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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year : Australia Backpacking

Reflections of a Backpacker: I’m Dreaming of an Antipodean Christmas
Dan Cann

It was Christmas Eve at Hervey Bay and despite it being over 30 degrees Ben, Jon and I were feeling festive! To make matters even more surreal we spent the morning on the beach. I can remember teasing my family and friends back home that while they were indoors eating their Christmas turkey I would be on a beach. This year was not to be a white Christmas. The sand was golden and the sea a clear azure, life was good.

I was on holiday in Australia and it really felt like it with the sun on me now feeling totally carefree. I did not have to be anywhere, go to a job, get stuck in traffic, go shopping, or keep an appointment. I just existed at the moment, and it felt great! It helped to have others like me, fellow backpackers going through the same experience. Most of us had just spent three years studying and on the exam treadmill preparing for a career somewhere, full of advice from careers officers and our heads crammed with facts from lecturers and books. Well, finally we could enjoy a break if we were lucky enough.

I had worked and saved up for this trip ever since I was at college years earlier. Yes it was all hedonistic self-centred stuff, but so many of us had decided to take a ‘gap year.’ Why should I go straight into the drudgery of a job before having one last burst of freedom? We were all trying to enjoy as much freedom as possible before the inevitable happened and we had to become members of the ‘real world.’

Back at the backpackers kitchen we met two girls from Hertfordshire: Lisa a petite blonde and her friend Saffron, a tall brunette. We soon found they both possessed a wicked shared sense of humour, their observations and expressions soon won us over and in no time we were all sharing stories and experiences. It was nice to meet a couple of girls from home at Christmas, our thoughts kept returning there and it was nice to hear familiar accents abroad.

That afternoon we played volleyball in the swimming pool, a first for me. There was an easygoing open atmosphere here and making new friends was easy. We had booked a trip to Fraser Island the day after Boxing Day, but for now we threw ourselves into celebrating Christmas in the most bizarre way imaginable.

By the evening we were joined by Sean from Denmark and Leonard from Malaysia. Inevitably we found ourselves with the rest of the backpackers at the bar. The English contingent introduced our new friends to some drinking games (the girls won more kudos from us as they could clearly hold their beer). As the evening wore on Sean and Leonard politely excused themselves from the game and staggered back to their dorms. Not long after that we were all on our way.
Christmas Day and Ben had put miniature joke presents in our socks! ‘He’s been!’ He joked. I had to hand it to him; he deserved an ‘A’ for effort in trying to make a tropical State like Queensland into a Winter Wonderland! As agreed the previous evening (although I’m not sure if any of us remembered the full details of the conversation) we met the girls and went to the beach.

Nursing hangovers we all re-hydrated, gulping down any liquid to hand. A dip in the sea proved to be refreshing and we were soon ridding our bodies of the toxins from the night before.

Once at the backpackers we settled down for a very surreal Traditional Christmas meal that our Aussie hosts had kindly laid on for all of us. We tucked into Roast turkey, Yorkshire puddings, vegetables with gravy and a Christmas pudding for desert in thirty-degree heat! After an exquisite display of table manners complimented with polite conversation we soon descended into drinking copious amounts of cool beer in pitchers, stubbies and schooners or whatever other receptacle they could hold the stuff in! Before long we were dancing on the tables and someone made the great suggestion to jump into the swimming pool. It was not the wisest thing to do in hindsight but it was good fun. A night to remember and it topped all my previous (and future) Christmas Day experiences.

Boxing Day and I finally managed to contact my parents at home to wish them a Merry Christmas and to fill them in on the details of the holiday so far. It was hard to convey what it was like to spend Christmas in Australia and to keep the smugness out of the tone of my voice while they enjoyed yet another cold grey one back in England. It was good to hear that the family were all okay and it was great to hear my parents voices. It’s amazing to speak to someone who is thousands of miles away and in a different time zone!

Surprisingly I did not have a hangover that day, in my youthful naivety I thought that perhaps I had finally become immune to the effects of alcohol, this crazy notion was soon spectacularly shot down in flames! Our final leisurely day before Fraser Island was spent on the beach with the girls, playing cards by the pool and finally attempting to win a pub quiz. The girls gave us their Sydney address and we vowed to meet up again. They had been great company.

Bundy Backbreaker and the joys of Rum

After the hell of the previous day, the only way was up and that, fortunately proved to be the case. Another early start, I was assigned to a new crew and on my own for the next week or so, but it proved to be just the kind of detail I could get used to. I needed to get my head down, earn some money and plan my next moves. I was in that kind of mood when boarding the truck that was taking us to the farm.

No one is bursting with enthusiasm at 6am but the lads on the truck were a friendly bunch with no illusions of the work they were doing. They had a kind of gallows humour and a shared camaraderie thanks to long days of working together. I was the ‘newbie’ but was made to feel welcome after introductions were made. Once out in the field we each took a bucket and a row of peppers and began picking. It seemed okay at first, a lot less physically taxing than watermelon picking. After an hour or so on my haunches I soon felt it! Thanks to the wit and humour and general good nature of my co-workers, a mixture of locals and backpackers the time went by pleasantly.

