The mountains that straddle the New South Wales-Queensland border are breathtaking. Really breathtaking. But they’re not power sockets.
We’ve just driven through rich farmland seeded by basalt soils, climbed forgotten roads overlooking deeply-scooped valleys, and powered to the lip of an almighty primordial caldera. This tiny layover at the border crossing looks out across all of it. The backpackers in the dodgy panel van beside us are amazed. I’m wondering where I can plug my car in.
Ever since we left Brisbane 90 minutes earlier I’ve been catastrophising. I look at the Tesla’s battery indicator. Eighty one per cent. I look at it again five minutes later. Eighty one per cent. If it was a dial I’d tap at it like a fighter pilot, but it’s an LCD. The previous night I didn’t sleep. I dreamed. Elon Musk was an RACV man and my electric car had a battery strapped to the roof. It’s why I had those three coffees earlier, which right now I’m beginning to regret.
The guys at Tesla weren’t so concerned. This morning when I arrived at the carmaker’s Fortitude Valley dealership, they handed me the fob to a really expensive looking Model S with a smile and a bunch of you’ll-be-fines. They explained the car’s central LCD console and how its navigation plots the best routes and charging options for your trip. And then they waved goodbye.
Back at the border we start messing around with the nav. After we type in our destination, The Byron at Byron Resort, the car immediately generates the ideal route. It displays how much power we’ll have left when we arrive, and the time the car will take to charge after we plug in. Tesla understands anxiety (which I guess comes with the territory when marketing a product to millennials). It knows anxiety is generated by the unknown, so the solution is to put all the information in front of you.
For fun we type in “Sydney” to see what happens. The LCD immediately itinerarises an entire trip with power figures and wee breaks at Tesla’s proprietary superchargers. Very cool.
We pull into The Byron at Byron in the early evening with 65 per cent of the battery remaining. I chose this highfalutin luxury retreat with its immaculate Luchetti Krelle-designed public areas as some kind of reward for what I anticipated would be a tough first day. But the coffees are starting to wear off – I think we’re going to be fine. We’re so relaxed we don’t even end up using the hotel’s destination chargers (the Tesla charging solution that will easily top up a car overnight) installed as part of an extensive recent refurbishment.
Instead, in the morning we drive 10 minutes down the road to the Macadamia Castle. This used to be a regular drop-in for families travelling the Pacific Highway. Now, if you’re not flying Sydney to Brisbane, you’re on the new dual-lane carriageway that bypasses the old tourist spot.
That’s why owner Tony Gilding pivoted the Castle slightly, away from pancake stacks and buttloads of macadamias, towards a nature park designed for locals on the weekend. He then propped up the drop-in trade by installing a supercharger, which can juice up a nearly empty Model S in little more than an hour.
“We offer Tesla drivers a look around the park and we have a good cafe,” he says. “It’s a proper rest stop. Who wants to hang around a fume-y petrol station?”
Gilding’s brother is Paul Gilding, former CEO of Greenpeace. His older brother Jack was a wind farm pioneer in Victoria. No surprise, then, that Tony is an electric-car believer. He slaps down an enormous pile of pancakes and starts laying it out.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Gilding says. “There’s this massive disruption coming and it’s only a matter of time before it kicks in.” The literature seems to back him up. Despite the cheapest Tesla currently starting at $67,900, electric cars are projected to soon cost less than internal combustion cars and are already cheaper to service.
Get Gilding on a roll and he goes deep. He talks about self-driving cars, vehicle-to-vehicle power transfer, the creation of a new decentralised electricity market. The Coalition would label the guy a lunatic but his optimism is pretty infectious – we wave goodbye and set off south down the M1 in high spirits.
I used to be one of those people who’d say, “Yeah-yeah-yeah electric cars are the future but petrol will be in the mix for decades blah-blah.” And I still believe that, but I also have to tell you it’s total bullshit. Driving an electric car on the open road is a revelation – a WHAT HAVE WE BEEN DOING? paradigm shift.
All those things you do on a two-lane blacktop in a petrol car – manage gears, gather horsepower and then mash the accelerator to (hopefully) slingshot past the dickhead doing 90 in a 100 zone – there’s none of that. With an electric car, you think it and instant torque does the rest. There’s the occasional antagonism from a P-plater in a rusty WRX, but you just shrug and flash past. You’re in a jet plane. He might as well be leaping on a set of bellows.
The reactions come in person too. That evening we pull into Wooli, a tiny two-pub town on a thin peninsula in northern New South Wales. Our digs are a beautiful old beach shack with a charger stuck to the front (The owner? Away hiking in the Himalayas). While we’re collecting the keys from the real estate office, a jaundiced old bloke on a pushbike suddenly appears, leering through the car window.
“Holy shit,” he says, glassy-eyed. “What’s this?”
“It’s a Tesla. It’s–”
“A Tesla. It’s electric. An electric car.”
“What a beauty. She looks like she goes. V8?”
“Well, it’s electric. So it doesn’t have an engine. Or that sort of engine. So –”
“Right. Does it use much petrol?”
