For our winter holidays, we drove around Madhya Pradesh in December 2021. We ended up with another “winter holiday” in June/July 2022 – this time for a visit of the eastern coastal cities of Australia. Given that Australia is in the southern hemisphere, a good way to beat the heat of Indian summers is to head Down Under. The December drive of Madhya Pradesh and the June/July visit of Australia had one thing in common: no two days were alike!
Driving on the Great Ocean Road to see the Twelve Apostles, watching little penguins come back home, seeing kangaroos and koalas, visiting vineyards and chocolate factories, enjoying the fantastic rendition of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Princess Theatre, admiring the history of the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) and the acoustics of Sydney Opera House, delighting in the magnificent dinners at Darling Harbour, panting in the twist-and-turns of Dreamland, soaking in the beaches across cities, getting wet in the super-fast jet skis, snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef, losing oneself in the magnificence of the rainforest, learning to use the boomerang – by the time you catch your breath with the sheer variety of sights and experiences, two weeks have gone swirling by! And yes, this list is merely illustrative!
What to do there?
Relax! You will simply not be able to do all the things that Australia has to offer even if you bust up your entire annual vacation days in a trip. There are hence two options: go deep in a field (say adventure sports or nature trails, etc.) or do what we did – sample everything somewhat to create unique experiences every day. In your first trip to Australia, you will likely end up doing the “touristy things” – these are things that any tour operator or TripAdvisor or blogger will give to you. Even if you end up doing these standard things, you will have seen and done a lot! Howsoever you plan, you will have many reasons to come back for more.
Melbourne: First things first: a toast to the Masters of Cricket! An iconic image at the MCG of which only a few (three?) original prints exist and the “negative” has been burnt. If you are there, do see the painting of the Australian Ladies Cricket Team after their win against India in the World Cup. And did you know that MCG is a cricket ground for only around half the year: they take out the cricket pitches and store them away for hibernation while the ground is reset for soccer!
Melbourne has been voted as the Most Livable City by the Economist – and it does deserve its top ranking! The place has history (wait for the trivia at the end!) and culture (the Princess Theatre among many other things), fantastic gardens (the Tan; the “lazy Australians” shorten Botanical to Tan!), some of the best sporting set-ups (Australian Open, MCG, and F1 – all close together), the most scenic road in the world (the Great Ocean Road), and many islands nearby including the Phillip Island where thousands of little penguins come home every night at the stroke of sunset! A short drive out of the city will also take you to the vineyards in their absolutely beautiful idyllic surroundings – you may not even need the wine to get a high! With Victoria calling itself The Education State and many Indian students finding their way to Australia, no wonder Melbourne is where you find many of them.
The Great Ocean Road is an experience in itself. The imprints of the time you spend at the Lighthouse, the Twelve Apostles, beaches, benches on the park in the small towns that dot the road, and the drive around the curvy roads over the mountains or near the large fields of cows and sheep will forever remain in your inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude!
Sydney: There is healthy rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney – indeed so old is the rivalry that the country had to find place for a new capital in Canberra! The Darling Harbour, the Opera House, and the Harbour Bridge are iconic places – you can call out the city of Sydney with a mere mention or a glance of these. We visited only these, apart from a rain-soaked city tour, and then spent our time in malls, shopping complexes, food joints, and yes, laundry!
La Nina meant that we faced unseasonal rains in Sydney – all our four days there were washed out. This means we missed, among other things, a trip to the Blue Mountains, Hunter valley vineyards, a hot air balloon ride, a trip to Taronga zoo, a walk between Bondi and Congee beaches, a walk up the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and a cruise dinner. We had missed Vivid at Sydney by a week – so, in summation, this means that we will have to plan to go back again!
We found that the operators were quite understanding and even if you were prebooked, they were willing to cancel and refund, if it was for a genuine reason. Here we were dealing with a situation where in five days it rained the entire month’s quota of rain – so we did have a reasonable reason!
