Australia: Experience High Adventure Down Under

(Story previously published in Winnipeg Free Press)

For the adventurous traveler, Australia is a treasure worth exploring year-round. A young country in terms of colonization, the Commonwealth of Australia was born in 1901. Today, with a population of 21 million in six states and two territories, it’s a vast and diverse landscape inhabited by few people – much like Canada.

The best thing about being ‘down under’ is that it’s far away and foreign, minus language and cultural differences. The people encountered were friendly and fun, sporting great ‘Aussie’ accents and amusing expressions. They enjoy good food and wine, and live for sports like football and cricket. Much like Canadians, who are proud of who they are and where they come from.

STATE OF VICTORIA

Located in southeastern Australia is Victoria, the second largest state. Most visitors to the region enter via the state capital Melbourne – the gateway to Victoria.Melbourne lies along the northern shores of Port Phillip Bay, and is known for world-class shopping, multicultural flair and cosmopolitan pulse. It also boasts a proud tradition of sport, as the birthplace of Aussie-rules football and the AFL (Australian Football League).

Many of Victoria’s best attractions are within a short drive from Melbourne, including the town of Ballarat. Here you’ll find Sovereign Hill, a recreated gold-rush town that immerses visitors in historic battles and traditions reenacted by costumed characters. When an abundance of gold was discovered at the Victorian goldfields in the 1850’s, the lure of easy lucre was as irresistible as the infamous Klondike. People swarmed to Australia from around the world, desperately hoping to strike it rich. While fortunes were made overnight, the dream went unrealized by most who gambled everything to try their luck panning for gold.

I, too, would try my luck, quickly falling victim to the addictive lure of the pan. The technique involved shoveling scoops of gravel, rock and sand into a round iron plate, then stooping over and sifting the heavy contents back and forth, dumping out the big stuff, eventually getting down to smaller substances.

It took plenty of practice to attain the finest nitty-gritty, and by then I was hooked – especially after final swirls of the softest sands began to reveal minute specks of gold. This astounding discovery roused an overwhelming obsession that there could be more. There MUST be more! Surely I will find my fortune if I just keep panning…

After two hours of shoveling, scooping and sifting, my host had to practically pull me away from the creek-bed. By then I had mastered the technique, amassing enough gold to equal the size of the tiniest grain of rice. Which meant I was still poor. But my determination had earned a timeless memento worth more than its weight in gold.

Switching from minerals to animals, nearby Ballarat Wildlife Park offers a natural setting to observe adorable koalas lolling about eucalyptus branches; see real Tasmanian devils which look nothing like the one on Bugs Bunny; safely get up close to killer crocodiles and deadly snakes; and stroll about cute little kangaroos while feeding them right out of your hand. You can also get accosted by big scary emus who will peck for the food in your hand should they get within striking range.

Outdoor enthusiasts must check out Grampians National Park, a rugged mountain range consisting of sandstone ridges carved into steep craggy slopes. With more than 50 walking trails winding through a system of lakes, waterfalls and look-outs, the region is favourite among hikers, cyclists, paddlers and climbers.

Other park attractions include Aboriginal sites of ancient shelters and artwork. It’s also a prime place for four-wheel drive backwoods tours with Grampians Adventure Services, taking you deep into remote regions teeming with indigenous plants, birds and other critters, including the kind you knew were there but would really rather NOT to see – like Australians infamous spiders and snakes.

For stunning scenery of a different kind, drive the Great Ocean Road. This popular touring route ranks among the world’s most stunning drives, hugging the contours of the coast, and covering 300 kilometers from Nelson to Australia’s surf capital Torquay.

Highlights include the shipwreck coast, where countless ships met unsuspected demise in centuries past, and their haunting stories are recounted at various points along the treacherous shore. The Twelve Apostles are giant stacks of eroded sandstone that soar up from swirling ocean waters. These world-famous rock formations are particularly impressive to see from the sky, with Great Ocean Road Helicopters offering excursions over this truly inspiring coastline.

Another exciting attraction is the Otway Fly Treetop Walk, a 600-meter-long 25-meter-high series of walkways that ascend to treetop level high above the fern-covered floor. This exhilarating experience provides a bird’s eye view of the tranquil rainforest setting. If heights make you nervous, avoid the spiral tower that rises to 45 meters, which will put you right over the top.

Beachcombers love idyllic seaside villages like Apollo Bay and Lorne, where outdoor patios provide spectacular settings for wining and dining. In Anglesea, a round at the Anglesea Golf Club offers a truly Australian experience – golfing among dozens of kangaroos who lazily lounge around the greens, allowing golfers to get up close. Fortunately, they provide a unique distraction from the many bad golfing shots that unfortunately still exist even when golfing in the southern hemisphere.

The most memorable moment of the entire trip happened one sunny Sunday morning at the town of Sorrento in Port Phillip Bay. It was here we boarded a boat with Polperro Dolphin Swims, a multi-award winning tourism operation run by the Muir family, dawned wetsuits, masks and snorkels, and headed out to sea.

In order to get comfortable with snorkeling, our first mission was to visit seals – easy to find, since they lounge around a wooden gazebo-like structure out on the water. The first glimpse of seals underwater was thrilling, as they tend to swim quite close to you.

