I spent very little time in Australia, and most of it was limited to Adelaide and Sydney. The reason was a specific one: for my 30th birthday, I climbed a few volcanoes in Indonesia and lost quite a few toenails and most of the skin at the back of my heels in the process. As my wounds were getting septic, I decided to head somewhere colder, and there just happened to be cheap flights to Australia from Bali. As there are.
While my decision to come to Australia was based solely on a place to heal for my feet, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Sydney and exploring its coffee culture. Adelaide’s Chinatown provided me with no shortage of delicious Asian food and my time in the Barossa Valley’s vineyards made up for the fact that I was limping profusely.
One of these days I hope to return to Australia and get to see Melbourne, a city many compare to Montreal, as well as the huge expanse of the country that I missed.
Australia Travel Basics
When to go
Australia is huge, and so has several ‘microclimates’ that vary from place to place. Seasons run counter to those in North American and Europe, which is why I annoy my Aussie friends when I refer to “summer” since theirs goes from December through February.
In addition, in North Queensland there is a monsoon belt, with hot, very wet weather from late October through March or April, and dry, extremely hot weather from April until August or September. If you do travel to that region during the humid wet season, be prepared for the incoming rains, and — I’ve been reminded — lots of jellyfish, when you’ll likely want to avoid taking a swim.
The peak travel season in Australia’s most-visited cities will be in the middle of their winter, and low season (October through March, and the Australian summer) is when readers report that it is too hot or wet to visit the Red Centre (Uluru, Alice Springs, etc).
From the Lonely Planet Australia‘s “When to Visit” section:
High Season (Dec−Feb)
- Summertime: local holidays, busy beaches and cricket.
- Prices rise 25% for big-city accommodation.
- Outdoor rock concerts, film screenings and food festivals abound.
Shoulder Season (Mar−May & Sep−Nov)
- Warm sun, clear skies, shorter queues.
- Easter (late March or early April) is busy with Aussie families on the loose.
- Autumn leaves are atmospheric in Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia.
Low Season (Jun−Aug)
- Cool rainy days down south; mild days and sunny skies up north.
- Low tourist numbers; attractions keep slightly shorter hours.
- Head for the desert, the tropical north or the snow.
Odds and Ends
What travel plugs do I need? Type I plug (two flat pins in a V-shape and a ‘grounding pin’). A plug with only two flat pins will also fit. The Australian plug works with sockets in New Zealand and China.
Water Safety: Australian tap water is perfectly safe to drink.
Currency and availability of ATMs: Official currency is the Australian Dollar. ATMs are widely available and Visa and MasterCard credit cards accepted everywhere. Watch out for ATM fees, and for foreign currency conversion fees when taking cash out of ATMs. Almost everything in Australia can be paid for by card, negating the need to withdraw cash.
SpeedTest / WiFi: WiFi is widely available, but unfortunately a lot of budget accommodations charge for it. There are various hotspots throughout the major cities, but fast AND free WiFi is rare. Average speed is 12Mbps download / 4.4Mbps Upload.
SIM card: Main providers (in order of which has the best coverage): Telstra, Optus, Vodafone and various resellers including Amaysim. Telstra is best if you are heading out to rural places, but is also the priciest provider. check out coverage maps (Telstra, Optus, Vodafone) if you want to be sure you can pick up signal. The best budget option is Amaysim, which goes via the Optus network. Not highly ranked for customer service, the reason for its low-cost, but good for slimmer wallets. The SIM card itself is $2 and there are monthly packages including unlimited domestic calls and texts from around $25 AUD with 1GB of data.
Main Airlines: Qantas, Virgin Australia, Jetstar, Tiger Air and Rex Airlines
Main Train Lines:
- Airport Link: A fast, direct link between Sydney Airport and the centre of Sydney in only 13 minutes.
- CountryLink: CountryLink’s rail and coach network reach 334 destinations in New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, Queensland and Victoria.
- Indian Pacific: One of the world’s longest and most impressive rail journeys. (Sydney – Adelaide – Perth)
- Metro Light Rail and Mono Rail: Transport within Sydney.
- QR (Queensland Rail): QR operates in the State of Queensland and interstate.
- The Ghan: Travel from Sydney and Melbourne to Adelaide and Alice Springs through the Australian Outback.
- The Overland: Trips from Melbourne to Adelaide.
- V/Line: Operates throughout Victoria.
Main Bus lines:
Buslines: This site has a list of all major bus and coach companies.
Firefly Express: Luxury Interstate Express Coaches throughout Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.
Greyhound: The Greyhound Aussie Explorer Pass is a budget friendly way to see Australia. You choose a pre-set travel route and stop off as often as you like, travelling in one direction. Some passes also include free tours and transfers to destinations like Kakadu National Park and Uluru.
What to Eat
A typical Aussie breakfast is often fruit, toast with Vegemite (a salty yeast spread), fried eggs with bacon and fruit juice. And, of course, coffee! Coffee culture is thriving, and Australia actually exports quite a bit of coffee worldwide. Tourism Australia has a long piece about what to eat in the country, including some of its history.
If you’re interested in wine culture, I strongly suggest reading The Wine Hunter, about Australia’s first winemaker.
A Selection of Sights to See in Australia
- Uluru, the mystical Ayers rock.
- Diving along the mind-bogglingly long Great Barrier Reef.
- Surfing the Gold Coast and Byron Bay.
- One of the world’s most scenic coastal drives — the Great Ocean Road.
- Sailing in the Whitsunday Islands.
- Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island, stretching over 120km.
- World Heritage site Kaduku National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory.
- The beehive-striped Bungle Bungle Range in Purnululu National Park, Western Australia.
- The urban delights of Sydney and Melbourne.
