Backpacking Down Under

Australia is the world's smallest continent, and the first continent to break away from the super continent. Other than Antarctica, it was the last continent to be settled by Europeans and has the smallest population. Its isolation on the edge of the Earth has allowed it to develop the most unique animals on Earth including the koala bear and of course the kangaroo. Formed under the Southern Cross constellation Australia is known as housing the world's first mass penal colony. Over 80% of Australia's population lives by the ocean that is home to the world's largest reef. On land, Australia is home to rock that is billions of years old and the oldest trees on the planet. In the air, Australia has the most famed aerial medical service the Royal Flying Doctors. The Royal Flying Doctors fly out to remote regions of Australia to provide medical service to Australia's sparsely populated deserts. I decided to see Australia for myself and see its amazing scenery, the outback, and dive the Great Barrier Reef. The following a brief overview of my five month trip to the land down under.

1) Sydney

The first sight to see is Sydney that is home to 4 million people and is Australia's largest city. The two most striking landmarks are the Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. Seeing the Harbour Bridge for the first time is more magnificent to see because of its massive size. Sydney is the most massive city I visited and I was amazed with the massive buildings, the options of public transit, and the green space in Sydney's centre. Just walking around Sydney is an adventure.

Unlike other global cities, this is Australia. The dryness in the air is felt due to the fact it often does not rain for weeks. When it rained I walked in the rain absorb some of the moisture, sort of like a sponge. Sydney's most remarkable feature is its vast green space right in the city's core. There are various small parks in the city's core and the Royal Botanic Gardens and Hyde Park are right in the city centre. Both of these parks are massive and are easily accessible. It is refreshing to see this in a mega city where often workers are trapped by asphalt and concrete.

Overall, Sydney's scenery is spectacular, as its city planners have consistently rid themselves of eyesores when developing their city. The Opera House was built over some abandoned port grounds, their Olympic site was built over old factories, and winning the Olympic bid also allowed it to clean up one of Sydney' dirties areas. Besides the sites on land, their Harbour is also a vital asset to the city. Their about 20 bays in Sydney that are home to cruise ships, sailing ships, battleships, and even kayaks.

Its harbour also has a ferry service that connects the vast city. In addition to Sydney's ferry service, the other public transportation services that are available are bus service, an underground train network, and an elevated monorail train service. It looks great but the ride is a different story. Sydney's train service is probably the most unreliable in the world. A brutal dictator that has all the trains running on time obviously does not exist in Australia. It is not uncommon for trains to be off by 5, 15, or 30 minutes. Furthermore, it is considered all right to be late for work because the trains are so unreliable. Adding to the problem is the fact that they removed all garbage bins after the post 9/11 hysteria. Therefore, Aussies just leave all their garbage on the trains. This means that occasionally the trains are stopped to clean them out. The cleaning usually takes 10 minutes and this even happens in rush hour.

Sydney's most famous landmark is the Sydney Opera House. I was not initially awed when I saw it for the first time because it is not as big as the pictures make it out to be. Nevertheless, when you see it repeatedly, you appreciate its magnificence. I was fortunate to go to work everyday by crossing the Harbour Bridge and seeing the Opera House as the train sped past.

The first major tourist attraction I saw was the Sydney Aquarium. It had loads of reef, colourful fish, some sea otters, and a shark tank where I was surrounded by glass on all sides. The Aquarium even managed to exploit the success of Finding Nemo by having an exhibit called Wallaby's way that exhibited clown fish.

The other place I saw animals in Sydney was the Taronga Park Zoo. The journey there was almost as good as the zoo itself. The most scenic way to travel to the zoo is to take the ferry. After a 10-minute ferry ride, I took a gondola lift to the top of the zoo. Without a doubt, it was the best zoo I have ever been too. It had animals from every corner of the Earth including Canada, and it had a kangaroo exhibit where I could hop with kangaroos.

Sydney is littered with museums. The first one I went too was Hyde Barracks that is now a convict museum. It has a replica convict sleeping quarters, chains, and other convict artefacts. You cannot really spend more than an hour there but it still is worth it because what other country was founded by criminals? The art gallery and contemporary art gallery are free and great places to walk around if you do not want to spend money. Sydney's best museum is the Powerhouse museum that is Australia's largest museum. An old power plant that was converted to a museum houses a replica spacecraft, vintage trains, and eco-friendly inventions. Right before I left they had a special Lord of the Rings exhibit that had actual costumes from the film, weapons, life-size statues of some of the monsters, and the one ring that will enslave them all.

