CategoriesAdventuresTravel

What’s Australia Like?

what's Australia like?
Brisbane – a great city that answers the question “what’s Australia like?” (via wikipedia, photo by Baycha Byrne.)
I mark 2005 as the true beginning of my international travel experience. Since then, the way I view travel has changed as I’ve seen and done more. This post marks the first in a series that collects and compares what I’ve learned. Let’s get it started with "What’s Australia Like?", a look at what you can expect from a visit Down Undah. Watch for more "What’s It Like?" posts in the future.

Australia in a Word: Balanced

What do I mean by that? Australia struck me as a place that strikes a near-perfect balance of everything that I like in life. I saw a lot of hard-driven, Type A people on the move in Sydney. But they also had the sense to know when it’s time to relax. People love watching their Aussie rules football, rugby union and cricket matches – but I got the sense that many people love actually playing as well as watching. People talk to each other easily, even to strangers.

What's Australia like?
Black sapote fruit – one of the many exotic tastes you’ll find in Australia.

And here’s something else: I only had one person display any air of snobbery -- and he was being more than a little ironic and smirky about it. There a no-nonsense, non-douchey, unpretentious air to Australians that I really like. And it’s one of the first things I mention when people ask "What’s Australia like?"

Dining in Australia

What's Australia like?
That’s me havin’ a blow on the didge.

I also love Australia’s adventurous food options. It’s close to Southeast Asia, so you have some of that influence seeping into all sorts of great regional ingredients. Kangaroo is a fixture on a lot of menus, as is the mild fish called baramundi (takes very well to a good curry). To this day, I’ve not had a better cheesecake than the outrageous example I had at the Mungalli Creek Dairy just outside Cairns. The beer scene lagged at the time, but my bet is that it’s improved (if the delicious Galaxy hops I had in a craft beer is any indicator). This might surprise you, but Australia also grows great coffee beans, and skilled baristas turn those beans into great espresso drinks (they’re not as into the brewed coffees).

What's Australia like?
Up in the Kakadu … the mythical Australia of the big screen.

Outdoors in Australia

It’s everything you’d expect. Termite mounds, snakes, huge bats, salt-water crocs, wallabies, kangaroos, water fowl -- it’s all here and abundant and impressive and potentially deadly. Start off in Darwin and get a tour to Kakadu National Park (don’t try to do this on your own … crocs and crazy roads can make your trip turn pear-shaped),

And that scenery! You have everything from desert in places like Coober Pedy to thick tropical rain forests near Cape Tribulation. The coasts are scenic beyond belief.

When I went: 2009

What's Australia like?
Awwwwww, Skip!

Duration: 16 days

Areas Visited: Sydney, Katoomba, Kurada, Kakadu National Park, Darwin, Port Douglas, Cape Tribulation, Atherton Table Lands, Brisbane (such an underrated city)

Things to Remember

I realize it’s impossible to get the essence of a country in just one two-week visit -- especially one as large as Australia. Still, I think my observations have some value for anyone considering a visit. People from around the world laugh at Americans who show up with just two weeks to spend – until our country catches up with the rest of the First World when it comes to vacation time, that’s pretty much what most of us can afford. Any less is barely worthwhile. Whether you spend your entire time on the beach or head into the Kakadu for an expedition, you will have an unbelievable time.

CategoriesAccommodations

Brisbane – Overlooked City of Australia

BNE CityFerry
The Brisbane riverside at night. (By Bachya Byrne via Wikimedia Commons)
Brisbane is Australia’s overlooked city. It was my last stop Down Under before heading back to the United States. Though I knew little about Brisbane, it became one of my favorite cities.

We arrived with barely any plans. Our first mission was to look for cheap Brisbane hotels. We picked a bad time to wait until the last minute because of a city-wide festival about to begin. We got lucky, though, and found an affordable place near the Queen Street Mall. That put us across the street from the apartment of some friends who lived in Australia at the time.

So what’s cool about Brisbane?

First off, the Brisbane Festival in September. It begins with a crazy fireworks display called Riverfire. In 2007, the fireworks started when F-111 jet fighter-bombers screeched over the city at sub-skyscraper altitude, flames from their afterburners casting a glow over the city. Australia no longer flies the F-111, so I’m not sure how Riverfire launches now. The weeks-long festival showcases art in all its forms. We had no clue about the festival when we arrived in Brisbane, but left blown away by its scope and quality.

