Australia, home to stunning coastal cities, gorgeous beaches, the outback, kangaroos and koalas. A land so vast it spans five-time zones, three climatic regions and is home to some of the most diverse wildlife on earth. For many Australia is a place to retire, or somewhere to visit long migrated family, for us, it was a continent of adventure, of exploration and of driving one of the worlds most epic journeys. Sydney to Darwin via the great ocean road, and the outback.
You can drive directly from Sydney to Darwin up across Queensland, but we decided to go via Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide, Uluru and Alice Springs with lots of other places thrown in for good measure, and, just over the region of 3000 miles.
We rocked up into Sydney off a red eye from Singapore. Car hire was a breeze, just £750 for a Toyota Camry hybrid for the month and unbelievably with no deposit to leave. Just me and 4 kids, we strolled out of the airport wearing shorts, rocking t.shirts and sandals and showing off a decent pair of sunglasses. We hadn’t stepped a foot beyond the doors before we all looked at each other and began dramatically shivering. It was freezing cold. We had arrived into Australia in the middle of winter, and the blue skies had lied. It was just 7 degrees.
Sydney is the launch pad for most people heading to Australia, the largest city in New South Wales, and is easily one of the hippest, most relaxed cities in the world. Everyone looks either high or retired, and no one really gives much of a damn about anything too serious.
This write up is not to tell people what to do, or to advise, different people like different things and so this guide is really what we did by way of giving you a jumping off point, somewhere to start with your own adventure. Nonetheless we spent a lot of time walking in the city, sure we hopped on and off the city trains from time to time, but generally Sydney is a very walkable city. An absolute must is the walk from from Macquarie’s chair through the botanical gardens to the Sydney Opera house. From there you can bounce across the harbour and mooch through the Rocks, which is the place British convicts turned up a couple of centuries ago. Walking around the area feels surreal, rich in history, yet shadowed by the huge iron harbour bridge with glimpses of the opera house dotting the eyeline.
Whilst in Sydney try and catch a footy game (Rugby League) at the stunning ANZ stadium. Don’t bother trying to sneak alcohol in, all bags are checked.
Everyone heading to Sydney wants to feel a slice of Bondi beach, and unless you’re a surfer, or hardcore till you die sun-seeker, you’ll be disappointed in winter. The beach is empty, waves huge and most things closed. This offers up a fantastic opportunity though. From Bondi beach is arguably the cities most famous walk ‘Bondi to Coogee’. A walk of around 4 miles, it meanders the coast on well trodden pavements taking in many bays, cliff edges and finishing in quirky Coogee. The walk took us about 2 hours, and in all honesty, it felt a bit ‘for the sake of it’. Worthwhile, but not life changing.
Beyond Sydney is the blue mountains, which looked green to me, and a number of other cities, namely Manly and Cronulla.
We did visit a few museums, and I realised very quickly that Sydney can become yours, there really is something for everyone and its easy to understand why some folks come, and struggle to leave.
I must point out our favourite restaurant whilst there, ‘Friggitoria’ a gorgeous little Italian place with a small menu serving up some of the best pasta I’ve ever tasted. If the kids are fussy, theres a Dominos around the corner shelling out reasonable sized pizza for $5 a pop.
Legend has it, that years ago Melbourne and Sydney got into an argument about which city was best placed to be the capital city of Australia. Most countries would figure out their differences with handbags at dawn, but not Australia. Apparently, someone pencilled in a place halfway between the two cities and then set about building a new capital city. Everyone was happy and got on with their lives, content that they might not have been awarded capital city status, but then neither had the other.
Canberra is in its own state, ACT or Australian Capital Territory which by all accounts, is a poor effort at a state name. My first impression of Canberra was that it felt a bit American, and like it had been designed by a visionary with a knack for what the future might look like. Researching the city, I found I wasn’t far off. It is indeed an American design and the odd thing is, it feels designed. Most cities feel natural, like they started as some building and then naturally extended into the surroundings. Not Canberra. Everything feels like it is supposed to be there and for me that really takes away from the feel of the place. I soon got over that when I realised that virtually every museum in the city was free. And that means a lot. Four kids and I quickly become a high tariff, even when my 5-year-old rolls back his years to being just 3. Or 4.
The numero uno place in Canberra for us, was the war memorial. It would be criminal not to visit what for me, and all of us is simply one of the most beautiful and well stocked museums we have ever had the privilege of visiting. Meticulously crafted it represents a journey through history of the Australian military. Stories are told through artefacts, exhibitions, and enough props and activities to keep you occupied for days. I gave us 3 hours, we spent the entire day. Even passing Canberra, this is a worthwhile stop few will regret.
Parliament House and the National Museum are worth a gander, though the latter does feel like it was designed by your grandad, it is free and in the basement kids can design robots and then pit them against each other, albeit virtually.
Canberra for us was also the first place we really saw kangaroos, for a time they seemed to be everywhere, and when we left our hotel room for dinner, we saw loads of them on our lawn. We all probably got a little excited that night.
Long revered as being the worlds most liveable city (whatever that really means) I was looking forward to Melbourne. I’d rented an apartment with stunning city views and placed us just far enough from the hustle and bustle not to hear it, but close enough that we could walk or hop on the free city tram.
I must say, Melbourne wasn’t what I expected. Yes, there was the coffee shops, graffiti scrawled walls and fish and chip shops. But I just felt the city lacked any real identity, which is probably a huge attraction for many.
