A three hour drive through farmland ends on a peninsula, the southernmost tip of mainland Australia: Wilsons Promontory.
The Prom is a place you come back to. You can drive for thousands of kilometers in new directions, but it only takes two hundred heading south-east to reach sweeping beaches set against granite-faced mountains, coastal shrubland and marshes, heathland and woodland, tall eucalypts and bracken-dense rainforests – all nestled together on a raised peninsula about the size of Brooklyn.
You return to it because it’s easy: it’s close and it’s beautiful. The campground has a general store where you can buy ice cream and wombat pins and plastic wine glasses. The hikes are clearly marked, the paths well-trodden.
A thirty minute walk brings you to a vista overlooking Squeaky Beach; it’s another ten minutes down the cliff to learn that the sand really does squeak. The grains are all near-perfect, similarly-sized spheres of quartz – but why it should make a noise when walked upon is still just theory.
Sustaining awe is hard work.
A two hour hike along the coast takes you up the cliffs, over crests, and to the next stunning bay, after stunning beach, after stunning bay. It’s all beautiful – so beautiful, in fact, that admiring it becomes exhausting. You lose patience; you stop pausing; you keep walking.
Perhaps we are just out of practice. Admiration requires imagination. You must gaze out for so long that you see the earth for what it really is: a colossal rock. The most beautiful colossal rock humans may ever witness, and here we are, witnessing it.
But how many times in a row can I feel awe-struck and minuscule? I must keep walking.
We avoid boredom and imagination: we fall asleep watching television, we run with headphones, sit near the window on the tram to comfortably swipe and scroll.
Solitude has always been frightening. Bertrand Russell wrote in 1930 that “the opposite of boredom, in a word, is not pleasure, but excitement”:
As we rise in the social scale the pursuit of excitement becomes more and more intense. Those who can afford it are perpetually moving from place to place, carrying with them as they go gaiety, dancing and drinking, but for some reason always expecting to enjoy these more in a new place. Those who have to earn a living get their share of boredom, of necessity, in working hours, but those who have enough money to be freed from the need of work have as their ideal a life completely freed from boredom.
Walking in a dense forest, up a scraggy mountain, is easier than walking in the Prom. In the big forests that stretch across continental mountain ranges, we do not expect anything of the next kilometer, and we can become lost in the monotony. Everything we avoid percolates: our aging parents, old friends with whom we’ve lost touch, the fact that humans must endure time, that one partner will watch the other die. Then we reach the summit, we come to conclusions, and we take them back the same path down the mountain.
But in the Prom, we must move onto the next bay. The next one, after all, might be more beautiful. We can compare them all in the photographs afterwards.
Last night we found a room for $48 at the Black Lion Inn. It was between that and camping somewhere in the outskirts of the city and walking in. The room was in a bar/bottle-shop/drive-through. We had beers around town, and brought a box of garlic pizza to a bar as it was closing. The bartender didn’t mind. Even in Broken Hill, we went to bed past 10 and woke around 7. Good not to be separated by sleeping bags. This morning I had a hot shower, and we drove to Silverton. We went on a tour of the Day Dream mine. We bought cooking supplies and are now at the Demo Club so Dan can get some work done. We’re planning on camping up past Silverton and walking down the 2 hours to the Silverton Hotel for a drink.
Burra Gorge Creek, 6 May 2016
Today we drive the ~180km to Adelaide. We’ll have to calculate our mileage when we get home – we’ve gone far, but have barely encroached upon Australia at large. This spot is great camping: there are a few RVs but we can’t see them from our end. We arrived here around 4pm, which gave us enough light to comfortably set up, find firewood, etc. Night was v. windy – and the few embers we had in the fire lit. Luckily the gusts had awoken us to notice. So no more embers at bedtime. The night before, we stayed at a reservoir and Dan I hoped to walk the 9kms to the Silverton Hotel. The dark and remoteness rightly scared us from actioning that plan. And it would have been an 11km walk, it turned out anyways.
