Every year, nearly half a million people from Ireland and Britain fly to Australia. Put it another way, every day some 1300 men, women and children cross to the other side of the planet in search of the holiday experience of a lifetime.
Visitor numbers are increasing, thanks to the strength of the pound against the Australian dollar, and increased competition which has succeeded in driving down air fares. No longer is the idea of a family holiday down under restricted to gold card holders and lottery winners. Today's travellers look much the same as visitors to any long haul destination: tired, jetlagged, yet nonetheless optimistic.
My challenge was to spend two weeks, in two centers, with two children, and enjoy it !
For seven year old Cathleen, the prospect of a 21 hour flight was tremendously exciting. Her eleven year old sister, Sara, knew better. We chose Philippine Airlines, as their one stop London / Manila / Sydney service offered good value combined with a direct routing to Australia. By despite my worst fears of a nightmare journey, the time, quite literally, flew. Being tied to the children's school holidays, we had to travel during July, mid-winter in Australia. With Christmas flights too expensive and the Easter break too short, this is the only realistic option to families intending to get the most out of an Australian holiday.
Arriving in Sydney, despite being mid-winter, the cloudless sky was azure blue, the temperature a comfortable 18 degrees, warm enough for tee shirts and sunglasses. First impressions were of a spotless people in a spotless city. I had never pictured the Australians as a particularly tidy race, but here was a city with sweet sea air, first generation tap water, and a stunning harbor teeming with shoals of fish. How so many people can leave behind so little mess is nothing short of remarkable. Add to this the fact that nobody smokes. Smoking in Sydney has all the appeal of breaking wind at chapel. Indeed, a sign outside one restaurant read "Smokers are welcome to avail of our pavement". Lively pubs packed with beer swilling Aussies are as welcoming as our own home grown bars, but without the stinging smog of cigarette smoke.
We had just three days in Sydney, not nearly long enough to fully appreciate the variety of this city. Our first stop was at the Sydney Aquarium, one of the largest and most spectacular in the world. Visitors walk through glass tunnels where sharks, stingrays, giant sea turtles and reef fish surround the visitor. A short stroll away is Sega World, a Disneyland style experience which sadly owes nothing to Australia. Much more impressive is the Panasonic Imax Theatre, which is the world's biggest movie screen. Billed as the "ultimate film thrill" it does not disappoint, with images and sounds so intense that the entire audience was overwhelmed by the experience.
Time however was short, so we left Sydney to explore something of New South Wales. The best way to do this is to hire one of the many types of campervan available. These range from a basic three berth campervan at £40 per day up to a luxury six berth motorhome at £100 per day. When you consider that you are not paying for a hotel, this does represent value for money.
Our first stop was Bondi Beach, just half an hour outside the city. Despite its reputation as a center for surfers, lifeguards and beach bums, Bondi bears an uncanny resemblance to Portstewart. The white Edwardian buildings are identical, the promenade and overall size too are similar. Only the lack of white shivering flesh and the fact that everyone seems so happy gives the game away. A stop at the Bondi Bottle Shop revealed a red wine not previously featured in The Irish News wine column. "Big Red Bastard", despite its brash title was pleasantly subtle and is bound to make an ideal Christmas gift.
A couple of hours further north took us to the open Eucalyptus forests of New South Wales. Parrots danced freely amongst the trees, while road signs warned of the dangers of kangaroos, wombats and koalas. A chat at a petrol station led to June Welsh, a selfless lady who has devoted her retirement to caring for sick and abandoned koalas. In the corner of her living room wandered Precious, a blind koala who was abandoned by its mother as she was being chased by a dog. I have to say that the children were besotted by Precious, with little Cathleen even trying to slip her into her backpack to take home.. But despite their cute and cuddly appearance, koalas are known to be bad tempered, have sharp claws and very poor table manners...
Motoring in Australia is a breeze. Not only do they drive on the left, but petrol is also a lot cheaper than at home with a gallon of unleaded costing around 37 pence per litre. Over 21's with a full Northern Ireland driving license can hire a car or campervan. Outside the cities, the main hazard is kangaroos, who have absolutely no road sense and are one of the main causes of traffic accidents.
Having never holidayed by campervan before, we all found the experience much easier than we had imagined. The motorhome was well equipped and took about twenty minutes to convert from day to night use. The campsites where we stayed had all mod cons, and like everywhere in Australia were spotlessly clean. People here are absolutely passionate about their environment. The countryside is stunningly beautiful and the Aussies want to keep it that way.
A good example is the Eaglereach area of New South Wales - This is a mountainous area overlooking the Hunter Valley where much of Australia's wine is produced. Amongst the Kangaroos and the Wallabies, the owners of this thousand acre estate have built a small number of cottages where people come to tune in with nature - and themselves.... Eating al fresco with grey wallabies nibbling at the breakfast leftovers, this is a wonderfully relaxing spot. The children discovered the joys of yabbying, catching freshwater crayfish known locally as yabbys using just string and a piece of meat for bait. Yabbying is an living example of the childhood of yesteryears. No Nintendos here, just patience, the thrill of a bite leading to the proud achievement of luring the snapping yabbie to the riverbank.
For the last few years, I have been looking for a special place to spend New Years Eve 1999. It has to be very beautiful, somewhere where the whole family can relax, yet with enough activities to satisfy everyone's needs. In Eaglereach, New South Wales, I may have found the ideal mountain paradise to launch the new millennium.
Never mind whinging Poms. The compaints from the Aussies the day the mid- winter temperature in Sydney dropped below 15 degrees was deafening. "Sydney Shivers" whined the local radio DJ. So this Irish family forsook the cool sunshine of Sydney in search of some real heat - Australia's sunshine state - Queenland.
