Our five weeks spent in Australia (or “Oz”) were filled with many amazing experiences: Snorkeling and diving at the Great Barrier Reef; watching tennis in Brisbane and Melbourne; exploring Sydney’s beautiful harbour and beaches; tasting wine in the Hunter Valley, McLaren Vale and Barossa wine regions; and taking the train up through the Outback.
After spending five months backpacking through Eastern Europe and Israel last year, Australia was very easy. Everyone speaks English, Aussies are extremely friendly, roads are relatively safe, and we had all the comforts of home. While Australia did not exactly feel exotic to us, it did have its own uniqueness. We’ve put together our top “takeaways” from our time touring Australia.
Australian Beaches – Bull sharks and other hazards
When we planned our trip to Australia, we had hoped to spend a lot of time on the gorgeous beaches for which Australia is famous. We each even packed a beach towel and two bathing suits. Unfortunately, they rarely made it out of our packs. The constant threat of painful death tends to make swimming less than enticing, even on a hot day!
When we were in Cairns and Port Douglas in northern Queensland, swimming in the ocean was banned given it was stinger season. One sting from a box jellyfish, the deadliest creature in Oz, or the thumb-nail sized Irukandji jellyfish, can be fatal. There were also signs warning of crocodiles roaming around the beaches. We watched Crocodile Dundee again for some pointers in case we ran across an angry croc, but figured they are best avoided altogether!
When we were further south in New South Wales, our swimming plans were scuttled once we saw thousands of “bluebottles” or Portugese men-of-war washed up on the shore. Even if you touch a dead one, the long-lasting pain can be brutal. No thanks!
In addition to the threat of deadly or painful creatures (did we even mention sharks yet?), the water was quite rough at all the beaches we visited. No floating on your back peacefully here! Signs on every beach warn of rough surf and dangerous riptides. Safe and supervised swimming areas are surprisingly small, even on very large beaches. The result is that the small patches of “safe” and surfer-free water are jammed with people. When we did finally swim in Sydney, we had a good time, but the water was freezing cold, we had to dodge boogie boards in the crowded water, and we were knocked around so hard by the water that Christine was worried she’d lose her swimsuit. Thankfully (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) that didn’t happen!
That costs what?
Australia is a very expensive country. We knew this going in and didn’t expect to get the deals we had seen in Eastern Europe. But still, some prices surprised us. True, many things have to be imported or transported over long distances. Australia also has the highest minimum wage in the developed world. Restaurants were crazy expensive, even casual ones like cafes or pubs had mains averaging C$30+. We self-catered a lot, or ate take-away options. In particular, takeaway sushi was a good choice. Rather than rolls as we know them in North America, they save the step of cutting the roll into bite-size pieces, and just serve it as a large handroll (usually for about $3-4 each but with good discounts if you buy more) that you can eat on the go. One of the few times that being lazy is also efficient!
Fuel was also expensive, although we in North America are still used to much lower fuel prices than much of the world. For accommodations, we found AirBnB to have by far the best deals throughout the country – it was way cheaper than even the most budget motel/hotel options and standards were quite high.
For booze, prices on coolers, ciders, and hard liquor were insanely inflated due to sky-high taxes. If you want to drink in Oz, you’re best to stick to beer and wine. Prices for those were quite reasonable because of lower taxes and regular promotions by many of the retailers like Liquorland. If you want to go truly budget, do as the locals do and try drinking a “goon” (or boxed wine as we call it in Canada) – we never got that desperate! You’ll be surprised by how big the boxes get. And hey, you don’t even need to leave your car to pick it up, as there are drive-through liquor stores throughout the country.
We admit, it threw us off the first or second time we heard Aussies ridiculing Kiwis (the people from New Zealand, not the fruit). Having visited New Zealand a few years ago, we both found the people there to be wonderful – very friendly and welcoming. Many Aussies don’t agree with us as Kiwis are constantly the butt of their jokes. Kiwis are viewed as uneducated hicks and many Aussies aren’t too impressed when they immigrate to Australia. Granted, Kiwis give as good as they get. The saying (in New Zealand) is that when a Kiwi emigrates to Australia, it raises the average IQ in both countries. In Australia, they say the only time you see a Kiwi in a suit is when they’re a defendant.
Budgie Smuggling is a Huge (and Sometimes not so Huge) Problem
We found Australia to be very British overall – they drive on the same side of the road, their official flag is still very old-fashioned with a Union Jack on it, they use a lot of similar words (jumper for sweater, motorway for highway, beanie for toque, chips instead of French fries, etc etc). We get it – it’s British but with much better weather and beaches. But Aussies still have their own unique qualities and quirks. One of those quirks is coming up with weird nicknames for pretty much everything. One of the coastal towns we visited was Woolgoolga, a bit of a tongue twister that the locals rectified by nicknaming it “Woopi”. Makes sense. Some of our favourites were goon (boxed wine), schooner (half pint of beer), thongs (flip flops), and of course, budgie smugglers (speedo swimsuits on guys).
Throw the Shrimp on the Barbie!
We had known that Aussies like to barbecue, but wow, do they ever! Pretty much every apartment building, motel, hotel and public park has communal bbqs hooked up to gas lines. That’s really awesome!
Careful, that Koala is Vicious
No matter how many times we saw a kangaroo, or a wallaby (their smaller relative), during our trip, it didn’t lose its novelty for us. The animals are seriously cool when they are hopping around at high speeds through a field! And Christine was thrilled when she had the chance to hold a cute and cuddly koala when we visited the Kuranda Koala Gardens. We had the luck to spot a couple of wild koalas later on in our trip too. One of our favourite encounters was with the kookaburra bird – they seriously sound like maniacs when they are cackling up on a tree!
How is it that one country can have so many unique and cool animals? At least the cute ones. All the rest that will kill or maim you, we can do without.
Aussie, Aussie, Aussie – Oi Oi Oi
It was a great trip, and perfect for easing us into another 5 months on the road. 5 weeks seems like a lot of time to spend in Australia, but it flew by. There is still so much of the country we didn’t even get to see (we had to leave out two states, Tasmania and Western Australia, entirely!). That just means there are reasons to go back!