Hear the fascinating stories behind some of Australia's most intriguing sights – from the renowned Sydney Harbor, Bondi Beach, and the Australian Outback to the Great Barrier Reef, the Aussie Wine Industry, and the First Australia Day. Below are some of the stories you will discover for yourself while on an Australia Vacation.
Sydney Harbor: Sydney Harbor is Australia’s most renowned natural feature – a glorious, deep water inlet where yachts flit past the vast pearly shells of the Opera House and under the soaring steel arc of the Harbor Bridge. (Completed in 1932, it is referred to locally as “the Coat Hangar”). Today, over 200 years since it was settled by the British, the Harbor remains surprisingly in touch with nature. Much of the shorefront, Australia’s most valuable real estate, is still protected as national park land: Walking tracks curve through eucalyptus-fringed wilderness filled with boisterous native birdlife and up along high sandstone cliffs riddled ancient Aboriginal rock carvings. But few visitors realize that Sydney’s most iconic landmark, the Opera House – as recognized as the Eiffel Tower or Empire State Building – was almost never completed. The radical design by Danish architect Jørn Utzon was chosen from an international competition in 1957, even though engineers at the time had no idea how to build it. Work began in 1961, but with embarrassing missteps: Within five years, the prototype sails had to be taken down and totally recommenced. Budget blowouts dogged the project until the perfectionist Utzon resigned over cost-cutting measures. Construction continued anyway, with the interior design modified. The embittered Utzon, however, refused to visit Sydney again, and has still never seen the finished building hailed regularly as one of the seven architectural wonders of the modern world (or, as Aussie art critic Robert Hughes described it “the biggest environmental site-specific sculpture south of the equator”.) A recent reconciliation occurred when an interior annex was completed to Utzon’s original design, but the architect was too old to visit; he sent his son to the Opera House instead.
Bondi Beach, New South Wales: As the Harbor stretches its turquoise tentacles into every inner suburb of Sydney, the 70 beaches that lace the city’s edges have created a hedonistic surf culture on a par with Rio and Waikiki. The most beloved of the urban beaches is Bondi (pronounced Bond-eye). Here, between sandstone headlands at the eastern fringe of the city, the long glassy rollers of the Pacific Ocean thunder onto a half-mile of golden powdery sand. In the 1920s, Bondi was a modest version of Coney Island, where city dwellers in need of fresh air would travel here by a rattling tram to cool off with an ice cream or cheap fish-and-chips by the sea. In the 1950s, the surf craze arrived from Hawaii, luring thousands with their boards into the crashing surf. And since the 1990s, Bondi has gentrified, attracting millionaires and movie stars. Today, the beachfront promenade is Down Under’s answer to Copacabana – home to a taut, bikini-clad café society, with seafood restaurants and Art Deco pubs with million-dollar views. Even so, Bondi has retained its democratic roots. Perhaps its most symbolic site is the Icebergs Club, which is perched on the southern headland like a pagan temple. It was founded in 1929 as a winter swimming venue for older gents, but it has developed into the total Aussie entertainment venue – the world’s only health club that also boasts two restaurants and a liquor license. You can join the buffed Bondi residents for a few laps in the salt water Olympic-size pool, then saunter up to the Sundeck Café for seafood and wine overlooking the famous surf. If you’re still around at dusk (and really, why leave?), the top-floor Icebergs Bar, a study in chic jet-age décor, is the coolest hangout in Sydney to watch the Pacific sunset.
The Red Center
Australian Outback: Nothing sums up the sheer enormity of Australia like the Outback, a sun-scorched expanse that dwarfs even the American plains. On its lonely highways, cars pass so rarely that drivers will always salute each another with a laconic finger raised from the wheel. Today, the Red Center’s main urban center is Alice Springs – a former telegraph outpost that has expanded into a vibrant city, where crusty characters with names like Stumpy, Wooky and Trots mingle happily in the pubs along with tourists as they enjoy their barbecues and beer. Even the jillaroos (female versions of jackaroos – cattle ranch workers) are perched on the bar stools drinking rum-and-coke from pint-sized mugs. But in order to experience the harsh Outback of myth, you have to leave the town limits in a 4WD vehicle. Beyond Alice lie wide dirt roads with corrugations that shake the fillings out of teeth. The rust-colored horizon seems to loom then dissolve, while mini-tornadoes called willie-willies sail through the haunted scrub. These long, straight roads pass by formations that seem almost like hallucinogenic visions: tea-brown rivers glimmering in the distance, cliffs that turn blood red in the sunset, meteor craters blasted 145 million years ago, natural galleries of Aboriginal art. At night, the crystal clear sky bursts with brilliant southern stars. (It’s not uncommon to see three shooting stars at once). And hidden in the remotest valleys are lush oases of 75-foot-tall livistona mariae palms, full of marsupials, fish and exotic bird life. It’s no wonder the first British explorers who staggered into these secret groves thought they were dreaming.