Sydney was home to the 2000 summer Olympics and the site is worth taken a tour of. It has an excellent aquatic centre, a huge Olympic stadium (now home to Aussie Rules Football) and the Olympic Calderon. There is also a visitor centre with highlight clips from the games and a track that has every step Cathy Freeman made to win Olympic Gold in women's 400-meter sprint. All of the Olympic facilities are located in a single area and most are used only about 10x a year and are turning into giant white elephants. Sydney already had massive football and cricket stadiums but decided not to use them and build all new facilities for the first Olympics of the 21st century.

The biggest difference between Sydney and Canadian cities is in the Southern hemisphere the cities are surrounded by beaches. The beaches are the best and worst part of Australia. Bondi and Manly are perfect for surfing but the waves are too rough for swimming. The other drawback is that most of the beaches are hazardous due to the jellyfish and you cannot swim.

Circular Quay is where the main ferry terminal is located. It also has the art galleries nearby and the best street performers on the planet.

The greatest natural beauty nearby Sydney is the Blue Mountains. Most day trip to the Blue Mountains cost between $70-$80, but if you buy a return train ticket for $14, it will only be a half-hour walk to the Blue Mountains. There you can see the three sisters and the misty blue clouds covering the mountains.

In Sydney, I stayed at three hostels: Footprints, Wakeup, and one in Kings Cross. Footprints is an older hostel but it has a great atmosphere and alcohol is allowed to be drunk in the hostel. Wakeup is Sydney's best hostel. It is brand new, the rooms have space and there is a great backpacker's bar downstairs. Kings Cross is Sydney's red light district. It is interesting to look but it is not Sydney's best neighbourhood.

Food is more expensive in Australia than Canada. The best deal for fresh fruit and souvenirs is in Chinatown where the weekend market has the cheapest prices. The best nightclub is the Three Wise Monkeys and the best bar is Scruffy Murphy's with $5 with a beer purchase. If you want to spend a little more on food, Sydney definitely has some unique restaurants. The best is Kilimanjaro African Eatery that is located in Newtown and is a genuine African restaurant. I ordered the tangy yassa chicken with rice and some sort of fruit drink and I still want more. In addition, the food was served in mud bowls. The other good restaurant I went to was Genghis Khan that is a Mongolian restaurant. They have excellent oriental food and if you want, you can order your food by going through the self-serve line-up. There you line up in a circular line where you state the food you want and served food Soup-Nazi style.

2) Darwin/ Kakadu

I was fortunate to get a great deal on my plane ticket from Sydney to Darwin for $130. The internet is the best place for low fare deals. Darwin is Australia's most northern major city and capital of the Northern Territory. It has a very interesting history. Named after Charles Darwin, this city as certainly put his theory to the test about the survival of the fittest after being destroyed twice and rebuilt. The first time it was destroyed was in the 1940's from Japanese bombardments and the second in the 1970's after a cyclone. I spent 2 nights in Darwin as I really came there to go to Kakadu National Park. Darwin is a great nightlife with bikini waitresses. The best site to see is the brand-new parliament buildings that are surrounded by palm trees.

The first part of my trip was a 2 day, 1 night trip through Kakadu national park with Kakadu dreams. Kakadu is an ancient land that has 4000-year-old rock-art and is at the mercy of its two seasons, dry and wet. In the dry season, the land is ablaze without any precipitation. The land is continuously burnt and reborn with the unenviable forest fires. In the wet, the roads are washed away with monsoon storms and parts of the park are only accessible with helicopter. Kakadu was the most untamed part of Australia I visited. I went near the end of the dry season and saw loads of crocs and after Kakadu, I will never complain about mosquitoes again. My favourite part of the Kakadu trip was the croc cruise. During the cruise, food was dangled it front of the crocodiles and we all looked in with awe as these massive creatures jumped out of the water for their food. I also saw waterfalls, ancient gorges, and water holes. With this trip, I was always busy with constant hikes, rides from hell through winding roads, and didgeridoo lessons during the evening. The hikes were gruelling in the punishing sun, but it was worth seeing Kakadu's unique eco-system. The tour company Kakadu Dreams was my favourite tour company in Australia and New Zealand.

