I visited Brisbane, Sydney, Ayers Rock and Darwin
Hello: G’day Mate!
Currency: Australian dollar
Tipping: Not required and once you experience the service, you will understand why in most cases.
I had planned to stop in Brisbane to visit a friend I had met traveling a few years ago. It was a special treat to have someone pick me up from the airport! Since I was traveling over Christmas, she had invited me to spend that week with her family. And I was able to experience my first “tropical” Christmas. I have to say that observing Christmas preparations in New Zealand and in Australia, I’m not sure that anyone can beat the “over the top” American version. I actually felt like Christmas was reasonable in the Southern Hemisphere with the right emphasis on family and friends and no threat of inclement weather.
One observation: Why is there no Daylight Savings time in Queensland? I guess they like getting up at 4:30 a.m. in the summer? And losing a big chunk of outdoor time in the evenings? My friend said that things wrap up early and maybe that’s why. Everyone is constantly exhausted from the 4:30 a.m. sun reaching into their bedrooms. I know I was!
Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary - This is more than just a place for koalas. It was a place to see the best known Australian animals - platypus, koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, dingoes, a tasmanian devil, cassowary, wombats, and a collection of birds and reptiles. For a fee, you could “cuddle” a koala, an experience that I had mixed feelings about. I’m all for connecting with an animal, but should we really be cuddling koalas? Since these animals would not be released into the wild, and I knew the money was used to support the sanctuary (there was a fee involved), I decided to indulge for my once in a lifetime photo (currently buried in my suitcase). In the kangaroo and wallaby enclosure, you can actually touch and feed the animals. Hmmm...
Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere - For those used to bundling up for car or plane trips to frozen venues, I spent Christmas Eve on the patio, eating chilled crab, prawns, and “bugs” (aka small lobsters), accompanied by a small invasion of ants. Not an experience I was likely to have anywhere I have lived in the U.S. For Christmas day, we had the requisite roasted turkey, along with lamb and pork, dining in air conditioned comfort. I enjoyed being able to wear a summer dress and go outside for a swim on both days before the big meals!
Lamington National Park - We hiked to Morans Falls with the most obnoxious congregation of cicadas providing background “music” I felt like I was in some B rated horror movie and was looking into the forest waiting for the mother of all locusts to descend with thousands of cicada children to feast on us, the unlucky hikers. The noise was so overwhelming I had to plug my ears with my fingers as we continued to hike through the brush waiting for the shrill noise to subside. On the way, we decided on additional excursions to Moonlight Craig and Balancing Rock (which was blocked off due to safety issues). The base for the hike was a place called O’Reilly’s which has lodging and a cafe where you can have lunch or buy sandwiches for your hike. We bought sandwiches which we stopped to eat alongside a creek leading to the falls.
Sunshine Coast (which was in the Black Awl Range) Hinterland, Montville - This area of small shops, art galleries and restaurants is a perfect place for a short day trip. You can visit the various shops with their various arts and crafts and have lunch while enjoying the views.
Sydney (New Year’s Eve!)
It is an expensive city but there are lots of backpacker hotels. I opted for something more private and comfortable than sharing a room but I definitely paid the price. I did find a hotel close to the Central train station which made it easy to take the airport train (only about 10 minutes) and then walk the few blocks with my bags. And Sydney is easy to walk around while still offering public transportation for longer journeys. It was easy to understand why the city seemed to be invaded by travelers to celebrate the New Year’s Eve festivities.
Sydney Sights, Free City Tour - I highly recommend the free city tour. It was started almost 5 years ago by a young man named Ross and his girlfriend. On the day I took the tour, there were about 3 groups of 50 people who showed up for the morning tour. Not only do I applaud the entrepreneur venture, but it was a good walk around Sydney to see some sights I probably would have missed and I heard lots of interesting stories about the history. Ross was very helpful to everyone in the group, answering questions and providing commentary on additional activities to enjoy. They have developed an excellent printed map that is available at many hotels and has additional recommendations on free and “worth it” sights. They work on tips only, so dispense as you feel appropriate. Check out their web-site: www.imfree.com.au
Walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge (aka The Coathanger)- It’s a quick easy walk from the Sydney side, starting at the Rocks, ending up on the North Sydney side. You can walk back or take the ferry. It only takes about 20 minutes to walk across and you can take some great pictures of the Opera House and the harbour on the way.
