Australia: Three Favorite Things


It’s hard to sum up eight weeks in a country- but I’ll try.

Three Favourite Scenic Spots:

  1. Uluru- obvious. Probably our favorite thing in all of Australia.
  2. The Great Ocean Road, west of Melbourne- especially the Twelve Apostles area. I had seen photos of them but I was completely unprepared for how big they were in real life.
  3. The Whitsunday Islands, particularly Whitehaven Beach

    Bob models a "stinger suit" at Whitehaven Beach

Three Favourite Attractions:

  1. Hunter Valley Zoo. We kept fondly reminiscing about this place for days and weeks after we’d visited.
  2. Horizon the Planetarium, at SciTech in Perth. This planetarium runs the most advanced software in the southern hemisphere- actually, the program is still in beta. We enjoyed getting a tutorial on the southern night sky. Very nice planetarium, interesting movies, knowledgeable staff (and the rest of the museum was a blast too!)
  3. Art Gallery of New South Wales- the free tours here were excellent. If you can’t make the tour, they also offer free audio downloads.  They have a great collection of Australian art.

Three Favourite Foods:

Dip in sour cream, then sweet chili sauce

  1. Potato wedges with sour cream and sweet chili sauce. The best bar snack EVER.
  2. Burgers or sandwiches with “the lot” (the works.) In Australia this means lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese, a slice of beetroot, and if you’re lucky, a fried egg and a slice of caramelized pineapple.
  3. Fish ‘n’ chips. We tried them all over the country, and our favorite was the fried basa in Bowen, Queensland.

Three Favourite Animals:

  1. Little penguins (at the Penguin Parade)
  2. Koalas (in any zoo or preserve)
  3. Tropical fish (at the Great Barrier Reef)

Three Favourite Wineries/Breweries:

  1. Paxton Vineyards
  2. The Monk Brewery
  3. Irongate Estate

Three Favourite Aussie Slang Terms:

  1. Bogan– the Australian version of a redneck.
  2. Budgie smuggler– the very cheeky term for a man’s Speedo swimsuit. Unfortunately, more common than we’d like.
  3. Too easy! This little phrase can be used anywhere, anytime, especially if you are a B&B owner in Townsville.

Seals, Penguins, and Koalas, Oh My!

Anyone who knows me knows that I love animals. I especially enjoy seeing animals in the wild. While we’re traveling, whenever we get the chance, we take advantage of the chance to see the wildlife. I didn’t really expect to see any animals so soon, but one day when we were swimming in Waimea Bay in Hawaii a sea turtle swam within ten feet of me. Another swimmer saw it and warned me that since they’re protected, legally I had to keep a distance of 100 feet. I didn’t try to get any closer, but somebody ought to tell the turtles that law, since they just swim up around the humans. Also in Hawaii, we hiked up to Ka’ena Point, which is the northwestern tip of O’ahu, for the chance to see an endangered Hawaiian monk seal. There are only about 1300 remaining in the wild. We saw plenty of nesting shearwaters, but by the time we reached the beach, we hadn’t seen any seals yet. We sat down and gazed out at the rocks and the beautiful blue ocean. After about a minute, one of the rocks moved and turned its face to look at us. Jackpot! A seal. I didn’t have my camera, though, so I didn’t get a picture.  It just goes to show you that patience pays.

Further on in our trip, I was thrilled to learn that in Kaikoura, New Zealand, there are several colonies of NZ fur seals. They hang out on the beach and relax in the sun, and they’re used to having people come by and gawk at them. They’re not endangered at all- we easily saw upwards of a hundred. For $90, you can even swim with them for one hour, through a outfit called Seal Swim. Next time! However, I was happy enough just to watch the seals on the beach. I think they know that photographers have their cameras ready, because one of them struck this pose:

A seal suns itself

Australia offers plenty of chances to see animals. There are myriad zoos housing Australian animals, usually featuring the opportunity to pet or hold a koala or kangaroo. If you’re dying to hold a koala, you have to go to the state of Queensland, because that’s the only place it’s legal. If you’re happy with simply petting one of the little guys, you can go anywhere. We really liked the Hunter Valley Zoo, because it was so small and intimate. It’s kind of out in the middle of nowhere, and it’s a bit hard to get there. On the other hand, that means it’s not very crowded, so no waiting to pet the kangaroos! There are only a few dozen animals, including Australian animals, birds, monkeys, and farm animals, but that was fine for us. We can see tigers and bears in zoos at home. We spent a few hours there, feeding and petting the kangaroos, koalas, and wombats. Interesting fact: Kangaroos are MUCH softer than koalas.

