November 13-24, 2005

My tour of Australia started in the city of Sydney, where you can't help but believe that the 300 days of sun each year contribute to the easygoing attitudes and laid-back atmosphere. Nestled within the city are are massive expanses of park space -- namely Hyde Park and The Domain with its extensive botanic gardens.

In my eyes, the parks were filled with exotic species of plants and animals that I had never observed before. When I first saw an ibis -- a white bird with a curved beak and a long, slender neck -- I carefully snuck toward it to snap a photograph, only to later learn that they're considered rather pedestrian and easily approachable. Wild parrots and cockatoos flit from tree to tree, even in the heart of the city. In the Royal Botanic Gardens, flying foxes slumber quietly in the treetops. These massive bats with wingspans of up to a meter look like dangling brown fruit as they hang upside down from one leg during the day.

Just about everyone is familiar with the city's most famous sights -- namely the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge -- but it's still a thrill to see these monstrous icons firsthand. Only then can you really admire the one million white tiles, imported from Sweden, that form the polished shell of the opera house. At night, the flying fruit bats cast dramatic silhouettes against its brightly illuminated walls. As a backdrop, the Sydney Harbor Bridge dwarfs the opera house with its central arch spanning more than 500 meters.

It's an easy bus ride from the heart of Sydney to the famously scenic Bondi Beach with it's famously scenic bronzed bodies. At the time of my visit, I was fortunate enough to be able to see the temporary "Sculpture by the Sea" exhibit where dozens of artists display their works along the shore between Bondi and Tamarama Beaches. Other than a common maritime theme, the works on display have incredible diversity in size and style with some being quite abstract. Next to each exhibit, a small number placard corresponds to a description in a supplemental guidebook. I overheard one conversation between two women who were searching for the placard for a particular item before they came to the embarrassing realization that it was just a pipe for a storm drain.

Anxious to get out of the city, I accepted an invitation to visit some friends at their beach house in Mollymook, about two hours south of Sydney. Even though the town's social life revolves around video gambling at the local golf club, it was in Mollymook that I feel I had my most genuine Aussie experiences.

On the morning after our arrival, two plover chicks hatched on the roof of the house, sending mama plover into attack mode every time we tried to leave the building. The chicks leave the nest immediately, so we did our best to escort them out to the front yard without taking too much of a tumble from the two-story roof. Getting that squared away, I headed out to the beach with my friends Geoff and Damian for a morning of body surfing and sun worship. The day left me more red than tan, prompting the locals to say, "Now you're starting to look like an Aussie."

As rare clouds rolled in, the three of us took a hike through an area that is known for its aboriginal history. While the aboriginal artifacts somehow escaped our attention, I was pleased to see my first wild kangaroos -- about twenty of them grazing contentedly on the tall grasses.

Anxious to see more of the Aussie terrain, after my weekend in Mollymook, I continued south to the Snowy Mountains. There, I literally ran to the top of Australia's tallest peak, Mount Kosciuszko, in just over an hour. There used to be a road all the way to the summit, but the last nine kilometers were closed in 1982 to reduce environmental impact. After bagging the summit, I continued my 20-kilometer run along the ridge line with views to some of the highest, bluest, and cleanest lakes in the country. I passed a number of overnight camping groups, thoroughly enjoying their expressions of bewilderment as I jogged through the late spring snow drifts in shorts and a tank top.

Like the Snow Mountains, the terrain of the Blue Mountains left me somewhat underwhelmed. Perhaps better named the Yellow Plateaus, these sandstone cliffs are scenic but don't really qualify as mountains. I spent two days mountain biking to the tallest summits in the Katoomba district, only to find that the peaks marked on the map don't stand notably taller than their surroundings. Nonetheless, the eucalyptus forests and brightly colored parrots are a pleasant escape from crowds of Sydney. And even though the national park is only about two hours from the city by train, I encountered only two other hikers during more than nine hours of mountain biking.

It didn't take long to discover the infamous black flies that have a reputation for plaguing walkers during the summer months. Each time I would start hiking or biking, the cloud of flies would slowly dissipate, but whenever I would stop, hundreds of the buzzing insects would immediately swarm around me. Unable to comprehend how they could find me so quickly, I finally figured out that when I was moving, they would land on my back and patiently wait for their next opportunity to annoy me. Looking over my shoulder, I could see them on my pack, covering it like a black carpet.

After eleven days of travel, it was startling to see how small of an area I had covered on the map of Australia. Slightly smaller than the 48 contiguous US states, the country is so massive that I can't possibly claim to be able to characterize it based on my limited experiences. And while some people might see my visit as a poor introduction to this vast continent, I see it as leaving that much more to explore next time.

© Copyright 2005 by Rob Jagnow.