Australia? No worries!

We really didn’t know what to expect arriving in Oz. Setting aside any stereotypes about the Aussies themselves, we also offloaded our expectations of sunny weather; it was winter after all.

Our starting point was Brisbane. First impressions were of a modern and very clean city. Staying at one of the many Mantra hotels meant we were pretty close to the waterfront and artsy South Bank area just across the Brisbane river.

Being late Saturday afternoon already, we unpacked quickly and headed downtown to enjoy the city’s nightlife. Where is everyone? The place was pretty much deserted even on a Saturday night. Most bars had maybe one or two punters and zero atmosphere. Undaunted we ploughed on to the waterfront, drawn by the sound of people having fun.

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Here we found many chain restaurants crowded with well-appointed folks in shirts and party frocks. Too corporate for our tastes (and attire). We retreated to a bar near our hotel and grabbed a bite to eat.

Sunday morning was surprisingly sunny as we set out exploring. We had the South Bank firmly in our sights. En-route we visited the Sunday flea market in the botanical gardens. A nice mix of touristy souvenir stalls, food sellers and live music. We had to drag ourselves away as we could have lingered for hours drinking coffee.

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Meeting the locals in Brisbane

Once across the river we came across the inner city ‘Streets Beach’. An artificially created beach well attended by sunbathing locals (even in winter!). It was surprisingly convincing and well served by coffee shops and eateries.

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Streets Beach, Brisbane

Our main destinations though were the art galleries. As the capital of Queensland Brisbane’s South Bank is home to Queensland Museum, Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) and, its newer sister, the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA opened in 2006). Such is the modernity of the smart building housing QAG that we initially mistook it for the newer modern art gallery.

We visit a lot of galleries and are used to often dull, ad hoc and ill-conceived exhibitions. The presentation of exhibits in Brisbane really struck us as well thought out and coherent with great educational resources (helpful rather than patronising).

There was no hint of the snobby elitism often characteristic of European and American galleries with their bias towards painting and sculpture. Here all sorts of media from animation, photography, cinema as well as traditional arts were featured. The creativity and professionalism of Australia’s curators impressed us everywhere we went.

Like all the galleries we visited in Australia, Brisbane’s lean heavily towards indigenous artists and the country’s own short history. That said, there was also a surprising range of first rate European and American artists (Impressionists, Georgia O’Keefe, etc.)

Brisbane was south of the barrier reef and everywhere we planned to travel further south still. Therefore, if we were to visit the reef it had to be from here. Airbnb booked, car booked, boat trip all booked. Then we got a message from our hosts, bad weather was leading to all sailings being cancelled. Ours too it turned out, maybe next time if the reefs survive.

We had decided to travel around Oz using ‘transfer’ campervans wherever possible. These are vans that the rental companies need relocating and so allow a certain number of free days for you to drive from A to B – you pay for additional days.

Pick-up points for rentals are usually at airports or out of town locations. Consequently, we adopted the practice of using public transport to go collect vehicles from industrial parks before returning to our hotel to collect the heavy luggage.

So it was we headed out of Brissy in a smart Nissan camper called Joyce for the 900km drive to Sydney via the Gold Coast. The Gold Coast turned out to be a tacky stretch of overly commercial holiday motels, amusement arcades and chain fast food outlets. No doubt there are some nice places among them but we didn’t feel inclined to stop. The tackiness was an impression echoed by every Aussie we met.

Working our way down Australia’s east coast brought us to the hippy trippy Byron Bay. Trippy because it is known for its recreational drug culture to which authorities turn a blind eye while it remains low key, John limited his intake to a long black. This lovely little town set the pattern for places to come.

Our favourite place on this stage was a cute little village south of (the more popular) Coffs Harbour called Sawtell. Right on the edge of the Pacific Ocean the village is a favourite fishing and surfing spot with Aussies. After a good breakfast at a café run by a local recently returned from six years living in Newquay (UK), we strolled along a very the blustery beach. Surfers and ladies doing their morning aerobics – in swimming costumes – were undaunted by the wind and rain.

