Travel Books: Australia

Good books I read while I was there: 


It lives up to its epic billing. Be prepared for a long book – but I found it really interesting, offering a perspective on the political environment in England that precipitated “transportation”. The variety of different “criminals” that arrived in Australia: (some had only stolen bread). Plus how some wardens were mean, heartless pricks while others were more reasonable – and how the interaction between the convicts and their new land became the foundation for the country. Some stole and became outlaws (Ned Kelly), while others bared down and made the best out of what is a tough, and nearly impossible situation. It lays out what life was like under “transportation”, how it changed afterwards, and how that influenced where the country was headed. Far from sentimental, it reveals the cruelty endured by aborignes at the hands of settlers, plus the cruelty convicts experienced. Definitely worth a read as a primer on how Australia started.


I like Bill Bryson. He’s able to present facts in an interesting way, turning what might be boring and dull into something more intriguing. His story alone on describing how big Australia is by describing how a Japanese cult may have blown up a nuclear device and no one really knew about it – is reason enough to pick this up. If you yawn at history, but like reading memoirs – I think this will bridge the difference without making it feel like a slog.


This is entertaining pulp. Follows the story of two young Australian surfers learning from an older surfer off Australia’s surfing spots, and from his girlfriend who takes a liking to them. A bit dark, but thought it was a fun, breezy read.


And here you go. Pretty self-explanatory. It lays out the case that the brains behind the band are the Youngs who keep their inner circle tight, and push away anyone who doesn’t fit in. Will probably only appeal to someone who knows their music – but still an interesting story on how three brothers from Glasgow, Scotland arrived in Sydney and built a $100 million band.

Books that are on my list


Trip through Australia while relating how aborignes use music as part of their nomadic travel. I’m screwing up the description, but its meant to be good.


Considered by many a classic of Australian fiction – story of two diverging siblings, set around WW1.


Jasper Jones represents a challenge to his pal Charlie’s life. Where Charlie once saw things one way, his influence may make him consider things differently. I don’t know – that’s the gist I got from the blurbs anyhow. A coming of age story mixed with mystery.


Australian crime fiction. Got a bunch of accolades and meant to be good.


A series of short stories with characters from Tehran, Colombia, Vietnam and other spots – meant to be good with high praise as a young and upcoming writer.


Melbourne strolls and going down the road to watch waves roll


Sydney might be the smart, pretty, popular girl who liked team sports growing up and is now hiking up the corporate ladder on her way to being a VP in a bank. Melbourne on the other hand, leans more to a girl who preferred books, cigarettes, and sketching art in coffee shops as a teenager and now works as a graphic designer for a web company.

Broad strokes, I know – but I found the two cities definitely had their own distinct identities. This is fuelled, of course, by a friendly rivalry between them – or as is often mentioned moreso by Melburnians who, like any good underdog, enjoy poking holes in Sydney’s #1 status. (As a Canadian living above the US, I can empathize.)

However, things weren’t always this way, and signs suggest they’re headed for a change. In 1865 Melbourne had a higher population than Sydney and a mere 15 years later was one of the richest cities in the world, 2nd only to London, England.

This was all thanks to the Gold rush that also buoyed Sydney, higher North in the state of New South Wales, but in the state of Victoria – of which Melbourne is the capital – there was an even wilder time.

Eventually the high times levelled off after a Depression a decade later, but Melbourne stayed prosperous – and now is poised to have the largest population of any Australian city by 2050, as its currently growing 18% faster than the rest.

I’m not sure how that will change the city. For the time being, Rose and I could only see Melbourne in 2014.

Here’s how it went.

We rented an apartment on the edge of the business district, which put us almost right next door to the first spot we went: Queen Victoria Market. It was a neat spot – where we saw a huge group of people lining up in front of a Turkish deli, clamouring for a specific food that I can’t remember – but was a bit like Pide ( breaded meat or cheese and meat).

Seeing a huge crowd we basically acted according to crowd-think, and lined right up with them, not really knowing at the time what we were getting in line for.

As it turns out, while I forget the name, I remember the taste being a bit disappointing – however the price was great: $2 per – which probably explained the large crowds.

Anyway, our next move was to do what everyone suggested: walk the laneways in the downtown core:


Passing between graffittied walls:


we invariably popped out to see another coffee shop – something we learned Melburnians are very proud – and a ton of cafes along the alleyways.

