Planning

As Douglas Adams would have said, Australia is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is.

So when we phoned Trailfinders to say we wanted to do Australia, there was a polite response and some amused laughter in the background. They asked us what we really wanted to see and do.

We had some fixed points. We wanted to go to Melbourne to see it and my wife’s second cousin, who hadn’t made it to our wedding and whose husband was ill. We wanted to drive up the Queensland coast. I was really keen to go to Uluru (preferably with my wife).

And we wanted to finish with a week in Sydney, staying with a friend who was working out there for a couple of years. In fact, she was the reason we went. On a holiday on Jura she’d told us she was applying for the secondment out there for a couple of years. After a bottle of wine or two, we said that if she got the gig we’d go out to see here. She did, and we did. In fact, it ended up being our honeymoon too.

We put up a Facebook post asking friends to tell us their ‘must dos’ for Australia. This gave us enough to fill a gap year and more. We whittled it all down and went back to Trailfinders. They gave us a few days in Singapore on the way out and Dubai on the way back.

But this is about Australia, what we did and our impressions of it all. We can’t tell you about all of Australia. Oh no.

Because Australia is big. Really big.

Melbourne

Melbourne city centre

Melbourne is amazingly European, with trams and everything. The climate is sensible too. The train in from the airport gave us our first impressions.

We explored the city and went out to see my wife’s second cousin and her husband. This gave us a good glimpse into ‘real life’ in Melbourne, along with some anecdotes about the idiotic things some tourists say (such as ‘what’s the weather like in Australia?’). They made us dinner and fed us wine and VB beer.

They gave us a loan of their sat-nav for our road trip, which was very kind. They also asked about our itinerary. We told them we were visiting Uluru and doing the sunset and sunrise tours, but not the ‘eating out under the stars’ experience.

‘So you’ll do that next time you come?’

‘Oh no. I don’t think we’ll ever re-visit Uluru.’

‘So this is a oncer,’ the husband said.

He died a few months later of his cancer, and that phrase has stayed with us. ‘It’s a oncer.’ Do it while you can.

There was another day exploring the city – the aquarium, up their tower, the hop-on-hop-off tour that went past the Rod Laver tennis centre.

But perhaps the highlight was the day going out Great Ocean Road to the ‘twelve apostles’ – sea stacks, of which there are about eight or so. The mighty Southern Ocean batters them, and they are crumbling away over time. Standing there gives the feel of the power of that ocean and reminds you that the southern hemisphere is completely different from the northern one. The world is not symmetrical.

London Bridge – one of the remaining Apostles

We were told the story of a couple who had been stranded when one of the sandstone bridges connecting two stacks collapsed behind them. They were rescued. The rescue made headline news and their pictures were all over the media. The only snag was that while they were married, they weren’t married to each other. They’d sneaked off for a quiet sojourn and been caught out massively.

Back in the city that evening we found a Chinese restaurant and selected our meal from the posters on display. In my experience the pictures make the dishes look huge. But not here: my lemon chicken was pretty much a complete chicken, sliced up.

Brisbane and Byron Bay

The catering on the morning flight from Melbourne to Brisbane was a pie. It turns out that Australians like pies. Perhaps Australia should be twinned with Dundee.

The weather was beautiful, of course. We walked around for a bit, and then found that there was a free ferry that went up and down the river, so we did that. On the banks there were cafes, bars and restaurants, and even a wedding. The daughter of friends of ours had lived here for a few years during her very elastic gap year, and we could certainly see the attraction.

Brisbane from the free ferry

In the evening we had a delicious Malaysian meal, then back to the hotel to prepare for the start of the next phase of the tour: the road trip. On the way to the hotel we saw a covert drug deal through a partially opened car window.

In the morning we picked up the hire car – we have separate insurance to cover excess, and this cuts out an awful lot of haggling. Car checked, sat-nav deployed, and we were off.

I was once told by a Swedish couple that we were lucky in Australia because they drive on the left here. I pointed out – not entirely joking – that we actually expect to drive on the right when we’re abroad, so it is kind of weird.

On the way south we stopped at Surfers’ Paradise just to get a look at a proper Aussie beach – with surfers. This place is amazing. They built skyscrapers all along behind the beach, so after midday the beach is pretty much in shadow. We also nearly pranged the car while reversing out of our parking space.

But we felt we were really here now.

