It’s my final day in Brisbane. I’m sad to be leaving such a relaxed and friendly place but it’s time to move on and see what the rest of this vast country has to offer.
I grew up on a steady diet of Neighbours and Home and Away. Shockingly bad TV by anyone’s standards, these two programs single-handedly formulated my knowledge of Australia, Australian culture, geography and language (you young galahs).
One day, a very long time ago, during a particularly tedious episode, Helen Daniels whisked talent-challenged granddaughter Lucy Daniels off to the mysterious ‘Whitsundays’, probably for her third head transplant of the year – soap opera producers, at least try to get a new actor that looks vaguely similar to the last one when you do that.
I remember thinking, at the impressionable age of eleven or twelve, wow, what a really stupid name for an island. I must go there! And so this is the reason I am now heading 1,132 km north to a set of islands named after a religious holiday and revealed to me on a bad soap. They were named this because that’s the day on which they were discovered. Captain Cook and his cronies were obviously delirious with scurvy because diaries later showed they were actually discovered on Whit Monday. The Whitmonday Islands just doesn’t sound right.
Of course, I know now what I didn’t know back then, which is that the Whitsunday Islands can be classed as some of the world’s most beautiful and unspoiled. And, as a bonus, I also get to see the Great Barrier Reef before our world-destroying ways destroy the only living thing in the world that can be seen from outer space.
The last week passed quickly. Things don’t seem so blurry now that I’ve got over the jet lag and have stopped waking up at 4 am and trying to subtract eight hours from the clock to find out what time my body really thinks it is. Wednesday was a random public holiday here in Brisbane so we took advantage of this by heading to Archive for the pub quiz on Tuesday night. Now, I’m used to a civilised and serious approach to quiz playing, having formed part of the infamous Boom Chicago-Murphy’s Quiz team, Need a Slash?.
<Inside joke explanation>Geeks will find this name funny. Others won’t. Sorry. </Inside joke explanation>.
What I found at Archive was tantamount to anarchy. We had fourteen people in our team at one point, several of whom kept ‘going to the toilet’ with their mobile phones and coming back with the answers to the impossible-to-know questions. Anyway, to cut a long story short, our extremely large team of multiple nationalities – American, Indian, Greek, Australian, British, Irish, Canadian to name a few – won the quiz (and a crate of beer).
I had the unfortunate fame of being to only person who knew that the song being played was the theme tune to Newlyweds, that awful, banal program featuring Jessica Simpson. I don’t even have a t.v. I don’t know how I knew the answer. The shame, it burns, it burns. Even weirder was the fact that I was actually talking about that very show earlier in the afternoon with my colleagues and I have no idea why or how the topic came up.
They told us that our crate of beer was for taking home only, instructions which we instantly ignored. We tried to conceal the fact we were drinking our forbidden winnings by pouring the beer into empty glasses that someone had swiped from the bar. Not me though, I prefer to pay $10 for a fresh pint rather than drink free beer out of a dirty glass thanks. By about 21:00, the place was raucously out of control, for the Aussies get hammered fast and early, just like the Brits, and Captain-no-brain-the-bouncer had started to wonder why our table was full of empty bottles. After lengthy consultation with his chum Dr-my-biceps-are-my-brain, they finally swooped in and took the crate outside.
I decided to leave the rest of the team to it because I was going on the big koala cuddling expedition the next day. Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is a short drive outside of the city and is home to over 130 koalas and their antipodean friends. Queensland is the only state in Australia where you’re allowed to hold a koala; in the others you just have to make do with patting them a bit. How disappointing.
Koalas do basically nothing except sleep, eat and make very odd, throaty barking noises. At Lone Pine, you can pay $16 for the resident photographer to take a picture of you holding a fat, stunned-looking, furry koala. Once you’ve paid your $16, your friends can then take as many pictures of you holding the koala as you like, which is good because the official picture you get is inevitably shit. Mine was no exception.
I was expecting to hug and squeeze and generally smother my assigned koala and pretty much wander around the park with a koala hanging off me. Of course, that was a bit of an unrealistic thought – they are living creatures after all – but I was kind of expecting to be able to hold the koala for more than 13 seconds. Anyway, I was told not to move because the koala thinks I am a tree and if I start moving he’ll think that the tree is unsafe and try to jump off.
‘Oh!’ I exclaimed, as the koala was hooked onto me, ‘he smells like tea!’
‘Er. Right. No one’s ever said that before.’ Cue: zookeepers exchanging worried glances. ‘We hear that they smell like eucalyptus, but never tea… .’
‘Eucalyptus Tea?’ I offered.
