Working mainly from Finland and Holland during the year, I was keen to find a way to see some daylight this Winter. Destination: Australia. We wouldn’t be joining the Barmy Army at the Ashes Cricket Tournament. I’m a biologist by training and love to visit places of outstanding natural beauty – there is so much fantastic and unique nature to experience in this country. I was slightly apprehensive about one aspect of the trip: venomous snakes, crocodiles, killer sharks, deadly jellyfish, stingrays, poisonous spiders and typhoons. It’s not all Kangaroo and Koala. In England it rarely gets more dangerous than the neighbour’s cat and a bit of drizzle. However, my apprehension was unfounded: not a single bite or sting.
I’ll spare you the details but wanted to share my top five highlights from the visit (in no particular order):
We spent a few days here including Christmas Day on Whitehaven Beach. This is the most stunning unspoiled white sand and clear sea I have ever seen. What a paradise!
We enjoyed a twilight sail on Christmas Eve and canoeing and swimming in the balmy sea that day. A super-relaxed and summery Christmas-time.
Great Barrier Reef
I had always wanted to see the Reef. We took a professionally arranged trip 70 km off the Cairns shoreline and made three stops. I’ve never snorkeled or dived before and am not a strong swimmer, but it was easy and I soon got the hang of it.
It’s funny to be so far from the coast yet to see the ocean bed just a few metres below. I can’t begin to describe how beautiful it is to look down into the clear blue waters and see the coral reef and multitude of colourful fish for the first time. Breathing under water was such a weird sensation. Out of this world!
We visited a few cities during the trip, including Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Cairns, Alice Springs and Darwin. Australia is a predominantly urban society with nearly 90% of the population living in urban areas. The quality of city life in Australia is also very high – the Economist Intelligence Unit placed four Australian cities in the top 10 worldwide in their City Liveability Index 2013 (Helsinki also scored highly at position 8).
All of the cities we visited seemed intelligently-designed and functional including lots of well-maintained open spaces.
We were lucky to be in Sydney on New Year’s Eve and got up early to secure a prime viewing spot of the firework display. (Thankfully Australians queue like the English and not like the Dutch – it was an impressive 17.000 person line).
It was a good spirited day in the park and what a spectacle at midnight!
We drove part of the Great Ocean Road from Melbourne in the direction of Adelaide. There were wonderful views of the ocean and surfing along the way. The highlight was the Twelve Apostles: amazing reddish cliffs, with the rough yet clear blue seas and angry cloudy skies. It was a stormy, rugged place, quite a contrast to the rather sophisticated Melbourne we had just left. This is probably the most surprising entry on the list, but well worth the visit if you get the chance.
We flew to Alice Springs and rented a 4WD to make the return trip to Uluru, Kata Tjuta and King’s Canyon. We saw a spectacular sunset at the Rock and got up early(ish) the next morning to make the 10,5 km walk around the base of it. The route was closed in the afternoon due to extreme conditions – it was 41 °C when we returned to the car. It was a spiritual place and the “sensitive areas” of cultural importance to the Aborigines were well-marked, explained and respected. I liked the stories about life skills being passed down through the generations and the role of the extended family in that. This is one of those places like the Taj Mahal that you should experience at different times of the day, to appreciate the changing face of her beauty.
So, those were my highlights. Probably not a very surprising list, but definitely a great experience and a brilliant way to get new energy for the challenges ahead in the New Year.