We were travelling by the seat of our pants to an extent. Navigating by mobile phone and choosing nightly stops haphazardly we found some great places. The best of these was a very basic camp site by the Pacific at Diamond Head.

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Diamond Head
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Well!

Located in a national park, access involved a 7km drive up a bumpy dirt track. It was only then we got there we realised how remote the site was – our expectation of a local shop to get supplies was thwarted. The site didn’t even have powered hook ups. Luckily, we had a supply of red wine, cheese and crackers. All of these domestic concerns paled into insignificance as we strolled along miles of empty unspoilt beach as the Pacific crashed ashore at sunset.

Keen to repeat the magical walk at sunrise, we woke early and opened the back of the van to make the necessary first brew. Within seconds we were literally surrounded by four kangaroos’ – they were stood in a semi circle three feet from us. As they’d rocked up for egg on toast we had to explain the empty cupboard.

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Breakfast guests

If we’d had more provisions we’d have probably stayed put, but the road ahead was long so we pushed on to Norah’s Head. Stocking up along the way meant we were able to rustle up a bbq with some serious steaks and red wine. We also decided to call home and speak to a startled sister (who didn’t recognise the voice of her own brother).

Our next stop was Sydney. Not to visit, only to exchange one van for another. We decided not even to stop in Sydney at this stage as we had a four day stay planned at the end of our time in Oz. Doing a van swap is a bit of a logistical challenge as it involved driving to the new van pickup point, transferring the luggage and then driving both vans to the drop off for the first van. Not a huge headache but awkward when you are driving through suburbs in busy traffic.

The second of our vans can only be described as a shed. A Nissan Hiace of vintage years and 200k+ miles on the clock. Given our plan to drive through the tricky Blue Mountains west of Sydney, the manual gear box was not a welcome sight either. We felt like poor relations rockin’ up beside fully specc’d modern vans. What the heck – we christened ourselves the ‘Over The Hillbillies’ and got on with it.

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We drove across the Blue Mountains – so named because of the massive concentration of blue Eucalyptus trees there – marvelling at fantastic apple orchards and commercially grown rhododendron bushes (just still in flower).

Arriving at a little camp site in the tiny town of Blackheath we found the wife of the couple in the tent next to us was from Lodge Lane in Liverpool. 40 years in Oz her daughter was now the GP at a nearby town. She spotted the connection as soon as she heard John’s ‘scouse’ accent (?).

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On a long walk around local beauty spots Evans Lookout and Govett’s Leap we met a real mountain man. The full on ZZ Top beard gave us a clue. Having explained a lot about the local geology where he’d led groups on tour decades earlier, he gave us some great pointers about where to visit on the drive down to Melbourne. He was insistent: No oysters north of Bateman’s Bay – they’re sweeter and cleaner from Bateman onwards.

So it was, three national parks later – Kanagra-Boyd, Abercrombie and Monga – that we sat down to a platter of oysters as a starter for our fish and chip supper in Bateman’s Bay. He was right about those oysters. Bateman’s Bay on the other hand was essentially closed at this time of year. There are few things more spirit sapping than a seaside town out of season.

Despite the season, our next stop had plenty of visitors. The little Philip Island is famed for two big draw tourist attractions. First, it has a conservation beach called The Nobbies (I was forbidden to ask) where Little Penguins come ashore to breed. The smallest penguin in the world they swim ashore at sunset in little gangs and rush across the beach in packs. Very cute.

However, they are outdone for cuteness by the hundreds of baby fur seals we saw on a cruise from the island’s tiny harbour. The crew on this boat were real characters and obviously loved what they did. This excursion so reminded us of our previous visits to the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast. Not quite as exciting but far closer encounters with the seals.

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Bit excitable them fur seal pups.

Our arrival in Melbourne coincided with a really grey wet day which led someone in the van to label it ‘Manchester by the Sea’. Unfortunately, the weather improved little in the three days we were there.

