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Rating Australia

Whenever you read about or see Australia, the image is the same; an untouched, sun-drenched utopia, a combination of the savage beauty of Ayres Rock and the shimmering tranquillity of the Barrier Reef. Having spent six weeks in Oz, I’ve come to the conclusion that Australia, though memorable, is over-priced and over-hyped. Although many parts of the country quiver with the secrets of stunning timelessness, much of the country murmurs with mediocrity.


Sydney is, predictably, much like any other big European city, its glass-front commercialism manifest in the KFCs and Niketowns which punctuate every street and in the over-priced pubs and clubs dotted around the city centre [$4 for a schooner would make even a Londoner invoke the Lord’s name]. Unfortunately the constraints of time allowed us only three days in Sydney, thus preventing me from forming a detailed view of the city. The harbour bridge and opera house are incredible, but then most people know that anyway. Beyond that, modern architecture is interspersed with time-tarred remnants of the past, such as the antiquated railway system which runs alongside the ultra-sophisticated monorail. On our last day in Sydney we went to Aussie Stadium to watch the Roosters playing the Warriors in the NFL, or ‘footie’, a term which apparently covers every game played in Australia. The match perhaps encapsulated Sydney as I saw it – plastic and expensive, the aesthetically perfect cheerleaders and brainless car advertisements over the PA demonstrating both sides of local culture. Bondai Beach, in better weather, would have been amazing; as it was, the cliffside hotels offered a slight tinge of Scarborough on the afternoon we spent there. The unyielding westerness of the city extends even to its seedy quarter, King’s Cross, an area more pathetic than threatening where tramps offer to finish your food for you but rarely try and take your wallet. Looking back, the lack of edginess engendered by King’s Cross was merely an appropriately blunt facet of a rounded yet dull city.


Having booked a camper van to take us up the coast, we buoyantly headed north. The most enjoyable part of New South Wales was Hunter Valley, a small network of wineries set into the cliffs and valleys of Cessnock. The area is often ignored in tourist packages, and was all the better for its lack of publicity. We took tandem bikes round Lindemann’s and the other prominent vineyards, taking regular slurps as we went; unfortunately, this hedonistic jolly culminated in two of my companions crashing their tandem, forcing the rearmost rider to go to hospital with a gashed knee. Each winery we visited was more than happy to satisfy our desire for alcohol, even providing port when asked. Unfortunately, the rest of our time in New South Wales was largely forgettable. Katoomba, although built on the beautiful Blue Mountains, resembled a bizarre redneck valhalla, all pick-up trucks, cheque lumberjack shirts and stained white pick-up trucks. Walking into the local bar, one half expected a piano to stop playing, all the other patrons to look up from their games of cards and the old barmaid to shove over a whiskey sour after spitting in a shot glass. Newcastle resembled a warped hybrid of Warrington and Blackpool, one giant refuse pipe spitting effluent into the innocent ocean from its smog-fuelled bowels. Our trip to Port Stephens was ruined by rain, a critical problem given the small town lacks the amenities for winter elements. Otherwise, NSW seemed like Smallsville USA writ large, a collection of one-horse towns equipped with beer, butcher’s and bait shop, but unfortunately little else of note.


Nimbin was an oasis of interest in this austere desert. Like a mini Amsterdam, Nimbin’s inhabitants openly smoke cannabis on the streets, and a whole local industry has grown up around the herb, from bong dispensaries to the local pizzeria which, in such an environment, is practically an essential industry. One wondered how the locals could continue their recreational activities without hassle from the authorities? Given that Nimbin has its own police station, one assumed that the Australian government thought it better to allow all the hippies to gather in one harmless place rather than corrupt others with their wicked ways. Whatever the reasoning, it was still strange to see such overt laziness in a country which prides itself on physical proficiency.


