The virgin backpacker’s guide

So what were the First Degree PR team members like before they entered the corporate world?

Over the next few weeks we’re giving you a glimpse into our team’s colourful pasts. First up, with hordes of travellers heading off to the northern hemisphere to escape the Australian winter, our MD Caroline has been feeling all nostalgic about her 90s backpacking adventures in far north Queensland. Lucky for us she documented her experience, back when she thought she could’ve been a Lonely Planet contributor (shoulda, coulda, didna … she ended up working for the Tele instead).

For your reading pleasure, we’re throwing it back to circa 1996 to present you with the first instalment of a two-part series, showcasing Caroline’s top 10 handy (and hilarious) backpacking survival tips.

Part one:

One look at our luggage and the taxi driver easily deduces what sort of travellers we are. Sydney tags on unsoiled, untorn backpacks – not to mention our laborious effort with lugging the monstrous things into the boot – foretell the inexperience of brand new backpackers.

Two minutes into the ride she already begins to question our knowledge. “You girls are lucky the cyclone hasn’t hit yet. We should find out tomorrow if it’s coming or going.”

Bewildered, Gret and I turn to each other and simultaneously exclaim, “There’s a cyclone?”

She smirks as if to say, you have a lot to learn.

Lesson one: When shopping for a backpack, ensure that its size and weight capacity is proportionate to your weight. Shop assistants are usually very helpful and will fit you with one, just as if you were trying on a shoe. Features to look for are: a detachable daypack, lots of compartments for easy organising, an inner steel frame and padding on the shoulder straps and back area for comfort and good posture. Most backpacks are waterproof but if you are specifically camping in wet weather conditions, get one that you can access only from the top rather than the more popular ones that unzip all the way through. Most importantly, never fall for big, expensive brand names, but then again don’t get a cheapo backpack that will fall apart after two days.

Entering Calypso is like being transported to one of those American summer teenage flicks that blossomed in number during the eighties. Bob Marley’s languorous rhythm fills the humid air through speakers hidden behind tribal paraphernalia. Wooden masks, straw mats and cane furniture make up the decor.

To answer my query about why he needs eye protection indoors, our sunglass-donned receptionist pulls his Oakley’s down to reveal bloodshot eyes. He lets us assume he’s stoned and hands over our room keys – Jim Beam vouchers for the bar and the usual spiel about closing and opening hours, services, places to go, etc.

Eager to explore, we throw our luggage in the cubicle containing two single beds and a poster about butterflies that is to be our room for at least a couple of days. On the way there and back I notice that the tribal theme extends past reception to the bamboo lined bar, bistro and pool, all ensconced in dense tropical flora. It’s so tacky it’s good.

Lesson two: Hostels are budget but not necessarily dumpy accommodation. In Australia the standards are very good: the toilets, showers, and laundry are clean. The service is excellent and even the food is quite good and will satisfy vegetarian tastes. There are two authoritative bodies in Australia, YHA and VIP. Both publish handy booklets that list their respective hostel members – bibles for any self-respecting backpacker. In exchange for a fee, you can become a member of either organisation, entitling you to discounts off accommodation and some tours and activities. Then there are the independent hostels that are just as good as the others, and will often claim that YHA stands for ‘Yuck Hostels Association’. The biggest authority on quality and fun, however, are the backpackers themselves, so ask around. Most hostels offer dorms, twins or single rooms. Rates average out at around $l 5 per night.

Old habits die hard. Still wary about plunging into the role of rugged, practical backpacker, we regress to normal mode and go shopping. While stopping at an Italian cafe for gnocchi and tropical fruit cocktails, I realise that all this trekking through the rough terrain of Cairns town centre has taken its toll. The combination of cork thongs, humidity and sweat have produced painful blisters on my weary feet.

I complete my backpacker outfit with the purchase of a pair of strappy Reef sandals from a trendy surf shop. Unlike Gret’s buy—another skin-tight halter top—I feel that mine is completely justified, borne out of necessity.

Lesson three: Backpackers walk a lot. Make sure you bring a pair of comfortable boots, or if in tropical weather, invest in a pair of strappy rubber sandals. These not only allow your feet to breathe but are light, durable and dry quickly, making them perfect for water activities like boating, rafting or simply walking down the beach. They’re a dead giveaway of your status as a traveller, but then again you probably already look like one anyway, so why not go for the complete package? Reef sandals start from $50.

Exhausted though glad that I’ve found my bearings, I make two observations at the end of the day:

1. After seeing the multitude of shops, tourist information centres and backpackers earning extra cash by handing out flyers advertising backpacking activities to other backpackers, I note that backpackers are an exceedingly marketable commodity.

2. There seems to be an awful lot of tall, tanned, beer-drinking Scandinavians around, “Which isn’t a bad thing,” Gret replies, appreciatively.

Lesson four: If you need more money don’t look for stray coins on footpaths and floors. Rather, inquire at the hostels, tour companies, restaurants, and bars of the place where you’re staying and ask for a customer service-type job. If you’re not a citizen obviously you’ll need a working visa. Businesses in cities like Cairns where there seem to be more tourists than locals are usually sympathetic to backpackers, so there’s always something available, from bartending to making beds.

Under pressure to participate in an activity after being bombarded with brochures and other people’s adventure stories, Gret and I get up early to see about that boat to Green Island.

By creatively taking an alternative route instead of the usual one straight up the Esplanade, we momentarily get lost on the way to the pier. Breathless and each blaming each other for the other’s lack of navigating talent we just make the boat.

Despite the captain’s commentary about the water’s unusual calmness today, now that the threat of the cyclone has ceased, Gret’s motion sickness rears its ugly head. I admire her determination though for not letting it get in the way.
Lesson five: If you have a weak stomach, you’re in trouble. Backpacking means travelling, which means transport. Make sure you bring motion sickness tablets, but since these don’t always work, bring a doggie bag as well. When on a boat or bus, sit in the middle where the momentum is lowest, and get lots of fresh air.

Green Island: a feast for the senses, a protected coral cay due to its National Park status, but a strain on the pocket. It costs $11.00 for a mere burger and $45 for us to take a peek for the day, but it’s the rich Japanese businessmen (accompanied by their mistresses, some add) who choose to accommodate the island.

Leo, a porter who gets around in red Speedos and a shirt (and so we’re told, has a penchant for picking up young female travellers) volunteers as our tour guide. We circle the island in just under an hour with enough time to stop for too many photos of ourselves posing in front of huge expanses of white sand and pristine blue waters, pretending to be alone in an uninhabited island.

Gaining the kind of appetite that only seawater can induce, back in Cairns we find ourselves sitting in a swanky Chinese restaurant, a waiter and a waitress satisfying our every culinary need. Shopping yesterday, luxury island today, and now an overpriced meal. Disgusted, we resolve to head north to Cape Tribulation. A mental note taken from a sign yesterday recalls that this is supposedly ‘where the rainforest meets the sea’. The caption suggested romantic ruggedness, I had thought.

We visit the local Woolies to stock up on supplies. In the utensils section I find an interesting contraption called a Shpoon — a piece of plastic, which, when unfolded, magically turns into a spoon.

Not to spoil you but we’re holding the remaining five lessons until next month, so tune in then for part two! And trust us, you won’t want to miss the finale!


Feature image sourced from