Visiting Australia

by Tonya Engst

February 14 through March 14, 1998
Tasmania, Adelaide, Western Australia, and Sydney

Adam and I worked up to the idea of traveling to Australia slowly. It's safe to blame the trip on TidBITS, plus Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh, Adam's first book. Through these activities, Adam met Peter Lewis, an active Macintosh programmer who lives in Perth, Western Australia (located on the southwest coast of Australia). In 1994, due to Adam issuing an invitation that he never dreamed would be accepted, Peter visited us in Seattle for about a week. Peter turned out to be an excellent guest, and despite the fact that he visited during a stressful week when Adam shipped the second edition of Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh and I tooled away at the Microsoft Word 6 Starter Kit, a good time was had by all.

In fact, Peter made such a good impression that we eagerly welcomed several of his Perth friends over the next few years. Andrew Nielsen in particular visited us several times, and between these visits and email, we built up friendships, plus kept promising to travel to Australia "next year."

Next year finally arrived in the spring of 1998. What began as a two-week trip rapidly expanded to three, and then four. Geoff Duncan and Jeff Carlson agreed to man TidBITS in our absence, we settled on an itinerary, and I figured out where we would sleep each night, since we don't like to leave that sort of decision for the last minute. We planned to stay at youth hostels; with our Perth friends; at one sweet, old farmhouse -we were the first people to book it over the Internet; and one swanky resort - it was on a penguin beach, so we couldn't resist.

The Itinerary

Adam's write-up of the trip takes an itinerary-based approach, but since this trip description does not, here's the trip in a nutshell:

Rewiring My Brain

Spending four weeks in Australia rewired my brain for the better. You can verify this by checking out my passport photo from before and a photo of me after hiking in Australia. Once I post these photos on the Internet, you'll see me looking stressed out and flat in my passport photo, taken after rushing around trying to leave in time to stop at Kinko's for the photo. In contrast, in the photos of me hiking I look ten years younger and I'm grinning from ear to ear.

In part, my brain reset itself because of the many small differences between the United States and Australia. The changes in lifestyle and language reminded me that it's possible to do things differently, even, to think differently. For example, in Australia, the language has an informal, fun feel to it because of a tendency to abbreviate words; hence, Tasmania becomes Tassie, relatives become rellies, and university shortens to uni. In contrast, in the United States we rarely abbreviate spoken words, though we occasionally run them together, as in gonna or shoulda.

I was intrigued by other the differences between Australia and the United States - Australia's sensible monetary system with $1 and $2 coins and a complete lack of pennies, its vast expanses of unpopulated land, the heat, the enthusiasm of its TV announcers reporting on the Olympics, the menus and foods, and the business hours. (Many shops and restaurants in Australia close at night, usually around 5 P.M., and many places also close on seemingly random days.)

Australian Animals

The animals in Australia were far more interesting than I'd expected. In Freycinet National Park the wallabies came right over to say hello. I was so excited about it the first time that I didn't even finish changing into my hiking boots before trying to pet one. In Perth, the kangaroos at the golf course near Peter Lewis's house were also quite impressive. They hung out on the course, like deer in the United States only they weren't shy at all, possibly because it was enormously hot and they didn't want to move. We also saw an emu in the wild while walking through a karri forest in Western Australia. The emu was perhaps taller than me and very startled at seeing us. We encountered snakes while walking the Fluted Cape on the Bruny Islands, islands off the south edge of Tassie. The snakes weren't particularly interested in me, but I was glad to have my hiking boots on. Also on the Bruny Islands we saw a quoll - a native, spotted cat - and we saw a large, large spider on the wall over Adam's suitcase. Adam transported it outside using a dish and a book, and then carefully checked our bed before getting into it that night. I also turned my boots upside down that night and Adam stuffed socks into his sneakers.

We also saw great numbers of penguins, particularly on the Bruny Islands.

