More accurately, we are not in little ol’ Mudgee anymore. Instead we are in a car driving through the depths of dusty Rajasthan, India.
Today will be day five of our Opulence of Rajasthan tour and I am struggling to put into words all that we have seen. India is such a land of contrasts – from gobsmacking beauty to heartbreaking sadness, and always an eye opener.
Our little traveling party of three women, and our patient driver, left New Delhi on Monday. We have been working our way eastwards and arrived in Jaisalmer yesterday afternoon. As we have travelled, the terrain has become increasingly desolate and now we are well and truly on the outskirts of the Thar Desert. To the point where this afternoon our plan is to pull on our johdpurs, mount up and head off on our camels out over the sand dunes.
In the meantime I will try to share a little of what we have seen so far. Even in the middle of nowhere there is something to look at, even if it just the crazy traffic.
Asif, our driver, is great company and is happy answer all our crazy questions and sometimes even he has his camera out taking photos too!
Enjoy the snaps below. I will try to be a better blogger over the next couple of weeks, but no guarantees!
Chandi Cowl market in Old Delhi
Through the streets of Jaisalmer
Sunset over Jaisalmer
Views from the car
Making new friends at Ramdevra Hindu Temple
The inhospitable countryside as we edge closer to the Thar Desert
Happy pilgrims on their way to Ramdevra
Transport in India!!
Thousands of rats at Rat temple at Phalodi
A rubbish mountain (the photo really doesn’t show its true size) at Bikaner
Book Title: The Lost Continent. Travels in Small-Town America
Author: Bill Bryson
Promotional Blurb:‘I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to’
And, as soon as Bill Bryson was old enough, he left. Des Moines couldn’t hold him, but it did lure him back. After ten years in England, he returned to the land of his youth, and drove almost 14 000 miles in search of a mythical small town called Amalgam, the kind of trim and sunny place where the films of his youth were set. Instead, his search led him to Anywhere, USA; a lookalike strip of gas stations, motels and hamburger outlets populated by lookalike people with a penchant for synthetic fibres. He discovered a continent that was doubly lost; lost to itself because blighted by greed, pollution, mobile homes and television; lost to him because he had become a stranger in his own land. (Source: http://www.penguin.co.uk)
I imagine that tourism is a tricky business. What attractions and businesses do you need in a community to capture and keep a visitor for more than one day? Not every community can have a Disneyland, nor every town an Eiffel Tower.
Personally, I feel it is the simple things that are sometimes the most attractive, but few communities realise they have it in their power, or have the energy and initiative, to create something special.
Greenville, South Carolina, is a living, breathing example of how to create something out of nothing. The residents are obviously passionate and proud of their city and are not afraid to invest their energies, and their all-important dollars, to benefit both locals and visitors alike.
We visited Greenville as part of a short but convoluted road tour of the USA (see my post about looking for James Taylor). On the surface, Greenville could be viewed as basically another smallish city in the deep south of the USA. It is bustling, super-friendly (Hi Y’all), mad-keen on American football and full of flapping banners from competing universities. It is when you get out of the car and onto the streets that you get the true sense of the city and how it has been rejuvenated to stand out from the crowd.
In the early days, Greenville was a mill town. Cotton mills were prolific, and woollen mills and a paper factory all clustered along the edges of the Reedy River. In 1915 it even branded itself as the Textile Centre of the South. Viewing historical photos, I can only imagine the impact these industries had on the local economy but also the environment.
Today there is little evidence of the negative impacts of the mills, and the Reedy River has been restored and enhanced to make it virtually unrecognisable in comparison to those industrial days.
The Reedy River, at the foot of Greenville’s main street, is now part of the Swamp Rabbit Trail. This trail stretches a superb 21miles (33.8km) through forests, valleys and riverside parks, linking four communities in Greenville County. Each year the trail grows and snakes (or should that be ‘hops’?) through the picturesque County as funds become available.
While any community can create a park or a trail, the thing that really caught our imagination was that much of it was, and continues to be, funded via philanthropy. Reading the Swamp Rabbit Trail promotional material, opportunities to sponsor and donate abound, and include benches/seating, bike racks, mile markers or even ‘buying’ a section of the trail.
I realise that Australians do not have a strong philanthropic culture but just think what we could create in our communities if we did?
