At last, an account of the recent trip to the land down under.
Two weeks in the land down under is just enough to get a taste, but not nearly enough to deeply experience what this amazingly large continent has to offer.
My wife April and I travelled to Australia from late September to mid October 2004 for the Web Essentials 2004 conference, and stayed on an extra week for a vacation. Our time was split between two cities, Sydney and Melbourne (and any generalizations apply to them alone.)
North America and Sydney are about 12,000km apart. This is about a third of the way around the world, plus a little bit. After parking your rear in a plane seat one thing is abundantly clear: make the best of it, because you’re not moving for a long, long time.
The flight brought us in early one Monday morning, but clearing the airport proved somewhat time consuming. The immigration line was long (and multi-cultural), but after clearing it and claiming our bags we were sent through another line for something called Quarantine. While there have always been border restrictions on importing organic material in any country, labeling it so starkly and then providing bins to dump any non-importable items felt like a whole new level of control.
Coming out of the terminal we met up with John, our tour guide and trip sponsor. Since it was still early in the morning, the hotel wasn’t ready yet, and we were feeling well-rested enough anyway, plans were made to head to Bondi Beach for a quick breakfast and tour of the area. Meeting up with his business partner Maxine, who ordered Vegemite with her toast specifically for our benefit (though we never did end up having any), we were treated to our first Australian coffee.
A bit of exploration started our day. We oriented ourself along George St., a main thoroughfare running the length of the downtown core. Our hotel, the Mercure, was situated on the southern end by Chinatown and Darling Harbour, so these got most of our attention. The former felt similar in character to the Vancouver and San Francisco equivalents, the latter is a planned upscale harbour area with restaurants, theatres, and tourist diversions. We managed to stumble far enough north to discover the beautiful Queen Victoria building, a shopping centre blocks long with an intricate decorative tile floor, wrought iron balconies, beautifully ornate arches, and detailed stone work and statues around the exterior.
The evening was spent at a private surf club back in Bondi, following a walk along the shorefront. Apparently the colour of the original iMac, dubbed ‘Bondi Blue’, was inspired by the water of this beach — not much of a stretch to imagine when you see its brilliant aquamarine tossing around foamy whitecaps.
Days Three, Four, and Five
Conference preparation day, followed by the two days of the conference itself. Notes on the experience feel out of place here, so they should be forthcoming in a separate write-up.
With the conference over, this was the first official tourist day. Starting with the famous Sydney harbour, we made our way along the sea-front from the Harbour Bridge to the Opera House, and then on to the stunning Botanic Gardens. Sydney’s Opera House is of course the landmark to see when in Australia, so I spent a bit of extra time photographing the shapes and contours. The pristine white roof is a series of interlocking tiles that are unnoticeable from a distance, but quite off-white on close-up.
The Botanic Gardens is a large green area in the middle of the city, flanked by The Domain, an almost equally large continuation. Both contain cultural and historical highlights (including the first farm of the Australian colony), along with the rich and varied flora and fauna from around the globe. A tree full of bats sits just outside of the central tourist information centre.
I wouldn’t be surprised to learn this is one of the larger downtown city parks of the world, but I don’t have anything to base that on other than a sense of scale of this particular one. And as if they weren’t enough, further south is Hyde Park, a segmented park spanning many city blocks from north to south. We crossed through the centre and spent some time in the Anzac memorial, a war shrine dedicated to Australia and New Zealand’s armed forces.
The evening saw a trip back out to Bondi and a barbecue at our host’s place, in lieu of the beach barbie we had to cancel on account of the weather. Great lamb, good beer, and excellent company — it’s a pretty universal formula for a nice evening.
Destination: Manly. The beach, that is. A harbour ferry ride takes you out toward the ocean, and north to a narrow peninsula of land that features a touristy seaside village and a beautiful, winding beach. Manly is well-regarded by the locals, and for good reason. The water is bright and sparkling, the beach gives way to hikable trails along the cliffs, and the shops and restaurants offer fare from around the world.
The latter half of the day was spent preparing the next leg of our journey, which took us to Melbourne.
Travel day. When checkout is 11am, your flight departs at 5pm, and you don’t get to your hotel until 8:30pm, the day goes by a bit too quickly.
Melbourne is magic. Deemed one of, if not the most livable city in the world, a few days spent wandering the British-style arcades and browsing the shops was enough to convince me that I could very happily spend a lot of time there.
Days Nine, Ten, and Eleven
The first day in Melbourne was spent orienting ourselves. We stayed at Rydges on Exhibition street, which is right inside the downtown core and a short walk to most of what we wanted to see.
