A Getaway to Forster: The Camper Van Life

Location: Forster, New South Wales, Australia

Price: $11 Goon Sack

Trailer parks in the United States have a bit of a dirty reputation, but Australia’s holiday parks foster a completely different style of camper van vacation. Grandparents, cousins, stepbrothers, and toddlers all pile into caravans with their swimmers, thongs, eskys (read: coolers) of boxed wine and beers, sunnies, and heaps of SPF 30. Then they drive down to one of the many mini-paradises along Australia’s coastline, park their cars and campers, and set up for anywhere from a week to a few months of fun-in-the-sun. 

Forster, New South Wales is home to one of these many home-away-from-homes. I was invited by my friend, Courtney, to join her on a getaway to her aunt and uncle’s camper. Before we left, she warned me we would be drinking our way through the entire trip. So we loaded up the car with cheap sparkling wine and made the hour and a half drive from Newcastle to Tuncurry Beach Holiday Park.

On arrival we transformed from responsible, respectable (I use that term loosely) adults into lazy teenagers basking in a summer vacation: our days revolved around swimming in the deep, murky waters of the rock pool, chasing down Mr. Whippy (the ice cream truck that tours the park every twilight) for a drippy, creamy helping of soft serve, watching dolphins play in the harbor, taking Bloody Mary oyster shots at the nearby pub, and wandering around barefoot, trying our hardest not to spill our drinks. Time and dates faded away into carefree bliss; our only measure of our days was the distance to the fish fry, an annual event hosted by Courtney’s grandparents and attended by 10-15 family friends. It’s BYOB and every guest contributes a light side dish to complement the main course: freshly caught, filleted, crumbled, and lightly fried whiting and bream. The best part of it is that everyone is involved. Over the course of several weeks, one family catches the worms for bait, and another catches the fish, and then another cooks them for everyone.

One morning we joined a family for a lesson in worming. It was a muggy day, but the beach was hazy, cool. The surf was rough, and waves crashed hard against the pale sand. We followed Brian, an expert wormer, to the shoreline. He dragged behind him a dead mullet (read: the fish, not the hairdo) with a rope knotted through the spot where its eyes had once been.

One of his grandchildren trailed behind, dug her fingers into the sand and pulled out a mollusk, which she repeatedly smashed against a rock until the shell broke. She tore into it with tiny fingers, ripped out the orange meat inside, and handed it to Brian. He held it in one palm, his other twisted around the mullet rope.

He stood silently where the waves met the sand, staring calmly at the white, foaming break. The frigid water splashed up over his toes but he didn’t wince. His eyes searched the ground around him. Then, in a strange, slow, graceful dance, he began swinging the mullet in loops across the sand. After a minute, he tugged the fish back and we saw the smallest movement by his feet, barely visible unless you were right above it; a worm wiggling its way to the surface and reaching out with teeny bared claws. Brian held the mollusk out to the worm and as it latched on, he tugged upward, exposing more of the slimy creature’s red, tube-like body. He grabbed it between his index finger and thumb, lifted the worm out of the sand, and tossed it in a plastic, yellow sandcastle bucket. We all cheered. 

The afternoon of the fish fry we pushed together several tables beside Courtney’s grandparents’ trailer and dragged over a stack of foldable chairs. We lined the tables with thick, waterproof cloths and set out plastic champagne flutes at the seats nearest our esky of wine. Behind our chatter you could hear birds chirping, waves breaking against the rock walls in the harbor, and hot oil bubbling in the frier on the patio. We sat in front of paper plates piled high with fish and chips and ate and drank under the sun. 

A Gander through the Flecker Botanical Gardens

Location: Cairns, Queensland, Australia

Price: Free! 

On a Scale of 1-to-10: It's a solid 7. You get to wander through the pristine wildlife collection unbothered by any staff, but much of it is currently under construction. There are also pretty annoying gnats in the wetlands areas, so make sure you wear bug repellent! 

A Week in Cairns


Location: Airbnb in Cairns, Queensland

Music: the sweet humming of the air conditioner we rented for $3 a night

I was told by my Australian friends that Cairns (pronounced “Cans”) was a shithole. I think now that they were just mad at us for leaving. Anyway, that was all I knew about this tourist haven in northern Queensland before Cody and I arrived the afternoon of January 5. I imagined it as a teeny-tiny, quiet town, whose only purpose was to serve as an easy access portal to The Great Barrier Reef. That’s why I came, anyway — to see the seventh natural wonder of the world before it was inevitably despoiled by climate change, the way so many other reefs have been in the last two decades. 