The city itself is modern, chic and walking around the arcades gives a glimpse into student life and $30 breakfasts. Supposedly the best coffee in the world is to be found in Melbourne, something I found out after having left the city so am unable to comment on.
We walked a lot in Melbourne, there is a free zone for the tram which you can hop on and off with ease and that allows you to really get your teeth into the city.
The main starting point for the city is Federation square, a cobbled piece of the city where the only activity is that of relaxing, chatting and not doing much.
A couple of places worth noting is the NGV, a perverted and somewhat pointless array of so called art, housed in a concrete wanna-be-Tate-modern building. The kids laughed at the drawings of penises, but I just felt it was little more than an outlet for some perverted individual keen to show the world his lurid and vulgar wanderlust.
Conveniently next door is the ACMI which is the Australian Centre for Moving Images, a small but wonderful little media museum that on weekends has tonnes of activities for families, such as making stop motion movies and watching some Australian classic TV.
Beyond the city centre we walked as far as docklands from Flinders st. and out as far as the hospital which is where our apartment was.
Melbourne to me lacked the friendly feel which every other place we’d been (and would go) had. I was talking to a couple of locals in the pool and they said it is due to Melbourne having undergone a population boom, and this was easy to see. At one point in the city my daughter said, ‘it feels like we’re in China’ and I looked around, and realised that it really did. Only in Vancouver have I ever seen as many Chinese people outside of China. Naturally, we embraced that and had a gorgeous Chinese meal for dinner.
The Great Ocean Road
The great ocean road is the jewel of Australian road trips. Starting east to west in Geelong, the route traverses some of the countries greatest coastline.
I was expecting koalas hanging from trees, whales crashing against the ocean, kangaroos bouncing through fields and tropical birds filling the skies. All this combined with a rugged coastline unmatched in this part of the world. I expected seaside towns decades past their sell by date, hardy Australians celebrating a life of coastal beauty. I envisaged wineries, seafood and quirky attractions desperate to draw some of the masses from the roads. I expected a lot, and we were not disappointed.
The Great Ocean Road is clearly marked. The route passes by towns that reminded me of great British seaside, often with a shady looking pier jutting out into the ocean. The sea was violent, isolated beaches were pounded with surf as fog tended to hang constantly a hundred metres from shore, broken only occasionally by a rainbow.
Much of the route was spent nipping off into the many attractions en route such as Lorne, where spotting koalas is more like ‘spot the place without a Koala’. Or at man made attractions such as Otway Fly, a super expensive and quite unnerving tree top walk amongst the rain forest. Made ever more memorable for us, as we met a lifelong friend who bailed to the Southern Hemisphere some 16 years ago. We picked up where we left off.
Beyond Otway is the stunning yet tourist saturated 12 apostles. No longer 12, more like 3 or 4, it is one of those images that epitomises Australia. We saw our first rain here and quickly bailed about 20 miles west before finding a slice of nothing, not even rain, and it felt like we had the entire continent to ourselves. It was still freezing cold.
Eventually a 70’s style British seaside town comes along. Name is Warrnambool. Was it not for the mammals that make their way here people might continue driving. Yet come between May and November and theres a high likelihood you’ll be rewarded with a show of whales jumping, rolling and living life in their natural habitat. Head to the whale sanctuary for the best lookout opportunities. No charge. Obviously. Further up the coast you can spot a zillion seals in Cape Bridgewater after passing through gorgeous Port Fairy and interesting Portland.
For me the Great Ocean Road was one of those places where you spend more time looking at what is around, than at the road ahead. The kids grew bored on the in between journeys, but sprang to life every time they saw something a little out of the ordinary, which was very frequent.
Be aware, prices rocket in this pocket of Australia and places sell out well in advance.
Beyond the Great Ocean Road and just across the border between Victoria and South Australia, is Mt Gambier. Famed for a supposed stunning blue lake that was oddly normal looking when we arrived, it is a nice little town to kick back, relax and walk down a sinkhole.
Eventually, having driven through what seems like endless vineyards you drive upon a landscape that looks suspiciously like English countryside. Rolling green fields, rocks, even houses that wouldn’t look out of place in Blighty. You have come upon the Adelaide Hills, a gorgeous respite from busy Adelaide.
Rocking up into the city I was aware that there was a high proportion of British expats, within minutes we were stuck in a traffic jam, our first of the trip so far. Eventually, when things got moving we were stuck behind some of earths slowest drivers, definitive proof that the occupants were elderly British, whiling away their lives at a snails pace. Just as they do in Britain.
Adelaide is a coastal city boasting its own unique culture, which is a combination of chic, mixed with sexy and wrapped up in chill. It’s an easy place to love, clean, modern and easy going there is no doubt as to why it continues to attract migrants year on year. Personally, we didn’t think Adelaide had the best beaches, or museums, or landmarks. But it definitely had the best pace of any city we’d been in so far.
Take time to visit the hills though, the kids absolutely went crazy for Gorge Wildlife park, a cheap and cheesy place to hold a koala, play with kangaroos and experience some of the countries wonderful wildlife.
Naturally we hit up the botanic gardens, and took in a few museums, but the lasting memory for us all was the wildlife park and the holiday park we stayed at, which had a huge bouncy thing that the kids flung themselves from repeatedly.
Due to the time of year, the beaches were abandoned but looked like a sure place to lose yourself come summer. With a little more time we’d have loved to make our way over to Kangaroo island, but sadly, it wasn’t to be this time.