It is hard to judge an entire country as large as Australia based on a two week trip. This is a huge country as large as the continental United States with a lot of wonderful sights to see. During our most recent trip over the 2015-16 holidays my wife and I primarily were limited to the East Coast, visiting Queensland and Sydney with a short diversion slightly west to the Blue Mountains. We pretty much visited the most popular and most populated sites and as usual we packed a lot in during our short time in this visit across the globe. Overall we had a great time during the Christmas and New Year holiday enjoying such wonders as the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree Rainforest, the Blue Mountains, the Jenolan limestone caves, all sorts of wildlife, and a fantastic New Years Eve celebration.
Despite the good times and wonderful sites, I must admit that I have mixed feelings about Australia and its culture. I’ll get into that in a bit, but as I usually do in this book-focused blog I’ll first give a review of the guide books that helped navigate our travels.
Our choice to visit Australia was directed by two factors: the first being that my wife had a good chunk of time off since her office was closed over the holidays and the second being that her cousin is currently working a two-year project for the US Embassy in the Australian capital of Canberra. The prospect to see Sydney over New Year’s Eve was made more desirable with the added bonus of sliding in a family visit. So, before we had even finalized the plans for our November France trip we found ourselves also making plans to stay in Sydney over the New Year. It was definitely a little odd planning two very different inter-continental trips in such close proximity of time, but at least our holiday plans were figured out!
After deciding on Sydney as the focus for the three nights around the New Year we were quickly overwhelmed by the daunting task of figuring out what else to see in such a large country. To help familiarize ourselves to the country we picked up a copy of the beautifully photographed National Geographic Traveler: Australia, which was as as much a guidebook as it was a pictorial homage to the country. Of course National Geographic magazine is renowned for breath taking photography and in-depth journalism. This guidebook stands up to the National Geographic reputation.
I had never used National Geographic (I’ll refer to it as NG from here on our) for travel tips before, but it was the perfect companion to help formulate the goals for our trip. In saying that I must clarify that the NG book isn’t a typical guidebook. NG lacks restaurant or lodging recommendations, it doesn’t have city maps, it doesn’t provide a “must-see” or “top-ten” style list of to-do itineraries. NG doesn’t even give driving tips or advice about travel distances from one place to another. With all of those elements lacking, why would I say this is a good companion for planning a trip? It is the lack of fluff that allows this book to be a good pictorial for the many regions with a straightforward journalistic style that is both informative and a pleasurable to read. Alongside Bill Bryson‘s personal travel-writing narrative NG provided a thorough overview of the country that is both an island and a continent. Aside from our planned days in Sydney around the New Year celebrations this trip was going to be primarily nature and wildlife focused and the NG book’s beautiful presentation of the scenery and wildlife alongside brief synopsis of the interests and history of each region or city was quite helpful in the trip planning.
In reading through the book we quickly learned that this trip would be unlike our last southern continental trip to New Zealand. In New Zealand you need only spend an hour or so on the road before you bump into another jaw-dropping wonder. Australia on the other hand is vast with miles and miles of barren, hardly explored, bone-dry-desert nothingness. Understandably, most of the country’s 23 million inhabitants live along the coast but many of the major cities and geologic or natural sites are a day’s travel away from each other. One could spend a lot of time driving and there is actually a really intriguing trans-continental multi-day Indian-Pacific Ocean train, but unfortunately the best way to see a different part of the country is to get on a plane to skip over that vast emptiness.
My wife was actually in Australia for over three weeks, leaving a week prior than me and returning a couple days after me to fit in more time with her cousin and a few more sites. Since her trip overlapped my two weeks both before and after and the latter part of my trip was planned around the New Year’s celebrations the trip planning was a little awkward for us. Of course the Great Barrier Reef was our top must-see location and we decided to do this in the week prior to Sydney. As for the rest of the trip we first considered fitting in a side-trip to Tasmania, which would have worked for my wife’s schedule but would have been very tight with mine so we nixed that option. We also considered heading down to Melbourne and taking a drive to see the 12 Apostles (an incorrectly named group of 8 limestone sea stacks) along the Victoria coast but decided against adding an additional flight in our already busy plan to fly north to the city of Cairns near the reef. At the recommendation of the NG book we ultimately settled on planning to see the Blue Mountains west of Sydney as our diversion away from Sydney at the end of my trip.
Prior to my trip, my wife spent some time in the sleepy capital of Canberra with her cousin’s family before heading up to Townsville in southern Queensland. During her time alone near Townsville she spent a night on Magnetic Island, a small nature preserve where she saw wild Koala and Wallaby. I was jealous with excitement as she reported her adventures to me. So, with eager anticipation to see her after a 14 and a half hour direct flight from San Francisco to Sydney that left late in the evening of December 22nd I arrived on Christmas Eve after losing a day in the travel. Despite the long flight I was rested (I had an entire row to myself in coach!) and ready for my 3 hour flight from Sydney to Cairns where we were meeting up.
