Exploring Australia One Bite at a Time

Sydney, Australia
Sydney, Australia.|©iStock/SolStock

As we geared up for our adventure to Australia, the witty punchline to the age-old joke, "How do you eat an elephant?" echoed in my mind. This was continent number six for us as nomads and a place I truly never thought I would go. As a Californian for four decades, I was wrongly told that “Australia is like California, but a decade or so behind.”

The land mass is just smaller than the US at three million square miles, and is the sixth largest country in the world. The biggest difference is that Australians only live in five percent of that area, and forty percent is considered “uninhabitable.” The good news is that, even with its immense size, I had no intention of trying to see it “all,” however that is defined. We had only 11 days to visit, and if we tried to see all of America in that time, we would say, “No way!”

The only region of the country with any significant population is New South Wales, and our possible itinerary of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Canberra got cut in half due to distances. We focused on just two locations: Sydney, the largest city with a population of 5.3 million, which holds almost two-thirds of the nation’s population. It’s also home to incredible beaches and the world-renowned Sydney Opera House. Even as a non-opera lover, I had to see that. And the other spot to visit was Canberra, the capital.

When my wife, Kat, and I spoke about what we wanted to see in Australia, it really boiled down to one word: wildlife.

They have the Great Barrier Reef, the largest reef ecosystem in the world, with great diving and snorkeling, but water sports are not our thing. And we have seen lots of beautiful beaches all over the world during our last five years of nomadic travel. But I have never seen a kangaroo or a koala bear in the wild; they are just two of the 379 mammal species in the country. So when we were invited to visit Jamala Wild Animal Park in Canberra, we both were giddy with excitement.

The genesis of this trip actually started in early 2023 when we were living in Saranda, Albania. I have owned a timeshare in Maui, Hawaii, for 25 years but have not been there for the past six. I proposed to Kat, “Let’s arrange our journey from Europe to return to the US mainland, visit friends and family, and then continue west to the island of Maui.” And that is what we did. The next question was, “Where to from there?”

We have been watching the Repositioning Cruise market for a long time and have wanted to take one of these very long, one-way journeys. They are usually two weeks or longer and travel across the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean. I found a one-way cruise leaving Honolulu, Hawaii, just 10 days after our timeshare period ended, so after much discussion, we decided to stay in Hawaii those extra days, fly to Honolulu, and spend two and a half weeks on the water. (You can read more about this in an upcoming issue of the International Living magazine. Sign up here.).

Five thousand miles, too many time zones to count, one crossing of the equator as well as the International Date Line, and 18 days later, we awoke before dawn to look out our porthole and see the iconic Sydney Opera House directly behind us.

And that is how day one of our eleven days in Australia started.


Sydney has two significant landmarks: the Opera House, and the Bridge.
Sydney has two significant landmarks: the Opera House, and the Bridge. |©iStock/MEzairi

Over our past five years of travel, we have visited 42 countries and been in countless cities of all sizes. Sydney blew them all away, and even though we were only there for three days, it made such an impression that we will surely return.

The city is clean, friendly, and very easy to navigate. Between signage in English and the very convertible Australian Dollar, which was relatively weak against our American Dollar ($1.00 AUD= $.66 USD), we were able to enjoy affordable lodging at the very cool, trendy QT Hotel, Sydney, as well as meals, but our highlight, aside from touring the grounds of the Opera House, was our climb up the Sydney Harbor Bridge.

Sydney has two significant landmarks: the Opera House, and the Bridge.

The largest steel arch bridge in the world was built from 1923 to 1932 and allowed easy access from the suburbs of Sydney into the city, which was cumbersome to travel before then. The 440-foot-tall structure was a symbol of national pride, and as it was built during terrible economic times, it represented great hope for the future growth of the city. It was also built on aboriginal land from two separate tribes, bringing a sense of unity between the cultures, old and new.

In these more modern times, the bridge provides a wonderful sense of adventure and fun as tourists can climb from one end to the middle of the bridge, reach the highest point, then cross over and return on the other side. Kat had reservations initially due to the intimidating 1332 steps, but over a two-hour period, we, along with about a dozen brave souls, dressed in our bright blue one-piece uniforms, donned hats, and wireless headsets, and enjoyed the walk of our lives!

The Sydney Opera House, with the Royal Botanic Gardens visible in the distance.
The Sydney Opera House, with the Royal Botanic Gardens visible in the distance.|©iStock/simonbradfield

The view from the top, especially looking at the famous Opera House, was a bit surreal, and it will be a memory that will never fade. As it turned out, her fears about heights and too much exertion proved groundless, and she enjoyed the walk immensely.

A little less exciting, but just as beautiful, was strolling along the famous harbor walk and visiting the Botanical Garden, and our sense of Sydney was that there was so much more to see that we would not have time for. The open space 74-acre garden adjoins the Opera House and skirts the city itself. The free park allowed us to see wild parrots and scores of other birds, as well as beautiful flowers and plants, and we were told that 80 percent of all the flora and fauna are unique to this country.

