The trip: I flew into Melbourne, drove the inland route to Sydney, then from Sydney drove to Brisbane. Here's the route. I made the same mistake in Australia that Europeans make when visiting America. Which is that it's big, and I didn't respect how big it is. The two "twin cities" of Melbourne and Sydney are about 8 hours apart, and they're close by Australian standards. I did a lot of driving and just barely got to see the southeastern quarter of the country's coast. That said, I saw cool stuff on those drives, but if you're going to do this, take more than two weeks! I went as far west from Melbourne as the Twelve Apostles, and as far north as Fraser Island QLD, then went back through Brisbane and Sydney mostly along the coast. My main regrets are not getting up into the Blue Mountains to run, and not seeing a platypus in the wild, despite locals giving me their best advice on where to go. I did not see a funnel web spider, or a brown or tiger snake, which is really just fine with me.
VICTORIA - Melbourne
Above - the Docklands. Below more Melbourne. Both from Tom Campitelli.
I landed in Melbourne and went straight to the Gaol (the historical jail) dating back to the time when the whole of Australia was like America's wild west. Shortly thereafter in anticipation of all my driving I bought a couple CDs, one of which was Iron Maiden's Number of the Beast, and must have sung along to Hallowed Be Thy Name a hundred times - and now when I sing "I'm waiting in my cold cell / When the bell begins to chime" I will always think of the Gaol. (I used to think of Camus's The Stranger. Both are cool.) Not much metal scene in Sydney at that time (Stockholm Syndrome was the only local CD I could find.) I also tried Vegemite. I maintain that this can only be a joke on tourists that the Australians have been playing for decades. I applaud your commitment and how serious you all look when you insist that it's actually a real food that people eat when none of us foreigners are looking. The bars and restaurants of Melbourne were pleasant enough but nothing struck me as special. I never did get the hang of hook turns. I had trouble believing that a bird so entertaining and colorful as the lorikeet could essentially be Australia's pigeon and I still don't understand why they're not more famous worldwide.
Lorikeets. From birdkingdom.ca
As an aside, I hate when North Americans say "Melbun." Yes, Australians say it that way. Do you now pronounce any other words in the Australian manner? No you don't. We have a rhotic R and at best we sound stupid when we say "Melbun", at worst patronizing. STOP IT DAMMIT. Thank you.
The Twelve Apostles
The Twelve Apostles. From feel-planet.com
I had to go out and see these of course. In all honesty I found them underwhelming for two reasons. First, I imagine they're quite striking to Australians - but their geology is different, and much of the west coast of North America looks this way. Two, I've never seen that many flies at the ocean before, and I wonder what keeps this from happening in California. Oddly, the ocean doesn't smell like an ocean there (didn't smell like anything), which I couldn't explain, and which made me think about what are the core vs optional characteristics of an entity. (Even though it didn't smell I was still willing to call it an ocean. If it became purple, or permanently solid, not so sure. SNL explored a similar question here, though suggesting unnecessarily that deviations from core identity can only be the result of other agents with sinister, deceptive intentions.) It was strange to think that looking due south, the next land is Antarctica, and there are preserved forests on the coast that used to be contiguous with Antarctica (before Gondwanaland broke up) meaning that Antarctica had forests much like this. (Someone needs to write a time travel novel where someone is camped in the Pacific Northwest-like Antarctic forests of twenty-five million years ago.) That said, it was refreshing to see swimmable deserted beach after deserted beach, relatively easy to access, unlike California. (Almost always cold and more often than not at the bottom of a cliff.) I saw my first kangaroos on the way, and when a big white cockatiel came out of a hedge I thought, "That's too bad, someone's pet got away" and then figured out after the seventh or eighth one that no, this is where they come from.
Above two photos: I came on Gippsland Lakes at sunset, much to my surprise. A really beautiful place. Below: there was already a copyrighted Burger King in Australia, so they had to use a different name.
NEW SOUTH WALES - Sydney
Above, Bondi Beach. Below: guess what! Pictures taken by Tom Campitelli.
