IN June 2009, Simon and Rachel flew to Australia on the Big Plane. They stayed with Rachel’s sister Julia and brother-in-law Alex in Sydney for two weeks, where they saw the sights, ate too much Thai food and bought a ring. They then took a longer-than-expected flight to Perth in Western Australia, hired a bigger-than-expected camper van and drove a further-than-planned 2,000 miles. With two weeks left and no plan, they quickly revisited Sydney before taking a further flight to Hobart, Tasmania. Here they drove around mountains and through rainforest, they befriended a wombat and Simon climbed a very big hill. This is their story.
WHEN Julia and Alex got married in 2008, one of their groomsmen was a man named Ronny. He came to Sydney while we were there, and we all - Julia, Alex, Rachel and I, along with Ronny, his girlfriend Emma and a selection of Alex's friends - went out for a meal one evening. I'd not met Ronny before, as I had been unable to go to the wedding, but Rachel had, and he seemed quite the character. He had many stories to tell and his giggling was infectious.
Ronny lives in Perth, and on discovering we were about to fly there he invited us to stay. We were surprised by such an invitation, though were very grateful. We didn't really know him nor did he know us, so we took his invitation as a matter of politeness and felt guilty for potentially pushing him in to making such an offer. We were very wrong.
We landed in Perth on a stormy afternoon. The flight and landing had made me feel quite unwell, which is unusual for me, so I was extremely grateful that Rachel did the legwork to get us into the city proper. This was no mean feat, as Perth's buses are deployed seemingly randomly, with the numbers on the timetables not matching the numbers of buses to which they apply. (We would later find that the trains are equally as unclear - tickets are sold by zone or section, with nowhere telling you what this means or which zone or section each destination is in. Our advice to new travellers is to use the CAT buses as much as they can instead, because they are free, are colour-coded and go in circles.) Rachel was struggling to find any food she could eat (Sydney airport's domestic terminal is impossible for gluten-free and Perth's Esplanade bus station was almost as useless) and we were both a little ratty when - one walk with all our luggage across the city centre (up a hill) and one lesson in Transperth train networks later - we finally reached Fremantle, where we had booked a hotel for a couple of nights.
We checked into the Norfolk Hotel. It had looked lovely on its website, so I booked it as a treat for Rachel, knowing we were about to spend two weeks in a tiny campervan. But great as the restaurant below might be (though it served nothing gluten-free, so we wouldn't know), the upstairs accommodation was basic and not as glamorous as I had presumed. It wasn't our worst accommodation experience - that honour goes to the Pickled Frog in Hobart - but it was certainly below par. So was Fremantle, which we had thought would be chock-full of arts and crafts and folksy music. Asides from an Aboriginal art shop, there really didn't seem to be anything of the sort. It was windy, cold and rainy - it was winter after all - and there was barely anything suitable to eat. It wasn't a good start and I think we were both genuinely disappointed. So it came as a complete revelation when Ronny rang us that evening. His offer had been genuine.
The following morning we checked out a day early in far better spirits. Suddenly, as a result, Fremantle grew on us. We found a cafe called Ginos that made the most amazing cooked breakfasts that could easily be made gluten-free. We walked around the docks and esplanade of Fremantle, where a pack of galahs were pecking at the ground. Behind them was the Little Creatures brewery where, at 10 in the morning, we sampled alcoholic goodness - beer for me, cider for Rachel. We went on to the Shipwrecks Gallery of the Western Australian Museum, which was very good and contained the remains of the Batavia - the subject of murder, mutiny and execution. As a final farewell we caught the orange CAT bus in a loop around Fremantle, of which there was much else to explore (and which I am sure is a fine spot in the summer), and caught the train to West Leederville where Ronny and Emma met us.
Ronny and Emma had been together for six months. They had moved in to this new home, their first together, only eight days before our arrival. And here we were with mountains of luggage, taking over their house. Their hospitality was an immense gesture to say the least.
Ronny's idiosyncrasies never failed to amuse me. He'd spend his spare time honing his skills at Wii bowling while watching the Tour de France (on the same TV), uttering a high-pitched wail every time he missed a pin or heard something amusing. His manner was completely spontaneous and his attitude at all times based on a principle of pure fun. You'd be reading or talking to Emma and suddenly: "Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!", followed by a giggle. Then he'd receive a phone call and, with all seriousness, he'd rush off to work at the hospital and save somebody's life.
The next morning we awoke to an empty house, both Emma and Ronny at work. Ronny had left us a note, welcoming us, inviting us to make ourselves at home and permitting us - nay, encouraging us - to take his car for a spin and explore Perth. We didn't. We didn't have insurance.
"I knew you'd be too chicken" he said to us later.
One evening we were watching a fly-on-the-wall documentary following the lifeguards at Surfers Paradise. It featured a particularly dramatic rescue of a man; unconscious, the crew performed CPR on him for a very long time. This prompted the revelation that, though medically trained, Ronny didn't know CPR (much to Emma's horror), and the further revelation that that day he had answered an alarm from the neighbouring neonatal unit from his own radiology unit, only to be confronted with a very ill little person that he had no idea how to treat. Luckily, somebody who knew what to do was right behind him.
Four days after leaving Sydney we were on the road again. Ronny took us to collect our van early on his way to work, getting so excited about where we were going that on several occasions he forgot to put his hands on the steering wheel: at one stage he started to map read. He left us his spare keys for when we returned so that we could use his home as a base once more and then, after thanking him, he was gone. Alone on the Great Eastern Highway, we found our rental outlet, sat outside until there were signs of life, went inside, paid a lot of money, were unexpectedly upgraded, took a practice drive alongside the Swan River, loaded up on groceries and left the city.
Perth is the most isolated city in the world. Although on the Australian mainland, it is closer to Singapore than it is to Sydney. Given this, to head into the country from here says a lot. We were off in search of the real Australia, the red dust of the Outback, a very long way from home and from Australia as we had known it until now. Rachel and I, at the wheel of Benedict Cummerbund the Ford Transit (extended in every dimension to suit your every need), were off on a real adventure.