Viv & Craig - my first Australian friends

I landed for the first time on Australian soil on Wednesday 29th of June 2016. I first stayed for two days in Byron Bay, a popular seaside village on the east coast, then started to explore more inland. I had booked a room on Airbnb in the small town of Murwillumbah, with an extremely welcoming couple: Viv & Craig, my first Australian friends. This encounter marked me for a long time, to the point that I even included that story in the book I started to write in 2021. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to see them again, and it was on Facebook that I learned of Craig’s passing on May 9 2022. He had read this story, which I had sent them a few months earlier, and I know he liked it. A year later, I decided to publish it here in a slightly different version but still very faithful to reality, in tribute to Craig and in memory of this unforgettable encounter.

I loved my brief stay in Byron Bay. It was the ideal introduction to this Australian trip: not yet too adventurous but already very exotic, not completely out of the ordinary but nevertheless stunning and unforgettable. The evening of my arrival, I stayed for several hours facing the Pacific Ocean which I contemplated for the first time in my life, sitting on a rock overlooking the main beach of Byron Bay and its population of surfers tirelessly in search of the perfect wave. As the sun set, the landscape before me had taken a fabulous copper hue, from the Cape Byron lighthouse to my right to the silhouette of Mount Warning far to my left. The next day, I went for a walk to this famous lighthouse, again admiring an exceptional panorama: on the north side, the vast bay at the edge of which I had sat the day before; south side, an endless white sand beach that seemed to stretch to infinity. I was even lucky enough to see three or four whales, close enough to the shore for me to hear with emotion the powerful sound of their breath when they came to the surface. The next day finally, I got up at dawn to admire a splendid sunrise. It felt like I was alone in the world and I was incredibly relaxed, a thousand miles away from the anxiety that had overwhelmed me when leaving Europe.

It is now time for me to go and see what the surroundings are like. The weather is perfect when I leave the city behind me. The sky has remained uniformly clear since my arrival and the pleasant temperatures during the day make me forget that it is here the middle of the austral winter, although it is July 2. This is the first time that I venture a little further inland, but the Pacific Ocean is never far away. Regularly, when the road rises, its immense bluish mass appears on the horizon. I even see on two or three occasions the white silhouette of the Byron Bay lighthouse in the distance, perched on top of its rocky promontory. The rolling green landscapes around me are beautiful, but they look nothing like the image of Australia I had in mind. Without the unusual appearance of certain tropical plants, I could easily picture myself in the European countryside. Far from disappointing me, this unexpected spectacle delights me, making me discover an aspect of the country that I was unaware of.

At the end of the afternoon, I drive to Murwillumbah, a small village about fifty kilometers away from Byron Bay. I have booked a room there for two nights with a retired couple named Craig and Vivian. It is the latter who greets me when I arrive. She’s short and slender with curly hair, and a broad smile spreads across her face. She immediately strikes up the conversation, hands on her hips, asking me how my trip went and demanding that I call her Viv rather than Vivian. Craig joins us a few moments later, wearing a khaki gardening apron. He is significantly taller than her and gives off an impression of energy and vitality. Only his mustache, his goatee and a few white hairs surrounding a bald head betray his age. The exchanges I had had with them by email before my departure had been very friendly, but they turn out to be even friendlier in person.

Craig shows me the annexe in which I’m going to stay, then he offers to show me around their property. They live a little away from the village, near a river which flows peacefully from the wooded hills that can be seen nearby, in a single-storey house whose wide, gently sloping roof must offer a welcome shade in summer. Their vast, perfectly maintained grounds are bordered on each side by palm trees and exotic plants with colorful flowers. The part below serves as a vegetable garden, while a fence on the right delimits the barnyard. My host seems particularly proud of his breeding of chickens and geese, which gossip happily as they see him approach. I ask him how many he has as he throws some seeds at them.

“I have four geese and ten chickens,” he replies. “But one of my hens was eaten by a snake last week.
-By a snake? I say, startled and wide-eyed.
-Yes, a python. They’re quite common over here.”

As proof, he hands me his phone on which I can see the picture of a reptile with gray and olive green scales which seems huge to me, and whose body is curiously inflated to half its length by the shape of the poor hen being digested. The vegetable garden in the background is clearly recognisable: no doubt, this impressive photo was taken in the very place where we stand. I wonder how I would react if I had to face such a creature…

“It’s at least three meters long!
-Oh, a little more I think, more like three meters and a half. But pythons aren’t dangerous, they don’t have venom, and they help regulating the number of mice. It’s easy to get rid of them: I just grab them by the back of their head and their tail, stuff them in a big bag and throw them further into the bush, he calmly explains to me while imitating the gestures. It takes them a while to get back here! You just have to make sure they can’t wrap themselves around you. It happened to me once, I had a bad grip and he got twisted around my arm. I started to lose feeling in my hand and had a hard time getting rid of it.”

I doubt I’d be able to show such composure if this situation were to happen to me, but fortunately no snake of any kind comes to disturb the peace of this moment. It’s almost as if time had stopped. There is no wind at all, and the atmosphere is filled with the pleasant smell of the freshly turned soil in the vegetable garden where Craig worked before my arrival. His knowledge about Australia seems limitless, whether he talks about history, geography, or the countless strange creatures that inhabit the country. I’m hanging on every of his words, not seeing the time pass, until the golden light of the end of the day gradually gives way to the darkness of twilight. It’s not until Viv calls to let us know that dinner will be ready soon that I realise it’s almost night time already. I don’t feel like going out to get food, and I’m delighted with their offer to join them.

