Our short stint in the land down under was full of cities, coastline, cruising and critters.
A quick backstory to our time in Australia: We actually did not have it on our original itinerary. It's just SO big, and to do it properly, we could probably spend all six months just in Australia and still miss stuff. So we originally decided to skip it, and go straight from Christchurch to Bali. Except the problem is that commercial planes don't go straight from Christchurch to Bali. We would have to connect through a major Aussie hub no matter what. And so we both agreed that putting feet down in Australia without seeing any part of this faraway country was just silly, and a wasted opportunity. Better to see a small slice than nothing at all. We were keen on seeing both Sydney and Melbourne, and so we planned to fly into Sydney, then drive down to Melbourne. And that's exactly what we did. We just didn't realize that 600 miles would feel so big!
Our first stop, Sydney, was a fun junket in a tier-one city. Though we've been in major cities on this trip before, there are only a few cities in the world that just vibrate with energy. It's as if the people in those cities walk around knowing how special their city is and exude this pride and confidence into the air, creating a palpable buzz that cannot be ignored. I like to think New York feels that way. And Sydney definitely felt that way. It was such a shock to see all these fashionable women walking around in their heels after a month of the “comfort sandal” being the status quo in New Zealand. There's a laid-back vibe mixed with real chic in the city... a mixture of fashionista and surf culture, like NYC-meets-Santa Monica.
Our too-short time in Sydney was spent exploring. We took a ferry out to Manly Beach to watch the surfers, and did a short coastal hike at the Sydney National Park (which is within the city limits-how cool!). An afternoon was spent exploring The Rocks, Sydney's funky little artsy/cafe neighborhood situated at the base of the Sydney Harbor bridge. And of course, we hoofed it over the bridge to get the iconic skyline and harbor views, and it was well worth it. But the most wahaa moment was setting eyes on Sydney Opera House for the first time. It's just such a world-famous monument, that seeing it in real life gave us both chills in the way that one realizes this is real, and we are here, and we are very far away from home.
We also have a friend who lives in Sydney, and so we spent some time socializing with him. What a treat... a person we actually know from real life! A former New Yorker, my friend Daren is someone I met through my job a few years ago and we've stayed in touch thanks to social media. He graciously helped us with planning and tips, and made time to spend the evening with us despite our scheduled arrival into Sydney changing twice. He brought along his friend Brent, and we spent a really nice evening having wine, beer, and pizza at Opera Bar—the iconic harborside restaurant at the entrance to the Sydney Opera House. It was SO nice to spend some time with a friend, someone we could just talk about life and work and real things with, and not just the “Where are you from? How long are you traveling for?” chit-chat that is the understandable norm in fleeting hostel friendships. And as the sun went down, we were surprised that the famous white roofs of the Opera House were turning colors... it was then we realized that the Opera House projects images onto their exterior as the opera is piped out to the cafe audience via a massive sound system. It was so cool, probably next best to being at the performance! Between the awe of the opera house and the many, many laughs we had that night, this was one of our favorite evenings of the whole trip so far.
The next day, we picked up our Jucy campervan and headed up to the Blue Mountains. Driving through Sydney congestion was a reality check after the traffic-free roads of New Zealand. We were annoyed and cranky! Why are there so many damn people here? Oh, because we're in a country of 23 million people, not 3 million people. I guess that matters for traffic and stuff. But we arrived in the mountains, hit the grocery store to stock up our Jucy van, and faced the exciting matter of finding a place to sleep for the night. I'll spare you all the details, but the first night of this was ROUGH. After much driving around, we ended up in the parking lot of the National Park, where we cooked in the pitch dark, and I was convinced a poisonous redback spider was going to bite me if I had to get out to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Needless to say, I held off on the water guzzling.
The next day we hiked the Grand Canyon. Yes, there is a Grand Canyon in Australia, and it's absolutely every bit as stunning as the one in Arizona! Actually, that's total baloney, sorry, Australia. It was very cool--but I seriously think they should reconsider the name given the competition. It was a beautiful, lush hike down into a valley, along cliffsides, under waterfalls, through caves, and of course into the canyon. It was strenuous and rewarding, and we finished by lunchtime and the hit the road down to our next stop which was coastal.
