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A month in Australia Part 1

| 25 Feb 2013

John Henwood went on a four-week tailor-made holiday to Australia with Cox & Kings. In the first part of this two-part blog, he tells us about his New Year’s Eve in Sydney, the magic of Uluru and snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef.

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Australia is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is… Well, perhaps Douglas Adam’s description of space is unfair when applied to the land of Oz, but you get the point. Australia comprises nearly 7.7 million sq km of land and, by the standards of measurement we Europeans are accustomed to, it takes an awfully long time to travel from one side to the other, particularly if you want to see stuff along the way. In fact, it takes about three days and the same number of nights to get from coast to coast without leaving the ground.

Sydney

Our journey started in Sydney shortly before New Year. The real genesis of our trip was at the turn of the millennium when we watched on TV the spectacular firework display on the Sydney harbour bridge and decided we must see it for real one day.It was soon evident that Sydney-siders take New Year celebrations seriously. The city was exceptionally busy with about a million and a half locals and visitors descending on the Sydney harbour area, so getting a good view of the display is not easy. Key vantage points sell out quickly and it is not exceptional for $500 or more to be asked for a waterfront restaurant seat. We were fortunate to have a panoramic view from our room on the 15th floor of the Shangri La Hotel. It’s situated in the Rocks district, part of old Sydney, and a few steps from Circular Quay, the busy ferryboat dock.The fireworks show was truly amazing with displays up and down the harbour with the bridge as the centre point for the stupendous finale. Sydney residents who joined hotel guests in their rooms said they had never had a better view of the display. Sydney is much more than just a New Year one-off though. We loved the boat trips around the vast harbour area, stopping off and taking long leisurely walks around well-signed footpaths that cling to the water’s edge. An excursion to the Blue Mountains (they appear blue because of the amount of eucalyptus absorbed into the atmosphere) was enjoyable and instructive of the land, its flora and fauna, as well as its customs.However, being big means there is much to see and our next step was into an aircraft for the three hour flight to Ayers Rock – or Uluru. We touched down with the thermometer flickering around 41 degrees Celsius and wondered how we’d cope.

Uluru

We stayed in what was described as tents. Initially, leery about the prospect – nowadays comfort is important to us – we soon discovered this is not camping in the normally accepted sense of the term. The moment we arrived at Longitude 131, the ‘campsite’, we knew we’d love it. Our tent was a large, beautifully appointed, air-conditioned cube, which happened to have a tented awning above it. The accommodation included a shower and bathroom, generous storage, a fridge, tea and coffee making facilities and, best of all, a glass front with an uninterrupted vista of Ayers Rock itself. Within a very short time we understood why Uluru has captivated so many generations of visitors. This vast lump of granite rises inexplicably from a pancake plain and constantly seems to change in form and colour as the day progresses. We saw the sun rise and set on it. We walked around it investigating the places important to the aboriginal people to this day. We saw the cave drawings and learned something of the folk law. We loved every hot, sweaty, moment; all the more in the knowledge that we would retreat to the luxurious air-conditioned comfort of Longitude 131.This is the only accommodation within Uluru National Park and the closest one can stay to the rock. It comprises just 15 units of accommodation and a main building in which guests enjoy three gourmet meals a day. The standard of service is exceptional and guests can take advantage of a number of daily excursions around the park. There can be no more comfortable way of experiencing the magic of Uluru.

Great Barrier Reef

From the arid heat of Ayers Rock, to the humidity of Queensland via Qantas to Cairns and an hour’s largely scenic drive up the Pacific coast to Port Douglas. This was to be our stepping off point for the Great Barrier Reef, but this little town has much to commend it: for a start there’s Four Mile Beach at the end of the main street, a palm fringed sandy strip with a reasonable chunk of it protected by nets that keep the jellyfish and the crocs out to allow safe, carefully monitored and secure swimming. At the other end of town is the charming harbour and in between enough good restaurants and pubs to ease the hunger and sate the thirst of the abundant tourists. However, if you want to shop as you stroll to the pub, forget it. The Aussie work ethic is different from ours and they shut promptly at 5 or 5.30 regardless. Port Douglas is a great place from which to explore all but the outermost reefs. We took a whole day trip to the Low Isles on a comfortable catamaran. After an hour’s easy sailing, we snorkelled in the morning from the beach of one of the islands and, following a buffet lunch on board, we snorkelled the afternoon away in deeper water from the boat. It was a wonderful adventure, made better by an experienced crew, who equipped us well and did everything they could to ensure our safety and comfort. Still, there was the wise guy who waved away warnings about sunburn; he looked raw by the time we arrived back in port and I would not have wanted to be him the following day. Next time, we’ll explore the outer reefs.

Read A month in Australia – Part 2.



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