I lived on islands of varying sizes for much of the first 30 years of my life. This probably accounts for my ambivalent attitude toward small pieces of land marooned in large expanses of water. They are picturesque and often romantic, it’s true. Many of them have beaches and coconut trees and volcanic peaks and decorative drinks and all kinds of exotic fodder for postcards and vacation snaps. But, within a week or ten days, I find that something curious happens. Islands shrink.
Perhaps it’s just me, but after the obligatory period of basting myself on the beach and exploring the bars and other local beauty spots, claustrophobia sets in. I want to get off. The island is too small.
I have never had this problem in Australia. Purists may take offense, insisting that Australia is a continent and therefore doesn’t qualify as an island. The map tells us something else. The map shows a piece of land entirely surrounded by water, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s an island. A large one, admittedly, covering nearly three million square miles, and that is one reason I like it so much. There’s plenty of room.
I’ve been there four times over the past 15 years, and my only disagreeable experience – repeated on each visit – has been the pungent greeting that is extended to all travelers arriving by plane. There you are, at the end of a flight that seems to have lasted for several days, itching to get off, and what happens? You’re told to stay in your seat so that you can be sanitized. This is done by burly gentlemen in shorts, armed with aerosols of disinfectant, who march down the length of the plane spraying all the passengers – presumably in case one of us has anthrax or foot-and-mouth disease and is planning to fraternize with sheep and cattle.
But that is my only reservation about Australia; having survived the sanitation process, you will find that the rest is delightful. It would take a tome to do it justice, so all these notes can do is scratch at the surface and maybe give you the encouragement to go and see it yourself. Or at least part of it.
The cities. Perth has its black swans, Canberra its politicians, Brisbane its steamy, subtropical languor. Melbourne and Adelaide have their charms and plenty of fans, too. But for me, there’s no place like Sydney.
It’s a beach city, built around coves and harbors, where the nautical businessman can duck out of his office and spend his lunch hour sailing. Architecture, despite the impression given by the postcards, is not confined to the swoops and curves of the Opera House. There are quiet, graceful streets where the houses are trimmed with wrought-iron lace – the Victorian iron that came over on the early ships, along with the convict settlers, Prisoners of Her Majesty. (To this day, if you’re British, you’re called a Pom.) The sun is usually shining, the pubs are many and various, and I always feel that Sydney is on the brink of a citywide vacation, which appeals strongly to the idle and frivolous side of my nature.
Three national sports. In the winter there is Australian Rules football, in which large young men with no protective equipment apart from singlets and shorts beat the living daylights out of each other with apparent enjoyment.
In the summer there is cricket, the game that has mystified generations of foreigners. (The shortened, one-day form is more understandable than the three- or five-day matches. Noisier, too, with comic relief provided by the shouted commentaries from the spectators.)
And, all through the year, there is the ace drop, the amber nectar, a schooner, a frostie – in other words, beer, consumed in heroic quantities and with huge relish. And sometimes, it must be said, leading to that state of inebriated nirvana known as being away with the pixies.
Flora, fauna, water. There’s too much to see, that’s the problem. Far too much, from the beaches on the Indian Ocean to the extraordinary underwater population of the Great Barrier Reef, from the tropical wilderness of the Northern Territory to the baking emptiness of the outback. Koalas, kangaroos, platypuses, sharks and dingoes, deserts and ghost gum trees, sheep stations the size of a small country – it would take several lifetimes to cover everything. No visitor “does” Australia. But you can have a wonderful time trying.
The people. Have no worries. The natives are friendly (even to the British, despite our unspeakable behavior during the bad old days when Australia was being settled). They are also cheerful, informal, and have a fine, quirky way with the language, which I always find is one of the greatest additional pleasures of being in their country.
An Australian is never merely hungry. He could chew the ass out of a rag doll, or, if it’s been a particularly long time between meals, eat a horse and chase the rider. With the inner man taken care of, he might feel like going out for a drink, because he’s as dry as a Pommy’s towel (Poms, sometimes called soap-dodgers, being noted for their irregular bathing habits). And so, dressed in his best – or done up like a sore finger – he’ll go down to the bloodhouse to nudge the bottle. When he’s as full as a Pommy complaint-box (Poms also being noted for their tendency to whinge), he’ll come home to bed and spend the night flat out like a lizard drinking.
And so it goes on: a marvelous, rich mixture of metaphor and insult, usually delivered with great good humor and a slap on the back that could send you nose first into your beer. Of all the joys of Australia, the one I remember with the greatest affection is the Australian (either bloke or sheila) – sunny, funny, irreverent, and good-hearted. But don’t forget to close your eyes when they give you that welcoming squirt of disinfectant.