Now that I’ve been to Cairns, I don’t think I’d come back just for the city itself, but it’s definitely more than a simple gateway. It is pretty small, physically. It has a population about the size of Rockford, Illinois (another small town you’ve never heard of), and all downtown spans only a few long, colorful blocks. Walking down one of those you can hear a dozen different languages spoken by visitors from all over the globe. The layout is definitively touristy— strips of surf-wear shops, hostels, travel agencies with good-looking young people out front trying to lure you into a pitch, hippie textile stores, trendy bars, and Asian restaurants. 

But it serves its purpose, and some might say it’s the right kind of touristy. There’s still a lot of personality peeking through the gimmicky surface. There are jungle gyms and skate parks all throughout the center of town, grassy areas for picnics along the esplanade, benches for romantic moments staring out over croc-infested waters, a sandy beach volleyball area, and even an indoor marketplace that only opens at night with a self-serve Asian food court (like 10 Chinese buffets put together). The streets are lined with tropical trees and the creatures that inhabit them; there are five-story tall figs with huge bats hanging where all the fruit should be, doves coo at you from nests in thick branches coated in moss, and the subdued greens of the pines by the water are brightened by rainbow-patterned parrots. There’s also a huge mall at the edge of downtown: The Cairns Central Shopping Center. It’s probably the biggest building in the area (like most Australian malls) and it’s always bustling with shoppers. They might all just be there for the free air conditioning.

Cairns doesn’t have a beach on its coastline: just a gritty, brown-gray mudflat that stretches out below the boardwalk platform until it reaches the calm, murky waters of the bay. Interestingly enough, it once had a very typical Australian shoreline (cerulean waters, sand the color of old paper), but that disappeared after a hundred years of dredging the harbor.* There’s also dangerous wildlife around, like crocodiles, jellyfish and poisonous snakes, that keep tourists and locals out of the ocean. As an alternative, Cairns has a manmade, ice blue saltwater lagoon. It’s about as picturesque as it gets. The water is shallow, the bottom is covered in ivory sand, and it overlooks the nonexistent beach, the nearby marina, and the lush mountainsides that are visible from every point in the city. Children splash around while parents rest nearby on the grass under the shade of palm trees, already looking exhausted from their vacations. 

My favorite part so far has to be the sprawling Asian night markets. The steel security screen doors roll up at 4:30PM, seven days a week, and the stalls underneath stay open until around 11PM. There are plenty of entertaining knick knacks to enjoy, from kangaroo scrotum bottle openers to classic Crocodile Dundee-style hats to Emu jerky. I’ve been to a lot of touristy places in Australia, but this was the first spot I found with kangaroo pelts for sale. There’s also fresh fruit, stalls where you can get your name written on a grain of rice and put into a necklace, and two halls dedicated to Chinese and Thai style massages. It’s a fun place to just wander around in, take a break from the muggy air outside, and have a laugh at all the kitschy stuff. 

But if you leave the inner city and visit any of the surrounding suburbs, you can see why property prices are so low. There’s not a lot going on; just empty highways that lead into the mountains, crocodile-infested rivers, and long blocks of half-abandoned strip malls. On Friday night, Cody and I ate at a highly rated Thai restaurant within walking distance of the CBD and we saw only six other patrons throughout our meal. The neighborhood we wandered through on our way back to the inner city was completely silent; no other pedestrians and barely any passing cars. I was surprised. It’s the middle of Australia’s summer. You’d think this place would be teeming with tourists. But if so, nobody goes further than the mall. All the vacation stuff is packed into the waterfront. But I wonder if that actually benefits Cairns residents, whose economy revolves around the tourism but whose day to day lives don’t have to involve the hassles that usually come with it.

Overall, Cairns is different from any other Australian city I’ve visited. It’s a lot more international (which of course comes with hosting a famous tourist destination) than most cities its size and its downtown is manufactured for vacationers. It’s close to the marina where all the yachts take off for The Great Barrier Reef, there is plenty of people watching to do, and anything you need for your vacation can be bought at the mall. I recommend it for anyone interested in four to five days of an exotic (but not too exotic) vacation. However, would I live in this tropical city? Probably not.

