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Must-See Down Under: Koalas, Ayers Rock, Great Barrier Reef, Sydney Opera House
by Charles Barnard

The zookeeper put the koala on my shoulder and instructed me how to hold it, like a baby, one hand under its furry rear end. "They're our most popular animal," the man said, "but some of you Yanks don't seem to know their correct name. . . you ask us where we keep the Qantas bears."

Long curved claws held onto my arm as if it were the limb of a tree. (Koalas are dumb; their fur feels like upholstery stuffing from a 1906 Maxwell.) Soon some school children happened along and the zookeeper relieved me of my docile, four-thumbed friend and held it for the kids to pet. Everyone loves koalas, even Australians.

"To-see-the-animals", is a reason often given for traveling to Australia — to see the island-continent's menagerie of strange creatures: kangaroos, wombats, Tasmanian Devils, even camels. But a lot of other things are different "Down Under", too. I left Connecticut in spring and found autumn and football games waiting for me in Melbourne; I had to re-set my watch by 20 hours; I spent my first three days wondering who "mite" was, until I discovered it was me they were talking to — mate.

There is a temptation to call Australia "another planet," but that would be trite and not altogether correct. Australia may be upside down and far away, but its popular east coast is a natural geographic boundary of the Pacific travel world. Once I arrived Down Under, my disorientation was brief — it lasted only about as long as it took me to get used to driving on the left side of the road, or having big, heavy 50-cent pieces in my pocket again, or learning a slightly garbled dialect of English.

There's a good deal of optimism about travel to Australia these days. One tourist official I spoke with rubbed his hands together in mock glee and said, "Isn't 'Olympics' a lovely word? For us, that is!"

Another sporting matter which attracted thousands of visitors to Western Australia when I was there years ago was the America's Cup competition. The famous trophy was in Aussie hands for the first time ever, and a series of international elimination races to determine a challenger would be held in Indian Ocean waters off the port of Fremantle.

I wanted to see the Cup while I was there, of course — but first I had to get past a sign at the Royal Perth Yacht Club which said simply, "The America's Cup is not on public display." Then I had to persuade Mr. Bill McCormack that although I was not a member of the Club, and not even what the Aussies call a "yachtie," I had traveled a great many miles and just wanted a quick peek.

"Go ahead up, mite," Mr. McCormack said, waving me to the stairs. "You Yanks aren't ever going to see the Cup again at home, so I think the least we can do is let you look at it here." A wink and a big, friendly smile.

The Auld Mug was housed all by itself, under glass, in a large trophy case in the club boardroom. Spotlights focused on the sculpted sterling; it gleamed back icily against a red background.

Fremantle, 18 kilometers down the Swan River from Perth, had worked for more than two years to be ready for the biggest sporting event in Australia's history. Its main streets and old Victorian buildings were not merely spruced up, but literally rebuilt. When venerable structures could not be restored, their classic old facades were skillfully preserved and modern buildings attached.

New hotels were opened, old hotels renovated. The gleaming brass and polished woods of century-old pubs and restaurants were given a high shine. Sidewalk cafés were as busy as those in Paris (and much more friendly); Greek, Indian, Italian and Mexican food was everywhere. One or two topless spots opened and a number of theatrical-looking girls could be found loitering under certain streetlamps. New marinas and harborfront facilities were constructed. Berths for more than a score of the competing 12-meter yachts bristled with new cranes and hoists. The entire area was festive with wind-whipped flags and burgees.

Even without yacht racing, Western Australia can offer a visitor some memorable travel experiences. One day I drove about 60 miles from Perth to the Avon Valley, an inland settlement since the 1830's. It is a pleasant two-lane route across a range of small mountains and thence through grain fields, pastureland and forests of gum trees to the town of York, population 1200. This is an 1890's sort of place with many of its old, original buildings restored and in good repair. It is designated an Historic Town by the National Trust of Australia.

Very well then, if it's deserts one expects Down Under, on to the Red Center! On to the Gibson Desert, the Simpson Desert, the Central Desert — there are many more names on the map, all of which really add up to one great parched wilderness at the heart of Australia. I flew from Perth to Alice Springs, a distance of two thousand kilometers.

In about three hours in the air, I saw nothing below but red sand and some scrubby growth that suggested a thin sprinkling of dried parsley floating on tomato soup. I also identified several dirty-white salt beds, a few hog-back ridges and, here and there, some long, parallel wind-furrows that looked as if a giant rake had been drawn across the continent. No roads, no sign of human habitation, no works of man, just a million and a half square kilometers of territory where only 150,000 people live in a half-dozen communities.

