In 2005 I unexpectedly found myself in Coffs Harbour for the winter, thanks to a last-minute job offer. I was working as a night manager at a hostel, responsible for checking in after-hours guests and making sure the phone was answered in the middle of the night.
The job came with free accommodation and paid $10 an hour, which at the time was a sweet deal. Best of all, I could afford to extend my stay in Australia. My original flight home was in May, but I didn’t go back until August.
The winter was quieter, less hectic than the summer, but Coffs Harbour in July is still a great place to be. I was able to do things that had been secondary on my wish list, like go surf kayaking and visit Sawtell.
Among the many colorful personalities I met during that working holiday in Australia was Brad, a burly skydive instructor. I always imagined that he would go plummeting to the ground like a sack of bricks but he was the instructor for my friend’s tandem jump in Cairns and they landed just fine, coasting to a gentler stop than I did.
Funny story – a couple of years ago, friends of ours from Newcastle got engaged during a skydive. When I watched their engagement video I recognized Brad, bringing a friend safely to the ground once again. It’s so bizarre, the way the world drops coincidences on people.
Anyway, the point of all this is that Brad was from Sawtell, and he used to talk up how pretty it was, only 15 minutes south of Coffs. In seven months, I hadn’t made it there; even 15 minutes can be challenging when you’re a backpacker without a car. The bus system was rather demotivating, so I’d just never tried.
That winter Sawtell was hosting its annual chilli festival for the seventh year running, and I joined a convoy from the hostel to check it out. It was a modest street party with a few stalls selling the obvious fare, like hot sauce and chilli chocolate fudge.
I have a vague memory of some sort of hat competition, where people dressed in their chilli-est outfits in the hopes that they would win a prize. One of the girls from the hostel modified a stereotypical Aussie hat, the wide brimmed type with the corkscrews, so that tiny chillies dangled around the edge instead.
Sawtell was cute and I wished I had more time to look around; as it was I had to get back to the hostel. I never thought I’d make it back and didn’t give much thought to the little seaside town just south of Coffs.
Until this year, when Jared and I were watching TV a couple of weeks ago and saw an ad for the Sawtell Chilli Festival.
“Hey,” I remembered, “I went to that once. During my first trip to Australia. I forgot all about it.”
I’d forgotten all about it. Poof, gone, into the recesses of my memory.
July 2nd was a gorgeous day for the Chilli Festival; it would have been a gorgeous day for just about anything, really. The festival was hopping, running along First Avenue for several blocks, much bigger than I remembered it being.
Before I had even managed to get my camera out I spotted all four ninja turtles crossing the street, trailed by Elsa and Anna from Frozen. Definitely not a feature of the 2005 festival and seriously, how do these things not frighten the bejeezus out of small children?
We squeezed past the crowds to sample hot sauce, chilli-flavored ginger beer, curry, and fudge. I ordered nachos and churros for lunch, eating the churros before the nachos because they were ready first, cleaning out all of the chocolate with my finger before throwing the container away.
It was not entirely like the Sawtell I remembered, but bigger, more vibrant, now that it was once again presented to me in real life. I walked through the streets with the impression that I was re-visiting my past, or very close to it.
I wasn’t, of course. Sawtell only played a tiny part in my Australia story; such a small part that I forgot about it for eleven years. I was just passing through in 2005 and I did the same in 2016; neither of us left a lasting mark on the other, but it’s still nice to come back.