Posts tagged ‘Australia’

Playing it cool, Melbourne. Australia

At 11am on a Thursday morning we had expected Melbourne to be dead apart from the odd yummy mummy balancing a baby in one hand and a Miu Miu tote in the other. Maybe there would be a scattering of school kids smoking cigarettes and staring challengingly at any passersby whose eyes accidentally met theirs. There may even be the odd suit-clad worker ambling from one appointment to the next. What we hadn’t anticipated and what we found was a city brimming with life and colour. Narrow walkways like Degraves St buzzed with a population whose only occupation was to look beautiful while sipping skinny mocha decaf frappachinos. At this odd hour of the morning it seemed that every footstool, chair and bench was warmed by a sexy art student bum.

Picking our way past the crowds through air heavily laden with the aroma of brewing coffee and freshly baked bread we sought out a handful of Melbourne’s other distinctive quirks. In dark corners and grungy backalleys across the city painted faces were twisted into menacing grimances, scantily clad women flashed their thighs and tortured young souls declared their undying love for each other. Among towers of green and red plastic milk crates Melbourne’s artistic souls stencilled, sprayed and splashed to their hearts content leaving behind them a trail of social commentary, portraits and the occasional scrawly profanity penned by an angsty pre-teen.

Graffiti is an important part of Melbourne’s street scape, albeit a part that is less than valued by many of the older residents and counsellors. The city was lucky enough to have a total of five works penned by London’s famous graffiti artist Banksy. The city council recently painted over the last of the five, the iconic image of the rats parachuting.

Although it may not look like much at first sight, Melbourne is an intensely satisfying city to explore. A seemingly endless network of nooks and crannies, it’s not hard to find a corner of the city of your own – a crumbling redbrick wall decorated with a beautiful stencil; a covered arcade full of decadent chocolate shops with gold plated windows and stained glass buisness names; a hole-in-the-wall cafe where the spartan seating is artfully scattered across an unassuming laneway; the perfect boutique filled with clothes that seem to have been designed just for you; a casual bar where the music matches your ipod playlist perfectly. There’s no question about it – despite trying so hard, Melbourne is undeniably cool.

Speaking of cool, we were lucky enough to arrive in Melbourne and run straight in to the ample bossom of two old friends – Megan (pronounced MEE-gan) and Boden of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam fame. You may remember them from a messy messy New Year’s Eve on Cat Ba island that ended in the four of us squeezing into one bed for a half hour’s sleep before our 7am start. Well back then we shared our bed with them so we reckoned they owed us one. Being the gracious hosts that they were they cleared their schedule for three days of intense shopping, zoo visits, lesbian concerts, take-away dinners and talking over each other excitedly.

As always MEEgan was the centre of proceedings spewing gems like “I thought that when you crossed the equator the north and south pole switched places” and “So, what part of England is Ireland in?” Then there was the time that a little girl came up to us on the street with her dog saying “This is Teddy!” Not missing a single beat MEEgan spread out her hands and replied “And this is Roisin and Gary.” Harsh. We’ll see you in the southern hemisphere.

Coming to the end of our Oz trips we realised that it was time to get our priorities straight. Before we left we had to had to had to see and eat a kangaroo. In the absence of a ute and an open stretch of road (I hear they are magnetically attracted to the bonnets of utes) we opted for a trip to Melbourne Zoo where they also have lions and tigers and bears. Oh my!

After a long day of goading drunken koala bears, laughing at the ridiculousness of ‘roos and mimicing everything we saw, we trudged back to MEEgan and Boden’s place where Boden rustled us up the most scrumptious kangaroo steak ever to grace a frying pan.

When all was said and done, we were going to miss Oz a lot. The east coast is a fantastic place to visit. Pity about all the Aussies though (joking. Kind of.)

There are more pictures from Melbourne available in the gallery

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June 12, 2010 at 4:49 am 2 comments

From Blue Mountains to blue rinses. The Shoalhaven Coast, Australia

When it comes down to it I reckon it was our trip to The Blue Mountains that had left us shivering on the side of a highway in the middle of nowhere at 10pm. A few days of tramping about the forest humming the Indiana Jones theme tune had reminded us that our favourite thing ever to do in the whole wide world was to go adventuring and so far, as lovely as it had been, Australia had not been an adventure. And what spells adventure more than going somewhere backpackers normally bypass where public transport is a nightmare? Going there without a plan of course!

