My father called me early this year when I was in Banaras with a suggestion: A family road trip to Australia. I was caught off guard. Less than three years ago, my family, friends and I had driven across New Zealand for two weeks. Now here he was again, at 73, expectantly asking me, “No cities, just the countryside, like last time?” It sounded tempting and I said yes.
In the last week of May, at the onset of winter in the southern hemisphere, I was off to Australia with my parents and younger sister for two weeks. Our itinerary mostly included a long and winding discovery of the Queensland coast by road. We were heading to Australia to attend the housewarming party of my father’s best friend Ajit, who had purchased a new home in Townsville.
All my father’s friends decided to make a merry holiday out of it. Seven of us travelled (not together) from India, three including Uncle Ajit, his wife Auntie Helen, and their friend Anthony from Hong Kong. Uncle Michael, who also lives in Townsville, travelled to Cairns to meet us. The eleven of us, of which my sister Chahna and I were youngest, travelled in two cars: a white Ford Ranger driven by Uncle Michael and the other a grey Toyota Kluger. We started north in Cairns and travelled down south, hugging our woolies a little tighter as it got colder.
Cairns was among the more urban destinations along our route. The weather was still summery when we checked into our motel. Winter was supposed to be a few weeks away. Later that evening, we gathered at Cock & Bull, a spacious pub with high wooden ceilings, yellow lights, and large fish sculptures hanging from the ceiling. Between loud rock music and speedily downed beer pitchers, I felt emboldened to pick something adventurous from the menu and settled for the Roo& Croc Combo. The dish comprised a portion each of kangaroo and crocodile meat along with some fries and tartar dip. Kangaroo meat, tougher than chicken, was a smidge chewy for my taste. The croc slice, melt-in-my-mouth, was more up my alley. However, there was enough booze and cheer to wash away any nitpicking.
Next morning, the gang embarked on a choppy wind-beaten and rainy catamaran ride for 40 minutes to Green Island, the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. The shimmering blue-green expanse of the reef, a natural mass of singular reef systems embedded with gorgeous islands, is breathtaking. The older folks in our party weren’t going to snorkel or swim, so we took a glass bottom boat tour where the translucent floor afforded a closer view of the Reef’s diverse aquatic life. But its transcendent secrets only reveal themselves when you snorkel, like my sister and I did, agape as kaleidoscopic shoals of fish swam past us and over the green and orange-hued coral gardens.
Come morning, we made our way towards Townsville, four hours from Cairns, making two pit stops in between: the first at Murdering Point Winery on Mission Beach, a family-run boutique set-up where we tasted an assortment of tropical fruit wines, and the second at Vivia Cafe in Cardwell, where we wolfed down crab sandwiches. Crab sandwiches are ubiquitous in Cardwell and there a plethora of cafés hawking them along the coastline. Once we had scarfed down lunch though, the rest of the journey remained uninterrupted, with my parents occasionally dozing off like teenagers in the back of the vehicle, as vintage R.D. Burman songs filtered out of the stereo.
Uncle Ajit’s housewarming dinner party in Townsville was a rambunctious family shindig. Between chomping on pickled salmon and pork sausages, and drinking wine, we mapped our plans for the next day. In the morning, Chahna and I made for Magnetic (Maggie in local lingo) Island, while the rest of the crew went croc-and-koala spotting at Billabong Sanctuary. A 20-minute ferry ride from Townsville, Maggie Island is in a secluded portion of the Great Barrier Reef. By the time we took the bus and hitched rides from locals to the island, we only had time enough to explore three of its seven relatively untouched beaches. In Florence Bay, we snorkeled alongside a baby shark; in isolated Alma Bay, we sunbathed as if that slice of paradise were our own; and in Arthur Bay we spotted glowing corals in the calm, blue—and sometimes deceptively purple—waters. Although I didn’t realise it then, Maggie Island, an ethereal idyll of shapely boulders and cuddly marsupials, wouldn’t erase itself from my mind long after the trip.
The next morning, we hit the road again for Airlie Beach, three hours south of Townsville. In the serene beach town with a busy marina, most visitors hung out by The Lagoon, which was a large community pool in the heart of the town. By now, my sister and I were charting our own path, much like willful soloists in an orchestral symphony. So while the older members walked about the town window-shopping or café-hopping, we were content to laze around on a grassy patch near the ocean. I snuggled up with a copy of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and soon snoozed off.
When the gang moved on from Airlie Beach to Mackay, our next stop, we had completed nearly a week on the road. I was experiencing the stirrings of monotony. The Queensland scenery had begun to feel predictable; there was no getting away from the sugarcane fields—after all, 95 per cent of Australia’s sugarcane is produced in the state. Instagramming through the countryside had also lost its appeal. At first the little tin-and-wooden houses seemed charming. However, painted in forlorn lifeless colours, the boxes no longer held
At Mackay, our group was feeling the fatigue on account of our hectic one-night-one-town itinerary. Once again, we were using Mackay and Bundaberg, a town seven hours from Mackay, to sleep overnight. We decided to slow down our pace, making more halts along the way.
