Australia (November 2005)

”Welcome to Auz mate,” said the friendly customs agent as we arrived in Sydney after a typically cramped and tiring 18 hour flight.  Pity it wasn’t like the other Oz, where a simple click of the heels would have gotten you there instantly; such is life with airline travel these days, not to mention having to deal with the paranoia of officialdom everywhere where you go.  But the sun was shining, it was nice and warm, and we were eager to get out and see the sights.  

Located in one of the most perfect port locations in the world, with a population well represented by its various Asian neighbours, a visitor from Vancouver could be forgiven for thinking they were right back home again as they walked along spotless streets with coffee bars on every corner, and a beautiful park in the middle of the downtown core.  But there were plenty of differences, the first being a complete absence of panhandlers, and the second was an amazingly integrated transit system, with its public/private mix of buses, subways, monorail, trains and, best of all, high speed ferries and catamarans. 

Starting from either the renovated Darling Harbour, with its attractive collection of bars and restaurants, or the Circular Quay, a harbour cruise is a great way to get orientated in Sydney and appreciate, first hand, how much the Australians really love their ocean.  Everywhere you go surfers are riding the waves into shore, people carefully soaking up the sun, and sailboats racing with the wind.  

A vast, island continent, actually rivaling North America in size, its population is very small and nearly everyone lives close to the ocean, particularly along the eastern coastline, and for good reason. Its seemingly endless beaches are just spectacular, though they’re also shark invested and, wherever there’s public bathing you’ll find shark nets strung across the water to keep things properly separated. The most popular beaches are Bondi and Manly.

Bondi Beach

Bondi Beach

Manly Beach

Manly Beach

Of course everyone wants to see the sharks, and what better place to start than the City’s most popular attraction, the fabulous Sydney Aquarium.  Here you can wander through the cleverly designed tanks that have tunnels going right through them and allow yourself to feel you’re right in with all the various fearsome looking sharks and rays swimming endlessly around.  There’s also a similarly designed tank containing seals and sea lions and, thanks to the acoustic monitors that have been set up, you can hear them talking to one another in their high pitched squeals.

It’s also a great city for exploring on foot, starting with the downtown park which is actually two different parks that merge seamlessly together.   Hyde Park, with its spectacular fountain, statue of Captain Cook and promenade of 200 year old fig trees, and the Botanical Gardens, framed by the city seawall and filled with an impressive collection of exotic trees that have been graciously planted, throughout the immaculate grounds, among the statues and ponds, in a variety of themes.  Anchoring the southeastern corners of the parks are the magnificent Art Gallery, Museum and St. James Cathedral.

Following the seawall, as you leave the Botanical Gardens, you come to Sydney’s most famous landmark of all, the stunningly designed Opera House, perfectly positioned, at the harbour entrance, to welcome visitors into the downtown.  Directly across from the Opera House is the neighbourhood now known as the “Rocks”; an area settled by the convicts sent over from England, when Australia was a penal colony, which has now been redeveloped into a trendy collection of shops and restaurants.

The real shopping, however, is in the heart of the downtown where the boutiques and underground malls seem to flow in an endless labyrinth that starts or ends (depending on where you begin) at the Queen Victoria building, an architectural wonder built during the Depression as a way of employing as many artisans as possible.  A short distance away is Chinatown which boasts a beautiful garden and a delightful restaurant corridor where everyone eats “al fresco” on a street that’s been reclaimed from the cars.

Taking a break from the big city life, and all its fascinating people watching, we then flew to Cairns, the capital city of the Great Barrier Reef; Australia’s biggest tourist attraction.  Other than maybe picking up a few souvenirs, and eating and drinking with a few thousand other tourists, while you wait for your boat to leave, there isn’t much to do in this pretty but humid town.  Strangely enough it seems to be the one place in Australia without a beach, and the signs on the Esplanade warn you to watch for crocodiles lurking in the mud flats and marsh along the shoreline.

After an informative slide show lecture, on fish and coral identification, by the hilarious marine biologist Paddy Colwell, we were ready to load up our gear on Pro Dive’s 75 foot dive boat.  For the next few days we enjoyed the camaraderie of 30 other divers from around the world living together on board while cruising around and exploring a few sections of the Reef.  One of the world’s natural wonders and billed as the largest living organism on Earth, the Great Barrier Reef, made up of over 3,000 different reefs and covering an area of 300,000 square miles, is filled with more than 1,500 species of fish.

Diving up to four times a day, including a night dive, we marveled at the coral formations and all the beautiful, multi-coloured fish we encountered, including the timid reef sharks & singrays, friendly Wallys and non-chalant green sea turtles that let you pet them and swim alongside.  Even if half the reef seemed to be suffering from the effects of man-made pollution and climate change, the water was wonderfully warm and clear, the scenery was spectacular, and Junie even went snorkeling for the first time in her life.



Before heading back to Sydney we headed up to Palm Cove, one of the nearby beach towns in the Cairns area where, once again, sand and ocean come together so wonderfully.  Here the nets aren’t for keeping out the sharks but rather the nasty jellyfish/stingers can be fatal if they sting you.  Pity they weren’t nice and tasty to eat like the local barramundi, but it seems Australia has quite a few poisonous creatures in both the ocean and on land that you have to watch out for.

Australia also has plenty of friendly, adorable animals to get to know, and there isn’t any better place to see them first hand than the Featherdale Wildlife Park, a local animal refuge and arguably the world’s nicest petting zoo.  Here we got to mingle with some of the country’s famous marsupials, including kangaroos, wombats, wallabies and, of course, the loveable koala bears.

To see these creatures out in the wild, you only have to take a short journey out of Sydney to the nearby National Park system which includes the Blue Mountains, a misnomer to anyone living near real mountains but, nonetheless, a rather spectacular, and unique, geological formation with all sorts of myths and legends surrounding some of its more prominent lookouts. 

Also within a day’s journey of Sydney is the famous Hunter Valley wine country.  Wild kangaroo sightings may be common but they certainly aren’t the main reason to come here.  Although, after touring a few of the more popular wineries and doing some serious tasting, you may find yourself hopping about like one before falling into a deep, koala-like, sleep on the bus taking you back to your hotel.  

To see a little more of the fabulous coastline we decided to rent a car and head up to the local holiday area of Forster-Tuncurry and Seal Rocks.  Here we were rewarded with a spectacular hiking trail that took us along the edge of a series of rock bluffs, surfer beaches and open ocean that was also a transit route for the area’s local dolphins and whales.  It was also a famous diving location, and I got the opportunity to come face to face with some very impressive, fierce looking grey nurse sharks and the strange but dangerous Wobbiegong sharks.  

Having survived my shark encounter we decided it was time to head back to Sydney and conduct an informal beach challenge between Bondi and Manley.  Both places were nicely packed with locals and, while the water, sand, and surf were equally good, Manley did seem to have the better shops and restaurants.  However, when you’re lying on a warm beach, far from home and all your troubles, you hate to pass judgment and, the only thing you can really say to anyone is “No worries mate.”

1 comment:

  1. Loved this holiday. Lovely and hot. However, still glad we live where we live.