Yes we Canberra

Despite being the national capital and purposefully placed between Sydney and Melbourne, Canberra is a city that not many backpackers visit. One reason for this is that not all venture further south than Sydney anyway, but also because there isn’t as much to do there.

Far from the coast it doesn’t have any beaches or lagoons, and any buildings that could be described as landmarks are mostly functional rather than anything else. There are several galleries and museums, but again, these are not always at the top of young backpackers’ to do lists. Whilst I am glad I got to visit Canberra on my trip (which I have to admit was mainly out of curiosity), I was only there for little over 24hrs, which personally I found to be adequate.

Still looks rather swish, regardless of what it resembles.

Still looks rather swish, regardless of what it resembles.

The city really reminded me of Washington D.C., built specifically to be a capital city it is comprised almost entirely of government buildings and memorials to the armed forces and various wars and conflicts. I walked through the city to Capital Hill which involves walking past the old Parliament House to get to the current new one. The first being regal and ornate, almost exactly what you would expect from a building of its period, whereas the new was highly modern. So modern in fact, it has the appearance of being built right into the hill itself, much like something from the Teletubbies. I’ll leave you to make your own decision of what that says about politics in the 21st Century.

While Canberra might be lacking in quantity of places to visit, these certainly do not lack in quality; some deliberate, some just amusing. I continued walking down across Lake Burly Griffin, and found a great example of the weirdness of how the Commonwealth works. On Aspen Island stands a Carillon, a musical instrument composed of dozens of bell, and which was a gift to the people of Australia from the British government, and was accepted by H.R.H. Queen Elizabeth II. Seems a long way to come to accept something from people who are basically your neighbours.

G for George, kept in pristine condition since the 40s.

G for George, kept in pristine condition since the 40s.

Chief among those places of actual quality however, is the Australian War Memorial. A place to remember those who fought and died in Australia’s wars, going below the surface (both figuratively and actually) brings you to a museum of uniforms and artefacts, each telling their own individual story. These then lead you to the Anzac Hall, which houses the biggest, and most treasured pieces, chief among them being G For George, an original Lancaster used by Bomber Command in World War II. Sticking to the memorials principle of not glorifying, but commemorating war, George, along with various other planes, and even a Japanese Submarine, are accompanied by videos which use both original and recreated footage to give a sense of what happened on both sides of aerial conflict.

Over 62,000 names from WWI alone.

Over 62,000 names from WWI alone.

The exit again brings you to the memorial itself, along the walls of which are the names of all the Australians who died during World Wars I and II. These in turn lead up to the tomb of the unknown soldier, a feature used by several countries but here accompanied the emotional epitaph that recognises the bravery and sacrifice of a normal man who will never be known but represents so many:

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Feeling Blue

Just a two hour train journey from the hustle and bustle of Sydney’s CBD are the scenic Blue Mountains. Regardless of the difference between nearby surroundings however, the Mountains were the most picturesque location of my trip. At least they were eventually, there was one instance on the first day when the fog/cloud (is there even a difference at 3,337ft?) gave Katoomba a distinctly Silent Hill look about it, and I can’t deny that the YHA hostel I was staying at reminded me slightly of The Outlook Hotel from Stephen King’s The Shining. Despite these horror tale appearances however, the Mountains were as lovely as I had been lead to believe, and as far as being bitten by bloodsuckers goes, I got off rather lightly

There are mountains in the background. Promise.

There are mountains in the background. Promise.

Staying in Katoomba my first walk took me along the cliff edge just outside of the town and towards one of the mountains’ most recognisable formations, the Three Sisters. It also took me round them, as the better view comes from the other side of the Sisters, where the further two aren’t obscured by the big sister in front. There is also a great view from Spooners Lookout, which is presumably for those not quite committed enough for a Lover’s Leap?

An enjoyable hike and luckily the on and off fog/cloud had cleared by the time I arrived, but also made for some great sights of their own on the way. At times the entire view was obscured, but at others I was able to watch as the clouds rose from the forest floor below, and up over the mountains themselves.

You can't help but look down.

You can’t help but look down.

