Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi

If anyones asks if I had a favourite place while in Australia, I wouldn't know how to respond. It's not that I didn't like it, I just think that people don't understand it's enormity to warrant a single first-place prize for a favourite place. I have favourite memories, maybe, but everywhere is so incredibly different. It's comparable to traveling around America and asking if you had a favourite state, or around Europe and having a favourite country, let alone a revered city. Even though Australia has just 6 states, to travel just within one of those states is a ginormous adventure from one inch on the map to the next, which takes on average a 12 hour bus ride. That was the norm. You'd complain, but you wouldn't question it. Planning a trip to Australia can be overwhelming, which is why I booked a one way ticket with a year-long visa, but I was surprised by how many people just went over for a couple weeks' holiday, picking just one area to explore. There's so much I saw, and even more that I didn't see, I may just have to go back some day....for a visit. 

To sum up my Australian adventure, in definitely not 140 characters or less and in very much my own opinion, let me try to explain my eleven-month experience abroad Down Under. There are links to past posts about destinations and experiences that I would like to share, but not repeat completely again here. 

Perth*, in the very far west of Western Australia, is at least ten years behind the rest of the Australian cities due to its isolation, but it breathes booming potential. The perfect example is the restaurant chain Pie Face: when I was leaving Perth, there was a Pie Face that was just nearly opening; when I was in Brisbane, I was shocked to hear that Pie Face was open until 10pm; when I got to Melbourne, Pie Face was open 24 hours and a popular late night spot; when I got to Sydney, I was way over seeing Pie Face on every other corner; and now there is even a Pie Face in New York City. Perth will catch up. It is an attractive city with annually good weather - even when there are astonishingly loud tropical downpours, the sky still shines bright blue. It is an overly walkable city; well, city is a relative term purely dependant on the surrounding remoteness and walkable is a relative term dependant on my upbringing! Despite it's size and lack of apparent tourist sites, it actually offers a lot of attractions if you open your imagination to explore the area. It is close to the ocean and its hungry sharks; has a modern CBD; a small yet rowdy and fun nightlife overrun by Irish; has two AFL teams; close to Rottnest Island and quirky Fremantle; home to Gemma Ward, Heath Ledger, and Isla Fisher; contains the large, photogenic Kings Park; is the hub to the mining industry; exudes unfathomable wealth; can get away with charging $22 for toast and avocado breakfast dish; and sucks you in for longer than you want to stay. I wouldn't say Perth* is for everyone, but I liked it a lot.

To the north of Western Australia, I only went as far as Monkey Mia* in the Shark Bay Marina Park and  member of a World Heritage Site. Up there, the Outback creeps closer to the scantily inhabited coastline. 800 kilometres, 10 hours of driving, and only a dent made on the Western map, the ocean sparkles a brighter turquoise and the land flattens out to expanses of red dirt, dry bushes, and the danger of a kangaroo running into the front of your car at the exact moment in the middle of nowhere only because he panics during his temporary blindness from the lights of the car. The only other danger is of course breaking down. You could ride for hours without seeing another car, except for maybe one of the many terrifyingly long road-trains that dominate the drive. Even though you get the sense of being in the Outback, in the middle of nowhere, you aren't, and can't possibly fathom heading east where you really would be completely surrounded by the companionless red dirt. And even after all that driving, you may not accomplish what the adventure was for: to see a dolphin.

Less than 300 kilometres south of Perth is Margaret River, Western Australia's biggest wine region. Although the production is quite modest compared to the rest of Australia, it dominates the Australian wine market. Maybe only having experienced and visited much of the Italian wine world to compare it to, and especially from my stint at working at a winery further south in the smaller region of Great Southern of Western Australia, I feel as though Margaret River resembles Napa or Sonoma Valley. Almost showy like Disneyland. The area's wines are very popular, but not my favourite, and it seemed as though they were trying to make the most of their money from tourism with signs along the side of the street welcoming thirsty travelers to come in for a taste and buy wines directly from the source. Although there was one winery after another after another as you follow the wine map, each one has it's own distinct concept and background story that is unique to their neighbour that they use to their advantage to promote their wines: whether it is a luxurious estate with grandiose gardens perfect for wedding pictures, or a little wooden house with a family wine-making history that goes back for generations, or a corporately owned property by foreign investors who know how to market a world-wide popular label.

