In 2002, we visited Australia for the first time. Now, four years (and two Ashes series) later, we're back. Yes, again our pilgrimage Down Under is fuelled by Ian's love of cricket. But hey, who needs an excuse to visit a country as fascinating and beautiful and welcoming as Australia? From its vibrant, cosmopolitan cities to the vast, barren, uncharted deserts of the interior, Australia is a country of contradictions. Both incredibly old and ridiculously young, the history of its indigenous peoples stretches back for millenia, yet its white history is so short and so recent that it's almost all been caught on camera. The population of Australia is rich and diverse, drawn from all four quarters of the world and encompassing all colours and creeds, yet racism is rife and discrimination is clearly evident. A haven and promised land, a difficult, dangerous terrain hostile to almost all living things yet home to creatures you'll find nowhere else on earth, Australia is a truly amazing place to visit. Here's what we saw...
Adelaide is a truly charming city. Elegant and spacious, its compact city centre is surrounded by verdant parkland and gardens, and fringed by neat suburbs where each Erinsborough bungalow sits pretty in its own well tended grounds. We stayed in the seaside resort of Glenelg, just a quick 30 minute tram ride away from the city centre. Miles of beach, bars and restaurants aplenty, a posh marina for the rich folk and not a 'kiss me quick' hat in sight: it's definitely the place to be.
St Peter's cathedral (which boasts some beautiful modern stained glass windows), as viewed from the gardens surrounding the Adelaide Oval.
'The Don' - Aussie cricketing legend Donald Bradman. Cricket looms large in this holiday, but at least I've spared you the photos of the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The Bradman Collection, in the State Library of South Australia, is pretty interesting though, even if you don't know your maiden overs from your googlies...
Pelicans on the shores of the River Torrens. In the background is the Adelaide Conference Centre.
A visit to Adelaide Central Market is an absolute must. With over 250 shops and stalls selling everything from exotic fruits to divine delicacies to tacky tourist souvenirs, it's a heavenly feast for the senses. We bought ourselves a big bag of goodies then had a picnic in the lovely Botanical Gardens - I think the ducks (right) got more food than we did.
We stayed in the Oaks Plaza Pier hotel, which I highly recommend. We payed extra for a room with an ocean view and it's worth every penny, as you can see here. The sea stretches away forever - next stop Antarctica...
The marina at Glenelg. Check out that azure sky - not a cloud in sight.
Okay, so there are no 'kiss me quick' hats, but that's not to say that Glenelg doesn't do kitsch. Next time we go, I think we should stay in this crazy looking place.
Port Adelaide is fairly much a dump - hardly the picture perfect heritage centre promised by the guide books, and not a dolphin in sight (apparently a colony of bottlenosed dolphins frequents the river, but I wouldn't blame them for moving on). However, the Maritime Museum is excellent and makes our trip worthwhile. Watch out for the train station though: 'Warriors... come out to pla-ay...'
I like Alice Springs - although don't get me started on the appalling hotel (for which read 'rundown backpacker hostel') we stayed in, with attached nightclub blasting out hip hop until four o'clock in the morning. A sturdy, unpretentious township in the middle of miles and miles of orange desert, it's a practical little place, reminding me very much of Aviemore (of all places), in that it's nothing much in itself but provides the perfect base for exploring the wonders of the area around it, and is excellently equipped for this very purpose. And it has a Baby Kangaroo Centre...
These poor little fellas were rescued after their mums had been knocked down on the road. You see a lot of roadkill by the side of the Australian highways - but none of it thanks to me, I'm pleased to say.
At feeding time, the roos are let out of their little cloth pouches to guzzle down some mile. (Right) The roo warden discusses the finer points of kangaroo care.
When I glanced our of the plane window before touching tarmac at Alice Springs airport, I had a bit of shock. There literally is nothing to be seen but endless acres of desert, blurring into an orange haze where the dry ground merges into the skyline. We're going to drive through that?
But our drive through the outback down the Stuart Highway to the Ayers Rock Resort was everything I'd hoped it would be. From stubborn, scrubby bushes and stunted trees to barren red land like the surface of Mars, it's amazing how much the scenery can change through 450km of desert, with nothing but a dead straight road shimmering into the distance, and not another car in sight...
And when we pull off the road at Stuarts Well for breakfast, the service station not only has camels in the backyard (left) but is also home to a local celebrity: Dinky, the singing dingo... He's raised over AS$5,000 for the Flying Doctors, you know.
Now do you understand why I wanted to drive through the outback?
We arrive at the peaceful and luxurious Ayers Rock Resort at Yulara just in time for a quick dip in the pool and a spectacular view of the sun setting behind the hazy rocks of Kata Tjuta in the distance.
