Rockhampton, Australia Tropic of Capricorn
I split the first two weeks in this country between Sydney and Melbourne, trying to erase the image of Foo the Saigon security guard and his red Thermos from my mind while also trying to locate the fabled Australian "spirit." This spirit was nowhere to be found in those two metropolises, as they have been folded nicely into our American concept of modernity. And, to tell you the truth, the cities were just too damn familiar with their 7-11s, Starbucks and McDonalds (they call them "McCafe's" here to reduce the stigma) on every block. I'd been told beforehand that Sydney is a lot like San Francisco, and Melbourne similar to Seattle with its weather and rock n' roll ethos, and those descriptions proved correct. Too much so. Sure the folks still talked funny and were as friendly as advertised, but I was weighed down by an overwhelming sense of being home...but not. And then you throw in the fact that the U.S dollar is at an eighteen-year low against the Aussie buck (which means to us non-economists that a bloody six pack of Tooheys New Lager cost US $14). When cashing in some travellers checks, the bank teller actually apologized for the terrible rate. It was starting to feel like I was paying through the nose to be homesick.
It was either chuck the whole caper and hop the next flight to New Zealand or get a rental car and drive north to search for this elusive Aussie spirit. I chose the latter. Armed with my yellow Hertz Hundai, I have put over 2,400 kms on the odometer, starting in Brisbane and making it all the way up the east coast to a tourist trap called Airlie Beach, where I had the misfortune of spending last night at a sold out "beachfront" Best Western, which might have had a nice view of the surf if there had not been a major sludge-dredging operation in progress. I should've know Airlie was a no-fly zone due to the simple fact that four different people told me I HAD to go up there. All of these folks worked at gas stations. The only voice of dissent was a young girl at a desolate roadhouse north of Mackay who told me that the place sucked.
"It's full of foreigners," she said as she poured me a draft.
I told her that I was a foreigner.
"Yeah, but you, like, speak English."
I should have listened to the girl. The only way to see this "resort" is from the deck of your private yacht anchored half a mile offshore as you lob 20mm artillery shells onto the roof of the McCafe. I heard there was something called the Great Barrier Reef a few clicks offshore, but I wasn't prepared to stick around long enough to confirm this rumor. Back into the Hyundai to tackle the Bruce Highway, southbound and down.
About the only thing that has conformed to my perception of Australia is the look of the vehicles. You know, I don't think they had to specially rig any of those stunt cars in The Road Warrior. Almost every car and truck (as well as the sinister-looking Subaru Brat/El Camino hybrid wagons that are all over the place) has a heavy-duty cattle guard on the front grille. The big rigs even have special wire-mesh screens across the lower half of their windshields. I inquired about this at a truckstop.
"It's so you can catch the 'Roos on the bounce, mate," the driver informed me like I was a moron.
And although I have yet to see one live kangaroo, there's a raven-picked carcass on the shoulder of the highway about every kilometer. They're like deer roadkill in West Texas. And Texas is why I've retraced my steps to Rockhampton. This town lies right on the Tropic of Capricorn about 20 kms inland and was once one of Australia's major cattle and gold centers. I stopped here my second day out of Brisbane and liked the feel of it right away, partly because my senses were prepped by an hour listening to KIX-FM, home of "The Best Country In the World." That's what I saw on the billboard on the way up, and I tuned the stereo to the frequency with scorn at such an outlandish claim only to get smacked right off the bat by Dolly Parton chirping "Coat of Many Colors," followed by some Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Peggy Lee and goddamn Kenny Rogers. So when I pulled into town, the entrance of which is marked by a huge bull sculpture, it didn't take much for me to think Last Picture Show; wide, lonely streets, a stagnant river cutting the town in half and colonial buildings dating back to the late 1800's. The only thing missing was a tumbleweed rolling down Main Street.
Now, you get on the other side of the river and see the scars of the global economy with KFCs and Shell gas stations and Domino's Pizza shops, but if you stay over here in Old Town, you might actually start feeling this aforementioned Australian Outback spirit.
And they also drink like banshees in this burgh, which is what I was expecting to see. Friday night in "Rocky" was not for the booze-intolerant.
I met quite a few kids that night and they were all drunk and 18 (the legal drinking age). Apparently every young person between the ages of 19 and 45 gets the hell out of town at the first opportunity. When I expressed my fondness for their hamlet, the kids went outside to have a group vomit on the sidewalk.
But despite their heavy-duty vehicles, I find the Australians to be much more tame than their public image. This, of course, is the cinematic curse, where by we think every Aussie is going to look and act like Paul "Crocodile Dundee" Hogan or Steve Irwin, and they in turn expect all of us yanks to be like Dirty Harry or Donald Trump. The funny thing I noticed on my long drives is how this country might have more safety road signs than any other in the world, and almost all of them are warnings about not dozing off behind the wheel. They have a dozen variations of this warning, but the best ones are:
"Rest or R.I.P"
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"Driver Fatigue Crash Zone" (with accompanying sketch of an 18-wheeler running over a sedan)
"Survive the Drive"
And my favorite, "Don't Sleep and Drive."
The frequency of these signs indicates that this is a nation of narcoleptics, not nasty crocodile wranglers. Hell, maybe that's why they all have front-end protection on their cars. But falling asleep at the wheel is hardly something you'd think Mad Max would have to worry about. -- Tony Perez-Giese