Armed with a tourist guide and a will to explore, we wandered the shops and streets. This doesn’t sound like three days’ worth of activity, but trust me, Melbourne has enough to fill that time and more. In fact, we didn’t even leave the central business district aside from an afternoon bike ride along the Yarra river and through the botanical gardens. Plans were made to visit the close-by Richmond and St. Kilda districts, but weather pushed that plan to the back seat.
What makes the downtown core so interesting is the sheer density; an afternoon could be well-spent exploring a three block radius, and you’d still leave with the impression you hadn’t caught everything there was to see in the area. There are dozens of arcades along with various malls, filled with shops and running between and under the streets of the city.
Melbourne has a bit of a European outdoor sidewalk café habit, much to our delight. The city also features very distinct ethnic districts, at least cuisine-wise; we stayed next to Chinatown and the Greek district, and made sure to experience each.
There are sights to see, of course — we made it to Queen Victoria Market, the Rialto Towers, most of the arcades highlighted on our maps, Bourke and Swanston Streets (the intersection of which features whimsical flying animals on top of lightposts), and more. Notably, we meant to drive the Great Ocean Road but the three days we had proved too short.
Australian people are a hospitable, sport-loving bunch. Our stay overlapped both a major football match and a federal election, and it was abundantly obvious which the locals were following more closely. The closing of the match saw Sydney erupt in jubilant celebration and good natured yelling in the streets between fans of each team.
Service while in the country was always friendly, surprisingly despite the Australian no-tipping philosophy.
Food and drink
Discounting Vegemite and meat pies, Australian cuisine seems similar to Canadian in that it borrows liberally from around the world. Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Greek, Italian, and more were well represented in various restaurants and even whole districts. Melbourne is particularly suited for dining out, with its outdoor cafés and dense clusters of shops. Locals take full advantage of the proximity of major cities to the ocean, and seafood is easy to find on most menus. Lamb also appears to be more common on Australian menus than in North America.
Australians take their coffee as seriously as Europeans. Starbucks is the Wal-mart of coffee down here, and rightfully so. Compared to even the local java mega-chain Gloria Jean’s, Starbucks is clearly third rate.
You can find standard brewed coffee if you look, but almost all coffee in Australia is espresso-based. Look for more traditional blends of milk and espresso like lattés, cappuccinos, macchiatos, and short/long blacks. Sweetened or flavoured coffee isn’t unheard of, but far from common; instead expect a light dusting of chocolate powder on top of the foam, and a straw of sugar with accompanying spoon for extra sweetness. (No Equal or Sweet ‘n’ Low to be found, thankfully.)
Australia is a major wine-producing country, and we hear the local products are quite good. The few glasses I had were quite tasty and comparable to what may be found in Canada’s wine regions.
Also as in Canada, the major local beers appear to all be lighter lager and ale, with darker beers being relegated to the microbreweries. Getting anything darker than a pale ale proved to be a challenge, but wasn’t without its reward — the stouts and porters found were on par with some of the best Canada has to offer, although a local hefeweizen proved an interesting alternative as well.
It’s hard to call it ‘globalization’ when the term mainly refers to the creeping of American culture into everyone else’s. While it’s sometimes a two way street, aside from the odd British chain (Virgin, Vodafone, HMV) the majority of homogenization in Australia is imported from the US. Most noticeable in food chains like McDonald’s, Starbucks, Subway, 7-11, but spreading wider to bookstores (Borders) and even copy shops (Kinko’s, Minuteman). Try having a conversation with an Australian without talking about the Simpsons — American TV shows are all over the airwaves. Jerry Springer never felt so out of place as in Melbourne.
Rather charming is the ubiquitous “Hungry Jack’s”, a chain which in all ways but name is identical to Burger King, including logo. That’s because it is Burger King, or at least a wholly-owned (and branded) subsidiary. The story goes that a local trademarked the name before Burger King set up shop, forcing the mega-chain to franchise under a different name. There’s also an amusing sub-plot about the franchisee suing the parent company when the trademark expired. In any case, they’re now everywhere.
If there’s one thing you can say for Australian money, it’s that it’s rugged. The coins are thicker and larger than many other currencies, and the bills are made of durable plastic which you can run through the wash (though apparently leaving them in for the drier is disastrous).