Gold Coast: Having forgotten what the sun and the blue skies looked like, we were pleasantly surprised to end up at a hotel which had a fantastic view of the beach and the sunrise right from our balcony! This is the ideal postcard moment – walking on the beach to see the sun rise. Gold Coast also has one of the highest (the highest?) observation point in Australia – while we did not have the nerve to walk up to the top of the tower, we did sit on a high-seat at the bar! Finally, the children got what they had long looked forward to: a visit to the theme park of Dreamworld. Yes, there is too much to do in too little time and so the hefty investment in an unlimited pass gives you an equally hefty return. The Taipan and the Claw – I could only survive the twists and turns because I kept my eyes tightly shut! Back in the city, do the jet-ski: one, to get some good spin and water all over you, and two, to see the multimillion dollar houses that have built on an artificial island. We also found time to watch Thor – don’t ask me why!
Cairns: By now, we were up north in Australia and even though it was winter, all our warm clothes went deep in our bags. It is difficult for us northern-hemisphere types to immediately think of it, but yes, Australians do come north for winter! This meant hotels, and over the weekend, pubs ran to full capacity. The Great Barrier Reef is a good to-do destination for its corals: we ended up in a semi-submersible; see if you can find a submarine that goes deeper. You can snorkel and “sea-walk” but that is literally scratching the surface. The Kuranda rainforest is made amazingly accessible via its cable car which offers a unique top-down perspective of the rainforest – you can visually see the dense canopies and then when you step down on the ground, you clearly understand why it is not grassy or shrubby: there is almost no sunlight which trickles down. Drive around the river in an aquaduck and come down in the train which has scenic views of the mountain. Learn how to throw the boomerang (at the 1 o’clock angle) from the masters who invented it!
There is enough to keep you busy without tiring you out. The beauty of the scenery, the general frictionless life, the happy and helpful people, and the sheer variety of things to do will spoil you for choice. As I type this, I realise I did not even talk about the cassowary, ibis, koalas, kangaroos, magpies, snakes, and the Tasmanian devil!
Go forth – and enjoy!
Ah yes, you ask if can I give some tips on the why, how, where, and what. Look no further.
A very simple reason: Australia offers an easy e-visa which can applied to from the confines of your home and the ease of your laptop without having to submit the passport for stamping or going for biometrics. Indeed, this is the reason why Europe lost out in our travel plans.
For the Australian visas, you can apply as a “family” – surprisingly the decisions are not communicated as a “family”. The adults in the group got their visa within a couple of days; for one set of children, it was touch-and-go till almost the date of travel even though all visa applications were submitted together two months before travel.
Hopefully once the “revenge travel” subsides and the visa processes get streamlined with more manpower, these issues will get sorted out. It seems that currently visa issuance timelines are an issue with other countries also – so if you are planning to travel, keep some time buffer in hand.
We chose to split up the journey in Singapore to make for more manageable hours in the air. In any case, the direct flights between India and Australia run via Delhi; so, for the Mumbai/non-Delhi folks, there is at least one hop.
You must plan your Australia journey in such a way that you do not end up crisscrossing the country – the distances are very large and you end up with a lot of time in internal travel. We started deep in the south at Melbourne and came up via Sydney, Gold Coast, and finally Cairns. To give you a sense of the distance, the distance between Melbourne and Cairns is around 3,500 kms – similar to the distance between Jammu and Kanyakumari!
A couple of things that worked fantastically for us: carry lots of home-made food (yes, you can get peckish mid-air and homesick in a foreign country) and carry a note writing up in English what you are carrying to Australia. The latter will be very helpful when you try to clear border control who worry about alien flora and fauna coming in. When you make this list, you will realize that fafda is chickpea crisps, chiwda is savoury rice cereal, bhujiya is spiced vermicelli, and mathri is spiced crackers! Do the same with the chemical ingredients of the medicine pouch that you might be carrying – the brand names may not ring a bell with the border official.
The 4.5-hour time difference between India and Australia sounds small but it is enough to unsettle the system, especially if you have children or first-time travelers with you. Budget for enough rest time especially on the first day. If the group feels up to it, free time can always be spent shopping or simply exploring the local markets, parks, beaches, theatre, eating out, or partying!