After a few hours layover in warm, sunny Sydney, landing in Cairns felt like arriving in Hawaii. There were lush green mountains along the coast and the air was damp and overcast with tropical humidity. It was a great feeling after a long day, but the day was just beginning as we had nearly a three hour drive ahead of us on our way to Cape Tribulation, the most northern “town” before the paved road turned gravel. We were spending our Christmas in a remote cabin in the Daintree rainforest far away from anything remotely populated.
The drive was windy and gorgeous, reminiscent of the road to Hana on Maui with the road often just at the ocean’s edge. After we passed through the small town of Mossman we took a ferry across the Daintree river when the rains started seriously coming down just as it was turning dark. It was a nerve-racking feeling taking a ferry across a river that was home to saltwater crocodiles in the middle of a downpour in a region known for floods during the rainy season (our time of travel). After the ferry the driving got all the more difficult. If I thought the road from Cairns to Mossman was windy and treacherous, the hour-long drive from the Daintree river to our cabin was nail-bightingly narrow and even more windy. There were several signs warning us to watch out for Cassowary, the region’s famous prehistoric-looking birds the size of ostrich and we were constantly on the look-out for them. When we finally arrived in the cabin we were overjoyed that we made it safely.
We woke up on Christmas day with momentary disappointment hearing what we thought was the sound of the constant rain that had never stopped from the night before only to be pleasantly surprised that the sun was partially out and that the sound we heard was a roaring creek within site of our living room window. It was going to be a good day!
The next week of our trip was planned out using the Lonely Planet regionally focused book for Queensland & The Great Barrier Reef. We were well aware that according to the Lonely Planet December was not an ideal time to visit the RAINforest during the wet season. Despite forewarning that it would likely be rainy, our Christmas day had hiking planned since we knew that everything would be closed. It was a little worrisome having nothing else planned and being miles from anything since rains could seriously dampen our plans. Thankfully it didn’t rain until much later in the day and we fit in several short walks along the beach and through the mangrove boardwalks.
There were plenty of signs warning us of the dangers of crocodiles and stinger jellyfish. Despite it being the middle of summer (yes summer in December) we were staying out of the water and just enjoying the natural beauty in front of our eyes. During our hikes we didn’t see any crocodiles but we did stumble upon a very large (and fast) five -foot long monitor lizard on one of the beaches. Unfortunately it was too shy to pause for a picture, but it was a gorgeous creature. We also stumbled upon an alien looking hollowed out tree, or rather collection of vines that had suffocated a tree. On my first day I would quickly learn that Australia is filled with odd surprises.
Since Christmas Eve and Christmas day were days spent in the cabin and hiking with hardly a person in site, Boxing Day was my first encounter with Australian casualness. We met up with Neil, a middle-aged guy who gives tours through the world heritage rain-forest site of Cooper Canyon. After a firm handshake we began our four hour walk with Neil who pointed out the spiders camouflaged on the surface of the trees. He calmly and bluntly stated that as we’re walking through the forest “you might want to grab on to a tree for support, but don’t.” He further explained that on the scale of poisonous, the spiders that make webs put most of their energy in stunning prey with the stickiness of the web and although they will “hurt awful” if you get bitten by one of those “they’re not that bad” but you have to really worry about the spiders that don’t have webs because they put most of their energy into stunning their prey with their venom. In a very roundabout way he was telling us that the spiders we don’t see are the most poisonous. It was a very comforting start to the hike.
And what a hike it was. As an informative nature walk it exceeded my expectations. Neil is a very well-informed, albeit at times long-winded, guide. Not only did he point out all kinds of species of plant and animal life, he has a phenomenal understanding of the ecological connections of the forest. He also gives a lot of respect to the Aboriginal people, giving them acknowledgment for living in harmony with the land for nearly 40-60,000 years and recognizing that over that span of time they were as much a part of the ecosystem as the trees, snakes, and birds. Unfortunately, in the spirit of conservation the Aborigines have been driven off the land of this World Heritage forest based on the European-centered thinking that any humans living within the land is a bad thing. This ill-sited approach to conservation causes disruptions in the balance of life such as overpopulation of the pythons as the apex predator. Neil was also keen to point out all the bad things that Europeans have done to the land such as introducing a population of wild boars that dig up the seedlings of ancient trees. Paradoxically nothing is being done to correct this introduced pest because hunting of any kind is forbidden and punishable.