We pet Buzzer the koala

For the ultimate animal experience, you can’t go any further than Phillip Island. Just off the coast near Melbourne, PI has seal colonies, resident penguins, and a wildlife preserve with koalas, wallabies, birds, and echidnas (supposedly.) Inside the preserve is the Koala Conservation Centre, which does not allow koala petting, but visitors are allowed to get fairly close to the trees where the koalas sleep and eat. It’s summer now, so the joeys are out of their mother’s pouches, and we saw one on its mother’s back and one off on its own. Too cute! The seals- over 10,000 of them- live off the coast on the Seal Rocks, so in order to see them we had to either take a boat tour ($67) or content ourselves with viewing them on a camera. We drove over to the Nobbies, at the tip of the island, and went inside the Nobbies Visitor Centre to see the seal-cams. Unfortunately, they are not free- but fortunately, we happened to be there at the same time a tour was coming through, and the tour guide put a few dollars into the machine, and we loitered nearby to catch a glimpse of the seals. It really didn’t feel any different than watching seals on a nature show, so I’m glad we didn’t pay for it.

The #1 reason we went to PI, though, was to see the penguins, and this did not disappoint. While walking around the Nobbies, we saw a few penguins in their burrows, thus providing us with a preview of the Penguin Parade we were planning to see.

A penguin hides under the boardwalk at The Nobbies

The penguins on PI are called little penguins, formerly known as fairy penguins, and they are only about 12 inches tall. There are thousands of them on PI, and they used to make their nests all around the coast, but unfortunately their habitats have now been destroyed in all but one place on the island. Penguin males and females take turns going fishing and taking care of their chicks. When they go fishing, they are gone for a few days at a time. They come back at dusk, in several battalions of several dozen penguins each- this is the part dubbed the Penguin Parade. As soon as they’ve arrived, their mates and chicks come out from their burrows as if to say “Welcome back!” and the chicks beg for food. There have been quite a few twins this year, more than usual, so naturally the siblings fight over who gets to eat first. They all squawk, wave their flippers, and generally carry on. It’s hilarious.

They're not kidding!

There are, of course, quite a few rules at Penguin Parade: no photographs, no touching the penguins, and above all, check under your car before you leave. Penguins have been nesting here for who knows how long, and the (relatively) new arrival of the parking lot still confounds some of them. The rangers try to coax them to nest closer to the dunes and away from the cars, but there are a stubborn few who continue to burrow in the parking lot area. So when visitors depart, they are asked to check under their cars in case a penguin is hiding under there. This was so funny to me and Bob that we were joking about it as we walked back to the car, but as we got closer, the thought of getting inside a nice warm car took over and we went to open the doors without checking. A man nearby called over to us to warn us that he had seen a penguin in this very lot, and we had better check. I laid down on my stomach, and there, smack in the center between the two front tires, was a tiny, scared penguin. This of course attracted a lot of attention, and spectators gathered around, trying to take pictures. Thankfully, a ranger came by pretty quickly- I think someone had already alerted him- and helped us to get the little guy out. Bob had to back up very slowly while everyone else watched the penguin to make sure it wouldn’t dart to the right or left. As soon as we were clear, we all breathed sighs of relief, and the penguin ran to hide under another car. (They really hate being exposed, it makes them feel insecure.) The ranger radioed to another ranger, saying “We’ve got a serial car-hider.” He said he would stay in the lot until all the cars had departed, to ensure the penguin stayed safe. Let this be a lesson to anyone going to the Penguin Parade: the rangers are not joking when they say penguins like to hide under cars, and please don’t forget to check!