I spent many hours walking through Falls Park and Cleveland Park – adjoining parks in different parts of Greenville – but all connected by the Trail. It was obvious to me just how popular this walk was, with locals of all ages walking and cycling, and visitors such as myself armed with cameras and smartphones.
The valuable thing is that the community has recognised this ‘infrastructure’ as not only good for a healthy lifestyle, but also a solid economic generator. Research conducted in 2014 showed that businesses neighbouring the Trail reported up to 85% increase in trade due to the passing foot and cycle traffic. It also found that 25% of trail users were visitors and they invested $6.7million in the local tourism economy. Yes, there is money in the great outdoors and we, as individual donors, can influence that.
Philanthropy was not only evident by the river, but also up and down Greenville’s main street. The whole street has been converted into a public art space with an easy stroll from one sculpture to the next. I realise sculpture is not everyone’s cup of tea, but if the aim is to slow down the foot traffic and encourage people to spend longer in the CBD (thereby benefiting business and economic turnover), then this is an ideal tool.
The 40-odd sculptures range from bronze busts of civic forefathers, accompanied by panels of historical explanatory information, to exuberant lifelike violin and flute players dancing in the forecourt of some non-descript corporate structure. The majority of these works were funded by private individuals or families in memory of someone, or for their own posterity I guess.
All the sculptures were linked together as part of an informal walking trail which moves you from the top of the main street to the bottom – yes, sharing the love amongst the business community.
The really clever thing they have done in this city is to include sculpture targeted at children. A dedicated Mice on Main sculpture trail has been developed which is literally one great mouse hunt. Nine tiny bronze mice are hidden in mysterious places along the main street and children use a treasure-hunt-type map to discover them all. How tricky is that? It engages the younger members of a travelling party, captures the whole family for longer (eating, drinking and shopping) as they walk, systematically moves visitors throughout the community, AND it is community-funded.
As you can tell, Greenville certainly left an impression and inspired us to think about what we could be doing in our own home town to enrich our community and add to the tourism arsenal. Greenville is a fantastic example of a community with a bit of vision and a lot of energy to bring their dreams to life. Their efforts have built a rich and vibrant community with a very high quality of life for themselves, but they have also created cultural and environmental tourist attractions that encourage people to visit, stay and spend.
Win, win, win.
What: Greenville has a population of around 62 000 people. We stayed at Hampton Inn and Suites situated on the Reedy River in downtown Greenville. Access to the Swamp River Trail and the sculptures is free but you can also join themed walking/cycling/segway tours with a variety of commercial tour companies.
Where: Greenville is in the north-west corner of South Carolina, USA. You can fly in/out of Greenville/Spartanburg International Airport or access it by every other mode of transport.
When: We were there in early Spring and the flowers were just starting to pop open.
Why: Greenville is a picture-perfect introduction to the southern states of the USA. Friendly and warm people, interesting arts, tempting shopping, historic architecture, southern cuisine, a jazz scene and plenty of outdoor activities.
How: We drove from Washington DC (as you do) in a hire car. The road network is excellent.
Who: One man pretending to be on a serious research project (well yes, he actually was) and me being a serious tourist!
It was mid-Winter 2016 and The Brave Man* decided it was time to escape the depressing grey skies and horizontal rain. I am not sure what happened to our normal blue sky Winter days but maybe there is no such thing as ‘normal weather’ anymore.
Last year the escape destination was Hawaii. This year it was a road trip up the NSW North coast. Hardly comparable but just as enjoyable and a classic case of ‘same, same but different’.
With the ute loaded to the gills (why do we need so much stuff?) we escaped rainy, grey Mudgee to arrive about five hours later in rainy, grey Tuncurry. We hoped that this was not a sign of things to come but the weather is the one thing we have absolutely NO control over.
Tuncurry reminds me of one of those sleepy coastal towns that existed in my childhood. Naturally it now has all the ‘mod cons’, but there is not much to it other than a gorgeous long beach and a netted rock pool. And to me, that simplicity is a good thing!
I remember when we first started visiting Tuncurry, a local asked me one morning after our early walk/swim ‘if there had been many teabags in the rock pool this morning?’ I must have looked a bit flummoxed as I searched my memory for images of Twinings or Dilmah teabags carelessly discarded and adrift in the water. As it turns out, this is a term of endearment for the senior citizens who congregate in the pool every morning and just dunk up and down! You’ve got to love the Australian sense of humour.
