Blessed to be a witness

Wednesday, 3rd August

Travelling in a fried-out kombi

The image of the fried-out kombi, carrying one's home with one, stopping wherever and going wherever, hasappealed to me ever since I saw the Men at Work video with the beaten-up VW microbus ploughing across the outback. The reality, at least on the east coast of Australia, is somewhat different: the police move you on if you're not in an approved site, and the sites are pretty restrictive. I'm sure in the Outback it's different.

Renting a campervan proved way more of a headache than I expected, given the corporate efficiency of everything else tourism-related here. We could have bought one and re-sold it, but we didn't have the open-ended timeslot we'd have needed in Sydney to flog the thing. We therefore phoned round a load of hire companies.

I also asked the agent in the hostel to see if she could get us a good price. This woman was just there as a marketing plus for the hostel - no commission for her. She got us a quote of $65 per day (€40). We were shopping around so didn't commit. The next day was Sunday, so she wasn't working, so I called the rental place to confirm. They gave me a quote of $75 per day. I mentioned the previous quote, and the guy said there was nothing I could do about it, $75 was the price. Some minor argy-bargy ensued, which concluded with him saying scornfully "If you don't like our prices why don't you rent from someone else??" I resisted the impetus to ask if his customer service college had burned down before he graduated, and hung up. We'd have to wait until the agent returned the next day.

So first thing next morning she called them back, and they then gave her a quote of $80 per day. She hung up, rolled her eyes, and re-dialled, and got a quote for $65. She confirmed the price, and thanking her profusely, we were off to pick up our van. At the van rental price they explained that the booking hadn't actually been confirmed, and they didn't have a vehicle for us, due to some proprietary technical computer jargon reason we had no comprehension of, nor need to know.

Resisting once again the temptation to strangle all customer service reps in Australia, we smiled and bade our time, and after only a few minutes' worry, we actually got a (very slight) upgrade, and a nice shiny Hiace van. I don't know what these Irish Travellers are banging on about complaining about bad conditions: we've got a comfy bed, a sink, a cooker, a fridge and a microwave*.

We drove north out of Brisbane on the Bruce Highway, which loops almost the entire country, past strip-malls, K-Marts, Targets and Pizza Huts, into the countryside.

I'll say one thing for the Aussies: they really can drive. With the exception of some boy racers we saw in Brisbane, almost everyone obeys the road rules, doesn't speed much, and driving here is a pleasure. Even though the open highway is usually only two-lane, there are frequent overtaking lanes, which makes faster traffic relax about the slowcoaches, as well as turning places, stopping places, and the roads have good camber, lots of straights, and good visibility.

A few hours' driving brought us to our first destination: Hervey Bay. To plagiarise from and misquote Bruce Robinson: "If there was ever life in Hervey Bay, it was dead now." It looked a little slice of a British seaside retirement community, say, Torquay (since this is the name of one of the suburbs of Hervey Bay), dumped at the end of a long street out of of 1970s Terre Haute, Indiana.

Hervey Bay is at the moment enjoying the annual 'Whale Festival', which celebrates the many Humpback whales that arrive every year in the bay. It is also the birthplace of the mega-trendy surf clothing labels Quicksilver and Rip Curl. Despite the gnarly-dude cool and the alleged festival, I have never seen anywhere so lacking in vibrancy. I know it is the middle of winter here, and one should't expect too much, but it was dead as a dodo encased in concrete at the bottom of a mineshaft. Along the 5-km long Esplanade of hotels, restaurants and bars, I counted one café open. We arrived at 7pm, and every campsite we pulled into was either full, or the receptionist had put up the 'Closed' signs and gone to bed, or perhaps had given up the ghost and drowned themselves.

M eventually got through to a campsite that agreed to keep the reception desk open for an extra 15 minutes, and we found it, parked, and set up camp. This one was full of retirees. By eight pm, all the lights in all the buildings and caravans were off, and the place was deserted. We whispered to each other in the dark for a while, then with nothing to do and nowhere to go, we went to sleep at nine.

* The above sentence, of course, is facetious.

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