In Byron Bay, we checked into our hotel and headed for the beach. This place is gorgeous (though I later found out that it wasn’t always this way; at one time they had industrial sand-mining on the beach, and a meat company which dumped offal and offcuts into the ocean, thus attracting sharks). It’s also full of hippies, and feels almost like the 60s.

We walked along by the beach and up to the lighthouse – the most easterly part of Australia, and which at the time we thought would be the most easterly place we wound ever be – and watched the surfers and saw whales and dolphins out in the ocean. The beach near the town had lifeguards, the longer beach on the other side of the point where the lighthouse was had none – so loads of surfers went there. I could see the appeal.

Byron Bay, looking south from the lighthouse

We spoke to a passer-by who wanted to confirm that houses in Scotland had things in their houses to heat the place up, which he found amusing. He also noted that in Scotland it gets colder the further north you travel. I courteously pointed out that this was normal.

We ate in a bar-restaurant near the beach and wondered why things seemed to close down early. It was a Sunday, right enough. Days later we found out there was a one-hour time change in summer between Queensland and New South Wales. There’s actually a half-hour time difference between Queensland and Northern Territories (i.e. Uluru). This seemed crazy at first, but then you think: why not?

The road trip to Cairns

From Byron Bay we drove north. We had eight days to get to our final stop north of Cairns. Trailfinders had sensibly booked us into fairly standard budget hotels when we had an overnight on the way, and very nice hotels when we had two nights.

Most of the places we visited were magical. A couple weren’t.

The hippies who couldn’t get a place in Byron Bay are all staying at Airlie Beach, apparently, having barbecues at night, playing guitars, smoking dope. It reminded me of my student days in Glasgow. Well, maybe not quite.

Our major trip here was to Fraser Island on a super-sized eight-wheel-drive monster, driven by Drew who gave us a cheery commentary all day long about the island, and the flora and fauna. On one walk he pointed out a ‘dead dog’ tree, so called because it has no bark. Boom tish.

The main road on Fraser Island

Fraser Island is a sand island, formed simply because of its location and built up over the centuries. The beach is the main highway, with speed limit signs and all. And a dead giant turtle on it.

Away from the beach there is a network of sand roads cutting through the vegetation, and a freshwater lagoon and a large picnic area. We had a swim in the lagoon while Drew made us a barbecue. The picnic area is fenced off and there are severe warnings about dingoes: they look appealing, but on no account feed them or try to pet them. A few weeks after we got home there were reports of a couple of tourists being bitten by the wild dogs; they complained that there were no warning signs. Not true.

We saw dolphins on the way back to Airlie Beach after yet another unique day out.

Just as fabulous was Noosa and the trip out to the Whitsunday Islands.

We stopped at various islands on the way out to Whitehaven and saw some stunning houses and small hotels, all with a beach frontage and a jetty and a boat. The skipper gave us an excellent commentary, full of information and humour, about the houses and the islands.

‘On our right is the largest of the Whitsundays. We call it Australia.’

We also saw quite a large jet coming into land. The airport for the Whitsundays is on Hamilton Island. One passenger mentioned that the islands seemed pretty small to be housing a runway long enough for a jet. The skipper agreed, and said it was a ‘captain only’ landing.

We walked along Whitehaven beach and swam in crystal clear water. The sand there is so pure that it doesn’t get hot. NASA used the stuff for the space telescope’s lenses.

While we were there, a party of Japanese businessmen came in on a seaplane. Different world.

Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays

Back to Noosa – penguins hanging round the harbour – and our rather nice hotel.

For the rest of the drive up the coast we stayed in a couple of rather odd towns: Gladstone and Townsville. These towns have huge coal trains and industrial harbours. And strange people looking at you from bars. There were coffee stops on the way too; signs on the road regularly said ‘take a rest’. We swapped driving regularly. It was tempting just to keep going on these long empty roads. Sadly the roads were lined with dead kangaroos.

It got warmer and warmer as we went north of course. Banana and sugar-cane plantations appeared. Local accents became impenetrable.

Our last stop before Cairns was Townsville, and it seemed pretty dead for a Saturday afternoon. But at night several streets were blocked off and there was an open-air concert – mainly country music.

However, we decided to get up very early and make the dash to Cairns to try to get a trip out to the Great Barrier Reef. When we got there, and into a tourist information place, we were told that the sea conditions meant that there were hardly any trips out. And if we did get a trip there was no way we would get in the water, and probably wouldn’t be able to see anything much at all.

