Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Australia - The Country, the People, The Quirks

Larry the Lobster, Icon of Kingston, SA,
is one of Australia's famous 'Big Things'
This is the first of a series of posts culminating from our recent trip, where we explored the Australian states of South Australia, Tasmania, New South Wales, Victoria and a smidge of Queensland.  In future posts I'll talk about our specific experiences with the sights and scenes but, while each state is very much an individual, there are some commonalities that you just might find interesting.

It's really hard to say, for sure, whether it is the country's natural beauty that first won us over, or the stunning architecture and history that accompanied it.  I suspect it was a bit of both.  While natural beauty can always stand on its own, its often the elements brought to us by mankind that brings the area to life, creating the sense of community we relate with.

In many ways, Australia really isn't much different to Canada.  Both are British Colonies; both were settled in roughly the same time period, being the late 1800s; while Canada's population might be larger (35m vs. 23m) in both instances, our populations are spread across a massive area of largely uninhabitable land.   While Canada is the 'great white north',  Australia is the 'great south land'.  Economically, both countries have been experiencing housing booms, with the Chinese demand similarly driving both Sydney and Vancouver markets.  In other words, our two countries have a lot in common.

But there is as many differences as there are similarities.  It seems to me that Canada took its own sweet time carving out its own identity while Australia rushed headlong into it.  Canada claimed it's independence through the British North America (BNA Act) in 1867 but didn't officially have a flag until 1965. Red and white were Canada's national colors since 1921 and the stylized maple leaf used inconsistently for decades.  Australia received independence in January 1901 and flew its flag for the first time later that same year.  The Union Jack is its nod to historical roots; the 5 stars represent the Southern Cross, a constellation that can only be seen from the Southern Hemisphere; and the 7-pointed star represents the union of the 6 states and the territories.  

Of one thing we have no doubt: Canadians and  Australians are both extremely proud, patriotic and loyal toward their respective country.  However, the average Australian is much more likely to sing its praises from the rooftops while a Canadian is more likely to bow his head and smile knowingly but modestly over Canada's achievements.  My jury is still out on which one is the best approach.

On to Australia's people.   I would be the first to say that we have found people friendly pretty much everywhere we have travelled. All one has to do is to be open and willing to communicate and, on occasion, take the initiative to strike up a conversation.  Australia is no different.  It took us a minute to understand some of the customs and courtesies of the country though.  For example, while in Canada it is expected to be seated at a restaurant and wait to be served, in Australia, it is common to seat yourself and approach the counter to order food and beverages.  We discovered this at our first 'self serve' establishment, a small rural cafe that was very popular with the locals from the nearby town of Victor Harbor, in South Australia. When we realized the error of our ways; we approached the counter with an apologetic, 'We're from Canada and we don't know what to do.'  From there, we were not only welcomed with open arms but given somewhat of the royal treatment.  

but for the kindness of strangers,
we would never have seen this lovely view
After a scrumptious meal and a bit of a visit with the owners, before hopping back in the car to continue on our way we were admiring the whimsical gardens, awash in colorful banners and, believe it or not, bicycles hanging from the trees.  This novel approach to outdoor decorating provided a segway into a conversation with a local couple who, after a few minutes, offered to lead us to one of the many viewpoints in the area.  Assuming it was only a few kilometers away, we readily agreed.  We followed our guides for about an hour, from the valley floor to the hills beyond, back through the valley and to the top of the opposing hills.  The view truly was spectacular and this local couple wanted to be sure we experienced the best their community had to offer.   We surely did; they thought it was the view but it was really them.

 When we arrived in Launceston, Tasmania, we ambled into the Royal Oak Hotel for a nightcap, seated ourselves at the bar and asked for assistance in choosing a glass of wine and a local beer. Once
Royal Oak Hotel, Launceston, Tasmania
again, we explained that we were visiting from Canada and had just arrived in Tasmania.  By the time we left, our two bartenders, Tim and Tom, built a 5-day itinerary for the entire state of Tasmania, with accompanying maps to boot!   As our hosts had clearly gone well beyond the call of duty, we offered them each the customary tip which would be expected in Canada.  Tom exclaimed, 'you don't have to do that, I make a good wage here.'  Although we tried to explain we were doing it because they both went well beyond the call of duty, I do believe we inadvertently insulted them.  To make up for our well meaning indiscretion, upon leaving Tasmania, we sent Tim and Tom a postcard confirming that every single bit of their advice was right on the money.  I wonder if they got it. . .

Honestly, everywhere we went, we met with kindness, whether it be from staff in local establishments or passersby on the the street.  All were more than willing to spend a few minutes or a few hours, whatever the need, to make a few suggestions about what to see or pass along a tidbit of information; anything to ensure we enjoyed our visit.  Always,  when they spoke of their community, or their country, the pride was evident in their faces and in the tone of their voices.  How could we possibly not love this country?

Shoes Anyone?
About those quirks, Australia definitely has more than it's fair share but let's be clear about one thing. Quirks are not a negative thing; it's our quirks that makes us unique, set us apart, one from the other, and gives us each that little stamp of individuality, don't you think?  From our perspective, Australia has an over-whelming sense of humor and we loved it! Never taking itself too seriously, we found plenty of reasons to gaze in wonder and, at times, in awe, at the imagination of it's people.  In our opinion,  Australia takes whimsy to an entirely new level.  We saw bicycles in trees, fences strung with banners and ribbons, mailboxes crafted from everything from propane tanks to 5-gallon cans.  I think the strangest of all was the fence wearing about a half kilometer of shoes, hundreds of shoes--all shapes, all sizes--running shoes, work boots, rubber boots, flip flops, dress shoes, sandals. . . and more shoes.  
Along the Great Ocean Road
One day, we were driving along the road, minding our own business, and we found a beach covered with rocks.  Now, normally, that would not be unusual, however, these rocks had all been meticulously rearranged into tiny sculptures. We're talking about hundreds of rocks piled upon hundreds of rocks, ultimately filling an entire beach with these makeshift cairns. I'm pretty sure it didn't cost anyone anything; more likely it cost a whole bunch of people a little bit of time but, by the number of vehicles stopped along the side of the road, it made quite the tourist attraction.

There is nothing like a bit of whimsy to make my day and we had plenty of opportunity to see plenty of whimsy.  One day, we crossed 'Little Creek', where someone added their own tidbit of information to the sign. . . "why?  because it's too small to be called a river'.  You have to admit, that's cute.  

Even Sydney, with its iconic opera house and bridge, has its quirks. 

Sydney Car Art
Another form of Car Art

No matter where we went, we were barraged bu the evidence that young and old alike, Australians have a keen sense of humor.  They aren't above laughing at themselves and, trust me, they aren't above laughing at you either.  Here's a little advice: take it all in stride. Australians are a proud, fun loving, crazy bunch of people that, given the opportunity, will make your visit a memorable one.