Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Noosa, Queensland, Australia

Posted December 10th, 2004

Boiling Point in the Noosa National Park

I pulled into Noosa with sagging, slits for eyes. My fleeting sleep from the previous night in Bundaberg and the beginning of an unpleasant trend in snowballing exhaustion was starting to wear me out. My only serious plans in Noosa were to rest and take a surfing lesson.

When you travel down a well-trodden path like the east coast of Australia, you inevitably run across the same people over and over, usually in back-to-back towns, but sometimes, in surprising fashion, four or five cities apart. I hadn’t been off the bus for more than 30 seconds when an acquaintance from Mackey was running up to me. Michelle, who I had spoken to at length in Mackay, but embarrassingly I had never gotten around to learning her name, was similar to me in that she was an early-30s vagabond, just out for a good time before she became too old to enjoy it. By the fate of us both holding the VIP Card (she was the one who turned me onto the card in the first place, in addition to the Dreamtime hostel in Cairns), we were staying the same VIP discounted hostel and we caught up on each other’s adventures during the complimentary van ride.

When you travel alone for long periods of time, simple things like running into a brief acquaintance from just a few weeks earlier is a big thrill. I had already started to feel the sting of being alone on this journey, despite the very social and friendly nature of Aussie hostels. It wasn’t that I was without good company, quite the opposite actually, it was that Australia seems to attract a majority of traveling couples. Being more or less constantly surrounded by happy, bubbly, lovey, dovey people starts to make you feel lonely for a bit of affection of your own. This goes almost directly in the face of European travel where the stress and tribulations of extended travel between best friends, even husband and wife, routinely have the pair loathing each other by the second week. Australian travel is so easy and worry-free that these couples were all in a perpetual state of bliss and ecstasy, constantly cooing and snuggling and just wallowing in the perfection and passion of it all. Though I hadn’t yet had the pleasure of hearing people screwing in the next room or, even worse, the next bed, it was still biting to witness these displays as I sat alone with a book or this infernal laptop. “Dell” is my travel companion. Sigh.

So, on to Noosa! By now it was hard to ignore the peculiarity of being surrounded by Christmas decorations and music, while sweating bullets, cowering in the shade and slathering on sun screen. I’ve spent three Christmases in Mexico, so I am not unfamiliar with the concept of a present exchange in air conditioning, but the whole hoopla leading up to the event while draped in July weather was messing with my head. I was routinely catching myself humming Christmas jingles as I walked around town. It was discombobulating.

The Noosa Backpackers Resort was a seemingly inconvenient 10 minutes by car outside of central Noosa, but they had a courtesy van that went into town 13 times a day and unless you were going into Noosa National Park, needed to shop for overpriced, shoddy clothes or beach hop for naked Germans, there was no real need to be near the center of town. Lonely Planet reported that Noosa Backpackers was a quiet alternative to the nightly, teenaged, drunken insanity popping off at the Koala Hostel, a chain of party hostels throughout Oz, with a huge self-catering kitchen, TVs, Internet, a café/restaurant with the worst service in Australia, but mouth-watering, affordable food and free-to-use surf boards and kayaks. The complimentary surf boards were of special interest to me as I had every intention of being a surfing god by the time I left Noosa.

I booked an afternoon lesson for US$31 with a company appropriately named, “Learn to Surf,” who were promoted in Lonely Planet as well as the reception area of the hostel. Our instructor picked us up, looking exceedingly hungover, shoeless, unshaven and sporting that laidback, possibly stoned, Australian surfer-dude persona that inspired Sean Penn’s character in “Fast Times at Ridgemount High.” We were transported to what was supposed to be Noosa’s most tame surf spot at the end of Hastings Street, but recent, fluctuating rough weather turned the beach into an unpredictable, ocean free-for-all where every 10th wave could have been featured in “The Perfect Storm.”

Our instructor taught us the intricacies of surfing in three stages, alternately laying our boards on the beach and trying to reenact the same out on the water.

The ocean is not my friend. I’m from Minnesota, well over a thousand miles from salt water in any direction. My first exposure to the ocean was when I was 15 in Hawaii, where I was carelessly cut loose with a boogie board and 10 minutes later a wave had its way with me, dumping me head first onto the beach. Despite repeated attempts on my part, our relationship has not grown much. Salt water on my lips keeps me constantly spitting and, for some odd reason, it jumpstarts a general mucous-eject from my nose that doesn’t end until two hours after I’ve left the water. I’m generally uncomfortable and ill at ease, to say the least, but I felt that since I was in Australia that I should do as the Aussies do and become one with the surf.

“Learn to Surf” promised that we would stand up on the board before the end of the first lesson, but I was pessimistic. I don’t have what would be considered exceptional balance. I don’t even have average balance. I can’t even walk in a straight line unless I am looking perfectly forward, into the horizon. The instant I turn my head to the left or right to talk to someone or stare at cleavage, I start to waft. Through endless practice and repetition I have managed to master a few balance-related skills, most notably riding a unicycle. Some would point out that this is an exceptional balance-related achievement and that perhaps I am not giving myself enough credit, but those people should have seen me eat up an entire summer vacation trying to crank that stupid unicycle across the tennis court, clinging to a chain link fence, while others was were zipping around in tight circles, doing back flips and getting scholarships to circus school after just two weeks. So, I can be taught, it just ain’t pretty.

