Before i Forget : Simon Jones's blog

July 2011

General and TravelSunday, July 10th, 2011, (11:56 pm)

I’ve driven more than one thousand three hundred miles (nearly 2,100 kilometres) from Melbourne along the coast next to the Tasman Sea and the South Pacific. In British terms thats the same amount of distance from London to St Petersburg in Russia! I’m not entirely sure where ‘there’ is, but by my calculations that puts me a little short of being half way there, though something tells me that’s entirely unimportant.

On the road

Australia is a big country. I already knew that, but driving it really puts the distances into perspective. Reviewing my progress on a map of Australia is a little daunting. I drive for hours then look at a map showing the whole country only to see I’ve barely moved. It’s a long way north, in fact, it’s a long way anywhere in this vast land.

That aside, this is surely the best way to travel. I could fly, but where’s the fun in that these days? There was a time when flying was exciting, even glamorous, but it hasn’t really ticked those boxes for a long time now. These days it’s often about getting the lowest fare, then being herded like cattle onto a no-frills low cost airline that will get you there, squashed, stressed, and vowing to never fly with that airline again (a promise that your pocket will probably insist you break).

Toyota Tarago


Leaving Melbourne felt good, though I’ll admit that when I set out onto the highway I felt a hint of sadness too. Behind me I was leaving friends, familiarities, and the city which had inspired me to leave the UK six months before. I was heading into the unknown, and while that unknown wasn’t particularly scary, it was nonetheless unfamiliar.

My first night was spent in the warm welcome of a friends house near Wilsons Promontory. To wake up in a house, albeit someone else’s house, made my leap into the unknown feel somehow less blind, almost well planned. However, soon enough I was behind the wheel again, driving up the Victorian coast feeding my van the mile upon mile of road.

It wasn’t long before I reached the border of New South Wales and my first overnight stop in the van at a place called Eden. It seemed like a fitting place for what was effectively the true beginning of my venture into a somewhat nomadic lifestyle.

The next morning I woke early to the sounds of waves from the Tasman Sea. I threw open the side door excitedly, forgetting that despite the sun it was still winter and cold at that time of the morning. The warm air that had cocooned me overnight was chased away by the chill of the morning breeze that rushed around me like excited children running onto a playground at recess.

It was a bright crisp morning so I took time to walk along the beach at Eden, picking up shells and throwing pebbles into the surf. The early start afforded me the luxury of time ahead of another day of driving and my scheduled arrival in Sydney that night.

Spiral sea shell

Sydney in winter


I’m no stranger to Sydney these days. I might not know it as well as I know cities like London, Boston, or Portland, but Sydney feels familiar to me, like a co-worker I might chat with by the photocopier or water cooler. (I wonder, do offices even have photocopiers anymore?)

Darkness fell as I neared the city. The illuminated sprawl bled Incandescent colors into the night sky as snakes of red and white lights oozed their way along asphalt arteries that felt like treacle to drive. It was late rush hour, but like any global city in the world, there’s hardly a time when this city isn’t in some kind of a rush.

It’s a dazzling place though, and even if you’ve never been here you know Sydney, and it knows you do. As radiant and aloof as a supermodel the city wears its magnificent harbour like expensive designer jewellery. You can’t help but be impressed when you come to Sydney. Somehow the city absorbs you, charms you, and includes you in its on-going tale of sound and fury.

Sydney Opera House

I spent a relaxing week in Sydney staying at a friends house and frequenting cafe’s in Paddington, Newtown, and the city. I people watched, chatted with strangers, and listened in on conversations that melted into the air around me.

The winter in Melbourne was very quickly a memory as the sun warmed the days enough to make wearing a coat a fashion choice rather than a necessity. As I watched people swim in the ocean and sunbath on the beaches, I felt like a fugitive on the run from the winter that was somehow struggling to assert its jurisdiction here.

Dodgy building or house on the hill?

Sydney in Winter felt like a beautiful English spring or summer day.


The day I left Sydney I picked up the map my parents gave me for Christmas and laid it out on the floor of my friend Kim’s apartment. It’s not really that useful for serious route planning, but it’s good to get a sense of what’s ahead of me. I’m still looking for a suitable road atlas, something more tangible than Google maps and detailed enough to navigate the back roads.