I love heading to the coast (even in the rain) from inland NSW because of the contrast in landscape and climate. There were tons of roadworks along the way and these enforced stops, waiting for a green light to proceed at snail’s pace, provided the perfect opportunity to study roadside vegetation.
The forests are dense and lush. The trees are like tall, lean electricity poles that have magically sprouted green shoots. Tree ferns appear as giant, bright emerald umbrellas that delicately shade the understorey and provide a layered, 3D-depth to the foliage.
One thing really puzzles me though, and it relates to those koala/possum trapezes that are suspended high above and across the highways. How do the koalas know which ‘tree’ to climb to access the trapeze and thereby safely cross the road? Perhaps it is like that saying, ‘you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince’. Those poor animals have to climb a lot of trees before they find the right one connected to the trapeze. I can picture a unique brand of koala frustration and bad language!
I am also interested to understand how the small towns will cope once the road works, and the many bypasses currently under construction, are completed. Can they reinvent themselves? Do they have enough energy and initiative to provide reasons for travellers to abandon the highway, even for a short time? Or will the towns return to their original sleepy state?
We used the road trip to visit many old friends, long out of touch, and to visit all the little towns and villages that we had only ever heard about. Fabulous names such as Clybucca and Wizzenbucca literally whizzed by as we made our way up into the hinterland to Bellingen and Dorrigo.
As you leave the coast road, the countryside changes once again but this time into fertile, rolling hills. The green growth threatens to overtake every manmade structure and I can imagine that it is watching and waiting for its chance. Just as we turn our back, the green tendrils will extend and envelope everything. It is so luxuriant that even the livestock seem to be bored by the fodder growing up to their knees. ‘Ho hum’, they seem to say, ‘more delicious pasture’.
The pastoral landscape is deceptive though, as it neatly contrasts with the original timber industry that was the origin of Bellingen. I find it interesting that such harshness and deprivation was the forerunner to the quirky, cosmopolitan town that is Bellingen. You are under-dressed if your dreadlocks are not on show as you sip on your soy, skinny, decaf chai latte. It is wall-to-wall alternative life-stylers and, while that makes for an interesting day trip, I couldn’t possibly live amongst all that creative and organic energy. I am just too plain and boring.
After climbing the 14 kms of winding road and hair-pin bends, we popped up onto the Dorrigo plateau and it almost felt like arriving in a different country. We emerged from dense and choking rainforest into an open, rolling landscape revealing a traditional, wide-street rural town. While I could sense a creative streak bubbling under the surface of Dorrigo, the utes and dogs that dominated the main street made me feel like I was closer to Mudgee than to the beach.
A rather sad highlight of the Dorrigo township, is their impressive train graveyard. We seem to have a thing for driving long distances to visit closed museums (see my blog post: Looking for James Taylor), and this trip was no different. The Brave Man* is a train fanatic and had heard about the locals’ ambitious vision to establish a train museum and working tourist railway. Unfortunately the energy behind the vision ran out once the enormous collection of trains, carriages, stations and sundry rail memorabilia was assembled. From peering over the fence, it looks like the site will be the desolate, final resting place for much of the gear as it slowly crumbles and rusts into the paddock. Pure heartbreak for The Brave Man*.
But we had places to be and sights to see, and with a tear in his eye, he pointed the ute back towards the ocean.
The pursuit of warmth continued all the way up the NSW coast until we arrived at Queensland’s Gold Coast. It appears we must have mightily offended the Weather Gods as, even though the thermometer reluctantly crept higher, we seemed to travel under a permanent rain cloud.
We need to find a closed museum in a DRY destination!
*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!
These rather harsh words were uttered by The Brave Man* as we collected the tiniest hire car from Heraklion airport and joined the madness that is the Crete road system. The two children sardined into the backseat quickly realised that their usually mild-mannered father was definitely NOT joking and decided that in the interests of personal longevity they should do exactly as they were told.
The Crete Adventure had begun.
2003 was a year of momentous change – the year The Brave Man* decided it would be a good experience for us all to move to England for his 12-month teaching stint. While this probably deserves its own detailed blog post, it certainly was the year we ‘seized the day’ and gorged ourselves on European history and culture. Naturally, this was only possible with meticulous planning, plentiful cheap and cheerful budget airlines, and much scrimping and saving.