Ayers Rock or Uluru?
More on the Australian Outback: Almost everything has two names in the Outback these days. Ayers Rock, the symbol of the Red Center, is now more correctly known by its traditional Aboriginal name, Uluru. The famous monolith sprouting from the desert had been given its stolid English title in 1873 by the first European explorer to clap eyes on it in 1873, Ernest Giles, in honor of his dull British benefactor, Sir Henry Ayer. But for all of 20,000 years before that, the local inhabitants had called it Uluru (apparently after one of the ancient clans in the area) and regarded it as a sacred site. By the mid-20th century, the ownership of the monolith had become a contentious political issue. Finally, in 1985, “the Rock” and 300,000 or so acres around it were officially returned to their original owners, the Anangu people (pronounced ah-na-nyu), who now lease them back to the Australian government as part of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. The entire region around Uluru is also riddled with sacred sites, so access to the landscape is now strictly controlled, with designated hiking trails and viewing areas to observe the Rock’s famously brilliant color changes at dawn and dusk. But one issue continues to cause tension: To climb or not to climb? Thousands of Australian and foreign visitors still do hoist themselves up the Rock using chains, but to the Anangu, this is stomping on holy ground. Their elders can’t forbid foreign visitors from climbing – the right was written into the hand-back agreement – but signs erected by the Anangu very politely ask people not to. If you do choose not to climb, there is always the equally exciting Plan B. Just after dawn, Uluru seems to glow as if lit by an inner flame, and it is cool enough to tackle the ‘base hike’ – a 6 mile circumnavigation at ground level. Up close, the towering surface is intricately pitted and pockmarked, with Aboriginal rock art in overhanging caves. (Inside these dents, the actual color of the rock is revealed to be elephant skin gray; the lurid red exterior is due to the oxidized iron in the sandstone). As you pay homage at the base, remember that Uluru may be tall – over 1000 feet high – but it also goes down four miles beneath your feet. After the Rock, it’s only 30 miles west to the national park’s other geological marvel, the Olgas – aka Kata Tjuta, ‘many heads.’ This stunning group of red sandstone domes rising sheer out of desert is not as famous as Uluru but is easily as awe-inspiring: it’s as if twenty Ayers Rocks had been cut in half and stood end on end.
The Ghan Train
"The Ghan": While most developed countries have scaled back their long-distance railway services, Australia in 2004 opened the final section of its most famous line, which cuts the country in two from north to south – “the Ghan.” It was the fulfillment of decades of dreaming and hard work. The idea of a north-south transcontinental line had first been mooted in the 1800s, but the formidable engineering difficulties of crossing deserts and tropical jungle delayed construction. It was not until 1929 that the first 900 mile leg, from the coast of South Australia to Alice Springs in the scorched center was finally opened as “the Afghan Express,” with weekly passenger trains making the 24-hour journey. (The odd name came from the hardy Afghan camel traders who in the 19th century provided the only long-distance transport link across the Red Center; it was soon shortened to the affectionate “Ghan”). The Australian government had always intended to extend the railway line to Darwin in the sweltering savannahs of the Top End, but the staggering cost of a monsoon-proof line made the project seem like science fiction. A start was made with U.S. help during World War Two. But it wasn’t until the 21st century that the trans-continental extension was seriously tackled again – and after four years of back-breaking labor the inaugural transcontinental train, packed with politicians and journalists, left Adelaide on 1st February, 2004, to cover the 1800 mile distance in two days and two nights. Today, train-lovers are lured by the Ghan as they are the Trans-Siberian or Orient Express, and reservations are booked out months in advance.
