”Welcome to Auz mate,” said the friendly customs agent as we arrived in
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. Sydney
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.
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
Gallery, Museum and St.
Following the seawall, as you leave the Botanical Gardens, you come to
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
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
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. Australia
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
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
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
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 Cairns has quite a few poisonous
creatures in both the ocean and on land that you have to watch out for. Australia
Also within a day’s journey of
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
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.” Sydney