I remember studying Crete in Ancient History at high school, and with a cheap package deal booked, a week in Crete was just the ticket (so to speak) to escape a gloomy British Spring. Maybe it’s an Australian thing but, even before leaving our home in Mudgee, we had decided to fill every waking moment of the year (much to the kids’ disgust at times) with different food, art, history, culture, history, monuments, galleries, history and, oh yes, a small amount of beach time.
In May 2003, Crete had the highest number of road fatalities per capita and per annum of any European country. We were not aware of this statistic as we joined the throng in our matchbox car, on the wrong side of the road, sitting on the wrong side of the vehicle – but it soon became self-evident. Clearly, this was way before the time of GPS systems, so navigating a road network with the locals overtaking on blind corners in the rain was not the most relaxing way to start a holiday.
Despite a few close calls and a potential divorce, we arrived at our accommodation undamaged and the kids immediately abandoned us for the pool. As is their way, they quickly made friends with other children poolside. Sadly, in our opinion anyway, one English boy spent the entire time at the pool as his father drank beer and played with his mobile phone. Every day we would be out exploring the island’s rich history while Diego (yes, not quite the English name we were expecting either) did not leave the grounds of the resort. What a loss – but each to his own.
Crete is a compact island just dripping with history – both ancient and modern. Our little buzz box hire car gave us the flexibility to dig deep into historic sights – and sites – such as Knossos, or to simply enjoy the rugged countryside and isolated beaches.
Struggling to remember my Year 12 Ancient History, I was awe-struck as I stood in the grounds of Knossos. Knossos was the capital of Minoan Crete and its first palace was built around a mind-boggling 1900BC. That palace had a series of iterations over the centuries as it was repeatedly destroyed by earthquake and then rebuilt with increasing complexity and sophistication. The palace ruins, home of the legend of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur, were uncovered in 1900 and we spent the best part of a day there – exploring the rooms, corridors and grounds. It was also well worth adding on the visit to the Archaeological Museum in nearby Heraklion, which houses many of the treasures excavated from the Palace.
In a short reprieve from all that history, we escaped to the Crete countryside and the beach at Elafonissi. This is the Crete you may see in all the tourist brochures – clear, azure water and long, white sandy beaches. Needless to say we visited historic sites on the way to and from the beach, including some Roman ruins high on a hilltop in the village of Polyrinia. The village provided some interesting history and spectacular views but was dominated by a few nervous moments. Driving blithely into the village we realised – too late – the narrowness of the streets. Lucky me, it was my turn to drive that day, and we all held our breath and sucked in our stomachs as we edged back down the hill with only millimetres between the car’s side mirrors and someone’s beautiful whitewashed home. My imagination was running wild as I pictured the explanation to the hire company that the car could not be returned as it was firmly wedged in a tiny side street of a tiny village in Western Crete!
A Crete adventure would not be complete without an intensive introduction to Greek food – olives, Greek salad, souvlaki and dolmades. The kids quickly learned that in restaurants, a strategically placed ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ in Greek would be rewarded with free ice cream. No flies on them! At other times we self-catered and I became firm friends with a young Crete woman who was the check-out chick at the neighbourhood supermarket. She grew up in Melbourne and was desperate to chat and hear an Australian accent, regardless of the long, disgruntled queue growing behind me.
Australia has strong links with Crete outside of immigration, with Australians taking an active role in WWII on Crete. Preveli Monastery, on the southern edge of Crete and overlooking the Libyan Sea, was used an evacuation base for Allied soldiers to escape the advancing Germans. Not all history has a happy ending though and there is an extensive war cemetery at Souda Bay which contains the remains of far too many Australian soldiers who fell during the Battle of Crete.
It is safe to say that Australians are still held in high regard by the local people and we received a warm welcome wherever we went. Perhaps it was the Greek-speaking children in our party, our passion to learn or our willingness to absorb as much of Crete as we could in a short period of time that won them over, but efcharisto Crete for the beauty and insight into your country…and for delivering us safely back to the airport!!
*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!
One day my mother announced that ‘this year we will do something different for our annual holidays’. ‘Yeah, Yeah’, the family scoffed. We didn’t believe it would be possible to break the family tradition of an annual pilgrimage to the Florida Car-O-Tel on Queensland’s Gold Coast.