I like maps. I like the feel of the paper in your hand, and the way you slowly move along the page. I like how a worn and weathered map hints of the tales beyond the topography.

For the first time in my life though, I own a GPS. I figured it would make life on the road easier, and I suppose it does. However, there’s no magic in that little screen, no chance of getting lost then navigating your way back and making discoveries along the way, no chance of finding yourself on the crease of the page. I’ve taken to switching it off and allowing myself to drive without the terse interruptions of my irritated digital companion. I like it better that way.

Driving the Pacific Coast Highway 1 from Sydney to Byron Bay I peppered the journey with stops in various places. I spent a few days in Newcastle to just catch up with work while the weather worked through its issues. I slept overnight in my van at Crowdy Head that was anything but crowdy at the time. And in Port Macquarie I met a couch surfer called Beth. Together we spent the evening chatting and coming up with ideas for her own world trip before I went in search of a spot on the South West Rocks to spend the night in what turned out to be the company of Kangaroos who stood around the van like monks vowed to a life of silence.

In a tiny town called Sawtell I tasted chilli’s at their annual chilli festival then got excited at the sight of banana plantations at Coffs Harbour. Two days disappeared in a place called Nymboida with a couple of couch surfers, Greg and Richard, and a lady named Phred (yes with a Ph). Then I was back on Highway 1 picking up hitchhikers as I made my way toward surf town, and hippie hotspot, Byron Bay.

Misty tree

I think I’m getting into the rhythm of being on the road. Every passing mile, every new town feels like a background change for this adventure. The people I meet feel like characters that have been written into a story, my story; the story of a nearly-nomad. There’s a long way, and a whole lot of who knows what still ahead of me yet.

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GeneralFriday, July 8th, 2011, (5:30 am)

Many a time I have seen someone driving a VW kombi (microbus/camper van) and thought to myself, ‘It would be cool to have one of those.’ I would day-dream about the chance to take off whenever the mood took me, to just head out onto the open road and stop for the night at an unplanned and possibly unknown location. I would imagine driving a camper van across the United States, around Europe, or along the Australian coast. As day-dreams go, it was a good one.

That was the dream, and here I am now with a map of Australia open before me and the keys to a camper-van in my pocket. Only, it’s not a split screen VW kombi from the days of the Beach Boys. Instead it’s a 1989 Toyota Tarago, a relic from the big haired era of BonJovi.

Sadly the opportunities to acquire a decent VW kombi in Melbourne were scarce, and the price for such style would have taken a ravenous bite out of my budget. I could have waited for a lucky deal, but the truth is my Tarago was a bargain, and while it lacks the romance of the old VW, it would at last give me the freedom to experience life on the road in a camper-van.

Unlike the iconic VW Kombi, my Tarago wasn’t originally a camper-van when it rolled off the Toyota assembly line as Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” crackled over a radio somewhere.

It made the switch from humble people carrier to camper-van in more recent years like some late-in-life gender reassignment surgery. The result didn’t bring forth an undiscovered charm or long hidden beauty, but then the Toyota Tarago was never pretty. In motoring terms this was an ugly duckling that matured into an ugly duck.

Originally a rejected design for a 1980’s Japanese shopping mall, the Tarago was not a vehicle that stirred feelings of desire or envy. The drive feels like a long conversation with an accountant, at an accountancy seminar, in Dudley, when it’s raining. But, like all Toyotas, it was more about the function than the form, more focused on longevity than lust. And so it is that long after people have stopped listening to the likes of Milli Vanilli and Richard Marx, the trusty old Tarago is still going.

However, longevity and reliability aside, my ‘post op’ Tarago doesn’t offer much in the way of refinements or creature comforts. The air conditioning no longer works and the stereo mutes for the duration of any right hand turn.

Where there were once an abundance of seats there is now a large bed set upon a hinged wooden board. Underneath that there’s space for luggage and essentials, and in the back there are two large plastic boxes packed with gear for life on the road. There’s also a table and two chairs, two sleeping bags, a large water container, and a single gas burner for cooking.

By no stretch of the imagination could my Tarago be called luxurious, though it is surprisingly comfortable, and since its reassignment operation it’s become a well travelled little camper-van. It’s been driven to far off places by French people, some Germans, a couple of girls from Finland, and now me.

It’s not the dream, but really when you consider everything, it’s actually not a bad reality either.