Neil’s perspective was extremely enlightening and for someone who grew up in the city of Adelaide he is extremely connected to the natural world. He shared an amazing story about an odd cultural connection between newborns and pythons: after childbirth there is a pheromone that the python detects and large pythons are known to swallow human babies. When each of his three children were born he was on guard for a python that came to his property during their first two weeks of life. He shared how the Aborigines noticed this attraction of the python to the newborns and they would use newborns as a sort of bait to allow them to easily kill and eat the pythons in a celebration feast. Such actions are now prohibited, but the cultural practice was deeply tied to the natural world through the celebration of new life. Neil also shared a bit about the Aboriginal “dream” mythology that is as much to do with memory of place as it is to do with rem dreams of sleep. In the Aboriginal culture memories are strongly tied to location and the the smells and sights of location becomes important through the sharing of memories with others. Neil illuminated this as he took us to the grove where he was married over twenty years prior. The land is connected to his family dynamic and has influence on their identity in ways that modern city life does not.
Sadly, during the trip, the closest I would get to Aboriginal culture would be through these tellings of a middle-aged Australian of European descent. Neil seemed to be an anomaly, someone who truly appreciates and regrets the loss of Aboriginal influence with the coming of European people to this continent. It doesn’t appear that many Australians share his sentiment. The Aborigines were hardly visible to me throughout my trip. They don’t work in the shops or wait tables. The few I saw looked unhealthy. Much as it is with Native Americans, there is clearly a cultural division between the predominantly white Australian culture and the the hardly visible Aboriginal culture. I found this disappointing in comparison to New Zealand where the Maori are highly visible and part of the Kiwi culture and an integral part of the community.
However, I didn’t travel to Queensland expecting culture. The main focus was wildlife and that goal was definitely met over the next few days. I learned on a boat ride through the mangroves that the summer is not a good time for crocodile viewing because they spend most of the time in the warm water instead of beaching themselves for warmth. But on this tour I lucked out, seeing a massive 5 meter, 1000 pound male taking a rest on the beach after defending his territory. I also got to see a cassowary and its chick alongside the road. The cassowary is a prehistoric nightmarish looking oddity with blue plumage, a giant bone atop its head, a red turkey-like waddle and razor sharp beak and talons. Not only did I get to see the cassowary, I saw one wih a chick, which had a brownish color. Even though we were safely in our car, that bird with its chick looked dangerous.
The Daintree rainforest is truly a spectacular place. According to our Lonely Planet guide most travelers make it to Queensland primarily to see the Great Barrier reef and miss out on the wonders of the Daintree. I’m glad that we spent a good amount of time there and the peacefulness of the the long hikes and lack of action around Christmas helped us avoid all the tour buses that drive up for day trips from Cairns and Port Douglas.
Of course we weren’t going to miss out on the Great Barrier Reef. We opted for an outfitter out of Port Douglas called Wavelength that took us on an all day snorkel trip to three different reef sites. The reef is actually surprisingly far from shore, taking nearly an hour and a half on a boat to reach the reef. Thankfully we had a gorgeous day with calm water and our tour was lead by an enthusiastic marine biologist that provided a lot of supplementary and engaging education about the diversity of the reef.
I have enjoyed snorkeling in Belize and off several of the Hawaiian islands but none of those prior exposures to coral reefs prepared me for the spectacular beauty of the Great Barrier Reef. It is definitely one of the most beautiful natural wonders I’ve witnessed. We swam with countless fish, turtle, and even a reef shark, but the diversity of the actual coral is the true gem. This is a magical and special place. If you are anywhere near thinking about making a trip to Australia, you absolutely must see the reef. We had such a great time that after our full day trip we booked a half day trip for our last day in Queensland just to get more of a reef fix. The half day trip was out of Cairns through a company called Skedadle that raced us out to the reef on a brand new boat. On our second day to the reef the water wasn’t as calm and we had to swim against current to get to the reef viewing, but it was still just as beautiful.
In between our two days of snorkeling we relaxed in Port Douglas with nothing really planned. Our Lonely Planet guide helped us navigate a casual day with a hike in the Mossman Gorge for some more rainforest beauty and an afternoon at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventure. Hartley’s is kind of mix between a zoo and an entertainment park. They have several shows that focus on educating people about the dangers of the Australian wildlife and the crazy trainers will do things like casually hold a Taipain (the world’s most venomous snake) or enter a pool with a crocodile to demonstrate how dangerous these animals are. It was definitely a lot of fun an purely Australian in every way possible.