Jean was a cheerful and well-mannered French Canadian from Quebec; Curtis was a Canadian from Manitoba and had bleached blond hair and a ring through his nose! He also possessed a wicked dry sense of humour that kept us all in good spirits. Chris was a short but teak tough Aussie from Melbourne and Jason was his sarcastic but well-meaning mate who was on the road with him. The days rolled on with this colourful and friendly group. Some mornings it rained, but we did not mind as it kept us cool.

I managed to chat to a few of the local men over the next few days. They had all worked on farms or as part of a boat crew all of their lives. It was fascinating listening to their stories. They all seemed pretty content with their lot even though they kept long hours and did backbreaking work. I gained a lot of respect for them, they were a tough hardy bunch that worked hard and played hard living for the weekend and the moment.

When the day came that I finally decided I had earned enough I spent an afternoon scraping the mud from my boots and washing all of my clothes that had somehow turned a disconcertingly reddish brown colour. Once back in the dorm I crashed out on my bunk relieved that I had a day of leisure look forward to. That evening I chatted with Andrew a lad from Perth in Scotland who told me that he had arrived at the backpackers literally penniless. He had been there for just over three months now and never seemed to save enough money to leave as the owner had ensured that the jobs he was assigned would only be enough to cover his rent. Pretty disgusted at this story I counted myself very lucky. It must have been a nightmare for Andrew, years later as I write this I hope he has finally managed to leave!

The following day was a Saturday and Jon and I decided to reward our efforts with a well-deserved trip to the Bundaberg Rum Distillery. It was not particularly exciting but the size of the machinery used and the barrels used to store the rum were colossal and drew a few appreciative whistles from the group. Jon and I were both looking forward to sampling the stuff. Once our attractive blonde guide finished the tour we were offered free samples and it was worth waiting for. A trip to the cinema and a pub and that was about all Bundy could offer us as far as entertainment went. On the Sunday Ben, Jon and I briefly discussed the merits of staying in Bundaberg. After a democratic and decisive vote we decided that we would rather stick knitting needles into our eyeballs than spend Christmas at the prison camp, I mean backpackers so the next day we would be heading to Hervey Bay!

Hervey Bay or Bust

We all needed a lift after working in the fields and living in a crowded environment. So after our bus journey from Bundaberg to Hervey Bay we were in the mood to party. There was a little trepidation. What if Hervey Bay did not live up to our expectations? Our fears were fortunately allayed as we arrived at our new destination it looked to us like the right place with its clean streets and beaches nearby.

The backpackers we booked into had a friendly hotel vibe to it and we felt like we were really back on holiday again. As we walked to our new dormitory we were relieved to discover that it accommodated six instead of twenty! This was a much welcome development. It also helped that the backpackers boasted a nice sized swimming pool. The sun was out and the air seemed cleaner. We were told that the beach was only minutes away. Let the good times roll!

After unpacking and freshening up I spent the afternoon in the swimming pool chatting to Jeremy, Rob and Julia. They all explained the virtues of Hervey Bay and confirmed that I was in the right place to relax and kick back. We swapped stories: Jeremy was from Melbourne and proud of that fact, not in an arrogant or boorish way, he was just happy to be from a city that enjoyed its sport and enthusiastically promoted it. It was refreshing to hear someone actually taking pride in their home especially in these cynical times. Julia was a beautiful blonde from Germany and rather than being cool and aloof she was unpretentious and down to earth, keen to tell me about Fraser Island and her experiences there. I could get used to this I thought! Finally Rob was from Nottingham and put everything in perspective by telling me about his experiences in India where he had seen extreme poverty but also some amazing, funny, quirky, life-affirming things. He had been to Kashmir and said that he could hear gunshots all day whilst he was there. Nice holiday destination. Needless to say he was enjoying Hervey Bay too.

That evening was spent watching football from England on satellite television with fellow English travelers. I was surprised to see so many fellow countrymen despite our obvious ties with Australia, but the country was heaving with us ‘pom’s!’ Funny that we often joke about seeing so many Australians in our own back yard: pot, kettle, black! So far on my travels apart from a few other Europeans and Canadians the main group of fellow travelers were from back home. This made things seem a little surreal at times, like you were twelve thousand miles away from home in a very different country and environment, yet you were still surrounded by familiar things.

One really welcome development in English tourists in Australia was that our reserve and mistrust seemed to disappear out there. It must have been the weather or the Aussie’s attitude of ‘no worries’ rubbing off on us. Whatever it was the slightly cynical, neurotic and defensive nature that we can sometimes be prone to vanished. Perhaps instead of establishing a penal colony we should have left England for Australia altogether.

Anyway, suffice to say I was in a happy place at last and when my head hit my pillow that night it was with the pleasant knowledge that I would not be woken up first thing by a loudspeaker! I was a man of leisure again.
© Dan Cann June 6th 2009
dancann74 at

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