Eastern Australia

Opera House

Sydney Opera House

April 2024

Twelve Apostles

In early 2024, we finally headed to a country where I did not need years of boring grammar lessons just to be able to order a coffee in the local tongue. Where the resulting travelogue does not have to resemble a high school history cheat sheet. Where "silly point" is a position and not a quip your boss makes to lighten the mood of a meeting. Where it was April and it was already autumn. We finally headed to Australia. A gruelling eleven-hour flight, the longest we have taken in a decade and a half, dropped us weary-eyed in Tullamarine, a suburb of Melbourne. Since this is first world, there were no touts or auto-walas directing us what to do and we had to find our way to a car rental and drive ourselves out, in complete darkness, to our first night's hotel. Located in a small town called Torquay.

Twelve Apostles

Twelve Apostles, Great Ocean Road

Blue Mountains

Australia (and New Zealand) had sent a huge force to support the allied efforts during the First World War (pardon the history, old habits die hard). And when the war was over, they had several veterans (well, poorly educated early twenty-somethings), who now had to be housed and employed. They were put to work on the world's largest war memorial. A Great Ocean Road. A 240 km long asphalt connecting the towns of Torquay and Allansford. A road which can easily enter into anyone's top-ten great road-trip list. Although the Great Ocean Road makes forays to the seashore, it doesn't always hug the coast and most of the lookouts are detours from the main path. And there are way too many of them. If you don't have a pre-prepared master list and decide to take every turn as you run into them, you will barely cover 20% of the road before the sunlight runs out. Since we did have a master-list, we were able to make it till Port Campbell, about 80% of the length of the road. And that list goes like this: the dramatic cliffs of Addis Point, the idyllic beach view at the Anglesea Lookout, the lighthouse and the stunning Eagle Rock at the Split Point Lookout, the overcrowded Memorial Arch viewpoint, breathtaking views at the Teddy's Lookout (our personal favourite) and Marriner's Lookout (a close second), the photogenic Otway Lighthouse, and everyone's favourite - the Twelve Apostles, the nearby Loch and Gorge and finally ending at the London Bridge (not to be confused with the Tower Bridge at the antipode). These formations seem timeless. But they keep changing all the time, constantly eroded by the relentless waves pounding on them. The Twelve Apostles (for example) were originally nine limestone pillars (yes, nine and never twelve; I wonder how Australians won so many World Cups being this bad in counting) and one fell down in 2003 permanently changing the seascape. And there were originally two London Bridges and as the Fair Lady surely knows by now, one of them did indeed fall down. And no, no attempts were made to build it back.

Blue Mountains

Govetts Leap Lookout, Blue Mountains

Bondi Beach

Australia is bigger than Western Europe i.e. Europe without the pesky Russia. And we had overambitiously planned to see half of it in just 10 days. That means spending a lot of time just transiting. The following day was a case in point. Got up early, drove to Melbourne, flew to Sydney, hopped onto a rental and yelled at Google Maps for an hour till it finally guided us to Katoomba, a small town in the heart of the Blue Mountains. These mountains comprising of dramatic limestone cliffs overlooking a canopy of eucalyptus trees (the fine oil mist exuded by the trees giving the place the namesake ethereal blue tinge) is a popular weekend getaway for Sydneysiders. For the people spoilt by the excellent National Park Service of the US, there isn't a well-demarcated park road at the entrance of which a smiling lady hands out a well-curated park map with all the viewpoints and the routes neatly marked. So, time to whip out the master-list again: experiencing solitude at the Mount Banks Lookout, peering at the famed blue valleys at the Govetts Leap and the Evans Lookouts, trying to discern the "bear" at the Cahill's Lookout, ogling at the skyride at the Katoomba Lookout, join the international fist-fight to get to the perfect selfie at the over-crowded Echo Point and risking your life for Instagram likes at the Lincoln's Rock. All locked, checked by 2 pm. And that gave us just enough time to head back to Sydney, return the car and take in the famed night view of the Harbour.