Imagine the shock and awe around the Formica dinner table when Mum announced she had booked us on a bus trip to Ayers Rock and Alice Springs via Coober Pedy in South Australia, calling into Mt Isa in the middle of Queensland on the way home. A round trip of around 6070km and not a beach in sight. Now that’s different!
As one we were all excited about our first big bus adventure and the fact that we were going to camp EVERY night. Little did we know that our excitement was seriously misplaced.
The departure day arrived and we were packed, organised and waiting impatiently on the forecourt of a large service station in Dubbo to be collected by the Trans Tours coach. We waited, and waited, and waited. An inauspicious start, which must have been a nightmare for my parents with two children just about jumping out their skin with excitement and yet we were going nowhere, fast!
Five hours later, the ‘coach’ chugged into the service station, revealing itself to be a BUS that had seen better days. ‘Engine trouble’ was the excuse and even then in the fog of excitement, we should have seen the writing on the wall.
As the tour was now way behind schedule, it was decided that Dubbo would be the overnight stop. Still running on adrenalin, we convinced our parents that we should camp for the night too rather than return home to the farm. Yes, it was the coldest night in living memory and I was dreaming of my very own warm bed waiting for me at home. Oh well, the price you pay for adventure.
The next day dawned bright and clear and we were soon on the road west, getting to know our fellow travellers. Poor Dad was one of only two men on board amongst a gaggle of divorced women, blue rinse set ladies and noisy children. He was kept busy though, as it seemed that every time the bus reached its destination, it would refuse to start again. The bus driver and Dad would gather up the tools and bury themselves in the engine. Dad must have been wondering whether he had even left the farm and what sort of ‘holiday’ this was going to be.
By this stage of the trip, the concept of the ‘swear jar’ had been introduced. If you called the bus a ‘bus’ and not a ‘coach’, it was considered swearing and it was compulsory to put 20c in the swear jar. This bus was so far removed from a coach it wasn’t funny. Bench seats with aluminium hand rails (á la school bus), no air conditioning except for old sliding windows, and a hand-wound sign on the front of the bus that said ‘Dominican Convent, Moss Vale’. Angels we were not, but as it was all new and exciting, you can overlook such details as a child.
We bounced our way out of NSW, trundled through South Australia and finally made it to the highlight of the trip – the centre of the Northern Territory. Ayers Rock, now called Uluru, did not disappoint and we were silenced by its majesty, by the sheer scale of it. Similarly, the Olgas were stunning and remain fixed in my memory – even after all these years.
The night before our departure from the campground, the bus (coach?) driver asked the group – ‘who would like to go to the Camel Cup in Alice Springs tomorrow?’ It was a resounding ‘YES’ from the group even after we learned that it would mean a 2.00 am departure to get there on time.
Of course, it rained overnight but that didn’t stop us dismantling our wet tents – well, our wet everything – and bundling onto the bus. At least the damn thing started this time. We all promptly went back to sleep and awoke to a brilliant blue sky day about 300 km south of Alice Springs.
The bus gave an almighty bump, swerved a little and we looked out the window to see a set of bus dual wheels bouncing high and disappearing into the Northern Territory scrub. There was a delayed reaction – ‘there goes a set of bus wheels…..pause…….they’re OUR bus wheels!’ And the bus wobbled, lurched to the left and came to a stop on its axle.
We kids thought this was all part of the excitement of touring by bus in the 1970s and tumbled off the bus to chase the wheels through the scrub. No doubt the adults could more rightly see that this was no laughing matter. This was 1977. No mobile phones and in the middle of nowhere.
We waited and waited and waved down the first car to appear on the horizon. The car had no choice but to stop, as we kids had made an immovable picket line across the road, including half of us laying down to form human speed humps. A message was duly relayed and we were collected about five hours later and transported to Alice Springs. Yes, we had well and truly missed the Camel Cup.
The rest of the so-called holiday was spent trying to make contact with Trans Tours, them promising a replacement bus and no vehicle materialising. Alice Springs is a nice place but not after 10 days straight.
The bus ‘adventure’ finally came to an end, with us bus-less but possessing an intimate knowledge of Alice Springs. We did get our first ever trip on an aeroplane back to Dubbo…and Trans Tours declared bankruptcy not long after!
