Man walks into a column, no.34: Australia

Phil’s Australian Travelblog, part two of two: in which our nomadic researcher makes sweeping generalisations about an entire continent and the 23 million people who live there.

I am not about to move to Sydney, or anywhere else in Australia for that matter: amongst other things the largest island in Oceania succeeded in confirming how wonderful and unique a place London is, riots and all.

Nevertheless I am sincerely committed to an appreciative approach to enquiry, so here are the three things I loved most about Australia.

The food. For me the biggest surprise of the visit: I had no idea Aussie food would be this good. From sea fresh lobster and Morton Bay bugs on the tables outside Sydney Fish Market, with seagulls attacking at every chance, to barbecued surf and turf on a friend’s balcony overlooking Coogee Bay, with amazing Australasian spiced noodles in the Daintree inbetween. The food was, to use the local universal descriptor: awesome. This country has – believe it or not – even transformed the meaning of that most English of culinary institutions, fish and chips, which is a fairly incredible feat I’m sure you’ll agree – the cod at the smallest provincial cafe was just as good as anything you’d find at a serious London or New York restaurant.

The natural environment. Just when you thought you had no more breath left to be taken, another incredible sight or sighting hives into view. A smattering of examples include the giddying immensity of the Blue Mountains; dolphins catching fish metres from us in the shallows of a secluded desert island style beach in Jervis Bay; vitamin C excreting green ants in the Daintree who had built a football sized hollow nest from leaves; lorakeets licking sugar from a perch on the balcony where we were staying; and a flock of fruit bats – thousands, literally – flying down from the mountains outside Cairns at sunset. It’s no surprise that the towns and cities didn’t stand a chance by comparison.

But over and above both: Australians themselves. I mean of course the handful of people I happened to meet who were, almost without exception, exceptionally friendly. This may’ve been a ‘false positive’ and all the rest of the population are antisocial idiots, but Occam’s Razor would warn us away from such idle speculation without contrary evidence.

From proper conversations to the more fleeting encounters, everyone had a tale to tell and a friendly word. The mini-bus driver originally from Wales who talked us through the inner workings of the Queensland sugarcane industry, the lady canoeist who gave us tips on the best fishing spots in Jervis Bay, the shopkeeper in Cairns who left his own store to walk us round to another which sold a plug adapter, and Harumi the Japanese Australian taxi driver who played us the greatest hits of The Cure in their entirety during the drive from Cairns to the Daintree and genuinely appeared chuffed that we wanted the volume turned up rather than down. The only downside was a rather evangelical attitude to the supremacy of Australia as a place to live, which whilst admirable and indeed understandable in many ways, was difficult to counter at all without causing offence.

So there you have it: several thousand miles in fewer than two thousand words. Back to sweeping generalisations closer to home next week. For now I’ll leave you with this, from the best book I read on holiday, David Brooks’ really excellent The Social Animal, which neatly sums up why I hate travelblogging:

When you explore a new landscape or visit a new country, your attention is open to everything, like a baby’s. One thing catches your eye. Then another. This receptiveness can only happen when you are physically there. Not when you are reading about a place, but only when you are there on the scene, immersed in it. If you don’t visit a place, you don’t really know it.

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