Then, we did what we always do in an unfamiliar city: We walked. One of the better finds? The Queensland Museum. Since we like science and nature, we found a lot to enjoy. I always approach museums with caution – some are weighted heavily toward the kids. The Queensland Museum’s literature and displays had a nice balance – simple enough for younger visitors, but thorough enough for adults.

A look inside the Queensland Museum.

Then there’s the Queen Street Mall, an open-air thoroughfare of shops and dining. I didn’t do much shopping. I was there just to stroll around and enjoy the Brisbane ambiance. But I could’ve found anything from the usual touristy items to pretty much any clothes or sportswear – especially if it’s rugby, cricket or Australian Football League-related!

We also found a brewery called The Brewhouse. The selection wasn’t huge back in 2007 – but craft brewing was still filtering through Australia at the time. It’s a nice place to hang out and have a chocolate porter.

And I know this might be routine for some people -- but for a desert dweller like me, a ride down the Brisbane River on the CityCat is a lot of fun. Any amount of standing water gets me excited. Embarrassing, I know! It just continues the Australia theme of good public transportation by rail, boat or bus.

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CategoriesUncategorized

The Final Australia 2007 Post

Friday, Aug. 31

Seriously, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen an F-111 fly a few hundred feet over your head with its afterburners lit. This was part of a crazy celebration called Riverfire. If you ever visit Australia, do yourself a favor: Be in Brisbane for Riverfire. The video is lengthy, but it gives you a great idea of the fireworks display, and the jets that open and close it. Awesome!

We woke up early and took a stroll around the downtown area. This is a very outdoorsy city, lots of people running and cycling. After some breakfast, we picked a direction and walked. We also noticed that everybody was getting all aflutter about Riverfire. People were already lining the riverbanks to grab primo spots for the evening’s festivities. Sarah and I aren’t much for parades and shindigs, so we largely ignored it. We were pretty happy to be proven wrong later, but more on that toward the end.

Our first stop was the excellent Queensland Museum, which is really strong on science and nature. There was just too much cool stuff to see. We spent a few hours easily cruising around in there before heading out for general walking about. There’s a very neighborly feel to Brisbane, with a lot of non-chain store types of places. This particular section of Brizzy is like a big college town, even though Queensland University is down the river. Speaking of QU, we thought it would be fun to check out the campus.

We hopped on the CityCat, a huge, fast-moving catamaran, to scope out the river banks and get us a lift to the university. QU is actually a bit dumpy and not surrounded by as much funky cool stuff as, say the University of Washington in Seattle (talk about the epitome of a perfectly awesome university). We were pretty amazed by the sports facilities and the very athletic-oriented vibe, though. We returned to our area via the CityCat and headed to the area near our hotel. We strolled around the Queen Street Mall, which is a termite mound of activity at any hour.

We also stopped at The Brewhouse, which certainly doesn’t swing in the same weight class as Sydney’s Redoak. At that point, it was about time for us to look up Sarah’s former roommate, who happened to be living in Brizzy with her new dude Michael, who is in the Ozzy army. We were soon on their 23rd floor flat, which was right across from out hotel. This provided a great viewing point for Riverfire, plus it gave us a great chance to hang out with a bunch of Ozzies in their natural habitat. They were a very fun bunch, very lively and welcoming. The occasion, aside from Riverfire,was Michael’s birthday. Those cats sure enjoyed their karaoke! Well, we had a full last day. Time to pack! Boo, as Sarah would say.

Saturday, Sept. 1

Man, I can’t make any of this travel sound cool anymore. It’s depressing packing and heading for the airport. Especially when the lines are long and slow.

But still, what a great vacation. You don’t really need to know more than that, do you?

Sunday, Sept. 2

Back home, in Arizona. Tired, time sense jacked up. But this feeling is worth it, and more. Quit saying you want to go to Australia someday. Just go do it.

