We’ve just got to the end of the third country in our eight-country trip. All of them (apart from the US) are places that neither of us have been before. They’re also places without malaria risk, that need no vaccinations to visit, or that have extremes of temperature, to accommodate a small baby. We wanted to make it a new experience for both of us, so it didn’t feel like we were showing each other around.
For each one, I have a patchwork of expectations – colours, sounds, sights – for what that leg of our adventure will be like. These are put together from a variety of sources; TV shows, films, photos, postcards, advertisements and a smattering of stories from people who have actually been there.
Australia was going to be beach country. We were hiring a camper van and driving up the east coast. Bondi Beach, Surfer’s Paradise, The Gold Coast, all of these places I’d heard of, would be on our route. Blue sky and golden sand was my dominant expectation. I pictured us meandering up dusty coastal roads, the sea glittering to the east. We’d stop at a campsite, let the baby roll around outside in the fresh air, and set up our picnic table and chairs. Our evenings would be spent under balmy skies, sipping cold beers and looking at the stars. During the day I would loll on the beach or jump in the waves, perhaps even do a bit of surfing, averaging about one ice cream per day. She would have her first experience of the sea, spend time on the beach and look adorable in her first swimwear. Basically, an extended episode of Home and Away, without Alf Stewart ruining everyone’s fun.
Not quite the beach views I was hoping for
This was not quite how it turned out. Even though we were visiting in Autumn, the average temperatures and rainfall are pretty much like a great summer in the UK. However, this particular month turned out a little different. A freak storm in New South Wales that caused a week of unending downpours meant that we skipped out way out of there a lot quicker than planned, completely missing Hunter’s Valley and heading straight for the Sunshine State. Or not.
On arrival in Queensland, we encountered several cyclones which meant we were stuck with more wet, windy and generally unpleasant weather. While the temperature wasn’t exactly cold, it certainly wasn’t beach weather. We didn’t even bother stopping in Byron Bay, Airlie Beach or many other beach destinations because there simply wasn’t any point – fancy sitting on the sand watching a grey sea with your coat on to shield the stinging sand? No thanks.
The locals didn’t mind the rain
There were also certain things I expected from travelling with a small baby. Look at Instagram, and life on the road is one dazzling sunset after another, followed by majestic scenery and cute photos of your kids doing fun holiday activities. Your evenings are spent on rooftop bars while your darling is snuggled up safely in bed. Sure, you have to slow your pace down with a little one, they said, but it’s more enjoyable to see more of a place than rushing through at breakneck speed.
While this is definitely true, what they miss out is that you also see a lot less of it as well. Where are the pictures of people dragging themselves out of bed at 3am to soothe a screaming baby because they’re not used to where they’re sleeping, or the change in time zone has affected their sleep patterns? Of walking past bars where people are enjoying themselves and having cocktails because you have to be back in your room because it’s already past bedtime? Where are the images of a slippery concrete floor that you’re squatted down on, trying to change the nappy as quickly as you possibly can so none of their skin comes into contact with anything around them because there was nowhere else to go? Why are there no mentions of either sitting on a bench in the cold trying to get your boob out under four layers of clothing, or trying to scrape sand off your nipple on the beach before feeding your baby? I’m not knocking the experience, but there are definitely things that make it challenging at times.
The rain made the waterfalls pretty impressive
So what happens when your expectations receive a jolt? I think this experience has certainly helped me to live in the moment more. We’d read about the great snorkelling on Magnetic Island. With a rare break in the weather (it was only supposed to drizzle that day) we thought we’d timed our arrival in Townsville perfectly. After a night at a campsite, we drove down to the docks, paid for a day’s parking and our ferry tickets. Having arrived, we went to the bakery to get some lunch, got a snorkel map from one of the local shops and walked for a good forty minutes down to the starting point. One of us had the baby, the other had the bag, with all of the stuff for her, for swimming, snorkelling, and food and water (I’m going to have amazing back and shoulder muscles when I get home).