From that time on, whenever Mum suggested we ‘do something different for our next holiday’, a knowing look from us all made her quickly change the subject and start work on her beach holiday packing list.
So long ago – 1977?? and apologies for the quality of the 1977 photography!
Would younger generations even know what this was and the role it played in the social fabric of the 1960s and 70s?
For the uninitiated, The Sunday Drive occurs when your father wakes up on a Sunday morning and says to the pyjama-clad family Let’s go for a drive. This statement is greeted by either sighs and slumped shoulders or general excitement.
More often than not in my family, it was not a universally popular way to spend a precious weekend. My brother and I had been at school all week, and had had more than our fair share of travelling – spending two hours on a bus every day. The opportunity to stay home for two whole days to play down the creek, ride the horse or motorbike, or simply potter about was always the preferred option. In contrast, my parents had been working hard on the farm all week with no social interaction other than each other, and reliant on the pathetic amount of news my brother and I would bring home after school. They simply HAD to get out.
A couple of phone calls later we would be bundled into the family sedan and trundled along the back roads of western NSW to towns and farms as remote as their occupants’ place on the furthest branches of our family tree.
Nine times out of ten, it was your typical stinking hot day. The vinyl on the back seat of the car would absorb every ultraviolet ray, making the surface go soft and pucker. Just perfect for peeling the top two layers of skin off the back of your legs and delivering third degree burns. But parents are oblivious of these things when they are having a day out!
This is the time before air conditioning and other such luxuries. Do you wind the window down and be burnt to a crisp by the hot, dry wind? Or leave the window up and suffocate quietly? Such an array of appealing options in those days. It was also before the time of portable DVD players or cassette machines. The sole choice was the local ABC radio, which grew ever more scratchy and faint as the kilometres (miles back then) clocked over.
Are we there yet? Are we there yet?
We would eventually arrive at my Mum’s third cousin’s husband’s home and the grown-ups would settle in at the kitchen table with bottomless cups of tea. We kids were banished to the backyard to play, explore or simply be quiet and stay out of the road.
Sometimes there was a bonus if other kids lived in the house but, more often than not, it was my brother and I kicking our feet in the dirt and looking for a cool spot under the tank stand. Exploring rambling gardens and immaculate vege patches can only hold a child’s interest for so long, and it was up to us to find something to do other than continually bang in and out of the gauze door, nag our parents and wish we were at our own home.
The upside was that, no matter the Sunday Drive destination, we were always well fed. There would be homemade sponge cakes with fresh cream, lamingtons, SAO biscuits with tomato and cheese and usually a roast lunch with five different vegetables all cooked to within an inch of their life. It’s hard to believe that we would willingly front up to a piping hot Sunday lunch on a mid-Summer day but that is tradition for you.
We would not go home empty-handed either. Before departing, the vege patch and orchard would be raided and we would be presented with tomatoes, pumpkins, oranges, lemons and more cucumbers and chokos than is decent. This was fair payback for the huge zucchinis we would have arrived with. (When the zucchinis were in season, my mother and I would resort to driving around the district under the cover of darkness, leaving gargantuan zucchinis in the roadside mail boxes of our unsuspecting neighbours. If not careful the zucchinis, triffid-like, would grow overnight into objects the size of watermelons – so a daily check of the vege patch was compulsory.)
As the heat of the day started to wane, my parents would finally give in to our nagging and the long goodbyes would start. This usually involved a very stop-start-stop process of the adults clearing the table, washing up, the collection of sundry fruit and vegetables and then a long, drawn-out stand around the car as the final goodbyes were said. In the meantime, my brother and I were already belted into the car with heads reclining on the seat and eyes fixed longingly on the road.
Within minutes of the engine starting and the car pointing homeward, my brother and I would be asleep and my parents would quietly review the day all the way home.
Is there the time and inclination for Sunday drives today? I doubt it.
Generally speaking, we are not as remote from our community these days and perhaps feel more connected through email, mobile phones, social media and the 24 hour news cycle. Unfortunately, these connections are not of the depth and quality enjoyed on those long Summer days – even if through our young eyes and minds, we would have preferred to be anywhere else but there.
I have mixed feelings about Grey Nomads – those adventurous folk of 50+ age bracket who spend every minute of their retirement years exploring every inch of Australia in their trusty caravans and motorhomes.