Manly Ferry - This is a relatively inexpensive way to see the harbour and make your way over to the Manly Beach for the day or maybe just have a drink overlooking the water.
New Year’s Eve Fireworks - This is a classic adventure! Sydney organizes information on a web-site to help you with your planning. Plan early if you need hotel as hotels in the city go fast and can be pricey. However, there are suburban hotel options that can be a quick train ride into the city. And on NYE, the city is organized so that you can get out of the city safely and easily. It may take some time but that is to be expected with the crowds. Seeing the fireworks over the Harbour Bridge, the reflection on the water and the boats lined up in the harbour is a beautiful sight and is even more enjoyable with the warm weather.
Opera House - Take the time to walk around the Opera House, enjoying it from every angle and looking at the construction close up. There are tours available for those who want a closer look at the inside of the venue.
Royal Botanical Gardens - After walking through the crowds along Circular Quay and around the Opera House, it’s nice to walk through the gardens and enjoy the foliage and the quiet. From there you can head to the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Art Gallery of NSW - A free option for a few hours of your afternoon. I found the Asian Gallery, Australian Galleries and Art, the Great Contemporary Galleries, and the Yiribana Gallery to be a worthwhile indulgence of time. There are also several sculptures throughout the museum which are excellent.
Most of Australia appears to be flat, dry desert until you see it up close. And it’s not that flat and the foliage reveals that it’s not that dry. In fact, when you fly over, you see nothing but the extent of the outback for miles and miles in any direction with scratched out rusty looking roads criss-crossing here and there. But there are many things to see in central Australia -- Ayers Rock (Uluru), King’s Canyon and the Olgas (Kata Tjuta) to name a few.
I flew into Ayers Rock which is really just a collection of hotels supporting the main attraction and almost your only option for lodging, except for some camping. The hotel rooms are extremely overpriced until you think about the fact that everything is transported into Ayers Rock to support this tourist attraction. They also provide airport transport and a free shuttle around the complex. They have several restaurants and different levels of accommodation to suit different budgets and there is even a grocery store. Of course, the store can be extremely picked over at times, so I wouldn’t plan to rely on it. For your visit, you also need to buy a National Park ticket that is good for 3 days to enter the park containing Uluru and Kata Tjuta. That is easily arranged at the tourist planning center on site.
Uluru (aka Ayers Rock) - Let me start with what I found to be most amazing. Hiking around the base is the best way to appreciate this geologic wonder. If you stand at a distance, it’s hard to appreciate the features of someone’s face - you just see a shape but not the character and the features that make the person unique. It’s the same with a rock as large as Uluru. From a distance, it is impressive for its size, but when you are actually close enough to walk around it, it becomes an overwhelming force, full of beauty formed by the unique cracks, crevices, and curves.
I did the base walk which takes about three hours at a minimum, stopping to gaze in wonder at how it changes with every step. There are several areas along the walk that the local indigenous people consider sacred and they ask that you don’t take photographs of those areas. Don’t worry, there are plenty of other good opportunities for photos and you shouldn’t feel cheated at all. If you are inclined to defy gravity and walk vertically, you are allowed to climb one area of Uluru depending on weather conditions. When I was there, it was closed due to the high winds at the summit. And eyeing the vertical path up the most slippery smooth surface of the rock, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to make that decision. Again, the indigenous people request that you not climb it. I respect that.
Sunrise and Sunset at Uluru - I was a bit underwhelmed with both sunset and sunrise even though many of the resources I checked recommend these two time periods as “musts”. This is sold as a “tour” and they provide snacks and sparkling wine or tea which does create more of an experience.
Uluru Express - The Uluru Express has set departure times to drop you at Uluru and other sights. This allows you some flexibility to explore the sight. I used them to go to Uluru for the sunrise and then they dropped the group at the base of Uluru for the base walk. They had prearranged pick up times to take people back to their hotels. It is much cheaper than an Uluru tour and you can walk at your own pace, but you do miss the commentary that a guide would provide. Unfortunately, when I was there, they only had one guided group a day and the tour was already full. I actually found walking the base alone to be a very enjoyable experience.
