We all remember our first time backpacking. It happens at that magical age right between responsible adulthood and the confines of student existence, when we think we’re indestructible. Mine was no different.
My boyfriend back then, armed with waist length dreadlocks, and experience living remotely, convinced me in all my innocence and naivety to meet him in Port Douglas where he had pitched us a tent to live in for a few months. The plan was to work for next to nothing, save every penny, and spend it on a car that would double as a home in which we would drive down the East Coast, living the backpacker dream. With young love compelling me to agree to such conditions – What could possibly go wrong?
Our PLD (Pink Love Dome) was pitched thick into the rainforest, where we would wake drenched in sweat from the tropical climate and covered in dirt that was impossible to keep out. Mornings started with a routine ‘wake n bake’ to numb the effects of sleeping on the hard ground, followed by our total meal allocation for the day: a couple of WeetBix chucked into a sliced carton of milk fashioned into a bowl. We’d take turns sitting on the sacred plastic chair stolen from someone’s veranda one night during a drunken walk back to site, and affectionately dote over the bandicoot we’d claimed as our pet.
It didn’t take long before the princess in me started to come out. Perhaps a result of the painful rainforest bugs that feasted on my legs rendering me unable to wear shoes, or perhaps it was my lacking maturity for a lifestyle so far removed from my upbringing. Whatever the reason, princess combined with the PLD dying a slow death from the effects of mother nature, and poor bandicoot unable to survive a savage attack between our school mate and impact with a wooden object; it was time to move on.
Our hard earned savings afforded us a sweet set of wheels: a 1986 Holden Commodore station wagon, colour: moss green. Planning only a couple of months of ownership before returning to New Zealand, and in a bid to save a few bucks, we decided it a good idea to discard ownership papers, and instead drive as the poor bloke who had owned it before us. Little did we know this would be a move that dictated our return home.
I set to work fashioning curtains out of sarongs to provide privacy between the World and our mattress in the back, while Mr Dreadlocks strapped our life possessions to the roof, and masking taped the wind screen wipers to the “off” position. Off we went on our grand journey down the East Coast of Australia, to Sydney.
Perhaps other travellers recount Cape Tribulation as a pristine wonder where coastline meets rainforest in all kinds of glory. For us, a school mate, random polish girl, and a few tabs of acid, Cape Tribulation was a far different experience. Huddled around a single candle light in the pitch black of the forest, orchestrated by the rhythms of our only cassette tape on repeat, we spent the night fending off 2 metre long goannas with fishing rods and convincing our school mate that no matter how bad his trip was, we were unable to get him to hospital until the ferry crossing reopened in the morning. The tone was set for the rest of the trip.
Harvey Bay’s Urangan Pier was the site Mr Dreadlocks caught a giant endangered sea turtle on a Kmart fishing rod much to the dismay of local fisherman awaiting their big game. Mission Bay the place we made a new friend who was later escorted away in handcuffs never to be seen again. At Dreamworld we slept in the car park and bathed in the restrooms, and Byron Bay we assumed position among stoned hippies in drumming circles.
That sweet set of wheels, chaperoned us on many an adventure down the coastline that year, providing a time of complete liberation. Finally we made it to Sydney.
In stark contrast to the freedom we’d become accustomed to, Sydney was reminding us to be a compliant member of society once again. “Cash Toll Booth” is never a sign penniless backpackers want to read during rush hour traffic on the Harbour Bridge, and without the invention of car navigation systems, map reading was a skill I was yet to master. Looking for reprieve we tracked down an old school mate from years before, and enjoyed the luxury of a bed and shower under one roof. With a small window of luck on our side, I even managed to secure a respectable part time job in an upmarket retail store.
For a few weeks we spent time in Sydney enjoying music and clubs larger than we had seen before, making friends, and enjoying life. I relished in the rewards of income with which I could spend in the exciting stores Australia had to offer, and enjoyed building friendships with the colleagues at my new job. But our backpacker experience was drawing to a close, and it would soon be time to return home to NZ.
One morning it was raining heavily when Mr Dreadlocks drove me to work, and our sweet ride wasn’t a big fan of wet weather, which was demonstrated by a need to have the wipers fixed permanently to the off position. With the rain causing poor visibility, Mr Dreadlocks managed to drive our sweet set of wheels directly into an elderly lady who was crossing the road. After a mandatory ride to the police station, it wasn’t looking good. In the eyes of the law, a stolen car driven by hippies had run over a civilian. It was time to leave the country.
Armed with memories of living liberally, and feeling indestructible, that first backpacking experience became a chapter in time; A time after student living but right before responsible adulthood.