The Cities: Hobart

Hobart mainly rates as a city because it is the only urban area around. I was astonished at how few people live in Tasmania and at the small size of most the towns. Hobart has several features found in every Australian city I visited: plaques, limited hours, and cool architecture. Australians put plaques on just about everything: "John William Wallingduddy, honorable mayor, commissioned this plaque to honor the visit of such-and-so British queen, who sat on this bench during the naming ceremony of such-and-so ship in 1903." In contrast to Seattle's 24-hour everything commercial scene, Australia is very laid back, though Sydney (and apparently Melbourne) are less relaxed. Shops, restaurants, tourist attractions, you name it, close at 5 or 6 P.M., and even entirely on Saturdays.

The Cities: Adelaide

Adelaide has the widest streets I'd ever seen. I saw no jaywalking in Adelaide, perhaps in part because you'd never make it across alive if you didn't cross with the light. The city is laid out on a strict Roman grid, and has lots to look in terms of architectural styles. Adelaide felt unquestionably urban, yet regulated, regular, safe. In Adelaide I began to experience temperatures approaching 40 degrees centigrade - hotter than I'd ever experienced, and certainly less familiar yet for being expressed in centigrade. We carried water everywhere and favored the air conditioned (and free) museums over the streets.

The Cities: Perth

Perth is the hardest city to sum up, and it also seemed the most spread out, actually sort of depressing in that the suburban sprawl seemed much like the sprawl we have in the United States. Bland strip malls, bland housing developments, all baking in the sun. Still, Perth had its share of pleasant spots and sensible urban development, plus it sits on the ocean and has a river running through it.

The Cities: Sydney

I was startled by Sydney: its seemingly all-Asian Chinatown (we had a fabulous dinner there), the speed and aggressiveness of its traffic compounded by narrow, crowded sidewalks, the pollution and heat, and the pervasive rebuilding for the 2000 Olympics. It seemed as though the city were sucking parts of itself down into the earth only to spit them out again as transformed skyscrapers - big, bold and glass - towering over the fabulous carvings and decorative details that remain on the older buildings.

Great Walks

We walked enormous amounts and my body completely appreciated not spending most of the day sitting, as I do most days at home. One walk, in Freycinet National Park where we saw the wallabies, we wound around massive, bulbous boulders and up over a tall spine of land before then descending to a completely fabulous beach at Wineglass Bay. It was too cold to swim, but we did wade and have a small picnic.

Another great walk happened on the other side of the continent in the Warren National Forest, a forest of old growth karri trees. Unlike the dark green Pacific Northwest, where I live in the United States and where the dark soil is often made darker with damp, the karri forest was a light green, approaching an olive or a sea foam color. The trees, being of the eucalyptus variety, had trunks mottled and striped with light gray, tan, and pale yellow. Our walk led us by the Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree, a lookout tree, used to watch for fires. These days, the lookout trees aren't much used to watch for fires, since planes can usually do a better job, but they make for a great tourist activity. The trees are about 70 meters high and you climb them using spikes driven into the trunk, making a spiraling ladder up the tree. I climbed to the platform at 25 meters and followed the advice on the sign that suggested not climbing any further if you had any doubts about continuing. Adam made it to the top.

The final great walking day was our first day in Sydney. We walked about three kilometers through central Sydney to the Sydney Opera House, stopping for an extremely civilized (and cheap) bite at the Queen Victoria Building, an upscale mall in a fabulous building with lots of ornate Victorian tiles and banisters, plus stained glass. The sky was blue, the Opera House a crazy-quilt melody made three-dimensional, situated on a peninsula jutting out into the deeper blue bay. We walked down to the opera house through a green field at the edge of a botanical garden. We paid $9 each to tour the place, and seeing the concert halls inside made it worth every penny. After the tour, we meandered over to the Rocks, an old and quaint neighborhood seemingly completely remodeled to fit in tons of tourist shops. After climbing up and then back down a number of staircases, we found the ANA hotel and our friend Richard who we were meeting inside. After a relaxing (and expensive) glass of iced tea, we made our way back around the Rocks, looking at art galleries and eventually having dinner al fresco at an Italian restaurant. We also spotted perhaps the ultimate kelvinball court - it offered a fabulous view and fantastical murals to bounce the ball from.

