"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."
-- Mark Twain
Thursday, 6 December 2012
"A Pommie Sheila in Oz"
I've been in Australia now for almost 3 months and after the excitement of backpacking around Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore have to say I've had a COMPLETELY different experience. It's like finally reality hit and I wasn't on holiday anymore. Things like getting a job and a house and sorting out tax file numbers and Medicare cards quickly filled up my to-do list and that is nowhere near as fun as lying on a Thai beach! Also, the hostels, here in Perth at least, have such a different atmosphere. Everybody is here on a working holiday rather than just passing through and so you get groups of long-timers who are all friends already and it can be quite intimidating when you first get there alone.
Plus, everything is so expensive here! Even though people warned me when I met other backpackers in Asia I thought that they meant in comparison to there where you can get a bed for a fiver a night. Nope, even London looks reasonable compared to Oz prices, especially in Western Australia so I'm told. I really struggled for the first few weeks not being able to find a job and not being able to afford to do anything interesting. The weather was even bad. I was expecting bright sunshine but I had to go and buy a jumper in the first week and practically lived in my jeans - not what I was expecting at all! Perth is OK but just not exciting enough for me - it's the sort of place you might come to live because of the standard of living, wages etc but in my opinion not somewhere you'd stop off as a tourist. At first it just reminded me of somewhere like Croydon to be perfectly honest!
I have learned to love it though after the weather got better and I spent a few days at the beach (even though my sunbathing was interrupted by five separate shark sirens - they actually make you feel like you're in Jaws!). I spent a bit of time in Fremantle which is just outside Perth and has so much more personality than Perth City it's like you're on another planet. There's lots of old buildings and you can wander around the markets and the harbour, where you can get yummy fish and chips if you can avoid the seagulls.
After a few days I also made a really great group of friends and settled in a lot, the hostel really started to feel like home. Even so, I never really felt like I was in Australia, just stuck in the city. It probably also had something to do with the fact that 90% of the people I knew were Irish, English or Kiwi and I'd only spoken to about 3 Ozzies. So after 4 weeks in Perth I thought I'd do something completely different, packed up my bags again and headed to a little outback town called Meekatharra, 775km north. I was going to work in a pub and save some money for 6 weeks and also catch up with my friend Charlotte who lived there.
The journey took me 13 hours on 2 buses and I couldn't help thinking that if I was on a plane for that amount of time I'd have been well on my way home. Anyway, as the bus went further north the scenery out the window changed completely - every time we stopped there seemed to be less and less greenery and more red dust and flies, let alone the heat increasing by about 15 degrees. There was also less and less people and buildings around until eventually we were just driving on one remote road with nothing to see for miles apart from flat red earth and the odd dead kangaroo. I did think to myself - what am I doing? - especially when we stopped for a break and some of the other passengers started talking to me. One of them warned me that if I upset any of the locals I'd be 'run out of town'...! I also kept thinking back to when I'd told the woman who worked in the medicare centre at Perth city where I was going and she genuinely burst out laughing at me for a full 2 minutes before saying "You poor girl". So you can imagine I was bit apprehensive, but also really looking forward to getting out of Perth and doing something different.
Where I lived and worked for 6 weeks
We eventually arrived and I got off the bus and was met by Bob, one of the managers at the pub. He took me in to meet everybody and showed me my room - an actual room to myself after sharing for so long = amazing! Meekatharra was just what I expected I guess - it's the most isolated place I've ever been to. On one of my first days I decided to go and explore and I was done in ten minutes. There is two pubs/hotels (the one I worked at and one other) plus a post office, chemist, supermarket, bank, service staion and caravan park. That's pretty much it! I've got to admit my heart sank when I heard the nearest clothes shops were a 5 hour drive away. I saw a cinema but was told that it had been shut for years because the guy who ran it used to get robbed every time he put a film on because people would know he wasn't at home. Lovely... ! I got the impression that Meekatharra used to be a lot busier but a lot of the shops had shut and were empty, and people told me the population had decreased a lot over the last few decades because mines nearby had closed down. Now most people that come to town are just passing through (the town is a mid way point between the north and south on the main Great Northern highway), or working on sites out of town temporarily on contract work. You also get a lot of people coming for prospecting trips, hunting for gold and a few people that stayed in the pub showed me what they found. Too bad I didn't find anything! So as you can imagine there was not a lot to do when you weren't working, and especially without a car, but I did get taken to a few local places while I was there. Five Mile is an old mine site filled with water and really impressive actually, and the Granites are some rock formations where we went out and had some drinks and a BBQ one night. I saw my first shooting star there which was amazing. I've never seen so many stars, you could even pick out some shapes because the sky is so clear from city pollution.
