Oddly enough, as we were making ready to leave Sydney behind, the skies began to open up and a light drizzle began to fall. A sad city wishing us a teary farewell or a grim portent of things to come on the weather front? We would soon find out. Our first stop on the east coast road was the small town of Port Maquarie, not famous for anything in particular but a relatively convenient place to break up our trip to Brisbane.
As we boarded the coach for the punishing 8 hour trip, Vickie began to lightly complain of a tickle at the back of her throat. By the time we eventually reached our destination, she was a shivering, feverish, croaky mess. This wasn't good. We wasted no time checking in and getting straight to bed to see if she could shake it off by morning. No such luck as it turns out when she was considerably worse by sunrise, neccessitating a hasty trip to a local medical centre.
Whilst we waited in the doctors waiting room, Dunc dilligently popped over the road to pick up some painkillers for a suffering Vickie, who was expecting a wait of at least an hour before being able to see the medical chaps. Clearly unsatisfied by this wait time, Vickie decided to take matters into her own hands. As she stood up to enquire as to the vacinity of the ladies rooms, she dizzily gave into gravity and crumpled like a house of cards, only being prevented from stacking it onto the floor by a kindly passer by who propped her up during her tumble. Of course, this unfortunate turn required her to be taken straight through to the doctors room to lie down and recover from her spinning head and nausea. Nice work girl.
When a slightly confused Dunc returned from the supermarket cradling some (now seemingly woefully inadequate) painkillers, he was more than a touch perturbed to find out from the receptionists what had gone on in his absence, and rushed to the back room to find Vickie sprawled on a nurses table looking rather sheepish at all the fuss. Nevertheless, it was a marvellous way to get seen quickly, and the doc took one look at her and diagnosed a severe case of tonsilitis (rather distustingly insisting on showing Dunc the back of her throat while he was at it.... now both of us felt sick). There was nothing else for it but a sizeable dose of antibiotics. To this end he cheerfully produced a needle that would have made Mr Ed feel faint, before sticking it into a grimacing Vickie - Dunc was by this point feeling highly light headed at the nastiness of it all - and announcing that "This'll help you get off to a good start, but it might hurt for a bit". All in all, it had been a testing morning. On top of this, the rain continued to fall.
Always seeking to find the positive in any situation, we at least managed to conclude that with it raining pretty much constantly during Vickies convalesance, we weren't particularly tempted to venture out all that much anyway, and so consoled ourselves with the fact that we weren't really spending too much money or missing out on much.
Two days - and several 'fetch and carry' errands for Dunc consisting of gathering specific foodstuffs for a bed ridden Vickie (primarily Macdonalds thickshakes from the other side of town.... neccessitating a vigerous and sweaty 'commuter run' to prevent it melting before getting it back to Vickie who had specified that she wanted it to be "as cold as possible") - later and it was time to board the coach to head for our next destination, the beachfront town of Coffs Harbour.
By now we were well and truly on the fabled "east coast backpacker trail" and were already bumping into the same people on the same buses and in the same hostels... it was all getting a touch deja vu. And still the rain came down. Coffs itself is a rather unremarkable little place, although doubtless Vickies ongoing illness coupled with the persistant cruddy weather was probably colouring our impressions. Our hostel in fact was typical of the Australian east coast in that it was predominantly occupied by a large number of identikit late teens/early twenties travellers, all considering themselves to be gloriously unique and worthy of attention without seeming to realise that they are all on exactly the same long-term package holiday as everyone else, and there is not really anything "alternative" about it.
Although this provided us with a tedious couple of evenings listening to drunken hormonal arguments between self important brats, we did actually manage to catch one particular tete a tete one night that gave us cause for a considerable amount of giggles. A man and a woman were arguing both animatedly and at some length about something deeply insipid, and despite numerous calls for "shutting up" from various other residents, they seemed set on resolving their issues outside everyones rooms. We soon began to speculate as to the nature of their involvement and chief 'beef' they were having problems with. We were just in the process of concluding that it was nothing more than a petty disagreement between two teenagers, when the male voice loudly piped up with the revelation that "I don't need to be told what to do by you, i've been round the block a few times..... I'm 42 years old and know a bit about the world!" before storming off and slamming a couple of doors. We couldn't help but laugh out loud at this remarkable twist in the soap opera, and passed the time the following day attempting to spot the 'wise old 42 year old man' who was spending his middle years arguing with american teenage girls in australian youth hostels at 1 in the morning.
Needless to say, by this point, our spirits were not particularly high, and we were positively itching to board the bus and head onto the much-hyped Byron bay, where hopefully the weather would improve and we could actually get out and about for a wee bit. Fortunately, "The Bay" didn't disappoint.
We felt pretty much obliged to pay a visit to Byron Bay, being as it's pretty much on any travellers round the world itinerary given its hippie/surfer dude heritage and persisting image of "cool". Granted, these days its about as subversively alternative as MTVs "Spring break special dudes!" but it was still very much a big box that needed ticking on our way up the coast.
Fortunately, a number of factors were beginning to combine to pick up our spirits as we started out on our coach journey. Vickie was now starting to recover nicely, and the sun seemed to be marking this improvement by poking his head out from behind the clouds again. However, perhaps the most immediate mood-lifter we recieved was from the gloriously amusing bus driver. This man had clearly missed a calling as a Jack Dee style stand up comedian as he entertained us with some ticklingly dry and descriptive anecdotes, delivered in classic Aussie dead-pan style. Particularly humorous were his lengthy and over detailed monologues on "how to use the coach toilets" and "why we don't allow food on board" - apparently Greyhound are awaiting a law suit from a woman who slipped on a sandwich on the floor and hurt her shoulder. There was also the classic "This is how you recline your seats" - evidentally it is considered good form to glance over ones shoulder and signal the passanger behind you as to your seat-moving intentions before the commencement of downwards pressure on the small button-like mechanism on the left of your seat (possibly a 'button', we thought) and the initiation of reclining action. We were in tears by the time we had hit the highway.
