This is part of a series on driving in Queensland. Read part 1.
This isn’t the best way to start: Where I’m staying, Brisbane’s YHA on Roma Road, is an hour plus from the rental car office but a squall’s come in. Streets are dimpled with raindrops the size of clams. I intended to take public transport down, but that plan is a wash since it included a half-hour walk with luggage. Why this particular office is because of a stellar deal that is now less enticing. If our solar system was scaled down to Brisbane size, the YHA is Earth and the office is the Oort Cloud.
Ross, in a pristine silver Mazda, picks me up. Germaphobes fantasize about this car interior: the black carpet fibers gleam like polished basalt and have been vacuumed along the same grain. There’s a eucalyptus oil scent.
I am Ross’s second ride. Ever. Laid off from his IT job, not quite able to afford rent, bills, and those nights with the mates, he’s joined the sharing economy and is suited for it. Or he’s still in the new employee honeymoon phase. Either way, he’s chatty and is happy to make my acquaintance. He asks what brings me to Brisbane. I joke, say it’s to get out of it and go north.
“Not much up there either mate,” he says. “Unless you’re diving the Reef?”
I hadn’t planned on it.
“It’s dying you know? If you’re going to see it, now’s the time. Global warming has bleached it all. And you get these massive cargo ships sailing off where they aren’t supposed to. Cut up the coral, heat the water, it kills it all.”
“And safety-wise,” I ask, “What about that scuba couple that was left behind?” The reference is to the man and woman who were the inspiration for Open Water, a thalassophobia inducing horror movie. They, experienced divers, joined a charter out of Cairns going to a popular dive spot. While they were in the water, their charter boat left without them. A few days passed before their absence was noted. A search operation was mustered, but they were never found. Their gear washed ashore, and fishermen netted a diver’s slate that had written on it, “We have been abandoned…Please help to rescue us before we die.” Where they’d been left was a shallow coral bed, a few hundred meter swim away to another shallow and popular spot on which a metal buoy was anchored. It was feasible that they could swim to this buoy, climb on, and wait for help. Marine biologists noted one issue: the swim necessitated crossing a deep water chasm. A true gash of horror. I’m talking about sharks.
“Yeah mate, you’d be safe. That couple, they just had some bad luck is all.”
For now, the only water I have to worry about is making scallop patterns on the windshield. The wipers can’t do their work fast enough, and our talking has steamed the windows.
We are out of city center, past strip-malls and beyond clots of homes. We make a right over a railroad hump then cross a boulevard suited for freight. The tracks and road run side-by-side. There’s a notable absence of traffic. The vehicles parked parallel are vans and small delivery trucks. This is pre-fab territory, that outskirt area for businesses that sell window blinds, cabinets, or every type of screw known to man. Businesses reliant on contractors and volume and delivery fees.
Ross’s phone is affixed to the dash, and the directions on his app are getting tedious. We haven’t talked for some minutes, so I’m sure his patience is depleted. The thought crosses my mind—as it likely does his—that he’ll be incapable of finding a fare here. I’m positive my 4.4-star rating will continue its marvelous Louganis dive.
We’re at the destination, but it’s a warehouse complex. There is a security checkpoint and chain link fence with a slinky of razor wire. Peterbilts are unloading on a dock. I call the rental office. “Hi, I’m at the address listed on the website and, well, I don’t see the office.”
“Well there’s the problem, we aren’t at that address.” The voice, a woman’s, has a bored and shaking tonal quality.
“That seems to be what I’ve discovered. Perhaps you could tell me the correct one?”
She says words. To me, they are sounds, like she’s readjusting her jaw while groaning. There’s a vowel in the word. And a W. I pass the phone to Ross. He listens, nodding. “Alright,” he says and enters the new address into his phone. We have a few dead ends and wrong turns left in this trip, but we arrive. Ross bids me “G’day” but I sense he doesn’t mean it. I’m anxious myself. Not that I was in a rush, but pay-after-you-ride transportation makes me antsy. Watching a cab meter is absolute death, but being lost in an Uber is somehow worse. Opening the app afterward is like peaking at a fancy dinner’s receipt after the waiter up-sold your date the black truffle pairing. I see the bill and note that the money I saved booking a car out here has significantly decreased.
In the office, and before getting keys, I am required to make certain verbal oaths and sign a written affidavit whereby I acknowledge that Australians drive on the left side of the road. The car has a sticker next to the wheel, “Stay Left” it reads and has a large red arrow aiming that way. Also, I have to quiet my intolerance for bullshit as the lady explains how toll payment works. Specifically, the non-waivable “convenience” fee of $3.25 that’s tacked on by a third party that’s partnered with the rental agency. The language she uses to razzle-dazzle this corporate enema is similarly triggering: “But the fee is incurred only once every day that you use a toll road.” I smell American boardrooms as I make my mark.
My destination is Noosa. Getting out of Brisbane is frightening for one reliant on unimpeded satellite signal. The complex highway system goes subterranean near the city and river. Whole new highways merge or break off underground. Literal tons of dirt, steel, and concrete are layered between my Google Maps and the sweet, sweet guiding signals of our great overseers and recorders of movement, the NAVSTAR satellites. The flat delivery of the British navigator is interrupted by new re-route directions about once a second. The arrow representing my location is just spinning in place. I have to go full analog, wondering how long it’s been since I’ve guided myself using road signage. I look for ones that say Sunshine Coast or Noosa and let the long line of people honking at me pass.
Australia has kooky names. What is good fun for an Aussie is making a tourist open a map and pronounce some at random. In this region of Queensland, there is Mooloolaba, Yaroomba, Bribie, and Mullumbimby. Without research, I don’t know if these are eponyms or the founders were playing a drunk game of Scrabble, Vowel Edition.
What’s just as interesting to me are the many Anglicized town names in Queensland. They display showmanship and deviate from town-naming norms in a way that strikes me as quintessentially Aussie. Take the Gold Coast. When I first heard this, I pictured a region. In fact, the first few times someone recommended visiting the Gold Coast, I asked, “Any specific city you’d recommend?”
They’d then look at me like I said I wanted to breastfeed a snake. Responding tentatively, unsure of what species of ignorance they were up against, they’d say, “Gold Coast?”
“Yes,” I’d say again, “But, like, which city?”
Gold Coast, ladies and gentlemen, is a city. Sunshine Coast is more in line with my expectation, consisting as it does of multiple shires. Today, these place names suggest abstractions (“Money”, “Leisure”, “Relaxation”.) They suggest some infinitely romantic notion, some symbol of the lifestyle Australians in the area want to capture. The truth is less kind. The name Gold Coast was meant to be pejorative, as Brisbane journalists sneered their noses at its expensive post-war real estate boom. (“£14,500!” One newspaper blurb read.) “Sunshine Coast” came about after city councils desirous of firming up the area’s tourism appeal, did away with the name “Near North Coast”. Apparently, an uncommunicative uncle had once given directions to the area and the name stuck.
It’s only two hours from Brisbane to Noosa Heads, and I pass signs for Sippy Downs and Bli Bli. This drive, I think, is going to be quite fun.