SydneyThe city has changed a fair bit since my last visit. Circular Quay featured a massive new cruise ship terminal, greatly altering the skyline, effectively laying down a new skyscraper horizontally. When we arrived, the Seabourn Quest was docked and ready to leave that afternoon, and on my early morning run at 6:30 the next day, a new ship, the Celebrity Solstice, had already docked, most of its passengers probably still asleep.
The cruise industry has grown tremendously worldwide in the last few years, but the growth is especially pronounced in Australia. Nearly 1 million Australians are boarding the colossal vessels each year — that is 4% of the world's cruise ship passengers, when Australia accounts for just 0.3% of the world's population. Month-long circumnavigation cruises around Australia are becoming particularly popular.
With only a day to spend in the city, we chose to walk down to Circular Quay, visit the botanic gardens, and have dinner somewhere nice. We chose Scarlett Restaurant on the Rocks, just off George St. The restaurant is tucked away in a quiet alley and has a lovely ambience, serving delicious food and fantastic South Australian wines. One particularly good choice is the Phoenix, a cabernet sauvignon from Coonawarra, near Adelaide.
The next day we set off for Melbourne via the Blue Mountains, a few hours west of Sydney. One could spend a fun-filled couple of days here hiking in the extensive eucalyptus forest, but again, short on time, we took in the highlight view of the Three Sisters, a short walk from a nearby parking lot (ahem, “carpark”) and immediately continued further south.
Covering these immense distances by car would be a lot more tolerable had the speed limits (which are strongly enforced) been more practical. A limit of 100km/h (62mph) feels like standstill on a four-lane highway going through nothing but farmland. A 9-hour drive, could easily be reduced to 6, obviating the need for corny road signs imploring drivers to pull over and rest: “Break the drive. Stay Alive;” Weary? Powernap now!” “Yawning? A microsleep can kill!”
MelbourneIt wasn't just Sydney that seems to have experienced change. The country as a whole has adopted draconian Big Brother measures ostensibly to improve safety. Red light and speed cameras proliferated Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and everywhere in between. An Uber driver lamented that a Melbourne street's speed limit was lowered from 60 to 50 kph unbeknownst to him, which cost him a $300 AUD fine and three points off his license for driving at 58 kph. This is a blatant tax revenue raising tactic rather than an actual safety measure. Each year a new record in revenue collection is set from speed and red light cameras, and so far, Australians seem to be swallowing the abuse without much complaining.
We were surprised to find the weather almost chilly, despite this being the dead of summer. In fact, the 2015 Australian Open had just ended a couple of weeks earlier and had been the sixth coldest in history. But, then Melbourne prides itself with being able to exhibit all four seasons in a day, and we happily made do with grey skies and nippy air.
We stayed at the Punthill in South Yarra, a luxury two-bedroom apartment hotel with terrific balcony views of Melbourne. The train station below generates a not so insignificant amount of background noise, but the sunsets here are well worth the gentle alarm clock of the electric trains in the morning.
Earlier this year, I acquired a LEE filter kit and two graduated ND filters, which is something I should have done a long time ago. Without them, the shots below would not have been possible. The filters even out the light entering the lens by gradually darkening the bright spots (bright sky) and leaving the rest unchanged. Thus, one can get a photorealistic image with one exposure, unlike High Dynamic Range (HDR), which often has painting qualities and comes with alignment complications. These filters are expensive but worth every penny.
The Great Ocean RoadThe week we chose for our Down Under vacation happened to coincide with Chinese New Year. This is a time when, several years in a row now, tens of thousands (and this year, well over a hundred thousand) well-to-do Chinese flock to Australia to enjoy their week off. This influx led to long lines at the rental car counters, and massive traffic jams and crowded vista points along the Great Ocean Road (GOR).
Some restaurants prepared for this annual migration by completely redesigning their menus and serving only Chinese food. Hotels also seemed to welcome the extra business, as did real estate agents who happily pinned up listings for investment properties.