Things got even more interesting when my diving partner – an Australian girl celebrating her 18th birthday – quickly discovered that if you squeal with delightor make any kind of noise they tend to swim right AT you. From then on, watching her try to escape the seals was even more fun than watching the seals themselves.

After next visiting a reef and viewing a school of brightly coloured fish, we were ready for the real attraction – dolphins. And it didn’t take long before our host Judith Muir spotted them.

“Quick, get in the water!” she ordered, as we climbed off the back of the boat. Our instructions were to hang onto a rope and be slowly towed toward the dolphins, all the while keeping our faces in the water and listening to Muir who would tell us which way to look. Sounds simple enough, but not when it all happens so fast…

My pulse was racing and adrenaline flowing as I heard Muir shout “look left!” But as soon as I looked left, she yelled “look right!” Followed by “look down!” Which made me panic and look up. “You have to put your face in the water to see them!” she reminded me. Oh yes, face in the water…

These near misses went on for several seconds, until the dolphins tired of the game and swam away. I was disappointed, but got another chance a short time later, when Muir spotted more dolphins in the distance.

“Quick, get in the water!” Here we go again. This time I refused to panic, and gently floated on the surface with my face in the water. Suddenly, three magnificent dolphins came right towards me, hypnotically twirling and dancing just a few feet below.

Muir told us earlier they liked interaction, so we should sing if they came close. Seeing as they lived in the water, I thought they might enjoy my karaoke favourite The Tide Is High by Blondie, which I proceeded to clumsily croon through my snorkel.

For a few magical moments they gazed up at me with big dark dolphin eyes, demonstrating approval of my musical selection. And then as quickly as they had approached, they vanished – leaving behind nothing but memories of an incredible dolphin-bonding experience, and melodies of Blondie lingering in my head for the rest of the day.

AUSTRALIAN CAPITAL TERRITORY

The second half of my Australian adventure took me to Canberra, located in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). A planned city, Canberra was built in response to indecision about which centre – Sydney or Melbourne – should be named the capital of Australia.

To compromise, a location was selected between both cities. The name Canberra was chosen, derived from the Aboriginal name Kamberra, which means ‘meeting place’. In 1911, an international competition was launched to design the city, with American landscape architect Walter Burley Griffin chosen as the winner.

Today, Canberra is a young modern city with a population of 320,000, and a unique place where urban style meets the beauty of the Australian bush. Surrounded by national parks, wilderness tracts and mountain ranges, Canberra is the proud political and cultural hub of Australia.

Most of the city’s attractions are within easy walking distance from downtown. Visitors will discover an eclectic mix of restaurants, including the Ottoman Empire with offers world-famous Turkish cuisine. Wineries, shopping, galleries, museums, monuments, and recreational trails around Lake Burley Griffin contribute to the Canberra experience.

Must-see attractions include the National Gallery of Australia, featuring more than 100,000 works of art. Tucked away in the National Library of Australia are fascinating historic exhibits from Australia’s past, with authentic maps, letters, pictures and clothing from the colonization period. The National Museum of Australia displays Aussie culture, history and lifestyle, while the Parliament House offers free guided tours that provide a glimpse into Australia’s intriguing political history.

The best way to see the contrived lay-out of the city is from way up high. Rising 195 meters above Black Mountain is Telstra Tower, which offers 360-degree views – from enclosed and open-air viewing galleries. For adventurous types wanting to go even higher, Dawn Drifters hot air balloon rides take off at dawn (literally) and rise high above Telstra Tower and everything else.

Floating around in a hot air balloon is a peaceful and tranquil feeling, provided you don’t actually think too much about where you are – standing in a giant wickerbasket attached to a great big balloon, thousands of meters off the ground, fueled by blasts of flame that could surely ignite everything with one false move.

After coming back down to earth, the trip is celebrated with a certificate ceremony and champagne breakfast. Instantly feeling the calming affect of the bubbly, I concluded that if I ever go hot air ballooning again, I’ll take the champagne BEFORE we take off…

CONTACTS:

Tourism Australia http://www.australia.com/
Tourism Victoria http://www.visitvictoria.com/
City of Melbourne http://www.visitmelbourne.com/
Sovereign Hill http://www.sovereighhill.com.au/
Ballarat Wildlife Park http://www.wildlifepark.com.au/
Brambuk Aboriginal Cultural Centre http://www.parkweb.vic.gov.au/
Grampians Adventure Services http://www.g-adventures.com.au/
Great Ocean Road http://www.greatoceanrd.org.au/
Great Ocean Road Helicopters http://www.gorhelis.com/
Otway Fly Treetop Walk http://www.otwayfly.com/
Anglesea Golf Club http://www.angleseagolfclub.com.au/
Polperro Dolphin Swims http://www.polperro.com.au/
Canberra & Australian Capital Tourism http://www.tourism.act.gov.au/
Canberra Tourism http://www.canberratourism.com.au/
National Gallery of Australia http://www.nga.gov.au/
National Library of Australia http://www.nla.gov.au/
National Museum of Australia http://www.nma.gov.au/
Parliament of Australia http://www.aph.gov.au/
Dawn Drifters http://www.dawndrifters.com.au/