* As a side note, the city has talked about replacing the original beach, but environmentalists protest that the mudflats have improved the health of the area’s mangrove ecosystem and existed long enough to become home to thousands of marine creatures. They say that transforming the beach back to its original state would be “environmental vandalism.” It’s a unique debate about the ethics of artificial ecosystems. http://www.cairnsesplanade.com/story.html

Travel Tips: 

  • Airbnb is an awesome way to find cheap accommodations, but always check the reviews for any potential spots before you rent! Make sure you’re not actually just staying in a hostel that’s been falsely advertised as a private room in a home. 
  • What’s the point of saving money if you never treat yourself? When the time is right, splurge. Budgeting is key to any lengthy backpacking trip, but there are certain experiences where you get what you pay for. When you’re visiting something particularly unique, like The Great Barrier Reef, don’t let penny pinching get in the way of an incredible memory. Do a dive, pay for the boat with the highest rating, get the most out of your adventure.
  • If you’re going to visit somewhere as unique and complex as The Great Barrier Reef, your experience is probably going to be awesome no matter what. However, if you get the chance to take a background class or short lecture about it beforehand, it’ll enhance your experience by a tenfold. There’s a reason marine biologists from all over the world are fascinated by this place, and they’re happy to let you in on the secret. 
 

The DL


                                                                                                                                                                                           © Cassia Reynolds

                                                                                                                                                                                           © Cassia Reynolds

Location: Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, en route to Cairns, Queensland

Music: “Dare” by Gorillaz 

I’m en route to the next phase in my adventure: a semi-indefinite backpacking trip that begins with The Great Barrier Reef and continues across Southeast Asia. I am currently stuffed between Cody and a man who has managed to sleep for over 11 hours thus far on this 15 hour plane ride and I can’t express how jealous I am of his superhuman ability to tune out the world and rest. Due to my own insomnia, I’ve had time to document a few basics for my coming trip. 

First, here are my goals for the next three to six months (or however long this trip ends up being):

  1. To find out how far I can go on as little money as possible. I’ve heard it costs ~$1,000 a month to travel around most countries in Southeast Asia and I will be testing that theory and keeping this blog updated with those details. 
  2. To create a comprehensive photographic piece about at least 2-3 of the countries I visit (and of course sharing them here). 
  3. To find the most delectable, spicy eats, and rate them on a scale of 1-10.
  4. To create a definitive list of travel tips for budgeting backpackers looking for similar adventures (some silly, some serious, and some just plain helpful).

Second, my current itinerary:

  • January 3: Fly from Los Angeles, California to Cairns, Queensland (18 hours of flying + a 4 hour layover in Sydney)
  • January 5: Land in Cairns (yes, I am missing all of January 4)
  • January 12: Fly back to Sydney, take train from Sydney to Newcastle (~3 hours)
  • January 13-15: Overnight trip to Fosters to get in one last glimpse of Australian wildlife before leaving the country
  • January 17: Fly to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
  • March/April (?): Fly to South Korea then travel to Japan 

That’s the full itinerary so far! Seriously. I’m keeping it all very loose. Between January and March/April, I have vague plans to visit the following countries: Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and possibly Sri Lanka. I also won’t be booking accommodation very far ahead of time (probably 12-48 hours at most). I’ll keep you as updated as possible (of course, you never know what’ll happen).

Third, a list of all the belongings I’ve brought with me on this adventure: 

Clothing:

  • 8 tank tops
  • 2 t-shirts
  • 1 shawl
  • 3 pairs shorts
  • 1 skirt
  • 1 pair leggings
  • 1 pair lightweight temple pants
  • 1 pair running pants
  • 1 pair jeans
  • 3 short dresses
  • 1 maxi dress
  • 10 pairs underwear
  • 7 pairs socks
  • 3 bras
  • 1 sports bra
  • 1 pair running/hiking sneakers
  • 1 pair Converses
  • 1 pair walking sandals
  • 1 pair flip flops

Electronics:

  • 1 hard drive
  • 1 laptop
  • 1DSLR camera
  • 1 Kindle
  • 1 smartphone
  • 1 SD card reader

Other:

  • 1 35-liter backpack
  • 1 camera pack (xs) 
  • 1 day trip backpack
  • 1 journal
  • 1 mechanical pencil (Sorry Mrs. Davis, I accidentally stole it from your kitchen collection!)
  • 2 pens
  • 1 book (Fear, by Gabriel Chevallier)
  • Assorted toiletries (toothbrush, lotion, cleanser, extra contact lenses, etc) 

Voila!

 

The Preface


A map of my road trip from January 26-March 1                                                                                                    © Cassia Reynolds

This past year I had the pleasure of buying a one-way flight to a country I’d never before visited. I hadn’t booked any shelter, didn’t know a soul where I was going (except for my also-American boyfriend, Cody), and was dedicated to the notion of ‘winging it’ in the purest sense. As terrifying as it was to take such a risk and snub my general life security, I couldn’t resist the oh-so-Indiana-Jones-esque charms of adventure (cue theme song). It was a clammy-palms, stomach-clenching, tingly rush that I can only compare to that moment right before the big drop on a roller coaster ride— especially since, in my case, it was soon followed by the exuberance that flows through you when you realize you’ve survived. It was an explosion of feeling, an exhilarating reminder that I was alive. 

