08 December 2012

The Giant of the Pacific, Australia

Mid-last month, Elena and I departed on our first visit to Australia in the three years that we have lived in the South Pacific. We had a fantastic time, and tried to make the most of our time in the country, visiting a diverse range of visual and performing art shows, restaurants, markets, gardens, and a zoo, as well as spending time with good friends that we met during our work in Tonga. As it is difficult to share everything that we did, here are some snapshots and commentary of just some of the highlights of our visit.
Our first stop after getting off the plane

Our first stop in Australia was to visit the Sydney Opera House where we had dinner, watched ferries, admired the beautiful Opera House and Sydney Harbor, and finally, we watched "School for Wives," a play by Molier in one of the Opera House theaters. Under-30 discounts on tickets make seeing shows like this much easier for young people in Australia.

Getting out of the city and into nature is always a high priority for us on trips, so we took a day to visit the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney. We didn't exactly rough it, but it was a beautiful area to visit!

The Blue Mountains and Three Sisters peak in Katoomba
We took a cable car to the top of a mountain
In the later afternoon, clouds began to envelope Katoomba and the mountains, creating an eerily quiet and beautiful environment where we could barely see 20 meters in any direction.

Clouds envelop Elena and the Blue Mountains

Back in Sydney...

The hidden world of inner courtyards
One of the destinations we made a specific effort to visit was the Museum of Contemporary Art at the Sydney Harbour which has just expanded and now features permanent exhibitions of contemporary Australian art. There was also an enormous cruise ship docked that day, spewing forth tourists clad in uniforms of bermuda shorts and hawaiian shirts.

Museum of Contemporary Art and the Sydney cruise ship terminal
After the MCA, we wandered the area for a little while before finding a pleasant cafe across the street from a German beir haus complete with costumes. We enjoyed wine as the sun started to dip in the sky.

Lovely Restaurants in The Rocks of downtown Sydney

After a couple of full days in Sydney, we flew down to Melbourne to visit our friend Louise in Melbourne. Melbourne gets a lot of hype as a wonderful place to live and for being very human-scaled and accessible, and it sounded like a great place to experience city art and culture that we miss so much in Tonga. And our general impression after our 4-day visit was that the hype is largely true; it's a very livable city with excellent public transportation, bike access all over the city, beautiful parks, great food, a diverse population, and great culture. We had a lot of fun and would gladly choose to live there.

Melbourne laid out in front of us

We visited the State Library of Victoria and in the central reading room, along the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd story balconies, we saw exhibits on the history of books, the Hobbit, Melbourne and Victoria state history, and the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly.

The reading room of the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne
We were always on the look-out for good food, and tried to eat something completely different every meal. During the 10 days in Australia, some of our meals included Mexican, Malaysian, Indian, French, Greek, and Thai, along with many other excellent meals to stretch our gastronomical palette.

Eating Malaysian Laksa
The National Gallery of Victoria was a fun respite from walking around the city, and featured contemporary Indonesian art, an exhibit on the evolution of the ballet costume, and extensive collections of medieval European art, among others.

National Gallery of Victoria, not the Great Wall of China
The public transportation street cars were a pleasure to use and would take you all over the city, though we still don't fully comprehend the billing system.

Riding Public Transportation in Melbourne
One day, we got off the tram at a random stop and as we wandered up the street, we found a huge Latin festival on one of the side streets. It only happens once every year.

Wandering through the annual Latin street fair in Melbourne
The huge open/covered Queen Victoria Market was a fantastic place to explore, and offered nearly everything imaginable in the way of clothing, food, art, and accessories. We also spent lots of time perusing the cheese and meat sections of the market.

Victoria Market in Melbourne
Melbourne is known for being very bike-friendly, and we were able to easily ride all over the city on the dedicated bike throughways, lanes, and paths. We also noticed an enormous amount of street art and tagging, which may have just been a lot in comparison to Tonga.

Melbourne is very bike-friendly, and has lots of graffiti and street art
Our days exploring the city were very well spent, but one of the primary highlights of our visit was going to the Melbourne Zoo! It has been a while since either of us has been to one, and this one is particularly fun, giving us the opportunity to see some animals up close and personal that we had never seen before. Some of our favourite animals are pictured below, though the multitude of meerkat and baboon pictures didn't make it into the post.

Visiting the wonderful Melbourne Zoo
Welcoming frogs?
Free-Range Emus greeted us as we walked in the gate of the emu and kangaroo enclosure

Meal-time for roos
Interspecies fascination
The magical world of reptiles
Koalas trying to sleep at midday really do look like stuffed animals
The orangutan enclosure featured a lot of fascinated humans and orangutans
After 4 days in Melbourne, we flew back to Sydney, and went directly to the Powerhouse Museum which features exhibits on transportation history, the evolution of the steam engine and how it was used in Australia, lace and modern art inspired by it, and a section exploring electrical current, chemicals involved in smell, and the construction of fireworks.

The Powerhouse Museum
The Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney featured extensive collections of Australian and foreign art, with some of the highlights being pictured below.

Art Gallery of New South Wales
Throughout our trip, we found vines, trees, and a fernery to sit in, on, or climb. Here's Elena enjoying Australia's flora.

Trees and Gardens of Australia
As you can see, we had a wonderful visit in Australia! We saw as much as we could in our trip, visited friends, soaked up art, culture and food, saw cool creatures that we had never seen before, and went out to the great outdoors. In addition to what's pictured, we went to a swing dance, went out on the town with friends, wandered through botanical gardens, saw a Polish festival, and had a fantastic time catching up with our friends who had opened their homes for us to stay with them. It is definitely a country that would love to visit again.

The only sour note was our trip back to Tonga. Upon arriving at the Sydney Airport, we were greeted by the customary line of Tongans laden with everything imaginable to take to Tonga. The key difference was that upon arriving at the check-in counter, Virgin Australia informed us that the plane was severely overbooked and overweight, and that we had been bumped from the flight for a much longer flight through Auckland New Zealand later that night, along with 9 other unfortunate souls who also weren't given a choice. No amount of protest worked, but they did (reluctantly) give us plenty of meal vouchers and flight credits. After another 4 hours in Sydney and 9 hours in a deserted Auckland airport in the wee hours of the morning, we finally made it onto a flight to Tonga and arrived here 14 hours later than originally planned. But we were in one piece, and it was a pleasure to take the connecting Air New Zealand flight after not ever wanting to fly Virgin again! Despite that, nothing can take away our wonderful memories of Australia.


Our exhausting Virgin Australia experience flying back to Tonga

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