Driving through the desert early the next day, we're again the only car on the road. We stop to view the majestic domed boulders of Kata Tjuta from a look out point, before driving up close and walking through the Warlpa Gorge. It's hot, but a light breeze keeps the temperature bearable. Best of all, until the arrival of a hot and bothered tour party, we have this incredible world heritage site almost entirely to ourselves, give or take the occasional grazing kangaroo.
Late afternoon is reserved for Uluru, that huge, red bulk of sacred rock that sits in a mysterious shifting light of its own in the middle of miles of flat ground. At the excellent cultural centre, we learn the stories of the Anangu people who've lived here for about 22,000 years - before the white man drove them away, renamed their holy monolith Ayers Rock and started climbing up it for kicks.
Now Uluru has regained its true title, and been handed back to the Anangu. You can still climb it if you absolutely must (and if the climb is open - it closes if the temperature hits 36 degrees, which it does regularly at this time of year) but you'd have to be a pretty self-centred person to ignore the Aboriginal people's heartfelt 'please don't climb' messages.
Instead, you're encouraged to look and listen, so we do. We see how the light shifts around the rock, and how it changes as you walk and drive around it: striped and stryated, smooth and impregnable, pitted and pocky or porous looking like a sponge. And very, very red.
Melbourne is a really cool city. We like it. Bustling but not frantic, big but still comfortably compact, it boasts an amazing cultural mix of inhabitants, yet everyone seems to speak (some form of) English. And you really can shop 'til you drop here too, with one enormous mall after another, crammed with clothes, shoes, jewellery, opals, CDs, games and more. A dazzling skyline of skyscrapers rises high above green parkland and the sluggish river Yarra, which snakes its way lethargically through the city. On our first day, we walk along its banks and visit the Aquarium. Next day we take in the very interesting Immigration Museum and the Melbourne Museum, where you not only get to see Australia's answer to Seabiscuit, Phar Lap, in all his taxidermalogical splendour, but you even get to poke around in the cupboards of Helen Daniels' kitchen.
The gardens outside the Melbourne Museum. And next door to the Museum, the IMAX cinema just happens to be showing Deep Sea, with a certain Mr Depp narrating. How convenient... The 3D effects in Deep Sea are awesome - no red and green specs required here.
Okay I lied, here's one picture of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, featuring Ian standing on the hallowed turf. We went on a tour of the ground (not actually as dull as it sounds), our guide a jolly old buftie in a stripy blazer who was full of anecdotes. If you want to become a member of the Melbourne Cricket Club, you'd better put your name down at birth if you want to make it in before you die.
In honour of some of the city's more notorious celebrity residents, this seedy little back street alley has been renamed ACDC Lane. Would the band have wanted it any other way? I doubt it...
Speaking of notorious residents, the Old Melbourne Gaol is very interesting and well worth a visit. Its most infamous inmate, Ned Kelly, was hanged there, and the museum makes the most of this star studded connection, as well as charting the grisly downfall of many other prisoners.
This cute fountain is in the Fitzroy Gardens, to the east of the city. Unfortunately, due to water shortages, it's not actually switched on, leaving the poor dolphins rather high and dry...
St Kilda, a seaside resort south of Melbourne, and home of beatniks, jakies, skinny tattooed people and the odd tourist. So we felt right at home...
At St Kilda, Ian watched the cricket in a pub and I did yet more shopping - but we enjoyed a walk along the beach and to the end of this pier beforehand.
The next stage of our holiday involved driving 1,499km from Melbourne to Adelaide. In a campervan. But trust me, campervanning is the way to travel. Bowling along the great open road (or crawling precipitously round corners, in the case of the Great Ocean Road), destination nowhere and everywhere and no need to pitch a tent when you get there. And there's an electric kettle - how great is that?
Our first stop was the surfers paradise of Torquay, where we stayed in a campsite beside the beach. The notorious Bell's Beach (of Point Break fame) is just a few clicks up the road. Torquay is the gateway to the Great Ocean Road, ie it's where the driving starts to get fun, the road skirting perilously windy cliff edges, which cascade down to turquoise seas fringed with frothy white surf. Simply breathtaking.
We made a brief pitstop in the picturesque little town of Lorne (above). All the towns on the Great Ocean Road are attractive in their own way, but I guess you can't stop everywhere.
At Lorne we took a detour to check out the rainforest walk at Erskine Falls. (Left) Australia's a dangerous place - even walking by a river is fraught with peril...
We spend the night at Apollo Bay, parking up in a campsite populated by weathered, silver-haired Aussie OAPs in enormous caravans and motorhomes designed to give our poor little two-berth a complex. There are lots of very large underpants hung out to dry everywhere.
Ian perfects his trailer trash impression, cooking Mexican food in the van... Later on, shockingly, it rains, but we're in the van so we don't care.
