Driven

It’s only around a decade ago that I got my driving license. I had been a learner since finishing high school a long time ago, but I could never take that final step. A lot of it is because I’m an independent learner, something that is illegal to be when learning to drive a car.

Anyway, I finally took the plunge and got my license on the second attempt. I probably could have got it the first time, but the tester chose a rather narrower reverse parallel parking spot than I was used to.

So now I seem to be making up for lost time. Just this year alone I have, in combination with my wife, driven to Adelaide, Melbourne, Canberra and, a few weekends ago, Brisbane.

I was supposed to fly. I used to love flying, but I’m not very good at in anymore. I get too anxious about turbulence. It’s the clouds that I am especially scared of and this past year has seen plenty of them, big ones, with the La Nina weather pattern bringing heavy rainfall to the east coast of Australia.

Covid and other reasons has also meant that many flights are delayed or cancelled. I had to get to Brisbane by midday Saturday for the Cinematic concert of John Williams music and was initially booked for a Saturday morning flight, back on Sunday morning. The weather forecast was not great.

When Friday arrived, anxious about both delays and the weather, I considered rebooking my flights to that afternoon. I should have. The weather outside was great and I would get a chance to prove to myself that flying is okay again. I haven’t flown since the trip to Darwin in April of last year.

The others think I flew. I didn’t. I drove. It took me about ten minutes to pack my bags, barely unpacked since the school holidays the week before, dump them into the car and head north. Just like that.

October 2020 was our last drive north. Surprisingly there were changes, with the Northconnex tunnel since opening. Fortunately I had updated the car’s GPS navigation for the last school holidays. Before I knew it I was on the Pacific Highway and out of Sydney.

Two and a half hours later, almost two hundred kilometres, my phone was playing up (that is, not feeding music properly over Bluetooth) and I needed to use the facilities. I pulled up at the 12 Mile Creek rest stop, the same one as on a previous trip with the family.

Fortunately there was a food van as it was after lunch and I had gone without breakfast. All I had was some mints and a bottle of Coke in the car. Not much food remained, a chicken and vegetable pie that was quite awful and hurt my sensitive teeth to eat. I’d just had them cleaned by the dentist, who told me to keep up the good work. Unfortunately, the cleaning process had triggered a sensitive tooth. That’s part of the reason I hadn’t eaten breakfast.

Less than fifteen minutes later I was back in the car and heading north again. After two and a bit hours I needed another break. Unfortunately, towns and service stops are few and far between on the Pacific Highway and I was in a hurry. I pulled into the Kempsey South service centre, again somewhere we have stopped before. It’s superficially pretty awful, but there is a range of food outlets and the bathrooms were clean. I used the time to book some accommodation for the night, a struggle due to the bad phone reception.

Initially my plan was to get as far as Coffs Harbour and drive the rest of the way on Saturday morning. But at the same time I just wanted to rest. I called the hotel direct and asked to extend my stay, but they said they were full. A booking website had rooms there, so I used that. I relied on a drink of milk to satisfy my stomach without triggering the teeth, then headed off again. All up, less than half and hour of delay.

Coffs Harbour is one of the few places the Pacific Highway still intersects a town. I thought again about stopping here for dinner, but the light was beginning to fade, so I just filled up the car with petrol and headed off again.

I don’t like driving at night in rural areas. Most of all I am afraid of hitting animals, but the closest I came was a possum scuttering over the road. There were patches of fog and rain showers. Other times I could see the stars and the Moon. Very occasionally the lights of a town. The roads were reasonably quiet, the most exciting bit was passing through the big St Helena tunnel.

I’m not quite certain when I crossed over the border into Queensland, but the appearance of a Queensland police motorcycle besides me indicated that I had arrived. I certainly appreciated the reappearance of street lights and urban areas as I entered the Gold Coast.

Roadwork slowed me down a bit, but eventually the four lane highway became eight. For much of the drive into Brisbane I followed a police car, ensuring that I could not become the target of locals enraged that I wasn’t driving with their incautious familiarity.

