Fifteen years ago I arrived in the land down under as a Pommy backpacker. In Cairns, Queensland at around 6 am with my sister, Karen, mum and her partner, John. The first Australian person we met imprinted himself firmly on my memory: the taxi driver, Bruce. Those long startlingly white knee-high socks, complete with short shorts and Jesus sandals made me think, in my befuddled jet lag fuzz, we’d landed in another era, or maybe in Germany. No: it was definitely the land down under.
Mr Knee-High Socks dropped us off at our accommodation, right on the Esplanade. The art deco façade was blush pink and racing green, shaded by towering palm trees, waving in the breeze. It had looked nicer on the internet, the vinyl sign advertising “Rooms from $36” cheapened it somewhat. Yep $36! That was back in the year 2000.
The air was clammy and sweaty, like a load of wet washing left in the machine. For a family from the north of England, used to seeing grey skies and drizzle, this southern sky was vast and endless. The sun had just peeped over the escarpment in all in its orange glory to greet us. As did the mosquitos who feasted on our sweet blood.
Too early to check in so we sat and watched the morning awaken. Rainbow-coloured lorikeets slurped and bathed in the mossy pond at the hotel, which had looked like a generous, inviting swimming pool on the Internet where we could ‘cool off for a refreshing dip’. A flurry of cockatoos like fluttering white tissues screamed and stripped the bark from the palm trees in a frenzy. Cicadas droned and clicked. Even the earth and grass beneath our feet seemed to hum along with the cacophony of noise. We’d arrived: in the land down under.
We spent the day exploring the town and booking trips. Mum and I hitched a ride (you do these things when on holiday!) in the back of the hotel handyman’s Ute — another elderly gentleman with knee-high white socks — to the Olympic swimming pool, where the water was the same mouthwash blue as the sky. And where I discovered the disparity between a good English swimmer (as I’d considered myself) and a good Australian swimmer, whose powerful shoulders thrashed the water with effortless strokes.
The sky turned from mouthwash blue to the grisly stewed tea colour we were familiar with. So, naively, and despite the clammy heat, we assumed cloud cover meant no sunburn. The first of many rookie errors for us bleached white folk from the north of England. We finished the day with swollen feet, skin blistered pink like boiled ham and mosquito-bitten.
For dinner another new experience: not kangaroo or crocodile but Thai. Hard to believe now, but it was the year 2000 and we were a family from the north of England! After a long day we retired to our hotel, where my sister discovered a fresh problem. She couldn’t remove her contact lens. The humidity (presumably the culprit as it had never happened in our drizzly climate) had caused it not just to stick to her eyeball like glue but also to work itself up into an impossible to reach place behind her eyeball. After flushing and pushing we (mum, sister and I) decided to go to the hospital, which was conveniently located about 300-metres away.
Thankfully it was more efficient than English A&Es – no four-hour wait, we were in and out in no time, as was the contact lens. She said they’d removed her eyeball to retrieve it and the experience had been like riding on a big dipper.
Don’t walk home, get a taxi, we were told by hospital staff. But our hotel is literally a two-minute walk, we explained. You’ll be robbed, they told us. That’s why the doors are locked; tourists are easy prey for Aboriginals searching for a quick fix. They circled the entrance doors, like zombies, shifting from foot to foot. We took their advice on the taxi, only to discover that John had been robbed as he slept, having (trustingly) left the door unlocked.
And so concluded my eventful day one in Australia. The following days and weeks were just as magical and exciting: the Great Barrier Reef, Kuranda railway, banana and sugar plantations and Palm Cove, followed by Brisbane. Then Sydney – the jewel that captivated this nomad and held her tightly in its clutches.
Every time I see the local bus driver in his knee-high white socks and the cockatoos in my garden I remember that first day in Australia. I’m the story of the Pommy backpacker who never went home, who is still in love with God’s marvelous country down under fifteen years later.