Posted by: martinworster | December 21, 2010

108. Down Under

Hard not to write about my trip to Australia without resorting to ‘and then we went to…‘ and ‘after that we saw…’ type linear travel narrative, but here goes:

Sitting outside a swanky restaurant on the wharf in Sydney’s Woolamaloo the place was buzzing. The impressive skyline glinted in the background. Australia has not really experienced such a scathing recession as the rest of the world. Through Australia’s physical location at the bottom of the world, I really think there’s a psychological mind set that says ‘we are separate and different to the rest of the planet’. This can lead to a cut off mentality, but also, I believe, goes some part in explaining why Australia is so booming. That and sitting on lots of mineral deposits that can be sold to the Chinese also helps.

I was actually there for a wedding but I had a good week to hang out before the big event. True to the British stereotype that I am I stayed in Bondi Beach – the place where there’s allegedly an annual Brit BBQ on Christmas Day. The first day I arrived it was raining and the place seemed more down at heel than I’d expected – not helped by the disorientation of my jet lag. But Bondi soon grew on me, particularly when the sun came out. It’s very cosmopolitan and mixed up, slightly bohemian, swanky in places, run down chippies and burger bars in other parts.  Chi chi boutiques mixed with tacky tourist tut shops and backpacker hostels in abundance. Plenty of lovely organic coffee, healthy cafes, noodle bars, juice bars, falafel kiosks. That’s probably the main part of it’s appeal – there is something for everyone. 

Loving the Aussie beers, particularly Tooheys and Coopers.

I did the famous coastal walk from Bondi and almost made it to Coogee Beach. Round the southern headland you get a great view of the Bondi Bay, Icebergs in the foreground (that’s the restaurant). Round the point it’s Tamarama – a gorgeous little cove with breaking waves and aqualine blue Pacific Ocean. Round the next point it’s Bronte beach – another gorgeous little bay with cafes and coffee bars on the front. Unfortunately didn’t get much surfing in, mainly as the waves weren’t so great and I’m quite fussy as I live in So Cal. Plus if I’m honest I was drinking too much. The water was also unseasonably cold due to a freezing current. Swimming in the sea you could feel how strong the currents and rips were – it really feels like Big Ocean, which of course it being the Pacific it is. Also sharks are never far from the back of your mind. And the tips of your dangling toes.

Tanned lovelies sauntered around the streets. Bondi is fitness central. Similar to the OC, the coastal inhabitants worship at the altar of eternal youth and fit bodies. Everyone seems super fit and healthy. The whole surfing, Ocean outdoorsy lifestyle really did remind me of Orange County – just with a bit more edge, character and of course an Aussie accent.

On our third day we were lucky enough to go wakeboarding on the Hawksbury River two hours NW of Sydney. The landscape was beautiful – skimming through the water the scenery was quite Vietnamese. Not that I’ve been there, this observation was solely based on films like Apocalypse Now and Deer Hunter. Thick forest came down to the brown rivers edge. Crickets and insects croaked from the jungle. It was hot and swampy. It was a great adventure that I ached from for almost the rest of the week.

That night we stayed at a winery in the Hunter Valley, perhaps Sydney’s most famous wine growing region. The next day we did some wine tasting – Brokenwood was our favourite winery where I bought a Pinot Noir. I liked how you didn’t have to pay as you went into the tasting rooms – unlike California. The landscape was again beautiful – much greener than I anticipated and I also saw many kangaroos in the wild, looking very prehistoric as they hopped along distant ridges. One night I took a walk out into the Bush – the noise of insects and amphibia was deafening. I heard a whole orchestra of what I imagined were frogs croaking. Looking up into the sky the stars were dazzling.

Then it was a few more days in Sydney – normal tourist fare like exploring the Rocks, walking around the Botanic Gardens, Opera House and The New South Wales Art Museum. Gawping in Kings Cross, walking through Darlighurst, Paddington, the CBD, admiring the buildings and Victorian architecture, a boat trip to Manly and some shopping at Bondi Junction. Looking like a true tourist with a large lensed Nikon around my neck and the Lonely Planet guide to Sydney in my sweaty palms.

For the wedding we headed to Bowral – via the scenic coastal route – which is about two hours south of Sydney. I was amazed at how green this part of Australia is. Indeed I since found out that this was the first place settled by the English exactly for that reason – it reminded them of home. The place was verdant. Quite hilly in places, little vales and dales, undulating hills reminiscent of the South Downs. At other points there were steeper hillocks breaking out into crags reminding me of the Yorkshire Dales. Lots of large lakes and reservoirs. Looking out over the views the trees all looked very big and dramatic, almost like looking over an African plain. Of course, it being Australia the foliage would be of a totally different type of which individual species I couldn’t name. 

Bowral was quite a swanky town where the clearly moneyed Sydneysiders came to hang at the weekends. The main drag has swanky boutiques, nice coffee houses, trendy bars, trattorias and more cafes. It was a nice place to get out of Sydney and see something different of Australia. Well it being little England it wasn’t that different. Admittedly it’s not an Aboriginal settlement in the middle of the Northern Territory  – I didn’t have time from that. In fact it being a very Anglo colonial set up, it was the complete polar opposite of that. Like most white settled places whose indigenous peoples have been robbed, the whole relationship with the original inhabitants is odd and problematic. Very much the forgotten people who lived there first. You get the token Aborginal buskers playing didgeridoos in the town centre. And of course the gift shops selling Aboriginal art and hand painted boomerangs mug tourists like myself can take home. But yes, it is a very difficult history and relationship, one that felt shunted into the background by the white mainstream.

I loved Australia. To do it properly and to see all it’s beauty you need a good month – Cairns, the Barrier Reef, Western Australia, rainforests, dessert, more surfing etc – and I will go back in a camper van with my boys. This was a mini Sydney reccy and I very much like what I experienced. I just wish I was more of a cricket fan and could have really celebrated England’s victory over the hosts in the first game of the Ashes, along with all the rest of the Barmy Army.

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