The lights of theme parks, a golf driving range, trade dealerships and shopping centres reminded me of Asia and arriving into one of the cities after a long day’s flight. I realised how many of these things are hidden away by Sydney’s motorways and how rarely we drive at night.

Fortunately, given my unfamiliarity with Brisbane driving, the exit off the motorway and short drive to the hotel were easy to navigate, unlike Melbourne’s motorways. Even the parking at the Southbank Novotel was simple and I was soon carrying my single bag up into my room.

It was nine pm and, after that long drive, I was exhausted, but a lack of food was also catching up with me. I could have gone in search of a proper meal, on a Friday night there were places still open, but my mouth was sore and I just wanted to go to bed, so I just took away some items from a 7-11. Just like Japan, though without the interesting range of food.

Then a shower and a sleep…

The next day I shouted myself breakfast at the hotel. Only, it wasn’t a buffet. Instead, presumably due to Covid, they deliver the food to your table. It was substantial enough for me to go without lunch, which was partly my intention.

It had been maybe thirty years since I had last visited Brisbane city. I spent the morning walking across the river to the Brisbane CBD and the Queen Street Mall. Then I walked back and along the Southbank. I stopped to admire the Nepalese Peace Pagoda, one of the few remnants of the 1988 World Expo in Brisbane. I had attended and thoroughly enjoyed that event, part of the Bicentennial celebrations.

The humid air, the puffy clouds above, the big green trees and modern concrete buildings combined to make me feel like I was back in Singapore. Considering that it has been almost three years since we were there, our last trip outside of Australia before the pandemic, it was an enjoyable sensation.

Maybe the food wasn’t as interesting, but there were plenty of choices along the Southbank, along with a weekend craft market with the usual knickknacks for sale, an artificial beach and pool and areas to stroll and relax. It felt good just to wander. I watched aircraft rise into the air, skimming the tops of the big tropical clouds. Maybe I would have been fine, although the others told me it was raining heavily in Sydney.

Back at the hotel, I barely had enough time for a quick nap before hurrying out again to the concert. The concert itself was well worth the effort of coming to Brisbane to attend. It was such a joyous celebration of Williams’ music, with the orchestra themselves dressing up as various characters from his movies.

Afterwards I picked up supplies from the Woolworths Metro store, breakfast and snacks for the return trip, and had an early dinner of tonkotsu ramen at Ramen Danbo. Though it was only the early evening, I decided to head back to the hotel and write my review of the concert and have an early night.

That was my objective, but just as I was falling asleep the family called and woke me up.

After falling asleep again, I awoke at 5.30 am, my body its own alarm clock. I readied myself and checked out from the hotel in less than an hour. My intention was to start the drive while the streets were quiet.

My return home to Sydney was basically the reverse of the way up. The drivers heading out of Brisbane seemed a bit more impatient than on the way in and there were a few showers, but I made it out of the city without problem.

Once more I stopped at Coffs Harbour for fuel. I was desperate to use the facilities, but had no access to park at the petrol station, so I continued onwards keeping an eye out for somewhere to stop. And again I ended up at the South Kempsey Service Centre!

My lunch was pies again. The choices at Freddo’s Pies looked so interesting. They were out of kangaroo and I’ve gone off crocodile, but even the boring lamb and mint was really nice. Now I have a reason to stop there again.

I had a little lie down in the car and though I didn’t sleep, I felt refreshed by the end of it.

The north-south route would be infinitely improved by a bypass of the stretch between Raymond Terrace and the start of the Pacific Motorway. There is always a traffic jam there.

Once on the motorway the roads were no fun either. Dense traffic and expensive, entitled, speeding cars. Once you get close to Sydney the aggression emerges, demanding constant focus. It’s not fun, especially at the end of a long journey. Not until I was on the home stretch past Bankstown could I finally relax.

I arrived home right on time, the GPS proving surprisingly accurate with its initial predictions, despite stops along the way.

The road has changed since we last drove it. Not just Northconnex, but bypasses and bridges completed, whereas previously we drove down single lanes through fields of sugarcane. I was glad for it on this trip, in a hurry to get to my destination, but it does make for a less interesting journey.

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