Bondi Beach

Bondi Beach, Sydney

Ayers Rock

The Harbour is where we started our next day. That's where James Cook landed in 1770 and where the first European colony was founded. And that's where the country's two most famous landmarks are located: the Opera House and the adjacent Harbour Bridge. The iconic Opera House was completed in 1973 based on the design made by the Danish architect Jorn Utzon, sixteen years earlier. The nearby ~1.2 km long through-arch bridge is older having been built between 1923 and 1932 based on the design of the Hell Gate Bridge in New York City. A pleasant walk through the lush Botanic Gardens brought us to the fabulous State Library. One look at the central reading room will make you close your browser and pick up a book. Now, don't look at its picture here and continue reading. A hop away is the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This is no Europe. Hence, you can see all of its permanent collections in less than an hour and all its must sees (On the Wallaby Track and The Golden Fleece being the must-est), are confined to a single room. A skip away is the largest cathedral in Sydney, St Mary's, and a jump away is the Anzac Memorial, built in 1934 to honour the Australian Imperial Force of World War I. The rest of the day was spent cooling our heels at the Bondi, the most famous of all Australian beaches, owing its strange name to the Aboriginal word "boondi" meaning "water tumbling over rocks".

Ayers Rock

Uluru (Ayer's Rock)

The following morning, we started the costliest leg of our travel, in fact any travel we have taken till date. A 3 hour (USD 320 per head ticket) brought us to Uluru, a USD 150 per day car rental (with extremely limited mileage) brought us to the actual site, a USD 180 room (the cheapest in town with no running water, let along a private bathroom) helped us tide through the night and another 3 hour flight (this time, USD 420 per head) took us to the next destination. A sum total of USD 2000 to spend a night at a place with fly infestation touching biblical proportions. All that just to see a rock in the middle of nowhere. But oh boy, what a rock it was, especially at sunset. The adjacent picture and the video-log below does no justice. How do you put a price on something so magnificent! If the sight of this 3.6 km long and 348 m tall immovable giant doesn't move you, I don't know what will. What we did was the fastest way to visit Uluru. The flight dropped us at 1 pm which gave us just enough time to swallow a veggie pizza, zoom to the Kata Tjuta formations before rushing back to catch the famed sunset. Kata Tjuta, meaning "many heads" in the local language, is a conglomerate of 36 giant boulders, placed higgledy-piggledy in the middle of the giant Australian Outback plains and raising abruptly from it. A sight to behold, a sight, which by itself, would have worth all the trouble and money to get here. But since these rocks find themselves within a grocery-run disance from one of the planet's most recognised natural formations, they usually find themselves lonely, devoid of tourists. It is a pity that we did not budget more time. We would have loved to walk at least one of its trails.

Green Turtle
Green Turtle

Green Turtle, Great Barrier Reef

Our next destination, alluded to in the previous paragraph was Cairns, a city so far north that it was warm and muggy, a complete contrast to the freezing autumnal south. A city so far north that it is surrounded by rainforests. Not any old rainforest, but the oldest, the Daintree to give it's a name. But just like Kata Tjuta, it finds itself at a spitting distance from yet another world famous natural wonder and hence remains little known. But unlike Kata Tjuta, you cannot do a quick in-and-out. It needs a dedicated day trip and hence we had to give up our dream of sighting Cassowaries in its natural environment. But we still had a spare afternoon which we could spend on a leisurely stroll along the pretty boardwalk that borders the seashore.