The Mountains was also another location in which my trip coincided with that of my friend/travel buddy/co-stalker Lisa, and so we again spent a day together, this time at Wentworth Falls; the same railway which gives you passage up the mountains is also a gateway to other towns and areas, with plenty more hiking trails to enjoy. Although known as the Mountains perhaps Cliffs would be a better suited name seeing just how steep the edges could be, but nonetheless the waterfalls themselves were very impressive, as was the very steep path from top to bottom. The falls area offers three trails to choose from, essentially top, middle, and bottom of the surrounding cliffs, with the paths leading between them somewhat more extreme than those I’m used to on Exmoor; it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to add National Parks to the list of everything in Australia can kill you.

Wentworth, and well worth, Falls.

Wentworth, and well worth, Falls.

We walked along the bottom and then back across the top, each with no view of the middle so I can’t give any indication as to what that was like, but those which we did take offered unparalleled sights of the forest floor, and almost inconceivable views for miles and miles (and miles!). Six hours, two Lyra birds, and several leeches later however, we made it back to the station alive and well.

The next day I took the train two stations in the other direction, and went for a hike from Blackheath. This also involved a hike through Blackheath as the start of the trail was a lot further away than I anticipated, but like the others was well worth the effort. If for nothing else, I can now say I’ve walked from the top to the bottom, and back again, of the (a) Grand Canyon, and all in one day!

I'd rather them than me.

I’d rather them than me.

The following morning I had enough time before my return train to Sydney to head back down to the Three Sisters, and continue from where I left off previously. This took me on a short walk to Katoomba Falls, and underneath the Scenic Skyway, a cablecar which cut a short corner around Katoomba Falls.

In terms of elevation it might not have been much higher than where I was standing, but I much preferred to see the splendour of the Blue Mountains with my feet firmly on the ground.

And free of leeches.

Sydney side shows

Arriving into Sydney was a bit of a weird one for me. Not only did it herald the final leg of my east coast tour, but when seeing the Sydney Opera House whilst driving over the Harbour Bridge, it was the first time that, despite having been here so long, I was in the presence of a singularly iconic Australian landmark. And when going to see it up close, I used it to shelter from the rain with a friend from back home.

A familiar skyline. And dark clouds.

A familiar skyline. And dark clouds.

Although Simon and I know each other not just from living in West Somerset but also as we both went to university in Aberystwyth, thus making him the friend I am most used to seeing in different countries, after two months on the road it was still somewhat surreal visiting an internationally famous monument halfway round the world and still seeing someone so familiar. Considering he came to Australia before me, but chose to work in Sydney before going backpacking, I had always known I’d see him there (as quite frankly it would be rude not to) but it’s still a day that stands out somewhat. And this from a period in my life when everyday is pretty much different from the last anyway.

Having been in contact with him throughout my way south I’d heard about the storms Sydney had been having, and by watching the lightning through the Harbour Bridge, it was obvious they hadn’t left in their entirety. They may not be quite as iconic, but luckily Sydney has a number of museums and galleries that allowed me to carry on my sightseeing in the dry:

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A nice break from the city. When you can’t see it.

The classical looking Art Gallery of New South Wales isn’t normally one that would be top of my list, but as it was not only free, but also right there when the steaming rain started falling, it was rather convenient. Historical landscapes and portraits might not be my thing, but there was also an exhibition of asian art and artefacts that I did enjoy, but generally more my kind of art was the Museum of Contemporary Art. I also chose to visit the Powerhouse Museum, which focuses on science and Technology, from the earliest of steam trains to the marvels of space exploration. The Chinese garden was also well worth visiting, which as the name suggests is open to the elements, but luckily it wasn’t raining for my entire time in the city.

Located on the other side of Darling Harbour is the Sydney Aquarium which I also visited, and was more my kind of wet. Thanks to being lucky/knowing some really kind people, I also had the added bonus of getting in for free. Once inside I finally got to see some Platypus, as well as a whole host of other weird and wonderful creatures, including crabs, lobsters, and not one, but two underwater tunnels. The first takes you under the tank which houses the aquarium’s two manatees (which are actually different from dugongs), and the second being more stereotypically Australian with the chance to see sharks swimming around you, albeit in a safe environment.

