Oh, Inverted World!

Australia is a country that is cunningly familiar to most visitors. Let your mind wander for a few minutes while there, and you’ll probably be reminded of a place you’ve been before, or even a variety of places. Then a kangaroo hops by, the swans are black, and the trees are shedding their bark. Once you recognize the idiosyncrasies of the world’s largest island you fully begin to understand the marvel that is Australia. It has been isolated from the other continents for over 45 million years, and as a result its birds, plants, and mammals are some of the world’s most distinct, diverse and deadly. Its isolation has also left Australia without predators or parasites that are common in other parts of the world, so when introducing a native species that thrived elsewhere, it can gravely upset Australia’s fragile balance of life. A prime example occurred when Thomas Austin introduced 24 wild rabbits from England to Australia for sport hunting. Before long they multiplied to over 300 million rabbits devastating thousands of acres of cropland and transforming the landscape of modern-day Australia. There is a marked English and American influence on Australia, and in the past, people sought to model it after one or the other, but Australia is vehemently Australian. So, while there you best set aside your tea and scones for a flat white and a piece of toast with some vegemite. Get out your polymer notes, and saddle up at the bar next to your new best mate. After knocking back a few cold ones, you’ll be wishing your country also had convict beginnings.
The most important experience to have on a first trip to Australia (next to sharing a beer with a new mate) is to get a sense of just how dry, flat, and large the country is. The heart of Australia, which in earlier times was fondly described as the “ghastly blank” may be home to less than 10% of its population, but that’s what makes it all the more special. Its vast frontier cultivated the ethos of Australia’s most beloved personalities: the swagman, squatters, and bushrangers. Today’s outback residents are no less hearty than their predecessors, and put up with daily stinging ant battles and other minor nuisances like nuclear testing, extreme droughts and no gas for 1200 miles. The outback is fraught with countless tales of attempted, and failed exploration; men vanishing into oblivion or returning home with missing appendages, loss of sight and covered in blisters and lesions. Fascinating tales that spark the imagination and cause a person to wonder what in the world could be out there. Some thought there were mighty river systems or an inland sea, but in 1873 it was finally confirmed what was out there. A massive rock! Or, more geographically appropriate, a monolith- known to some as Ayers Rock, and to others more affectionately as Uluru. For 2500 miles north and south, and 2000 miles east and west it’s the prize of the interior.
The first time I landed in Perth I was overcome with a vague sense of alienation. Not a panicked sense of alienation, more a sense of wonder over its overwhelming loneliness. I’ve been to the world’s two most isolated capital cities, Honolulu and Wellington, and although difficult to access, civilization was still nearby. Perth, on the other hand is isolated in all four directions for at least 1500 miles. My flight from Perth to Sydney didn’t do much to dispel the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere. The flight is similar to flying from San Francisco to New York- less one hour, but because there is literally nothing below you save for some dingoes, you feel like a hole has been ripped in the space/time vortex. Just when you think life ceases to exist, Sydney emerges like a mirage on the horizon.