From Apollo Bay we cut across Cape Otway (winding roads, flanked by tall, straight trees) towards the Twelve Apostles. These craggy seastacks were once part of the mainland but now, thanks to the power of erosion, stand proudly alone in an azure and turquoise sea. Utterly breathtaking, so I'll just let the pictures do the talking as you scroll down the page.
London Bridge (above), a few clicks up the road from the Twelve Apostles. There used to be a second arch, connecting it to the mainland, but in the early '90s it fell down, stranding two tourists, who had to be rescued by helicopter.
We decide to give Flagstaff Maritime Village in Warnamboul a miss - it looks very cute but is crawling with children, so we opt for an afternoon on the beach instead, although you still wouldn't catch me swimming in the decidedly nippy ocean - brr! In Warnamboul we also more than double our on board CD collection by buying three more CDs. Great as it is, there's only so many times you can listen to 'Driving Wheels' by Jimmy Barnes...
That night we make camp in the picturesque fishing village of Port Fairy. It's described as 'historic', which means it's been there for over 100 years. It's also very pretty, and serves good seafood.
Houses along the estuary at Port Fairy. (Right) We spot these cute little fellas in a nest in a building near the harbour.
Sunset over the water at Port Fairy.
After leaving Port Fairy, we strike inland, crossing the border from Victoria to South Australia, where, thanks to quarantine regulations, we have to eat all the fruit in the van before we can proceed. This includes our hugely expensive bananas - thanks to bad weather in the banana-producing regions of Australia, the banana index is high and bananas cost a bomb.
We northwards via Mount Gambier (and yes, the Blue Lake is very, very blue) and on through a landscape that becomes increasingly more sparse and scrublike, on roads that become increasingly longer and straighter.
Our destination, Naracoorte (voted Australia's tidiest town for about ten years on the trot) is nothing to write home about. It's hot and dusty and practical, a bit like Alice Springs, but without the tourists. However, Naracoorte boasts fossil caves so interesting and important that they've become a World Heritage Centre. After a quick trip around the highly hilarious animatronic 'megafauna' (for which read 'great big marsupials') exhibition at the Wonambi Fossil Centre, we embark on a bat tour. This consists of nightvision camera views of Southern Bentwing bats roosting in their cave. They're tiny wee things, these bats - I hold a dead one on the palm of my hand and it weighs nothing.
Our enthusiastic guide then takes us to Blanche Cave. Once the scene of wild parties from the late 1800s onwards, it's now a fascinating grotto full of sinister stalactites in the shape of tortured faces, a musty coffin for the mummified dead critters that fall into it and die. And we see one solitary bat, hanging up all by itself - bless!
A rock formation in the Wet Cave that reminded us of a dragon. (Right) A kangaroo in the caves national park, and two galahs perched above the van in the campsite. We thought this was special, until we realised the area was awash with the damned things, squawking at all hours of the day and night...
The next day involves a long haul of driving to make the six o'clock ferry to Kangaroo Island, but we find time to stop on the Fleurieu Peninsula south of Adelaide. The countryside round here is lovely, a great wide open expanse of rich arable farmland which looks a bit like Kansas.
We have lunch in pretty little Strathalbyn, and cake in Victor Harbour. Here we watch the plodding Clydesdale horse pull the passenger tram over from Granite Island (above), which is connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway. It would have been nice to stay longer and see the little penguins on the island, but KI beckons, so we finish the unexpectedly beautiful drive to Cape Jervis and I avoid damaging the van as I load him on.
As for Kangaroo Island, we absolutely love it. We reached the Nepean Bay campsite at dusk and watched the sun set in a crimson sky across a dark, flat sea speckled with pelicans, gulls and black swans. The next day we drove down to Seal Bay and got within metres of gorgeous, fat, roly-poly Australian sea lions. Cue many pictures of our flippered friends lazing about on the hot sands...
A mother and baby enjoy a zizz on the sands. The seals go out to sea to fish for three days at a time, and can swim as far as 100km away from the shore, so when they're on land, all they want to do is sleep. Fair enough...
Afterwards, we have a picnic lunch on a nearby beach. Miles and miles of pure white sands stretching along a dune banked coast lapped by a turquoise sea, it was like something out of a Bond film - and we had the whole place to ourselves. Bliss!
And that's it. After returning the van to the depot in Adelaide, we enjoyed a sunny pub crawl around town, ending up back at Glenelg to watch the sun set. A hike in temperature and an influx of Australian and English cricket fans has transformed Glenelg from a peaceful seaside resort to a bustling hub of activity, but it's still nice to be back there.
While Ian watches the cricket, I check out Adelaide Zoo (above) and finally get to see all the Australian wildlife that I missed in the wild, aside from the wombat, who's refusing to come out to play.
Then it's a lazy Sunday morning pancake breakfast in Moseley Square (left) and back on the plane for another 36 hours. The best holiday we've ever had? It's certainly a strong contender. When's the next Ashes series?