Noteworthy Beds

In Perth, Andrew Nielsen and Peter Lewis had extremely comfortable beds, a much-appreciated feature. However, after due thought, I must say that the Most Comfortable Bed of the Trip award goes to the Diamond Point Resort in Tasmania - we slept in a loft beneath a steeply pitched roof with cool sea breezes and starlight coming in the dormer window. The bed had a firm mattress, crisp sheets, and feather quilt (or doona as they say in Australia). However, Peter's and Andrew's places unquestionably tied for the first-place award for Best Showers. The YHA in Pemberton scored lowest in the shower department and the Adelaide Backpackers Inn had the worst bed - so bad that we ended up sleeping on the floor by morning.

The most unusual bed was the berth on the train, which I slept in for two nights on the journey from Adelaide to Perth. I loved the train for the first 24 hours. I found the motion lulling, and the air-conditioned, safe interior made a spicy contrast with the sweaty journey into the unknown on the outside. I took the lower berth, which meant the window stretched from my chest to my toes, about four inches above the mattress. I kept waking up at night to peer excitedly out at almost nothing. We journeyed across the Nullarbor Plain, where there is nothing but thirsty-looking bushes and light red sand, and the occasional town, though most of the towns looked like the buildings had turned to dust long ago. We stopped at Cook, where the heat was palpable, a force that almost pinned me in place and stopped my breath. We stopped in Kalgoorlie with its streets wide enough to turn a camel train and not much else. After Kalgoorlie, we had another 12 hours on the train, mostly sleeping, but it was enough. I'd had it with the heat, which stuck its fingers in through the air conditioning, and all I could think about was ice cream.

Tourist Points

To earn tourist points, you must do something that only tourists do; for instance, Adam and I paid money to have our pictures taken at the zoo with koalas. (We also paid for a set of tickets that let us take a boat cruise to the zoo, ride a cable car to the zoo entrance, and then go to the zoo, plus take another boat back.) Tourist points almost always cost money and are never gained for those accidentally great excursions where something unexpectedly turns out to be memorable, like seeing a kangaroo hopping across a field in front of you or spontaneous body surfing after midnight. You also must earn a certain number of tourist points in order to return home, which is why in fact Adam and I did the zoo routine on the last day before we flew back to the United States.

Climbing the karri tree definitely rated as the most fun tourist points I've ever earned, though nobody else was there and that made it decidedly more fun but somewhat less touristy than I'd expected. We also picked up important tourist points by touring Adelaide's Central Markets which didn't do anything to discredit our tour book's claim to be the "best produce market in the southern hemisphere." These markets featured fresh peacharines, fruit so wonderful to eat that I was left breathless.

A trip to Rottnest island (organized by Andrew Nielsen) complete with rented snorkeling gear, a bus pass (the only way to get around on the island since cars are not allowed), and a ferry ticket also earned serious tourist points. (Renting equipment always rates for at least a few points.) Freemantle, an urban district near Perth also rated for points, especially after watching a street performer, having a gelatto, and buying a present for my sister.


I had few expectations of Australia beyond four weeks away from the rut and daily grind I'd built up for myself at home, and as such Australia met every expectation and provided a genuinely good time. Upon returning home, I found that my eye-hand coordination and general perception skills had improved noticeably. Driving in unfamiliar areas or rush hour situations is unquestionably easier, and I type faster and more accurately.

In retrospect, going on vacation to a different place was the best thing I could have done, and I'd recommend it to almost anyone in a heartbeat. It was utterly worth the extra trouble and expense. By leaving behind most of the roles I play in life and being in a new environment, I was able to drop back to being simply myself, and in some ways to remind myself of who I am and what I like doing. By seeing how other people live, I was able to imagine new ways of living myself.

Future Plans and Thanks to Friends in Perth

The remaining question, of course, is how long will it take Adam and I to work up to what I hope will be our next expedition: six months of living in Europe. I'm thinking we'd rent an apartment (or maybe swap homes) near a train hub. We'd try to work a little during the weeks, but take long weekends for travel.

Finally, thanks to everyone in Perth who helped make our visit such good fun.