After posing for more (better) photos of my koala-not-really-cuddle (thanks Adam and Heidi) , we wandered around looking at the other animals because once you’ve seen one koala, you’ve seen them all – they are all agonisingly cute and sleep curled up into furry balls, wedged between tree branches.
I saw dingos (and had to resist the urge to scream ‘Dingows stole my baaybaaay’ in the faces of random passers-by), very scary-looking Tasmanian Devils (ferocious looking giant rats), a platyus (flat-duck), wombats (I want one), a Cassowary, a horrendous, massive bird that looks like some very bad experiment between a peacock, a turkey, an emu and a velociraptor – seriously check out the size of those feet (I don’t want one), mini crocodiles (the horror, the horror), kookaburras (sitting in the old gum tree) and kangaroos. There was a mother kangaroo with a joey’s legs sticking out of her pouch, which, let me tell you, is quite possibly one of the weirdest, most alien-esque things I’ve ever seen, especially as it kept wriggling about and you could see it moving under her skin.
After I’d had my fill of Australian wildlife, we drove up to Mount Coot-tha to see the view of Brisbane. For the first time in my life I saw conclusive proof that the world is not actually flat. Not that I ever thought it was because I’m not a creationist nutcase but still, it’s always nice to confirm these things for yourself once in a while. I was in awe of the fact that the horizon was semi-circular. I’ve only ever seen a flat horizon, perhaps with a hint of a curve. Up there on Mount Coot-tha, the curve was so pronounced that I felt like I was in a dome, like I was trapped in some Australian version of The Truman Show. We continued onto Paddington for lunch at Sassafras, where I paid $16 dollars for some fried mushrooms (they were good but I just cannot get over the prices here).
The last two days in the office were spent finishing off all the stuff I’d come to do and getting my last couple of day’s worth of ‘tucker’ from Oliver’s, the amazing lunch cafe near the APNIC office. If you’re ever in South Brisbane, head to this place for great-tasting pizza, pasta, sushi, salads, cakes and coffee.
On Friday night we went for a Mexican-Columbian night at German and Sylvia’s house over in ‘The Gap’. Sylvia had mixed up a giant bowl of a Peruvian cocktail called Pisco Sour.
She told us that her former boss had given her a bottle of the main ingredient, Pisco, while she was pregnant with her son seven years ago. She’d been waiting for an occasion to use it ever since because there’s an ‘open bottle is an empty bottle’ policy on such things apparently. I felt honoured and willingly sank down a glass. Feeling knocked slightly sideways, I attacked the food – Mexican beans and rice that took two days to prepare and cook, creviche, lupin beans, salads and the piece de la resistance, marshmallows to toast over the fire in the back garden.
Feeling suitably stuffed, I was then surreptitiously handed a shot of tequila from German’s private stash of ‘good stuff’ that he smuggles into the country for clandestine tequila drinking escapades. ‘Never refuse a tequila proffered by a Mexican’ goes the old saying. Actually, I think I just made it up, but still, it’s a good thing to keep in the back of your mind and will doubtless see you through many of life’s tricky situations. Superior tequila is smooth and doesn’t burn on the way down – even though it still made the hair on my arms stand on end – and is to be sipped rather than thrown down one’s gullet.
Australia is really growing on me and I can see why so many people want to move here. There are free communal barbecues in the parks. You just press a button and the hot plate heats up.
I passed some French tourists yesterday who were happily cooking up shrimps and something unidentifiable, but knowing the French it was probably Kangaroo testicles. Australia seems like it took the best bits of Britain and mixed it up with the best bits of America, firmly leaving the shit British weather and the rampant American consumerism behind. Not that there isn’t overt consumption here, it’s just a bit less pronounced, and not everyone is a carbon copy wannabe.
I’ve also really had to adjust my politeness-setting and friendliness-ometer back up a few notches. People actually want to talk to you. At first it was quite disconcerting but now I’m really enjoying these mini random conversations. When the people at the counter in the coffee shops ask you ‘How are you going?’ or ‘Are you doing anything nice this afternoon?’ they actually want to know the answer to these questions, unlike in the US, where the moment the words ‘Hi, how are you?’ are out of their mouths they’re back to thinking about whether they should remortgage their house for the third time in order to be able to pay for little Taylor’s next prescription of Ritalin.
Shopping though, ladies, has not got any better. I refuse to pay $60 for a pair of pleather shoes, even when desperate.
Location update: I’m now safely in the Whitsundays. The weather is rubbish and it’s raging a storm outside. The beautiful palm trees are bending precariously and there are three metre-high waves ripping up that turquoise blue sea…more soon!