Driving out of Broken Hill, we hoped to get a coffee at a small town we drove through, but two of the hotel-restaurants we passed were both closed (even though, the first one at least, we arrived after the opening time stuck to the door). A group of Australian motorcyclists were drinking beer outside the porch. We kept driving. We tried to make eggs in front of the second hotel, but our stove pumping mechanism needed oil for lubrication, which we didn’t have. So we had some cheese. Finally signs of life at Yunta (“never close!”). 30kms off a dirt road we found ruins of a mining town, drove back, filled up, and got a six pack of Coopers (for $21!). Yunta seems like a middle-of-nowhere place it might be okay to stay, in the hotel, for a few days. We got stopped at a fruit fly inspection. I didn’t think we actually would – we forgot about the fruit & veg. Luckily the guy only asked for us to open the cooler, where we had mostly mushrooms and cheese and half a jalapeño from breakfast. The mushrooms (which we had been looking forward to for dinner that night) were safe, and he took our jalapeño. The flies in Australia suck. For dinner we had baked potatoes and mushrooms and toasted garlic bread. (Next time, keep the bread farther from the fire – we put the potatoes in first, then the bread 20 minutes later, and the mushrooms, and left everything for another 40 minutes. Camping degustation next time, too.)
You can run a marathon, but you can’t swim. You watch YouTube videos on how to swim the freestyle stroke. The reach, the catch, the pull, the push, the recovery. You get a membership to the pool. Holding your breath underwater for three strokes at a time is a difficult trick. You are more tired after one lap, down and back, in the pool than after a usual morning 7 kilometer jog. The pool is half-size; it’s 25 meters. Underwater, in goggles, you try your best not to notice hairs – the worst of human debris – floating in front of you. One time, you swallow a choke of water and can’t forget the feeling, like the last time you scraped a fork on an empty plate. Swimming’s not impossible, you’re sure it’s not impossible, but humans are bipedal land animals.
“In running the mind flies with the body; the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain, in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms.” – Joyce Carol Oates in theNew York Times (July 19, 1999).
We stayed one night in the (wet, thundering) Grampians and two nights about an hour south of Mildura, below the New South Wales border. Before driving up to Broken Hill, home of mining giant BHP, we washed in the morning under a cold tap – it had been three days since we’d had both privacy and running water. The mornings around here – in the Victorian outback – are around 12 degrees Celsius in the fall. The sun isn’t warming this early. The day before, the afternoon hit 20 degrees in Mildura when we went for breakfast, and to buy socks from K-mart. Then we had tried to find the big Stanley wine cask – a huge painted shed – driving back and forth on the B79 in front of the grape refinery to eventually Google that the company had repainted the cask. “It doesn’t represent our brands,” the group public relations manager Anita Poddar said. Sunraysia Daily, Mildura’s local paper quoted Mildura Tourism CEO Rod Trowbridge that “Life will go on” without the giant wine cask – but will it really? This is the same Rod Trowbridge who said in the paper we read that morning that “it was essential for Mildura to have a presence in its biggest markets to be competitive with other popular destinations”. But what is Mildura without a giant wine cask 20 kilometres north?
Down the road from the “winery” was a honey stand, but we didn’t have the change to buy a $6 jar. Back in the park, where we had set up camp, we walked a trail, 15 or so kilometers. This is hiking different from what I’m used to: the land is flat, not mountainous, the flies are insistent, kangaroos blend into the landscape. There are no creeks to stop at, and no poison ivy to worry about. The dirt is orange and the brush is low. In sunset, the colors intensify, and it’s hard not to call it beautiful.
By the campfire, we looked at the stars. The Milky Way is a pallid swath across the length of the entire sky. Dan saw his first shooting star – falling big and nearby. We baked potatoes in the embers and drank wine. Later, we had s’mores and dumped the last of our wine onto the dying fire, and brushed our teeth at the tap.
Dan suggested Ballarat and I said yes. (A good traveler is like a good improv actor, I guess.) In bed, the morning of our trip, Dan looked through Airbnb listings on his phone. I suggested that a crappy motel might be cheaper (outside of big cities, it sometimes is), imagining a Motel 6 off the highway.
At face value, no, crappy motels were not cheaper than Airbnb. But tack on $20 of Airbnb fees and we did find a more affordable, traditional (we thought) accommodation. And right in the Central Business District of Ballarat, too!
But of course, when you’re looking for a bargain – when you’ve spent many years looking for a bargain – you’re all too familiar with the “too good to be true” trope 1 so I googled around before committing our debit cards to a questionable fate. One of the five Google reviews read “TWO WORDS……BED BUGS.” (Yet that reviewer had awarded Reid’s Guest House 2 stars.)
