Van Diary #1: Home to Coffs Harbour

I’m sitting at a blue-green cement picnic table in a park beside the beach. I can’t see the beach, dense vegetation blocks my view, but I can certainly hear it’s lulling rhythm from beyond the trees. The beach here in Coffs Harbour is more beautiful than I expected. It’s a swimming beach, vastly different from the wild, untamed energy of the water around our last spot: Boorkoom Campground, Wooli, Yuraygir National Park, south of Yamba.

From our starting destination of Lennox Heads/Ballina, we travelled along local roads through Alstonville and Wardell (Curry) on to Yamba. I had done a lot of research on Yuraygir NP and it was one of the stops I was desperate to make on the trip. As a famously grey town, Yamba was slow and frustrating and unexpectedly disconnected from most of the Yuraygir NP. We stopped for fuel for the van and ourselves and drove on, about two hours, towards Boorkoom Campground.

I had read it was remote, but driving through empty country roads and then turning onto Diggers Camp Road, it became clear we were on our own. The road started as a remarkable beautiful, flat red-dirt road. A lake ran alongside and we were excited at the prospect of seeing emus. Then the road began to change to a rocky, bouncy drive. I could feel all of the weight of our home behind us, clashing and clanking along the trail. Finally, a picnic area opened to the left — was this the campsite we were now desperate to find? Nope, just a picnic area. Keep going or turn around? Well, it wouldn’t be an adventure if we just turned around…

Slowly we crawled on the rocky track, passing an incredible landscape of rolling grassed plants with long black seeds (?) shooting out of them (I really should learn the names of plants). Unseen birds called to one another within the trees and the sound of the ocean encouraged us along the bouncy, rocky, imminent-flat-tyre road — I hoped this place was good. I also hoped there was a space free for us. The NSW National Park website (which is surely one of the best NP websites in Australia) specified that there were only 10 sites available at this particular camp ground, and it was advisable to get there early to secure a spot.

Finally, after a seemingly endless and daunting drive, we saw the sign — Boorkoom Campgrounds; camping, toilets, hiking, no fires. As we turned the corner we were stunned by the beauty. A small clearing perched on the top of a cliff that overlooked a small, rocky bay pounded by the relentless waves. A few other campers had taken the prime spots on the cliff edge but there was still plenty of space left. After pulling up and discussing our options, we painstakingly manouvered our van into a flat site between the outside perimeter of trees and a small clump of trees next to the driveway.

Boorkoom campsite view
Boorkoom camp setup

We set up our van and awning, excited to finally be at the point we had dreamed of all those months ago when first buying the van and went off for adventure. Climbing down the steep, narrow staircase to the rocky beach below, I could see that the tide was beginning to come in and would eventually consume our path. We had to watch carefully if we wanted to get back to camp. Peeking into the rockpools along the sharp, jutting-out rock formation and then moving further up the beach onto ankle-rolling pebbles, we rounded the bay to find an untouched, pristine sandy beach of about 3km long.

Sheltering our things under a beach palm (OK, I really need to learn some plant names) growing in the crease between cliff and sandy shore, we ran off into the wild ocean. The wind had been growing and the ocean was rough, we stayed close to the shore and out of the way of the tides of seaweed that would occasionally drift through. A few surfers joined us and we realised why this had been described as a surfers paradise — if only we could climb onto some boards and get away from the currents and seaweed and enjoy the perfect swell!

Private beach

Eventually we got out and made our way home. And what a home. The sunset was beautiful and the waves flowing on and on, over and over the bay just below our campsite. As the sky turned pink, we settled into our dinner and played a few games before making our bed and falling asleep to the rhythm of the ocean and the bright, relaxing light of the full moon.

In the morning, I crawled out of the van just after sunrise and walked out onto the track we had noticed people walking in and out of throughout the previous day’s afternoon. It led further around the headland and I looked out at the sun rising over the new day. I ran back to wake Ben and dragged him and our yoga mats to a clearing at the headland. Here we breathed deeply and ran through some quick stretches, trying our best to find the flow that the ocean harnesses so effortlessly. A peaceful silence without silence, a knowing that all things are alive and life never stops, it is constantly in flux like the waves crashing onto the rocks and draining back into the sea.

Boorkoom headlands at sunrise
Sunrise yoga

After breakfast, we relax. What else is there to do? I lay on the hammock we had set up between two trees and read my book (Bioenergenetics) and watched the friendly magpies and other birds carry on their lives around me. Sunnier and less windy than the day before, I waited restlessly to get back to the beach. I studied the map of the path along the headland and noticed that we could reach a beach on the other side, near the picnic ground we had seen driving in. Should we try that beach instead of risking our ankles on the pebbles?

