** I’d like to acknowledge the First Nations peoples of Australia, their elders and their ancestors: custodians of the land that I have been travelling through.**
Imagine a place where dolphins play amongst surfers in the waves. A place where parrots squawk above you and pelicans sit on shores. A place where kangaroos hop into gardens for their breakfast of grass. A place where koalas sleep in eucalyptus trees. A place with thousands of kilometres of perfect beaches. This is Australia’s east coast.
In my first post about Australia I talked about the country’s bloody colonial past, and in future posts I will talk about its problematic present. But for this post I want to talk about Australia’s clichés. Australia is so much more than its stereotypes, but you might not know it if you only visit the east coast.
As a young child, I imagined Australia to be a place of deadly snakes, with tarantulas hiding inside toilet bowls. How does Kylie Minogue go to the toilet? I used to think to myself. (Kylie was my hero). Australians don’t give a damn about snakes, though, and lots of people on the east coast walk everywhere barefooted. Although we see four dangerous snakes (a few death adders and a red bellied black), we find that its much more common to find frogs. They’re everywhere, at least when you get out of cities.
We hitchhike the whole coast, roughly 4000km, from cooler Melbourne to the rainforests up in Cape York. We sleep on beaches, waking in the mornings to find surfers catching waves, or in national parks, where the kookaburra’s laugh wakes us at dawn. I feel peaceful when I’m in nature here, walking through eucalyptus forests, or camping in the sand dunes.
“How are ya? Great place to camp!” a surfer says to us as we crawl out of our tent on Ballina beach. He strikes up a friendly conversation. Throughout our time hitchhiking and wild camping on Australia’s east coast, we meet equally friendly people.
I can’t imagine this happening in Europe. When wild camping in Europe I’m wary of people’s reactions to me and try to stay as hidden as possible. On the whole, European people are fearful, and sometimes even disgusted, by those who are a bit different, who don’t pay for a piece of grass just to lay their head. The mentality in Australia couldn’t be more different.
Australians are, however, fearful of hitchhiking. Despite this, hitching the east coast proves to be relatively easy. Almost every driver tells us about the backpacker/hitchhiker murders that have happened in the past. Whilst these murders were horrific, they were twenty-five years ago.
The 2005 film Wolfe Creek, based on the murders, sensationalised these terrible events, and Australians seem to be both terrified and fascinated by the killings. I can’t quite work out why it is the drivers who are fearful of hitchhikers, when it was never the hitchhikers who did the killings…
“I need to tell you just how dangerous hitchhiking here is,” a woman says as she gets out of her car in the dark to talk to us. “There are hoons who drive around looking for hitchhikers to prey on. I really feel that I need to warn you about it.”
Hoons! I feel like I’m in Neighbours! Nonetheless, she immediately invites us to stay.
Invitations into people’s homes become a regular occurrence. In all my years of hitchhiking, I’ve never received as much warmth as in this country.* Until now, it’s been the Middle Eastern countries that have been the most hospitable. I always assumed that it was partly because these countries are more community-based, less individualistic, and less capitalist. But here we are, in a capitalist country, and Chris and I are invited into so many homes that we begin to lose count.
There’s Ness and Tim who meet us on a Sydney train and take us in. And Glenn, who takes us on a tour in the middle of the night to search for wombats, as we’ve never seen any. And then there’s Bruce and Jenni, who chat to us for five minutes on the street then invite us to their house to stay. There’s the guy that we meet at the vegetarian section of the supermarket, who then arranges for us to stay with his friend, Phil.
And then there’s Leslie, who meets us briefly then asks us to keep his dog Toby company whilst he goes away for a few days. We end up staying with him for about a week.
“Life is all about the people you meet,” Leslie tells us with warmth as we finally leave his home.
We stay with people whose houses look like they’re from the set of Neighbours, with perfectly manicured lawns. We sleep in expensive apartments, ramshackle houses and caravans. And we meet numerous people who say, “I’ve only got 100 acres!”
And, of course, there are the activists and ecologists who we meet along the way. Those standing up for Mother Earth and for First Nations People’s rights. Those that we share a special connection with. Alan who fought fracking in Bentley; and David and Lindy and hundreds of others demonstrating against what could be one of the biggest coal mines in the world.
After hitchhiking the entirety of eastern Australia, we prepare to leave the comforts of the coast behind to hitchhike the Outback. “It’s dangerous!” “You’ll get stranded with no water!” “It’s impossible! There’s no cars!” We have been told again and again by well-meaning people.
So it’s with some trepidation that we begin our adventure into the Outback. We leave the hippies, activists, surfers and vegan cafes behind and venture into the land of rodeos, right-wingers and live cattle exporters.
*I travel through Australia as a white European. Australia is a country with lots of racism, so others may have a different experience to me.
A big thank you to our friends in England who have arranged for us to stay with their lovely Aussie families. A special thanks to Dor and Terry, who looked after me for a whole week in Brisbane when I was sick.