Whistlestop Tours: Brisbane and Noosa

After Tuesday’s ten hours of riding, building fences and avoiding snakes, Wednesday was a dedicated beach day. The Byron beach is stunning; miles of cool, white sand, with turquoise blue waters, and the faint silhouette of blue mountain ranges in the distance. I was meant to be moving onto Surfers Paradise today, but leaving Byron didn’t feel like an option, and most of what I’d heard about Surfers wasn’t complimentary.

Instead, I spent the day reading on the beach. My Kindle has been an absolute life saver out here: at home, I’m not the biggest fan of e-books and e-readers, I much prefer to have a paper copy in my hands. However, buying books out here would mean either throwing them afterwards, or leaving them at hostels – neither of which was very appealing (I don’t throw/give books away, ever). At the speed I read, it would also mean I’d have very little money for anything else. Books are insanely expensive out here: you pay about a minimum of $20. So, I’m forced to use everyone’s least favourite corporation, Amazon. I’m pretty sure taking this time off and going travelling was subconsciously a way for me to catch up on the three-billion books I have on my to-read list.

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Anyway, back to Byron. That night we headed out to Cheeky Monkey’s, Byron’s version of Arena (Exeter), Spin Bar (Wokingham), and Q-Bar (Reading). Awful music, some questionable attendees and pricey drinks mean there’s only one way to go there, and that’s very, very drunk. Instead of having a normal dance floor, you dance on metal picnic benches, which I’m not sure I could have navigated sober, but turned out to be incredibly easy after half a box of goon (Australia’s boxed wine. The most disgusting tasting drink in the universe, but the only thing I can afford).

So, I wake up in the morning feeling really quite awful, and proceed to do a number of things that are never, ever a good idea after a night of drinking:

1. Get my nose pierced
This was something I’ve been meaning to do for ages, and after being recommended a certain place in Byron by a few people, figured I may as well get it done. Didn’t figure that getting it done while having very thin blood due to drinking would be an awful idea. The guy who did it was great, and spoke to me in the same voice I use to calm the horses down. Haha.

2. Go for a walk
Usually, exercise in general (namely riding and electric fencing) is the one thing I can rely on to get rid of a hangover. However, it’s always done at a leisurely pace, with many food, drink and nap breaks, and rarely in 28-degree heat. Byron Bay has a beautiful lighthouse that sits at the most eastern point of mainland Australia. I’d been meaning to go up to it, so when a group of people from the hostel said they were going, I joined in. It was a stunning walk, with incredible views of crystal clear waters and playing dolphins, but when you have a new hole in your nose, haven’t eaten in almost two days and a hangover that’s slowly creeping up on you, doing anything in temperatures over 25-degrees is a bad idea. Not only was it swelteringly hot, but there was a climb of about 1,000 steep steps to get up there.

3. Decide to re-pack and re-organise your bag
At home, I rarely throw any clothes away. I’m sure that somewhere, buried deep within my cupboards, are clothes I didn’t wear when I was seven, let alone now. Out here, however, it’s a very different story. I adopted Sophie’s ‘one in one out’ policy, so for everything new I buy, something gets chucked out. It turns out that when I’m hungover and tired, I’m unnecessarily ruthless. I now have barely any clothes left, and to make matters worse, got half-way through repacking, got bored, and fell asleep in a nice nest of approximately two pairs of shorts and four t-shirts.

A five-ish hour bus journey awaited me at 6.50am on Friday morning, to take me up to Brisbane for the next day and night. I’ve been travelling on a hop-on, hop-off bus pass with Greyhound, that lets me get on anywhere between Sydney and Cairns, as long as I go in one direction, and it’s turned out to be brilliant. It’s cheap (especially if you have an IH/YHA card), and stops off at the best places on the east coast. However, Greyhound seem to have a very odd theory: for their long, boring night-bus journeys, they supply you with an old coach, fitted with itchy fabric seats that don’t recline. For short, day-time journeys, however, you ride on plush leather seats that go almost horizontal, you’re given charging spots, and on some buses, you’ll even have the option to pay for WiFi. Not sure how they decided to do it that way round, but there you go.

Due to spending more time in Byron, I’d decided to skip Surfers Paradise, and as we drove past, I was glad I made that decision. Surfers is almost identical to Spain, with its large skyscrapers and apartment blocks on the beach, and while I can see the pull for schoolies week, I’ve never been more relieved to have gone with my gut instinct. The journey from Byron to Brisbane was along the Pacific Highway, meaning we stuck to the coast for most of it The landscape was like something on a postcard, and five hours flew past.

I’d already decided to leave Surfers out in favour of extra time in Byron – and was so glad I went with my gut instinct on this. As we drove past the looming skyscrapers and white sandy beach, all I could think of was Spain – you could have been driving down any coastal road in the country. Don’t get me wrong, I love Spain, but it’s two hours from home; it’s easy enough to get to, whereas there’s nowhere in the world quite like Byron.

There was one thing and one thing only that I wanted to do in Brisbane, and that was get to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, and cuddle a koala. It was ANZAC Day when I arrived, so navigating buses was harder than usual (in fact, finding the thing was the trickiest: bus stops in Brisbane are underground). Lone Pine is the oldest and one of the biggest koala sanctuaries in the country, and had deals on for backpackers: entry was $28 and a photo with a koala was $16. Brisbane is also home to Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo, but ticket prices started at $58, and in all honesty, I find the entire thing a bit macabre.

