As I pedalled towards The Entrance through a never-ending conglomeration of suburbs and seaside towns, the hills seemed to get steeper, the hard shoulders narrower, and the traffic heavier.
Tangled cycleways gave way to long-winded highway crossings, nasty climbs through hilly rainforest spat me out onto caravan-clogged beachfront boulevards, and all under a sweltering late-summer sun. The momentum that had inspired me to push on into the afternoon began to taper off. Had following the New South Wales Coastline Cycleway been a mistake?
In Bateau Bay, struggling to reconcile the route I’d planned on komoot with the signage on the ground, I sailed blindly past the Aldi I’d been aiming for to stock up on food for the ride ahead, not realising until several kilometres later. Things briefly perked up when I reached the longest jetty in New South Wales (351 metres!) on the eastern shore of Tuggerah Lake, but I couldn’t be bothered to walk to the end and back like all the other tourists were doing.
Hungry, low on blood sugar and still with no food in my panniers, I spotted a backpackers’ hostel nearby and made an impulsive decision to check in for the night.
The reception door was locked, so I called a phone number I found online and asked if the place was open. The guy on the other end said he’d check.
When he forgot to call back and left me standing outside for 15 minutes, I should have seen a red flag.
But I was tired. I wanted food and sleep.
A lady eventually appeared to check me in. She seemed flustered. There wasn’t a backpacker to be seen. I paid AU$49 for a bed in a dorm room, wondering if that kind of price was normal. There was one other chap already in the dormitory; a middle-aged Australian man with a beer gut who said hello but otherwise seemed comfortably installed in his bunk. He chugged several cans of lager (in bed) in the time it took me unpack, and from that point forth began to stumble out of the room every few minutes in order to chain-smoke in the back yard, returning stinking of fags and booze.
Of the few haggard-looking souls I did meet in the corridors, all seemed shocked by the sudden appearance of a tourist. The receptionist recommended I bring my bike into the dorm and lock it to the frame of the bunk-bed, then vanished completely. I never saw a member of staff again.
Something wasn’t right.
Too tired to care, I bought some bananas and a sandwich from the nearby supermarket and ate them in a park. Returning to the so-called hostel, I dutifully brought my bike to bed, installed my earplugs, and began the process of getting a good night’s sleep. I was woken only once – still dark outside – when my roommate switched on the light right next to my face, left the room, and this time failed to return altogether.
I rose shortly after sunrise, unchained my bike from the bed, and departed in much the same manner as my arrival. And at some point it dawned on me that I had just spent the night in a homeless shelter – one that for some reason had the word “backpackers” in its name.
As I pedalled north across The Entrance bridge and in the general direction of the next branch of Aldi, I tried to piece together a story to explain what had happened. Here’s what I came up with:
There once was a thriving backpacker hostel with a good reputation. Then a global pandemic had hit and annihilated the tourist industry. Cutting their losses, the owners had sold off the business at a knock-down price. The opportunistic buyers had set about raising revenue from whatever source they could, but in the process had overlooked the core purpose of a backpacker hostel. I’d rolled up in the aftermath of all of this, with an entirely different kind of clientele having taken up residence in the property.
Scrolling through the reviews on Google Maps (I can’t bring myself to link to them) seemed to corroborate this tale. Until early 2020, the write-ups were as you’d expect. Then there was a noticeable gap of a couple of years. Then, from mid-2022 onwards, everything was either a glowing review that read suspiciously like an amateur sales pitch, or criticism from an unhappy gap-year kid whose expectations had been thwarted by experiences similar to my own.
Now, I believe I’m a pretty tolerant person. And it’s important to say that there’d been no actual animosity amongst my fellow guests – just a lack of common ground. Each of those residents probably had a story to tell, and if I’d had more time and energy perhaps I would have heard some of them. Western society does not cater well for those who have fallen on hard times and need shelter and support, and if that was to be the new purpose of the hostel then the world was being done a good service. I just felt sorry for the new owners, for they seemed to have forgotten that in business you confound customer expectations at your peril.
If I was actually annoyed by anything, it was that I – as usual – had been the architect of my own misfortune.
There was a campground just over the bridge that another cyclist had gone out of his way to recommend. Christ, if there’s one source of advice a cyclist should heed, it’s that of another cyclist! I knew this, so why did I ignore it?
I could have read the reviews and come to the conclusion that the hostel was a poor choice. But I didn’t. I wanted it to be the place I imagined it would be at the end of a long and tiring day. I didn’t want my bubble bursting.
And that’s how Day One went from great success to slap-in-the-face in the space of a few hours – something I’d experienced before, made plans to avoid, and then walked right into.
Time, perhaps, to read the signs and ease into the rest of the ride a little more gently.