“It’s Mel-bin,” my formerly-Canadian-now-Australian friend, S, corrected when I kept saying Mel-boorn. “And you watch The Tennis in Australia, not tennis. I play The Golf, and we slip The Shrimp on The Barbie.” Ok, he didn’t say the last one because no one does. They’re called prawns, mostly.
“You’ve really embraced your new country,” I smirk. “Do you say ‘What do you reckon?’ And ‘Woolys’ for Woolworths?”
“You have to call it ‘Woolys,'” S retorted, “That’s what it is called here. But I still say ‘think,’ not ‘reckon’ and never ‘Maccas’ for ‘McDonald’s.'”
Landing in Australia after Southeast Asia was more of a culture shock than going from North America to Hong Kong at the start of the trip. Water is blue again, so are skies, and traffic is well behaved although Aussie cars will run you over instead of patiently winding around you if you are foolish enough to jaywalk. On country number 5 of alternately left-hand/right-hand drive, D and I looked left, right and up before stepping into the road.
We continued our take-a-boat-ride-in-every country with about as much success. In Melbin, we chose the Docklands cruise instead of the Garden route because we’d passed that new trendy area the day before and it looked interesting. We found instead that it was literally a cruise of the working docklands with a commentary along the lines of “that big ship there is from China and has 20,000 shipping containers on it. It comes on Mondays and Fridays.”
Melbin, however, is lovely. It is a pristine, orderly place that has locked up the Most Liveable City in the World for the past 7 years, leaving Vancouver clinging to third spot. It is the Victoria of Australia, a comparison that only works for British Columbians, since Australians would be quick to point out with confusion and rolled eyes that Melbin is in Victoria (state).
To me, Melbin will always be where I met Roger Federer, the Barbie doll Ken-sized Roger on the court while we sat in the stands, that is. We’d tacked on Australia almost solely to see the Australian Open (that’s The Tennis for those like me who don’t follow such things). D is a big fan and the price of attending, other than the exorbitant markup of resale tickets, was teaching me tennis rules. She was patient with my novice questions and swallowed any resentment at my savant-like ability to predict whether a ball was in or out on the challenges. Turns out I’m pretty good at 50-50 calls. But I was hooked after watching the GOAT win the quarters, reading tennis articles and insisting on arranging our sightseeing days to see him win the finals on TV. Now YouTube emails me daily Federer videos in an attempt to lure me down a wormhole.
Sydney is more like Vancouver although with nicer weather. We stepped up our water game with an inexpensive ferry to Manly Beach. I was hoping it referred to a person, but no, it was (re)named after the “manly behaviour” of the indigenous people, whatever that means, witnessed by the British naval officer who founded the penal colony that would become Sydney. I hope he had to do some time himself for that. But the beach was perfect with whitish, powdery sand, water lapping our ankles, and tables to hang out on while our gelato melted faster than we could eat it.
Then came Brisbane and a visit with S, my other reason for the Australia stopover. First was a laughing catch up lunch with S and his lovely wife A, despite a misfire on my order which saw me get 3 thumb-sized tacos as my meal. This might be the time to mention there is (generally) no tipping in Australia – this country choosing instead to pay a minimum wage of over $17. Of course, a server expecting a tip might have made more of an effort to explain the exact dimensions of the taco appetizer. No tipping also comes with surprising surcharges coded to your bill like the 10% PH line item (public holiday surcharge), the 5% WE charge (weekend extortion?) or the automatic extra $10 that gets added to a cab fare even when it hasn’t gone through any tolls.
Brisbane itself is my next favourite place because, water. You might feel the need to point out that Australia is an island and these cities are all pretty much on the coast but the water in Brisbane is a river, called the Brisbane River (as thankfully that naval guy hadn’t arrived “first”).
S lent me his transport card and while he and A went back to work, I deciphered the ferry system, bypassing the free City Hopper tourist ferry and similarly named but completely different cross-river City Ferry to hop on the speedy catamaran called the City Cat. This cat zig zags across and up and down the river fast enough that your hair whips around your face while you are lulled by the deckhand’s rhythm of string a cordon, open the gate, throw a line, pull over the gangway, remove the cordon, let on/off the passengers and then do whole thing in reverse, at each stop every few minutes. Fun enough that even the following conversation between captains on their shift change doesn’t phase you, much:
- Hey Mick, all right?
- Yeah, steering goes out every now and then, but all good
- Good, bye then
Perhaps I was distracted by the best gelato I’ve ever had, a creamy, bitter-sweet combination of 80% dark chocolate topped with a scoop of salted caramel, from the wonderful La Macelleria in Teneriffe.
Almost topping that was dinner at Kotobuki, an izakaya restaurant, that has refined service to an AI degree. When you walk in, you are given an iPad menu that allows you to order without talking to anyone. When you see an item you want, you press it and it’s sent directly to the kitchen, no backsies. Which means you lose track of what you’ve ordered and eat too much. I had just read about the hack that “jackpots” ATMs, i.e. installs a program that causes the ATM to spit out 20s like you’ve won the jackpot. I had visions Lucy or Ethelling it at the end of a sushi conveyor belt trying to catch flying roe in my mouth (see what I did there?). But you don’t have to speak to anyone, ever, and no one comes to check on each bite you take (genius!) although you can request a server through the magic portal if you are lonely. The dishes come fresh in less than a minute and I timed the arrival of the bill (another button) at 10 seconds.
I could go on about Australia:
- The Great Ocean Road outside of Melbin, where you can see koalas and bright red parrots in the wild when you stop for lunch on the way to the 12 (actually 8) Apostles, limestone stacks rising out of the ocean, striped in shades of tan and sand
- F18 jets exploding up and out from behind the Sydney Opera House like a bloomin’ flower on Australia Day while crowds wave Australian and Aboriginal flags, and yes, sing Waltzing Matilda periodically
- Koalas you can cuddle and kangaroos you can pet at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary that S took me to on our epic touring day that also saw us walking around the tops of the three-storey high trees in the Mt Tamborine rain forest on a metal skywalk
As I gazed out at the lit up Story Bridge from the patio of Madame Wu’s on the banks of the Brisbane river that final evening, I turned to S and said, “I think I could live in Australia.” “You reckon?” he responded without thinking.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t that pat, it was probably more like “I’d better leave at 9am tomorrow to catch my flight.” But he did said “reckon” and earlier a “Maccas” had slipped out after all. I can see why Australia has gotten into his blood, eh?
I’ve been back for two weeks and am finishing this in the airspace above the Northwest Territories where I’m headed briefly for work. Thinking back on the trip, it is hard to name one favourite thing. Each country was fun and fascinating in some way and I hope I’ve captured a small piece of that in these posts.
What did I learn?
If you give a guide your What’s App info, he will become a pen pal for life and text you sappy sunrise pictures saying “Good morning, Mary.”
If you book a rooftop fireworks buffet for Australia Day at your hotel for prime viewing in luxury, don’t be surprised if the dinner is on the first floor interior terrace overlooking the lobby, and the rooftop viewing is sardining yourselves with all the other guests, when you’ve booked in to the Holiday Inn.
And finally, my skin colour is called snail-white in Asia, according to the cosmetic ads, and should provide good camouflage up here in the north this week.