The walk along the headland was beautiful but the beach on the other side was not. A lone fisherman on the beach should have been the indication to us that perhaps this wasn’t the best beach for swimming but we headed down to the sand to check it out anyway. Unsatisfied with the conditions, we hustled back to our camp and decided to go through the tiny town near the camp site to see if there was a way to our original beach through there.

Beautiful beach we didn’t swim in

This “town”, which I believe is called Wooli, was home to less than 50 houses, all looking beautiful in their isolation from the rest of the world. We admired the shell designs and nautical themes on the houses, dreaming of what it would be like to live somewhere this beautiful, with only one road in or out. The beach, again, was perfect but rough. We hung around until our hungry, hot bellies had had enough and wandered back to our camp for another few hours of doing absolutely nothing.

As dusk began to settle, we opened our brand new Dometic fridge to find that it wasn’t very cold — interesting… A look at the auxillery battery reader told us it should still be powered. Then the ugly truth surfaced — for some reason, unbeknownest to us non-mechanical folks, our fridge had been drawing power from our main battery instead of the auxillery battery. We tried to start the van and… nothing. Tranquility vanished and we panicked. How the fuck were we going to get out of here, with no reception and no car!?

After ripping down and packing away our annex, we shamefully asked our neighbouring campers for a jumpstart. No one could help. So, with the daylight fading, we ran off into the “town” in hopes of finding reception, beratting ourselves for being so stupid as to not have starter cables or Telstra sim cards. Walking to the end of town, we turned back and decided it was time to admit defeat and knock on a few doors. The first door we came to showed a shirtless man drinking a beer. He greeted us, heard our story, and immediately suggested he come over to the camp and give us a jump. The beginning of the “kindness from strangers” saga.

While waiting for our new friend back at the camp, I realised that although we already had a NSW National Parks annual pass, we still had to fill in an envelope to pay for camping ($12 per person per night). When we first looked at the sign at the front of the camp, it seemed that a ranger would come around to take the money from us. Rangers had come and gone and never approached us so we thought we were scott-free — maybe no one cared about paying? But now the reason was clear. I scrambled to deposit the envelop, hoping that actually paying would charge up some good karma for us later on.

Eventually our new friend came flying up the track, something only a local would do, and pulled his car up to ours, nose-to-nose. Explaining that he had just come home from doing a course and “getting on it” with mates in Brisbane, our new mate Trevor helpfully jumped the car and gave us some advice from all he knew of his own self-taught mechanical skills. Incredibly helpful but not wanting to hang around, he told us that if we have trouble in the morning, we could come find him to get another jump. A stressful afternoon in paradise.

Racked by anxiety and shame, we hid in our van and cursed the caravan-service-mob who had installed the fridge. Then we cursed ourselves and all our naivety of what camping “off the grid” was really like. Slowly we reasoned our way to “what can we do? Let’s just try to relax (again) and deal with it in the morning”. It was a true confirmation we needed to be ready to learn things on our own and be more self-sustainable in the future. A further embarrassing conclusion was we needed to stop, breath and think before flying off the handle at the first sign of disaster (not that it was a disaster, but we sure made it one).

The next morning we were lucky to find the ranger parked up next to us. (Perhaps the ranger was waiting for his money?) Turned out he was a new guy and accepted our now-calmer pleas for a jumpstart. Up and running, we were unfortunately keen to leave this beautiful place and head somewhere we could research our predicament and hopefully get a little help. Boorkoom is a place I won’t soon forget — for the beauty, and the lessons.

And that’s how we ended up in a park in Coffs Harbour. Being the closest major town to Boorkoom, we knew there should be a few auto-electricians in town. Still determined to learn the ins-and-outs of our home on our own, we knew we still needed a bit of help getting the problem properly diagnosed and resolved. Maybe we were too trusting in the first place but it seems that it can go both ways; Should you trust a stranger simply because they are living within close proximity? Should you trust a stranger simply because they claim to be an expert in their field?

Now we just have to sit and wait it out (again) tonight, so we can find out in the morning if our very expensive fridge/battery set up can be fixed to work how it’s supposed to. I can’t say for sure how long we will have to stay in Coffs Harbour, but that’s for tomorrow. Today I will go swimming, read a book, write this, maybe drink a beer, and remember that tomorrow is Monday and I don’t have to go to work. Worth it.

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