I have to tread carefully on this issue as my parents are your typical Grey Nomads – escaping the Winter chills to the Queensland Gold Coast each year. However there is nothing worse than getting stuck behind a string of caravans in convoy – all sitting on or under the speed limit and travelling so closely together they are impossible to pass safely and squeeze in between.
I also need to tread carefully as ‘in the olden days’, I was a super-excited, restless child bouncing up and down in the back seat of a 1970s sedan towing our very own family caravan. It is the old case of ‘the pot calling the kettle black’, but in this case, it was dull silver with a canvas awning and contrasting stripes down the side.
Our first caravan was a 1950s Carapark Zestline – a hulking silver beast that originally belonged to my Uncle Arthur. Uncle Arthur was my great uncle, a kind and gentle man who had loose and clicking false teeth that would dance around his mouth as he ate. That used to freak me out no end, but the purchase of his caravan made him so much more acceptable.
The caravan was tired and dated but it must have been the right price, and Mum set to freshening it up with a repaint of the cupboard doors, new brown and orange floral curtains and new brown chenille bedspreads. Yes, the last word in mobile style.
The Zestline had your typical caravan floor plan – twin beds up the back and a table that collapsed into a double bed. I doubt much has changed in floor plan design to this day but perhaps the vans are now made from lighter materials and have a stronger focus on aerodynamics. Uncle Arthur’s van was built to survive a nuclear holocaust unscathed and towed like a brick dunny. It was solid, square and indestructible. But as children, we loved it and were so excited to be off on our first caravan adventure.
The caravan was duly packed, hooked up to the Valiant, and we were on the road north. We made good time and our first night ever sleeping in a caravan – I can still remember the thrill – was spent at a tiny village called Bendemeer on the Northern Tablelands of NSW. Bendemeer has a pub, a school and a convenient caravan park just off the highway and on the side of a hill.
At first glance the hill wasn’t an issue, and it wasn’t an issue for anyone else in the family except me. You see, the way the beds were configured and the way that Dad parked the van meant that I spent the entire night trying to stop myself from rolling out of bed. My brother was fine as he simply rolled into the wall (and had the ability to sleep through WWIII anyway) and my Mum simply made up the bed for her and Dad so their heads were higher than their feet. Just like a rock climber, I spent the night tensed up, jamming my hands and feet into any available crevice or gap between mattress and wall and hanging on for dear life.
Added to that, it was the coldest night in living memory of Bendemeer residents. My parents had each other to provide warmth, my brother slept on oblivious, and I was rock climbing in the Himalayas for the entire night. Or so it felt.
The journey continued on to Coffs Harbour on the north coast of NSW. It was significantly warmer and flatter there, and the holiday soon stretched out into carefree days of roaming the beach and caravan park with packs of other holidaying children – all of us decked out in midriff tops, flared shorts and surf thongs. Ah, what’s not to love about 1970s fashion?
Coffs Harbour had endless beaches, a marine park and the Big Banana. A holiday just can’t get better than when it’s in an Australian town with something BIG in it. On a damp, grey day we abandoned the beach to tour the Big Banana. Picture it: banana train, banana trees, banana souvenirs and banana food. As a child I was permanently hungry and scoffed the full menu of banana food including a chocolate-coated frozen banana. This was finished off with a large bucket of hot, buttered popcorn. Yes, my appetite knew no bounds!
Unfortunately even my cast iron stomach could not handle this blend of cuisine and I spent the next 24 hours throwing up. I was past caring but I can only imagine how unpleasant this was for the rest of the family in the cramped confines of the caravan. To this day I cannot stand the smell of hot popcorn. One of the few things I don’t like to eat!
Mum very quickly tired of making up their bed on the table each night and we spent the entire two weeks eating off our laps – either inside when the weather was wet or outside under the red/orange/green striped canvas awning. Being an uncoordinated kid, I spent a good part of each meal trying to catch my sausage as it rolled off my plate or retrieving various food stuffs from the floor or grass. No doubt this was a great boost to my immune system, enabling the development of some resistance – alternatively it could have been the cause of the popcorn fiasco.