Well, that wraps it up! Thanks for reading … I hope you enjoyed reading as much I as I did writing. So what’s next here at Wandering Justin’s blog? Well, plans for New Zealand 2009 are well in the works – Sarah and I are filling up notebooks and plotting our course on a dry-erase board. We’ll share what we learn as we book hotels and activities, and pick up the necessary gear.

In the meantime, I’ll do a little time travel with some far shorter accounts of our adventures in Vancouver, Belize and Costa Rica. I might even go REALLY far back in time to my famous aerobatic journey in a WWII-era AT-6 Texan. So stick around – there’s more fun to come!

CategoriesUncategorized

Australia Post #11: Yunguburra to Cairns to Brizzy

Thursday, Aug. 30

The early bird gets to see a tree kangaroo, don’t you know? I was lazy this morning. But Sarah wasn’t, and she got rewarded: She went for a run and spotted a mama tree kangaroo cradling its baby.

The curtain fig tree is a big deal around here.
The curtain fig tree is a big deal around here.

Anyway, we grabbed a quick breakfast at the hostel (NOTE: The brown gooey stuff is Vegemite, not Nutella. Don’t believe otherwise for a second!) and drove off to see the curtain fig tree, which is just a slight detour from our route back to Cairns. It’s cool. Look at the pictures, and you can be the judge if it’s worth the trip.

From there, we dropped into a small park to hike down to one of the many crater lakes in the area. It’s not really a big lake, but it’s still really cool and worth seeing. But here’s the really exciting part: As we finished the hike (which was really too easy to really be a proper hike) and returned to the car, we saw the one critter that had been eluding us: a cassowary!

Cassowary poop! What does this thing eat, bocci balls?
Cassowary poop! What does this thing eat, bocci balls?

Now, these are big, mean, nasty birds. They’ll often chase joggers and rip up the roofs of convertible cars. They have nasty claws that can rip you up, and they’ll also peck the shit out of you.
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But me? I had a Steve Irwin moment, and “crikey’d!” my way up to it and fired off a bunch of photos before we dove into the car and sped off. Cool!

So far, this was shaping up to be another one of those rainy/sunny days. And it was quite cloudy as we headed down a one-lane road to our next stop: The famous Mungalli Creek Dairy. It’s what they call a “bio-dynamic” dairy. You can read the Web site to find out about that – all I can really say is that their food is great. I’m ordinarily not a cheesecake guy, and I think everything at the vaunted Cheesecake Factory tastes the same. That is not the case here. It had a cinnamon crust with dark chocolate and bits of orange in it. Even BETTER than it sounds. The cheeses were great, and they pull a mean shot of espresso. Awesome!

These funny turkey things are everywhere in rural Queensland.
These funny turkey things are everywhere in rural Queensland.

Then, we sadly had to get back in the car and drive back to Cairns. This is the sad point of the vacation: It’s nearly over, and there’s a good chance I’ll never see any of these places again. And that’s too bad, because this is just such a relaxing, beautiful, uncrowded place to be.
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The drive was pretty uneventful. I managed to stay on the proper side of the rode, and didn’t really scare anyone. Not even my passenger.

We returned the rental car to the friendly Avis people and got in line for the plane. The wrong line, it turns out. We’d be flying JetStar for this flight rather than Qantas. In essence, this means a nice, new comfy plane, but no free food or drinks. Bugger!

The flight to Brisbane was quick and uneventful, as was our baggage recovery. Wish I could say the same for getting to our hotel. Our hotel, it turns out, is way on the other side of the city and far from the city center. That wasn’t floating our boat. And the train was shut down for the night. Ugh!

Sarah worked the phones and canceled our reservations. We quickly found another hotel in the city center, and this one just happened to be across the street from where her former roommate, Megan, lives with the Aussie dude she was seeing at the time. They usually live in East Timor, but the Australian Army reassigned him temporarily to Brisbane.

Anyway, we caught a shuttle full of people to the city center. We had some friendly conversations. If you need to talk to an Aussie bloke but can’t thing of anything to say, just ask him about cricket. It’s the sport they all agree on and love. Naturally, I had a Stereotypical Aussie Bloke ready to yack it up with me.

The rest of the night? Walked about a bit, and then slept. Or tried to. There was drunken revelry next door.