We settled on a Greek spot for dinner, which, I later learned was not all that difficult as Melbourne has the largest Greek speaking population outside Europe.

(Thanks Wikipedia)

The food was awesome and we carried on our way. In total we were in the city for a week and we got into a bit of a routine, wandering into the core, finding some alleyways then a spot to eat and roaming around some more.

Another spot that was hard to miss was Chinatown, which again thanks to el oro – is one of the oldest Chinatowns in the world as immigrants arrived in the thousands to find them shiny yella nuggets 150 years prior.

Sadly, our photographs are limited because I erased some by mistake thinking I had already saved them elsewhere. I know, not helpful to a blog.

Instead, you know that concept of a picture being a thousand words?

Can you think of it the other way? It’s asking a lot, I realize, but think it will make this go a lot better.


Next we wandered out of the core and found the nearby neighbourhood of Fitzroy – which again, fellow travellers had recommended. It reminded me a lot of an area in Toronto: Queen West West and the Southern stretch of Ossington street. Cafes, art shops, bookstores, restaurants, stores big enough for rows of clothes but seem to only have six T-shirts, and brew pubs.

We wandered in to a brew pub – and who was at the door greeting us with samples of a beer? A fellow Canadian, happily perpetuating the stereotype of Canadians and beer of which our presence alone was also doing the same.

In principle we were trying to eat on a budget, but as in Sydney, costs weren’t necessarily the cheapest. Still, we did our best, often treating our cultural experiences as walking through the streets and avoiding the cost of the big museums like the National gallery.

However one splurge we did do was go to the Australian Museum of Moving Image (ACMI), which seems like a long title to get across the point that we won’t see any books on display.

Within, Mad Max’s car was on view (here’s an example I “borrowed”).


Plus a history of the Australian film industry and some of its big actors including Melbourne’s own: Cate Blanchett.

I also learned in the museum that this video was shot in the city:

I like Ac/Dc. I’m not a diehard that’s combing newsgroups for 70s bootlegs and Ac/Dc dollars from their Razor’s Edge tour. But I plan to see them summer 2015 in Canada, and I’m fan enough that I wanted to see the lane dedicated to them in the city, which we walked past (again a borrowed image):


Later on we saw a comedy show with headliner – Tom Gleeson – who, later on we’d learn was a friend of another Australian we met in Thailand. Different concert, but here’s some of the same material we saw:

Type in “Melbourne things to do” in Google and one of the biggest things that comes up is something that you have to drive outside of the city and carry on driving for 234 kilometres to get the most out of it: the Great Ocean Road


It’s a pretty drive that we took four days to drive up and back on, which culminates in this popular view of what’s called the Twelve Apostles (one of the rocks over my shoulder):


Maybe one of the biggest highlights was driving off the route into a group of eucalyptus trees. As we went, we kept spotting koalas one after the other. We must have driven six kilometres into the woods, keeping our eyes on the trees:

“Look there’s another – that’s 12”.



After coming back in our finally tally was 16 of the furry guys. It was pretty amazing.

Soon this would be the last cuddly looking thing we’d see for a long time. Our next stop, Kathmandu Nepal where we set off on a walk one day, and came back 20 days later.

Sydney: Two Big Days Out

Sydney is like the pretty, popular girl in high school who from afar some people think a ditz, but who is in fact sharp, intelligent and can handle herself just fine when you meet her.

In short, she’s an object of both envy and derision depending on one’s perspective. Clearly many people around the world are envious – as the expat population of the city is roughly 30%. Speaking with some people we met, there’s a joke that with all the expats in the city, Sydney has just become England with good weather.

But not everyone thinks so. Many residents of Melbourne are happy to take the other tact: citing its high costs, corporate cleanliness, and its “too pretty” look as reasons not to live there: which, given real estate costs in Sydney is already something only a rare few can afford.

However, Sydney didn’t arrive on the scene, out of the blue, as some bombshell ingenue who swept up her winning tiara after being incapable of having an unscripted thought after forgetting her script: “Like such as ….the Iraq…”

The city came into its own from its own hard work, from what has to be the most unprivileged upbringing one can imagine: it was a penal colony.

Botany Bay (now home to the Sydney airport) was first discovered in 1770 by James Cook. 18 years later England started ferrying its criminals to Australia – a criminal sentence that was labelled “transportation”. The First Fleet, as it was known, arrived in 1788 to discover that Botany Bay may not have been the greatest spot to start things off, so they sailed just a bit farther North to what was known as Port Jackson, but now Sydney Harbour.