After our last day of snorkeling the rains really started to come down. We didn’t really get to enjoy much of Cairns during our one night there because the rain was brutal and non-stop. It was time to head to Sydney and we welcomed the warm weather and sunshine after a week of rain. Our 4 days and 3 nights in Sydney were a mix of sight seeing and a mix of family time as we met up with my wife’s cousin and his family. Our first day we traveled to Manly Beach and delighted ourselves in the flour-like softness of the beach’s white sands. On New Year’s Eve we wandered around a bit, partially sight seeing and partially shopping, and mostly eating wonderful Asian food as we wandered through the Rocks (the original convict center of the city) and off to the Sydney fish market. On New Year’s Day we all went to the Toronga zoo together, which was admittedly tame after Hartley’s, but a beautiful zoo nonetheless.
Sydney truly is a beautiful city and getting around via ferry is a spectacular way to get to know the city. We relied on the Lonely Planet: Sydney City Guide to familiarize ourselves to the layout and history of the city, but our cousin kind of acted as a tour guide for us, helping us navigate through the city. It was definitely a benefit to have someone who was familiar with the city, because as I got to know I became acutely aware of some of its annoyances.
Despite having a beautiful harbor backdrop I found Sydney full of too many annoyances to allow me to love the city. First, although the subway/train system is fairly comprehensive in geographical coverage it is highly disorganized. Outside the train stations one must read an airport style leader-board to figure out the platform based on your destination because once you are inside the train station there are no maps or any direction of any kind. If you have to transfer stops the only way to figure out where to go is to ask. It seems kind of backwater and disorganized for the country’s largest, most populous city. Furthermore, we arrived when the the city was in transition converting from paper tickets to an electronic rechargeable card for all transit, which is great in principle except the train stations aren’t selling the necessary cards. There is no direction where to find them and without our cousin’s help we would have been totally lost because the Sydney people aren’t very helpful. Shops close exactly on the dot with no apologies, service is curt and abrupt, and finding stamps was nearly impossible.
For a city that prides itself in being extremely diverse with a large Asian population and supposedly a larger gay population than San Francisco I found the city to be segregated and clique-like. More than once I overheard white Australians grumbling about the large number of Asian stores open (they were in fact the only stores open past 6pm) and several people were extremely rude to my Asian wife, but exceedingly kind to me. I don’t think I ever saw one gay person, so they all must be tucked away in a corner of the city and although I saw many people of color, they were not intermixed with whites an other people of color. I am aware that I am used to the progressive history of San Francisco (which I admit is hardly a perfect city), but I feel that Sydney has a long way to go before it reaches the level of inclusive diversity that is talked about in the guide books I read. Australia definitely has a rough history and its people have their own ragged edges.
I will admit that when it comes to the New Year’s Eve celebration, Sydney owns it. The New Year’s Eve celebration was prominently mentioned in both our NG book and the Lonely Planet and we were blown away by the ambition of the fireworks celebrations. People line up along the harbor for hours and pack in the ferry ships to view the show. We opted to attend a party at the Sydney Opera Bar that included food and good-natured entertainment with live music and characters dressed in festive costumes playing pranks on the guests. It was loads of fun and we had a great viewing spot for both the 9pm and midnight fireworks festivities. They have fireworks going simultaneously from three locations, shooting off from the roof of the Opera House, from the Harbor Bridge, and the Darhling Harbor. I’ve never seen anything like it and it was definitely the best New Year’s celebration I’ve experienced.
After our time in Sydney we left the city for the Blue Mountains: so named after the blue aura that the eucalyptus oils secrete. The mountains are just a two hour drive from Sydney and they are a beautiful respite from the hectic city. At Wentworth falls we enjoyed a really unique hike along the edge of a cliff partially carved into the mountain side and a jaunt through the Leura cascades. The towns of Leura and Katoomba in the mountains are charming little escapes from the bustle of Sydney and the limestone caves of Jenolan are only an hour further west. In Jenolan we did some guided tours through two separate caves, which are apparently some of the oldest limestone caves in the world. I’ve been in caves in Kentucky and New Zealand and the Jenolan caves are impressive in how accessible and unique they are.
My last day in Australia was a return to Sydney prior to my flight home. We had planned to relax on Bondi beach and soak up the sun but mother nature had other plans as we had yet another rain storm curtail our plans. The rain was expected for this time of year in Queensland but it was an unusual surprise for Sydney. The last day was just spent wandering, eating, and counting the time to head home. Overall the trip was a great time, filled with wonderful sites and great memories, but I had my fill of Australia. Traveling to this country I brought with me a load of anxiety about the many insects, foliage, and wildlife that could do me harm but on my journey home I was more relieved that I survived the disorder and roughness of the culture.
Bill Bryson definitely said it best in the closing of In A Sunburned Country, when he said “You see, Australia is an interesting place. It truly is. And that really is all I’m saying.”
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