Continuing south of Western Australia through the Great Southern Region, you find yourself again completely surrounded by stark emptiness. Instead of red dirt though, there are overlapping fields of "happy" grazing cattle and mesmerising perfectly-planted rows of blue gum trees. Tall trees line and shadow the sides of the meandering roads. Kangaroos, either dead on the side of the road like an overturned table, or sneakily trying to get drunk off of the trellised wine grapes, are more populated in the area than people. From where I lived at the winery, 45 minutes was the standard average driving time to get anywhere, either to the mountains of the Stirling Ranges in the east or to the hippy towns of Albany and Denmark along the very southern coast where the popular beaches join the emptiness of Western Australia to the north with the solitary Southern Ocean with nothing beyond it until Antarctica. Working at the winery was probably one of my favourite experiences. I learned so much about wine production and was surprised to learn I could adapt to live in serious remoteness with housemates of spiders, mice, possums, and more spiders. 

Besides the childhood dream of seeing penguins in Australia, and of course see the sexy Rod Stewart in concert, one of the things I really wanted to do was take the train across the continent from the west to the east through the Outback. Not a single person I told thought it was a good idea. Everyone thought I was nuts, completely out of my mind to want to spend that time or money in the middle of nowhere.  No one understood my fascination with the red dirt as I tried to explain or justify a desire to want to see and be a part of the Outback as it is such a encompassing embodiment of what makes up Australia that not many people experience. I relished in the thought of being on that train with endless views and to be alone. Although I still do fancy the idea, rationality got the better of me and it was more practical to go east by airplane. I didn't make it to Darwin, but mum and I did go to Alice Springs and Uluru in the Northern Territory. Alice Springs* was a bit of a disappointment and it would be the only place throughout my travels I wouldn't glorify or necessarily commend going. I would, however, urge people to go, just so they could see it for themselves, maybe only for one night, and definitely as a stop to go to Uluru. At first I think we lamented a bit over deciding to go, regretted is not the right word, but now looking back at my time in Australia, I am appreciative that we did go because I know it would be somewhere I would have wished I had gone to. Uluru* is definitely worth the trip and I think if we had organised it better, both mum and I would have liked to spend more time there with our hiking boots and warm-weather clothes on.

I never went to Adelaide, but heard quaintly nice things. Heading east, the Great Southern Road* is a must drive. It is do-able in a day either by yourself or with a tour, or you can break it up and spend the night along the way. The Twelve Apostles* is an impressive sight by no exaggeration. The rest of the drive, with the observation look out points along the coast, are less awe-inspiring, if not repetitive*.

The south of Western Australia had a reminiscent Mediterranean climate, but Melbourne, in the South of Victoria is overall distinctly European. My experience of having grown up and survived many cold New England and Irish winters arrogantly convinced me that Melbourne couldn't be that cold - it is Australia after all and my backpack was only filled with summer clothes appropriate for 30 degrees! I was wrong. Melbourne*, as it is part of Australia, is still built to be like an Australian city despite it's long winters of cold rains and drafty winds. I was made fun of for wearing the same pink wind-breaker all the time, but it was the only one I had and there was always a chance it was going to rain during the day. Possibly because of the weather, Melbourne is European in lifestyle as well. Cafes are little niches found down past corners of secretly unassuming alley ways, coffee culture rules, pop up art galleries attract the stylish and the interested, and during the summer, everyone flocks to the beaches to soak up the first warmth of sun - comforted only by the common paleness of everyone else. At the same time, Melbourne also feels very much like Asia. Chinese, Japanese, Malaysian, Thai, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Filipino, and Cambodian restaurants seem to dominate every street. I lived off $2 sushi rolls. The architecture is unique, artsy, and often so mind-boggling that it would endlessly stimulate any architect or design student. It appears to be a very young city, especially with the presence of the University in the city centre. Although I walked everywhere in Melbourne and the tram system was diligently efficient, I still felt a bit overwhelmed and unable to get a clear grasp on the city. Each surrounding neighbourhood has it's own distinct personality that attracts different crowds. I also don't think I "did" Melbourne "right." I always had one foot in, one foot out. Working two jobs only to leave, but wanting to stay.