They are the first Australians I properly meet and I am dying to ask them dozens of questions, not really knowing where to start. Given my fairly average level of English, Viv first decided to teach me some local expressions. She explains to me that it is quite customary here to shorten the words: brekkie instead of breakfast, arvo instead of afternoon, mozzies instead of mosquitoes, or even g’day as a friendly greeting.

“It even works for proper nouns: there are no McDonald’s in Australia, only Macca’s! Which doesn’t make their food any better though… And then if you want to become a true Australian, there’s a sentence you absolutely need to remember: ”no worries mate!”, no problems my friend, it’s alright! No matter what, you always have to know how to stay positive.”

Later during the evening, I also discover that my hosts are both very involved in the social life of their small town, volunteering in several local associations and fervent environmental activists. Craig is actually quite critical of the government’s environmental policy, revealing me a not exactly admirable aspect of the country that I was still unaware of.

“A couple of friends and one of our two sons and his girlfriend are coming over for dinner tomorrow night. We’ll probably talk a lot about politics, but if you’re interested we’d be happy to have you back at our table” Viv kindly suggests to me in conclusion, much to my delight.

The effects of jetlag that had disturbed my sleep during my first nights in Byron Bay have almost completely vanished, and I wake up refreshed the next morning. After four days in Australia, I’m slowly getting used to some of the most unusual aspects of daily life that I found odd when I first arrived: left-hand drive, unusual road signs, those strange banknotes which I can now distinguish by their color… Other details still surprise me just as much, such as the almost exaggerated politeness of the people in the shops or the large proportion of 4x4s and pick-ups among the vehicles in circulation. And then there is this omnipresent tropical vegetation, these eucalyptus trees and their camphor scent carried by the breeze, these birdsongs that I hear for the first time, these low dwellings all similar with their wide terraces and their roofs in corrugated iron, these schoolchildren in uniform, an incongruous legacy of British colonization… All these differences with my habits delight me, each new thing out of the ordinary enchants me. Only slight disappointment: I still haven’t seen a single kangaroo.

I spend the day exploring the surroundings of Murwillumbah. I especially climb to the summit of Mount Warning, this mountain which stood out on the horizon when I was in Byron Bay, much more poetically named Wollumbin in the local Aboriginal language which means “cloud catcher”. The view that awaits me at the top is splendid: to the west, long chains of wooded hills stretch as far as the eye can see, remnants of intense volcanic activity that took place millions of years ago, interspersed with bright green valleys where livestock and agriculture have replaced the forest. On the east side, the hills softens towards the nearby Pacific Ocean, an immense blue mass extending to infinity. The sky is perfectly clear, and I can catch sight of both the peninsula of Cape Byron and the white point of its lighthouse to the south, as well as the silhouettes of the skyscrapers of the Gold Coast further north.

Unfortunately, I discovered several years after this walk that the top of Wollumbin was a sacred place for Aboriginal people. The ascent was strongly discouraged out of respect for their traditions, and I regret not having known about it at the time and having climbed anyway. Similar to what happened at Uluru, the path leading to the summit was closed in 2022.

When I get back to Viv and Craig’s at around 5pm, their son Jake and his girlfriend Sally have already arrived, along with their longtime friend couple Chris and Kerry. I quickly understand that this is not a simple weekly dinner. The latter live in Sydney, and they catch up with Viv and Craig for the first time in several months. I do not feel quite in my place in the midst of this joyful reunion, a little uncomfortable to attend this moment of family intimacy. I have the impression of being an intruder abusing the hospitality of my hosts, but fortunately they do not seem to share this opinion. Everyone behaves with me as if I were a guest of honor not to be overlooked. Viv and Sally inquire about my plans for the next few days; Jake asks me if his father has not annoyed me too much with his passion for his geese, making him laugh; Chris and Kerry make me promise to visit them when I’ll be in Sydney. The more the evening progresses, the more my embarrassment decreases. My last reluctance finally disappears in a great laugh when I awkwardly try to use some of the expressions that Viv taught me the day before.

After dinner, we all sit in the living room and the conversation quickly turns to Australian politics, just as Viv predicted. I try to focus on the discussion, but I don’t know the general context or the people my hosts are talking about, and my attention eventually wanes. The warm atmosphere of this evening suddenly makes me realize how far I am from my family and my friends, and for the first time since my arrival in Australia, I feel briefly overwhelmed with a sensation of absence and a deep melancholy. So that my hosts do not notice the emotion that grips me, I pretend to be tirad tired to abandon them and go out for a few steps in their garden.

There is still not a single cloud, and I am dazzled by the extraordinary beauty of the night sky above me. Never before in my life have I contemplated a celestial vault of such purity, illuminated by millions of stars, in the middle of which the Milky Way shines with exceptional intensity. I remain speechless in front of this fabulous spectacle, my heart beating and tears in my eyes. But the one that ends up rolling down my cheek isn’t a tear of sadness. It is a mix between a certain nostalgia for the past that this evening has awakened, and the intense exaltation of knowing that I am only at the beginning of a new life which promises to be thrilling. One sure thing, I’ll never forget neither this wonderful introduction nor this first wonderful encounter.

Australia, New South Wales, Murwillumbah, night sky, Milky Way

Three months later, Viv, Craig, Chris and Kerry travelled to Europe for a few weeks. Among their destinations, Brittany, with a very special guide for a day: my mother! Knowing that they were going to travel near my hometown, I had put them in touch and they also got on together very well. But this is another story…

I always said to myself that if I ever went back to the region of Byron Bay, I would definitely make a detour to Murwillumbah to visit Viv and Craig. Unfortunately the opportunity never came and it was with great sadness that I learned of Craig’s passing on the 9th of May 2022, without ever having had the chance to see him again.

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