After so many miles on the road we were ready for some relaxation but first another trip to the hairdressers was high on Karon’s agenda. This time no need to seek out a mysterious hairdresser like in Hanoi – there was a Toni & Guy a few hundred metres from the hotel.

Hair restored, we bought some last minute theatre tickets to see Cabaret on our way to see a couple of brilliant exhibitions at the national Gallery of Victoria showing as part of their annual Festival of Photography. The one, by Patrick Pound, comprised groups of old collected photographs arranged thematically on issues such as family snaps, photographer in shot, damaged, TV images and many more. Very thought provoking in the way the images were assigned new meanings by their new associations.

The second, by Australian photographer Bill Henson, was a series of large photographs exploring the depiction of the human body. It was stunning in it’s power and immersive experience.

We again marvelled at the superb curatorship of the gallery’s staff and the realisation of just how collaborative is the relationship between curators and artists in realising the power of the works presented. Note to selves – must read the works of Hans Ulrich Obrist.

Later that night at the Athenaeum Theatre the performance of Cabaret was notable for the performances of the actors playing Sally Bowles and The Emcee (immortalised on Broadway and in the film version by Joel Grey). Otherwise it had more than a touch of am dram about it.

Perhaps sub-consciously pining for home, we spent our last night in the Sherlock Holmes pub drinking London Pride and eating a traditional roast dinner. All good stuff except for the price of the beer – £10 a pint for London Pride! The one was nursed as long as possible before moving to local brews.

Tiring of camper vans, we decided our third consecutive road trip would be a bit more luxurious and rented a well-appointed Mitsubishi Outlander 4×4 and stumped up for motels.

Our route driving south from Melbourne was the same as every other tourist – The Great Ocean Road. One of the most beautiful road trips in Oz. First, however, we stopped in the little town of Torquay to visit the legendary surfer’s paradise known as Bell’s Beach.

Apparently, Bell’s Beach is something of a mecca for surfers and there were certainly plenty there on the cold morning we stopped by. More to our taste was the excellent beers on offer at the town’s Blackman Brewery – warm up was a tasting paddle before some serious tasting of their finest ales and lagers.

Driving down the Great Ocean Road (a 200km stretch of coast facing the Southern Ocean) would take us half way to our ultimate destination of Adelaide where we were to stay with family for a week.

Being out of season we never thought to book any hotels on the GOR. How were we to know our visit coincided with the annual GOR half marathon. Every hotel, caravan site and park bench was booked solid in the two main towns of Lorne and Apollo Bay.

We had no option but to push on to Port Campbell. On the way, we encountered a stunning stretch of coastline with what is left of the Twelve Apostles – sandstone towers in the sea. Several are now collapsed. Among them the so-called double arched London Bridge. The arch attaching it to the mainland collapsed in 199? While two sightseers were walking on the outer arch leaving them stranded until a rescue helicopter arrived.

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What’s left of ‘London Bridge’ on the Great Ocean Road.

We couldn’t resist stopping at one particularly picturesque spot to open the windows and blast out Richard Hawley’s ‘The Ocean’ as the surf crashed ashore.  Impossible to come up with a more appropriate tune for the occasion (well we think so – if you don’t know it, check it for yourself here.)

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Two of the remaining 12 Apostles.

Having completed the Great Ocean Road we still had a few extra days before we were due to arrive at John and Meg’s beautiful new home in the Adelaide Hills. What else are you going to do in Oz with time on your hands but go walkabout in the outback right?

Off we drove to a sheep station in the outback north of Adelaide (South Australia) called Rawnsley Park Station. It’s an upmarket caravan park really – a ‘dude ranch’ as the Americans would say – but still keeps 2000 sheep. The sheep come in handy for the renowned on-site Woolshed restaurant.

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Watching the watchers at Rawnsley Park Station, Flinders Ranges.