The world famous natural wonder alluded to in the previous paragraph is of course, the Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef system in the world, composed of close to 3000 individual reefs. And you have to take a private tour to visit them. All tours have a dedicated private pontoon, a large contraption, bobbing around a selected reef. The tour boats take you to the said pontoon and you can spend the entire day there before heading back. There are several activities that you can do once you get there. Some are included in the trip cost: like the under-water viewing deck, glass bottom boat ride, semi-submersible ride, self-snorkeling etc. Some are paid: like guided snorkeling, helmet diving, regular diving, helicopter rides etc. We did the free stuff plus the guided snorkeling. The downside to all this is that there is no solid ground between the start and the finish. We are so motion sick prone that action scenes in movie theatres make us queasy. We have to hire body-doubles to watch Rajinikanth fight scenes. And this was autumn with seas rough enough to convince Blackbeard to give up on piracy. So it was 8 hours of pure agony for us. But just like Uluru, the few minutes we spent on the guided snorkeling was enough to compensate for all the troubles. However, unlike Uluru, this is something we are unlikely to ever repeat in our lifetimes.

Flinders Street Station
Flinders Street Station

Flinder's Street Station, Melbourne

There was one more long flight and an overnight left before our trip concludes. That flight took us back to Melbourne and if you had been paying attention, you would have noticed we hadn't stepped in that city yet, despite having used its suburban airport a few times. And what a city it was! Both Melbourne and Sydney truly impressed us. Both had excellent public transportation, extremely safe to roam around even after dark, reasonably compact historic centre, and great vantage points for photography. On the first evening, we had just enough time to visit the National Gallery of Victoria, a wonderful museum and just like the one at Sydney, compact enough to be covered within a couple of hours. After ensuring we spent our heart's content on its top two possessions: McCubbin's Pioneer and Roberts' Shearing the Rams, we walked back to our hotel along the Yarra which gave us the famed view of the city skyline.

Melbourne Skyline

The following morning we had to crisscross the city a few times because we had to visit the sites as per the opening times and not as per proximity. Thankfully, the transportation inside the core is free and we only had to spend time (and not money) in the said crisscrossing. Here goes the usual laundry list of sights: walking the graffiti filled Hosier Lane in complete solitude, taking in the views of the city from the steps of the Shrine (yet another World War I memorial), filling our lungs with fresh air at the Botanic Gardens, coming face to face with Horridus (world's most complete Triceratops) at the Melbourne Museum and be amazed by the spires and stained glasses of St. Paul's and the St. Patrick's. The highlight was again the State Library, this one better and grander than the one at Sydney. Ok, go ahead see its picture here, we are nearing the end anyway.

Melbourne Skyline

Melbourne Skyline

Melbourne is also known for its historic buildings, several of them date from the Victorian-era (i.e. the 19th century). Most of them can only be admired from the outside and our personal picks would be the Flinders Street Railway Station, the Town Hall, the Princess Theatre, the Forum Theatre, the Old Treasury Building, the Hotel Windsor and the Royal Exhibition Building. The only challenge was to find a suitable vantage point to photograph them without being run over by the ubiquitous trams.

And finally, the food. It deserves the concluding paragraph. It was simply outstanding. We never thought Australia would be a foodie destination for vegetarians. We were pleasantly surprised. Veganism and vegetarianism has penetrated deep into the country. Every restaurant, including the burger joints, have at least a few vegetarian options. Many have dedicated vegan menus. Even the internal flights had dedicated veggie choices. Uluru had so many veggie options that we could not try even half of what was on-offer during our stay. And what's more, everything we tried were extremely tasty. It is not the boring tasteless soya/fake meat patties and nuggets, but dishes prepared with some thought and dedication. But, (there's always a "but" at the end, isn't it?), the downside is the cost. Everything was so expensive that we could overhear the Swiss complaining. If that doesn't sound serious enough, the sada-dosas at the Melbourne Saravana Bhavan will set you back by USD 12 a plate.

Click here for more photos from Sydney.
Click here for more photos from Melbourne.
Click here for more photos from rest of Australia.

TRIP DETAILS AND ESSENTIALS
Click here for more photos from Sydney.
Click here for more photos from Melbourne.
Click here for more photos from rest of Australia.

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