Our time in Queensland was dominated by the package of adventures we booked from Peter Pan travel agency, a package which cost over $800. The first part of this package was skydiving on the Sunshine coast. Skydiving is a must for every traveller, the sexy peril of the jump stoking the fire of the adventurer’s self-perception. Although the day cost $230, it was definitely worth it. When the plane’s doors opened, it was almost too surreal, so horrifically beyond our human capacities to be terrifying. Normally unable to stomach the fear of a rollercoaster, I mentally divorced myself from my actions, unable to believe I doing something so unchartable and other-worldly as falling to the ground with no rope or track to get me down safely, a feat almost too terrifying to frighten me. And then the wind ripping at your face, eyes bulging, ears popping, every gnawing, prosaic, selfish thought superceded by a base, primeval desire to keep breathing normally, all life’s quotidian concerns stripped down to the fatalist exhiliration of a life vs death contest in which victory will make everything else alright. And then the joy as the parachute opens. Then anticlimax, not the joy of a safe, peaceful descent, more a disappointment that the moment of heroism has passed.


Landing on the beach was memorable, a feral ending to a feral experience, the glorious timelessness of a beach a fine counterpart to the ferocity of the skies. Skydiving is a paradox, at once totally fantastic while touching the base reality of our existence. It doesn’t matter who you are up there, there are no constraints or superiors, a major reason why people love it; the world 12,000 feet up has a brutal power of its own. This force so out-of-this-world as to ignorant and contemptuous of civilization and time, a pocket of moments rather than seconds self-governed by their own, brief rules which engender their own snatch of emotions, totally divorced from real life, for this isn’t real life, its almost like it’s not happening. Having spent our time in Australia thus far plodding through the gas-stations and bottle shops of the sticks, this was a most welcome change of pace.


If skydiving was a quickening of the tempo, going canoeing the following day was like slowing from a sprint to a standstill. Paddling up the Noosa river, life’s cloying concerns were allowed to peacefully melt away, our oars quashing them into the shimmering, furrowed ripples we created. The stretch of the Noosa river up which we paddled was inevitably, given safety concerns, devoid of dangerous creatures. Indeed, apart from a bird which could live underwater and had a periscope for a neck, we saw few new species during the trip. Furthermore, our trip was curtailed on the first evening due to bush fires, condemning us to a day spent ambling around the campsite. The jaunt was enlivened by Lorraine, an Irish girl who accompanied us upriver. Lorraine, like all Irish people it seems, thought that being Irish made her funny. She wasn’t. At all. Yet she helped out unstintingly, providing Liz with the female companion she badly needed as a break from the interesting male odours of our camper van. On the second day, with Lorraine in tow, we decided to hike up the riverbank, wading through paths delineated by white trees untainted by the sulfourous smoke of urbanity, hopping between logs to avoid the gooey marshland and sharp overhanging branches, before arriving at the glorious Noosa lake and proceeding to honour our surroundings by getting royally battered. Apart from this brief account of a very brief excursion, our trip was an absence of action with few definitive experiences.


Our 4 x 4 safari around Frasier was present, although I can hardly judge it, given my only previous experience of this kind came at Knowsley Safari Park, when monkeys defecated on our roof and it rained all day. Despite the frivolity of our crew, we managed to avoid turning the car over in the rutted sand, largely thanks to Ciaran, our driver, master chef, wash-up extraordinaire and tent erection expert. Aside from Ciaran, the best thing about Frasier was the boozing; with only a ranger to curb our raucousness, we managed to consume around 30 cans of beer each over the days. Not that I am particularly proud of this, for on the first night I had to go out and defend our group’s loudness dressed in only a pair of boxer shorts, and on the second night I ended up embarassing myself talking pidgin German to a giant called Tobias who looked like the star of Where’s Wally. Not that was alone in my shame. On the same night my friend Si was attacked by two Scottish lesbians [at least that’s the way he tells it], Rick entered three different tents en route to bed before being escorted to it by some Irish girls, and Jo, a male escort from Manchester who was with another group, ended up wandering into our tent and urinating in it. Classy.