King’s Canyon - If you decide to hike around the rim, be prepared for the extreme heat, depending on the time of year. I was there in the summer and it was hot and dry requiring copious amounts of water. The park rangers and some of the tour companies require that you carry at least 1 liter for each hour of activity. For King’s Canyon that met that each of us needed to carry 3 liters of water. And that is a lot of extra weight (about 7 lbs) but they have had issues with people dehydrating and it happens more often than it needs to. And since the tour company provides a large cooler of water for you to fill your own bottles, it is not hard to have the required amount.
I opted for the Rim Walk which requires some fitness and the reward is some amazing views. The walk is not very strenuous except for the heat, so be aware. The oxidized iron ore in the rock creates a rusty red contrast to the otherwise golden landscape. Further contrast that with the faded green of the abundant hardy foliage against a strong blue sky and you will find yourself taking photo after photo to try to successfully capture this landscape.
Kata Tjuta - Another large rock formation in the same vicinity as Ayers Rock that doesn’t seem to get as much attention. It was an incredible sight to see the huge bulbous looking iron red stones looming from the plain. Because it is another sacred site, there are only a few places that are available for tourists to explore. It is a worthwhile stop.
The Valley of the Winds Walk - It will depend on the time of year but there are a few walks around and through some areas of Kata Tjuta. It was intensely hot while I was there, but the walks were short so it was tolerable. One longer walk was actually closed because of the heat. And like, Uluru, it is another opportunity to watch a sunset with snacks and drinks. I actually thought sunset was more colorful than at Uluru.
I should mention the flies, the flies, the flies. You can try fly spray or the gorgeous face net that many people optioned for. They are relentless in their search for moisture in the form of your sweat. They don’t bite, but they are annoying as hell. I even had a dream one night that I was still swatting at flies! And they will follow you to Kakadu.....
I did not spend too much time exploring Darwin as it was my base for a journey into Kakadu. One place worth mentioning:
Mbantua: I stopped into what I thought was a small store displaying indigenous art and found myself in a gallery with beautiful works of art. Since I like to collect art from different countries, I immediately felt the pull of the art. The only problem would be deciding on a piece. There were so many possibilities, different approaches, color choices and patterns. I finally decided on a few small pieces to enjoy the diversity of artists. If you like art, this place may be worth a visit. Or take a look at their web-site: www.mbantua.com.au
Kakadu and Litchfield: Before arriving in Darwin, I arranged a three day tour of Litchfield and Kakadu parks. Because it was the wet season, there were fewer tours but that did not mean there was less to see. I highly recommend searching tour companies before you land in Darwin as these tours tend to book up fast and many are quite pricey. I stopped in to a travel agent in Brisbane to discuss options as there are several companies and the tours do change with the time of year. For my trip, I used WayOutBack Desert Safaris. The trip was worthwhile because of the great guide and a nice group of people.
Since it was the wet season, we were able to see some wildlife that is not always around during the dry season. As far as the crocodiles, because it was so hot and not as wet as normal for that time of year, we were only able to see a few but every one counts!
Our guide, Nathan, was very enthusiastic about the wildlife and one night we walked around the campsite to view the various creatures - owls, a tree rat, green tree frogs, impressive spiders in their expansive webs and one non-venomous snake as well as some other birds.
Other highlights included:
I picked a tour that was a camping tour and it did require some fitness for the short hikes and walks that we did. The entire group helped prepare and clean up for all of the meals. One note about the camping -- this would have been much better except it was about 96 degrees F (36 Celsius) instead of the normal 78 degrees F (26 Celsius). This is a big difference and the humidity added to the discomfort. If you do not tolerate the heat very well, you will want to book a more “plush” tour.
Notable Eats: Overall, the food was not that memorable in Australia but I’m noting a few places that I found to be worth a mention.
TV Advertisement: The Solar Snake Repeller - (only in Australia?) I saw this advertised on TV and I couldn’t help but laugh, although Australia certainly has a number of snakes that you don’t want visiting your house.