I pointed out to Dan that if you’ve got two words to say, you’ve already wasted both of them – and so really whenever someone says “two words” they really mean “four words.” Dan said, “yeah, but bed bugs is two words.” I understood his point: we had no time to discuss word-counting accuracy when the car rental place had already called asking if we were still definitely coming to pick up the car. So I back-tracked to the original Google search. It gave me an article about how good a favor the House was doing for Ballarat by hosting the “down on their luck” for extended periods.
But it was the cheapest place and it was in the city center. I booked it. We packed a few pairs of underwear after a brief discussion of how many one needs for 2 days (I brought three pairs – one for just in case), and I packed my camera, and we finally left the house at 10am sans shower (why shower at home when you can shower in Ballarat?) and sans breakfast (we’d save that meal for the limited number we’d have away from home).
Ballarat is just an hour and a half drive from Melbourne. So it’s not really a drive at all. Ballarat’s golden age is past us, as its Wikipedia page’s table of contents clearly indicates:
1.1 Prehistory and European settlement
1.2 1850s: Gold rush
1.3 Victorian city
1.4 Declining fortunes
1.5 Since the 20th century
In 1851, gold was discovered at Ballarat, and the place then enjoyed an intense gold rush for a long period of time. Longer than most places. Ballarat at some point even had an international reputation! It was proclaimed a city in 1871 and for a time, it was even referred to as the “Athens of Australia”! (By Ballaratian patriots themselves.) But then after the gold ran out, people stopped caring about it, of course.
We arrived at Reid’s Guest House just before 1 in the afternoon. The front door was firmly shut, and we doubted we even had the right door because there wasn’t any signage out front. I pulled up a photo on my phone, and what we were standing in front of was definitely the same classically Australian veranda.
I called the place, and said we were standing outside, and was told that the doors would re-open at 1pm. We had three minutes to kill, so we crossed the street and watched for someone to open the door.
Reid’s Guest House’s has dank entrance and scraping paint and a hushed vibe. The welcome committee often hovering around the entrance is only medium welcoming – they don’t really make eye contact and wear large shirts and mind their own cigarette-smoking business.
Our room had a tv and fresh towels and signs barring us from the dusty balcony. A sticker in the bathroom said to let the hot water tap run for five minutes to let it get warm. We were going to be okay.
We sat on the edge of the bed in our hunger-in-a-new-place ritual: on our phones, hopping from app to app, swiping right through photos of food. You can tell a city by the photos in its food apps. I’m not sure what exactly you can tell, but there’s something about a place with really crappy photos of food. 2
Mostly, it’s that it’s really challenging to choose between five places that have mediocre photos of food. If you’ve only ever tried choosing between two restaurants that seem incredible then you’ve never really struggled in your life.
Anyways, we finally chose a place called the Boat Shed. We looked past the poor quality of its visitor’s phone cameras and decided maybe it would be nice to have a view of a lake whilst eating. It was a fair walk away, which was okay: it would be a good intro to the city.
The CBD is small, and we quickly reached the suburbs. Our intro to the city was sidewalks and houses.
The Boat Shed was nice, and the food was nice as well. We ate a lot of it, and really fast- because we had underestimated how long it would take for us to walk to the restaurant and our parking spot time was running out. The whole dining experience was so quick that neither of us remember what we ate. One of the things involved pumpkins. I bet I have a photo of it on my phone somewhere.
I also remember that we were sitting in a corner, nestled against two windows, and it was immensely hot in one seat, and so Dan and I switched halfway through.
Bellies full, we jogged it back in and made it right in between the time that our parking meter ran out and a parking officer noticed. We re-parked the car and headed back to the hotel and showered and then settled back on the bed for another game-planning session.
This time I opened up a million tabs on my laptop on the theme of things to do in Ballarat.
Which really isn’t much – not when you don’t really know a country and expect that cities in it are all like the single one that you’ve ever been in. But, lo, Ballarat is not like Melbourne at all, and there are not just gigs you can look up or bars you’d want to chill in or natural history museums you can meander around until you’re not glassy-eyed and not even looking at anything anymore.