If Skydiving was the most exhilirating of our experiences Down Under, Frasier Island was surely the most debauched. Unfortunately, my battle with the booze suffered further loss on the cruise round the Whitsunday Islands, during which I stupidly entered an eating contest and ended up vomiting off the side of the boat to the amusement of the assorted German and Japanese passengers, who proceeded to photograph me like some hideous circus freak. I know how Adam felt, the shame of ruining a scene of unspoilt beauty by succumbing to the twin sins of gluttony and pride. My problems aside, the cruise, like so much of Oz, left the tiniest of somethings to be desired, given it cost around $250 [£100] for two days. One cannot deny the ethereal splendour of the Whitsundays; sun-bleached white beaches verging on dense greenery which hugs the rugged contours of the islandic mountain ranges. Yet we were only able to visit one of the beaches, and unfortunately given only an hour and a half to do so, and, as with all Australian waters, the beauty of the ocean was punctured by a number of dangerous animals which kept scubadiving to a minimum. Hence, although we saw some beautiful fish, such as the giant groper, as well as some coruscating coral formations, one left the half-hour snorkelling session feeling there was so much more to discover. At Mission Beach, hoping to expand upon this experience, I took the intro scuba dive which, for around $50 [£20] constituted the best value we found all holiday. Whilst diving we saw a collection of star fish and sea cucumbers and even the apparently [but not reassuringly] non-threatening giant clam. If the Whitsundays had been disappointing, this, for me, was the fourth highlight of the trip, engendering, as with Skydiving, a sense of empowerment, a feeling of conquest over one’s surroundings which I hope to achieve again in the future.

The fifth and final highlight was the Moon Party; part of its appeal lay in its lack of publicity [indeed we only found out about it two hours after arriving on Magnetic Island]. Another, connected reason was the lack of friendship beads and eyebrow piercings on show, evidence that the island had not aroused the interest of the self-conscious travellers and Ministry of Sounds cutouts one half-expected to encounter. And, unlike at Cream or Gatecrasher, you could take a break on the beach to chill.

This experience, juxtaposed alongside that of Cairns, our next and final destination, perhaps summed up my impression of Australia; while the Moon Party on Magnetic Island was unexpected, cheap and cheerful, Cairns was over-hyped and  over-priced, its soulless streets, clearly planned on an architect’s map, lacking even the hustling prosperity of city. One of the town’s two clubs, P.J.O’Brien’s, charged $7 for a pint of Stella, while the other, the Woolshed, held a Magaluf-style Miss Backpacker contest while we were there, the cheap breast-filled extravaganza offering a neat precis of the town’s touristy tackiness.


In fact the most beautiful towns on East Coast Australia are those which the tourist skips, such as Mission Beach with its beautiful white verandas reminiscent of the American south. Unfortunately, the tourist is almost pushed along from Sydney, through Newcastle, Brisbane and Townsville, on the way to Cairns. The adventure package we booked from Peter Pan was mixed. While Skydiving was incredible and Frasier Island legendary, Canoeing and the Whitsundays cruise were merely okay, which seemed poor value given the amount they cost us [having spent over £2000 in our six weeks, I’ll be working for a long time to repay my various debts]. Perhaps the problem lies in Australia’s obvious beauty; while Australia’s rise to first world status and traveller’s hotspot has been accompanied with the inevitable and necessary concerns over public safety, one cannot help but feel there is so much more within touching distance. Maybe we were too young to appreciate the aesthetic wonders of Australia purely for their own sake and on their own terms. Whatever the explanation, aside from Skydiving, the segments of the trip which were accompanied by obvious adventure and which emerged away from the tourist track, such as the Hunter Valley bike tour, the Moon Party and the cheap scuba diving at Mission Beach, were surely the most memorable.


Ultimately, it seems everyone expects so much from Australia, the local tourist board having embellished its already lavish beauty, giving it the appearance of an unchartered paradise where anyone can do anything. Unfortunately it does not quite reach this mark, and, given the expense of the trip, I would advise other would-be travellers to look elsewhere.

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