There it started where convicts tilled the land under some cruel wardens, while others were more merciful – until many were able to earn their freedom – then some land, and then became businessmen. Transportation ended in 1840 – at which time there was a viable settlement, doing well on its terms thanks to prisoners who, upon their release, had started businesses. In 1842, Sydney became Australia’s first city.

10 years later: GOLD!

There was a huge gold rush that nearly emptied the settlements, as the majority of people ran inland to get rich. It was a good risk for many: as they returned with their own private fortune. All this boded well for more development, and by 1901 Sydney was inaugurated into the Commonwealth, and had a population of 481,000.

Canadian content fact: Sydney got its name from Thomas Townsend who was credited with promoting the settlement at Port Jackson. Similarly, Sydney Nova Scotia was named after him as well – though for more ceremonial reasons, since Canada didn’t emerge from a penal colony, though its citizens might argue that during some winters it feels like one.

As Rose and I arrived in the city, one thing became abundantly clear: our backpacking budget wouldn’t stand a chance. Things were really riche – but we did our best. First off we found a “Free” walking tour of the city, which gave us an understanding of Sydney’s layout, taking us through the business district, around the edge of the harbour.

I say “Free”, because while there was no upfront fee, it was based on a tip you decided at the end of the walk. Some people didn’t wait that long, and bolted off without giving the guide a few bucks, which I thought was pretty crappy. Regardless, it was a decent way to get a sense of things, particularly the big icon of the city, the one that everyone brings to mind when they think of Sydney:

imageMuch like Sydney itself, I learned that the Opera House had its own history of hardship and tribulation. It all started in 1957, when the city of Sydney awarded Danish architect – Jorn Utzon – the winning design after they had put out the project to tender.

Construction started in 1959 and it was projected to be finished in 1963. While things never go exactly to plan, their plan was a kite in a hurricane. The material for the fans on the exterior of the Opera house were redrawn and re-engineered during a four year period, eventually being solved in 1963. Costs climbed, suppliers were lost, political parties changed and patience waned.

In 1966, Jorn Utzon resigned, saying the political leader of the day – Minister of Public Works, Davis Hughes was an intractable M’fer in his dealings and had essentially bullied him into a position where he thought the only sane thing to do was leave.

When all was said and done, it was 1973 – 10 years later than expected and 14 times the budget. Utzon wasn’t invited to the opening ceremony and his name was left unmentioned during the pomp.

Slowly, however, as the years passed, and Utzon went on to complete other architectural projects around the world, the political climate softened and he was invited to draw up the design principles for the Opera House. This would give other designers an understanding of how to do fixes or add things in the future if projects were to come up.

Soon after he was awarded the highest architectural award in the world for his body of work. A year later an interior room was named after him at the Opera House, which then brought him closer in to the fold, such that he designed an addition to the Opera House with his son – called the Colonnade.

His public redemption was complete, when in 2006, the Queen who in 1973 hadn’t said jack about him, now gushed praise on him for his lifetime of work in her speech at the opening ceremony for The Colonnade.

Publicly, he was back in the good books. Something for which, in private, it seemed he was never in doubt.

Anyhow, all is iconic on the outside of the Opera House. But what of the inside?

Rose and I decided to find out – getting tickets for the super high brow event of listening to the Sydney orchestra play Sci-fi anthems for a couple of hours.


Star Wars, Lost in Space, Star Trek: there was a lot of material. And it was a lot of fun.

The rest of our time we spent at beaches in and around Sydney. First off, Manly beach – so named apparently from the Capt of the first fleet who, seeing the aborigines who lived there, found them masculine lads.

We toured around there, and to highlight how small our budget was in face of Sydney prices, this was lunch:


Afterwards, we went to the most popular beach in Sydney, Bondi:


There happened to be a kite festival going on, which was pretty neat, and we hung around there as long as we could, because loitering, thankfully, was free:


– until eventually heading back to our budget living in the city.

All in all, I thought Sydney was really pretty. But, not to be outdone, and to be fair and balanced, our next stop was Melbourne. There we’d get a glimpse of Australia’s second biggest city, plus go for a drive down the Great Ocean Road to see some tree bears.

Talk soon