exploring the cities, the reef, and the red centre

It’s been a busy five weeks in Australia, and we only scratched the surface of what’s possible in this vast country. But we did take in several major cities, explored a coastline, snorkelled the Great Barrier Reef, hiked the challenging Valley of the Winds trail through the spectacular rock formations at Kata Tjuta, and completed the 9.4 km base walk around the most famous red rock in the world: Uluru — aka Ayers Rock.

We also sampled many craft beers and dropped by many brewpubs along the way; our favourite was the 4 Pines brewery and restaurant in Manly, just outside Sydney— they also had the best ribs we’ve ever tasted.

Our favourite urban area was greater Melbourne — easy to get around on trams and buses, lots of interesting neighbourhoods and festivals, and free admission to major art galleries. We also had a friend in Melbourne (who we first met in the Amazon) and relatives in the suburbs, so that helped us feel welcome. From Melbourne we explored the Great Ocean Road; it reminded us of the Sea to Sky highway that connects Vancouver and Whistler. Even with mountains, seaside cliffs, lighthouses, and brewpubs, the highlight was seeing not one, not two, but three wild koalas along the way. Oh, and by the way, koalas are NOT bears, they are marsupials, something completely different.

In Sydney we walked around the iconic opera house, visited more free art galleries, but two highlights come to mind. Our AirBnB was about 2 km from the opera house, and on our way we were watching for a cafe to have a coffee and snack, and found ourselves facing Harry’s Cafe de Wheels, perhaps the most famous food truck in Aussieland. Their specialty is meat pies, and g’day are they delicious! Later we ended up at Fortune of War, which claims to be the oldest continuously running pub in Sydney, and mostly filled with locals which is usually a good sign.

We happened to be in Brisbane during the Commonwealth Games, talking place just down the coast. Officials had bizarrely recommended that residents stay home or leave the area during the games because it would be too congested — and only realized their mistake when games attendance was much lower than expected but then it was too late. The local media reported that the closing ceremonies took place in a nearly empty stadium. We took a very pleasant boat cruise upriver to visit a famous koala sanctuary, established in the 1930s in response to the possible extinction of koalas when they were wantonly killed by the thousands for their fur coats, much like the near extinction that faced the buffalo in Canada for the same reason.

Confession time. We knew about the big cities and the vast outback, but we had no idea a large portion of Queensland is tropical — hot and humid, and perfect for vast plantations of sugar cane, coffee, banana, citrus fruit of every description, and avocado. But this also means the water off the ‘far north’ coast of Australia is a steady 27-28 degrees C throughout the year. You don’t need a wetsuit to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, but you do need a ‘stinger’ suit, a tight-fitting Lycra suit that protects swimmers from a dangerous species of jellyfish who also like warm ocean water. We called them Smurf suits because they are head-to-toe blue. We had booked an overnight excursion to the Reef, which meant that after three sessions of snorkelling and a gourmet dinner on the first day, we awoke floating over the reef and ready for a 6:30 am snorkel and another after breakfast. And what fantastic snorkelling it was, probably the best we’ve ever enjoyed in terms of the diversity and colour of the coral and the fish.

In the first few days we were in Australia, the number one recommendation we heard repeatedly was to go see Uluru, and we finally gave in and booked our flight to the ‘red centre’ of the continent. We’re so glad we did.

At one time, people could camp or stay at motels within a few feet of Ayers Rock. But eventually, Indigenous protests and negotiations resulted in tourist facilities being moved away from the rock, title to the land returned to the traditional owners, agreements made around co-managing the national park that included the Uluru and Kata Tjuta rock formations, and new tourism facilities established at Yulara, just outside the park boundaries. The resort trains and hires local Indigenous people, who make up about 30% of the 1000 staff on site. There is of course much more to it than that, but it all seems to be working really well.

From the Ayers Rock Resort we caught the bus to hike Kata Tjuta one day, and to the walk around Uluru the next. Both days involved getting up by 5 am because the bus excursions included watching the sun rise on the rocks. We respected the wishes of the Anangu people who ask visitors not to climb the rock they hold sacred. Only a small percentage of visitors still climb Uluru, and in fact the jointly-managed national park has set a date in October 2019 when the steep path, known as the Mala Walk, will be closed to the public.

We had wonderful and varied experiences in Australia: the train system between the cities we visited was inexpensive and ran on time, the craft beer and local wines were excellent, the people were great, the art galleries were free, and the landscape was outstanding. Go to Australia, but not for less than a month!

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