ESPERANCE, Western Australia—Since my last post, I’ve moved on from Perth. What to say about Perth? I’ll let a great writer take up the intro:
“Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.”
—J. R. R. Tolkien. “The Hobbit.”
Unfortunately—from a storytelling point of view—there was nothing uncomfortable, palpitating or even vaguely gruesome about my stay in Perth, other than the outrageous prices on everything. It’s a lovely city, lapped by the gentle waves of the Indian Ocean, with spectacular beaches, a decent local music scene and a food environment that, really, is a bit lacking in imagination. Thai and Nepalese are about as outré as it gets.
But it’s really the people that I met that made Perth memorable. Sharon, my Couchsurfing host for about nine days, was a total gem. John, the organic gardener and character extraordinaire, was great. And the various other itinerants I met along the way—all under 30 and laboring under what seems to me a pretty exploitive work-holiday visa regime—for the most part delighted me. And a big shout-out to the rodeo crew who made New Year’s a blast.
At Play in the Fields of the Lord
One of the most interesting periods was the time I spent in John’s garden. I camped out there with about 10 other lodgers and couch surfers for three days, and it bears describing some of the occupants. I never learned the full names of most of the people. One hippie traveler once told me, “Names are just a label to put something in a box.” Maybe so, but they’re also handy for telling people apart. I’ll do my best with these brief sketches.
Like me, most of them are couch surfers, which is to say, cheap travelers who mean well. But John didn’t seem to mind as long as we all pitched and handle some of the chores. My job was sanding the rust off some cheap metal cabinets that would soon be painted white. It was like being in the army.
Most of the lodgers are French and further along the hippie scale than is warranted these days, complete with affected dreadlocks. Brice is the de facto leader of the Paris Commune, as I’ve taken to calling it. He’s lived here the longest (5 months) and he has John’s confidence … mainly because he treats John like a guru, and he is a willing acolyte. Tall and thin as the sunflowers they grow in the front of the garden as a showcase for any passers-by, he has blonde dreadlocks and a scruffy beard. He’s a bit like a Shaggy from Scooby Doo, if the dog spoke French.
Emmeline is next. Blonde and fair skinned, her blue eyes sparkle under eyebrows that are as blonde as her hair, giving her a perpetually, slightly surprised look. She is nice, but distant. She doesn’t drink or smoke. She is a former journalist now working in a bakery, working on a film about John and his garden.
Sean and Andrea are British while Marie and Roman are French. Sean also has the requisite dreads and Andrea is a curvaceous, jolly English woman. Sean seems continually amused by only a joke he knows.
Roman wears his hair in a single long dread that he wears in a top-knot. Marie is a slight wisp of a woman who fire dances and works as a florist.
All of the French smoke as if the government will soon confiscate all tobacco products. But, of course, none of them can afford the high-priced Australian cigs, so they roll their own. They do this with the ritual care and familiarity that I do with a cup of coffee in the morning. It no doubts gives them comfort. It may be the only thing that is constant in their peripatetic lives.
Roman is the most precise. He places the filter between his lips as his sifts and then packs the tobacco into the paper, barely dropping a leaf. He places the filter on one end, and holds down the rest of the leaf with his left index finger. A quick flick of the fingers and a lick of the tongue and the cigarette is tight as a drum, ready for ignition. They all do it this way, more or less. Sean is a little less precise in his rolling. However, it’s all foreplay for the weed they will break out later in the evening.
I realize I haven’t described John. How does one do that? A Gandalfian figure, his long beard and hair, combined with bushy brows and beetling blue eyes makes him a striking figure as he strides the garden, shirtless, his bony limbs taking him to and fro. I imagine him a bit like John the Baptist. It is easy to see him as a holy man, preaching the gospel of ecology, sustainability with a healthy mix of paranoia thrown in. He believes he is marked for death by corporations, but I doubt they much care what he says and does.
All in all, they’re not a bad bunch. They’re generally a bit filthy, but they live their own lives and don’t hurt anyone.
However, perhaps their showy rejection of conventions has some validity. After three weeks, I found being back in the so-called developed world, with its rules and regulations and safety nets, a bit confining. The little incursions on our personal sovereignty, all in the name of safety and a well-ordered society, can be a bit much. Constant reminders and regulations to not even think about speeding, or operating a boat without a life vest, or crossing against the lights, or living on your own land in a caravan while you build a house there are, I suppose, there because of good intentions, but too often they become irksome. I’m not going to call it tyranny or anything so dramatic as that, but I can see some of the points of small-government conservatives after a time in a country like Australia. Some of these regulations and rules are simply silly and assume one has the maturity of a child.