Driving to Cairns in Northern Queenland is out of the question unless you have ten days to spare. A three hour flight from Sydney brings you into the balmy atmosphere of the tropics. Here there are two seasons: Hot and dry (March to September) and very hot and wet (October to February). The European summer is the ideal time to visit Cairns where temperatures are around 25 degrees and the sea is a pleasant 21 degrees.
The region boasts two world heritage sights: The Wet Tropics Rainforests and the Great Barrier Reef. No visit to Queensland is complete without visiting the Barrier Reef. This majestic coral structure is 2000 miles long and is home to the greatest variety of plant and animal species found anywhere in the world. Getting there involves a 90 minute journey by high speed catamaran, over occasionally rocky seas. Staff were on hand with seasickness bags which were used liberally. To the young man who asked "do any of you Shielas fancy some chicken?" before emptying his stomach, I have to reply today "that was not funny..." But once you arrive, all is forgotten and forgiven. Anyone can snorkel on the Reef, and the more adventurous can learn to scuba dive. Great floating pontoons act as a base from where you swim amongst marine life that comes straight out of a Jacques Cousteau film. Angel fish, green finned parrot fish, giant clams, the four foot long giant trevally and hundreds of other varieties makes this one of the world's greatest holiday experiences.
A popular extension to the beach 'n' reef holidays is the traditional Australian farmstay break, where you spend a few days living on a working farm. Iexpected this to be quite dull but was pleasantly surprised. Eleven year old Sara and her seven year old sister Cathleen very quickly became experienced farmhands, collecting eggs, feeding bananas to the bull, riding the pony and feeding the possoms. In short, they loved every minute at Cedar Vale. The farmer, Les Buglar and his wife Ros, proved to be real life adventurers. Over a bottle of Queensland rum, Les revealed that he had previously been a crocodile hunter, wild horse tamer, spear fisherman, banana plantation owner and gem prospector. Sensing my disbelief, Les produced a shoebox, then another, then three more. Each one was packed with uncut gemstones - sapphires, rubies, garnets, emeralds and topaz. "Australia still has many secrets" he winked, clutching a topaz the size of his fist. "Next time, stay a bit longer and we'll go gem hunting". Leaving Cedar Vale and entering the vast expanse of the Australian outback gives you a sense of the size of Australia. One man we met had taken a few days off work to travel 500 miles to a party. This was Crocodile Dundee country, where red earth meets blue sky. Butterflies like spotted dinner plates blend casually with birds of paradise. At Christmas temperatures here can reach forty degrees, enough to sap the life from the unprepared traveller.
Journey's end was Cairns, the largest town in Northern Queensland. Despite all its modernity, a definite pioneering spirit remains. The buildings could have been plucked from a John Wayne Western set, virgin rainforest surrounds the town, while signs point to the Royal Flying Doctor base, still an essential service in this remote region. So charged with the spirit of the Outback, we spent our final night in Australia at Dundee's restaurant in Cairns, not the place for committed vegetarians. After kangaroo soup and crocodile satay starters, little Cathleen enjoyed a main course of emu fillet, Sara tucked intocamel balls with a yogurt sauce, while I devoured one minced Tasmanian possum topped with a sauce mornay. A memorable meal, but a long way to go for a second helping.
Singapore Airlines fly daily from UK and USA via Singapore to Singapore Sydney from £680 return. Children travel from £450 return. This route has the advantage of having just one stopover in Singapore as well as the opportunity to break the journey in one of Asia's most fascinating destinations. Other operators include British Airways, Quantas, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Thai and Emirates.
WHEN TO GO:
Prices jump around Christmas, the height of the Australian summer. Sydney in July and August is similar to a mild summer's day here. Spring and Autumn are ideal. The busy times when you must book accommodation well in advance are Christmas, the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival in February, the main Mardi Gras parade in early March and at Easter.
Favorable exchange rates mean that Australia is generally around 15% cheaper than here. Credit cards are widely accepted, while most cash dispensers will provide money direct from accounts in Europe. Notes are plastic, washable and virtually unbreakable.
There are many shops specializing in Australian clothing from outback hats to skimpy swim wear. Many shops sell locally mined opals, but enlist the help of an expert before you buy. Black and Boulder opals are the genuine article. Doublets and triplets are just cheap sliced stone. A disturbing number of Australian shops now market animal skins. Typical products include kangaroo fur rugs, wallaby paw back scratchers, bags made from kangaroo scrotum, emu skin pens and toad skin purses. Cairns which is situated next to the Great Barrier Reef also has several shops selling coral. Apart from the obvious damage to the reef, tourists bringing coral home face a fine of up to £2000 plus up to two years imprisonment
FOOD AND DRINK:
No shortage of barbecues. Good steaks and seafood. Watch out for vegamite, a potent yeast spead similar to marmite. Most restaurants have a children's menu where prices are normally discounted by 50%. Locally produced wine and beer and both plentiful and excellent.
A day trip to the Great Barrier Reef with meals, tuition and all snorkeling equipment costs £60 / $100 for adults, children half price. Contact Sunlover Cruises, Cairns 00 61 70 311 055.
In Queensland a recommended farmstay location is Cedar Vale Farm, Ravensoe, Queensland. Tel / Fax 00 61 70 976 782
From Cairns, good overnight trips to the Outback with The Undara Experience Tel 00 61 70 971 411. Guests sleep in converted railway carriages.
LEARN THE LANGUAGE BEFORE YOU GO:
Good morning G'Day
Englishman Pom (usually whinging)
Tea break Smoko
Native Australian Abo
Can of lager Tinnie
I'm taking unauthorised sick leave I'm taking a sickie so stuff 'em.
(c) Copyright 1999 - All rights reserved David Malone