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Wednesday, 19 April 2017

A First Visit to Australia - Pt 1: the south-east

We’ve been back from Australia for three weeks now, and already the memories are becoming blurred by the slowly expanding distance that separates us from a wonderful, intense experience, and of course the maelstrom of current events swirling around everyday life.

A number of things that I observed on the six-week trip are clear in my mind, however. First, Australia suddenly seemed far nearer than it ought to be. It was distressingly close: just one long, tedious flight away. On the other hand, it was much, much bigger than I had really understood. We travelled huge distances by car and some substantial ones on foot, and whenever we checked the map we saw that we’d done no more than scratch a faint line across a tiny corner of a continental island that seems to go on forever.

I don’t know whether I’ll ever write anything substantial about the place, the way I like to about the western part of the United States. I should imagine I’d want to make another visit to sort though some of my initial impressions, expand my knowledge, confirm what I think I remember; or at least pause for a while and give it some thought; but for the moment I’ll content myself with a few notes on the three main areas we visited, starting with the south-east.

Well no, let me start with Hong Kong.

Ancient and modern in Hong Kong -  Buddhist temple overshadowed by burgeoning high-rise
We decided to take a short break there, partly to relax, partly to allow the scope of our journey to sink in. The idea of getting on a plane in Newcastle and getting off in Melbourne after a brief stop in Dubai seemed somehow disrespectful. It ought surely to be harder than that to travel halfway around the Earth. We chose Hong Kong and were glad we did. Although we were only there for three days and two nights, we managed to get a flavour of a place where old ways meet new. If that sounds a little glib, let me say that we took a centrally located hotel and strolled around the business district – got lost our first evening – before negotiating the automated ticket machines (quite the epic struggle, that) and hopping a train out to Star Island. The idea there was to take a cable car to Victoria Peak, a bus to a harbour further around the coast and a ferry back to the city. When we got there we found a sign saying that the thing was closed for maintenance. ‘Till when?’ I asked one of the guys who were standing selling bus tours.

‘Till June,’ he said.

So we took a walk along a sign-posted route that promised various delights including an ancient temple and a display of public art -  and delivered most of them in due course.

The route took us around what appeared to be a brand new town where 50- and 60-storey apartment blocks crept up, stage by stage towards the towering cranes that are everywhere on the Hong Kong skyline. We found the temple but struggled at first to find the ‘art walk’. We ventured into a public housing area where, beneath the sleek new high-rises, people aired their bedding on the chain-link fences, dried their fish in the sun, swatting away the flies, and fixed their bikes on the pavements. Deep among the tenements we found a lunch-counter where, by pointing and nodding, we were able to get a large bowl of delicious, traditional food and a pair of chopsticks for about £3. We ate, with everyone else, on benches in the public space, surrounded by various sculptures that attempted to link ancient and modern themes – and the soaring apartment blocks.



From Hong Kong we took the plane to Melbourne, a flying visit to catch up with a niece who works there as a nurse. What we saw of the city reminded me of mainland Europe - more specifically Germany, I suppose, because of its excellent tram network.

Melbourne, looking back at the city from the Anzac Memorial

We would like to have spent more time there, but only had forty-eight hours before we had to make our way towards Canberra. The fact that we managed to find ourselves on a dirt road within fifteen minutes of picking up our hire car at the airport cheered me immensely. This was, after all, supposed to be an adventure. Part of our planning involved a series of short hikes to keep us in shape for our long walk in Tasmania, so our destination was Thredbo, in the Snowy Mountains. Apart from us, there was only one other guest at the youth hostel. Next morning we took the ski-lift, and started hiking.


We rarely seem to go away on these trips without encountering snow. I have photos of myself in every month of the year except September standing in snow, and here we were again, late summer and several inches on the ground. Yes, we were 6-7,000 feet up, and yes, the locals agreed it had been unseasonably cool the last couple of days, but this was still only late summer. The hike to the summit of Australia’s tallest peak, Mt Kosciuszko (7309 feet), is a steady, gentle climb, and very popular indeed. It soon began to pall. So well used is it, and so degraded the old path, that they have put in a steel walkway. Sensible, but rather too reminiscent of the London Underground for our taste.

Perhaps a kilometre from the summit, where we could see crowds gathering, we abandoned the effort and found a circuitous track that took us eight miles or so, down through our first eucalyptus forest and Dead Horse Gap, to where we started.


Canberra, the capital city, was hot, around 100 degrees – one of maybe two uncomfortable days over the entire six weeks. We were there not so much to see the sights but to visit some of A’s old haunts – she lived there in the 1960s – and a few old friends. After visiting her old schools and neighbourhoods, we did have time to check out the city’s main architectural feature, the broad avenue that connects the Parliament buildings with the War Memorial, and, briefly, the National Library. It was a planned city, and it shows. The road system makes it easy to get around, and there is a wonderfully spacious feel.

Writing this down, it does make the whole trip seem terribly rushed. But as I said earlier, Australia is enormous. Normally, when you have six weeks in a place, you imagine that you’re going to have time to do everything. I had entertained hopes of taking in a cricket match at the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground) or in Sydney or the WACA (Perth). As it turned out, the domestic season was effectively over – and we enjoyed the time we spent in the Parliament buildings.   


Sydney, regrettably, got even shorter shrift. People really rate the city. We had to settle for nodding at in passing. A couple of strolls around the far side of the Harbour, another through the Botanic Gardens and it was time to get our train out to Faulconbridge in the Blue Mountains to meet an aboriginal guide who would take us on a day-long wilderness hike. We were Evan’s sole customers, and were treated to an intense introduction to wilderness ways, aboriginal culture and art.

Aboriginal rock carving, Blue Mountains

We ate a bit of bush tucker, sucked on refreshing, flavoured leaves, ground up charcoal and earth to make paint with which to decorate strips of bark, and listened to him as he interpreted rock carvings and their connections to the song lines

While our guide talked to us we sat in a shallow cave under a canopy of wind-sculpted rock
Back in the big city we made the brief pilgrimage out towards Mrs Macquarie’s Chair so that I could stand at the feet of a writer whose work captivated me some decades ago and convinced me it was worth my time to write down the stories I heard in railwaymen’s cabins and on the factory floor. I’m talking about Henry Lawson and his collection of camp-fire tales While The Billy Boils.

One of my literary heroes, Henry Lawson


From Sydney we headed along the coast road towards Melbourne for a flight to Tasmania and Part 2 of our adventure.


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