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.


Man walks into a column, no.33: Sydney

Phil’s Australian Travelblog, part one of two: Phil’s week in Sydney, in which our hero falls foul of light fingers in an Abu Dhabi toilet cubicle.

The few of you who pay close attention to this column will remember that in last week’s post I was wedged between the horns of a quandary: how to make this resolution-enforced foray into travel writing remotely interesting. Then I remembered that I’m a researcher by trade so I should keep it simple and stick to indisputable evidence, so here are a few facts about Australia’s capital city, Sydney.

FACT: all men from the Middle East are thieves, given the chance. Before I’d even reached Australia I encountered calamity: exhausted from flying and lack of sleep, I left my wallet in a toilet cubicle at Abu Dhabi international airport. I realised my mistake after just a couple of minutes but when I returned it was gone. The security guards questioned the cleaner who was on duty at the time in a manner that can only be described as indescribable as I do not speak Abu Dhabian. I do not expect to see my wallet again.

FACT: my great-great-great grandfather was a convict shipped to Sydney. George Copestake was a weaver from Sheffield who committed a possibly heinous crime (molesting a ferret?) and paid the price by being transported to a Pacific paradise. I discovered this thanks to the computer database at the Hyde Park Barracks – the place where convicted men were housed until they’d served their time. George was such a wrong ‘un that he even tried to escape, and as punishment he was forced to ‘tread the boards’ on a massive wooden treadmill which was used to grind flour. This explains why I hate gyms so much.

FACT: each and every Australian child can spot the difference between a kangaroo and a wallaby at a distance of 100 yards by the age of six. Kangaroos are greedy and aggressive despite their friendly faces: when feeding a pack (pouch?) of ‘roos this morning, outside the bungalow in Jervis Bay where we were spending the weekend, the Alpha Roo tried to mug me for the entire sourdough loaf I was carrying. These were obviously kangas with a middle class palette.

That’s probably enough facts for now – I bet you feel like you’re here yourselves – but just in case, here are a few FACTlets to tide you over till next week’s post:

1. The sea in Sydney is warmer in winter than a British sea on a summer’s day.

2. I am surprisingly good at catching fish.

3. In Sydney buses have their own roads.

4. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is much bigger than it looks on television.

5. Australian strawberries are rubbish, but all other Australian food is delicious.

Man walks into a column, no.32: Travel

It feels a little self-indulgent and dare I say smug to be writing this whilst chaos, anger and sadness reigns over my beloved home city (and elsewhere besides), but the simple fact remains that if I’m to stick to my New Year’s resolution of posting weekly then for this and the next two or three weeks I’ve no choice but to turn this column into something of… a travelogue. I know, I know, it’s painful for me too.

This is because tomorrow evening at about nine o’clock – all being well – I’ll be jetting off from Heathrow, bound for Sydney via Abu Dhabi, to enjoy what I’m sure will be a brilliant holiday Down Under. And as incredible as this sounds, I don’t think my mind will be much preoccupied with employee-owned mutuals, equity in public service delivery, or any of the other stuff I usually post about. Even the weird and wonderful history of Christianity. Probably.

My wife and I will be staying with my childhood friend Mike and his girlfriend Sabrina (what a perfect Aussie name, eh?) in a south-eastern suburb of Sydney called Coogee, in Mike’s flat overlooking Coogee Bay (which, incidentally, I’m amused to learn is named after the Aboriginal word for ‘smelly place’: koojah – the seaweed not the locals, although let’s wait and see). We’ll then be heading up to the north east of Australia for a couple of nights in Cairns, followed by another couple in the world’s oldest rainforest, the Daintree.

So how to make the account of my trip remotely readable and interesting? I don’t feel at all well-equipped having never, as far as I can remember, read a travel book in my life. And it’s not as if my voyage will be especially novel or action-packed: Sydney then Cairns is, I’m reliably informed, a well-trodden tourist trail. But don’t worry, I shan’t be pretending that I can, in the space of a little over a fortnight, offer any deep or meaningful insights into Aussie society, culture or politics either.

But what does that leave me with? Pictures? Video? Amusing anecdotes? Stories of my wife’s terrifying ordeals at the hands of Australia’s local wildlife (spiders a speciality)? Wine-sodden letters of love to my new favourite place in the world? Pffft.

Perhaps I’ll just have to fudge it and post about the books I’m reading whilst I’m away, which include The Social Animal by David Brooks, kindly lent to me by blogger-in-chief Rich (thanks again Rich, I shall do my best not to get smelly seaweed on it), a secondhand copy of an early Peter Ackroyd novel and a selection of stuff by some of my favourite authors including Cormac McCarthy, John Banville and Iain Banks. And (explaining my God caveat above) A History of Christianity is still halfway read on my iPad.

Well anyway, time will tell, but if you have any tips on good travel writing then I would be jolly grateful to hear them, and if you can’t bear three weeks of drivel from a different time zone, then you have my complete permission to ignore this column until normal service – such that it is – resumes.