There especially isn’t much when it’s 4pm – the hour everything closes. Dan rolled over on the bed, and said, “We came all the way to Ballarat to eat at the Boat Shed really quickly.”
Which was a funny observation, so we laughed at that for a few minutes, and then I returned to my tabs. A hopeful option was the Ballarat Observatory (those are open late as a requisite, no?) – but the website really refused to give us any information on how/when/why to visit. 3 Dan called, and asked if/when we could come, and the lady asked when we would want to, and he said, “8pm?” and she said, “Okay, see you at 8pm.”
We spent the few hours we had to kill at the only bar that had “people like us” in it: Mitchell Harris Wines. It has lightly graffiti-d exposed brick walls and the windows were large and opened out onto the street. The black olive salt edamame there were such a great snack that we even noted them in our joint Evernote.
Post-edamame-wine, we began the 40-minute trek to the Ballarat Observatory. (There are more hills than you’d expect!) And then we got there and there were a bunch of gates and all of them were locked and the sun had set and the observatory was dark. It was 8pm.
And then it was 8:15pm, and we were getting cold, and we started walking back, defeated by the Ballarat Observatory. It was about ten minutes in, when we had managed to inebriate-on-the-go with supplies we had brought just in case, when we got a phone call asking where we were because our guide came and no one was around and so the guide left. The lady on the phone said maybe she could call our guide and he’d come back, if that’s what we wanted.
Dan put the phone down near his thigh, and we looked at each other, and I stopped giggling and said very seriously, “Let’s do it.”
Our guide at the Observatory was an aeronautical engineering PhD student who was particularly fascinated by telescopes and the sky, and was excited to learn that we were, too. It was twenty bucks that couldn’t have been better spent than on a personal tour with a guy who’s excited to show you telescopes the size of a small, sideways lighthouses.
The next day, we had enough time to visit Sovereign Hill, which is the place that everyone asks if you went to see if you say you’ve just been to Ballarat. Sovereign Hill is reminiscent of your fifth grade social studies trip – “an open air museum and historic park” a.k.a. a place that is built up like an old mining town, with hired actors and you can sieve for gold or go 9-pin bowling or watch a blacksmith make horseshoes.
It’s pricy fun, but it’s fun all the same. I’ve been playing the video game Red Dead Redemption, and Sovereign Hill was like a real-live version of that, except that there weren’t any bandits or anything. You can meander on dusty streets or have a drink at the bar and stand in the doorway watching 19th century degenerates yelling at each other out on the street. You can go down a mine, or you can go down a second mine that you have to pay extra for, and is totally not worth it. (You go down a deep shaft to watch a weird movie where faces are projected onto large rocks and then you come back up.)
We finished the day with scones – which are a big thing in Australia. 4 Then we got into the car and drove the hour and a half back to Melbourne.
And so, that was Ballarat.
My morals of the story about Ballarat:
Reid’s Guest House is not the worst place to stay, but it is the cheapest.
Repark your car before going somewhere far to eat.
For example, my “cheap bedroom in the Lower East Side” in New York City one year was multi-critter infested (eventually you get used to falling asleep knowing for sure that the roach did not make an exit journey from your closet) and had two windows pressed up against the tenement next door (though the windows did fit a tiny AC). It was not located in the LES but actually in a neighborhood called Two Bridges, which I’m sure will one day soon be seen as immensely desirable but at the time was just the leftovers of Chinatown ↩
Food porn cities ranked: 1. Melbourne 2. New York City 3. Ballarat ↩
It’s a gem of a website, though. If you’re ever in Ballarat looking for something to do, visit the Ballarat Observatory website and try to decide whether you do or do not want to go to the Ballarat Observatory. For example, the About Us tab has two links: History and Stained Glass Windows. ↩
This always surprises me. Australians eat scones with cream, and they are always talking about how lovely or fresh the scones are at this place or that place, and if they aren’t just having them for breakfast, they are having them at high tea, which is another thing that surprises me all the time. It surprises Dan that it surprises me – “It’s British, of course we like it” he said, “what’s so surprising about that?”. ↩
Travellers come in two sorts: the fast and the slow. The fast are ticking places off a list: they see the sights, they clutch a guidebook, they spend money. So much to do, so little time. They are in a rush to get home, or rather, home is in a rush to have them back: work and family or any other variant of obligations that they’ve temporarily put their mind off of. Vacationers. The slow, instead, fit new places on until they are familiar. They have breakfast at the same cafe every morning and they forget their cameras in a room they sometimes refer to as home. They have time. They’ll take pictures some other day. They have obligations, too, which they’ve neatly packed along with them. Finding a new job or apartment, say, or keeping in touch. Sometimes we travel fast, and sometimes we travel slow, but oftentimes, we can only make space in our lives for just one sort or the other.
