The soundtrack to coastal icons and bohemian enclaves that one American couple discovered on a summer road trip from Sydney to the Woodford Folk Festival.
To expats and travellers, Christmas doesn’t exist in Australia. The snowy concept of twinkling lights, steamy apple cider and spiced pumpkin pie is merely a memory amid the beach barbecues that define “the holiday season” in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s the one day a year that all the backwards, upside-down stereotypes about Australia feel true.
But rather than protest the holidays, last December my partner and I embraced them. We planned a summer road trip up the east coast to look for outsiders like ourselves. We hired a Jucy campervan, which—equipped with a gas stove, battery-powered esky, DVD player and stereo—would meet all our cooking and entertainment needs. After stocking it with surfboards and musical instruments, we set off. The Spotify soundtrack—our modern version of the classic mix tape, played on an iPad connected via auxiliary cord—began and then shifted with our moods and the passing scenery. Here’s the soundtrack to our summer journey.
Treachery Camp: Rise, Eddie Vedder (Music for the Motion Picture Into the Wild)
It was late afternoon on Christmas Eve when we pulled into Treachery Camp near Seal Rocks, New South Wales. The waves were small and glassy, and the sunset lingered for hours. Couples, groups of friends and unconventional families adorned their tents and vans with Christmas decorations and carried out intentional meals and conversations by the campfire. After dinner, we retreated to our Jucy, decked out in solar-powered fairy lights, and watched Into the Wild, the story of the young American idealist Christopher McCandless whose search for truth and self-reliance took him to the remote Alaska wilderness, where he died tragically of starvation. Watching a film about one man’s rejection of material possessions and search for simplicity felt appropriate on this alternative Christmas Eve. This was without knowing about “Walk Away Dave” (see Volume 2:2), a local character who, partially inspired by McCandless, currently lives on the Seal Rocks sand dunes and works tirelessly to rid the area of plastic rubbish.
Hat Head National Park: First Mind, Nick Mulvey
The deep green river valley that leads to Hat Head National Park is dotted with cows and wheelbarrows that brim with local produce. We pulled over and bought a zucchini and squash by dropping a two-dollar coin into a metal can. The sky was dark and stormy, but that didn’t stop us from walking over sea grass–sprouting sand dunes to jump into the warm, rejuvenating sea until near darkness. The next morning, we hiked from the Smoky Cape Lighthouse to North Smoky Beach, where we collected shells and driftwood and escaped the heat in the crystal clear water.
Bellingen: Liquor and Sin, Original Sin
The groovy community of Bellingen, tucked into the patchwork hills of the Coffs Harbour hinterland, welcomed us immediately with comforting food and down-to-earth residents. There’s an area nearby known as “the Promised Land,” marked by rock pools formed along the Never Never River. (Yes, it’s really called that).
A guy named David working at the Bellingen Backpackers YHA said the river is so clean you can drink it. We tested his theory (it was pretty tasty) on a chilly rainy day and learned that the savant pianist David Helfgott from the movie Shine lives there. Back in Bellingen, our favorite local haunt was No. 5 Church, a cafe that serves delicious fish tacos, local beer and biodynamic buffalo gelato from a local farm.
In the evening, No. 5 Church hosts live bands such as the Central Coast folk-blues duo Original Sin, who we were fortunate to see on our second night in town. Their song “Liquor and Sin” came into our lives on cue. “You can drink your fill, you can play your hand, but it won’t lead you to the promised land,” one lyric says. We got permission to camp overnight in the YHA parking lot, making us feel like real Bellingen bohemians.
Dorrigo National Park: Rain, The Mae Trio
It rained for two days straight when we were in Bellingen, so we conceded to doing a soggy slog through the Gondwana-era rainforest about a half hour away, known for its waterfalls and ancient flora and fauna. We were warned about leeches, but didn’t realize they’d climb aboard nearly every time we stopped to examine a vine or take a photo. We ended up jogging the 2.5-hour circuit to Crystal Shower Falls to escape the pesky blood suckers, but still found one burrowed under my partner’s sandal! Despite the discomforts, the drive out there alone was worth the trip. You can see several waterfalls from the car.
Nimbin: Time Passes Slowly #1, Bob Dylan
Everyone has their opinions about Nimbin. We weren’t too fond of the town itself (“it’s Bohemia on crack” as one Bellingen local put it), but we did love camping high on a hill at the Nimbin Rox YHA, which faced some of the area’s famous rock promontories. Bob Dylan accompanied us for lentil stew and the sunset. The surrounding countryside, housing hidden intentional communities and artsy retreat centers with names like Bird Song and Journey’s End, was the prettiest stretch of the trip.
Woodford: Auld Lang Syne, Tom Waits
Australia’s answer to Burning Man, the Woodford Folk Festival is a carbon-neutral dream world of light-up floats; bamboo tunnels; and late-night drum circles, dance parties, and cabarets. It’s an ephemeral utopia where hippies and businessmen, circus performers and rappers, European backpackers and indigenous musicians all come together to celebrate the past and set positive intentions for the year ahead. On New Year’s Eve, the festival has a tradition of calling three minutes of silence. With the exception of a few drunk revellers, the three minutes were nearly devoid of human sounds. Instead, wind whispered through the trees and candles flickered across a sea of thoughts. At midnight, one of the featured musicians always plays the traditional Scottish tune “Auld Lang Syne,” which means “times gone by.”
The Tweed Coast: Salty and Sweet, John Smith and Lisa Hannigan
On the way home, we stopped in Currumbin to watch surfboard glasser Teena McIlveen (“the Lady of Many Colours”) work her marbling magic on some boards—for an upcoming GOQ profile—before scarfing down juicy fish and chips at Throwers. Without a plan, we drove down the Tweed Coast as the sun sank low and “freedom camped” at the first beach turnout we found off the main coastal road. Late that night, another caravan (equipped with a hula hoop rack) joined us at our idyllic free campsite that looked even more beautiful the next morning when dolphins were swimming in the surf.
Angourie: Gonna be a Long Time, John Butler Trio
The famous surf town was our last destination before home. There wasn’t much swell but we played in the marine reserve; hiked the headland; swam in the two freshwater pools (former bluestone quarries); watched the sun set at Wooloweyah Lake; and had an incredible dinner at Barbaresco—the only restaurant in town that, probably by design, doesn’t have a website. The rustic, candle-lit space serves slow-paced meals of wood-fired pizza, small plates, and cocktails to a casual crowd of laid-back locals. Sufficiently filled and buzzed, we waddled across the street and slept in the Jucy opposite the house of a lady we met that morning at Angourie’s only coffee shop. It was a perfect end to the trip.