Boxing Day morning I woke early, blissfully hangover free, unlike it seemed nearly everyone else in the hostel, which as a whole at 7AM had the deep silence normally only possible in remote rural fields. Checking out of my room, I basked briefly in the quiet, joined only by a single Dutch girl eating breakfast and a massive Australian Fringed lizard about two feet long which was lounging by the pool, eying me with a wary and critical eye, as if resigned to the idea that I’d eventually do something supremely stupid. Somehow, for a brief moment, I could appreciate life as Hunter S. Thompson.
With brief rainstorms passing through like an oscillating sprinkler, I quickly decided to leave exploring Byron Bay for another, less damp day, apart from a quick trip up to the Byron Bay lighthouse at the suggestion of my two Manx companions from the night before. Collecting a cup of coffee, a pastry, a huge bottle of water, and batteries for my camera, I drove up the short hill to snap a few photos and walk the path down to what was touted as the most easterly point of Australia. After doing my touristly duty, I jumped back in the car and drove out of town, my nagging need to keep going driving me on up the coast towards Brisbane.
Heading north, I detoured briefly through the intriguingly named Surfers Paradise, which I quickly found anymore to be anything but. While the breaks may still be pretty good, the city itself is a mess of beachfront highrises and tourist shops, choked with heavy traffic, which seems more like surfer hell than paradise. I decided to make use of my time in traffic making Christmas morning calls to those who were only now catching up to my previous day, and beat a hasty retreat back to the Pacific Highway.
The closer I came to Brisbane, the more I realized I really didn’t want to go there. I was craving more of the rural, wild areas of Australia that most Americans equate with the place, rather than the urban strip malls and highrises. You certainly wouldn’t find Paul Hogan or the man from Snowy River at Dick Jones on a Wednesday morning. So once again, I detoured off on the outskirts of Brisbane and headed inland for the New England Highway.
The New England Highway is the inland sister route to the Pacific Coast Highway, parting ways at Brisbane and running parallel to the coast highway through the interior, passing through national parks and endless rolling hills and pastureland. After the monotony of the oceanless Pacific Coast drive, I was much more impressed with the inland route. Well worn off-road vehicles and small farming communities were sprinkled along the road, and the horizon stretched away in every direction, broken only by a freckling of individual trees. Minus only a herd of kangaroos along the roadside, this was proper Australia.
Passing into the Main Range Natl. Park, I felt that I really should make the most of the trip and go for a short hike into the rainforest, despite the risk of all the many things that could leap out and eat me. Parking at the pass through the pass over the range, I opted for a short 3.7 km hike (a little over 2 miles) to the top of one of the nearest mountains, despite the possibility of being able to see absolutely nothing due to the heavy clouds encompassing the entire upper half of the range. Unfortunately, shortly after starting up, I found that the batteries I’d bought in Byron Bay were already dead, and I barely got more than a couple shots of some very misty landscape. This was even more of an issue once I reached the top and was treated to a spectacular view as the clouds broke just as I arrived, exposing a massive rock peak to my left, with a sheer cliff dropping straight to a massive expanse of jungle. Standing completely alone over this impressive sight, I felt very lucky indeed.
The only downside of this little hike was it instilled in me a new and very serious distrust of wet areas in Australia, as I noticed part of the way up after tromping through mud that I had picked up what I would say are some of the most visually disturbing man-eating animals in Australia. Latched on to my hiking shoes, and even on my sock, were little black and yellow leeches, the biggest about 2 inches long. What made them truly disturbing was not that they wanted to eat me but that not only did they have an astoundingly strong grip on my shoes and socks that required a rather sharp rock to dislodge them, but they also were completely prehensile and shockingly aware of which way my leg was. Attaching themselves to some part of my shoe, they would extend themselves completely, waving their body in the air for the next purchase towards my exposed flesh, and then even more disturbingly, it would attach at the next point with another mouth at the other end of its body and pull itself up to repeat the process. This little horrifying spectacle called to mind the scene in one of the Star Trek movies where some ghastly leech-type thing is placed in someone’s ear and they begin lurching about and screaming like Shatner and Nimoy had just put on their duets double album. For the rest of the hike, I would stop every 20 yards or so just to make sure none of the little bastards would get a meal off me.
The rest of the trip was uneventful but beautiful. The day finished in a truly spectacular sunset as I wound over the hills, and I pulled back into my apartment just short of midnight, extremely tired but satisfied that I had very successfully explored the central coast, and had a solid idea of places I would definitely need to return to.