I splashed into the water, camera in one hand (bought specially for underwater photos) and card in the other (it told you where to swim and showed you what fish and coral you would see). It was a little chilly, but not too bad. Eager to get my first glimpse, I ducked my head under. It was like soup. When I swam, I couldn’t even see my hand when my arm was fully extended.
Pretty cliffs but no snorkelling!
That was it. We were only in Townsville for a couple of days, our only chance to see the splendour of the seas was wasted. When I got back to the beach, I sat on my towel and took my phone out. It was 3:10pm. If I were at home, and at work, I’d be getting to the end of a long teaching day, with the prospect of planning, marking, meetings or admin to look forward to. If I were still on maternity leave, I might be hanging some washing out, emptying the dishwasher, doing an online shop. Sure, the sky and the sea were grey, but I was still sat on an island off the coast of Australia. It was warm enough for shorts and a T-shirt. A crowd of black cockatoos were squawking in the tree next to us, and on the way to the beach we’d seen a rare blue kookaburra flash her tail at us as she flew past. It ended up being one of my favourite days. We weren’t going on a hike, or travelling great distances, or seeing much that was new, but we were just sitting, together, enjoying each other’s company.
As for Australia, I think it made it more interesting that we didn’t get what we were hoping for. No, my tan is not as dark as I would hope, and there was very little beach time. But we’ve seen more wildlife than I was expecting. We stayed in national parks rather than beachfronts, which meant we saw rainforests, rivers, so much greenery. I will remember it as a place of greenery, of rolling hills and of wide pains, rather than somewhere to splash in the sea. I rather like that I got to see that part of it.
Not the scenery I was expecting, but still beautiful
Also, in the middle of the worst rain we saw while we there, we saw something truly magical. We had planned to head to Eungella National Park to try and see a rather rare species. On the way, the weather went from bad to worse. We could barely see as we climbed our way up a steep mountain pass in the pouring rain. What should have been small gullies and trickles of water were raging torrents as we squeaked past, engine straining. You could see places where the rain had washed some of the mountainside away.
First stop was supposed to be Finch Hatton Gorge, for lunch. When we got to the way across we were greeted with not a road, but an impassable torrent. The marker closest to us showed that the water was at least on metre deep.
This is, in fact, a road.
Back to the van, we wound our way up to where we were camping. A bush site, with just some toilets. We parked in the mud, peering into the river in the hope of seeing what we were looking for. The river was brown and full of debris, the level clearly raised. All we could see was the splashing of more rain drops and bits of tree whooshing past us.
We did attempt a rainforest walk. After a certain point, you can’t get any wetter, and we might as well enjoy the place. However, after just a short stroll we noticed little brown creatures working their way up our legs – leeches.
We went back to the van. Even after flicking most of them off our shoes with sticks, we still found them on the soles of our feet, trying to climb out of the rubbish bag we put them in. We spent a soggy afternoon sat in the van playing cards, scratching at our legs at the memory of the little mouths sucking there.
The morning was dull but at least the rain had stopped. The river was high, but much slower than yesterday. She woke us up very early, so we figured we might as well hang around for a bit and go and look at the river.
A tiny splash, and there it was. If you weren’t looking for it, you could think it was a bit of log or a leaf. This little brown shape, difficult to tell which end was its head and which was its tail. It hung on the surface of the water, flippers splayed. With a quick flick, it turned and dived back under. A platypus.
Seen from a distance
That morning we spent over an hour walking around the different viewing stations at Eungella. Altogether we saw six platypuses diving for their breakfast. A pretty amazing experience that was definitely worth the leech and rain-sodden day before.
And then it got closer!
I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to constantly feeling tired, or that I don’t sometimes envy those people who stay up late chatting and enjoying themselves outside their tents and camper vans while I try to get as much sleep as possible before she wakes up. Those hikers who trot off with minuscule rucksacks that don’t have wee-sodden nappies in them and the huge amount of water I need to keep my breast milk going.
It’s both everything and nothing like I thought it would be.