On the Road Again
Thus, the lure of the open road. On Jan 14, I embarked on an epic, continent-spanning road-trip from Perth, the most isolated big city in the world, to Sydney, on Australia’s East Coast. Accompanying me is a German woman, Julia, who I met, again, on Couchsurfing. She has so far proven an ideal traveling buddy: cool, calm and easy-going. She loves nature, and would like to avoid cities. This sets up an interesting tension between us, as I’m a city boy and like nothing better than spending a day in a cafe with a ready supply of coffee and a fast wi-fi connection. We’re making our compromises. Given we have a month to live together out of a camper van, we’d better be able to get along!
About the van. It’s a great white beast of a vehicle, tall as a one-story house and light. Bumping along Southwest Australia’s two-lane blacktop roads—which they quaintly call “highways” here—coastal gusts batter the van from one side of the road to another. I often have to fight to keep the vehicle from being pushed into oncoming traffic or off the road, so strong are the winds. The van handles with all the grace of a steamer trunk strapped to a couple of pair of roller skates.
For the first few days, we had a couple of Italian guys traveling with us as far as Esperance, which made the van a cramped place. Marco and Nasco were like puppies, snapping at each other in sharp Italian and proving themselves completely helpless when it came to cooking or cleaning up. They were obsessed with rolling their smokes, and whenever we stopped somewhere, they would have the doors open before the wheels had even stopped rolling, slapping around for their tobacco and papers and generally waiting for me and Julia to make a decision.
All this makes for interesting camping experiences. Most of the time we pull up in free sites, which are mainly spots to park and maybe pitch a tent. The first morning we did so, however, we were almost pummeled by a sudden storm. I was in my tent, fitfully snoozing, when I was fully awakened at about 5:30 a.m. by the incoming rolls of thunder. Realizing there’s no snooze alarm on atmospheric wakeup calls, I roused myself and quickly stowed my tent and gear in the van, waking the others and getting them inside and our gear safe and dry before the rains came.
And what rain! Sheets of it, almost solid in their ferocity. And in fact, as the storm grew in intensity, the pine trees around us began to bend to the will of the gale, and branches began falling around us. Quickly realizing we were in a copse of easily shattered lightning rods, I fired up the van, and hightailed it out of the camp.
And not a moment too soon. A large branch had fallen across the road to our left. The road seemed open to the right, but that was a false hope. Down the lane, an entire tree lay shattered, blocking both lanes. On either side, numerous broken corpses of pines and gum trees were testament to the storm’s fury. Off in the distance, to the west, lightning arced down against the angry, bruised sky again and again, bursting trees apart and sending power-lines down all over. Emergency vehicles were by far the most common cars we saw on the road in the early morning.
Later, however, everything cleared up like it had never happened. The skies cleared, the sun came out and the temperature soared. it was again a brilliant summer day in Western Australia.
Driving southwest through this part of Australia is simply breathtaking. Washed clean by frequent summer showers—that we saw can quickly turn into violent squalls—the air seems more transparent than in other places, and the land itself fresher and newer, although it is very ancient. The ambers and yellows and golds of the evening sun flow over the fertile hills like honey over fresh loaves of bread. It is perfect wine country, as the plethora of wineries in Margaret River shows. We were unable to stop at any, however, because I was outvoted 3-1 on most occasions.
By the second day, however, Julia and I had had enough of Marco and Nasco, and we informed them that we would take them only as far as Albany.
“Listen guys,” I said over lunch at a cafe on Wednesday. “I get the impression this isn’t the road trip you signed on for, that you wanted to go directly to Esperance.”
“Plus, we’re not gelling as a group. You’re not taking part in what we want to do, and you’re bored. So we’re going to take you as far as Albany where you can get a bus to Esperance.”
Blank looks, some babble of Italian. And then, comprehension.
“Ah, ok!” Nasco said. “We would like to go to Albany.”
And that was that. We dropped the boys at a youth hostel in the charming town of Albany and wished them good luck.
We have since made our own way to Esperance and will be leaving the lush forests and preserves of Western Australia. Already the ancient and brooding forests that press against the thin line of blacktop as it winds along the coast are giving way to scrub and spindly gum trees. There are few windbreaks to stop the coastal zephyrs catching the top of the van like a sail and blowing us all over. The dust hangs in the air longer and the way ahead is considerably drier and less populated. Ahead of us lies the Nullarbor (which means “no trees”), a four-day drive through some tough conditions. When we come out on other side, we’ll be in South Australia and entering the wine country of Adelaide.