Our arrival into the glorious Queensland hadn’t been quite what we’d anticipated; a suspicious offering of cupcakes at a questionable caravan site and a crippling, cursed water infection. We endeavoured to push that experience behind us as we headed for the bustling city of Gold Coast, half an hour away.
Surfer’s Paradise, a suburb of Gold Coast and a grander, more glorified Byron Bay is yet another East Coast city that thrives on tourism. Matty, who had previously visited a year ago, held the vehement view that Surfer’s lacked character and originality and made false, ironic promises with its name: the waves that lick the golden shores are not nearly as thrilling as many other surfing hotspots in Australia. Nevertheless, it is a paradise in its own quirky, commercialised way. I soon opposed Matty’s distaste for the city the instant we strolled past the row of shops that buzzed with cosmopolitan appeal, and stumbled upon a beach shaded behind silver skyscrapers. Whipped by a fresh breath of salty air and the sonorous buzz of happy beach-bathers, we were gently guided through the intricate web of sun-loungers towards the shoreline armed with towels, ‘swimmers’, ‘thongs’, and factor 50 sunscreen (bearing in mind it was still winter there.) I could only marvel at my surroundings and the oddly beautiful landscape of a beach skirting the city’s silver border. Matty and I spent the afternoon lounging idly in Paradise before treating ourselves to an indulgent dinner at Hard Rock Café. Getting ready for an evening out was a slightly tragic affair; we had parked outside a youth hostel blaring with music and intoxicated laughter, and praying we wouldn’t be spotted by normal party-going people, I sat on top of the mattress in the back of the Land Rover pulling out any passable garment from the neglected depths of my backpack and attempted to scrape on some form of make-up in the dim light of a nearby street lamp. Life on the road is not always glamorous. Matty was meanwhile changing in the middle of the street, wild and carefree.
We didn’t spend long in Surfer’s. It was merely a one-night stopover to see what all the buzz and hype was about. The next morning, we set sail from the gold and silver allure of Gold Coast, and headed to Brisbane, 76 kilometres north. Yet Jenny was soon to cause further grey hairs to sprout the moment we turned the first corner and the engine began to cough, splutter, groan and clank. She is pretty reverberant as it is but Matthew was attuned to detecting any new, unusual noise. Within moments, we pulled over. The aluminium bonnet was stretched open like a hungry set of jaws and Matty engulfed his way further into the deep bowels of her oily stomach. Minutes later, looking as though he had been dragged off an oil rig, he returned to the driver’s seat, his face a picture of confusion and concern. He explained that there was no obvious fault in her engine, but speculated an issue with the fan. He then tried to launch in to full technical detail about the workings of her engine, and started proposing other possible faults but I was too far gone in my own thought processes to listen. (I do try Matty, and I’m very proud of you and grateful for your mechanical mind and interest, but it really is like listening to a foreign speaker jabbering on in another language). Finally, he shrugged the problem off and agreed to have another poke around after he arrived in Brisbane.
Matty, who had lived and worked in Australia for over a year before I arrived was employed by a lovely, accommodating family in Paddington, an inner suburb of Brisbane, to construct and complete various home projects. We were thrilled and immensely grateful when Lola and Nick, a warm and bubbly Australian/Canadian couple, invited Matty and I to stay. Their charming detached house stood quite lopsidedly on the side of a steep hill behind a large electronic gate (that Matty, who never let me forget every time we passed through the sodden thing, had engineered to work!) We claimed their spare room for almost a week, and in that time I had the chance to indulge in Brisbane’s highlights.
For those visiting Brisbane on a weekend, make a point to check out Southbank and spend the afternoon lazing on the River Quay Green with a well-earned glass of weekend wine enjoying Southbank’s weekly Sunday Session. Every Sunday, a band of musicians will stir the river with their acoustic waves of soft and smooth tunes, and create an overall chilled atmosphere for you to relax. Matty and I packed a bag of refreshments (snacks and of course alcohol – you are permitted to drink on the lawn providing you bring food, so go crazy and be a pig!) It makes a perfect afternoon for families, lovers, friends and maybe even your musically-attuned pets.
After stumbling upon a little Irish pub in the heart of the city and feeling as light as a leprechaun after too much cider, we trailed to the grand, iconic Brisbane sign on the banks of the Brisbane river. The sign that attracts the gaze (and lures out the selfie-sticks) of copious citizens, visitors and art-lovers is a creative, innovative piece of art that spells out the individual letters of Brisbane. It was designed, constructed and decorated by various Brisbane and Queensland associations including Amnesty International, the Multicap Association and Queensland Country Women’s Association. President Graeme Curnow says it encompasses “Queenslanders from all walks of life, different ages and cultural backgrounds working together to make something special to share with people everywhere”. It is a testament to the creativity, strength and community spirit of Australian people.
Brisbane warmed my heart in other lights that week, literally speaking, when I found myself wrapped by a koala at the Lone Pine Sanctuary. I had touched base with another backpacker whom I’d met in Byron Bay, and together we raced into the sanctuary like two ecstatic children on their first trip to the zoo. Matty had made the sensible decision to while away the hours tending to another beast; his mounting concern with the noises screeching from Jenny’s fan could no longer be ignored. So while he poked and prodded a poorly engine, I was darting between the various homes of Australia’s wild critters and creatures. Much to my sheer delight and insuppressible excitement, we had stumbled upon the Kangaroo enclosure. It was a vast lawn, a bit like an enormous park yet instead of a brace of ducks quacking around a pond for bread, lived an entire community of ‘roos. Many bounded around accompanied by a joey tucked in the pouch, others were spread out in the sunshine like idle women on a beach. Tourists that had flocked to see these native creatures had whipped out the cameras and proceeded to snap as many comical selfies as possible; one of mine involved spooning a kangaroo that lay lethargically on his side, propped up on his twiglet arm that seems so oddly disproportionate to the rest of him. With my childhood TV favourite ‘Skippy’ in mind, I was compelled to take as many photos as possible, as though I would never see one again; it was unbeknown that I would eventually be living among them in a few months, wild and free.
The sanctuary offered koala-cuddling photo opportunities (an additional $30 fee for a 30 second squeeze) and of course being British, we simply couldn’t resist. Before I had time to collect my thoughts and fathom that this was actually happening, a staff member gently passed me a sleeping bundle of grey and white fluff. It was indescribable. I think I fell in love. Wrapping him in my arms like a child, I was quite surprised by his stockiness and the sheer weight of him … Jesus how may eucalyptus leaves had he been gorging on?!
My day cuddling koala bears was somewhat more relaxed than the mechanical hardships Matty had endured. His surgical efforts under Jenny’s bonnet had proved useless and he could not find a single, plausible explanation for the stalling, rumbling engine. So once again, we chose to ignore it and prayed it would be ok. This ultimately became part of our driving ritual: switch the engine on, put the car in gear, take the hand break off, utter a quiet prayer, begin the journey. We began to envy the ignorance of other drivers – the more fortunate road user who had been sensible enough to invest his money in a reliable car. Oh, how we dreamed of a journey of luxe and simplicity, behind a smooth-turning wheel and cool waves of air-conditioning, steadied by a soundless still engine and secured by fancy central locking and four doors that remained firmly shut as the car moved. But what sort of thrill, hope or satisfaction could derive from a story about a tedious, fully functioning car? Jenny is a very prominent character in our story, defined by her notoriously problematic, stubborn personality but also by her remarkable endurance and unwavering loyalty that stayed with us as we traversed thousands of miles across Australia.