We stopped for lunch at a small beachside park halfway between Melbourne and Port Campbell and were entertained by a couple of remarkably intelligent sulphur-crested cockatoos. They had seen us and other park visitors discard rubbish and scraps of food in a trash bin with a closed hinged lid, and the moment we got in our cars, one of them jumped up on the bin, succeeded in prying the lid open with his beak, and carefully used one foot to prop up the lid even further, all the while balancing on the other foot and fluttering for extra support. But before opening it all the way, the lid crashed down. This was succeeded by several other attempts until the lid slammed on his claw. Shrieking in pain, he and his partner decided to look for easier sources of food. With such smarts and persistence, it is no wonder Australians find them a nuisance.
Securing a perch to photograph the Twelve Apostles was a challenge among the throngs of tourists, as was operating a camera on a tripod with limited elbow room, but photography is often about patience, and just before we were about to concede to the cold wind and the Chinese, the sun came out in its full splendor, lighting up the cliffs in brilliant gold.
Here the ND filters proved even more useful, and it was back in 2009 at this very spot that an Australian photographer introduced me to the concept.
The following day we left Port Campbell and completed the remaining twenty or so miles of the GOR before heading inland towards Adelaide. Instead of the coastal route through Mount Gambier, Google suggested a “shortcut” that took us further north into Victoria through some of the remotest farms we had seen. At times this road-less-traveled turned into a narrow strip of asphalt bordered by wide dirt shoulders to be used when approaching oncoming vehicles. This was obviously a cost-cutting measure that did not seem to compromise safety all that much since the asphalt would widen at the curves, of which there were preciously few.
Google correctly estimated there would be no traffic, and the speed limits were surprisingly higher than on the highways, so we made good progress. A bit of anxiety surfaced, however, when the fuel gauge dipped below 1/4, and each “town” we passed turned out to be nothing larger than an intersection. Harrow promised to have a gas station, but when we arrived, two men (probably ten percent of the population) were working on the support beams of the station, rendering it out of service. Anxiety increased further until we reached Edenhope, which lived true to its name. Not only did we find fuel, but were even able to buy a few pies for lunch using a credit card —a convenience the proprietress had introduced to her bakery for the very first time just the previous day.
AdelaideWhat we looked forward to the most on the trip was seeing our dear friend, Gudrun, in Adelaide. It was a wonderful reunion, and besides being an incredibly generous host, she has the kind of insider knowledge on local attractions only the most skilled of travel agents can have. She took us to outstanding wineries in Barossa Valley and some unique spots around Adelaide. One such highlight was the Whispering Wall at the Barossa Reservoir. When the dam was constructed in 1901, engineers discovered, quite by chance apparently, that the 140m-long wall carries sound perfectly from one end to the other, such that a person standing on one side can whisper and be heard clearly on the other.
The weather in Adelaide was a sharp contrast to cold Melbourne and Port Campbell. Temperatures ran upwards of 40 Celsius (100+ Fahrenheit) here, which was declared too hot to hold a koala at Cleland Wildlife Park. These lazy marsupials dealt with the sweltering heat by napping in their tree house, which was rigged with elaborate mist sprayers to keep these spoiled creatures cool. On our whirlwind tour of the park before boarding a plane for Tasmania, we also fed some kangaroos and emus and enjoyed watching a Tasmanian devil do zoomies in his enclosure.
TasmaniaGudrun pointed out that Australians had a short diminutive form for nearly everything. Sure, everyone knows Aussie, but there is Brissie for Brisbane, Subie for Subaru, roo for kangaroo, sunnies for sunglasses, and of course, Tassie for Tasmania. An adorable five-year-old on the plane was so excited to see his grandmother in Launceston (Launie) that as we were coming in for a landing, he longingly looked out the window and said: “Oh, Tassie, how I've missed you!” Somehow, the koala lacks a diminutive form though, and the locals don't seem to know why. Goodie promised us a formal inquiry into this apparent omission.
Thanks to the long line at the rental car office, we arrived in Launceston too late to find anything to eat (all restaurants seemed to close strictly at 10pm). We had also just missed a street water slide event, where a nice sloping street is converted into a water amusement park. Breakfast made up for it the next day, however, and recharged on flat whites, we got on the road towards Freycinet National Park.