That's what makes green and leafy Alice (population 24,000) such a surprise. It is a neat little town which is almost exactly at the geographic center of this vast continent — and it doesn't even care that it may not have seen rain for years. What's a slight drought? Alice survives on two apparently inexhaustible resources — tourists and a 1000-year-old underground aquifer of fresh water, the Amadeus Basin.

Various places in Australia like to lay claim to being the #2 or even #3 tourist attraction of the country, but, excepting the Sydney gateway itself, the Alice Springs-Ayers Rock area of the Northern Territory is usually acknowledged as #1. ("The Rock, the Reef and the Opera House," is a popular way of stating the ranking — i.e., Ayers Rock, Great Barrier Reef, and Sydney — more about each forthwith.)

A visitor can keep very busy in Alice; it is a creative town, it has to be. Depending on when one arrives, there may be a rodeo to attend or a camel race or the Henley-on-Todd "regatta" held on the sand and gravel of a dry riverbed. (Competitors stand within bottomless "boats," holding the hulls waist high as they run.)

There is also an assortment of half-day, full-day or longer tours. New hotels are fast replacing the old; a cinderblock palace where I stayed years ago is now being torn down. Sheraton has opened a large, attractive establishment that is so international-slick (pool, continental restaurant, free soap and real cloth napkins) that it seems almost out of character in this frontier town.

Alice is a place that knows how to contrive events for its guests. In addition to rodeos, dry regattas and balloon flights, one may "enjoy foot-stomping bush dances," "watch aboriginals making and using weapons," "learn how to find water in the bush," "see how to find, cook and eat witchetty grubs," "spend half a day with an Aboriginal family. . . " Much of this is pure showbiz. I went to dinner one evening via a 12-camel caravan — a 5-kilometer ride among the pretty old gum trees which line the Todd River's banks. Since all "rivers" in this part of Australia are dry except when rains cause a run-off, we trekked through sand. The one-hump camels (whose forebears were brought to the continent almost two centuries ago) paused to snack whenever a nice, bristly cactus was within reach along the trail.

After a saddle-sore ninety minutes, we reached a country-style restaurant operated by a local winery. (Yes, they try to grow grapes in Alice, too.) A choice of water buffalo or barramundi (a fish) was offered, and various Australian wines were provided for tasting and drinking. I shared table with a nurse from New York, a banker from Boston, and the man in charge of bicycle-safety programs for the state of Florida. A slug of locally-distilled spirit called Halley's Comet brandy was an incendiary but welcome digestif after the water buffalo.

Almost 300 miles southwest of Alice, a large mountain of solid stone lies three-quarters buried in the flat, red desert. It is 3.6 kilometers long, 2.4 kilometers wide, 8.8 kilometers around at its base, and 348 meters high (1100 feet, about the same as the Empire State building). Invariably called the "world's largest monolith," it looks like a monstrous lump of bread dough which has risen overnight. Although it is often spoofed, one wonders what the Australian travel business would do without images of Ayers Rock (photographed from all angles and in all lights) on brochures and posters. Worse, what if the monster stoneberg were to sink back into its pre-Cambrian origins? Would tourists then have any reason to come to Alice Springs? This giant geological anomaly was discovered by a European explorer only a little more than a century ago, but it has been sacred to Aboriginals for thousands of years. It has become one of the most curious tourist attractions in the world. Consider: Ayers Rock is not the focus of a sound & light show; it boasts no waterfalls, doesn't have a restaurant, offers no concerts, spouts no steam and sells no T-shirts — it simply sits there — yet this great thing attracts up to 200,000 visitors a year, many of whom arrive by air via 45-minute flights from Alice.

The first time I saw the Rock, nearly 20 years ago, there were two or three plywood-and-tarpaper "motels" within a mile or so of its base. They were adequate for an overnight stay — and that was all one needed. You looked up at the monolith in awe, took a walk around part of its perimeter and moved on. Even as late as 1946, some visitors were traveling from Alice to the Rock in camel caravans.

Now all is changed, dramatically. Twenty kilometers from this great Earth-wart, a resort has been built (yes, a swimming pool-tennis courts-fancy dining-kind of resort) with a capacity to accommodate 5000 guests in two hotels, a lodge and a campground. Yulara Resort is a permanent staff-community of 550 persons; it is self-sufficient in water, electric power, sewage, fire and police services, medical care, rescue capability. It has green lawns and 120,000 trees, shrubs and flowering bushes. It makes a stopover of two or three days in the desert both comfortable and feasible; regrettably, the typical visitor still stays only one night.