The ticket bought my passage to Australia, and set in motion a fantasy I’d dwelled on for over three years, one that had begun solely as a rainy day daydream. I first learned about Australia’s Working Holiday Visa from a girl working behind the counter of an Australian cafe on Manhattan’s famous St. Mark’s Place, Tuck Shop. She’d just arrived back from her trip and was bursting with tales to tell. I’d always imagined myself living abroad after I finished college and as she explained how easy it was to apply for the visa, I thought that it was a cool opportunity, but nothing more. I was only a sophomore in college and the real world seemed far, far away. Now, the three years since feel like nothing. One moment I was nervously spell-checking my first journalism essay and the next I was sitting at NYU’s graduation ceremony in Yankee Stadium, my purple robe sticking to me in the heat and my dirty Converses propped up on the metal bar in front of me because I was too cool to be there. And all that time Australia was floating patiently in my mind. 

I spent the summer before my senior year of college all the way through my first seven months in the real world working to save money for the trip. In the beginning I hadn’t realized what it was just yet, but the feeling, the one that I wanted to do something crazy before I dove headlong into my post-college career, kept growing stronger. It honed in on Australia the summer after I graduated, and soon my plans took on a more solid shape in my mind.

I’ll never forget the chill in my fingertips as they hovered over the yellow “CONFIRM” button on Expedia. Or the warmth that flowed through me after I clicked it— that soft, bubbly, comforting knowledge (one so coveted by recent college graduates facing the unknown) that I was finally doing something for myself (and not my parents, professors, or employers) and I couldn't back down. I said to myself, like my mom the first time she saw my tattoo, “What's done is done”— without the disappointed overtones, of course. Over the next few months, Cody and I attempted to prepare for, well, we didn’t really know what. 

We each stuffed two suitcases with jackets, swim suits, hiking boots, antihistamines, electronics, and an old tent we had bought for a music festival a few years back. He brought an entire suitcase dedicated to shoes, and I couldn’t bear to leave behind any of my heavy camera equipment. It was overkill, we knew that, but we were unsure and afraid of leaving something important behind. 

It turned out that the cheapest way to fly to Australia was through Fiji, and we ended up taking a four-day layover there. Tragic, I know. On the initial eleven-hour flight to Nadi, I asked Cody if he knew anyone that had ever been to Fiji. I didn’t. When he told me he didn’t either, the trip felt even more surreal. How, in this twenty-first century, globalized world, did we not know a soul that had been to Fiji, not know a thing about it? We had no expectations; we were so focused on Australia, we hadn’t looked up anything about the islands beforehand. When we landed and the muggy heat soaked into our skin, I could feel nothing but excitement. Anything could be ahead of us — we had no schedule, no rules. Just four days in paradise. And, to make a long story short, that’s exactly what it was.

Natandola Beach, Fiji.                                                                                                                                                   © Cassia Reynolds

Our stay in Australia officially began the moment the Melbourne International Airport customs official stamped our passports, his glazed expression the opposite of the feverish enthusiasm in my wide eyes. The black smudge of ink read 25 Jan 2014, and it meant we had to leave the country in exactly one year or risk deportation. Our first destination was Gold Coast, Queensland, another flight away. We’d chosen to start in Gold Coast based off of a single Google Images search. (FYI, not the best way to pick out your future home.) The beaches had white sand and crystal blue water, and after living in New York for five years, that did it for me. But Gold Coast was, to put it bluntly, a little trashy. 

We lasted a week in club-coated, party-oriented Surfer’s Paradise before diving into something completely different: a spontaneous, month-long, cross-country camper van road trip. Our only guide was my Kindle copy of Lonely Planet: Australia and the recommendations of those we met along the way. We would pick a place a few hours’ drive away, stay a few days, and then as we packed up our stuff and checked out of the holiday park, I would pull up my Kindle and scan until I found somewhere else that sounded interesting. We never booked a place to stay more than a day ahead of time, and mostly ended up calling for accommodation the afternoon we arrived.