We activated Plan B and pressed on to the Kuranda Rainforest National Park. After a tree-top-skimming cable car ride, we got to see Koalas and wallabies and kangaroos in the wildlife centre.

Exotic birds at Karunda

From there it was back to our hotel in Palm Cove, north of Cairns, and a walk along the beach. The sea was mountainous, but there were people in the water, so we joined them. I asked the lifeguards if this was sensible, and he said ‘no’. But he said it with a smile.

We went it and enjoyed trying to swim, and body-surfing. Walking past the beach that night after dinner we saw the warning signs for crocs and sharks. Ah well.

Uluru

Another very early start to drive to Cairns airport, fill up the car and dump it at the hire place, and the flight to Uluru, coming in over that amazing red mountain as the early morning sun caught it.

They’ve re-created Ayres Rock Resort as a circle of low-rise hotels round a viewpoint, some way away from the Rock. The new airport is also well away from Uluru itself. Previously it looked like Las Vegas round the Rock, apparently.

We were lucky to get into our room when we arrived. From there it was the courtesy bus to the shopping area. We bought water, and we upgraded our evening sunset tour to include the barbecue under the stars. We’d never be back here; as previously intimated, this was a ‘oncer’.

Next up was the short walk to that viewpoint. Signs everywhere said ‘take water’. In fact people weren’t allowed on trips without it. Nothing prepared us for the sheer heat of that sun. We got through most of the 2.5 litre bottle of water on the way to the low-ish summit for our first photographs of Uluru.

Then we headed back to the hotel. I felt strongly that a walk out into that red desert would result in certain death. I’d never experienced heat like it.

The sunset tour was just that. We sipped prosecco and watched the shadows deepen in the channels on the rock face – water channels, because it has rained occasionally over the thousands of years since this was formed.

The photographs we took are the same as everyone else’s photographs, and the same as all the photographs we’ve ever seen. But they are our photographs. We were standing there, actually looking at this thing rising out of the desert. Hell, if I’d been around a few thousand years ago I’d have worshipped it. It’s like the monolith from 2001.

…but this is our photograph

As part of the experience, there were Aboriginal women selling traditional paintings they’d done. Our coach driver told us that you could buy knock-offs in city shops, but these were the real deal. He also said don’t tower over the crouching women; crouch too. And they do have body odour, but deal with it.

We bought a picture, got it framed back home, and it takes pride of place in our dining room.

The sun setting on Uluru

At this time people were discouraged from climbing Uluru – which is sacred to the Aboriginal peoples – but some did it. Our coach driver was critical of them. It was good to see the signs that, belatedly, there was growing respect for the first nation Australians. After all, they’ve lived here for 30000 years. Through their oral traditional they can talk about geographical features which have long since disappeared.

On the negative side, their life-spans are short and they cannot deal with alcohol. We needed to show our room key if we were to buy alcohol from the supermarket.

One of the photographs was taken by the coach driver. He showed us a new trick, using panorama mode on the iPhone; start with me beside my wife, then when I’m out of shot he holds steady and I run round to the other side of her. Voila: a woman with two husbands.

The barbecue under the stars – eating, amongst other things, bits of kangaroo – was excellent. The company was great – people from all over the world. A young couple from Barcelona were opposite us. They were interested in our Scottish referendum, because they’d just had one on Catalonian freedom refused.

After the meal – and some scary walks to the toilets, all too aware of the animal life in Australia – a young girl took us into the darkness and pointed her laser at the stars. There are billions of them out there. I’ve never seen so many. Space looks big from here, really big.

The sunrise tour – after a very late night and a very early morning – was the reverse of the sunset tour, of course, and from a different side of the rock. We stared, watching the sun climb and the shadows shorten, letting every memory cell take this in, the wow factor just getting stronger and stronger. We were so glad we had done all of this.

Then it was the flight to Sydney for the last leg of the trip.

Sydney

We were staying with my wife’s friend, who was over there for a couple of years with work- and she was working the week we were there, so we explored on our own. The flat was north of the bridge, in the CBD, and it was very handy and comfortable. Tropical budgies visited the balcony in the morning. We could walk into the city centre (which we did, and got lost on the way back) or get the train in.

A large part of the visit was seeing everything we’d seen previously in photographs in real life. The actual Sydney Harbour Bridge. The Opera House. Circular Quay with its cruise ships. And the enormous natural harbour with hundreds of ferries and small boats criss-crossing in the sunshine.