Famous for its scenic camping and signature Wineglass Bay, Freycinet National Park is a can't-miss in Tasmania. There are two lookouts that offer views of Wineglass Bay: the first is an easy two-hour round trip walk along a well-maintained, not so steep trail, and the second is a harrowing climb up to Mt. Amos, which at 1,400ft gives the few who dare to climb it a much more extensive panoramic view that extends across the lagoon to Promise Bay.
The park guide states: “the arduous track crosses steep and slippery rock slab sections and can be difficult to follow. Mt Amos should not be attempted in wet or damp conditions due to these steep slabs that become very slippery.” The guide also says, however, that “Tasmanian weather is unpredictable.” So, what happens when it starts raining unexpectedly while one is still on the rock?
This was a very definite possibility as we scrambled further up the treacherous terrain. Around 1,000ft, my parents wisely admitted defeat and suggested we turn around. At this point the wind had really picked up, and, never mind the trickling water on the slabs, a strong gust could make us lose our footing and send us to our deaths.
Being the daredevil I am, however, I convinced them to wait while I attempted the remaining 400ft. The conditions deteriorated as I ascended, and the gusts were so strong at the very top that I could not stand fully upright to take a picture of Wineglass Bay below, which at this point had been mostly obscured by high clouds.
Afraid it would start raining at any moment, I hurried down as safely as I could, and the three of us were grateful when we made it back alive. This was more adventure than any of us had prepared for, but we still enjoyed every moment of it, and Mt. Amos became affectionately known as Mt. Almost for my parents, who had not quite made it to the top.
That evening we stayed in Hobart, which after Sydney is Australia's second oldest city. It is bigger, livelier, and more scenic than Launceston. Tucked in the foothills of Mt. Wellington (1,271m / 4,170ft), it offers a lot to explore in terms of both city and nature.
The food scene is noteworthy, here. We had delicious dinner at the Drunken Admiral, and probably the best coffee we had in Australia at Villino Espresso. Villino is considered one of the top five coffee shops in Hobart, and it has to be up there in all of Australia.
The next morning we got up before the crack of dawn to catch the sunrise over Mt Wellington. Only a half hour drive from downtown, the summit can be reached by car if one does not have the time to hike it. At the top the dawn wind was so strong, however, that capturing a good photo was next to impossible. There were plenty of spots with better shelter below the summit with views that were just as good, any one of which would have been a better place to set up a tripod.
The final Tassie highlights on our list were the rainforest of Mount Field National Park (which gets an average of 6.5 feet of rain every year) and Lake St Claire in Cradle Mountain National Park. Mount Field was so rainy that we did not get to see much more than a few ferns, but the area is a magnet for hardcore hikers who enjoy extreme weather conditions.
En route to Cradle Mountain National Park, our eyes grew weary from the rain and the long drive, so we hoped to find a place to get some coffee and re-energize. As it turns out, there are no towns between the rain forest and Cradle Mountain, so we were quite fortunate to find a sign advertising “great coffee” off the main winding road. The side-road ran along ginormous pipes for so long that we almost turned around thinking the sign had sold us a red herring. My curiosity being the highest in the group, and of course being the driver, I decided to press on and we eventually stumbled upon the tiny settlement of Tarraleah, an old township built by the Hydro Electric Commission of Tasmania to house the workers constructing a 90MW hydroelectric power station in the 1920s and 1930s.
The coffee was indeed great, and while the food was just so so, Tarraleah was very much a worthwhile stop. A neat mini museum shows off some staggering statistics on the power plant that are well worth a read.
The weather in Cradle Mountain did not improve much, and lacking insect repellent as well as time, we could only afford a short hike through a eucalyptus grove parallel to Lake St Claire. The National Geographic guidebook jokes that laymen tend to divide Australia's trees into two broad categories: those that are eucalyptuses, and those that are not. When traveling across the southeast and all over Tasmania, the eucalyptus has strong rein over the landscape. And these trees are nothing like their Californian transplants. Here, they thrive in their natural habitat and are truly magnificent.
That final night in Launceston, we tasted probably the best Australian beer we had had, and for me at least, a new favorite — the White Rabbit Ale, brewed in Victoria. It was the perfect beverage to toast this excellent trip before heading home on the new Boeing Dreamliner.