The first step was simple enough. Get lined up in front of a wave, paddle for a bit to get inertia going, let the wave grab you, then placing your hands at your ribs and arch your back up off the board like a seal while you are carried to shore. Any inner-ear deficient moron could do this. Then we went through the process of getting into a standing position. Our instructor warned us that standing up wasn’t the hard part, but in fact it was the timing of the paddling, catching the wave and standing up in such a way as to not be thrown off, especially in a forward motion, where you would get bashed against the sea floor, then hammered in the face by your own board and then drown (worst case scenario). With the instructor’s help, this was easy, he’d hang onto our boards as we pretended to paddle and when a good wave came by he’d give us a good shove into the path of the wave and we’d be free to concentrate solely on the relatively slight intricacies of standing up. With his help, I managed to get to my feet twice. This was very encouraging, so I drifted off to the side so he could help the other students and I tried to get this process going on my own, which of course was a disaster. I inevitably mis-timed the peak of the wave and either ended up on my knees on the board, watching the wave roll into shore without me or getting up too early and having the wave toss me into shallow water and filling every orifice with ocean water.

Surfing would be a fun, relaxing breeze if it weren’t for the fact that you have to fight like hell just to get out past the crashing waves, so you can make your move. Arguably, lacking sea prowess and my all-around elevated ocean tension levels probably had me fighting harder than was necessary, but after just three or four trips out to catch a wave, I’d be winded enough to take pause and consider the possibility that through age and inexperience, perhaps I’d missed my window of surfing opportunity. But I pressed on. I’d paid good money for this beating and I was going to get every bruise possible out of it. And so it went.

To add to the general merriment of exhaustion and face-first wave poundings, the fury of the ocean had picked up and carried in all of the seaweed for 857 miles in all directions. Every wave brought a full-body sliming of green crud that collected itself in my female classmate’s hair and in the mesh pockets as well as (I found out later) in the mesh crotch of my swimsuit. Additionally, the sea wanted me naked. The tie string on my swimsuit had snapped and been yanked out years ago. This was never a problem in calm water, but the riling sea nearly pantsed me down to the ankles approximately every third wave. As you can imagine, it was hard to concentrate on paddling and wave watching when seaweed was draped over my eyes and I was desperately trying to avoid giving a free male anatomy lesson for the 10 year old girl in our group.

After three hours, we packed it in. The other students were energized and thrilled, I was a wreck. Exhaustion, scratches and bruises were just the beginning. After I’d had time to sit down and rest, various internal injuries started to make them selves known, most notably my right hip. After an hour in the shower to squeegee off seaweed and dry skin (the Reef sunburn on my back had started to peel off in sheets, like old wall paper), I collapsed into a chair for a succulent dinner at the hostel restaurant. An hour later, I got up to order a second glass of wine and the pain in my hip erupted through me, causing me to stagger into a chair. Soreness in muscles from my neck down to the arch in my feet set in later and I limped to bed at 9:30 just for an excuse not to move.

The Noosa National Park is right off the main drag and information office in the center of town. Although it’s only about four square kilometers, the park has five mutually interesting walking paths that can keep you hiking for a full day. As I was still walking funny from the surf lesson, I decided to take it easy on myself and do the short and easygoing Coast path and then turn around and take the Tanglewood path, through the heart of the park, back to the entrance. While the views of the coast were nice, they got repetitive and dull very fast. The Tanglewood path however was a bushwalking thrill. I saw two different lizards in excess of three feet long, bush turkeys and a variety of Australia’s screeching, colorful birds. I was more than half way through the path, in the center of the park, when I ran across a poorly placed sign listing all the precautions of walking in the park, the middle one being “Never walk alone. If you’re on your own, always stay within sight of other of people.” Gee thanks for the warning, now that it’s much too late. Unlike the jam-packed Coast path, I had had the Tanglewood path all to myself for about 45 minutes and was now newly paranoid about being hit by a falling tree or chomped by a poisonous spider. I took exceptional care not to stomp a snake or otherwise enrage some other deadly creature for the remainder of the hike.

Bush Turkey

Tanglewood Path

Look closely, yes, it's a three foot lizard. Yikes!

While I certainly didn’t have the energy for the task, upon my return to the hostel, I decided to take out one of their complimentary kayaks for a paddle on the Noosa River. A hostel mate had reported that it was a fun outing and it was free, so why not? Well, the ongoing rough weather compounded with the boat traffic in the river made the water very choppy, particularly going up stream, which, even at full effort, was limited to a tottering crawl. The kayak was an open, tiny, piece of industrial plastic, meant for children on calm lakes, not clumsy adults on a wide, busy river. There was hardly even a lip on the side, meaning even a tiny ripple of water could wash over the side, into the kayak. I lasted about 20 minutes before heading in. After a week of with a roasting sunburn, itching heat rash, swollen jellyfish stings and various surfing injuries, the last thing I needed was to swamp the kayak and be forced to swim for my life in the Noosa River.

I cleaned up, ate another fine dinner at the hostel restaurant – without enduring a single, massive screw-up by the staff! – and laughed myself to sleep with Al Franken, my new hero. Early the next morning, I departed for Brisbane, gamely nicknamed by the locals “Bris-Vegas.” I was only slightly concerned.

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