On being the palest person in Australia

Thanks in part to my attempt at decoding what several phrases mean over here*, when I was told that I’d have to get up at six – in the dark – to get on a ferry, I laughed it off. Dark couldn’t possibly mean dark, in the way that cold doesn’t ever mean cold. However, six am rolled around in the unpleasant and unbelievably quick way that it does, and to my surprise, it was in fact dark. Dark and cold, to be precise, and not the way I’d envisioned my mornings while travelling to be.

Lining up behind two other cars and a horse float, we boarded the ferry to Queenscliffe; the other side of the bay. After a dolphin-less and shark-less journey, we arrived at the harbour, and started our way along the Great Ocean Road.

First stop was Torquay. The only similarity between this Torquay and the one located in England was the presence of seagulls (much smaller here), and sand. Even then, this sand is a golden yellow, not washed out and faded like its British namesake. The water shimmered in its varying shades of blue, the small turquoise waves lapping at the shore. An all girls’ school was having a body-boarding lesson when we arrived, and the screams and shrieks were overly reminiscent of secondary school, and the noise that arose whenever an unsuspecting boy/dog/ice cream van found its way onto the grounds.

Torquay is home to Bells Beach, the location of one surfing’s biggest international competitions. With formidable rocks, 3m waves on a still day, and its jagged coastline, it’s no wonder that the Easter-time event is the largest in the country.

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Next on our tightly-scheduled, whistle-stop tour of the Great Ocean Road was Lorne. We piled back into the car, and arrived officially onto the road itself, marked by an unobtrusive sign, and a statue dedicated to the men who built it. When thousands of men arrived in Australia after the First World War, there were no jobs and no money, so the government issued the road to be built – and with no heavy machinery to do the work, slogging their way across the mountainous land in the summer heat must’ve been too much at times.

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The landscape surrounding the road is stunning: when I come back (and I’m over 25 and exempt from the ridiculous deposits required by hire car rentals), I’ll certainly be spending the majority of my time making my way along it. Australians don’t mince their words, and naming this stretch of road is certainly an example of that.

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Lorne is supposedly the Australian equivalent of Newquay: school-leavers flock to the beautiful beach for underage drinking, illegal substances and a flock of music and art events across the summer. However, while Newquay has a lovable yet seedy and run-down feel, with the atmosphere of a fight just about to break out, Lorne is lively yet safe, a tranquility spilling over into the event preparations and groups of young people.

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Next up was exploring part of the bush on horse-back. There are several things in life that I’ve always thought to be true, but since being in Australia, have become solid, hard facts. These are: 1. my slightly wild curls turn into massively wild, hairbrush-proof dreadlocks within 500m of sea air; 2. doggy-paddle is not a sufficient swimming stroke; 3. I only tan when I’m riding a horse.

I’m now sporting some rather wonderful tan lines on my back and shoulders (which, as a painfully pale person, I treasure as evidence of my skin changing colour), and as usual am sporting a very fetch farmer tan (i.e. brown arms/face/neck, and white legs). While planning to come to Australia, I was more excited about the thought of not having to endure a farmer tan for another summer, but it seems my skin and tanning abilities had other thoughts on the matter.

This is now my seventh week away from home, and near the top of my things-that-I-miss-most-and-make-me-homesick-at-the-drop-of-a-hat list is horses. Obviously. I miss their smell and the safety they bring, their solid necks and their long ears, as well as a billion other things I could never attempt to put into words, because it’s too grand and it’s too intrinsic to be able to describe consciously.

Luckily though I managed to find a short-term fix. Ever since I could read, I’ve had a knack for finding horses wherever I am (something my parents have rarely appreciated), and true to form, I found a trekking centre ten minutes from my grandparents’ house. Perfect. I signed up for the advanced, three-hour ride (a mistake when you haven’t ridden for almost two months) through the bush, with promises of a few canters.

These ‘few canters’ turned out to be the best understatement of the year: as soon as we were up on grass verges running parallel to dusty roads, we remained in nothing slower than a canter. As we flew across sandy tracks lined by silver Eucalyptus trees, giant butterflies erupted from the bushes around us, and green, blue and red parrots soared in the leafy passages above our heads.

Crouched over my horse’s neck, grit lining my eyes, mouth and covering my skin (hello instant tan), I was in heaven. This was the best way to see the bush, to get into the parts that cars can’t access, that people wouldn’t want to walk across. You feel every connection with the ground, but at the same time you’re weightless; you feel safer than ever, while knowing that the slightest loss of balance will send you crashing to the floor; you feel hidden away from everything: it’s just you, your horse and the chattering birds above you.

The three hours passed quickly, and when we returned I may have made the tiny mistake of asking what jobs here were like. Turns out you only need to be able to stay on a horse, you can live onsite, and they have Welsh ponies (won’t make the passport joke again, don’t worry mum). Despite being unable to sit down properly, and walking like John Wayne, it was the best way of seeing Australia so far, and I’m hoping that those three-hours will be enough to get me through until I come home.

* No, don’t worry, I haven’t accidentally landed in Austria and spent the two weeks or so wondering why people aren’t speaking English, and why there aren’t any kangaroos hopping around. We may all technically speak the same language, but there’s lots over here that means something very different than at home.

“It’s really muddy”: there’s a puddle on the ground and the floor’s a bit wet. Considering that “it’s a bit wet” at home means we’re knee deep in water, and the horses are swimming in mud, I’d much prefer to be using this definition.

“That beach is terrible”: there’s a bit of seaweed draped over white sand, deposited there by crystal clear, sapphire blue water.

“It’s bloody freezing!”: the temperature’s dropped below 20-degrees, and/or there’s a slight breeze. I’m still trying to explain that 23-degrees at home is a good summer’s day, not something that warrants jeans and jumpers.

“I’ll get you some thongs” is a perfectly acceptable offer to be made by your grandparents.

“It’s pouring down!”: around 5mm of water fell in about ten minutes, quickly replaced by blue skies and sunshine.

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