The Great Barrier Reef
Great Barrier Reef: For nature-lovers, a visit to the Great Barrier Reef is a quasi-religious experience. The 1600 mile long organism, which can even be identified from space, is actually a web of 2,900 self-contained reefs that lie between 40 and 100 miles off Australia’s north-east coast. From a plane, the Reef looks like a giant blue rash, but beneath its placid waves lie canyons of brilliant coral, each one a mini-galaxy of sea life, including wildly colored fish and anemones, giant turtles, moray eels, sharks and manta rays so large they can blot out the sun’s light as they pass overhead. The clarity of the water, the intensity of color, even the quality of the antipodean light are like nowhere else on earth. Most visitors fly into the booming tropical city of Cairns, then head north along the verdant Cook Highway to Port Douglas – a former gold rush port that was a virtual ghost town in the 1960s but is now one of Australia’s most glamorous resort destinations. (It lured Bill Clinton while President in 1996, and again in 2001). From here, high-speed catamarans run out to submerged platforms on the Reef, a jumping-of point for snorkelers and tours on glass-bottomed boats. (Companies also offer tanks for certified divers, but snorkeling is just as impressive: In fact, the colors of the Reef are most brilliant in shallow, sun-filled water.) It’s an unforgettable experience: the Pacific pumps back and forth like a giant lung over forests of staghorn coral, whose tips glow like electric Christmas tree lights. Clouds of tropical fish explode off the sandy ocean floor, green sea turtles glide purposefully by. And don’t miss the giant clams – mega-mollusks, each four foot wide, 500 pounds in weight and dressed in lurid velvet, they gape up invitingly from their beds of soft coral swaying in the current. A kick of your flippers takes you down to admire the vibrant colors shimmering in the slanting sunlight. And when you touch their sensuous lips, the century-old shells close slowly into fixed, happy smiles.
The Aussie Wine Industry
Australia's Wines: It’s hard to believe today, when Australia’s wines are world famous and fine vintages are readily available in every pub and café from Wagga to Oodnadatta, but it was not until the 1970s that Aussies really began to appreciate the virtues of the grape. Thanks to the post-war waves of immigrants from Italy and Greece, Aussies shifted away from their traditional passion for beer, port and rum and began what experts have dubbed the Great Wine Revolution. By 1985 wine consumption had tripled. But even many Australians don’t realize that the local wine industry is actually as old as white settlement itself. The first vines were brought from Brazil and South Africa on board the very first convict fleet in 1788, and planted in the British Governor’s private garden. Twelve years later, a pair of French prisoners-of-war from Napoleon’s armies were purposely sent to Sydney to provide a little Gallic know-how. Although these two clumsy Frenchmen produced wines of “very indifferent quality,” by the 1820s Aussie farmers were gamely sending their best wines back to European wine competitions, with mixed success. (The persistence with which wine growing was pursued in the colony is hardly surprising, given the importance first settlers placed on alcohol as a panacea for loneliness and isolation; although rum was preferred, and even became the effective currency for many years, any drink was accepted). Some of the great names of Aussie winemaking – Thomas Hardy, Dr Henry John Lindemann – got their start in the mid-19th century in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney and Barossa Valley north of Adelaide, but production was hampered by a small local market and the dreaded phylloxera disease, which wiped out many vineyards in the 1870s. Today, there is no looking back, with some 1,500 wineries now scattered across every Australian state. Travelers will find wineries in some improbably remote regions, including the Margaret River in south-western Australia, the Yarra Valley near Melbourne and Tamar Valley of Tasmania – each offering a broad range of tastings to visitors, and many complete with their own elegant restaurants.
The First Australia Day
An Inmate's Beach Party: Aussies may celebrate the foundation of their country every January 26th with sophisticated fireworks displays and picnics, but the actual event was a more dubious and chaotic affair. On that day in 1788, some 700 shady characters from Britain’s most miserable slums were offloaded from eleven reeking transport ships – today honored as the “the First Fleet” – onto the shores of Sydney Cove. Unlike other new immigrant societies, the pioneer settlers of Australia happened to be petty criminals and their guards, and they had been sent to a virtually unknown land: the east coast of Australia had only been visited by a single European explorer beforehand, Captain James Cook, in 1770. To the new arrivals, they may as well have been sent to colonize Mars. After eight grueling months at sea, the prisoners landed dazed and confused on the hot, bush-fringed sands, watched in amazement by groups of Eora Aborigines circling about in their bark canoes. The last to land were the female prisoners. This was when the extreme emotions of the moment came to a head, as soldiers and felons alike contemplated the strange, hostile landscape that was to be their new home. The result was Australia’s first and wildest beach party. Carried away by the women’s presence, the convicts and marines broke into the fleet’s rum supplies. The debauch was not even dulled by a thunderstorm at dusk: Revelers roared back at the sky and broke into bawdy songs. The next day, officers regained control and punished a few of the worst offenders. But the bad behavior was largely forgotten as they tackled the job at hand: Creating a new world in the far south.