First impressions are important and Queensland was living up to its nickname as Australia’s Sunshine State. The turquoise waters of Moreton Bay, illuminated in the early morning sun, definitely made an impression, particularly on someone arriving from a northern hemisphere winter. This was a much anticipated trip of travel firsts for me: a new country and a new continent that I’d not previously visited.
I arrived in Brisbane with a vague plan to drive north to Cairns, before taking a flight to Perth in Western Australia. I’d given myself eight days for the drive to Cairns, which on the map looked realistic. Three days into the journey, the scale of the undertaking was dawning on me. I wished more than once that I’d stayed by the blue waters of Moreton Bay. I reached Cairns some 2,912 kilometres later and never wanted to drive again.
Before arriving, I had a sense of Australia from the connections between it and Britain. It proved to be very different from perception. A strange cultural hybrid with hints of the UK, America and Asia that is uniquely Australian. It also has the power to redefine things. The word ‘big’, for instance. Or the term ‘middle of nowhere’. You can drive for hours without arriving anywhere.
There was one 400km stretch of road, north of the unloveable town of Rockhampton, where I thought I might die of old age before reaching Cairns. The mind numbing monotonous countryside was only occasionally punctuated by enormous trucks thundering past, and a variety of fauna in different stages of decay at the side of the road – killed by trucks thundering past.
Distances are so great that the government has devised ‘Fatigue Zones’ to help you stay awake at the wheel. You know you’re in a Fatigue Zone when the road signs stop being useful and start asking you trivia questions. I passed one which said, “What is the fastest land animal?” Either I fell asleep or there was a missing sign, because the next one I saw said, “Peregrine Falcon”.
Other road signs have pictures of kangaroos. These warn you of the perils of hitting a kangaroo that has hopped onto the highway. Judging by the number of dead kangaroos I saw, the road signs aren’t working. The attrition rate for kangaroos on Australian roads is horrific; they should make road signs with big trucks on them to warn the kangaroos.
I didn’t see any koalas, living or dead, but there are road signs for them as well. Can you imagine running over a koala? Flattening the cutest animal on earth? Killing a koala is probably the worst crime a human can commit. At least that’s what I thought until I discovered they feed their own faeces to their young. These are the sorts of internal dialogues you have when driving 2,912km in Australia with only local radio for company.
Throughout the journey I met good people, ate good food, drank good wine and had great experiences – drinking wine from a small Granite Belt vineyard while watching the stars come out on Whitehaven Beach will live long in the memory. My one regret is that I didn’t have more time. This is a fascinating country full of natural wonders, and I wish I’d been able to see more.
Brisbane, my start point, is an energetic and attractive city with a lovely riverfront reminiscent of London’s South Bank; I visited the little known Granite Belt wine region; walked through extraordinary national parks; stayed in the historic Gold Rush town of Charters Towers; went whale watching off the coast of Fraser Island; learned the legend of the Bundaberg polar bear; and camped on Whitehaven Beach, one of the world’s most iconic.
It may have been 2,912km of hard driving, but Brisbane to Cairns was a brilliant trip…