So there we were standing on the highway wearing all our clothes at once, trying to figure out what the Aussie sign for “Please pick me up!” was (Lonely Planet reckons it’s “a downward pointing finger” but which finger?!) when a low-riding red car zipped past, music blaring from its tinted windows. “As**ole!” we muttered, stamping our feet and shaking our fists for warmth as much as out of frustration. Suddenly there was a screech of tyres and the car spun around and zipped back towards us, the passenger door flying open and the head of a young man poking out. “Hop in, where are you going?” he said as we elbowed each other in the face in our rush to get into the car.

Ten minutes later we were at the right turn-off and were once again bundled onto the street with all our bags, fear creeping over us as time ticked on and the road got quieter and quieter. What were the laws in Australia regarding camping on a roundabout? Did people really die of pneumonia in their sleep? What would that feel like? Thankfully for us, there was no need to claim on our insurance because only minutes after we arrived a stationwagon with a bumper sticker saying Peace and Love pulled in and the loveliest massage therapist in the world drove us right down to Huskisson town and loaded us up with fresh bread just in case the restaurants were closed. Turns out people on the Shoalhaven Coast are generally agreed to be “good people”.

Huskisson (Huskie to her friends) turned out to be a lovely little seaside town inhabited mostly by the zimmerframe crowd who kept businesses for something to do. There wasn’t a lot to do other than potter on down to the bakery for pie and cake for breakfast, catch a matinee at the barnhouse-turned-cinema and then watch the sun set over Jervis Bay. You could go whale watching but the season hadn’t really kicked in yet (although it should be in full swing now), or you could wander down to Vincentia and do a bit of shopping. Not a bad life in all but not exactly the epic, kangaroo-filled adventure we had planned. The only thing that made Huskie different was the friendliness of its locals – people who stopped by for a chat, offered us free lifts when they saw our backpacks and on my birthday took one look at our measly tent being blown about by yet another storm and offered us free use of a warm cabin for the night.

A little more lively were the two stops we had made before Huskie – Berry and Kiama. Berry was a pinprick of a town with more pubs and restaurants than seemed necessary, a van boasting the best donuts for miles and a little wooden shop selling real vintage clothes (think platform shoes with live fish in the toe).

Kiama on the other hand, was a relative metropolis. Jam-packed with great dining options, bars, tourist information offices and campsites, the town was crawling with people who had come down to visit their parents for the weekend. The real star attractions though were the two blowholes, predictably named the Big Blowhole and the Little Blowhole. Not that the coast needed any more drama. With sweeping white sandy beaches and rugged cliffs cut out by relentless waves which beat violently against the rock day and night, Kiama’s shoreline was already a thing to be admired by spectators and feared by surfers and boaters.

Having never seen a blowhole before, Gary was about as excited by the Big Blowhole as the dozens of kids that gathered around and screamed “oooooooh!” every time the blowhole, well blew. All well and good until he started pushing them out of his way to get a better shot and stamping on their lollipops to mark his territory.

Eventually I had to drag Gary away and we went to the Little Blowhole, expecting to be underwhelmed. With less crowds, less barriers and less screaming children however, the Little Blowhole was a hell of a lot more fun, not to mention a lot louder and more powerful. The walk down was beautiful too passing some nice beaches and cliff views, although the best views are of the spectacular houses set along the coast with their balcony hot-tubs and flashy cars. One thing’s for sure, you could do a lot worse than to end up in Kiama or anywhere else on the Retirement Coast. Oops, I mean the Shoalhaven Coast.

There are more pictures from the Shoalhaven Coast available in the gallery

June 5, 2010 at 11:14 am 1 comment

Back in our stride. The Blue Mountains, Australia

We were in No 14 hostel for exactly five minutes before we decided that we needed to extend our stay by at least another day and in retrospect it was the best decision we had made in weeks. In our first five minutes in No 14 we had already kicked off our opressive runners, slithered out of our hoodies and propped ourselves up along a couch in front of a lit fire – nice change from the arctic conditions outside. Since it was off-peak we had also bagged ourselves a cosy three-person room to ourselves.

After hands down the best sleep we had since leaving home we woke up ravenous, layered up and headed into charming Katoomba for breakfast. Over a delicious feast of eggs benedict and pesto mushrooms in Fresh Cafe we evesdropped on yummy mummies who, after finishing the school run, had dropped by with toddlers in tow for a coffee and a gossip. The staff greeted all the customers by name, asking after Little Fred or Big Tom and remembering everyone’s usual order. One flat white, two skinny lattes, one chocolate chip cookie hold the chips and can I warm that bottle for the baby?