One of those happened to be at Lambert’s Beach—15 minutes away from Mackay (coastal Queensland is strewn with virgin beaches)—for whale watching. Somewhere along on the way, we purchased a giant live mud crab from an old lady who reared crabs by a pond next to her house. On reaching Gold Coast, we dined at Jimmy’s Kitchen, a Chinese restaurant run by a friend of Uncle Ajit’s. Oh, and did I mention that the crustacean accompanied us to Gold Coast in an ice box?
The next evening in Bundaberg was purposefully eventless. Home to Australia’s popular dark rum (the liquor and the city is often referred to as Bundy), it offers walks and rum-tasting experiences at its massive distillery, but our explorer personas had been worn out and we needed to unwind. So we did just that.
The morning after, we drove for three hours to reach Noosa, a 900-square-kilometre resort town along the Sunshine Coast that resembles the French Riviera. With high-end stores on either side of the street, extravagant restaurants and bars, white sandy beaches, and people dressed in high fashion, Noosa was unlike our previous stops. We spied a beach wedding that looked straight out the movies, a teenage fire-juggler busking on Laguna Bay, and canoodling couples.
Leaving Noosa behind, we headed into our final stretch. After driving for three hours, we reached Gold Coast for our last three days in Queensland. All this time spent gazing at pastoral panorama had whetted my appetite for the city’s more familiar urban beats. Our 11th-floor rented service apartment on Main Beach had a delightful view of the blue-green ocean with white frothy waves gently rolling in and the glittering skyline. The winter chill had now set in, but we went swimming nevertheless. At this point, Chahna and I became a separate party from the others, joined in our “young people” adventures by a good friend of mine from Sydney.
I was so ready to play the tourist, being offbeat be damned. So we took long walks along the beach and through the market in Surfers Paradise, ate a burrito at Guzman y Gomez, a famous eatery that serves Mexican cuisine, tasted bubble tea at Gong Cha and tried a martini with candy floss on top at House of Brews. On the morning of Day 2, we headed to Springbrook National Park, about 45 minutes from Gold Coast, and hiked along two trails for four hours. The first trail through the stunning Gondwana Rainforests is packed with canopies of myrtle beech and giant eucalyptus trees. We stood there like tiny blemishes on nature’s time-worn face, staring at the gushing waterfall with an unmistakable rainbow cutting right across its centre. The water was roaring, drowning our voices. The second trail, which is smaller but alluring, was in the Natural Bridge section of Springbrook where the force of water had cut through a part of a cave to form a bridge. Sunlight streaming in through the water formed a turquoise blue rock pool. Everything was so still yet throbbing with a cosmic connection that my friend and I spent 30 minutes here, meditating.
On our last day, we visited the hippy town of Byron Bay, about an hour from Gold Coast. Byron is a backpacker’s dream with musicians busking in alleys splashed with graffiti and young children surfing. Hipster cafés and yoga centres abound, as do handmade garment stores selling shawls and crochet tops in pride colours, and artists painting out of caravans.
We meandered happily along the Cape Byron walking track that took us to the local lighthouse, the easterly point of mainland Australia, where dolphins are often spotted in the early hours of the morning. A drizzle had ruined any chances of us spotting them but Byron’s easygoing buzz was enough. After the euphoria and adrenaline of constant journeying, Byron was the sweet bookend we needed. I bid my friend goodbye, promising to return soon.
While our holiday had begun with the excitement of the unknown, we hadn’t considered that some things wouldn’t work in our favour. Half-way through this trip, I had begun to skip the meat pies that I relished every morning. I am proud of being the gourmand, but eating Australian cuisine—barramundi, crabs, crocs and kangaroos—for days on end during lunch, breakfast and dinner had become tiresome.
My mother, true to a Sindhi mom, had loaded her suitcase with Indian food and I had taken to pilfering from that stash instead. Only at the beginning of our journey, we had quarreled like children over whether there was any need to pack so much Sindhi lola and papad when new flavours awaited us throughout Queensland. But here I was shamelessly embracing my inner desi.
Planning dinners had also become a raucous routine, where different members couldn’t agree on where to eat. I understood later, some things will go my way and some won’t. In my parents’ company, I learnt to slow down and not have a checklist of things to be done. They may not keep pace with Chahna and I, perhaps preferring to skip swimming around an island for something less demanding.
The older folks in our gang were cooler than I gave them credit for. “Happy Hours” had become an everyday affair with my folks, often at the expense of sightseeing. In between fleeting sips of vodka and sentimental bites of papad, I realise that it wasn’t as much about the spots we’d covered or missed as it was about each other’s company.
Queensland had gone past me in a flash and I was lucky that my parents had asked me to tag along with them. And despite my initial protests, the trove of Sindhi food in our extra suitcase was over. My mother knew what she was doing all along.
Chandni Doulatramani is trying to hide somewhere on the fringe, swapping between the roles of an independent journalist and a writer. These days she can be found loitering around the streets of Calcutta, eating jhaal muri and thinking up stories to tell.