Monday, February 9, 2009

Port Macquarie Magic

The trains that traverse the east coast of Australia are quite slow: as I rode six hours up the coast toward Port Macquarie, I reflected more than once that we could have been easily outstripped by a car. Nevertheless, I napped, read the Bryson book, wrote a bit, and chatted with a British traveler named Ian who was heading to the same destination. Once, on the shuttle bus that took us from the train station to the coast, I thought I saw a group of grazing kangaroo.

I was met at the station by my couch surfing host, Chris, an ex-part Brit whose voice sounded exactly like Alan Rickman's (aka Snape in the Harry Potter films.) They must hail from the same area of the UK, and the timber was remarkably similar. Chris was barefoot when he hopped out of his car to help me load my things. That's how I knew this would be an experience.

There's something miraculous about arriving at a train station in a place you have never been and having someone there to call your name and take you away. And things only got better from there-- dedicated readers of this blog will recall the next bits, as I wrote about them in real time a few weeks back. On the way to his house, Chris ran me out to "The Lighthouse," a local landmark on the coast, to give me an idea of "where I was"--which, as it turned out, was a sunlit headland drenched in light mist and beaches stretching out below.

What a view

But before I could even register the beauty fully I was whisked back to the house, a lovely rambling one-level decorated with photos and artifacts from Chris' extensive travels in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cambodia. There were three girls waiting there with half-made dinner, two Germans from Munich, Tine and Lora, and a British girl. They plied me with wine and within a few minutes there was an incredibly delicious Malaysian-inspired stir fry on the table. We all ate ravenously. I couldn't remember when I had last eaten such a wholesome, solidly good meal--certainly before my week of meat pies and sausage rolls in Sydney. And vegetables! I was overcome with vegetables.

The feast

I was already in a state of surreal shock, a mix of red wine, benadryl (I was worried I might be allergic to Chris' cat, although it turned out I wasn't) and awe at the situation. Here I was, presented with an immediate place to stay and belong in a foreign city, complete with a dinner with people from the world over. And it was only to get better.

There were two more German girls arriving that night. Chris has his visitors coming by car meet him at the Lighthouse, so we went to wait and meet them. We brought a bottle of champagne and plastic flutes, and the breeze was just refreshing enough to require a sweatshirt as we watched the almost full moon come up over the vast Tasman Sea. The waves crashed on the rocks below and the moon danced behind the clouds, its light bouncing off the water. I kept laughing without meaning to. How does this kind of thing just... happen? I could only marvel.

I hadn't previously been sure how long I was to be in Port Macquarie. I knew I wanted to go to the Koala hospital, but that was about the extent of my To Do list. That night I found out that Tine and Lora were moving up the coast the next day in a rented van and I could save some money by going with them. It would mean sacrificing some time in this lovely house and exploring the beaches near the house, but I decided I was willing to do so, feeling a little reluctant but very money-conscious.

I had planned to wake up to listen to the birds waking up in the glen near Chris' house, an event he promised was worth the early start. As it turns out, I wasn't given a choice-- at 5 am, the sound of crazed laughter invaded my dreams. I woke thinking that the sound must have been a product of nightmare, that it couldn't be real, but then... there it was again. Kookaburras, which sound truly deranged, are always the first to start the bird symphony (or so said Chris), and they were soon joined by catbirds that sounded like they were purring or meowing, as well as a wide selection of clear whistles and caws. Following the bird chorus, I had a lovely breakfast and went with the British girl to collect eggs from the hens that live across the road, belonging to an Aussie professor who mostly works in US. Another sweetly surreal activity to add to the roster.

Collecting eggs

When we got back, however, things had taken a turn for the worse. Lora had been bitten by something, and her ankle was red and swollen. We called Chris, who hypothesized that the culprit was a painful but harmless black ant. But as a tourist you're told everything in Australia will kill you (and much of it will), and so I understood when they decided to go to the hospital.

One of the lessons I've started to learn from this trip is that regardless of what unexpected twist life throws at your when you're traveling, there is always the potential for something good to come of it. This time, for example, I was at first frustrated about the delay and worried about how it would affect the next few days, which were tightly planned (a selfish reaction to someone else being injured, but I'm trying to be honest here.) But I used the unexpected time to go on the first of a series of cliff walks leading into town through gorgeous, wild beaches, and it was wonderful. I walked with the other two German girls, and on the way we saw the morning culprit (a kookaburra), as well as some lime green lorikeets and a wild turkey. The beach was filled with mist, enormous boulders, and greenery. I sat under a large rock (the only shade), read a few chapters of Bryson, and relished the scene. The way back was even better, as I chanced upon a koala in a tree. It wasn't that interesting, as they sleep most of the day (and I couldn't get any good pictures of it), but it was suitably fuzzy and cute and I was gratified with another Australian Animal Sighting.

Kookaburra sits on the ol' telephone pole/merry merry king of the... I guess that doesn't work

The untamed beauty of Port Macquarie Beaches

The hospital had declared Lora to be perfectly fine, and so we got underway, first for a daytime stop at The Lighthouse and then to the koala hospital, where they rehabilitate sick animals from up and down the coast and house those whose habitat has been destroyed. There we were gratified to see a very awake (and incredibly adorable) group of koalas and to learn about what makes such a place possible. It was lovely.

Views from The Lighthouse

The rest of the day was taken driving. It was long, of course, but not so bad. I chatted with Tine and Lora about Germany, they asked about the US, we talked about our experiences so far in Australia. They laughed about the chain Bavarian Bier Cafe which is very popular in New South Wales, and often has a picture of a German man in "traditional" get-up with a falcon on his arm on their signs. "After a long day of falconry, I like to drink a nice Bavarian Bier!" he is depicted as saying. They reported to me that they had never participated in falconry, nor had they ever heard of anyone or anyone's ancestors, practicing falconry. They found this hilarious.

We stopped at a few places to look around-- one town was built around an estuary, where a river was busy mixing with the sea; in another, the home almost exclusively of Indian immigrants, featured a beautiful Hindu temple and women walking the streets in saris; in the last a flock of birds with bright red bellies filled the palm trees and made the most deafening noise I have ever heard birds make.

From our stops along the way

We arrived in Byron Bay, major pot and folk music mecca, shortly after dark. It was the kind of place I might have liked to stay a day to explore, but I had made other plans. I met Johnny, a very nice and quite shy Filipino Australian, at the Byron Bay supermarket. He had driven down from the Gold Coast to pick me up and take me to my next destination.


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