The usual routine is to arrive around mid-day, check in, have lunch, then board a tour bus for an excursion to the Olgas. These are a jumble of 39 dramatic red-rock-mountains which resemble a herd of elephants seen from the rear. Like Ayers (which is within sight, 28 kilometers distant), the Olgas are sacred to the native people of the region. Although higher and larger in mass than the Rock itself, they are but an overture to the main event of the afternoon — stopping at a parking area called Sunset Strip to watch the last light of day paint Ayers with an evanescent display of rapidly changing colors.

The day I was there, 15 busses arrived ten minutes in advance of the 6:05 p.m. sunset. By 6:15, all were moving out again in a great cloud of red dust. Twenty minutes, zip-zap. That's what's wrong with group touring.

Visitors to the Rock have to make one personal decision before the next morning at Yulara: Will I climb Ayers or not? The question hangs in the air from the moment one arrives. Post-card racks at the hotels are heavy with comic-cartoon cards which announce, "I climbed Ayers Rock." Those who have no stomach for such activity can say they have visited "Chicken Rock." Actually, the question of whether to try for the top is no joke. About 200 people a day get up before dawn to make an attempt; half may reach the summit along a prescribed route by 11 a.m. Once there (I discovered), the view is, well, a view. . . of nothing much but a flat, featureless desert and the nearby Olgas. The sense of personal triumph, however, is considerable. Ayers, I can testify, is not easy to climb. Until 1946 (when a heavy chain was attached to the mountain to assist climbers) only 24 people had made it. Since then, nineteen have lost their lives trying.

They have a saying in Alice Springs that when one finally packs up and leaves the gritty austerity of the Red Center for one of Australia's coastal cities, he has "gone to the water." It is spoken almost as a reproach, as if one had gone suddenly soft, as if leaving the Rock and the camels and the dry streambeds and the astringent wine was something of a betrayal and a surrender. I felt that way when I "went to the water" myself, but then, I had been promised tropical islands and blue lagoons, and I couldn't resist — I was headed for the Great Barrier Reef.

Cairns is a city on the Queensland coast which is the logistical and entrepreneurial base for much of the Reef tourism. From this place one may take day trips out to the Reef and some of its islands. As a result, Cairns has all the charm of a frantic and unkempt travel agency. It seems to exist for the single purpose of luring visitors off the street to sell them a "booze cruise," rent them a moped, teach them to scuba dive, take them deep-sea fishing or book them on a four-wheel-drive safari. I took an instant dislike to Cairns with its perpetual low tide, $6 motels, bad food, "discount opals," poor service, sleazy hostels, Japanese-language postcards, purple hotrods, vulgar T-shirts, tattooed girls and — well, have I said enough? Maybe I'm wrong about the place; maybe it was just some undigested hunk of mud crab I ate, but that's the way it seemed to me.

The Great Barrier Reef itself is another matter. I took an Air Queensland daytrip up the coast from Cairns to Cooktown and thence to Lizard Island offshore. The plane was a ten-passenger, high-wing, twin-engine Nomad which provided excellent views of the terrain and the sea below.

Cooktown is a sleepy little settlement where Captain Cook made his only landing on the Australian continent. There is a place to have breakfast, a small museum where Cook's ship's anchor is preserved, a shop that sells seashells — and a wide, High-Noon main street.

On Lizard Island (where there are small lizards) lunch is served at a modest "resort." Afternoon activities include a 30-minute glass-bottom-boat "cruise" and optional snorkeling (if you can find a matched pair of swimfins). There is one tennis court.

The best part of my Barrier Reef day was the last hour and a half, which was spent flying at 500 feet over a section of this 1300-mile phenomenon. Sharks and giant sea turtles could be seen basking in the clear, shallow water below.

So much for the Rock and the Reef — what about the Opera House? Answer: it is magnificent, and Sydney is a beautiful city. Walking tours of the historic Rocks area give visitors a sense of how Australia got started as a penal colony and then as a country nearly 200 years ago. A luncheon cruise on the large and sparkly harbor takes tourists around a series of bays where red-tile-roof, Mediterranean-style suburbs come right to the water's edge. Lunch at Doyle's 100-year-old seafood restaurant in Watson's Bay may well prove the best meal one will have in Australia — and if Proprietor Peter Doyle happens by your table, you will be entertained by a salty gentleman who spent 11 years on a fishing boat and is frank to say, "My great-grandfather was a convict and a crook. . . he poached a fish off some aristocrat's property back in the old country and they sent him to Australia in chains. . . it was the greatest thing that ever happened to the Doyle family."

Oh, yes. If there is opera or symphony scheduled at the Sydney Opera House while you are there, by all means go. The program won't matter as much as the feeling of exhilaration that comes from just being close to this magnificent structure. It is a good memory to take home from Down Under.


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