Cooking breakfast in the camper.                                                                                                            Photo Credit: Cody Davis

Cooking breakfast in the camper.                                                                                                            Photo Credit: Cody Davis

That month was an adventure that I couldn’t compare to any other life experiences. We explored caves where bushrangers hid in the late 1800s outside Bathurst, watched millions of bats migrate over Port Macquarie at sunset while we ate the best fish and chips of our lives, stayed up past sunrise in Sydney bar-hopping in the alternative (read: gays and punks) district, played with kangaroos and saw wild koalas at Kenneth River, and took The Great Ocean Road all the way to edge of Victoria, where we wandered around in rainforests with ferns as large as SUVs and tree trunks as wide as a highway lane. 

There were hiccups, of course. During the first week of our trip, our original camper van broke down on the side of the highway. We were stranded in the middle of nowhere and towed to the nearest town, a tiny, eerily quiet place named Woolgoolga (pronounced Wuh-GAL-gah). We spent two nights in an auto shop parking lot without running water or electricity. We showered down at the public restrooms on the seaweed strewn, empty beach and spent our days drinking at the lone local pub, which had a bouncy castle to keep the kids entertained while their parents got plastered. None of it was too bad though— just a detour on a loose travel plan.

Within the first two months, we’d lost a laptop, a smartphone, and a wallet (including all the identification documents and credit cards inside). The latter two items were victims of a tragic canoeing accident outside Newcastle— we floundered around for over an hour trying to fish them out of the brown-black, brackish waters of the Hunter Valley Wetlands, which an employee of the park merrily informed us— from the shore— was infested with poisonous snakes and bull sharks. We had to adapt after that. Things broke, shit got stressful, but you couldn’t let it ruin your experience. 

When we finally settled down, it was in one of the places we’d visited: Newcastle, New South Wales. It’s a medium-sized city two hours north of Sydney, with a population close to Miami. It’s the kind of place where the people are proud to be from there, and they’ve renamed themselves “Novocastrians” just for the Hell of it. Some call it a “hidden gem,” mostly because nobody has ever heard of the gritty, ex-industrial wasteland turned surfer heaven, complete with abandoned housing developments turned hipster coffee bars and six, count ‘em, six postcard-esque beaches. It’s still the largest coal exporter in Australia, creating a strange mixed paradise. One of the main attractions downtown is a wharf lined with luxury apartments, overpriced bars, and contemporary-statue spotted parks. The view across the water is of four-story piles of coal and the rusty metal dinosaurs lifting it and pouring it into the beds of massive international carrier ships.

The lookout over Bar Beach and Merewether Beach, Newcastle                                                                       © Cassia Reynolds

It was in Newcastle that I met two of the most generous, important and genuinely open-minded people that would shape my experience in Australia: Debra and Geoff Payne. When Cody and I decided to move to Newy, we stayed at this couple’s Airbnb. They showed us around town and when we were unable to find an apartment before our time with them was up, Debra’s cousin, Yvonne, allowed us to housesit for her for two weeks. It gave us exactly the time we needed to find a home and the jobs to pay for it. While I don’t doubt we would have found a way to get it together, those two weeks gave us a much-needed boost and showed us how kind people could be. 

During our time in Newy, we became tight with a close-knit group of Australians our age that were living a completely different lifestyle than our American counterparts. They were the ones that convinced us to join them on a semi-indefinite backpacking trip across Southeast Asia. They’d been doing these same kinds of trips every six to eight months for the past couple years. They never made concrete travel plans, just floated from country to country, exploring until their cash ran out. The minimum wage in Australia is $18.50, but most jobs pay at least $22 an hour, and the standard of living in most places is about the same as it is in medium-sized cities in the USA. So it isn't difficult to save a ton of money for travel (it's actually pretty easy if you budget). So Cody and I began saving again, this time for a different type of adventure; the kind where it would just continue until it couldn’t anymore.

I cannot stress how accomplished I felt every time I came home to my apartment in Newcastle and saw all my secondhand furniture and cooked myself another helping of fried rice. How genuinely good it felt to hang out with new friends, to try to learn to surf, and to ride my bike to work every day. How special it was being able to explore a new city and a new culture at the same time. We lived in Newcastle from April to December, when an unexpected family emergency brought us back to the USA to spend Christmas with my boyfriend’s family.

At the risk of sounding completely cliche, I have to mention the three most important lessons I’ve learned in the past year. The first is that everything will work out. Whatever happens, you figure out your next step and move forward. There are just some things you can’t control when you travel, and there’s no point to fretting over them. The second is that there are good people everywhere and if you are genuinely kind to others, that kindness will be returned time and time again. The third is to pack light. Lugging two heavy suitcases of clothing, electronics, etc is stressful and not-fun in every way. Take less, need less.

With that being said, welcome to the adventure!

XOCASSIA