The misty mountains were beckoning though so eventually we had to leave our snug little table in this surprisingly bustling spot and face the bitter cold. It was worth every frozen finger and aching toenail though when we found our way to Echo Point and without a word of warning, the vista suddenly opened up to reveal a canvas of perfectly sculpted mountains. Three gracefully crumbling sisters cutting through a lush carpet of thick green trees in the foreground fading into a hazy blue horizon of endless cliffs.

We were still standing in open-mouthed awe when chaos descended as the first tour bus disgorged its contents, spilling tourists onto every available inch of the viewing deck. Blinded by flashing cameras and jostled by huge families clambouring to get a group shot in front of the view, the telescope, the bush and the white-washed wall, we fled for the Giant Staircase and the start of our walk.

According to the brisk woman at the information office the walk was four or five hours long. Two hours later we had ambled our way along the path past hanging marshes, trickling waterfalls and the themepark that is Scenic World and looped back to The Three Sisters. We had seen the same view from different angles, framed by different foliage and blocked by different camera-toting heads and as nice a view as it was, after the inital wow moment we were a little under-awed. The Katoomba walks were easy enough to attract an audience ranging from toddlers to the elderly and were pimped out with glass-floored cable cars and trains – not exactly the image that had been running through our heads when we decided on two days hiking in the Blue Mountains.

Luckily we had another day so after an early night we were ready to take on the less-touristed, more challenging Wentworth Falls. From the very first second it was a better walk and in the four hours we spent hiking we saw only three or four people (yet it was a Sunday and we were only two hours from Sydney!). The Federal Pass started on a series of stepping stones crossing the mighty Wentworth Falls before leading to several ridiculously long, ridiculously steep flights of steps cut out of the side of a cliff. Unlike the day before, every corner we turned and every level we descended brought a new view – a different mountain towering in the background, a new waterfall splashing overhead, a whole new perspective on just how vast the Blue Mountains National Park really was.

Working our way towards the valley floor we crossed Wentworth Falls a few times and edged our way along the narrowest path that ever clung to the side of a mountain. Hanging marshes bowed the rock overhead and dripped down our necks and mossy flagstones slipped underfoot as we ducked to avoid this tendril, pointed out that colourful parrot or marvelled at how massive those trees were.

After passing through a lush valley cut out by several thundering falls, we started the short but steep climb back up the mountain, hauling ourselves up every step by the handrail and cursing all those damned pies we had eaten over the last month. This had all been so easy back in China! As we huffed and puffed up the knee-high steps we swore to shed our pie weight and get back into shape. Just as we were about to collapse in an exhausted, dehydrated, starving heap at the top of the mountain we spotted a beautiful glass-fronted, wooden restaurant – the divine Conservation Hut.

Two steak pies and two hot chocolates with extra cream please!

There are more pictures from the Blue Mountains available in the gallery

June 1, 2010 at 12:59 pm 4 comments

Grrrr. Manly, Sydney, Australia

Inspired by a wander down Paddinton’s Oxford St, Gary and I decided that it was time enough that we shed our restrictive everyday identities and fulfilled our potential in Manly. A lovely little beach town in the suburbs of Sydney, some say that the highlight of Manly is the ferry ride over although I consider that to be an injustice to the wonder that is Manly. With its Victorian buildings and winding streets Manly is more like the perfect English seaside town than anywhere in Oz and the beaches are, dare I say it, prettier than Bondi.

Enough of all that sissy stuff though. We were in Manly for more important things. We were there to do Manly things like climb rocks, shoot wildlife, discover new land and…. eat chocolate-dipped strawberries? This scenic walk just got a whole lot more Manly.

There are more pictures from Manly available in the gallery

May 27, 2010 at 11:09 am 3 comments

Not just a pretty face. Sydney, Australia

It has been so long since I last felt like this. All these feelings of excitement and intoxication that come with the first few days. Feeling warmth radiate from my belly at every thought and lust at every glance. Knowing what I want to be looking at as the sun sets every evening and spending every second in between walking on clouds. Trying to savour every wave of happiness while suppressing that tiny, persistent voice inside me that claws away, spreading anxiety like cancer. As much as I want this to last forever I know that it is destined to be short-lived. Eventually we must part.

The sweetest thing about all of this emotional turmoil is sharing it with Gary. I love knowing that he feels the same way, that he too wants to shout it from the rooftops. He too wants every man, woman and child to know that we are utterly, mind-numbingly, embarassingly head over heels in love… But not with each other. Today our hearts beat to Sydney’s drum. Or should that be Sydney’s didgeridoo? 