Our meal stop was at the unmissable "Big Prawn", one of Australias famed fibreglass 'big things' littering their highways. The driver helpfully instructed us that entrance to the service station was via "Large wooden-type doors with an automated opening system" (genius!). No two ways about it.... the prawn was frankly huge and very impressive in its own way. We spent several minutes admiring the sculpture as we tucked into a dire service station sandwich before re-commencing our journey (but not before the coach driver refused to let a young Danish lad back onto the coach until he disposed of his sandwich.... "No food on the coach son. If you'd listen to me in the first place you wouldn't have this problem now would you?).
As we came into Byron, we noticed a huge billboard loudly instructing the government to "Fix our bloody roads!". We added this to the growing pile of overtly direct Aussie adverts that were tickling us on our journey, going alongside the regular bold warnings telling you "Don't be a tosser, put your litter in the bin". Now THATS marketing!
Byron itself was an undoubtedly attractive setting, and bore a more than passing resemblance to Queenstown by the sea in its highly style conscious image cultivation. As we strolled up the high street - all feta cheese, love beads and henna tattoos as it was - we concluded that Byron was just about managing to stay on the right side of 'touristy'. As we headed for the huge and highly picturesque beach it became clear to us that there is most definitely an unofficial dress code for beach residents in Byron (and indeed, for much of the east coast). It appears to be all about the 'funk', and everyone had to be seen sporting clothes of varying designer surfie pedigree. No room for speedos on this beach! Nontheless it was a very pretty place to spend a couple of hours, and we could understand how this little town had attracted such a diverse range of people in its former years as it still clings on to a certain spiritual air.
When we had initially arrived in town, we were bombarded with leaflets offering us "two for one this" and "half price that". One flier that caught our eyes was the offer of dinner for just $2 at a local club called Cheeky Monkeys. This was too good to be true, we agreed, and resolved to give it a go that evening. However, whilst we were casually checking our e-mails in a nearby internet cafe, a young tatoo sporting bottle blond girl sashayed in and plonked another Cheeky Monkeys flier on Vickies lap before proudly declaring that it was "Punk night fancy dress tonight, and the $2 dinner was Cottage pie". Vickie almost immediately screwed up her face before glancing over at Dunc who was also looking very non-plussed at the offer. When the flier girl eventually left, we grinned to each other and marvelled at the fact that this doubtless hard working young lady had just managed to talk two people who were previously attending her club right out of it. We wondered if she was on commision.
As we had not really been exercising much lately, and were still struggling with the extra pounds we had accrued during our culinary excesses in Melbourne and Sydney, we decided to try our hands at some swimming at the local pool. Swimming in the sea, although previously an option, had been thoroughly dismissed due to a combination of factors. A previous wade-in had exposed the severity of the tidal rips on the beach (and had almost exposed a bit more than Dunc had desired when a particularly strong wave struck him and nearly took his shorts with it back out to sea, much to Vickies amusement). As if this wasn't enough, we had read in the previous days papers about a couple of rather unfortunate incidents a little further up the coast. A seven year old boy had died after getting wrapped up in the stingers of a box jellyfish, and a young woman had been mauled to death by a roving pack of bull sharks. You clearly don't mess with the creatures in this continent.
With that, we spent the next couple of days alternating between swimming in the pool and relaxing on the beach (briefly interspersed with spending most of an afternoon exhausting an over-enthusiastic travel agent when we were booking our Fraser Island and Whitsunday Island trips before walking away and getting the deal a few bucks cheaper elsewhere... marvellous!). We were sad to leave Byron behind but the fact of the matter was that not only was it prohibitavely expensive to stay at for more than a few days, but we still had much to see on the coast and could waste no more time before heading off into the sunshine state of Queensland and our next city, state capital Brisbane.
Our residence for our time in Brisbane was the very 'budget' Balmoral House. We had previously arranged a free pick up from the bus terminal and were more than a touch put out when, after searching high and low for said hotel proprietor, we found out that he couldn't meet us because he was "left on me own mate... the cleaners haven't turned up today". Not a good sign. Our host in fact turned out to be a very nice and typically australian grizzled old fella, always ready with a chat and a smile. Only problem was the housekeeping didn't really match his chirpy countenance. It was like stepping back ten years to our respective student houses. Not nice.
Our stay in Brisbane had previously been intented to be a week or so, but other bookings had neccessitated that we cut it short by a few days and, if truth be told, we were struggling to think of enough things to do to occupy us for that length of time anyway. Brisbane, it seems, is a city long on relaxation but short on any significant points of interest. As a city, it lacks the grandeur of Sydney or the sculpted attractiveness of Melbourne, and at first seems like rather a sleepy place. However, we both got the impression that its the kind of place that could grow on you after a while as it seems to encourage a slower approach to life than its larger brasher southern siblings. We elected to continue out current exercise regime by paying a couple of visits to a nearby olympic standard outdoor aquatic centre for some swimming and sunbathing. This alongside watching super-confident toddlers launch themselves from diving boards that would have given both of us cause for hesitation helped to pass the time rather nicely.
Pleasent though it was, this was only really a gateway to some of our future pursuits further up the coast, and our next stop was to be one that we had both looked forward to for quite some time. A three day safari onto the offshore paradise of Fraser Island.