As always when you are a child, the holidays are too quickly over, and all too soon we were towing the silver sinker on the long road trip home. As we rolled into my home town of Dubbo, Dad suggested one last splurge of a Chinese meal before we covered the final 30km to the farm. We ordered up and as one, we dropped our elbows onto the table and heaved a combined sigh of relief. For once Mum let our manners go west as we luxuriated at a real table, just perfect for resting elbows.
Ah, childhood holiday memories – so simple and powerful – but don’t ask me ever again to sit in the backseat of a car for 10 hours towing a caravan. I am more than happy to leave these sunny memories in the distant past and intend to ignore any grey nomadic tendencies well into the future.
Is there anything more stressful than driving out of a foreign city, on the wrong side of the road, sitting on the wrong side of the car, and next to your husband?
Perhaps this would be a good pre-marriage test for the young and in love. If you can survive a road trip in another country and are still talking to each other by the end of it all, then you were meant to be together.
In 2013 my husband received a scholarship to the USA. I was the bag carrier and played tourist while he did scholarly things. We sampled parts of California before landing in the wonderful city that is Washington DC. Our ultimate destination was Greenville, South Carolina.
My husband is a massive James Taylor fan and, before leaving Australia, had trawled the Internet and found that James Taylor’s home town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina had
established a museum celebrating JT’s musical life. The resident JT fan thought that rather than flying, it would be a brilliant idea to drive from Washington DC to Greenville, SC via Chapel Hill. After all, on a map it is only about 5cm.
We set off into the DC dawn, doing our best to avoid the onslaught of grim-faced commuters. We were Aussies, on an adventure and on a mission – what could possibly go wrong? Our first real mistake was to place our faith in the GPS lady. We had no real idea where we were heading or how to get there other than to keep driving south. The precise directions were her responsibility.
All seemed to go quite smoothly until we argued against her spoken directions which conflicted with the printed directions on a good, old-fashioned paper map. Like rebellious teenagers we set off cross-country, heedless of her constant “recalculating, recalculating”. Honestly, that woman has the patience of Job.
No doubt the locals complain about the state of their roads but on the whole, we found them excellent. Beautiful, dual lane highways were described as minor roads on the paper map. If only the minor roads in rural Australia were as good.
After getting the hang of this “stay right, stay right” driving, and now talking to each other again, we felt confident that we could leave the highway in search of breakfast. As tacky as it might sound the neon of The Waffle House also had our names all over it with the bonus of being on the correct side of the highway and a car park bursting at the seams. That had to be a good sign.
Imagine our surprise as we opened the door of the diner to be greeted by a chorus of
“Hi y’all”. We quickly glanced behind us to see who had followed us in. No, the greeting was for us and obviously we were nearing the South.
It was an unspectacular breakfast but fuelled us for the rest of the journey to Chapel Hill. By this stage we had been driving for about three hours and had another five hours to go. Did I mention my husband was a JT fan?
Staying on the highways – and avoiding arguments with the GPS lady – we zipped through the early-Spring countryside. All around us the paddocks were dark and moist with the trees only hinting at greenery.
After eight hours on the road we slowed, took the highway off-ramp and rolled into Chapel Hill. My husband was on the edge of his seat as if there was a chance JT would be strolling the footpaths or perhaps putting out his garbage bin. The GPS lady counted down the distance and, at last, the official James Taylor Museum appeared.
To be honest it was a rather non-descript building with a very empty carpark. I couldn’t help myself – I started to giggle. The gardens were overgrown and random litter blew around the ground. Yes, it was closed. The JT fan leapt from the car, in disbelief that he could be so cruelly tricked. The doors were chained closed, the windows grimy and the rooms empty. Not only was the museum closed, it had been closed for a very long time.
Still not wanting to face reality, we drove in search of a Tourist Information Centre (also closed) or an alternate JT museum (non-existent). Instead we found a Chapel Hill resident who thought the museum had closed three years ago, and yet its website was alive and well.
Undeterred the JT fan knew that Chapel Hill had also named a bridge after their favourite son and our pilgrimage continued.
I couldn’t help but feel l a little silly taking a photo of my husband in front of a fairly stock standard, concrete bridge. We attracted the attention of a car load of locals who cheered us when I told them we had travelled all the way from Australia and driven eight hours to see a bridge! Maybe they were cheering our dedication but more likely our ridiculousness.
And Greenville SC was still another four hours drive away…