Melbourne to Sydney is either a 14+ hour bus ride or an hour and a half flight. Fly. Sydney is a city better than expected. In saying that, I'd dare say it is the most visited destination in Australia with the most iconic sights, but remember that I also chose to fly to Perth first, where not as many people visit, so my overall opinion and preliminary assumptions might be a bit different. Actually seeing these magnificent monuments and symbols of Australia in person exceeds any expectation previously seen on TV or on postcards. Sydney Harbour* is an obvious example, but Manly Beach* is the first place I really felt a sensation for witnessing what is portrayed as Australian, or the perceived stereotype we learn from the movies. Sydney, the capital of New South Wales, is a really immaculate, handsome city - I have consciously noticed that in general about Australia on how well they proudly look after their places. Despite all the characteristic hustle and bustle of an international city, Sydney exudes a familiar, comfortable demeanour. I found it amusing that everytime I asked someone for the direction of Central Station, they would point, then warn me that it was a very far walk and I would be better off catching the train or bus. And I would smile in response as I knew, but assuaged their concern to their satisfaction by saying I just needed to know the direction - then off I would go, walking the entire way, not far at all.

An overnight bus ride from Sydney leads you to the ever popular Byron Bay*. The tour books say people come for a day and stay for a month. I booked for 3 nights and stayed for 5. It is generally the first or last stops along backpackers' trips up or down the coast. It is a small coastal town filled with people who are eager to catch some rays, surf, and start their partying at Cheeky Monkey's, or people who are soaking up the last of the sun and the waves and one last party at Cheeky Monkey's. Always Cheeky Monkey's. You can't go there without anyone telling you you have to go there, or without anyone asking if you have been there. Byron Bay = Cheeky Monkey's. Ok, a bit of an exaggeration, but they go hand in hand. The town has a sort of hippy eco-friendly vibe with a straightforward laid-back surfer attitude. The beautiful beach and the walk around the lighthouse to the most easterly point of mainland Australia are really worth the visit, as is the more private beach, Tallow Beach, popular to surfers and seagulls. Byron Bay will always be the start of my east coast travels and the start of a beautiful friendship.

Nimbin*. What to say about Nimbin. Just go. And laugh ridiculously at the day.

Surfers Paradise* is unlike anywhere else in Australia. The safety flags that allow swimming in the ocean mark a small breadth and the beach is not the best looking in Australia, so where the name came from is a bit of a mystery, unless you Wikipedia it and read that it is ranked as one of the best beaches on the east, in which case, I am wrong. The name is clearly one of the draws as a popular tourist destination. The existence of the high rise buildings lining the coast also exemplify this popular spot proving that everyone wants a sliver of the view. If you don't like shopping, or theme parks, or clubbing nightlife, then this isn't the spot for you. The nightlife, including the mini skirts and the proper shoes, is spectacular, but expensive if you don't do it properly* but during the day, I was bored. It was the first place that I would have left with a bit of a bizarre impression of the place, but it was all about the people who made the place. Surfers may not be everyone's cup of tea (you won't be drinking tea there) but for me, it will be one of my favourite memories - and to be visited again two more times.

Brisbane* was better every time I visited. Third time's the charm. I visited the first time with mum, unsuccessfully to find a job or a new home there, then a weekend getaway to visit Ted, and the last time for the duration of my stay in Australia. I like Brisbane. It's energetic, sunny, attractive, walkable (or is that just a habit of mine??), jay-walk free, tidy, London-like, San Fran-like, bigger than Perth, open later than Perth, architecturally stimulating, outdoorsy, well-fed, cultural, bustling, dive-y, modern, hippy, hilly. Each of the ten bridges that cross the Brisbane River and connect the city are architecturally different, one with built-in benches to sit and enjoy the views. There was a devastating flood the year before and barely a trace of damage left today, except for lines marking the walls that measured how high the water raised. Nothing like the remaining traces of flooding in New Orleans. There isn't much night life in Brisbane, or so I found, but it is bustling with it's constant sunshine. There are the brightest purple flowering trees and sprawling red Queensland trees that just brighten the city, to an appreciative admirer in awe. 

Noosa is lovely. It's quaint, it's posh. It's a hotspot for celebrities, wealthy retirees, and surfers.

Rainbow Beach, the gateway to Fraser Island, has a remarkable beach that goes on for miles and a tiny little town seemingly only existing to suit the people passing by.
Fraser Island* is one of those trips you have to do while traveling the eastern coast. As the world's largest sand island, it is a World Heritage Site with some of the purest fresh water on the planet that will be-numbingly knock off any goon hangover. It is a bumpy adventure that is guaranteed to be filled with laughs. Watch out for dingo's, just cross your arms over your boobs if they come near you: it's a subtle gesture guaranteed to scare them away. Fraser Island is beautiful, but I never had a grasping moment where I thought, this is exactly what I've come to see. Maybe it was because I was too busy laughing the entire time to notice - entirely possible. But because of this experience, I really got a boost for my future travels that proved to me I can do this on my own.

