One man reveals what it was like travelling Australia in 1989…
Australia has long been the ultimate travel destination, as its coastline, islands, rainforest, outback and growing cities continue to offer adventure like nowhere else. With his first travel novel under his belt, we go all the way back to 1989 with Doug E. Jones, who recalls spending Christmas on Bondi Beach, living in a one-bedroom flat with 11 other backpackers, and scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef. After travelling Australia and other parts of the world inspired him as a writer, Doug has written Nowhere To Goa, a story about a student who flies to India to help his troublesome twin. His memories of Australia just about prove that it was, and always will be, backpacker heaven. After reading about his Australian adventures, share your own experiences with us, whether past or present.
Firstly, when did you originally decide to go travelling?
After graduating college, a friend of mine from back home in Chicago started talking about these open-ended airplane tickets that he saw advertised in the newspaper. For roughly $1700, the ticket would allow us to go just about anywhere in the world for up to a year and hit six or seven countries along the way. Back in 1989, college-age kids from our neck of the woods would usually go to Europe for the summer, sometimes for just a few weeks. But there were a couple of guys that I hung out with who were looking for something a little more…something special. Right away, Australia stuck out as a destination, perhaps even a focal point. We just needed someone to point us in the right direction. But we didn’t know anyone who’d even thought of venturing Down Under. Perfect. We would be cultural pioneers. Hometown heroes.
You have to remember this was 1989 and, pre-internet, information was limited. Still, I was into INXS, had been since ‘The One Thing’. And Men at Work were everywhere for a couple of years. Even Crocodile Dundee had his day in the sun. And, of course, there was the one and only AC/DC. Then my buddy’s dad told us, beer in one hand, map in the other, that since Australia was below the equator, water would spin down the drain backwards (similar, I suppose, to a previous generation in the backyard after midnight, trying desperately to dig to China). Of course, we would find kangaroos that could punch harder than Mike Tyson, possibly our first koala, or some furry little thing called a wombat. Maybe even Mad Max! Finally, we heard through the grapevine that there was a chance we could land jobs in one of the big cities. Good idea. If we wanted to stretch our trip into a full year, we were going to need the money.
What was your first destination?
Four guys from my high school in Evanston, Illinois stuffed our first backpacks and flew to Fiji, where we hired a boat to take us to a nearby but sparsely populated island called Nananu-I-Ra. We spent the next two weeks doing little more than snorkelling, dodging falling coconuts, and playing in a sunset game of volleyball (the last of which the locals insisted upon). Surprised to find our tropical sanctuary a little too relaxing, we hopped on a plane to New Zealand, where we tooled around for a month, hitch-hiking both islands, top to bottom, and ended up, by sheer luck, at a U2/BB King concert in Christchurch. As you can imagine, we were already running low on money so it was time to head for Australia and look for work.
Where did you live while in Australia?
I got to Australia with 50 bucks to my name. Fortunately, one of the guys had already found us an apartment, or “flat”. He’d fallen in love with a Danish girl he’d left behind in Fiji (now married with children) and flew ahead of us to Sydney to get his head straight. Our instructions, if we were to ever catch up with him, were to go to the city’s main post office and look for a note that he was supposed to pin to a big bulletin board. This would tell us where to find him. No email or cell phones in those days – even a call back to the States could cost a fortune. However, as luck would have it, I found the note and the flat. It was at the beach. Bondi Beach. That sounded perfect.
Where did you hang out?
My first full day in Sydney also happened to be the first Tuesday in November, meaning it was a holiday – a big holiday – The Melbourne Cup. Horse racing. So our new flatmate took us out on the town to place some bets on the horses and drink bottomless pints of beer. He was from England, some place called Luton in Bedfordshire, and as the one who’d been living at the flat the longest, he was in charge. 12 people. One bedroom. One bathroom. Plus, an enclosed porch. It was crowded. And a blast. A bunch of backpackers who weren’t ready to go home; from the UK and Canada, a few girls from Holland, a dude from Belgium, even an Aussie.
By the time I got settled in it was the beginning of December, which we were stoked to find out was the beginning of summer! Who knew? All our planning and we had overlooked the seasons being reversed. We got lucky. Again. Bondi Beach was one big party. We used to walk down the hill to Hotel Bondi, this beautiful old building of arches and balconies highlighted by a clock tower. Built in 1919, it sat front and centre across the street from the beach. Wednesday night was the dinner special. Namely, two-for-one beers. That’s where a lot of backpackers would gather to exchange stories and information: you should stick to the coast, check out Cairns; if you’ve got time, see Perth; and don’t forget Uluru (or Ayres Rock); just don’t get stuck in the outback!
