20 September 2009, two days before leaving
I join Ardi after he finishes his shift at the box factory. He wants to visit the new skate park by the harbour. As he tests the ramps, I sit by a fence pole with my eyes on the wide Bowen shoreline. My phone rings. It’s Evan.
‘Hiya,’ he says. ‘Got a letter for ya. Where are ya? I’ll drop it off.’
‘Sure thing. I’m by the skate park.’
He has a letter from the Department of Immigration with my name on it. Evan has been receiving my mail from the government because I’m living at a backpackers’ hostel, which isn’t considered to be a valid address.
He arrives in his car and hands over the letter. It’s a bill for having requested an extension on the visa. My application was rejected so I was asked politely to leave the country and given four extra weeks to do so from the day I quit the Ultrastak box factory.
‘Somethin’ serious I hope!’ Evan says with a grin.
‘Not really. Just getting kicked out of the country.’
‘Righty-oh! So when are ya off?’
‘Wednesday afternoon. But I’ll come by the IGA tomorrow to say goodbye.’
‘Too easy. See ya tomorrow then.’ He drives off up the road.
Ardi finishes his run around the skate park. We’ve organised a leaving dinner that evening at the town’s McDonald’s, which is celebrating its grand opening. We collect a few of Ardi’s friends, who I’ve come to know over the past few months, and we drive over.
For the first time in the history of Bowen, there’s a traffic jam in the middle of the town. The roads surrounding the ‘restaurant’ are choked and we have to park in a field across the street. Once inside, I immediately recognise many familiar faces: some from the IGA supermarket, others from Eagle Boyz Pizza, a few from the video store – and even someone from the lawyer’s office. Almost everyone in Bowen is there to celebrate the arrival of cholesterol in the town.
After idling in the queue for almost half an hour, we’re handed our questionably ‘fresh’ meals. We eat at the conservatory on top of Flagstaff Hill, the highest peak in the town, surrounded by a cool breeze. In the distance we see a fire in one of the fields; with the same haste that we eat our meals, we shoot over to investigate.
As we stand in the field, a wall of fire and smoke slowly moves away from us, consuming the land beneath it. One of the observers tells us that it is a controlled fire; they are burning sugar cane, meaning that the end of the season is near. To the right of the blaze, a human silhouette with a cowboy hat, who we assume is the farmer, sits quietly on a stone taking in the sight of his land burning away.
21 September 2009, my last day in Bowen
I walk to Horseshoe Bay, one of the town’s nicest beaches, and climb up to the viewpoint on top of the rocks. A light breeze comes in from the sea and no one else is around. I sit there for a while, appreciating the view and making some final memories.
That afternoon I phone the Greyhound number and, with both excitement and regret, book a seat on the bus heading south to Brisbane the following day. I buy a small notepad, some pens and a map of the world; my Nokia 6300 isn’t a smartphone, so it’s only useful for making calls and sending texts.
The next morning I say goodbye to Evan at the IGA supermarket and wait at the hostel for Ardi to finish his shift. He has offered to drive me to the bus stop with my luggage. At the stop I hand him a movie poster that I’d been given as a present and ask him to hold on to it.
‘What’s this?’ he asks. ‘Insurance?’
‘Yeah. I’ll be back to collect it at some point.’
‘Honestly? I don’t know. But hopefully one day.’
The bus slowly turns the corner at the end of the long road and stops in front of us. As usual, no one steps off and that day I am the only one getting on. I say goodbye to Ardi and board.
An hour into the bus ride, I make some notes in my journal and realise that this is the furthest I’ve travelled in any direction for a year. I am on the move again.