Maybe such rooms exist in other places also but we discovered the idea of two double beds in a room in Australia. This cramps up the room, yes, but makes it very useable for a family instead of having to hire two separate rooms. Note that almost everywhere in the world, hotels consider children above 12 years of age (or sometimes 14) as adults. What you might typically consider as a family of two adults and two children, can, for hotel purposes, end up being four adults! A two double bed room comes in very handy here.
If you are planning a long trip, it is best to budget for laundry time! Our clothes ended up in a self-operated laundry in almost every city. Many hotels will have the set-up but it might be useful to find out the newer outlets nearby: the machines in the hotel tend to show their age. In most places, you can combine laundry with a coffee or walk to the nearby park or beach: it is pretty convenient and indeed relaxing! Indeed, I have found that these trips invariably lead to spending time in the local markets and with local people – this is where you pick up the best ideas for touring the city or knowing about the place.
Uber works fine. Yes, Ola too operates there – though for some reason it never accepted my stored Indian credit card which worked well on Uber. In any case, for most of our transport needs, we had prebooked vans. It is relaxing when there is a pick-up and a drop by a local who can regale you with some tales and insightful suggestions.
People there are generally chatty and have a very wry sense of humour. Given the sudden profusion of cycling lanes over the last couple of years, one of our tour guides said, “we went into lockdown in Melbourne but opened up in Amsterdam”! We learnt about the siege in 2014 at the Lindt Café in Sydney when someone generally started conversing with us when they saw a Guylian hot chocolate takeaway in our hands. A good way around in the Australian cities is to walk – and pick up on good conversations!
What I found interesting is that almost every public toilet had a drug syringe disposal unit: “better safe than unsafe undercover” seems to be the operating motto. On the highways, you could catch signs where the police would be very clear about their warnings – I assume this one is for speeding.
Food (yes, for veggies!)
Breakfast can, especially over a long trip, can start to become boring. It is the same set of fruits (melons, apples, banana), flakes (corn, bran, etc.), pancakes and breads, hash browns and baked beans, and hot and cold beverages. As a vegetarian, you can try various mixtures of these, be creative and develop new sandwich options, drum up dry fruits and yoghurts, but then you do run out of options and creativity at the end of a week or so. That is when the chickpea crisps and spiced vermicelli can come in handy!
The cuisines we tried for our meals were from India (north, south, home-made), Mexico, Mediterranean, Singaporean, Italian, Chinese (all veg!), Nepali, Japanese (sushi train!), Thai, American fast food – the choices, even for us vegetarians, were plentiful, delightful, and yes, with lots of hot and spicy options.
Apart from weekend dinners, it was easy to just walk-in for a hearty meal. An interesting discovery was the chilli lentil soup being served in what can only be called “venti” takeaway cups! The places we went to twice over: Saravana Bhawan in Melbourne, Muglan, a Nepalese restaurant in Sydney, Sankalp (south Indian) and Shiraz Bistro (Mediterranean) in Gold Coast, and The Dairy – Mungalli in Cairns (amazing ice-cream and milk shakes!). You can see that we did favour the desi food, and if you want a superlative taste of that, do not miss the Masala Kitchen in Sydney.
At this point, it is fair to ask if we even experienced Australia if we did not try their local cuisine!
I cannot let you go without some macroeconomics and finance trivia:
(1) Australia had pounds (and shillings and pence) as its currency till 1966 when it decimalized to dollar. I did bring back some coins and notes of the Australian dollar but it would be good to collect some old pounds.
(2) Over the second half of the nineteenth century (1851-1896), almost two million kilograms (~2,000 tons) of gold was mined in the state of Victoria, whose capital is Melbourne. At today’s price of around USD 60,000/kilo, in today’s US dollars, this find would be valued at approx. USD 120 billion! And, to wrap up, is this the “new gold” we are looking at here?
Finally, note that this was our trip and it worked very well for us. There is simply so much to do in Australia that you should find your own path – and I hope that is as fun and exciting as it was for us!