The penny was mercifully abandoned in favour of a currency system that revolves around 5 and 10 — coins come in denominations of 5 cents, 10 cents, 20 cents, 50 cents, $1, and $2. Cent coins are silver while dollar coins are gold, although somewhat curiously the silver coins get larger as they increase in value, while the dollar coins shrink. A 50 cent coin is roughly 4 or 5 times the diameter of a $2 coin, while the latter is exactly the same size as a 5 cent coin.
Worth about as much as the Canadian dollar, Australian dollars don’t go nearly as far. An American might expect to pay roughly similar prices for equivalent items back home, whereas Canadians will end up paying a good deal extra — roughly 50% more. In an isolated nation without a major world superpower next door, it only stands to reason that trading might be a touch more expensive.
If you’re the type content to use someone else’s computer to check your web-based email from time to time, you’ll do just fine. Internet cafés abound throughout the country, and the type of store which might feature a wall of flat-screen panels will vary far more than what you’d see in North America.
However, and here’s an important distinction — if you’re the type that requires a connection for your own gear which you’ve brought with you, you’re generally out of luck. Wireless is virtually unknown in any of the cafés happy to rent you a computer, and they won’t let you jack into their ethernet connection either. Expect to pay $10 to $15 an hour for wireless, if you can find a hot spot nearby. Hotels don’t offer in-suite service, unless you have a local dial-up connection, which doesn’t really count.
The difference between the two forms of access belies the truth about connectivity in Australia — it’s obvious the country is wired, just in a different way than might be expected in North America. It sounds like the situation may be improving, as our hotel in Sydney was being fitted with ethernet jacks during our stay, and new wireless points do seem to be popping up. Just try reading Telstra’s wireless pricing though, and you’ll see that there’s a long way to go. (Two hours maximum connect time? Why are they turning away business?)
Even though we arrived in the early Australian spring, we expected temperate weather and packed accordingly. Bad move, the heat of the first morning in town quickly gave way to clouds and rain. Much of the trip was spent looking out the window and hoping for a change. This was a blessing for the locals, whom we understood were in the middle of a drought, but a bit of a curse throughout our trip.
Most days in Sydney remained consistent throughout the course of the day, but Melbourne saw many changes over the day. A sunny morning gave way to a cloudy early afternoon which gave way to a quick rainstorm followed by more sun before evening; in fact, weather changes were quicker than even that.
Melbourne was a bit cooler than Sydney, on account of its being further south. That’s an interesting change of mindset to get used to when you’re from the northern hemisphere, since south has always meant warm to me.
Most of the world’s population lives north of the Equator, so crossing it is a disorienting experience for many. Getting accustomed to the other side of the world is easy if you don’t think about it. If you happen to start, it becomes a little strange.
The first problem is gravity: it still works. You could lie on the ground and grasp anything bolted down to prevent falling off the surface of the planet, but of course that isn’t necessary and you’ll look a little silly doing it. But when you point at the ground to vaguely gesture towards the land you live in, you’ll understand in an instant why the urge is there…
Ever heard of the Coriolis effect? Famously characterized in a topically relevant episode of the Simpsons, the effect has to do with the spin of the Earth and its influence on large-scale particle systems like weather patterns. On a smaller scale, you can theoretically observe the effect in the way water spins as it drains. In the northern hemisphere, it goes counter-clockwise, and in the southern hemisphere it goes clockwise. Ladies and gentleman, I am here today to tell you that this is, in fact, true. I have seen it for myself. I made a point of filling the sink with water and pulling the plug, and sure enough, in Australia the water rotates clockwise. (Update: or not. Comments have pointed toward this debunking. Oh well.)
The Equator isn’t the only imaginary line crossed en route — there’s also the matter of the International Date Line. Time zone differences are generally just a matter of a bit of sleep loss and the odd extra few hours of daylight, but crossing the date line is where things really get wonky: depending on which way you’re going, you either lose an entire day, or gain an extra one. While I suppose on either side I may have seen a few hours of it, the 26th of September didn’t actually happen for me. Coming back, I got two 9th of Octobers. It’s a weird phenomenon, the only upside being that you have a fun story for parties (and the downside being a lot of sleep to catch up on).
To further complicate matters, Australia has adopted the British method of driving — the steering wheel is on the right hand side of the car, you drive on the left hand side of the street. Many a time was spent waiting to enter the driver’s side of the car as a passenger, and there were a few narrow misses crossing the street. To further complicate matters, Sydney has many one-way streets and Melbourne has the oddest traffic laws involving turns to account for trams: a right-hand turn involves first driving far to the left within the intersection, then turning right. The first few times we saw this we were sure that a driver used to right-hand road rules was just mistaking their turns, until we saw the signs.