While Melbourne and Sydney were the only places that seem like big cities, Sydney wins this contest hands-down. Sydney seemed Australia's LA or New York to Melbourne as its Boston. Melbourne felt more subdued with older history. In Oz it seems anyone who wants to live in a "city" moves to Sydney, which makes the country very unipolar (and globally, it's unusual for the capital not to be the biggest city - what effect might this have?) I wasn't as blown away by Bondi Beach as many people (frankly, like Santa Monica but less interesting.) Sydney is also the worst place I have ever had to drive, and I've driven on the left in many countries including Thailand and it wasn't even close. I took a pass on King's Cross, the wild LGBTQ area (how different could it really be from the Castro in SF? Or even Hillcrest on a busy night?) I also somehow wasn't so interested in climbing the bridge. What did I like? Dining was fantastic, as expected, and pub scene was exactly what I hoped it would be. I also showed up at the end of a hash one night after a long drive back from Brisbane, and a very, VERY nice couple insisted on putting me up for the night. Having a beer with someone I just met, in his hot tub, at his private beach looking across to the Opera House didn't suck. The drive north to Queensland from Sydney is spectacular - just ocean and lakes and bays and soaring mountain ridges covered in subtropical eucalpytus for miles. If they let little kids design cool-looking coastlines, this would be it.
Above: Hawkesbury River and Pacific Highway from above (NSW on the coast north of Sydney.) From isailaways.wordpress.com. Below, view from Kangaroo Point on the Pacific Highway of the Hawkesbury River, from Google Street View images. Few highways in the world rival this; maybe I-84 through the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon.
Above: the obligatory roo crossing sign. Below: the town of Uralla, where I stumbled on a wood-chopping competition and some of the friendliest people I've ever met. It was there that I saw one of maybe eight clearly aboriginal people I saw for two weeks. It was in this town that I noted that Australia reminds of the U.S. in a combination of the 50s and 80s, in a very good way. Below that: the roo signs stopped being cute when a helpful fellow in Uralla warned me that people wipe out on that road from hitting roos all the time.
This photo is from Marine Wildlife Magazine and is not the actual shark I saw, but I don't remember it seeming much smaller than this.
First I went to Gold Coast (the first town you come into in QLD.) I bought some diving fins, a mask and snorkel, and found a nice driveable sandy jetty that stuck out into the crystal-blue bay where I could swim and look at fishies. There were signs warning the surfers that there were sharks, with instructions of what to do if the alarms went off, which I tried not to think about. An Australian couple pulled up and parked next to me and was admiring the view as well. As I was putting my fins on, sitting on the bumper of the car looking out at the bay, I had one of many "welcome to Australia" moments when a shark, about eight feet long, breached fully out of the water, tail still wriggling in the air, and loudly splashed back. The grayness of it and the gill slits are etched into my memory. I looked over at the couple next to me in shock and they looked back and said, "Did you just see that?" Yes I did I told them, and then like a dummy I went in anyway, somehow reasoning that as long as I stayed "close to the rocks" that the shark wouldn't get me. (???) Later I was chatting with a fellow about my age who was fishing, completely bronzed with sun-bleached hair tied back into a ponytail, along with his five year old son and a bunch of empty beer cans. "Don't swim in the Bay, maite," he advised. "Especially at noight. It's fulla shaks." Hey thanks! True story, my dad was offered a teaching job at the university in Brisbane in the 70s and I thought, that guy is me from a parallel universe.
I thought it would be fun to take a 4WD all the way to the Top End or Gulf of Carpinteria (and see the famous morning glory roll clouds) but by all accounts, such expeditions are pointless death marches hrough a vicious miserable jungle loaded with salties and snakes.
Above and below, Springbrook National Park. From exploreaustralia.net.au and ytravelblog.com.
Having somehow won the Darwinian lottery and survived my meanderings in the Australian bush, I went up to Brisbane. Brisbane was pleasant enough but feels more like a single American state's dominant but still mid-sized city (Maybe Raleigh, NC?) I was interested in all the history around the Anglosphere's very own caudillo, former governor Joh Bjelke-Petersen. QLD reminded me a bit of the Florida or Deep South of Australia, complete with its social conservatism and more intense ("broad") regional accent. A result of greater reliance on agriculture than the other states? The best thing about Brisbane is that I finally had Moreton Bay bugs, which are a type of lobster only found in that area; definitely better than regular lobster, sweeter. Living in a major city you start thinking you've tried everything but then you travel and you see fruit and shellfish and all kinds of other things that you've never heard of, much less tried.