There are stops along the coast between Rainbow Beach and Airlie Beach*, but a 12 hours bus will bring you there directly. As the bus pulls in and you squint in the morning light after an uncomfortable cramped semi-sleep, your eyes will immediately brighten when you see the absolute twinkling colour of the ocean. It shouts clearly in your head that you will like this place immensely. There is pretty much just one main street that leads through Airlie Beach, which doesn't have a beach at all but a man-made lagoon. Although there are day trips to the Whitsundays, most people go on boats for 3 days and 2 nights. There are innumerable amounts of boats, which all have their own personalities attracting different crowds for various experiences whether it is diving or partying or old people. Old. Ha. The trip around the islands is breath taking and relaxing and the underwater world seen through diving goggles is sublimely beyond words. Being stuck on a boat with a group of people for 3 days and 2 nights insists you become friends, or at least friendly, with them. The scenery is spectacular, but it is the people that make the trip memorable. After the boat trip, the cherry on top is a flight over the Whitsundays. There are different lengths, prices and trips of the flights, but the best, most worthwhile, and obviously the most expensive is the one that includes the Great Barrier Reef. Absolutely. Amazing.

Mission Beach* is tiny. Unless you are planning on skydiving over the Great Barrier Reef and landing on the beach or if you want a quiet couple of days to yourself, there really isn't much else going on there. I did hold a baby wallaby and saw a lot of wild ones, but yeah.

The road up and along northern Queensland is tropically 
spectacular. Really mesmerising and breath-taking with all sorts of vegetation and mountains to occupy any boredom on a typically long bus ride. Cairns* is as far north as I went. It's a mini city with an old country feel. It's easy to walk around, either around the harbour where restaurants and hotels take the place of hostels and backpackers or through the town with the outside dining and tourist offices offering all sorts of travel packages. The sun is warm, the nightlife is fun, and the swarming bats love it. I liked it more than I thought I would and would definitely like to go back again to see more of the Great Barrier Reef and the rain forest, but for me, the stop was just to head back down: a two hour plane ride instead of a bazillion hour bus ride.

So, as you can maybe see, all of Australia is extraordinary. There is not one place better than the other and the people are truly what make the place, the memories, and the experience.  Traveling up the coast, or down as some did, it seems as though the Australian coast is only filled with backpackers. There are sights to see, people to meet, parties to be had, skins to be tanned, native animals to be held, tours to be taken, animals to be scared of. Some people have it all planned out with a limited time frame. Some people leave room for flexibility. Some people stay in places longer than anticipated, but everyone is passing through. One bus to another, one city to another, one beach to another, one hostel to another, one group of friends to another. The cities have a different mentality, but they are also cities with all the amenities and shops found in other cities around the world so it is easier to stay and find a home there, but they just happen to be really far away from home. The good weather is definitely part of the appeal. The warmth of the sun makes it hard to leave and the thought of living anywhere else with cold and rain and snow is almost unfathomable. Australia lacks a bit of history and a bit of culture. I know it's there, in a minute sense compared to the rest of the world and it's not as evident or all-surrounding like it is in Europe. I missed that.  It's very Westernised; not much of a culture shock at all. When I arrived in Perth, I honestly thought I had just flown for twenty eight hours to arrive in California with funny accents and cars driving on the wrong side of the road. My sister asked me why I wouldn't just live in California if it was so similar to Perth, but I didn't have an answer. I didn't want to live in America and I wanted to like Perth and Australia - I did, I do -  I think I just wanted to find a home and was looking for it in the wrong place. Australia is also very American in the sense that it is a fairly new country where most of the Australians still have parents or grandparents who are from Europe. So for me, to stay there for another year would feel like just another year living abroad. I miss it already to be honest, now that I am writing this back in Ireland, but in all the unique, different, odd, and stunning places I went to in Australia, I was incredibly lucky with the tremendous experiences I had, the iconic places I was able to visit, and the unforgettable people that I met. For all the reasons, or lack of reasons, for going to Australia, I am glad that I did. I'm glad I went when I did. And now it's on to what's next. 

And if anyone really wants to know, my favourite part of Australia is the stars. Absolutely. 

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