Impressions of Australia

On the week-long visit to Australia to discuss the time and works of Jane Austen with fellow Janeites, the schedule set up so that I had a day on and a day off, giving me the opportunity to see a little of the country-continent. This was a welcome change from my only other visit, a business trip in 1998, when all I saw was hotels and conference rooms—and Michael Palin of “Monty Python” fame in an elevator.

When my time in a new place is limited, my preference is to find one or two things to do and strike out on foot. With an early morning arrival, I promptly set off to explore Sydney after fueling up at the nearest eatery—a 7-11 selling urn coffee and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. I found authentic Australian food later. …

Weather in the country had been dreadfully hot in the weeks before my arrival—above 100 degrees Fahrenheit—but had cooled to the high-80s (about 30 in their Celsius), which made for pleasant if occasionally sweaty walks. Remember, it’s summer in the Southern hemisphere. At the Sydney talk, the day was so sultry that the dress code was casual. Ceiling fans shoved the hot air around, and the talk ended just as the skies unleashed a barrage of hail. I felt like I was back home in an Arkansas summer T-storm. When the hail abated, we dashed for the car, but on the way home got hit by several pieces so large we thought it was going to break the windshield (it didn’t!).

On a day off, I walked Oxford Street from the Paddington area of Sydney through Hyde Park to Sydney Harbor. (Many place names in Australia refer to the English homeland.) The street is lined with fashionable dress shops for women on one side and more specialized shops for male clientele on another. (All I bought was a pair of bicycle socks from a U.S. expatriate who had made his career in the Coast Guard, then met an Aussie girl and came with her here.)

Ancient Moreton Bay fig trees cover much of Hyde Park in Sydney

One turns and goes downhill through Hyde Park, a cool respite populated with exotic birds and huge trees, including the Moreton Bay fig tree with its convoluted branches. The harbor is anchored on the right by the clamshell roofs of the famous Sydney Opera House and on the left by “The Rocks,” where a handful of the original stone buildings survive from the colony’s founding. Sydney’s first citizens were convicts transported from England for mostly petty crimes—in essence, England dumping its impoverished citizens on a largely empty land.

Sydney has a huge harbor with lots of coves—the city of 4.5 million wraps around almost too many coves to count. A two-hour cruise provided an appreciation of the scale of this beautiful city. Sydney’s Harbor Bridge is a magnificent structure, completed in the 1930s, which gave the people the confidence that they could create a city to rival any in the world.

I dined twice with members of the Jane Austen society at 5 Ways, an intersection of five streets in Paddington that sports a number of restaurants, including the Thai and Italian where we dined. Food is somewhat pricier in Australia than the U.S., but we landed upon pasta specials one night and did well for the sum spent. Bright and lively conversation in all three cities I visited convinced me of what one woman said, “Jane Austen has a way of bringing good people together.”

Paddington lace–wrought-iron metalwork–on colorful buildings

The Paddington area is known for its ornate wrought-iron work on the front of houses, called “Paddington Lace.” These designs, along with the warmth, humidity, and subtropical plants, remind an American of New Orleans. As does the Mardi Gras celebration scheduled for the next weekend!

In Sydney, Susannah Fullerton, the president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, took me along a hill on the south side of the Sydney Harbor, where our loop brought lovely views of the entrance of the harbor to the sea, along with the original lighthouse and gun emplacements that were still active in World War II. One stone path had been built by the convict laborers transported from England to Australia.

Detail of the wrought-iron metalwork known as Paddington lace

Those who survived the year-long voyage, and the initial years of hardship and near-starvation here, were the hardiest stock. Having earned their freedom, they carved out a nation from a stingy land. (And, like settlers in the U.S., had often brutal encounters with the natives, a troubled legacy that lingers to today.)

My journey continued Wednesday with a 2.5-hour train ride north and west to Newcastle, like its English namesake a coal-producing town. The train went through densely forested hills and alongside Lake Macquarie. Efficient and fresh, the train gave me the opportunity to work on Volume III of my trilogy. Writing in a new location stimulates creativity.

