The first thing to remember about
Australia when you are planning a trip there is its size. It is BIG. Only
Russia, Canada, China, the USA and Brazil are larger. This single nation has
three separate time zones: Sydney in the south east is two hours ahead of
Perth in the west. So it is not possible to just go and “see Australia”.
Flying from one side to the other is 2,000 miles and takes over three and a
half hours; flying from Melbourne in the far south to Darwin in the tropical
north will also take about three and a half hours. I asked my cousin, who
lives in Australia, what was the best time of year to see the country – and
only revealed my ignorance, because I should have known that Australia is so
vast there is no one month that is the best in which to see all of it.
Sydney inevitably attracts most
tourists (2-3 million from abroad each year) and has something for every
taste, whether it be culture, sightseeing, shopping or nightlife.
The 1973 magical urban
sculpture that is Sydney Opera house is the most iconic of the 18 World
Heritage Sites in Australia. Its much-photographed three groups of vaulted
interlocking ‘shells’ are set on a platform at the end of a peninsula
projecting into the Harbour. There is a two hour backstage tour, on which
your expert guide will tell you stories of the real life dramas behind the
polished performances. The tour takes you onto the stage and into the stars’
dressing rooms, culminating in a breakfast in the Green Room. (Book well in
advance as this tour typically sells out.)
Other popular landmarks in
Sydney include Sydney Harbour Bridge, the fifth longest spanning-arch bridge
in the world, linking the Central Business District to North Shore; Sydney
Tower, the city’s tallest structure with two restaurants; and the Queen
Victoria Building, a 19th century Romanesque Revival building designed as a
shopping centre and used for that purpose now.
For great shopping, try the
Rocks district or George Street and Pitt Street, Castlereagh and King Street
in the city centre, where you will find both designer and high street
fashion. Sydney’s outdoor markets offer everything from fresh food to
beautiful gifts, vintage furniture and entertainment.
Sydney nightlife offers some of
the best cafes, bars, pubs and restaurants in Australia, and the wildest
nightlife tends to be in the King’s Cross area. Live music, dance and
theatre abounds. There are more than 40 gay bars in this, the gay capital of
Australia, and the Mardi Gras Fair Day in February in the park is a
colourful display of gay culture.
But Australia is probably
better known for its sport and adventure opportunities, and Gap Year
backpackers flock to bungy jumping, white water rafting, skydiving,
ballooning and, yes, even being rolled down a mountainside strapped inside a
transparent plastic ball. Top attraction of this kind in Sydney is climbing
Sydney Harbour Bridge. There is a choice of three guided group climbs to the
top of the bridge for thrilling views of the city. (It is essential to book
in advance.) An alternative for those who like to feel exposure is the
Sydney Tower Skywalk, an open air platform twice the height of the bridge.
If beach and surfing culture is
your thing, Australia can offer some of the best in the world. Bondi Beach
near Sydney is still one of the most popular with surfers and sun
worshippers alike; stunning Cable Beach on the Indian Ocean at Broome in
Western Australia, or glamorous Four Mile Beach north of Cairns, with its
backdrop of rainforest mountains, are equally exciting in different ways.
The last named beach at Port Douglas on the Gold Coast also marks the start
of the Great Barrier Reef, a 2,000 km natural wonder so big it can be seen
Australia is now
internationally known for its wine, with the best regions being in the
southern, cooler parts of the country. Day trips can be taken from Sydney to
the Hunter Valley, which has over 100 wineries, or from Melbourne to the
renowned Yarra Valley, surrounded by mountains.
Because of its isolation in
pre-history, Australia has a number of unique and fascinating animals. Best
known are the marsupials like the kangaroo and wallaby, or the cuddly
and burrowing wombat. Egg-laying mammals (‘monotremes’) are found only in
Australia; examples are the river-dwelling platypus or the spiny,
ant-eating, echidna. The eerie laughing Kookaburra and the colourful
budgerigar are birds native to Australia, but my favourite creature of all
would have to be the incredible lyre bird. This ground-dwelling
pheasant-like bird has an unbelievable ability to mimic any sound it hears,
from chainsaws to car alarms to camera shutter motors. They also mimic other
birds and animals with uncanny accuracy. (If you can’t get to Australia to
see it, there are plenty of incredible videos of the lyre bird’s amazing
virtuosity on the internet.)
A central place in Aboriginal
culture is held by Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock in the Northern
Territory. The nearest town to this large sandstone rock formation is Alice
Springs, but the fact that 335 km separate the two is a reminder of the size
and emptiness of the ‘red centre’. Many tourists fly to Uluru from Alice
Springs, but a six hour bus journey with an entertaining driver will let you
experience more of the ‘outback’.
Finally, while in Alice you can
discover some of the historic features of the way Australians coped with
vast distances and isolation, by visiting the Royal Flying Doctor Service,
the School of the Air, and the Telegraph Station Historical Reserve, one of
the original sites of European settlement in the town.