One of the things that I love about Aussies is that they never tire of inciting the friendly argument with each other over which city is better, Melbourne or Sydney. This playful banter dates back to the days of the 1850s gold rush when both cities rose to prominence. Each hoped to become Australia’s largest, richest and capital city. They were so closely matched that in a spirit of joint cooperation, they decided a new capital would have to be formed in between to placate the Melbournians and Sydney-siders. Enter Canberra, which today enjoys the most attention as the answer to the geography trivia question of what is the capital of Australia. Even though Australians went to great pain to partition out new land for the capital territory, they couldn’t keep Melbourne and Sydney from continuing to evolve into much more flourishing, and dynamic cities than pedestrian Canberra. Not much has changed since the 1850s, as today both cities remain the largest (both on the verge of 5 million), richest, and still not the country’s capital. But, year after year they have been recognized as ranking in the top tier of the world’s most livable cities. They boast an impressive resume of good healthcare, education, infrastructure and a burgeoning cultural scene. Did I mention that their food is also surprisingly tasty? It’s a far cry from its bland British culinary beginnings, and today is a nice fusion of Eastern and Western palates.
Since Sydney was the first city I visited of the two, I have a certain partiality to it. One can’t help but fall victim to its beguiling harbor front with every bend affording a new perspective of the city. Many thanks are due to the former governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie, who some have equated to Australia’s Abraham Lincoln. Impressed with a name of such integrity, Australians took great liberty in naming just about everything imaginable after him: Port Macquarie, Mrs. Macquarie’s chair, Macquarie University, and even Macquarie island. Under him, the primitive city of convicts was transformed. Macquarie gave the convicts opportunities to earn their freedom by working on various projects around the city- roads, bridges, wharves, and other public buildings. Today, the projects still stand as impressive architectural monuments. They helped establish a unified aesthetic in the city, and paved the way for other architectural feats, notably the Queen Victoria Building, the Harbor Bridge, and world-renowned Sydney Opera house. When you tire of all things related to Macquarie, fret not, because the governor who succeeded him, Ralph Darling, also has an impressive list of places named after him. My favorite is Darling Harbor. The harbor is located in the former docklands, and is now a buzzing tourist snare full of fountains, public art and hip restaurants.
We arrived in Melbourne the day before New Years, and were unable to capture the true character of the city. There was an influx of out-of-towners, and the typical day-to-day rhythm of the city had been interrupted by the holiday. We stayed at the Rendezvous Grand Hotel, which was perfectly situated- adjacent to Federation Square, and a stones throw from the recently renovated Southbank area. Just outside our hotel arose a wonderful juxtaposition of modern buildings and 19th and 20th century buildings. Given the ridiculous driving laws in Melbourne (the hook turn- ‘right turn from left only’), and our prime location, we chose to walk just about anywhere we could. Once we crossed over the main artery of the city, The Yarra River, we made our way to the Royal Botanic Gardens. The Gardens were a sight to behold, and are some of the finest I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. After reluctantly leaving the gardens, we made our way to the National Gallery. Again, another place I could go on gushing about. The thinly veiled exterior water wall was just the beginning, and I enjoyed that I didn’t leave there with an aesthetic headache. Because it was such a pedestrian-friendly city, we continued on towards the alleys and arcades that were teeming with festively clad partygoers the previous evening. When vacated, they provided a nice opportunity for us to take in Melbourne’s many vibrant, swirling mosaics. This city was clearly overflowing with a lot of creative juices. It’s a shame we arrived when it was in such a state of flux, but I guess that just means we’ll have to return some other time. For now, we had to move on to the Great Ocean Road.
The Great Ocean Road is a spectacular stretch of highway that snakes its way along the scenic Victorian coast southwest of Melbourne. On one side are deep, turquoise bays, and on the other are the steep and forested Otway Ranges. The drive culminates close to Port Campbell, where the twelve apostles now reduced to eight by the pounding sea congregate and the London Bridge (today named the London Stacks) falls. It is a spectacular sight when the sun illuminates the limestone and transforms them into sparkling golden formations. It’s quickly apparent that a lot of powerful winds and tides were at work in creating such a unique coastline. The Great Ocean Road overlaps with a section of the Shipwreck coast, the site of over 1200 shipwrecks. If you’re not in a rush to beat the traffic while on the road, make sure to read the signs documenting all the different crashes. On another morbid note, the Great Ocean road is also the world’s largest war memorial. Over the course of 12 years, it was built by, and dedicated to solders killed in WWI. If you want to see the Great Ocean Road around the Christmas and New Years holiday, which occur during the nicest midsummer months, make sure to plan in advance because of the crowds. We booked our vacation months out and ended up staying in Lorne because all the other towns along the road were booked to capacity. Inside the trailer parks, people were packed together like sardines. Lorne ended up being a charming little town, and I imagine it is even lovelier when not overrun with holiday hordes. IMG_0545
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After the Victorian Coast, we hopped on a Virgin Australia flight to the top of Queensland, where we discovered Captain Cook’s favorite corner of the continent. Prior to his discovery of Botany Bay and Sydney Harbor, Captain Cook’s ship lodged on some coral in the Great Barrier Reef, and nearly sank. One of the men abroad his ship was able to perform a new technique known as fothering, where he wrapped the boat in its sails to prevent any more water from coming in, and then brought the boat ashore for repairs. While waiting for the ship to be repaired, a disheartened Captain Cook named the surrounding areas (the names were in no way were indicative of his typical, happy disposition): Mount Sorrow, Weary Bay, Endeavor Reef and where he almost lost his ship, Cape Tribulation. We stayed just south of Cape Tribulation, in a charming town called Port Douglas. Like Cape Tribulation, Port Douglas is also known for trouble that took place just offshore (I’m sensing a theme here), where Steve Irwin was killed when a stingray barb pierced his heart. It also happens to be the place where Bill Clinton was on vacation when he found out about the September 11 attacks. Its best to leave these stories in the shadow of Mt. Sorrow, since both places are spectacularly verdant, lush and offer the best of Australian tourism. Port Douglas is the place where national historic sites come full circle, and you have your choice of the crème de la crème of rainforests or reefs. Granted, it’ll come at a price. We paid $150- $200 for each tour, but they were all well done. I would highly recommend Tony’s Tropical Tours for the Daintree Forest and Mosman Gorge, and Poseidon tours for snorkeling or diving the Great Barrier Reef. The guides were incredibly knowledgeable, and after spending fifteen minutes in the rainforest and at sea with them, we were made aware of ways to be ruthlessly kicked to death by a cassowary, impaled by a stinging, flesh-eating leaf, poisoned by a plum, stung by a jellyfish, or just your standard shark attack. The tours were definite highlights of our trip, but after returning from them, I was quite content to relax in the many pools of our hotel, the Manta Portsea.
On our last night in Australia, I was reminded of my first trip to the continent. I was traveling down under for a work conference, and wanted to extend my stay so I had time to take in some of Australia’s sights. One of my Mom’s best friend’s put me in touch with one of her dear Australian friends. Without reservation, this man and his wife swooped me up from the airport, and let me stay in their Mosman apartment for over a week. I was overwhelmed by their effusive hospitality and generosity. We walked, swam, ran, or rode around every stretch of Sydney, and along the way I received one of the most thorough, and riveting histories of Australia. In the morning, they happily satiated me with flat whites, and at night one of Australia’s great varieties of red wine. We met up with him and his wife recently and I was again reminded of why Australia is so instantly likable. It has its share of beautiful sights, and world-class cities, but what resonates is its people. They are proud to be Australians (in the least nationalistic sense) and share their country with you, but they are also inherently affable people. No ulterior motives, just a mate looking to have a good time. I thought of another encounter I had with an Australian, who once told me, it’s up to us to connect our friends like constellations in the night sky. Looking up at the Southern Cross, I reminded myself to make an extra effort to hook up with my friends in the inverted, not-so inverted world.

Recommended Reads: The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway, and In a Sunburned Country (also known as Down Under) by Bill Bryson
Links I Love- What is a Flat White? http://www.coffeehunter.org/what-is-a-flat-white/

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