And Beyond…

We knew our time Down Under was limited, so all too quickly, it was time for stage II: renting a motorbike and riding south along the coast, and then onward to Canberra, where we had another adventure awaiting us. Unfortunately, my communication with the rental company was not very clear, and instead of picking up a roomy sports touring bike, we got a high-powered Ducati sports bike. That’s not always a problem, but we had no bags or boxes to carry luggage, no windshield for cold protection, and a skinny seat that could handle an anemic teen’s butt, but we were testing our much larger ones!

Kiama is an coastal town south of Sydney.
Kiama is an coastal town south of Sydney. |©iStock/Kokkai Ng

My brave wife endured, and we ventured south to the town of Como, then through Kiama, home of a famous blowhole, and then, on day two, stayed in a very rural Tomerong in a ranch house in the middle of the woods. And that was where we finally saw our first native kangaroos.

How exciting it is to sit on the back porch, not unlike a Ponderosa from the Bonanza TV show, and watch the mom and her little joey enjoying a patch of vegetation. This is also where we got a taste of the beautiful and very noisy birdlife, especially their prolific Sulfur-Crested Cockatoo. Oh my goodness, talk about a squawk box.

Our plan was to go directly from Tomerong to Canberra, but due to the uncomfortable seat and 51 F temperatures, we decided to take an extra day and ventured south to Surf Beach, which was so worthwhile. A quiet (in the off-season) seaside village, this cute town was just the respite we needed before our last three-hour leg to the capital city the following day. Due to the cold, we took a rest stop in the Old West village of Braidwood and then into Canberra, but the journey was so beautiful that we ignored the cold. Some of the trees and the foliage were so different than the Northern Hemisphere, and it was so verdant and pristine.


Canberra is the capital city of Australia.
Canberra is the capital city of Australia. |©iStock/Daniiielc

Over my years of travel and writing, I developed some online friendships with travelers worldwide, and we were cordially invited to stay with a couple in town. We could not ask for more amiable hosts, as they opened their homes (and yummy kitchen) to us for several days and toured us through the Parliament House, National Library, and National Arboretum. Their intimate knowledge of the town gave us a feel for Canberra, and we decided that this was also a town worth revisiting. It is much smaller, less busy, less chaotic than Sydney, and with a great vibe.

Then, it was time for the pièce de resistance: an overnight stay at Jamala Animal Park, including a room in the Giraffe Treehouse.

This resort adjoins the Canberra Zoo and, since 2014, has invited guests to stay in rooms with either lions or giraffes just a few feet away. Along with that unique experience, we were escorted through the zoo and fed rambunctious meerkats and flighty native birds, and to top it off, we were able to spend time with three cheetah brothers inside their pens.

Overall, that stay at Jamala and the Bridge Climb left indelible marks in both my and Kat’s memories. We stayed two more days at a more normal QT Hotel, Canberra, and got more acclimated in this big, small town. Eminently navigable, easy to get around, yet full of life and vibrant energy. I’m not usually a museum person, but the three hours I spent at the National Museum of Australia were eye-opening in so many ways, from the lengthy history of the country to the unique animal and plant life.

Eating the Rest of the Elephant!

All things must end, and fortunately, our ride back to Sydney was a shorter route with just one overnight stay in another seaside village called Shellharbour, which was nearby and yet another attraction I wanted to experience. Staying there was not by accident since I had an agenda on my way back into town, but my plan was a miserable fail…

 The Sea Cliff Bridge along the Grand Pacific Drive.
The Sea Cliff Bridge along the Grand Pacific Drive.|©iStock/Ross Tomei

It’s called the Sea Cliff Bridge, and it’s a highlight along the Grand Pacific Drive, which was my intended route back. Pictures of this bridge, which juts out and over the ocean, caught my attention, and I had to drive it. It was built 25 years ago and starts outside the interestingly named city of Wollongong. But, sometimes, all it takes is one missed turn, which I did, and it wasn’t till I was too far along to turn back to realize it.

Next time.

With 50 countries behind us, Kat and I both know which ones we wish to return to and with 100 percent certainty, Australia is on that list.

Eleven days was enough to bite off these few stops, but Brisbane and the Gold Coast are must-sees in the north, and Melbourne and Adelaide in the south. As a person who was raised in the Northern Hemisphere, the idea of going to Melbourne and being just a few thousand miles from Antarctica is titillating! We will probably not make it to the South Pole, but that may be close enough for us.

As we were planning our trip, we had little interest in Perth, to the far west, Queensland, or the Northern Territories. “There’s nothing there!” I mistakenly thought, but I was schooled by many who raved about the tropical places in the north, along with the lack of crowded spaces. “G’day” is the greeting they offer, and everyone is a “mate,” so how can we say no to their invitations?

Aside from the scenery, unvisited cities, and animals not seen, there is another factor: the people we met.

On our one-way cruise of 18 days, we were in the minority as Americans, and almost 90 percent of the passengers were Aussies, or Kiwis, from New Zealand. And we have never met a more friendly and cordial bunch of people. Without reservation, without any awkwardness, we were invited to visit many of them, and they would have a bed waiting for us. They were all sincere, and we truly created lifelong friendships in just a few weeks.

There are six states in Australia, plus two territories, and we barely scratched the surface of one: New South Wales. Whether you are able to visit Australia for a week, a month, or longer, I encourage you to add it to your list.