Eating Cheaply (and Well!) in Sydney

While Australia was a little hard on our wallets, Sydney (surprisingly) was not so bad. It’s a great place to go for budget travellers. Due to the size of the city, there is fierce competition between restaurants, hostels, internet cafes, etc. We ate very well the entire time we were there, and never spent more than $10 per person per meal- sometimes only $5. An obvious choice for cheap eats (and cheap internet, cheap haircuts, cheap anything) is Chinatown. It can be a little touristy, but just venture beyond the main drag and you’ll find more authentic restaurants. From George Street, turn left onto Ultimo Road and left again onto Thomas Street. The whole next block is lined with restaurants, and near the end of the block on the right-hand side there is a food centre- like a shopping mall but filled with cheap restaurants. Many of them specialize in homemade noodles or dumplings. It’s not just Chinese over here, either; you can find Korean, Indonesian, and more.

For inexpensive Middle Eastern food, head to Surry Hills. The whole area is good hunting ground, but Cleveland Street between Elizabeth and Bourke Streets is a good place to start. Actually, this area used to be called Little Beirut about 100 years ago. It’s been somewhat gentrified now, but it still retains a fairly large Middle Eastern population. Devonshire Street between Chalmers and Elizabeth Streets has a string of cheap Asian restaurants- we enjoyed some Thai here one night.

For the cheapest harbour-view lunch in the city, here is what you can do. Leave your accommodation around an hour or hour and a half before you want to have lunch. Make your way over to the Central Baking Depot on Erskine Street and pick up a loaf of freshly baked bread. Your next stop is 1 Martin Place, underground level. There is a little shop here called the GPO Cheese and Wine Room. Pick out a couple of their lovely cheeses- I would estimate 100 grams per person, but that depends how much you like cheese! Don’t get any wine, though, you can’t drink it (at least not legally) where you’re going. Finally, stop by the David Jones Food Hall, on the underground level of David Jones department store on Market Street. They sell all kinds of wonderful dips and spreads by weight. We liked their red capsicum dip and eggplant & garlic dip a lot, and I thought the Moroccan dip was very interesting (Bob thought it was too sweet.) They also have antipasti, if you prefer to go that route. You can pick up something to drink here, too. Finally, take all your purchases over to the Royal Botanic Gardens. For less than the price of a restaurant meal (depending on the dips/ cheeses you have chosen,) you can have a lovely picnic overlooking the Harbour Bridge.

Our picnic lunch

For a foodie excursion, take a trip to Cabramatta. Cabramatta is a suburb of Sydney, about 45 minutes away by train, and a return ticket costs a very reasonable $6.40. When you get off the train (coming from the east), immediately cross over the tracks, then cross the street in front of you, Railway Parade. The street ahead will fork; take the right fork (John Street.) It should be fairly obvious by now, but Cabramatta has a very large Vietnamese and Chinese population, and the area near the train station is jam-packed with noodle shops, banh mi stalls, Asian supermarkets, and all manner of consumer goods. The main area is bounded by John St to the south, Hughes St to the north, Hill St to the west and Railway Pde to the east. Inside this square is a warren of alleys. It’s easy to spend an afternoon getting lost inside. The local government sponsors a food festival here in October, which I think would be great fun. Even if you’re not here at that time, you can still see the posters many restaurants display in their windows, denoting their signature dishes. Very helpful- good going, Fairfield City Council!

Finally, I’ll share with you our best cheap food “find” in Sydney- $5 Thai food in Glebe. $5 for pad thai, red curry, green curry, and I think they had pad see ew  and a few more as well. All come with chicken- and to add tofu is free. Shrimp costs $2 more. To top it all off, cans of soda are $1- a rare find in Australia! You can find this magical little restaurant on Bridge Rd, near the intersection with Glebe Point Rd. Enjoy!