And so on. These kinds of reactions escalate as we drift further from the city – from “Cool car!” to “What are you doing here?” to, eventually, “What is that thing?” It’s curious until you remember electric cars were a rare sight in the big smoke a couple of years ago. A clocked-off miner in the Hunter Valley takes a punt at the brand – “Mustang? No … Chevy?! No.” A guy named Trevor hauling a pair of beautiful Ducati motorcycles across the Great Dividing Range is genuinely concerned that, where we’re going, we’re definitely going to run out of power.
We won’t, and the places where we can charge the car begin to tell a more nuanced story about the east coast of Australia.
The following night we pull into Sails Port Macquarie and find that a handsome Rydges-driven renovation of the hotel has added a pair of destination chargers out front. Somebody’s parked their meataxe Commodore with a big thing on the bonnet in one of the spots, but never mind – we take the other, unpack and wander into town.
Port Macquarie has for years been dubbed God’s waiting room, a place people go after they retire. But talk to locals and they’ll tell you it’s changing. Gino Cunial owns Bar Florian, a restrained small-licence boozer near the centre of town. It’s a facsimile of the kind of classy hideaway you might find in Surry Hills or Fitzroy, but a pretty convincing one. Ten years ago a venue like this wouldn’t have been possible, Cunial says. Now, he’s busy on Friday and Saturday nights pouring Italian wines and local craft beer to a young crowd, many of them academics and professionals drawn to Port Macquarie by Charles Sturt University.
The change is even more striking across the range in Tamworth, 270 kilometres away.
It turns out there’s just a couple of destination chargers between Port Macquarie and Newcastle. The Tesla could go all the way to the Hunter with a heap of battery to spare, but instead we’ve made what feels like the relatively flippant decision to drive the winding Oxley Highway and climb over the Great Dividing Range, across the Yarrowitch Tablelands and down into Australia’s home of country music.
In Tamworth there’s still the Country Music Hall of Fame and Marsupial Park and young guys in tray backs doing laps on Peel Street hollering at passers-by. But there’s also been an influx of 20- and 30-somethings – either locals returning to the area or straight-up city slickers who’ve decided to head for the country. You find them hanging around grand old eating houses like The Pig and Tinder Box, sipping craft beer at The Welder’s Dog or slamming coffee at Ruby’s Cafe. The NBN has arrived. Our hotel has destination chargers. We’re 400 kilometres from Sydney but it feels more like 100. Tamworth has a vibe.
I remember interviewing an American musician and him telling me that touring Australia was expensive – you had to fly everywhere. For a long time Australia has been highly urbanised, with most of our population squeezed into coastal metropolises thousands of kilometres apart. But driving from town to town, that feels like it’s shifting: whether it’s property prices or sea changes or tree changes, in the east we’re fanning out along the coast and beyond the ranges. And that’s encouraging a greater connectivity between places. It no longer feels like such a distance from one town to the next.
From Tamworth we head down the New England Highway. As we creep closer to Sydney, that connectivity only becomes more obvious. There are gastropubs and delis with fancy coffee and the occasional big box retailer. We breeze through Willow Tree and Scone and Muswellbrook and Singleton, the cut between the Bayswater and Liddell power stations reminding you of the trade-off (for now) of driving an electric car (in Australia).
By the time we reach the Hunter Valley on a Friday afternoon we might as well be in an outer suburb of Sydney. There are even other electric cars whizzing about the place. Our accommodation, The Longhouse, is one of those immaculate, minimally designed timber houses where I can’t find the cutlery drawer. There’s a destination charger out front, of course.
On the back roads from the Hunter to Sydney it’s no longer the adults who are amazed by the Tesla, but the kids. They gawk in front of you on zebra crossings and, when we reach Pyrmont, jump up and down and point and clap. I wind down the window as we surge away: “It’s not miiiiiiiiine –”.
The car is beginning to feel like mine, though. And I have to admit I don’t really want to give it back. We’ve had six days on the road and nothing went wrong and we didn’t run out of power and the autopilot was pretty fucking great. The only hiccup was briefly losing the reverse camera, the solution to which involved holding down a couple of reset buttons on the steering wheel – more smartphone than electric car.
On our last night, we’re debriefing with dinner at Mr Percy’s at Ovolo 1888 in Sydney (the hotel’s sister property in Woolloomooloo just purchased a Tesla hotel car, one of the floor staff tells us. Of course it did) and the Model S sits across the road pinging me updates, letting me know its charge status and that everything is otherwise okay in its four-wheeled world.
Cruelly, the updates continue for the next month or so once I’m back in Brisbane, as the car no doubt gets shipped around by Tesla’s eternally laid-back goons, waiting to take on its next temporary owner. One night while driving home from the shops in my Mitsubishi Mirage (four-speed automatic; 0 to 100 in who knows; sweat socks under the seat) I consider driving the 1000 kilometres to St Leonards and repossessing the car.
Then again, we just travelled from Brisbane to Sydney as easy as you like, using infrastructure that is close to mature. It felt like the future, but it also felt very everyday. If this trip has taught me anything it’s that electric cars are coming faster than Scott Morrison thinks. Maybe it won’t be long before we’re both driving one.
The vehicle for this story was provided by Tesla Australia. The writer was a guest of The Byron at Byron, Riptide holiday house in Wooli, Sails Port Macquarie, Powerhouse Hotel Tamworth, The Longhouse in Pokolbin and Ovolo 1888 Darling Harbour.