Before I arrived I was told by many people that they weren’t that impressed with Sydney, it was just like any other city with nothing (other than the Opera House) that stands out, but I have to say I enjoyed my three days here. Perhaps it was because I didn’t stay for too long, and although I didn’t get out to Manly or Bondi, my time was just enough time to see the city centre which I enjoyed more than I thought I would, even despite the setbacks.

Afterall, I can’t blame Sydney for losing my debit card. That one was my own fault.

Port of cool

If there’s one difference between the towns on the east coasts of Queensland and New South Wales, it’s that NSW is alot less touristy. And despite being a tourist myself, I like it this way.

For a start, it feels more like Australia. When I visited Port Macquarie I stayed at the Beachside Backpackers, which despite it’s mainly European (with even some Dutch and Scandinavian thrown in with the German) visitors, is one of the very few hostels I have been to where the majority of the staff weren’t just other people on working visas. Not only were Nic and Dan Australian by birth, but rented out surfboards, and with dreadlocks and a big beard respectively, they were also most definately Australian by nature. Admittedly Doug came from Luton, but he’s a nice guy so we won’t hold that against him. The fact that socialising was actively encouraged, combined with the decor and artwork, all adds up to this being the cosiest hostel of my travels.

Couldn't do that on canvas.

Couldn’t do that on canvas.

Ideally situated between Coffs Harbour and Sydney, Port Macquarie is great for backpackers, but seemed to not have many. Not only does it break up the journey but there are also a small number of attractions, and the outskirts offer a scenic hike along the coast. Dropped off by the lighthouse, I spent the best part of an afternoon enjoying this walk, rambling between dense forest and sandy beaches. As I got to the edge of town I also noticed another feature that added to the town’s individuality; the rocks all along the sea wall had each been painted by previous visitors, leaving their own artful mark long after they have left.

Some koalas just need a little tlc.

Some koalas just need a little tlc.

Of all the attractions on offer, it is has to be the Koala Hospital which is the most visited. As the name suggests it is a treatment centre for ill and injured koalas, but one which is open for the public to come and look at the patients whilst they are waiting to be rereleased. It also offers a daily tour, in part because of the fact it relies on public donations to help fund their work, and may be familiar to anyone who watched the BBC series John Bishop’s Australia. The Liverpudlian comedian also visited the hospital as he cycled from Sydney to Cairns, and it was here that he asked if koalas mate for life, having just been told how quickly chlamydia can spread through a koala population.

Another reason I enjoyed staying in a far more ‘normal’ town than somewhere such as Airlie Beach or Town of 1770 (which I have to say I didn’t visit due to time constraints and a recommendation not to), is that it gives you a chance to have a more ‘normal’ day out. Spending 8+ weeks travelling is a great experience, but sightseeing is hardly a full time activity in Port Macquarie, and even the fact that Australian cinemas have just as many adverts as British ones is a nice reminder of something familiar.

Not that I was simply pretending to be back home, the fact they have much more leg room is yet another bonus of being in a country with so much more space.

Coffing it up!

In many ways Coffs Harbour is not unlike other places I’ve visited along Australia’s east coast; it has a marina, several beaches, and a botanical gardens, for example. Despite this sharing the same amenities however, it still manages to stand out; with so much to do in the town itself and local area, but without being too big, it is very much a Goldilocks town. When you have to walk 15 minutes to the nearest supermarket, there’s something especially nice about only seeing one traffic lighted pedestrian crossing, especially when it’s quiet enough to ignore it, and just cross regardless. Allowing backpackers to make the most of this was the hostel I stayed at, Aussitel.

What Coffs Harbour has to offer.

What Coffs Harbour has to offer.

Apart from the several beaches, there is also a meandering creek running through the town, and as such it us great for those wishing to try their hand at various watersports. Not only does Aussitel lend out snorkels, surfboards, paddleboards, kayaks, and even canoes, it does so for free! As any backpacker knows, free isn’t always easy to come by, many hostels will generally charge for wifi, and so with all this on offer I tried to make the most of it. Especially as group activities were organised twice a day.