Like the U.S. west coast, the Australian east coast can be hot and dry, and the danger of bush fire is serious. On one side, a fire had come right up to the railroad tracks. Recent rains had been very welcome.

In Newcastle, my host lived at the top of an area known as the Hill, and we walked on an engineering marvel of a pedestrian bridge that spanned several small headlands. We went only partway; the entire bridge tied together the beaches and port below with the upper parts of town. Later, we also strolled the main port area.

Though coal is still exported (a long line ships stretched into the distance offshore, waiting their turn to come in for loading), the steel mill shut down years ago. The closure was a severe shock to the economy, but Newcastle has rebounded and is now becoming a tourist destination and cultural center.

An author on parade must balance the number of books he hopes to sell with the number that one can physically carry. My arms are several inches longer than when I started. The people of Newcastle were particularly receptive, leaving me with much lighter bags to schlepp back.

Downtown of Brisbane, largest city in Queensland, still another port in Australia

In Brisbane, I stayed in an area known as Ascot, which has two racecourses, named of course for its English parallel. On Saturday, the men in their suits and the ladies in their finery strolled down to the horse track. Their return, after a hot afternoon and the consumption of adult beverages, left the ladies holding onto their bonnets while swaying on their heels.

Racecourse Road—a half-mile stretch of bars, coffee shops, restaurants, and interesting shops—leads to the Brisbane River. One eatery is called 5 Burroughs, named for the five divisions of New York City but feeling more like a rib joint in the American South. If Sydney felt like New Orleans with its upscale feel and wrought-iron work, Brisbane feels more like Charleston by the sea or Little Rock by the river. The local variety of cicadas begin to call the minute you get off the main street, even in the day.

On the river itself, with tall new buildings on three sides and a large cruise ship on the other, the air saturates a courtyard with the smell of curry. Dinner was at a restaurant at the old brick power plant, a huge structure that has been converted into theaters, restaurants, and other night-life venues.

I’m hesitant to generalize about a country from meeting only a dozen or so, but Australians are a gregarious folk. Everyone I met was eager to speak to me, eager to visit with a visiting American. Granted that I was spending much of my time with well-educated and well-read people, but even those I ran into on the street were engaged and interested in the world around them.

No doubt one reason is that Australia is an island nation—and a coastal country. Every major city is a port town. People look out to sea rather than inland. Out-country visitors are common, from all over the world. That may be why many Australians think of international rather than in-country travel. With few mountains to generate weather, the interior of Australia is hot and dry and relatively unpopulated. The big cities are all on the coast. Darwin is closer to Jakarta, Indonesia, than to any major Australian city. As one person in Brisbane put it, she can fly three and a half hours and still be in Queensland. A little farther, and she can be in a different country.

Being part of the British Commonwealth and being the only nation of Western heritage on this side of the Pacific, Australians pay much more attention to international affairs, particularly American and English, than the average American.

After all, World War II came right to Australia’s door—Brisbane guns exchanged fire with Japanese ships in World War II, submarines attacked Sydney Harbor, and the battle of the Coral Sea stopped a fleet intent on invasion.

Every Australian with whom I said more than a few words—my accent gave me away—peppered me with questions about the U.S. election. Though Americans tend to think of England, Germany, and other European nations as our allies, Australians consider themselves America’s closest ally—they are the ally in the Pacific. They’ve fought beside the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan—not to mention in Vietnam and the two world wars. They could not understand why our President had attacked their Prime Minister. They were more confused and disappointed than angry—doesn’t America know who our friends are?

After just ten days, I certainly know who mine are.

One thought on “Impressions of Australia

  1. Wonderful travelogue, Collins. Yes, the Paddington Lace had me thinking of the “frosted lace” balconies in the American south before you mentioned New Orleans. I had no idea of the style in Australia.

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