I’ve been in Melbourne long enough that I hesitate when someone asks me what’s so different back home, what I found surprising or difficult to adjust to. What I miss most, materially.
This is what makes that fast sort type of traveling so singular and affecting: those places you forever remember as foreign, as blips in what you’ve ever known, distinct from your routines and your home.
We rented a car a few months ago, a Groupon deal, and figured we’d find a place to go when the time came. Indeed, we left the decision until the morning of our weekend rental – it was time for a blip.
It was late September, and we were having soup for lunch at our kitchen bench. This is springtime in Melbourne, and the days are warmer, some of them, but the cold isn’t all gone just yet. We hadn’t talked about our wedding in months really, except in passing – “we can serve toasties at the wedding!” or “we can get a few cases of Innocent Bystander Moscato for our wedding!” – but it was a distant date. To be decided, announced, planned in the year – or was it years? – ahead.
“Fuck it, let’s do this.”
What had kept us? Because weddings are expensive? (Our wedding doesn’t have to be expensive.) Because we wanted both of our family and friends to attend? (But we knew there would always be swaths of close ones who couldn’t make it; this is how a relationship like ours works, one of us will always be missing everybody from their side of the globe.)
And so we printed the paperwork, and sat back down at the kitchen bench, readying ourselves for gruelling forms. But there wasn’t much. Our birthdays, where we were born, the names of our parents. We lodged the form the next day and set a date, the earliest weekend we could: October 24th.
We created a list of tasks. Rings, vows, phone calls. Dan – the early- and mass-adopter of productivity apps – diligently crossed one and then the next thing off of Todoist while I put things off. Invitations, food, alcohol. I started using a to-do list app, too.
We made our own rings for each other. (Dan booked a jewellery studio for a day: we googled for a place to buy precious metals. The one metal dealer we found – a middle-aged short and tan Italian man with plenty of gold around his neck and women in bikinis pasted on the wall – didn’t have the white gold we were after. He could order it for us, but not in time for our studio appointment, and really, not in time for our wedding, a week away. So we bought several millimetres of silver. That night we watched YouTube videos and took notes and the next day, we made wedding bands. It took several tries and our final products don’t fit perfectly and we didn’t have time to polish them either. We have many weeks, years, decades ahead to book another jewellery studio for the day. Maybe we’ll even score some white gold.)
We printed postcards as invitations. (And spent an evening writing the text, several paragraphs to alleviate any surprise – because we were only calling our closest family and friends; everyone else would find out through the mail. They reached Dan’s family and friends within a day. They scattered across the States a week around the wedding.)
Six days before, we ran our first marathon. (And both finished in four and a half hours!)
Dan called our local pizza place the night before. (And was told that they don’t deliver before 5pm, so Dan would have to pick them up himself after the ceremony.)
I write about the risks I’m taking, but this doesn’t fit in that category. Early on, just a year and a half ago, I worried that I was imagining things. Back then, I risked a lot. (I quit my job and I left my home for the farthest place from it.) We didn’t admit it to each other, and we definitely didn’t admit it to anyone else – but back then, we were just as terrified as we were excited.
But on the 24th of October, we were just worried that the celebrant would cut off our vows midway through – we were both twice over the word count.
In June, I started a draft titled Updates One Through Seven. It’s time I returned to that, I think.
We registered to run a marathon in October, our first. We’d been eating lavishly, and so running increasingly major distances to make up for it. We needed more intent than just to not get very fat, and so decided to run a half marathon. But when time came to register, I looked at Dan and Dan looked at me and we clicked “Marathon” and here we are. A sprained ankle is now involved. We have 3 weeks to go.
Junot Diaz wrote me a personal rejection letter for a short story I submitted a few months ago to a literary review.