Getting to Rawnsley Station involved a drive through some quirky historic towns with small populations (sub 1000) and relatively few changes in architecture in the last 100 years. Places like the laid back Irish Town of Port Fairy, Mount Gambier (main feature the Umpherson Sink Hole), Keith (main attraction a Land Rover on a pole, we kid you not), Tailem Bend, the old copper mining town of Burra (where we stayed in a restored miners cottage) Carrieton and Hawker in the Flinders. Aussie refer to these places as ‘Woop Woop’ (meaning in the sticks as we say in England)

Having spent time among a lot of tourists on the Ocean Road it was good to enjoy the almost total isolation of walking in the Flinders Range. The views from the top of Rawnsley Bluff and watching the sunset over the Chace were terrific. Especially given the array of stars visible due to the lack of ambient light from cities.

The range of wildlife isn’t huge in Oz but we saw just about everything listed on the Rawnsley Park information boards. Red and Grey Kangaroos, Emu, Eagles, all manner of parrots, and small crawley things and some sizable spiders to boot (they weren’t on the info. board).

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On top of Rawnsley Bluff, Flinders ranges.

As an antidote to the interior, we had explored a few of the cellar doors in the Clare Valley wine region, tasting some great wines and beers at Mad Bastard, Mr Micks and Knappstein’s before treating ourselves to the degustation menu and wines at Seed restaurant and gin parlour that evening.

Refreshed by the outdoors and some quiet time to reflect on our experiences to date in Oz we headed to Adelaide to stay with Karon’s uncle John and his wife Meg. It had been 10 years since we last saw John in Liverpool so lots to catch up on. Of course, his beloved LFC were in and out of our conversation as is normal with all Scousers (footie talk that is).

John has been in Oz since the early seventies when he initially migrated to New Zealand from Liverpool with his two-year-old daughter Andrea. There he met Meg (from Australia) who quickly showed him the error of his ways and they moved together to the beautiful Adelaide Hills to raise four daughters.

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Catching up with John and Meg

John and Meg have downsized their home in the last year. They custom designed their new house around their needs and have done a great job. Lots of food for thought there as we ponder the same transition (not to Oz – despite Meg’s teasing – but to a smaller place).

If you know us, you know we’re a private couple with a liking for our own company. Naturally, this made us wary of crowding someone else’s space in their home. We needn’t have worried; we were welcomed with open arms and treated wonderfully for the 5 days we were guests in the wintery wet Adelaide Hills. Some great meals at home and out with other Scouse emigres and some a nice girlie day for Karon spent with cousin Andrea.

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We were also treated to one of the best Vietnamese meals we’ve ever had in downtown Adelaide at Gondola Gondola, and a few great hidey hole bars on Peel street. Vietnamese food is always good for us.

The last stop on our Oz adventure was the tourist mecca that is Sydney. We had high hopes of the city and weren’t disappointed. We arrived as the annual Vivid festival was underway. This annual light show sees major buildings illuminated with animations and is accompanied by a music festival and lots of street entertainment (and food). It all made for a great 4 days as we trekked across the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge, sailed around the Opera House at night and took the ferry to nearby Watson’s Bay for fish and chips. Yes, it was all very touristy, but still great fun.

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Sydney has an integrated well thought out city centre around the harbour that has seen old waterfront buildings integrated with new modern skyscrapers. Someone at city hall seems to have got their act together and it makes for a great experience with good transport links and countless shops, bars, museums, art galleries, restaurants and historic sites to visit. Sydney is really a great destination city for a few days of fun. A night cruise around the harbour is a must during the Vivid festival.

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In summary, we have to admit Australia took us by surprise. It’s image abroad is dominated by the shiny smart site of Sydney. In reality the country proved to exist more authentically in the many small seaside and farming towns. Life in these seems to have stayed pretty much the same for decades and there is a feeling of stability and solidity to them.

Having spent four weeks and driven 5000km we felt we had only begun to scratch the surface of oz! Some things were consistently clear though. The country is vast beyond anything we’d experienced before (driving around New England didn’t seem so expansive). Aussies were open and welcoming wherever we went from café owners to locals in pubs in even remote places like Tailem Bend (even Aussies were surprised we stayed there – understandably).

Next stop New Zealand, TTFN

J & K

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