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Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Australia exceeds expectations!

At relatively short notice, we decided to visit Australia in order to see our youngest son who is there on a six month work placement. We decided that if ever we were to go there now would be the time.

Part One: Sydney

Flight to Sydney via Hong Kong

View from the Royal Botanic Gardens

We arrived in Sydney on Saturday evening and there was surprise awaiting my wife in the hotel foyer: our son! He is living and working in Melbourne, the second stop on our journey and we had expected to see him there on our next stage of our journey. Work had brought him to Sydney and he had extended his stay over the weekend to be with us.

Sydney has a population of 4.5 million and is the financial centre of Australia. Melbourne (population 4 million) and Sydney are great rivals, to the extent that the country's capital was created in Canberra, which lies in between the two of them.

We were immediately impressed by the quality of everything, the cleanliness, the great food and most things. It's a very odd sensation being on the other side of the world, where the buildings, the animals, the climate (it was mid winter there) are all so very different, but the people are so similar that you scarcely feel abroad.

The city gardens and the beaches were beautiful, even in mid winter.

We visited the City's tourist hotspots including The Rocks district, Circular Quay, the Botanic Gardens, The Opera House, the Harbour Bridge and we took a ferry to Manly where we admired the beautiful beaches. One of the main highlights (apart from an amazing meal in Bennelong) was our day trip to the Blue Mountains:  

Blue Mountains Tour

Thanks to Mark, our tour guide for the day, we had a truly unforgettable experience. This trip is so much more than the Blue Mountains alone. It turned out that we were the only ones on the trip, so we had our guide and the minibus to ourselves!

Mark got us into the Featherdale Wildlife Park before the crowds built up which meant we pretty much had the koalas, the kangaroos and the wallabies to ourselves. We then went on to look at the other amazing animals native to Australia including cassowaries, dingos, wombats and dozens more. There was some type of stalk who was almost as tall as me and watching him walk was hilarious! I just love this stalk!

I just loved this stalk - he was almost the same height as me!

We stopped at the Waradah Aboriginal Centre and experienced a show and learned about Aboriginal life. Mark then took us to several 'Lookouts' where we had exceptional views over the stunning Blue Mountains. Highly recommended!

The stunning Blue Mountains - The 3 Sisters
The return trip by catamaran passed under the bridge

We had a good lunch in the pretty town of Leura, visited the Olympic stadium on the way back before boarding a catamaran for a night trip back to Sydney, under the Harbour Bridge and in front of the Opera.

Part Two: Melbourne

We were very impressed with Melbourne. Great shops, great food, and a very 'Shoreditch' like feel to parts of the city centre. We visited the arcades, the shopping centres, the Victoria Market with its extraordinary varieties of very fresh vegetables and shellfish, the Shrine of Remembrance in the botanical gardens, we took a tram to St Kilda's and had tea on the pier and we ate in some very good restaurants, both cafés and more fancy, all of which were excellent.

Melbourne Central Business District (CBD)
AC/DC Lane

Part Three: Port Douglas

We flew from Melbourne to Cairns, flying for four hours over red terrain with nothing much to see. At Cairns we drove to Port Douglas where we stayed for five days. The main reason for staying here was to visit the Barrier Reef, although our visit was a disaster due to the poor weather that day. Most people on the boat were sick and when we got there we didn't see much of huge interest; the return trip was even worse. 

Port Douglas itself is a beautiful town with some fine restaurants and the famous Four Mile Beach which is a four mile beach lined with palm trees. There is a supervised swimming area netted off from undesirable Australian beasts. The town has various varieties of palm tree everywhere and a good selection of restaurants and cafés. The highlight of our stay here by far, was our day trip to the Daintree Tropical Rainforest, about an hour from Port Douglas. It receives on average 5 metres of rainfall per annum (London is 50 cm for comparison).

Daintree Tropical Rainforest

Thanks to our guide, Michelle, and of course the Daintree Rainforest, this was quite possibly one of the best tours we have ever been on. We boarded the minibus along with a family of four at Port Douglas stopped for supplies at the sugar town of Mossman (there are enormous cane plantations all around) and then set off for the Daintree in a short but heavy burst of rain.

On our river trip, Justin pointed out crocodiles (Lizzie, and Scarface who is 4m long and 80 years old), an Azure and a Sacred Kingfisher, a yellow and black snake, an East Water Dragon - all close enough to see very well - and of course the incredible vegetation and the mangroves.

Back on land and over to the 'dark side' of the river (no mobile, no electricity), we were back in the hands of Michelle who took us on the most incredible day through the rainforest. Her knowledge is second to none and we saw so much, apart from the elusive cassowaries, that it was at times hard to take it all in. The cassowaries are essential to the survival of the rainforest as they eat the seedpods and then defecate them out in new places to ensure their continued growth.

We saw the elusive butcher bird who used to call out to the Aboriginals to alert them to pythons and were rewarded with meat. The rainforest is today overrun with pythons and it's a major problem.

We even stopped in an amazing place for lunch that had pythons roaming around (not in cages) and a wonderful bunch of kangaroos and wallabies who were delighted to eat sweet potato out of our hands. And yes, they are even cuter than they look in the photos! The tame ones walk up to us and hold our hands whilst they eat. They know we won't hurt them.

Part Four: Hong Kong

On our way to Australia, we had a two hour stop over at Hong Kong's very impressive Chek Lap Kok Airport which was formed by levelling Chek Lap Kok and Lam Chau islands just off Lantau island and re-claiming a further 9 km2, adding a further 1% to the size of Hong Kong. Now 20 years old, the airport is the world's most expensive construction project ever. 

So technically, this was our second time in Hong Kong, except this time we were here to stay and visit the city.

Hong Kong from the Victoria Peak
The highlight of our stay was the trip up The Peak. We were staying in Kowloon, so we took the Star Ferry (22p each) across to Hong Kong Island. Then we took the Number 15 bus up to the Peak. We got the great views in (it was too hot and humid to go for a walk, although we did try...) and then we came back down on the famous Peak Tram which stops at May Road, about half way down, where my parents and grandparents used to live. We enjoyed the amazing views of the city skyline from our hotel, including the light display each evening at 8pm.

We also visited the Jade market and a food market (the stench of the durian fruit takes some getting used to). We saw luxury - I have never seen so many Louis Vuitton shops in the same city - and we saw relative poverty in the streets around the markets.

The 8pm show
It was a great trip and I would like to go back, although next time it will need to be in my winter!

Quote of the Month - Stephen Hawking

"Keeping an active mind has been vital to my survival, as has been maintaining a sense of humour"

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