- Exploring the Flinders Ranges in South Australia.
- Wine tasting in the Barossa Valley in South Australia or the Margaret River wineries of Western Australia.
- Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park walks and Cataract Gorge Reserve in Tasmania
How Much Does it Cost to Travel in Australia?
Australia is notoriously expensive to travel to, and within. Transport will take a huge chunk out of your travel budget, as will everyday expenses. It may be helpful to read the budget breakdowns and experiences from other bloggers:
- Carmen from Double-barrelled Travel laments the prices in Australia (2015)
- Backpack Banter on a month in Australia (2014)
- Alison from Ali Adventures on her 10-day trip to Melbourne, Australia (2012)
- Laurence from Finding the Universe on how much a year cost him in Australia (2010)
What to Read Before You Go to Australia
Travel Books and Novels
- In a Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson: this was the first of many Bill Bryson books that I read, and is written in his customary style of self-deprecating humor and keen observation. The book follows his exploits in Australia and all of the quirks he encounters in the process.
- Girt: The Unauthorised History of Australia, by David Hunt: an irreverent and often slightly insulting history of Australia’s beginnings, from the macabre to the baffling and quite a bit in between. If you’re stodgy this isn’t the book for you. But if you’re stodgy Australia might not be a good place to visit, either! Highly recommended for humor alone, it certainly meant I didn’t see Australia in the same light as I did prior to reading the book.
- The White Earth, by Andrew Mcgahan: a horror story set in Australia’s Queensland province, the novel begins with fire and tragedy abounds from there. Comprising reflections on title to land and a sprawling family dynasty, The White Earth is “a well-wrought, meditative reflection on Australia’s colonialist demons.”
Articles from Around the Web about Australia
- Climate Change and the End of Australia by Jeff Goodell, Rolling Stone Magazine, October 2011
“With the winds hitting 80 miles per hour, I’m forced to stop in Proserpine, where the windows are taped and sandbags are piled in front of doors. Palm trees are bent horizontal in the wind, and the shingles of a nearby roof blow off and shoot into the darkness. It’s as if civilization is being dismantled one shingle at a time. Welcome to Australia, the petri dish of climate change.”
Interesting and alarming read on the havoc climate change is wreaking on Australia.
- The Miner’s Daughter by William Finnegan, New Yorker March 2013: An intriguing account of the Gina Rinehart, Australia’s richest and most controversial billionaire, and why (Australian) society is still both fascinated and dismissive by the concept of female tycoons.
- Six-Legged Giant Finds Secret Hideaway, Hides For 80 Years by Robert Krulwich, NPR Feb 2012: Robert Krulwich on a giant 6-legged “tree lobster” presumed to be extinct, that has been resdiscovered after 80 years.
“They call it “Ball’s Pyramid.” It’s what’s left of an old volcano that emerged from the sea about 7 million years ago. A British naval officer named Ball was the first European to see it in 1788. It sits off Australia, in the South Pacific. It is extremely narrow, 1,844 feet high, and it sits alone.
What’s more, for years this place had a secret. At 225 feet above sea level, hanging on the rock surface, there is a small, spindly little bush, and under that bush, a few years ago, two climbers, working in the dark, found something totally improbable hiding in the soil below. How it got there, we still don’t know.”
- One One-Hundredth of a Second Faster: Building Better Olympic Athletes by Mark McClusky, Wired July 2012. AIS was born out of failure: At the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Australians won just one silver and four bronze medals. Worse yet, its tiny neighbor New Zealand won two gold medals. When Australia’s prime minister at the time toured the Olympic Village, he was booed by the athletes, who felt they hadn’t been given the necessary support.
In the US this might have been greeted with a shrug. In Australia, it was a national scandal. Sports, especially international competition, had long been an important component of Australians’ self-image. As the country grew from its roots as a British penal colony, its new native-born population used sports to carve out an identity. “Sport in general, and Olympic sport in particular, is one of our few chances to shine on an international stage,” said Australian sports historian David Nadel in a newspaper interview.
- The World’s Toughest Trucker by Tom Clynes, National Geographic April 1999. Garry White, “the world’s toughest trucker,” delivers diesel to the cattle stations, aboriginal communities and remote settlements of the Cape York Peninsula in Australia far north. Writer and photographer Tom Clynes rode along on his 2,400 km round trip through the continent’s most inaccessible wilderness.
- A Space Odyssey by Tony Perrottet, Conde Nast Traveler, Dec 2010. A descriptive account of the remote Aussie Outback.
“Skimming via light aircraft over the crocodile-infested Arafura Sea, I began to suspect that I’d taken the concept of “getting away from it all” a step too far. From the cockpit of a single-engine Cessna, I watched the northern fringe of Australia unfurl like lush abstract art, the wild green expanse of mangroves delicately laced with the sensual coils of tropical rivers. All this primeval nature had begun to prey on my imagination: What exactly would happen, I wondered, if we, well, crash-landed out here?
In Africa you might see cattle tracks, villages, fires. But in this lost universe, there was nobody, nothing. Every now and again, I glimpsed a tiny dirt track etched through the greenery, but it was invariably empty, as mysterious as the Nazca Lines.”
Guidebooks About Australia
- The obvious choice is the Lonely Planet Australia, updated as of October 1, 2015 and containing the company’s usual hi-res photos, maps, and history alongside what to see and do and sample itineraries.
- An interesting independent option is Australia Travel Guide: Top Attractions, Hotels, Food Places, Shopping Streets, and Everything You Need to Know, from the JB’s Travel Guides series (Kindle only). The book has a brief history of the country and when to go, but also allows you to read by theme, explore how to get around, and tells you what will get you into trouble while you’re there. Since it’s online only, it is updated more frequently than hardcover guides that are also available online.
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