Australia: admiring the ‘Coat Hanger’

A baby koala crawls into view at Healesville Animal Sanctuary.
A baby koala crawls into view at Healesville Animal Sanctuary.

“This is why most people come to Australia,” I thought to myself, as my family and I drove through a forest filled with 900-year old Pender trees outside of Cairns. Although the northeastern coast of Australia would fulfill the dream of every tourist and adventure-seeker, I was there for a completely different reason.

In 2004, my dad, a professor at McMaster University, had temporarily separated our family by taking my mom and my then-14-year-old brother on a six-month sabbatical in Melbourne. Not one to be left behind, I decided that if my parents and brother were travelling to Australia, I absolutely had to visit.

After a wearisome 36-hour trip through Toronto, Los Angeles and Sydney, I finally arrived in Melbourne. Although I only slept for seven hours during my flight, as soon as I saw my parents’ huge smiles and open arms in the Melbourne airport, I completely forgot about my overwhelming fatigue and stiff joints.

My family lived in a house on the University of Melbourne’s campus, a ten-minute walk away from downtown Melbourne. The city itself is full of Victorian architecture, and is home to the highest number of Victorian-era buildings outside London, England. The most notable example is the Flinders Street train station, whose green dome dominates Melbourne’s skyline.

In many areas of Melbourne, modern skyscrapers and century-old church steeples co-exist side by side, demonstrating both its rich history and commercial success. The urban landscape is punctuated by palm trees, eucalyptus plants and the Yarra River, which flows through the centre of the city.

Out of all of the attractions of downtown Melbourne, the most memorable place I visited was the farmers’ market.

Not only could you buy any type of food imaginable—from fresh produce to local cheese to live chickens—the market was also home to hundreds of stalls selling everything from designer knock-offs to didgeridoos. I could have spent hours exploring this open-air shopping mecca, and it made a hefty dent in my wallet.

The galleries and museums I visited were impressive and fascinating, but Australia’s man-made features were completely overshadowed by its natural attractions. I spent an afternoon watching much of Australia’s indigenous wildlife at the Healesville Animal Sanctuary, about an hour’s drive east of Melbourne.

Healesville is home to kangaroos, koalas, wombats, dingoes, echidnas, Tasmanian devils and all of the bizarre-yet-adorable animals that inhabit Australia. My favorites were the surprisingly small duck-billed platypuses—which were only about 40 centimeters long—and a wallaby named Sophie, who let me stroke her fur and ever so daintily accepted the eucalyptus leaf I offered her.

During the third week of my stay in Australia, my family and I left Melbourne and travelled around Australia. Our first stop was Sydney, the stunningly beautiful capital of New South Wales.

My first glimpse of the Opera House and the surrounding harbour was surreal—the ‘palm fronds’ of the Opera House are so distinctive that I immediately felt a pang of “oh-my-God-I-can’t-believe-I’m-here” syndrome. After taking what felt like a million pictures, my family set sail on a two-hour cruise around the harbour.

The boat ride showcased the Opera House, the Sydney Harbour bridge (affectionately called “the Coat Hanger”), and even one of Sydney’s nude beaches. Fortunately—or perhaps unfortunately—the cruise ship didn’t veer close enough to reveal any details, but we did catch glimpses of some brave Aussie swimmers.

Our second and final stop on our Australian mini-tour was Cairns, a northern, tropical city. Our main adventure in Cairns was exploring the Great Barrier Reef, one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

After travelling for a few hours by boat, we were ready to dive in and snorkel around the reefs. Before we dipped a toe into the water, however, we were told that it was the end of “stinger season” and we should be careful to avoid jellyfish.

Australia is home to some of the most poisonous creatures in the world, like box jellyfish and the Portuguese man-of-war. Both of these potentially deadly invertebrates can be found in the Great Barrier Reef.

In order to avoid getting stung, we were advised to cover up any bare skin and were given bright blue spandex bodysuits to wear over our bathing suits.

Although the prospect of encountering a box jellyfish was somewhat scary, seeing my parents and brother covered from head to toe in royal blue spandex definitely lightened the mood.

Of course, the day was jellyfish-free and we spent the afternoon exploring the bright colours and fascinating coral of the Reef.

After we returned to Melbourne, my time in Australia quickly came to an end. Although it was difficult to leave my parents behind for another few months, I knew I would see them—and come back to Australia—sometime soon.

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