3. Brisbane & Sydney
Eighteen hours later the bus arrived in Brisbane, where I’d arranged to meet Michael, an Australian friend. We had become friends a few years earlier when we were both in Japan and had kept in contact by email.
He arrived just after midday and we drove directly to the home he shared with his girlfriend, Rachel. Over a meal, they convinced me to change my original plan to head directly to Sydney and to go with them the following day to the Gold Coast, a city slightly south of Brisbane.
At the Gold Coast we visited what was locally known as ‘The Spit’, a huge, man-made stretch of land which extended far into the sea and had been turned into a recreational area. The sun was baking and many of the local dogs were out for a run with their owners. Next to the long length of natural shoreline stood a jungle of both old and new man-made structures. One in particular, a tall, sail-shaped skyscraper named the Q1-Building, dwarfed the others surrounding it.
‘It’s definitely worth the entrance fee to get to the top,’ Michael said.
‘Even if you don’t like heights?’ I asked.
‘Oh, then it’s definitely worth it!’ Rachel laughed. ‘There’s an elevator in there that goes all the way up, super-fast.’
I looked up at the tower and decided to test my fear of heights. At first I didn’t get too close to the windows but soon I started peering down. The view from the top of the building was a perfect division between nature and modern living. The sea crashed against the straight shoreline, and the inland area was full of housing estates and shopping malls. Having lived in a rural area for some time, such a modern environment felt alien to me.
That night the bus to Sydney left the Gold Coast just after dark. Sixteen hours and numerous trees and twiggy shrubs later, it arrived in Sydney. It felt odd to be in a capital city again, and it was strange to see people walking around dressed in suits. In Bowen, aside from the occasional banker, people wandered the town in muddy farm outfits, dirty coal uniforms or plain T-shirts and shorts. People’s faces in the city were also different: they were paler (understandable) but they were also longer and grimmer, matching the concrete skyscrapers surrounding them. I was so used to waving and chatting to anyone wandering around Bowen that it took me a while to get used to people being wired to their headphones and not making eye contact.
I scanned my to-do list. First, I had to ditch my suitcase. Travelling for months carrying a backpack would be more practical than wheeling around a thirty-kilogram boulder of a case.
A company near the hostel offered to ship boxes and suitcases back to Europe. ‘No problem, mate. It’ll get there just fine,’ said the man, before he nudged the $600 receipt I’d been dreading towards me on the table. ‘You payin’ cash or card?’
I’d have preferred not to pay at all. ‘By card, I suppose,’ I sighed.
‘Don’t worry about it, mate. This is the premium service.’
‘It’ll get there in no time, you’ll see.’
He guaranteed the case’s arrival in Europe within nine days. I’d researched the available options thoroughly beforehand and really had no choice other than to accept. I tried to ignore the massive blow to my bank account by moving on to the second item on my list: clothing.
My idea had been to travel in some scrappy jeans, old T-shirts and a woolly jumper that I hadn’t yet bought. Along one street, I stumbled on The North Face store selling mountain gear. I was browsing their jumpers when a store clerk sneaked up on me. ‘Ya lookin’ for anythin’ in particular?’ he asked.
‘I might be passing through Canada later this year and I was thinking about getting a jumper.’ He realised I knew nothing about mountain gear and gave me a lecture on how to ‘layer’ my clothes. First on is a base layer, usually made of merino wool, then a fleece or something similar to generate more heat, and finally a shell or raincoat to keep the heat in and the wet out.
‘What about trousers?’ I asked, trying to gain some time to process all this information.
‘Trousers? Yeah. Same thing, almost. A base layer, then the trousers. Ya best bet would be these breathable trousers right here.’ He pointed to a beige pair. ‘In hot weather air passes through. In cold weather, less air passes through. Too easy.’
They were apparently tear resistant, water resistant and UV resistant – though not expensive resistant, not at AU$120. But I had already sent most of my clothes home. I knew that for the first few weeks I would be crossing steamy terrain and would probably be fine in T-shirts, so I parked the jumper and invested in the trousers.
For a while I’d been thinking about what I could take from the places I would visit to remember them by. It occurred to me that rock samples would be perfect. Not heavy, small and, to some extent, unique to each country. So that afternoon I paced around the city seeking a small stone. Being exactly that, a city, the only one I found was in a neglected back alley where a wall was crumbling. Not romantic, but it served its purpose.
My train from Sydney to Perth was leaving the following day and I still had a few more errands to cross off my list before I left.