Australia is so big and diverse that a first impression from landing in Brisbane is like a first impression of America from landing in Atlanta. But first impressions are also inevitable and often right. They contain the seeds that grow into more lasting impressions. I've only been here 24 hours, so you are going to get my first impression!
It's definitely unlike anywhere I've been before. OK, there are hints of other places, but nothing close. Brisbane is subtropical, a bit rainforest-y. In the very clean airport parking lot, there were bilbao trees! My first ever. On the two-hour early-morning drive to my hotel, I saw cows grazing next to sugar fields and an old dead volcano in the distance (a bit Hawaiian). We drove through Surfer's Paradise, which is kind of like a quirkier, smaller-scale Fort Lauderdale (although the newest condo has something like 84 floors!). I was glad I hadn't decided to stay there. Driving through the town of Byron Bay felt a bit like cruising through an old California surfing town, with a bit of Maine hippie living thrown in. Some very beautiful people were walking about early in the morning--the town was buzzing!
But it wasn't until I got to my hotel (Hotel Byron at Byron Bay) that I got my first real feel. This place is really cool. It is built on the old estate of an eccentric Australian woman who was obsessed with water lilies. So she and her family built these raised pathways through the rainforest. I got to see up close (and without the fear) some very primal, protected, and rare rainforest habitats. While some plants look familiar (think giant houseplants!), many look totally different. And ALL the birds look different. And the sounds!!! It's a veritable feast of new sounds. I was so excited to see what looked like small wild turkeys (bush turkeys) until later they tried to eat my food at the hotel!
As I walked along the pathways, I tried to identify the smells--dampness, earthiness, ocean, pine, fragrant wood (think gum tree not eucalyptus, which you do smell if you bend a leaf). Again, the scents are both familiar and unfamiliar; more redolent of a past life than anything from my present life. Or like the smell of summer camp from my childhood.
And though on the surface everything is very sophisticated and modern--to the best standards I've seen anywhere--it all feels like one step away from being totally reclaimed by the untamed wildness. Whether it's the churning, fierce ocean (we are just coming off the wet season here, and there has been lots of rain, so the beach is filled with foam and the water looks way too wild to venture into), the giant, GIANT bats that fly around the hotel at night, or the ants that show up in the toilet in the middle of the night, nature is the final word here.
The people are, as I expected, friendly, relaxed, down-to-earth. But already I sense that it's a very white world here. In 24 hours I have not really seen any sign of aboriginal culture. I hope that changes!
In the week before I came I was feeling a bit bummed that I was coming all this way and still not seeing the "outback." But after reading Tony Horwitz's book One for the Road on the plane, I realize I'll have to do that another time. First of all, it's the wet season, which means roads are often impassable. Second of all, I don't drink beer. And lastly, I have to have a reason to return.
Speaking of which, the flight wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be, although that could be because I was in business class where the seats do lie flat. Truly flat. I am one of those people who can't sleep sitting up. So to lay down flat and sleep on a plane is a revelation in travel. There'll be no stopping me now!
More reports to come. But there is only ever one chance for a first impression. I still can't believe I am finally here!
For more from Maria Rodale, go to www.mariasfarmcountrykitchen.com