One of the best things I did in Australia wasn't planned. Well, part of it was planned, but it wasn't meticulously prepared and researched in the way that other elements of the trip were and I didn't expect it to last as long as it did.
I'm talking about the road trip.
We picked up a hire car the day of arrival in Oz and that optimistically white Toyota Corolla took us down the east coast of Australia from Surfer's Paradise to Melbourne with a number of stops on the way. Of course, in Australian terms this is no great distance. But in British terms this was a fairly epic road trip, which allowed me to see much more of NewMan's home country than if we'd relied on planes and trains. After driving from Surfer's to Brisbane to Byron Bay to Coffs Harbour to Sydney, I'd got the bug and not just because of the scenery and fairly awesome playlists I knocked together, but because I felt myself getting know the country, or at least one corner of the massive country, a little better.
Along the way it was NewMan's mission to find a "servo" (service station) cafe that smelt of grease and vomit. And then we had to look out for the Big Prawn and the Big Banana, and all the while with a pack of all-Australian lollies from The Natural Confectionery Company on our lap which I fed to NewMan as he drove.
From Sydney we drove north to NSW's Central Coast and took an overnight trip to Hunter Valley. I know we wouldn't have bothered doing this had we not had the car, which we had planned to return in Sydney and catch a flight down to Melbourne. However, after discussing it with a handful of experienced Aussie road-trippers and finding out about some great places to stop on the way down, we extended our rental agreement and hit the scenic Grand Pacific Drive stopping in Jervis Bay, Eden and Lakes Entrance on the way. It was also a special way to approach Melbourne, on the road and through its suburbs.
NewMan and I shared the driving, albeit after a lecture from him about the different rules on Aussie roads. Having learnt to drive in London and spent many years ferrying myself across both the UK and parts of Europe and USA in a car, I was very quick to roll my eyes and brush off the advice he gave before I'd even readjusted the drivers' seat. Yet I actually should have listened because there are some differences on the road in Oz. The main one being that they, well, most of them, drive very well. They are law-abiding, safe and cautious drivers with only a few maniacs weaving in between them. I'm embarrassed to say that law-abiding drivers are the exception to the rule in UK. I quickly learnt that I would do much better to stick to the speed limit at all times, give cars plenty of space (because that's what they allowed me) and always indicate at roundabouts/junctions. Oh and never park on the wrong side of the road; you NEVER do that in Oz and don't even get me started on Melbourne's hook turns!
In typical-Bird style I became quite attached to our nippy little Corolla and named her Rizzo. When NewMan returned her to the hire company at Melbourne Airport before he left for Japan and we went our separate ways for three weeks I felt my heart sag a bit. I've always got emotionally attached to cars but I'm not about to dismiss why in particular I felt sad to wave goodbye to a four wheeled vehicle on this occasion. She was incremental in my getting to know Australia as well as I did.
Road trips have always been one of my most preferred ways to travel though in recent years I've been put off because of the obvious environmental impact and the frightening increases in fuel prices. I like the demands it makes of you; concentration on just a handful of key things, your own space to think (and sing) in, uninterrupted time on your own or maybe with someone you love and the promise of ever-changing surroundings. Admittedly, sometimes they may not change much on some days but even so you are outside, you are moving, you are travelling from one place to another. And should you have the steering wheel in your hand you are in control of your journey. When travelling sometimes this control is the greatest freedom of all...