I met some real outback characters anyway, with people coming in actually wearing cowboy hats, with various missing teeth and without any hint of irony calling me a "pommie sheila". My first day at the bar I was pointed at by a bloke from the other side of the room who announced "I don't like you!" and the proceeded to ask me who I was every time I tried to serve him for the rest of the night. I later learned that he was basically the town crazy who annoyed everyone by telling them he was their boyfriend... most other people were lovely to me. One of them even bought me a present when I left! It's the sort of place that everyone knows everyone and by the end of my first couple of days working in the bar people would come in and say hello and know my name even though I was sure I'd never met them before. You have to get used to the fact that everybody has crazy nicknames too (Splinter, Funky..?!) and try to remember not only what people are called but what they drink and how they like it served before they even ask for it. For example, there was one woman who'd come in every day and get served in a special glass just for her, with ice all the way to the top and half a shot of vodka with Diet Coke. If you got any of these components wrong you'd be in trouble! And I thought city types were meant to be fussy...It seems the outback lot don't like change and definitely don't like waiting for a beer.
Talking of which, I've never seen so many types of beer in a pub. At home you'd have maybe 4 or 5 and either a pint or a bottle right? Well, here you have to know not only all the different types of beer, but if they're light, mid-strength, full strength or if they want a stubby (bottle), can, middy glass, pint glass, schooner glass.. it's enough to make your head explode. Don't even get me started on the fact that people don't even call them by their proper names - a Red Can is an Emu Export or a TEDS is a Toohey's Extra Dry etc. There was a lot to learn...! I also got a few comments from people at my attempts to pull a pint ("What's that? I didn't ask for an ice cream") but I have to say I think I got a lot better after a bit of practice - that's a life skill learned!
It was good to actually see some 'real' Australia after my experience in Perth and speak to some actual Australians. I didn't realise just how different the British and Aussie accents/phrases are and sometimes I literally couldn't understand what people were saying to me; at least I really felt I was in a different country. Some of the things I can remember that got lost in translation are duvet (translation: dooner), skiving (translation: bludging) and a lot more that I just can't remember. I should have started an Ozzie phrase book and written them all down! I also was really looking forward to seeing some Australian animals but apparently you don't see a lot in the town and would have to drive out into the bush to see anything. Luckily though, a woman who rescues animals had a little joey kangaroo she was looking after and brought it into the pub for me to see. So cute! I saw an eagle on the drive back to Perth too which was really impressive - too fast to get a picture though.
After my 6 weeks were up I was quite glad to leave to be perfectly honest. What with the flies and the 40 degree heat (I got severely dehydrated several times - I just can't handle it!) and the lack of shops I couldn't live here permanently. But I did meet some great people and was made to feel at home, and I'm really pleased I went and saw a bit of a different side to Australia before I go back to the cities again. I'm in Perth now, just passing through and catching up on some shopping and sunbathing before I fly to Adelaide on Tuesday. This is when I can start being a proper tourist. I've booked a tour from Adelaide to Melbourne which travels down the great ocean road and visits some national parks etc so I'm looking forward to seeing some interesting things and meeting some more backpackers. After that it'll be Christmas and New Year in Melbourne (so weird to have a sunny one away from home!) and then we shall see... the best things happen when you don't have too many plans!