I didn’t know what it was, but I knew I’d recognise it when I saw it. It wouldn’t be a rock, or a reef, or a bridge. Nor would it be surfers at Bondi, Shane Warne’s statue at the Melbourne Cricket Ground or a tin shack boozer serving ice-cold XXXX in the hot red centre. 

It would be something as subtle as the look in a girl’s eye that would epitomise the complicated relationship between this monstrous continent and its microscopic human population.

I was three days into a road trip from Brisbane to Sydney, almost 1000 kilometres apart by the shortest route and 2388 if, like me, you’re easily distracted. 

First stop is the Gold Coast and Surfers Paradise, that high-rise, low-expectation money-maker on two kilometres of Pacific Ocean beach. 

This is the town that employs bikini-clad Meter Maids to feed parking machines so tourists don’t get fined; where Jim Cavill’s Surfer’s Paradise Hotel once had a zoo in the grounds; and where a top dining experience seems to be Dracula’s Cabaret Restaurant. Sophisticated it is not, but everyone loves it anyway.

I loved Tweed Heads more: a confusion of creeks, inlets and lagoons, where the Tweed, the first of the Northern Rivers, meets the sea. The state line between Queensland and New South Wales runs down Boundary Street, terminating at Point Danger so named by Captain James Cook in May 1770 to warn mariners of the lethal offshore reefs. There’s a memorial to Captain Cook, cast from iron he jettisoned to refloat Endeavour when it ran aground on a reef. Next to Point Danger lies Duranbah Beach, off which what seemed like the entire town was surfing on a Friday afternoon. As I watched them from the seawall, I glanced up at the Tweed, wondering if I should have been searching inland.

The sands stretch south for 60 kilometres through Casuarina, Cabarita, Hastings Point, Pottsville, Brunswick Heads and Belongil all the way to Cape Byron, broken only where the rivers push through. The beaches range from suburban to rural, and tourist-friendly to clothing-optional, but all are cherished, with showers, clean toilets and easy access. Litter is not a problem because, as the barefooted binman at Torakina Beach told me, “One does not defecate at the rear of one’s personal property, mate.”

Highway 1 runs inland from the coast, where the river crossings are narrower, and such is the frequency of beach exits that it’s tempting to skip a few because you’re hungry, in a hurry or suffering sheer aesthetic exhaustion. Resist that temptation, because for beach lovers exploring this coast it’s like being a kid in a toy store.

Just 32 kilometres separate busy, trendy Byron Bay where the point break off the cape makes up for the Paltrowesque snake oil and vegan bikinis and Ballina at the mouth of the muddy Richmond River, where the most visible sign of culture is the Big Prawn (a concrete-and-fibreglass roadside sculpture). 

On that stretch of coast, where koalas loaf in gum trees, petrol stations sell fishing rods and humanity appears to have lost its shoes, there are enough beaches for an entire lifetime. They range from the paradisiacal coves of Broken Head to the primeval emptiness of Seven Mile Beach, reached down a dirt track and almost exactly as it must have looked when Arakwal fishermen may have spotted the ship that would change everything sailing north in 1770.

It took 72 years for the colonists to arrive: freed convicts who established logging camps to harvest coastal red cedar forests hacking them into commercial extinction within a century. Those camps have evolved into the seaside villages along the coast and while some, such as Evans Head, Wooli and Minnie Water, still exude a tin-roofed frontier pragmatism, others such as Lennox Head and Woolgoolga, offer a more genteel vibe, with delis, sushi and cocktails.

Accommodation has yet to catch up: Sixties-style motels, apartments and campsites predominate, but you might get lucky, as I did in Yamba. It was dark when I found the Surf hotel: 12 rooms and art deco curves above a beach at the mouth of the Clarence River (doubles from $370; thesurfyamba.com.au). There’s a rooftop pool, fridges full of locally distilled booze and ocean views from the best rooms. Just down the street, French bistro Sandbar sells local oysters with a raspberry mignonette and crispy-skin barramundi with ratatouille and chorizo hollandaise. Up the hill is an artisan cafe with expensive prams parked outside and clientele who Instagram their breakfast. I know what you’re thinking and I was too, but across the street stands the Pacific Hotel.

In the front: pokies, sport on TV and fully inked barmaids. In the back, a covers band playing to a mob having way too much fun. A bucks’ night appeared to have collided with a hen night, skidded into a silver-wedding anniversary and come to a rest at a wake in memory of a bloke who had “bloody loved this place”.

The hens came from 480 kilometres west, the bucks from further. The silver-wedding party had taken 14 hours to get here, driving pimped-up pick-ups full of fishing rods and eskies. 

Amber, a veterinary nurse in her mid-twenties, was one of the hens. I asked her what it was like living in the interior. “When you grow up on a station you dream of escape. By the time you’re in your late teens, you’re in a state of panic,” she said. “Social media makes it much worse: you see influencers posting from wonderful places. Then it dials down to a constant, low-level fomo that lasts until you watch your kids go through it. 

“You know that song ‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’? My mum always said it was written for her. Now I feel like it was written for me.” She sipped her Bundy and Coke. “You should go to Gunnedah.”

There were 74 beaches left on my list but I left for Gunnedah the next morning, following the Clarence upstream to Grafton, crossing rusty iron bridges over swollen creeks, passing signs selling the United Australia Party’s 1930s-style nationalism and taking the Gwydir Highway through the rainforests of the Gibraltar Range. 

I drove through still towns where bats hung from bottle-brush trees, and pink clouds of rose-breasted cockatoos or galahs gathered above the war memorials to the boys who had succeeded in getting away. After the congestion of the coast the echoless emptiness of the New South Wales interior is daunting, and you begin to realise the patience, resilience and toughness required to give life here a fair go. 

There was a mournful song playing on the radio as I followed an arrow-straight road across pancake-flat cattle country towards blue distant hills. It was ‘Galleries of Pink Galahs’ by John Williamson, and one verse stood out: 

The south wind through veranda gauze

Whines and bangs the homestead doors

A mother curses dusty floors

And feels alone.

But that was only one side of the argument. The other was painted on the grain silo in Gunnedah: an excerpt from a poem part-written in London by homesick Gunnedah girl Dorothea Mackellar, and now considered the most evocative stanza in Australian poetry: 

I love a sunburnt country,

A land of sweeping plains, 

Of ragged mountain ranges,

Of droughts and flooding rains.

Those flooding rains were falling as I headed back towards the coast, and when the windscreen wipers could no longer cope I pulled over at a roadside cafe in the middle of nowhere. The place was empty but the girl behind the counter was so distracted by her book that she didn’t see me come in. I waited for a couple of minutes, admiring her utter absorption in pages I couldn’t see. Then she saw me and blushed.

I asked her what she was reading. She held up a coffee-table book the kind you pick up in charity shops: ‘Paris in Pictures,’ she said.

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