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Travel Tales from the 'The Lucky Country': Backpacking around Australia
With its idyllic beaches, lush rainforests, Alpine-esque mountains and vast, arid deserts, it is easy to see why the Commonwealth of Australia is known as The Lucky Country’. The largest island in the world, Australia's diverse environment has shaped those living here into a very robust and healthy population, a sport-mad society with a passion for being outdoors and a genuinely optimistic and relentlessly chipper approach to life.
Unsurprisingly, few countries in the world are as complementary or accommodating to independent travel as Australia.Its infrastructure is extremely modern, safe and easy to use while public transportation in general is effortlessly clean and efficient. Moreover, Australian hostels are, for the most part, of an impressively high standard with friendly staff offering free pick-ups and drop offs as standard, and complimentary meals and onward travel booking being the norm.
Everything is just so conducive here that it really is hard to be negative (and as a Brit, I'm obliged to try) about life in Australia. For sure, the laid-back attitude and informal friendliness really is infectious and as such it isn't long before all visitors adopt the “no worries” attitude that seems to sum up this part of the world so perfectly.
Here are some of my personal thoughts and observations about this stunning country, most of which were inspired by a backpacking trip I made from Cairns to Adelaide some years ago...
Climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge
OK, so you’ve just arrived in Sydney and you excitedly make your way down to the famous harbour to take in the sights. As you take another photo of the Harbour Bridge you notice a line of people climbing along the top of the structure and think “That looks fantastic!” So off you go to the official Bridge Climb ticket office and they lay it on you; “That’s $200 sir, and you have to pass an alcohol breath test”. ”What? You want me to spend $200 and be sober? I am a backpacker, you know.”
If only there was some alternative.
Well, fear not inebriated budget travellers of limited means, help is at hand. The south pylon of the Harbour Bridge is home to an excellent exhibition about the design and construction of this iconic structure. The exhibition is on three levels and at the very top of the pylon is a viewing platform. This platform is just 47 metres lower than the height of the official bridge climb and offers equally wonderful, panoramic views of the harbour and beyond. And all this for just $10. That’s right, a saving of $190! And your state of intoxication is not an issue. Good times!
Australians are very, very competitive
Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating once beautifully articulated that Australia was located “...at the arse end of the world”. Because it is somewhat isolated from the prevalence of the Northern Hemisphere, Australia is not a real global leader regarding international economics and politics. The one area where Australia does punch well above its weight on the world stage is in sport, especially cricket, rugby, surfing and swimming.
New Zealand, South Africa, the United States and England (Britain) are the nations Australia likes to trounce more than any other. If you are a citizen of one of these nations and it loses to Australia at ANY sport, be prepared to take an inordinate amount of shit. Being victorious at international sport gives Australians the chance to say (shout) “we may be at the arse end of the world mate, but we kicked your f*****g arse!” Again and again.
Exploring the Great Barrier Reef
Situated off the Queensland coast, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system. Containing over 3000 individual coral reefs and more than 600 islands, it covers an area roughly equal to the size of Poland and can be seen from space. The reef is composed of and built by billions of tiny organisms, known as coral polyps and is home to a diverse range of sea life including whales, dolphins, turtles, Giant Clams, sharks, stingrays, 1500 species of fish and 200 different types of bird.
Whether you prefer to scuba, snorkel or free-dive there are plenty of boat hire operators in Cairns or the Whitsundays offering various trips. If you are going to snorkel then make sure you frequently apply plenty of sun screen to avoid painful sun-burn on the back of your legs. When you do finally submerge, the beautiful, azure water and the kaleidoscope of colourful marine life calmly transport you to a psychedelic fantasy world populated by vivid and exotic creatures. Immersed in this beautiful yet alien environment, you are rewarded with one of the most amazing experiences that our planet has to offer. The term ‘once in a lifetime experience’ is an overused cliché, but witnessing this unique habitat will make you feel like you are the luckiest person alive. It is exhilarating and moving and, even for atheists, an almost religious experience. If you have a list of ‘things to do before I die’ then make sure you put this at the top. Utterly incredible.
Aboriginal Australians and the “Stolen Generations”
Having lived on the Australasian continent for over 40,000 years, the various indigenous peoples of Australia have the oldest continuing cultures in human history. Like the native peoples of the Americas, the arrival of Europeans changed their way of life forever. The British claimed the land in 1770, establishing it as a penal colony shortly thereafter. Their initial impact was immense as Old World infectious diseases such as smallpox killed around 50% of the local population. Further colonisation and exploration yielded traditionally Aboriginal land and resources, and eventually lead to the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia.
Legislation by Federal and State authorities marginalised Aborigines and unfavourable policies were conceived. From 1869 to the late 1960s thousands of indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families in order to assimilate them to ‘civilised’ society. These children came to be known as the “Stolen Generations.” On 13th February 2008, the Australian Government made a formal apology; "We apologise for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians." Understandably, this apology will be of little consolation to some but at least Australia has the decency to hang its head and formally accpet liability. Other countries have pursued similar child assimilation policies and denied all knowledge of any missing children.
Further north, the ocean will kill you
In the Australian summer (Dec - Feb), the Pacific Ocean on the north and east coasts is full of so many things that will kill you that you shouldn’t even go near a deserted beach. In the dry summer heat, salt water crocodiles (‘salties’) leave their inland swamps and rivers to head for downstream estuaries and coastal waters. Consequently, an innocent paddle at a lonely beach may result in you being taken down for a death roll by a 20ft croc.
Also around beaches in the summer are Box Jellyfish (‘marine stingers’). They have enough venom to kill 60 adult humans and one significant sting can kill you in around three minutes. They breed in mangrove swamps and are more numerous after rain, which flushes them out of river systems towards beaches.
Crocs, stingers, sharks, stingrays! If you do want to swim in these waters, make sure you go to a public beach with defence nets where the world-class Aussie lifeguards will take good care of you and, if you’re English, gladly offer to urinate on you, even if you haven’t been stung.
Australia is a nation defined by its people and landscape. The country and its citizens just seem to beam with a vivacious optimism which infiltrates even the most cynical minds. The joy of Australia is that, for whatever reason, life just feels that much better...
I know this may sound like hyperbole, a little trite even, but believe me, it's true. It doesn't matter who you are or where you're from, I guarantee you'll love The Lucky Country.
It's just that kind of place...