Return to Coffs Harbour

Coffs harbour NSW

I first arrived in Coffs on an overnight bus from Sydney, unaware that the town would play a pivotal role in my life. I planned to stay for weeks but stayed for months, extending my flight back to the US because I wasn’t ready to leave. It’s where I learned how to be a backpacker and was sucked into a perpetual spring break lifestyle that I then idealized forever afterwards.

When I told Aussies that I had lived in Coffs, they were usually surprised. It wasn’t until I had lived in Australia as non-backpacker that I realized how it was viewed: notable as the birthplace of the Big Banana and a family holiday destination, not a place where a young traveler would find a temporary home.

Coffs Big Banana
The first of Australia’s Big Things, where you can get the BEST banana smoothie.

But I did find a home in Coffs, alongside scores of other travelers. I went back in 2006, a year after I left, and it was still much the same; I was still much the same. The years after that last visit took me back to England and Australia, then onwards to Korea. That backpacker from Coffs evolved into someone who was more interested in finding balance than being reckless.

When I returned to Australia as a permanent resident in 2012, I never went to Coffs, even though it was only five hours away by car. There’s something about returning to much-loved destinations that sets us up for failure; much like birthdays and major holidays, we’re primed to have high expectations that are rarely met.

Then, this trip. We booked four nights and I hoped I wouldn’t be disappointed, that my memory of Coffs would remain untarnished.

I had no firm expectations. I already knew that my favorite cafe had shut down years before, and many of the people I was friends with had long since moved on. Due to recent bad weather my favorite running trail was cordoned off, and the breakwall to Muttonbird Island was closed.

Muttonbird Island
The currently unattainable Muttonbird Island.

Jared and I cruised down Harbour Drive, past the lurid orange fence of my old hostel, past the strip of unfamiliar new restaurants. There was the meager patch of grass where I worked as a carny, and the Hog’s Breath Café where I splurged on a meal, unaware at the time that it was a gaudy chain.

I met an old friend who I hadn’t seen in over a decade; we caught up for coffee and he told me the story of how he and his wife emigrated from Europe to Coffs. He now manages a hostel, and filled me in on how different backpacking was now compared to how it was then, thanks to technology.

“In our day, I had to put a note on the door if someone hadn’t paid. Now I just write to them on Facebook and they show up with the money.”

My experience as a backpacker was frozen in time. Where we had physical notice boards, today’s travelers use digital ones. I was glad, once again, that I am lucky enough to have traveled before social media because man, those days are gone.

I wondered how it would feel to return, but of course it felt just like going back to any other place from the past: familiar, but different. I wasn’t swamped with the desire to time travel, or disappointed by how things had changed. My time in Coffs as a backpacker was a firmly closed chapter in my life.

Still, I couldn’t resist walking the halls of the hostel, turning up like a total creeper with a camera. There was the shed where I used to sleep, the courtesy bus parked outside. The receptionist was inside folding laundry, and I remembered when that had been my task.

Backpacker coffs harbour orange fence
A truly classic shade of orange.

“Do you mind if I have a quick look around? I used to live here ten years ago.”

“Um, sure?” she said. I could feel her watching me as I wandered into the common area.

The hostel looked cleaner than I remembered, perhaps because cleaning used to be one of my duties. There was the same meticulously drawn map on the whiteboard, the same dart board, the same fish tank. When I entered the corridor leading to the dorm rooms, I was floored to see photos of myself smiling from the walls.

There I was, posing with my friend Alexa and the then-hostel manager after a paintball excursion. I remembered it being one of the worst mornings of my life because I was incredibly hungover from the night before and it was immortalized on the wall.

The receptionist walked by as I gaped at the unchanged photo collage.

“Do you recognize the photos?” she asked.

“I’m in them,” I said. “That’s me.”

She was visibly stunned. I’m not sure if it’s because I wasn’t a creeper after all or because I looked so different in the photo. Either way, it was validation of my story. There, proof that I had a personal stake in this hostel, just like she did now.

“It’s funny,” she said. “You’re the second person today who came back. A guy who lived here five years ago stopped by this morning to do the same thing.”

I imagine the other visitor was doing what I was; indulging a curiosity about the life he used to live, returning to see what it looked like without him. I hope he found a bit of himself there too, a tiny legacy of the way his past made up a part of his present.

Aussitel backpackers Coffs
That’s me on the left, looking like an Oompa-Loompa dressed for war.

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    1. Oh man I don’t miss that punch! Definitely wouldn’t be able to pull up the next day like I used to. I wish you had been there too! I’m sure our paths will cross again somehow 🙂

  1. I can’t even imagine what this felt like, esp seeing an actual photo of you, then. I think I’ll feel some weirdness going back to my old places in Thailand come this November, and probably re-read this several times to prepare.

    1. The photo on the wall was the strangest part! I knew in my brain that I used to live there, but it was hard to feel it in a way that was real.

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