Once you strip away the airs of pretension, the difference between being a traveller and a holiday-maker is really nothing more than time. After over five months in New Zealand, I spent twelve days in Australia, combining a trip to see old friends with a chance to visit a country I might otherwise never reach. This felt like a holiday in a way New Zealand doesn’t, although you would be forgiven for rolling your eyes at such a sentiment.
Australia’s vast, so I restricted my visit to the south-east: arriving in Sydney, then meandering down to Canberra and Melbourne. A few people have suggested that Canberra is a poor choice of location if you’re on limited time, but my good friend Alex (Hi Alex!) is from Canberra and she’s cool. Also I love politics.
Anyway, here are some of the highlights from my whirlwind trip through a tiny segment of this country:
- Central Sydney
Sydney’s cool: a sort of mini-London, cosmopolitan and compact. It’s lovingly drenched in Asian influence, thanks in no small part to its large immigrant communities. Great cities always have a good relationship with water, and Sydney has a fantastic connection to its seafront, with bustling neon harbours and suburbs built around beautiful bays. In the middle of it all, the iconic Opera House twists below the shadow of the huge Harbour Bridge, Manhattan-esque in its looming iron girders.
- Bondi Beach
Arguably the most famous beach in the world, Bondi is something of a shock after the pristine vacuum of New Zealand sands. Bondi is so busy that it could almost be a British beach, except the weather’s great, the water’s warm and the people are bronzed to perfection. (Also it has sand.) It’s just one of a cluster of beaches along the coast, connected by a stunningly scenic path, and I spend a happy and lazy afternoon wandering down it with Grant and Dan. Dan calls his foray into the powerful waves a “chastening experience” and gives up after about seven seconds.
- Blue Mountains
Approximately two hours north-west of Sydney lie the beautiful Blue Mountains, so named because of the distant hue provided by its resident trees. Up close, it’s somewhat less blue but no less picturesque, combining quaint villages with vast spectacular valleys. Australia’s scenery is undeniably grand and it uses its sheer size to impressive effect, casting its horizons further away than most other countries could even dream.
- Houses of Parliament
So maybe Canberra doesn’t have a whole heap of personality, seemingly suffering from that old chestnut of being designed too well. Architects love their ordered wide roads and sensible traffic flow, but atmosphere’s not so keen. Nevertheless, what Canberra does have is the seat of government, which is an absolute delight for any politics nut. I spend an hour in the House of Representatives, watching Question Time (think of the British version and then add Australian accents) and marvelling at the eloquence of everyone who isn’t Tony Abbott. Mr. Abbott looks even more lost in person than he does on TV, as if his whole premiership was just a dare that got out of hand.
Even better than the Houses of Parliament are the Old Houses of Parliament, which are just down the road and have been turned into a museum. You can wander around the entire building, which has been fantastically preserved, giving you an intimate – almost voyeuristic – insight into the political life of a country. When I’m there, hardly anyone else is around, and I feel like a time-travelling criminal as I wander freely through the old cabinet rooms, still decked out in authentic ‘80s fare.
- Federation Square
The beating heart of Melbourne is a testament to the city’s laid-back, hipsterish style, packed with fashionable buildings and a real cultural vibe. A particular highlight is the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), with fascinating, detailed exhibits, and enough up-to-date interactivity to help ensure a whole new generation of children is spell-bound by film. Federation Square also offers an experience of Melbourne’s excellent public transport: trams streak through the square in all directions, offering free travel to all the city’s residents and visitors.
- Great Ocean Road
Almost two hours west of Melbourne lies the Great Ocean Road, built as a way of providing jobs to returning World War One servicemen. Its smattering of towns (Torquay?! Anglesey?!) mostly provide pit-stops between the supreme coastal vistas that lurk around each bend. The Twelve Apostles are pillars of rock that rise out of the sea (though there aren’t twelve of them) and apparently they constitute the third most popular tourist attraction in Australia (after the Great Barrier Reef and Ayer’s Rock). Despite their numerical uncertainty, they provide a magnificent backdrop for a setting sun.