 

Defining Sydney’s sound is almost as difficult as explaining why it holds so much appeal. Down by the harbour it could be the sound of boat horns blaring over pre-recorded aboriginal-meets-trance music while a few metres away in The Botanical Gardens the soundtrack is one of raucous cockatoos, screeching bats and sighing lovers. Around Hyde Park traffic hums, trams tinkle and the great bells of St Paul’s Cathedral clatter over the noise of a passing horse and cart. Weekdays at Bondi are somewhat calmer with the rythmic sound of joggers panting alongside lapping waves while Saturday sees the hazy fog of tranquility pierced by the joyful screams of children.

 

Then there’s Sydney’s lullaby – a symphony of cackling queens, slurring backpackers, gruff bouncers and querelous drunks. Open doors in karaoke bars filling the air with off-key ballads while mellow notes stretch out of basement jazz bars.

Maybe it is the contrasts that make Sydney such an intoxicating place to be. As my Dad says, everyone who goes to Sydney seems to like it. And why shouldn’t they? There’s something here for everyone. There’s even, shock horror, a slice of history that stretches back further than 50 years. In Sydney, unlike most of Oz, history is a part of the landscape. It offers up contrasts such as that of the dazzling white Sydney Opera House rubbing shoulders with the redbrick old convicts neighbourhood The Rocks – one the pinnicle of modern architecture, luxury and high-brow entertainment and the other the city’s first European settlement, initially designed to house a labrinth of cramped lodgings, open sewers and spewing factory chimneys (rampant disease and rowdy brawls are of course a distant memory in The Rocks today where original facades have been polished and preened and interiors ripped out to make room for chic Italian restaurants).

Even more appealling is the Queen Victoria Building whose stained glass windows shoppers peer through on their way up the escalator and whose elaborate old clocks inhouse designer stores use to time their opening and closing. Just around the corner from this Georgian redbrick gem is Darling Harbour – a sea of polished glass, clinking espresso mugs and synchronised water features.  

With so much character and contrast on offer, there is plenty of Sydney to go around and more than enough nooks and crannies for every visitor to find a secret place of their own. Our Sydney, for example was the search for the perfect hot chocolate and the perfect sunset vista – two elements that came magically together when one frosty evening we discovered Guylian in the harbour and Mrs Macquaries Point.

 

Conversely our Sydney was also a much less classy affair. Our Sydney was a messy night out with Joe, Simon and Dave – old friends we have been pining for every week since saying our goodbyes in Vietnam. A night that started out promisingly with high-priced drinks in a high-class establishment and descended into chaos some time around 4am when Gary grabbed the microphone and song book in a tiny karaoke room and Joe mounted the couch. The next day our Sydney looked a little more hazy, a little more bloodshot and a lot more sandy as we devoured breakfast at a seaside café and napped on Bondi Beach. Sadly it became a little more tearfilled when we had to say goodbye to the boys for real this time amid promises to tackle Africa together someday in a 4×4 with a shotgun tucked under the seat.

And so after a week of getting to know each other – a week that felt so short in ways but so long in others – we had to open the top buttons of our jeans (there is, afterall, only so much of Sydney you can eat before it catches up on you) and bid our adieus to the city that reignited our passion for travel. As Governor Arnie himself would say, I’ll be back.

There are more pictures from Sydney available in the gallery

May 24, 2010 at 3:25 am Leave a comment

Sand, Sea and Spliffs. Byron Bay, Australia

For such a small town Byron Bay has a lot of character. With lovely clean beaches, fantastic surf and more hostels and guesthouses than seems feasible (so how are they always full?), it should have already become another Cairns or Airlie Beach. It should be packed to the rafters with the Oz Experience bunch, fresh off the bus and already colonising all of the local bars. While this is inevitabley part of the scene it is only a fraction of the whole and Byron Bay has made a lot of room for other, less exclusive groups. For some it’s a hippy town. For most it’s heaven.

The real dealbreaker – and I hate to say it because I’m really not that kind of gal – is the vibe. Somehow Byron Bay has retained its small-town feel despite being overrun with international visitors. As a result any walk, however short, will inevitably be delayed by polite conversation with a friendly stranger or excited chat with an old friend. At the centre of this open-armed welcome is Art’s Factory Lodge, a hippy camping ground and home to most of Byron Bay’s temporary backpacker residents. Residing in 100 man tents pimped out with beds, chests of drawers, bongs and duvet sets, they spend their days handing out flyers and their nights welcoming the new arrivals with boxes of goon.

Four litres of goon, one didgeridoo-making session and several brand new friends later, campers fall into their sleeping bags for a long night of tossing and turning. During the night they will contend with the freezing cold (if it’s winter), an entire cacaphony of squaking birds, drunks falling over their tent ropes and enraged bush turkeys hurling themselves at the poles and doors trying valiantly to gain entry for a midnight snack and a tumble in the sack. It’s all in the name of fun though and a night in Art’s is an absolute must for any self-respecting backpacker.

