Seeing the world, one country at the time

Australia in a Nutshell

When I think of Australia I think of light, wide-open spaces, and unobstructed views of the Milky Way with its Southern Cross. It’s a country rich in shoreline, beaches, good surfing waves, parks, walking trails, outdoorsy people, sunshine, and skin cancer. It boasts good restaurants and pubs featuring good wine, fresh seafood, meat pies, and fish and chips. Some states are full of marsupials, road kill and signs warning against driving tired. Everywhere you find friendliness, colorful characters and slang, quirkiness, folklore, convict history, folk heroes and national pride. Just watch the faces of Aussies abroad when “Waltzing Matilda” is played. It’s so “feel good” it makes me cry. Australia has several nicknames. It is called the land of Oz, which seems appropriate for its quirky and magical qualities, and more famously, Down Under, though under what I’m not sure. Australia is on top of its game, but its nickname seems to be an extension of its peoples’ propensity toward self-deprecating humor.

We began our stay with ten days in Sydney, spending quality time with my good friend Felicity, or “Flic”, from my days in Bangkok. We planned for three days, which turned into ten when we discovered how much Sydney has to offer and fell in love with the city in the process. It has now eclipsed Rio as the world’s most beautiful city because it combines gorgeous weather and views with a laid-back beach life and cosmopolitan and modern flair. Plus it’s much safer than Rio. Its CBD (Central Business District) has the most modern library we’ve seen as well as a very good public transport system, several good museums and art galleries, great fashion boutiques and chic restaurants and hotels, all nestled among perfectly groomed, sprawling parks lining the waterfront.

We spent hours on or near the water and beaches, from the harbor to the surfing clubs of Bondi and Manly to Ku-rin-gai Chase National Park and exclusive Palm Beach, where we sailed out to the Heads, the outlet to the ocean. We enjoyed the company of Flic’s younger brother Llew and his wife Diana, as well as their parents Peter and Katie Jenkins, all of whom entertained us at their well-situated homes in Manly Beach and Palm Beach. And with Flic’s apartment in Bondi, Sydney’s most famous beach, it completed the feeling of being part of the “in” crowd.

When we finally tore ourselves away, we rented a campervan, which is the best way to travel in this vast country. We set off to explore the southern coast, the other “big” cities and the Outback, as well as the east coast and Great Barrier Reef. Our first stop was Canberra, Australia’s capital, for ANZAC Day celebrations. ANZAC stands for “Australia and New Zealand Army Corps” and ANZAC Day is Australia and New Zealand’s Memorial holiday to honor their fallen soldiers in Gallipolli during WWI, and other wars since. We attended a moving candlelit ceremony at dawn and paid homage to the fallen, before heading to the coast.

We serendipitously got lost and sidetracked on the way by kangaroos and meat pies in Bemboka, a little town that few Aussies have ever heard of, but is one of our favorites. Moving down the coast to Melbourne, we stayed three days with our great hosts Marissa and Simon, Felicity’s brother and his wife. From there we took a ferry over the Bass Strait to Tasmania (Tassie) to see the Tasmanian Devil. We only saw it on the road, as Tassie is Australia’s road kill capital. Most of its towns were built by convicts, a fact in which they take great pride. Back on the mainland we drove the Great Ocean Road to McLaren Valley near Adelaide and did wine tasting for a heady day during which I mysteriously ended up with twelve bottles to cram into our campervan.

I missed seeing much of Adelaide due to a bad eye infection I got in Tassie, so half-blind and unable to stand sunlight (not a good thing in Oz), we hightailed it to Alice Springs, where specialists cured me for free, thanks to a reciprocal agreement with Sweden. You’ve got to love socialism! Able to appreciate the sights again, we headed down to Uluru (aka Ayers rock) and Kata Tjuta (aka the Olgas) National Park and spent a dizzying three days watching the sunrises and sunsets over the rocks and hiking several hours a day around their bases.

To respect the aboriginal Anangu culture of Uluru, we resisted the temptation to climb the rock and instead joined walks that taught us a lot about the Anangu culture and their law, Tjukurpa. After, we had the good luck to run out of gas on the highway out of Uluru and met the Zukbars, an Israeli family who sold us their spare gas and became fast friends as we kept bumping into them wherever we went. We spent time together at the Devil’s Marbles, funky huge boulders that balance precariously on each other. On our own we visited Wycliffe Well, Australia’s UFO capital, watched Dinky the singing dingo perform and stopped at unique roadhouses on our way up Stuart highway to Threeways, where we made a big right-hand turn toward the coast. After hours of nothing but desertscape, we turned off down Matilda highway, where the iconic song was inspired, conceived and written.

We experienced the real meaning of emptiness in the Outback, where every car greets you with a wave, the stars are the brightest I’ve ever seen, and the kangaroos are ever-present. We were sad to leave. My American blood felt at home in the wide-open spaces and with the friendly nature of the Australians while my Swedish side cherished the wilderness, emptiness and lack of crowds. We almost resented coming to a city and seeing more than one car per half hour. Once on the east coast we quickly got over it by spending three days on the Whitsunday Islands and the Great Barrier Reef, diving, snorkeling and just having fun in the water. We spent a lovely day with Torsten Markstrom, a distant relative from Ostra Falmark outside of Skelleftea, Sweden and his family.

We then made a beeline for Byron Bay, famous for its surfing. We did some walks and watched dolphins, then drove the last long stretch south to Sydney, ready to stop driving an average of 400 kilometers a day and spending an average of a hundred dollars a day on gas! We were tired of eating, driving and sleeping in the same small space and ready to see Flic again. Six weeks wasn’t enough, but it was enough for now and not seeing Western Australia or a lot of the north gives us an excuse to go back again. You know we’ll want to.