About 45 minutes north of Brisbane. A combination cruise and snorkeling opportunity. I saw my first sea turtle and a shark. In yet another attempt to worsen my odds of survival, I found a small electric-blue jellyfish dead on the sand of Moreton Island and flipped it into the water. It was probably an irukandji and the crew explained it could have killed me had it stung me. The worst thing about all this is just the day before I had read in the guidebook "Irukandji...electric blue small jellyfish...can kill me if they sting me...got it" and somehow didn't make this connection.
Above: a sea turtle. Below: an irukandji. They're hard to miss, unless you're stupid (takes a bow.)
Fraser Island is essentially a five-mile-long sandbar with a forest on it, and extremely pure lakes. The sand around the lakes is so white and so fine it squeaks when you walk on it, and streams flowing out from the forest into the Pacific. I asked in advance, since I was in Australia, if I would get eaten when I swam there. "No, there's nothing nasty in the lakes" was the answer from the guy renting me the jeep to drive out there, because of course that's what he said. While swimming, I noted that they are unnervingly deep - the dark color in the middle is from depth alone - very clear, but you still couldn't see the bottom. It's very hard not to imagine, as you are swimming across, the way you would look to a giant reptile on the bottom, looking up at the figure swimming above on the sunlight surface. But the lakes seem to have magical properties. After driving all night to get up there, I felt tired, cranky, greasy, and one minute after jumping in I felt fantastic (and it lasted until I went to bed.) Of course later they found crocodiles on the island.
Taking the ferry across with the 4WD I'd rented, I realized these were mangroves, probably the first I'd seen. Dingos were fairly common on the island and came out at night (and they looked about like that guy looked in the picture with the goanna.) Realizing I was in the summer hemisphere, I went out on the beach and literally had my breath taken away by not only the brightness of our closest neighbor Alpha Centauri, but the two quite un-subtle Magellanic Clouds. If you've never been out of the northern hemisphere, you've never seen them with your own eyes! (Flat Earthers: explain how I could see this from Australia, but not from California? If your answer is that I'm actually just part of the worldwide (global? ha!) conspiracy to convince people the world is round by subtly dropping these things here and there, please find out where my check is and how much it's for, thank you.)
Still on the beach, a few minutes later I saw something vague in the darkness digging into the sand and went digging after it, receiving for my trouble, yet more trouble in the form of a pincer giving me a nice cut on the hand. After going back to the hotel, I stomped on the ground next to a large black horned beetle that was approaching my foot and instead of scurrying away like insects are supposed to when vertebrates threaten them, it reared up on its hind legs and hissed at me. This was the straw that broke the camel's back and convinced me that Australia's wildlife is beyond redemption. Of note, I was reading Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America while I was there (which contains this gem of a story), which had the completely useless effect of making me homesick for California.
Above: one of the creeks coming out of the island into the ocean. Below: tidal flats in the mangroves.
Canberra reminded me of the way Asimov described cities on the Spacer worlds in the Robot series - you seriously don't realize you're in the capital of the country - to this American it almost seemed more like a very large spread out college campus, but during summer break. I heard there was an Australian game show where first prize was a one-week trip to Canberra. Second prize? A two-week trip to Canberra!
Above: Canberra's sleepy college-town layout, except without the partying, attractive young people, mission of learning, or sense that anything with a nervous system has ever evolved in the history of Earth. Below: a wild Saturday in Canberra. From BBC and acrossozz.blogspot.com and BBC, respectively.
I had a great trip to Australia and it was exactly what I expected it would be. But on getting home to California, I went for a run at Briones in the East Bay, and from a ridgetop, watching those blue to pink to purple winter sunsets that only California can really show you - I felt very lucky, and I was glad to be home.