Thanks to this generosity, it was here I had my first experience of surfing in Australia, and my first in general for what has to be about 15 years; I once tried in Woolacombe, but only managed to get as far as kneeling on the board a couple of times. Here in Coffs Harbour, taking part in the true Australian past time, in the Pacific Ocean itself, I managed it just the once. I won’t try to excuse myself, but will say that my hair is now substantially longer, and despite being tied back as securely as I could manage, still got in the way a bit more than previously. How others can surf when you have to wipe it from your eyes every time a wave has gone by is beyond me, and I can only assume that to passionate surfers long hair is a badge of honour. You get to show off what you can do despite the handicap of it falling in your face all the time.

Even Ratty would be jealous.

Even Ratty would be jealous.

Not that being unsuccessful spoilt my fun you understand, I still thoroughly enjoyed the attempt, although the kayak through the gently flowing creek was definitely more leisurely. Snorkeling was also great fun, although didn’t have the best visibility, but jumping from the jetty was also a must do, and somehow I managed to win at ten-pin bowling as well. While I didn’t get to try paddleboarding (yet), I still think it’s fair to say that my accommodation at Aussitel was certainly the best value for money.

The activities I took part in courtesy of the hostel also meant I didn’t get to try as many of the others on offer, such as 4×4 jungle trekking, horse riding, and even flying lessons (because what backpacker has a big enough budget for that?), but did get to see a decent amount of the towns more specialised tourist spots.

Obviously there were windmills

Obviously there were windmills

These included a converted WWII bunker which now housed a small cartoon gallery, and when I visited it also had a display of local nature photography. Just on the edges of the town there is also a small model dutch village simply called Holland Down Under, which is also on the way to the most unique attraction possibly anywhere, The Big Banana.

Following in the Aussie tradition of giving things well suited names (like the lizard with a blue tongue which is called the blue tongued lizard), the Big Banana is just as it sounds.

Does exactly what it says on the ... well, banana.

Does exactly what it says on the … well, banana.

Accompanying the most yellow of Australia’s big things, this particular tourist attraction also includes an ice skating rink, a toboggan run, and laser quest arena, as well as a tour of a banana plantation. Despite the amenities on offer, I was content to take a few photos, and just enjoy a nice banana crepe for lunch.

Served with banana ice cream of course.

Lording over Byron

With its laid back atmosphere and kilometres of sandy beaches, it might seem odd to single out one small place in Australia as the ‘hippie surfer town’, but that’s exactly what to do when describing Byron Bay.

Where others have tacky tourist shops, the small town centre of Byron has boutiques selling tie dye clothing alongside those selling wetsuits, stalls offering hair wraps are not uncommon, and there was even one man offering palm readings for a small fee. If the friends who I was exploring with are anything to go by, it is definately a place which can also bring out the inner hippy of anyone visiting.

As for the surfing, unfortunately the windy and cloudy weather meant that was something I didn’t get to experience, but it’s not as if I don’t have hundreds more kilometres of coastline offering other opportunities. My time in Byron wasn’t limited to indoor activities though, as the hostel also arranged a guided walk to nearby Cape Byron, which is home to the most eastern point on Australia’s mainland. All three of them in fact.

Easterly points 1 & 3, photographed from no. 2.

Easterly points 1 & 3, photographed from no. 2.

Just like most such geographical locations, there is of course a sign along the cliff line hiking trail which points out the particular landmark. Again like most such signs, it also attracts a lot of tourists posing for photographs. Further along the path is a lookout spot located right by the beach, which as far as I could make out, was more easterly than the sign on the cliffs above. Therefore I can only assume the sign is in fact meant to refer to the bottom of the cliff it has been placed on rather than signalling the most easterly point you can physically reach.

As well as multiple seemingly singular locations, the local lighthouse is also situated on the cape, which since becoming unmanned now houses a small museum. Tours to the top are also available for a small donation.

It's not the size that counts.

It’s not the size that counts.

Lighthouses aren’t something I’ve given a huge deal of thought to before, but it’s amazing just how simple they really are; the light source itself is a mere 1kw bulb, similar to any ordinary household variety. The power to project this however, comes from the prisms which make up the fresnel lens, all of which are originals, and can project its beacon up to some staggering 20-something nautical miles.

That’s a huge beam, shining over twenty miles, powered by a bed side lamp.

Yeah, science!