Out in the Outback

Just because we’ve seen the Rock doesn’t mean the Outback is over. Far from it. After leaving Kings Canyon, we drove to Alice Springs, which at any other time would’ve seemed like a small, dusty town, but after a week in the Outback was just as exciting as driving into New York City. After two days back in civilization (and two nights in beds!), we drove off again into the vast nothingness that is central Australia. Our first stop was the Devils Marbles. These rocks were formed naturally by erosion, and are sometimes balanced so precariously that you have to wonder how they stay up.

Me at the top of the Devil's Marbles

The wonderful thing about traveling in the Outback is that you almost never have to share space with anyone. When we went to the Devils Marbles, there were only two other people there.

Bob tries to move a marble

 Driving in the Outback sounds like it would be monotonous, but it is far from it. The landscape changes drastically. In some parts of outback Queensland, the grass is as white as a cloud. It’s called Mitchell grass and in the whole world, it is only found out here.

Mitchell grass

We also saw lots of little mounds. We wondered for a while if these were created by erosion, animals, or goodness knows what. After awhile I remembered something I had seen on another travel blog. Out here, I suppose the termites have no houses to infest (there aren’t any,) so they turn their attention to building mounds instead. They’re made of saliva and termite poo. The ones we saw were only a foot or two high, but I’ve seen photos of some six feet tall or more. I apologize for the blurriness of the picture; I took it from a moving car.

Termite mounds

Then it was on to the town of Tennant Creek to spend the night. We stayed at a campsite that charged us a $3 per head water levy… we paid it, then when we asked where the drinking water was, we were informed that there was none. (Actually, the woman working there gave us a surprised look and said, “I don’t drink the water here. We sell bottled right over there.”) So we basically paid $12 for enough water to take a shower, brush our teeth, and flush the toilets. But what Tennant Creek lacks in water, it makes up for in sunsets.

Sunset, Tennant Creek

The next day, we plodded on to Julia Creek. Isn’t it funny how all these places in the Outback have “creek” in the name? It’s so misleading. We didn’t see any creeks in Julia Creek, but we did see another amazing sunset (followed later that night by an amazing electrical storm that forced us out of our tents and into the car. Bob declared that he would not be camping any more.)

Sunset, Julia Creek

Our car was a little worse for the wear after so many miles. There was sand eveywhere, inside and out, and a veritable insect cemetery on the front grill. Luckily, we avoided hitting anything larger (though we did have a close call with a kangaroo!)

The sorry state of our car after about 4000 miles

Why We Didn’t Climb

For some people, the highlight of a trip to Uluru is the opportunity to climb it. “The Climb,” as it’s known, was first popularized in the mid-twentieth century by tour operators. To some Australians I’ve talked to, Uluru is The Climb. After mentioning that we visited Uluru, the next question is often “And did you climb it?”

The answer is no, we did not. Even if we had wanted to, we probably couldn’t have: summer in the Outback is so unforgiving that the National Park service closes the climb from 8 a.m. in December, January, and February. (That means you must have started by 8, not finished.) It’s also closed when it’s windy, wet, covered in cloud, when thunderstorms are nearby, etc. The days we were there were so windy that the climb was closed, so there’s never a guarantee that you’ll be able to climb. All these rules are put in place for safety reasons, yet people still die. As of our visit, forty-three people have died on Uluru.

There is a more important reason that we didn’t climb. The local tribe, the Anangu, don’t climb it because to them, it is sacred. Remember their version of the creation story? They believe that Uluru was created by a deity, an ancestral being, and to climb is to disrespect Uluru. And climbing is bad enough, but getting hurt or dying is even worse- that’s defiling it. It’s not hard to understand, really. Imagine how you would feel if someone ran into your church, knocked over everything on the altar, and ripped down the Cross. Or, as one of the park rangers said to me, if someone came into your house and died in your living room. Places are special, they can even be sacred, and it’s unfair to treat Uluru differently. Unfortunately, until 25 years ago, the Anangu did not have any say in the matter. They did not own their own land; it had been seized by white settlers and the government. Now they own it and help to manage Uluru along with the National Park service. The Climb is still allowed, for the time being. The Anangu remember how it felt to be disrespected, and they don’t want to disrespect visitors to Uluru by banning the climb outright. They know that most visitors have traveled a long way at great expense, and they don’t want to disappoint those tourists who have spent a lot of time and money getting there. However, their wish is for you to consider their viewpoint, and not climb Uluru.

