Stay in the Sticks

Sydney, Australia Hey Boss:

I knew that in order to get my head right and tight down under this rock, I had to stay clear of the cities and concentrate my efforts on the small towns. I’m talking hamlets like Gin Gin, Bil Bil, Yeppon, win the hearts and minds of the populace, as the saying goes.

Out in these cattle stations you can find a radio station that isn’t hollering about Dr. Haneef, Lindsay Lohan or Australian Idol. The a.m. radio flips to the rural news, the big story about how Tim O’Leary whupped all 65 contestants who showed up to challenge his dominance at the World Sport Shearing Competition (that’s sheep shearing, fyi) and how Duchess the cow has set a new record for producing a whopping 80 litres of milk in one single day. Information like that can make you start feeling like maybe you are in a different country. Eat a few meat pies, drink a few Toohey’s New lagers with the kangaroo hunters (they sell the spotlights in the same case as the ammo in most stores) and talk about what shite the local Aussie Rules Football team is and how the Labour candidate got caught playing bingo at a fundraiser for a Greenie. That’s the stuff I couldn’t find in Melbourne or Brisbane.

And after my initial set-back with the tourists up at Airlie Beach, I made the decision that I’d somehow get out to take a look at that reef. Since you told me I had to make this whole trip without the use of any Lonely Planet or Frommer’s guidebooks (those were your instructions, right?) I made the obvious connections of reef to water, water to boat, boat to boatyard and ended up at the Yeppon Ferry terminal. They were just boarding a jitney out to the Grand Island Resort and a nice lady in a funny hat asked if I was checking in. Why not? A half hour later, they beached the ferry right on the wide sand spit and, as the legitimate resort guests filed off the gangplank to speak with the sports in their Havana Joe uniforms, I split wide and headed for the closest snorkel cabana.

“Are you checked in yet?” the girl asked.

Long flight, I explained, gotta get in the water. Registration can wait. Gave her the name “Lindsay” and headed for the closest trail into the shrubs while the girl was still flipping through her clipboard papers. A half hour later I was slipping and falling down a bad path to a deserted cove. I stripped to my boxers and started splashing out to the reef. Not bad, I thought, as I watched the neon fish darting around me and the coral breathing like the first nice moments of an acid trip, a whole reef to myself.

Then I made the other journalistic connections of reef to fish, fish to sharks, Australia to Great White Sharks and got my ass back to the shore pronto. Having a slice of the Barrier Reef to yourself is great until your upper torso floats ashore and the cabana girl is claiming that you’re some guy named Lindsay. At any rate, I saw the reef, which I suppose is timely because the word is that the whole thing is “bleaching” and some sections on the northern end have gone snow white and smell like rotten seaweed. The cause, the experts say, is that the waters are getting too warm. Al Gore, come on down.

I sneaked around the resort for the next couple of hours, sampling the multiple swimming pools and free Internet, until the next landing craft arrived. I jumped aboard at the last moment after doing a run-by snorkel return, explaining to the girl that I had to head back to the mainland for the rest of my luggage. From Yeppon it was a short drive back to Rockville, my new favorite city in the southern hemisphere, for a good steak and more discussions with the disaffected youth. Yes, if you can manage to stay out of the big cities here, you might just start to feel like you’re in Australia.

As a final note on this country, I would like to compliment them not only on their outstanding pack journalism—they’d take the Gold Medal right out of Geraldo’s ass if they had an Olympic competition—but also on their crosswalk system. After the chaos of Vietnam, where it was every man for themself and God for us all, the streets down here are organized as hell. This may be the only country in the world where those Push Button to Cross buzzers actually work. Score one more for civilization. -- Tony Perez Giese