3) Outback

From my journey from Darwin to Cairns, I took Oz Experience and rode on Adventure Tours and Desert Venturer. We spent most of the time on the bus and stopped in a few interesting spots. The first leg of the trip was a three-day trip from Darwin to Alice Springs. The first major stop was Katherine Gorge where I canoed in the Gorge. In that gorge, some on the canoes said they spotted a crocodile in the gorge. We camped out during the night in a campground. The next night we stopped by Daly Waters that was just a tourist trap with souvenirs left by other travellers. The third day we made our way to Alice Springs and stopped at Devil's Marbles and the Tropic of Capricorn. Devil's Marbles are ancient rock formations that received their name because some horses ate some plants there and died. The Tropic of Capricorn is a great stop to brag you have been on. I spent three days in the Red Centre area where I was in Alice Springs and Uluru.

The next part of the journey was a three-day journey from Alice Springs to Cairns. After Alice Springs, the first major stop we saw was the giant Termite Mounts of Boulia. The first night I stayed on a farm with kangaroos and camels. The second day was mainly a travelling day and the hottest temperature during the day was 41 Celsius. We stopped at porcupine gorge where we had a biologist give us a history of the ancient region. That day we stopped in Winton to see the Waltzing Matilda museum. However, nobody went and we all plunged into the local swimming pool. That night I spent the night at a desert hotel. The third day we stopped at the Appleton Tablelands. It has a spectacular ancient rainforest with a waterfall. This three day trip at the least to see but I had more time to meet my fellow travellers on the bus.

4) Red Centre

After 5 am starts, I had a free day to relax in Alice Springs. I used my free day to move hostels to Annie's Place which is a better hostel with $5 meals. In Alice Springs, you see how miserably the aboriginals are treated. They live in the outskirts of town and are scared of the whites. The town does not have many shops for the necessities and is loaded with didgeridoo stores. Alice Springs has the best deal for didgeridoos. I purchased one for $150 with international shipping included. The next day I had a 5:15 am pickup time. However, there was no bus because they gave the wrong location to pick me up. But luckily, the bus turned around and was off for a two-day trip of Uluru. The first day we did a grilling walk of King's Canyon. The sun there was the hottest I ever experienced. The entire red centre is canvassed with weird rock formations because the entire red centre used to be a giant inland sea. This is proven by the fact that there are ancient jellyfish fossils in King's Canyon. The next day was even an earlier 4:30 am start in order to see the sunrise over Uluru and the three olgas. It was fascinating to see the world's largest monolith change colours with the sun rising over it. My group and I chose not to climb Uluru because it was no big deal and it offends the aboriginals.

5) Cairns-Great Barrier Reef

After a huge journey through the top of Australia, I needed a drink. The Woolshed is Australia's wildest nightclub and great place to go since many hostels offer free meals there. The best part of Cairns is that the rooms cost $15/night and include a free meal. My first whole day in Cairns was used mainly to plan my activities and relax. The second and I went on a day trip of Cape Tribulation. It was great to see the rainforest and the tour guide gave us history of the region including the fact that the aboriginals were hunted as late as the 1950's. Its rainforest also has beaches and surprise you cannot swim there because of the jellyfish. The third day I went diving in the Great Barrier Reef. I went with Noah's Art Too and saw coral and tons of fish. The best part of the dive was that I was able to swim with a school of fish. My last day at Cairns I decided to go white-water rafting but it was not that great because it was a wussy river. That night I went to Reef Teach where a Robin Williams type biologist gave an entertaining presentation of the reef. I also learned that there were two other great barrier reefs in Africa and Mexico but meteors wiped them out. The Reef Teach is highly recommended.

6) Magnetic Island

From Cairns I took a Greyhound bus to Townsville and then a ferry to Magnetic Island. The biggest mistake I made on the trip was taking Greyhound from Cairns to Sydney. If I were going to do it all over again I would have taken a train from Cairns to Brisbane. Then I would have taken a surf camp from Brisbane to Sydney because that is all there is to do between the two places.