Koalas are cute, there’s no denying that, but nothing can prepare you for how they wrap their furry arms around your neck, sit their squat, heavy bottom in your hands, and smell of a jungle of eucalyptus trees. Had I been swooning less, the koala and I would have made a run for it. On top of cuddling a koala, you can feed kangaroos, wallabies and emus in an open field, watch bird shows, and feed rosellas.

After a night out in Brisbane (with the world’s tastiest pizza and the world’s worst clubs), it was time to move onto Noosa for a day. My parents took me to the coastal town just after I was born, so 23 years later, I arrived for the second time, but slightly taller and slightly more tanned. I have to say, I wasn’t bowled over by the place. The hostel was a let down and while the beach was nice enough, it was no Byron. Most people do the Everglades from Noosa, but on my tight schedule, I only had time for a day on the beach (tough life, tell me about it).

The Best Place in the Universe: Byron Bay

There is possibly nowhere in the world quite like Byron Bay. From ponies protesting about oil mining, to stoned couples giggling on the beach, it’s entirely removed from normality. The small town has an abundance of surf shops, tie-dye havens and bars, and is so chilled out, I’m surprised anything gets done. From the moment I stepped off the bus, every last shred of worry, self-doubt and general insecurities evaporated; this is a place that doesn’t have time for negativity.

I’m in Byron over its annual Blues & Roots festival, which would have been great to go to, but at $180 for a day ticket, would also have blown my budget out for this week. Due to this, the entire town is non-stop, crowds of people meandering their way around the high-street and beach.

The people are what make this town so brilliant: from a Canadian explaining her normal nights out (“do a line, do a line, have sex with the guy whose house it is, do a line, do a line, have a dance, do a line, lose your friends, do a line, have sex in the kitchen, do a line, do a line”), to convincing an Australian who fancied himself as a bit of a Heath Ledger type (sadly just in his own head), to strut across a picnic bench, recreating everyone’s favourite scene from ’10 Things I Hate About You’. After a night involving a box of goon, sitting on the beach in the dark, watching Spurs play at ridiculous o’clock, and managing to get lost in Australia’s smallest town, my first night in Byron was the best introduction to a new place.

The next day, my roommate, Becky, and I headed out to Nimbin. Nimbin is about an hour and a half from Byron, but hasn’t progressed out of the 60s and 70s. Its a hippy commune, and tie-dye, organic food, hemp and anti-Government mantras rule the town. It has a very blatant stance on weed, and seeing as it was 4/20 when we visited, we caught it at its best. The town has a small police station, but I can’t believe it gets used much: you get offered weed or cookies every few metres.

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When horse-riding on the beach is in every top-ten-things-to-do-in-Byron list, it makes perfect sense to book in for one, and have one last ride before coming home. A local company called Seahorses was topping all of the reviews and Google searches, so after a quick phone call, and being roped in to get the horses ready, I was set. A 7.30 wake up call was a slight shock to the system, but I’d been missing early mornings with the horses, and seeing as the sun was out and the temperature rising, late mornings in bed seem like a waste these days.

So, I turn up at the Seahorses ranch, catch four ponies, get all the gear together, load them onto the box, and head for Brunswick Heads, a beach further down the coast than Byron’s main beach. We were due to meet two other girls at the beach, so we got ourselves and the horses ready, and waited. And then waited some more. And a bit more after that, until Jo, who runs Seahorses, phoned the girl up. Turns out she’d forgotten, and therefore wasn’t coming. We then had the predicament of two riders and four horses – and no one to drive the lorry and the two spare horses back. Instead, it turned into a ride and lead session; not quite the gallop-along-a-beach experience I’d hoped for – made all the more sour by miles of deserted, white sand.

Either way, my pony, Curly, was a sweetheart, and after convincing him it was ok to canter away from the group, we did a lot of playing around. By the end of the ride he was leg yielding across the sand (made easier by trying to get away from the incoming tide), and working nicely on the bit – so much so that Jo said I was more than welcome to school and compete him, if only I lived here (which she then attempted to sort out by offering me a job as a ride leader in her soon to be developed campsite, in the Byron Hinterlands).

On returning to the ranch, Jo asked if I wanted to help round the remaining horses up and move them to a different paddock, and seeing as I had nothing better to do than lying on the beach all day, it was a pretty sweet option. So, I get handed a new pony, and take off at break-neck speeds with the ranch’s resident cowboy (who was in fact the owner of the anti-fracking pony I met on my first day here). Once the horses were sent on their way, we had a gallop through the cross-country course, and despite losing my stirrups several times (not a great idea riding in pumps), and having to make quick diversions away from A-grade jumps, it made me that much more excited about going home, and getting to do this every day.

I have rarely, if ever, been on a yard where the words ‘electric fencing’ have gone unmentioned for more than a few hours, so it was no surprise that that was the next job I was sent off to do. Suddenly, fencing at home is appealing: there are no 50-acre paddocks, or areas of grass that are “a bit snakey”. The day finished with a bareback ride on Curly, and promises to keep in touch, whenever I’m back in the country.