CRUISING THE COAST
The next six days were pretty similar. Driving. Beach. Cooking in the campervan. Lather, rinse, repeat. It was fun and our overland journey allowed us to see a lot of Australia's coastline, which is quite awe-inspiring. I've never really seen beaches like this before, except maybe some California beaches that resemble it vaguely. They are never-ending stretches of sand and dunes that go on for miles, until your feeble eyesight gives out against the horizon. The beaches are wide and welcoming and the waves are perfect crests begging to be surfed. What's not welcoming? The jellies and sharks. Now, most of these hazards are to the north, but we were a little gun-shy nonetheless, given that the big news during our time in Australia were two bad shark attacks, including a Japanese tourist who got both of his legs chewed off by a shark. (He died, sadly.) Plus the water is pretty brisk and the currents are strong! So we just beach-walked, took some runs on the beach, waded in a little bit, and that was plenty. The best beach we visited was Jervis Bay, and the only place we actually swam. Jervis Bay boasts the whitest sand in the world, and for good merit. It felt like I was walking through piles of a flour... so soft and powdery.
Our coastal grand finale was driving the famous Great Ocean Road, just to the southwest of Melbourne. We drove way out of our way for this sight, and it was a worthy detour. Turquoise surf, giant cliffs, and the iconic “Twelve Apostles” - a natural formation of limestone stacks formed by erosion and the harsh weather. This was some fun driving as we wound around the coastal cliffside road. Australia is great about their roadsigns so we went slowly thanks to the big red “HIGH CRASH ZONE!” signs everywhere. Not terrifying at all.
Here at Great Ocean Road, we also did part of the Great Ocean Walk, which is a 174-kilometer walking track along the coast. We did a very short section, but it was well worth it! We saw koalas, kangaroos and had a funny stand-off with a wallaby. Or maybe a kangaroo, we aren't really sure how to tell the difference. Can anyone help?
In the world of critters, we also saw some great ones one night at a campground. We saw a bandicoot and were consistently harassed by bush-tailed possums for our food. And on the way in at dusk, a kangaroo decided to leap out in front our van as we bumped down the unsealed dirt road. But the craziest encounter was with a Goanna. What's a Goanna? Basically looks identical to a Komodo Dragon, but has stripes. It's an intimidatingly-large lizard that we saw on the way out of the campground. It looks like it eats human babies for lunch, so we were relieved to be in the safety of our van as he swiftly lumbered across the ground and then up a tree. His huge jaws and giant claws are a deadly match that I wouldn't want to face. Granted, they mostly eat small animals like rodents and birds, and he was more scared of us than we were of him, but still. Giant lizard!
Our final stop in Australia was Melbourne. What a lovely city! We'd heard great things, and they were all true. It's small(er), multicultural, packed with natural water features including a bay, a river, and a lake, and teeming with a young and funky vibe thanks to it's ubiquitous street art. Our first night was... interesting. It was our last night in the campervan and we needed to find a place to park near the city. We chose a waterfront park in a nice suburb. In the daylight, it looked cute and welcoming. But when the moon came up, so did the sketch-sters. Suddenly, souped-up cars were revving down the street and shady-looking-but-likely-harmless teens were driving in and out of the parking lot, being loud, and making “exchanges”. We decided to wait and see how things settled down. But we felt conspicuous in our big green and purple van, and wondered if we were big ol' targets for teen prankery. After a shady encounter at the showers where some teens were banging on the door of the stall I was in, I was feeling unsettled. But finally when a guy threw a bottle out of his car window towards our van, we decided to high-tail it out of there. We slept that night tucked back in a condo parking lot. Yes, it was private property and we were campervan squatting. We're rebels.
The next day, we returned our van and rented bikes from Melbourne's fab city bike rental program ($2 for the day, unlimited 30 minute rides!). We bike all over that city! We toured their botanical gardens, did their riverside bike path, and cycled into many neighborhoods including St. Kilda and Fitzroy. The city seems so friendly to an active lifestyle, from their great bikeshare program to many running paths, outdoor gym equipment, and even free public bouldering walls. Of course, this made Chris swoon.
We also enjoyed many of Melbourne's great culinary delights, including brunch at a hip St. Kilda cafe, and the BEST dinner at Movida Tapas, which we already wrote about in our food post but deserves a double mention. I've had tapas a hundred times before, and always felt it was fine, but never socks-knocked-off-great. To me, the small plates never feel big enough to share, and Chris always complains he leaves a tapas dinners feeling hungry. But this was the first time I truly “got” tapas. Sure, the plates were small, but the flavors were so intense and balanced that I didn't want more... I wanted just those few bites. The dish was perfectly explained in just a taste, and then it was on to another bold flavor. The homemade crunchy bread was heaven, and custom blend olive oil... well, I would lap it up like a cat if they let me. Plus, it's situated on one of Melbourne's famous street art alleyways, making it a perfect farewell meal for the city.
The next morning was an early flight to Bali, so we had to say goodbye to Melbourne... but definitely would like to come back to 2014's Most Liveable City in the World (according to Economist Intelligence Unit). Sadly, not a single U.S. City made the top 10 list. Australia and Canada dominate!
Aussie photos below: