17: Tourist Impersonator
29 August 2002
Having had 3.5 hours sleep and completed the 3 S’s of my backpacker beauty regime at 5.30am on tiptoe and in darkness in order to not wake my entire room up, I climbed aboard the bus headed for Cairns. Then I realised that I had packed and strapped my ticket into the most remote corner of my backpack in the hatch below the bus. The bus driver smiled at me through gritted teeth as I scattered my possessions all over the pavements of Darwin and tried to shove them back in, but with little success.
More people filtered in at various stops and I looked around at everyone, giving them the up and down, taking it all in – a habit that not even London tube travel had managed to coax out of me. I kept thinking of how I was going to get away with impersonating a bona fide tourist. The bus I was on was a type of tour for the more serious tourist, the less serious backpacker – I wouldn’t exactly call it roughing it. I felt like an imposter trying to hide the dirt under my fingernails, the hoofy soles of my feet, my shrunken and holey t-shirt, disheveled hair and makeshift bottle filled with (whisper) t-a-p w-a-t-e-r!
Over the next 5 days, it became clear to everyone, but Dave the driver, that we were dealing with a ‘tough crowd’. Dave chatted away brightly as if he had not muttered those very same words a million times before. He seemed oblivious to the blank unenthusiastic stares of his new flock, but for 5 days we trundled on through cattle ranches of which some were over 14,000km/sq – bigger than Belgium! I befriended Donald, a young Canadian with an old man’s perspective on life; he appeared to be the only real traveller, evident by his well-ventilated and worn shorts and ‘self-washing’ hair. We stopped at a few out of way places where the local folk chewed and spat tobacco, stepped over tumble-weed and pulled their Stetsons a little lower over their sweating brows as they looked at us out of the corner of their eyes. Well, not quite that bad, but very close…
The Road MORE Travelled – the East Coast
We ended our trip in Cairns with a pizza evening that made me feel normal again. We also came out way on top when one of the passengers turned out to be the owner of a well-known travel company on the East Coast. He gave us free internet, bought us a meal and beer, gave us discounts on travel booked through him, and also a free canoeing trip. We followed up the pizza with the Woolshed – a well-known backpacker’s meat market. Their slogan is something like, “If you can’t pull at the shed, you can’t pull anywhere!” So a real classy establishment, as you can imagine…
Most of the nights that followed in Cairns went something like this, with just a change of people and venue. The second night was at the Sports Bar with BoJo the Kiwi fisherman, Jon the English accountant, Donald the dropout student from Canadia, Bjorn the Dutch economist. The night thereafter was at PJ O’Briens pub with Eva, the Dutch girl with the strong Irish accent I first hooked up with in Sydney and all the Irish girls you could rustle up in a 10km radius. On the night of my diving the Great Barrier Reef, I was dragged all over Cairns by my Brummie dive-buddy Pete, and his brother Dave.
With all this hectic nightlife a lot of backpackers don’t find much time for anything else. But I managed to drag myself out to the reef – that is after all what this place is famous for. The weather over the days leading up to my dive had been really bad and so people were staying away, which meant that a boat usually filled with about 50 divers had only 4! We ended up having the undivided attention of our dive master, who decided that we could pretty much go out and do our own thing and check in when we could no longer breathe for lack of oxygen! It was the perfect day out for diving and I saw Trevalli for the first time, a huge silver fish that likes to dark in and out in front of your face whilst you dive. But no sharks yet.
After this I headed up to Cape Tribulation, which is a huge rainforested area up the coast north of Cairns. Beautiful white sandy beaches, mangroves and long winding walks in the middle of nowhere, which you have to time correctly with the tides or you would be swimming home!
Since Cairns I have been bombing it down the East Coast – the road MORE travelled. It has been overcast and rainy for the most part. I have been trying to avoid the typical 19-year-old drunken English backpacker scene, but it’s an almost impossible feat because, like ‘Chicken Man’, they are EVERYWHERE! If I make it to Sydney unscathed – you will hear more on this – but right now I have a bus to catch!