Arrivals that eventually manage to pull theselves away from the campsite, peel themselves off the soft white sand or paddle their way out of the surf will find a town well-worth exploring. One definite highlight is the multitude of interesting walking tracks that snake their way around Cape Byron and reach their climax at Australia’s most easterly point. Walkers are rewarded for their efforts here with fantastic views of the ocean, glimpses of the isolated beaches on the other side of the shore and a stunning hilltop lighthouse. For those that time their visit right humpback whales, stingrays and dolphins are often viewed from the lookout at the most easterly point. We were happily admitted to that exclusive group when we spotted not one but two pods of dolphins (at least 23 of them!) just off the coast of The Pass where they rode the waves under surfboards and over rocks right up to the shoreline.

My favourite part of Byron though (because isn’t it always?), is the wealth of fantastic food that is available on every corner – from refreshing ice cream at Baskin Robbins to scrumptious pies at the local bakeries (more specifically the one on the Cape Byron side of Lawson St.) and the to-die-for Italian grub that is served up in army sized portions in Earth ‘n Sea. For so many reasons that can legally be published and many more, Byron Bay is delicious.

There are more pictures from Byron Bay available in the gallery

May 18, 2010 at 8:59 am Leave a comment

Making ourselves at home. Brisbane, Australia

Brisbane is a really nice city. It’s clean, friendly, interesting, well-planned and just about the perfect size – big enough to keep you on your toes but not so big that it loses that familiar, smiley Aussie charm. Simply put, it’s the kind of place where you could easily imagine yourself finding a good job and settling down for a few years. It was in the spirit of giving the city a fair hearing then (and absolutely not because we were lazy, tight-fisted and tired) that we decided to bed down and make ourselves at home rather than rush around between galleries and zoos.

That said, I admit that a big part of our new slow-paced style had to do with our fantastic hosts Marie and Paul. As old friends of Gary’s they had offered to put us up and supply us with comfy sleeping arrangements, food, laundry, conversation and as much television as we could handle free of charge (Aussie TV is horribly American by the way – all informercials, constant ad breaks and vaguely embarrassing pharmaceutical ads, although Masterchef is pretty awesome). With a welcome as sincere and warm as theirs, it would have been rude not to just nestle in and pretend we were back in Dublin for a few duvet days.

We did manage to break out of our toasty nest every now and then though and what we found outside the apartment was just as pleasing. Across the city Brisbane has that lovely mix of shiny new architecture and grand old colonial buildings that make Australian cities so appealing. The highlight however is undoubtedly South Bank. Tucked into a curve in the river, South Bank is where Brisbanites come to play, be it an afternoon spent sunbathing by the sandy freshwater lagoon or a sneaky glass of wine over lunch in an outdoor cafe. Here museums cut dramatic shapes, the ferris wheel sparkles in the sun and the walkways are lined with scented purple flowers weaving their way across metal arches. An exhibition beside the university invites people to leave CDs that they no longer want and browse existing offerings for anything that tickles their fancy while across the river, a farmer’s market is thronged with office workers sampling local cheeses, home-cooked brownies and fresh fruit.

The real highlight of Brisbane was meeting up with old friends. Marie and Paul of course but also Christian, Kelly and Tanya (we missed Cameron) the fantastic bunch of Aussies we met all the way back in Beijing. You may remember the Aussies from such popular Finnish radio stations as K2lka6mtta Sjskb8unat (or something like that) where we co-broadcasted although they are better known for the destruction of property in Wanfujing Youth Hostel where every doodle on the wall – man, woman or child – and every foozball player on the table was far better endowed after Kelly and her magic marker had finished their work. Christian is solely responsible for 90% of our blog views although that map he has on the wall with our faces on it is just plain creepy and those tshirts he had printed. Well….

Anyway strange tendencies aside, Kelly and Christian had generously offered us a barbeque and a bed during our stay in Brisbane so naturally we leaped on it with foaming mouths and had a lovely night downing beers, trading stories, reminiscing and giggling as their dog Doug the pug panted like Gary Glitter at a Christening. Looking forward to seeing them and Tanya when they finally make their way to Ireland.

Before that though, we and our well-fed bellies would have to bid Brisbane a fond farewell and trade in our air conditioned, duvet-wrapped beds for a freezing cold tent in Byron Bay where we would have to turkey-proof our food. Oh goody!

There are more pictures from Brisbane available in the gallery

May 12, 2010 at 7:18 am 3 comments

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