I can condense my experience of Australia down to one defining moment, a Vegemite scroll an ocean view, about twenty eight degrees and a cup of tea.
I was making my way down to Melbourne in the cheapest way possible, a discount rate on an OAP coach tour. I picked it up in Canberra, Australia’s capital city, where an extremely Australian looking coach driver with a dusty fedora (no corks) and the tour operator, a bleached blonde forty-something ex-pat from (old) South Wales, managed to pique my interest with a cheap seat. It was just over $200 for the whole ride; they had a seat to fill and asked if I could help with everyone’s bags on and off at hotels and whatnot. I said yes straight away. Considering the other trains and coaches didn’t have hotels and food included and were all around the hundred dollar mark anyway I was happy to hand over some of that colourful plastic monopoly money they use out there.
The trip took two unexpected turns from there. First I found that I couldn’t have been happier in the presence of any other company; the retirees on the coach were a colourful and friendly team of olds and they adopted me as some sort of trip mascot. Marie and Bruce (I know) a couple who owned a tortoise breeding farm in Brisbane, Ken and another Marie who were both World War Two air force veterans. Ken was a fighter pilot and Marie was one of a very select bunch of female pilots who flew newly produced aircraft from the factories to airbases around the world. She also liked my hair. Both Maries were pretty fantastic. And a myriad of others with stories ranging from falling in love with an American paratrooper she met at Flinders Street station in Melbourne for a day before losing him as he was redeployed the following and then reuniting post war to produce three children and seven grandchildren. To a gent’ with one of the biggest geode collections in New South Wales and a photograph of every single one… I couldn’t have had these conversations on a coach trip of fellow gap-year backpackers and it would have been half as interesting at least.
The second unexpected turn was in fact a literal unexpected turn that took the coach past my destination, Melbourne, and on a journey further south to the Great Ocean Road while I snoozed away in a geode-photograph induced coma. I had intended to visit that famous stretch of road, but with a few friends I was hooking up with in Melbourne and a hire car, but fate took me there on an air-conditioned coach with several hundred years’ worth of old people. It was beautiful and sweeping and epic and I didn’t have enough memory on my camera for all of it. The coach settled, on the morning of the day that would take us back to Melbourne, at a place called Apollo bay and here comes my condensed moment of pure Australia. The olds had a little wander around the seaside shop front area and I joined the team quickly with the intention of getting some food before getting an eye and a lungful of the beach. I bought a book, and then went into a bakery offering tea and pastries for two dollars. I grabbed what I initially thought was a cinnamon swirl and a cuppa then headed for the sands of Apollo. As about half eight struck I was sitting with a warm face and an empty beach around my toes and I took a bite of the pastry, not sweet, not cinnamon, cheese and Vegemite. It was the best thing I’d ever tasted and it is the one thing that flicks a switch in my travel withdrawn brain when I first think of Australia. It might not even have been the culinary delight I now remember it being, but that switch flicks and all the other stuff hits thereafter like someone unfolding a map. The stories of the people, the warmth of the sun, the miles travelled and breath-taking Apollo bay, the water of the southern ocean washing against the beach and the acute realisation of where I was in the world.
So if I can suggest anything when you go out into the wide world take a chance with a weird travel option and if you’re in Australia, go and have a Vegemite scroll and a cup of tea by the sea for me.
- by Craig Bessell (Travel tips in Australia)