Since I was at Magnetic Island for just half a day, I just had enough time to see the Koalas. They sleep 15-20 hours a day. I went on the Forts Walk between 4PM-6PM where I could see Koalas in the wild. I was lucky to see three Koala Bears and Magnetic Island also has some WW2 military bases on the island when the fought the Japanese. Captain Cook named Magnetic Island after his compass was not working in this area and while at Magnetic Island I stayed at Maggie's Beach House.

7) Airlie Beach-Whitsundays

My next stop was Airlie Beach. There I went on a 3 day, 2 night sailing trip in the Whitsunday Islands. I stayed in Airlie Beach at Reefo's. I also went to Whitsunday Island, the crocodile resort, and scuba diving. During the three day trip you get very close to your fellow travellers and your either going to have a great or a lousy time.

8) Hervey Bay- Fraser Island

On the way to Hervey Bay, I stopped for the night at Rockhampton. It was definitely not a tourist town. Sometimes it is great to stop off the tourist route because you meet people who have not seen foreigners before. I had a unique experience, similar to explorers who made first contact with some lost tribe.

There is not much to do in Hervey Bay because everybody is there for Fraser Island. In addition, it is very redneck where I saw a restaurant with the sign "no colours" outside its restaurant.

Fraser Island is indeed a major tourist destination in Australia that is not over-rated. It is the only place in the world where a rainforest grows on sand and the only I saw in Australia where there are lakes, sand dunes, and a shipwreck. The island is a sand paradise. Lake Mackenzie is the most picturesque lake I ever seen but sadly, my camera battery was dead. Fraser Island also is the only place in the world where dingoes are not inter-mixed with dogs.

9) Brisbane

Brisbane was the second largest city I visited in Australia. They have a great nightlife and nothing to do during the day. The only good thing to see was the clock tower and there was a nice ice cream shop. Everything to do in Brisbane is 100 km away including Steve Irwin's zoo and the koala sanctuary. I made a brief overnight stop in Surfer's paradise where a small beach front in over-run by skyscrapers.

10) Byron Bay

Byron Bay is the surfing hotspot of the south pacific. I stayed at the Arts Factory that has a bar/restaurant, movie theatre, and a didgeridoo workshop. I enjoyed the hostel but others hated it because of the high hippy population. Black Dog surfing gave me a great 3-hour surfing lesson but it would have been better to take it during the day when the waves were not as rough. There is a pub called "Cheeky Monkeys" where midgets mind the bar. After Byron, I headed off to Coffs Harbour where I met some other Canadians but it is just another medium sized town. The next stop was Buladelah where I went to a surfing camp. It was great because I got to sleep, surf, and drink with the same people. However, when I was waiting for my bus to take me to Sydney it just drove past me. Greyhound changed my pickup time without my authority and I had to stay the night in a motel. Greyhound refused to answer my complaint and if possible, I will never ride their bus again in my life.

Top 10 Things I wish I could have seen or done in Australia

1. Fighting Kangaroos

I did not see any sparring kangaroos. They usually box each other in Western Australia where I would have liked to go.

2. 12 Apostles

Located just outside of Melbourne these rock formations are in the water and along great ocean rode.

3. Melbourne

I did not get to visit Australia's other mega city. It would have been great to see their tram network and some of their old historical buildings. Not to mention the Australia Open where Russian superstar Maria Sharapova was playing.

4. Canberra

As a poly sci major, I would have liked to visit Australia's parliament and see some of the most rambunctious political antics in the world.

5. Tasmania

Home to Port Arthur where Australia's most dangerous convicts where sent this land is more like New Zealand and has some amazing scenery.

6. Perth

Western Australia I did not touch in my trip. It would have been fun to dip my foot in the Indian Ocean.

7. Coober Pedy

This city is an underground network of caves and all the places are without doors. The city was built through underground caves because it is so hot above ground.

8. Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb

Even though I was in Sydney for half of my trip, I did not feel like forking out $160 to climb the bridge.

9. Grampians National Park

Just a little North of Melbourne this park is home to some of Australia's best mountain peaks.

10. Philip Island

Just east of Melbourne this island is home to penguins.

Related Rants:

Australia Pics

The Edge of the Earth

Backpacking in New Zealand

Updated: September 6, 2010 Creations

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