Burning cane fields, empty roads and foothills in North Queensland – is that what life is like?

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<p><figcaption class=Photograph: Paul Dymond/Alamy

Day 10 of my 3000km bus journey up the east coast of Australia, and I am dropped off at the side of the road in central Queensland at 1:10am, about 30km from my destination.

It’s cold. It’s desolate. We’re in what appears to be a bay where truckers sleep in their cabins. It disorients me, but I calm down thinking about pizza.

My friend Brendan has opened a pizzeria in the town of Agnes Water (population 2210) which seemed like a good reason to visit, even at this inhospitable hour.

Agnes Water is off the main road between Bundaberg and Gladstone. It’s lovely. Within a day I was at realestate.com, plotting a new life here. There’s a stunning, sheltered main beach, then a path to a headland where you can fish, stand up paddle board, swim, watch the sun set over the water, have some oysters and a glass of wine.

By the time I got on the bus for the last 2.5 hour leg to Cairns, I was feeling very depressed.

And the pizza is excellent.

But reality gets in the way. I have a bus to catch. And Brendan reminds me that I’m still halfway to Cairns. On the night of my scheduled departure at 12:30 am, I receive a midnight text message from the bus company. The bus is delayed from 1.5 to 2.5 hours. That’s a wide range for standing outside on the side of the road in the middle of the night. We fail and my wish to be stuck in Agnes Water is granted, at least for another 24 hours. But another day here puts pressure on the rest of the journey, leaving me with just three days to cover the 1,288.5km to Cairns.

**

The next night the bus travels to Airlie Beach, where I get off around 9am, then head to my lodging where I sleep most of the day. From the balcony I see the Whitsundays and it looks like paradise.

The next morning I get back on the bus. This is an eight hour period from Airlie Beach to Mission Beach.

The breeze is strong outside and the palm trees are bent. The landscape is not lush and tropical, as I imagined, but thick and dry, the vegetation hard and low to the ground.

Related: I Thought Nobody Smoked Anymore: The 13-Hour Leg Of My Bus Ride Through Leisure Country | Brigid Delaney

On the bus, the chemical smell of someone’s V Energy drink is omnipresent.

We pass salt pans, telegraph poles and pale pink water-filled marshes that are eerily beautiful but also creepy. Is the color natural or is it contamination? Raptors circle overhead.

We keep driving; Palm trees, gas station stops, small towns with tin and clapboard houses, chain-link fences, boarded-up stores with “for rent” signs, and great old-fashioned pubs all become beautiful in the dappled winter sun.

Evening is falling, and in Tully they are burning sugar cane in a paddock. I see him blurry, through the bus window, over my shoulder, as we drive out of town. The sight is strangely exciting, evoking a borrowed nostalgia for an Australia I thought no longer existed: the Australia of Ray Lawler’s play The Summer of the Seventeeth Doll; that 1985 GANGgajang song about lightning crackling over reedbeds; the Cattle and the Cane of Intermediaries; the Jimmy Barnes Working Class Man film clip, with a cane field fire behind him.

It’s a romantic image, I guess. In a landscape that has passed me by for weeks, intimidating in its size, sometimes bland to the point of hypnosis, the burning cane fields are an image of Australia that I can grasp and remember.

**

On the last push north, I began to dread the journey itself, not because it was long and boring, and sometimes it happened overnight, preventing me from sleeping well, but because of the loop of thoughts I had while on the bus. .

The thoughts, sometimes 10 hours straight, were: what’s the point, you just go on a journey, it’s hard and sometimes it’s beautiful, then you get to where you need to be, then you turn around and go back. It seemed pointless. Under the fluorescent lights of gas stations, as the white lines faded to a blur, in the cold air outside and the warm, stale air inside the bus, on the long, long, empty highway, I wondered… isn’t that LIFE? IT IS?? Do you like going to Cairns by bus? In my brain, deprived of company and internet (my battery was low – 1%!!, I didn’t have a charger), the whole trip became a metaphor for existence. When the trip went wrong, it seemed like my existence was cursed. When it went well, my life was blessed.

When I got on the bus for the last 2.5 hour leg to Cairns, I was feeling very depressed.

I kept asking myself “what for?” What was he doing this trip for? Why was he traveling 3,000 km to the top of Australia by bus, getting there, then going to the airport and taking the flight back?

If there had been a reason, he had forgotten it.

But the drive had probably started in lockdown: a longing to meet this country again, to see it roll out all the border declarations, permits, state vs. state, all the miserable trifles of the past two years.

It was the longing, I guess, to be free. To connect with the country and hopefully connect with others.

I connected with people. The friends I saw along the way and the new people I met. I met surfers in Suffolk Park who wanted to talk about Marcus Aurelius, a tour operator in 1770 who introduced the paddle-board to a dog stand in Australia, an electrician who begged me to go to Yeppoon and hire a boat, a taxi driver in Airlie Beach I fondly remembered the days as a clerk and masseur in Cairns who told me about the feet of North Queensland.

As I stretched my back, he told me about people who work on farms without shoes, people who work on boats without shoes, people who work in kitchens without shoes.

The guy who worked in a kitchen without shoes had developed “leather shoes” on the soles of his feet, so hard that he felt nothing when he walked on the rocks. That was until the masseur noticed unusual swelling and warmth in the man’s feet and ankles, and a trip to the hospital revealed that he had glass embedded deep in his skin. His feet were so hard he didn’t even realize he had glass in his foot.

By day 15 I was ready to go home. My trip was done. It was fitting then that my flight back to Sydney was canceled on the way to the airport.

This country, once it’s under your skin, doesn’t let you go easily.

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