First impressions – backed up by subsequent meetings with Aussies – included noting their love of coffee. And it is good coffee, everywhere. They are also the worst city in the world for walking around looking at their phones and colliding with everyone. But they’re almost all polite and well-mannered and relaxed.

We’d been given money for our wedding to spend on ‘experiences’ (after all, we had a toaster and plenty of cutlery). We spent it on the biggest experience of them all: a helicopter tour of the city. Just the two of us. With a pilot, of course.

This started at the airport, then headed for the city. We hadn’t appreciated just how huge the harbour is: it goes miles inland, with islands (some with big houses and jetties for their boats) and a naval dockyard.

Then we arrived above the Harbour Bridge, and the view of the Opera House. We swooped around, then over the zoo, up to Manley, down to Bondi. It seemed like every home had a swimming pool.

Sydney Harbour from the air.

Wonderful.

We spent one day up in the Blue Mountains, getting there and back by train. The views were stunning, and the rain-storm apocalyptic.

The Blue Mountains

We didn’t do the walk over the span of the Harbour Bridge, but we went up one of the towers to take in the view. (You’re not allowed phones or cameras on the walk, which was the decider. Nothing to do with the height. Oh no.)

We also took a tourist ferry around the harbour.

On the Saturday, with our friend, we took the ferry to Manley Beach along with what seemed like half the city and swam in the sea and had exotic pies for lunch. Lifeguards with whistles were very strict on keeping swimmers separate from the surf school. At one point there was insistent whistling and I looked round to see which idiot was causing problems. She was pointing at me; I had drifted along a little way. I apologised and moved back, out of the way.

I have to say that we did not worry about sharks at all. Well, not much. There were shark nets deployed to keep them away, and the lifeguards were watching. There was no way I was going to be denied the experience of swimming in that ocean.

Spiders, though.

One evening in the flat the ladies informed me that there was a spider in the bath and could I deal with it. I asked if our friend had been given any advice on which species were dangerous. No. They’d been told to treat them all as dangerous.

Normally a couple of bits of kitchen roll would have solved the problem with this tiny thing. But not in Australia. It was a scoosh of liquid soap and down the plughole with gallons of water to make sure it was well on its way to the ocean.

One of my many cousins emigrated to Australia in 1970. When he had lived in Stirlingshire, we would visit most Saturdays. The last time I’d seen him was at his – first – wedding the year before he left. We’d been in touch on FaceBook, but this was a unique chance to meet in person, which we did, with his wife, outside the Opera House – and a meal in a nearby restaurant.

We chatted about his life – starting with his experiences of that actual trip to Sydney, the week in the hostel and the pressure to find a job and somewhere to live – and all that happened afterwards. We spoke about what I’d done too.

At moments like that, you can’t help thinking how little decisions – albeit brave decisions – can lead to such changes. I could have had his life, if I’d chosen that route. Would it have been better? Impossible to tell. I did love Sydney, though.

At the end of our time, my wife and I and her friend had a big dinner at an outside table at the Sydney Café, then cocktails at the Opera House bar.

On the final day, with the flight not until the evening, we determined to do something significant and not just fritter away the day. We went to the Olympic pool by the Harbour Bridge for a swim, spending a significant amount of time doing the backstroke looking up at the Bridge.

Then it was the train to the airport and the A380 to Dubai.

Final impressions

We were asked later what the highlight of the Australian trip was. We said everything was a highlight, every day was something special. Nothing was wasted.

I could imagine living there. I know people who went there for a year or so and came back to the UK, and fervently wish they’d stayed over there. My wife downloaded the specs for some education jobs in Queensland that fitted her skills, and we speculated on what we might do.

But, in the end, it’s a hell of a long way from the UK. And their politicians have a strange-sounding agenda (Tony Abbott was prime minister at the time). Burning coal, polluting the Reef, cutting investment in renewables (all that sunshine, guys!).

And an ironic anti-immigration policy. A bunch of old guys on the train back from the Blue Mountains were discussing a solution to the ‘Islam problem’: ‘Wait till they’re all in their mosque and then just bloody blow it up, mate. Get rid of them all.’ They were in the quiet coach too. Tsk tsk.

Of course we’ve only just scratched the surface of Australia. There’s Perth and the whole west coast, Darwin and the north, Adelaide.

Australia is big. Really big. And it’s wonderful.