If you’ve ever driven north from Coffs Harbour you’ll know there’s a Big Banana as you leave the city along the Pacific Highway. That is where this chapter starts.
It’s not the best place to catch a lift. The traffic whizzes downhill around a slight bend – and although there’s a spare lane for cars to pull up in, they have to hit the brakes hard and quick to do it. So I wasn’t surprised it took an hour for someone to stop. That someone turned out to be Shaun and Mandy. I squashed into the back seat of their old station wagon beside their two kids.
Shaun was a young Koori bloke, missing four front teeth and wearing torn tracky dacks and cracked sunnies. Mandy was white, with blonde hair and the sunken eyes of someone who had been into smack at one time or another. They were both pot smokers, on their way home to a few cones after a day of fishing at the wharf in Coffs. Their kids, aged six and two, had beautiful brown skin, big eyes and dark lashes.
Home for them was Sandy Beach, a small strip of houses about 45 minutes north of the city. Most of the houses were set a half a kilometre back from the ocean and separated from it by a small estuary and some bush, which was good for me because it meant I could camp at the beach without being noticed.
They dropped me off at sunset. The estuary looped around in front of the beach, cutting it off from the sand dunes, spinifex grass and overgrown car park where I stood. The beach stretched a few hundred metres towards the ocean where white caps crashed and rolled in the distance, singing their familiar, hypnotic song. I breathed in the salty wet air, glad to be there.
It was the realisation of a childhood fantasy. I recalled the powerful sense of regret I felt as a child at the way the world was, at the state of captivity we all live in, which I knew I was destined for. I recalled watching a documentary at school, aged twelve, about Aboriginal tribes living in remote parts of Australia. They still lived proper tribal life but I noticed with dismay that even they wore western clothes. I recalled an overwhelming feeling that there was beauty in their life, freedom, and that it was dying. I recalled wanting to live like this and the regret at knowing I probably never would.
But the synchronicity of events at Sandy Beach made me realise I am living this fantasy in my own manner. Being picked up by a Koori family. Having nothing to eat except some fruit I had scavenged from my friends in Coffs, a muesli bar and some nuts I had carried from Sydney. Exploring the estuary. Wondering around the beach. Setting up my tent and swimming in the ocean. I felt free.
I set out early the following morning and caught a ride the rest of the way to Grafton with Yanti and Bass. They were a hippie couple on their way back from Marrickville – a bohemian inner-Sydney suburb – to their home in the hinterland behind Byron Bay.
The conversation was slow and winding. I nodded off in the back, tired from a bad night’s sleep while camping on a slope in the rain. Yanti and Bass each had a grown child from a previous marriage. They’d moved to the hinterland from Marrickville about a year ago to cut their rent. Neither of them worked but they mused about setting up a lawn mowing business.
We talked about nothing much and I was glad for the easy chat. The long silences allowed me to soak up the landscape. Gradually, coastal scrub gave way to fields and farmland as we pulled inland towards Grafton. I had enjoyed my detour to the coast but I was glad to be back on route: there was still plenty of ground to cover before Darwin and little over three weeks left in which to do it.