Where did you work while you were in Australia?
My lovesick friend had already found a job in Sydney taking photos of tourists in Kings Cross, this somewhat sketchy, definitely outrageous, epicentre of urban decadence. Meanwhile, I got a gig selling Kirby vacuum cleaners, door to door, in the suburbs. Not an easy task by any means but a few kind Aussie families let me into their homes anyway – probably just to listen to the dumb Yank with a funny accent try and sell them a vacuum. Several botched demonstrations later, I found myself down at the unemployment agency, getting pulled out of the end of the line by a giant Yugoslavian who had his own moving business. Thus, I became a removalist, a term we don’t use in America, and one that made my grandmother back home think I was some sort of thief . . . or worse.
What was Christmas like? Where did you spend it and what did you do?
For the first time in my life, I awoke on the 25th December to a hot and sunny day, so we took our Christmas tree down to Bondi Beach with a few thousand other people and decorated the branches with our fast emptying cans of Victoria Bitter. The entire beach was laughing and singing and swimming. Girls were flinging their tops off, while the boys tried to impress them by climbing the sky-high flag poles to raise their country’s flag, usually a rivalry of sorts between highly inebriated Commonwealth countries. Needless to say, Christmas and a hike a few days later into the Blue Mountains blurred right into New Year’s.
What areas did you explore? Did you stay along the coast or head inland to the rainforest and outback?
By the end of the summer, we figured it was time to see more of Australia before our six-month visas ran out. We quit our jobs and headed up the coast on a bus. First stop: Byron Bay, where we put together a team of backpackers and won a local volleyball tournament; I suppose all that playing time in Fiji was beneficial after all. Next, the Whitsundays and a catamaran tour for a day out on the ocean, part of which involved me doing some form of primitive wake-boarding for the whole group. Once I’d recovered from my birthday party on Green Island, we went scuba diving off the Great Barrier Reef. Incredible. If there had been such thing as a Bucket List back then, we were killing it. We rented our own off-road vehicle and a couple of tents with some Swedish girls – they were everywhere in Oz – and camped on Fraser Island, a national park, and the largest sand island in the world. Add rainforests, mangroves, Eucalyptus trees, empty beaches, swamps, and fresh water lakes in the middle of a jungle paradise, and what you’ve got is simply spectacular (never mind the dingoes).
After Australia, did you head to South East Asia?
We eventually left Australia by way of Darwin. On to Bali and Thailand for more island adventures. Thanks to Australia, I’d been bitten by the travel bug. I taught English in Japan and made some pretty decent money, but instead of going home, I took my Yen to Sri Lanka, India, and Nepal. Afterwards, I got a job – if you could call it that – bartending on the beach in Costa Rica. Then back to India for a solar eclipse!
Has Australia inspired you as a writer?
I was totally inspired to write by the time I returned to the States. There’s something to be said for the Australian spirit, the let the good times roll way of living that I’ll always appreciate and aspire to. It’s about following your heart and facing life head on. I always wanted to write. I was the guy in the pub writing down ideas on a napkin or up my arm. Eventually, I went for it in Los Angeles and was fortunate enough to get a job as a writer on the TV series Charmed. But when the show finished its run, I knew I had to write a story about all the cool and unusual places I’d been to around the world. Nowhere To Goa takes off when Scott, a studious sophomore at Northwestern University, flies halfway around the world to bring home his troublesome twin brother who has just been released from jail in India; something to do with a bhang lassi, a rickshaw, and a holy cow! It’s a travel adventure novel. A coming of age story, immersed in the sex, drugs, and rave scene that follows the legendary Hippy Trail across the planet in search of an endless summer . . . and a full moon party.
Have you returned to Australia since your first visit?
I haven’t been back to Australia but my heart has. It’s where I first picked up on the idea of a bunch of young people looking to try something different; backpackers who weren’t ready for a 9-to-5 job until they’d seen all that the world had to offer – or didn’t offer.
How do you think it’s changed for backpackers and travellers?
From what I can tell, it’s only gotten better, more organised. If you’re going to Australia, you should be prepared to tackle the great outdoors. Oz is all about surfing and sailing and scuba diving and hiking. And that’s just the morning. Then you talk about what’s next over a few beers. And that’s how I like it.
What would you advise anyone thinking about going travelling?
It’s been said many time before but travel while you’re young. Before your back goes out more than you do, and there are too many bills to pay and mouths to feed.
What’s your favourite memory of Australia?
I was totally blown away by the wild and diverse beauty of Fraser Island. And, of course, all the friends I met in Australia, some of whom I’m still close with to this day.
By Charlotte Mellor