Rollin’ Up to the Rock

We weren’t going to go to Uluru/Ayers Rock, but I talked to my friend Paul Simon and he said I shouldn’t miss it. Oh wait… that wasn’t me, that was Oprah. Unfortunately, the Virginia Vagabonds are not the most famous visitors to Australia right now, but if we have to be overshadowed by anyone, Oprah isn’t bad. Our visit to the rock coincided with Oprah’s (along with a few dozen lucky American studio audience members.) I believe they got to fly out here from Sydney, a flight that only takes a few hours, but we drove over 2000 miles over the course of six days. Yes, we drove 2,136 miles into the heart of Australia to see… a rock. But Oprah and I agree-this is not just any rock.

The largest monolith in the world

The original residents of the area called it Uluru and created myths about it. The first whites to see it named it Ayers Rock, after the then-governor of Adelaide. Today it is jointly managed by the traditional owners, the Anangu tribe, and the national park service, and is officially known by both names, but colloquially by either, or simply “The Rock.” It’s no wonder there is a plethora of names- it’s one impressive rock. The neighboring rock formations, Kata Tjuta, are no less impressive. Kata Tjuta is a word in the local language meaning “many heads.”

The "heads" of Kata Tjuta

There are two theories as to how Uluru and Kata Tjuta were created. Geologists say that these big rocks are 300 million years old. Actually, did you know that the rocks themselves extend far below the ground? 550 million years ago, the rock that comprises Uluru and Kata Tjuta was part of a huge jagged mountain range which eroded into sediment. The sediment collected into certain areas. Then, 500 million years ago, a sea covered the region, and the sediment was compressed and cemented together into giant rocks, but they were still under the sea, sand, and mud. By 300 million years ago, the sea had receded, and geological activity folded the rock as well as lifted the region up above sea level. The rocks that comprise Uluru and Kata Tjuta were tilted and left sticking up above the earth’s surface (but not entirely, it is estimated that they extend up to 4 miles underground.) Weathering has produced the patterns in the rock.

Bob surveys a waterhole

On the other hand, the Anangu believe that at the time of creation, the world was a completely featureless place. Mountains, gorges, waterholes, and other landforms were created by ancestral beings, and the fact that these forms exist today is proof of these ancestors. The patterns in the rock were also produced by the ancestors, and there are stories about each irregularity. This wave was formed by a snake, they say; and this cave with what appears to be a bas-relief inside is actually the unhappy ending to a story about the hare wallaby tribe. (At the creation time, all animals were part of tribes and could talk.)

Five hare-wallaby boys forever frozen onto the wall

There was a miscommunication between two tribes, which led to one tribe becoming angry. They then led a surprise attack on the other tribe. Most everyone got away except for these five boys, whose figures were frozen onto the wall. If you look close, can’t you see that one is crouching down, and one is pointing? One is tall and thin, and one is short and fat. Very interesting. Nearby Uluru is another famous rock formation, Kings Canyon. This time, we actually weren’t planning to go there- I had heard of it but I really wasn’t sure what it was all about. However, a German guy we met at a campsite recommended it wholeheartedly, so we added another couple hundred miles to odometer and went out there. It’s sometimes touted as the Australian Grand Canyon, but in reality it’s totally different. It’s very green. Bob and I did the Canyon Rim walk, which goes from the carpark at the bottom of the canyon, up a ridge, around the rim, and down again (it’s supposed to take up to four hours but took us only two) and here is the view we got from the top of the canyon.  

Who would've thought the Outback would be so green?

Yes, we may be crazy for driving all the way into the middle of Australia just to see some rocks… but I can say, it was totally worth it.

Kata Tjuta sunset