The Perks of Being a Travel Editor: Australia
Our Travel Editor gets to swan off to the other side of the world. Once he's renewed his passport after a four year-lull, that is. "It's a 'press' trip, not a 'free' trip," he protests. Hmmm... here's the 'press' part!
On behalf of Tourism Australia, the Youth Hostel Association (YHA) and Qantas Airways, I would like to invite you on a ‘Coastal Discovery’ trip to Australia to explore the incredible adventures on offer for backpackers, gap year students and working holiday makers. We would love for you to join us on the trip, starting in the famous harbour city of Sydney in New South Wales, across to the sheer cliffs and canyons of the Blue Mountains, up to the spectacular Great Barrier Reef in Queensland and ending in the ancient rainforests of the Daintree.
As far as unsolicited emails go, this was more unexpected than most. The invitation came courtesy of Tourism Australia, keen to publicise and address issues which have evolved since the economies of Europe and the USA in particular, have hit the skids in the years since 2007. Australia, according to various business confidence studies conducted since, has been the least affected country of the global economic crisis. In theory, this makes it an ideal destination for young workers and backpackers from these isles to escape the current doldrums – and lots do; about 7,000 working visas are issued to Brits every year – but the number of UK citizens leaving permanently every year has also been increasing. In addition, the reversal of fortunes of the respective countries means that casual holidaying, or setting up for a few months, has become a hell of a lot more expensive. So, in short, they want the Brits back, and were prepared to fly me there to help them do it!
I’m not sure why I’d never actually been to Australia before. Without exaggeration, almost everyone in my circle of family and friends has lived there for a while and brief surveys have generally given the experience a thumbs up, to varying degrees. One sister: “I’d move back to Sydney today if I wouldn’t be so far from my friends; other sister: “All the bars are 'trendy' with shit music and ‘surfers’ who have way too many awful tattoos. You never hear anyone say, 'I know this great little place.' There are no ‘great little places' in Sydney. The rest of the country is fantastic though.”
Others bemoaned the apparent homogeneity of the culture, the comparative shallowness of the barbecue and beer (although if we had that option all the time would we really turn our noses up at it?) while another made the observation that it was a more egalitarian and less class-anxious society than here (wouldn't be hard), where respect for individuals, whether they worked in the service industry or anywhere, was much more forthcoming. Australia, it seems, has no ‘plebs.’
Perhaps such a wealth of ‘secondary’ experience meant that there was no innate burning desire to experience first-hand what I knew from anecdote (and Sons and Daughters) would be an amazing country to experience – I was happy to have experienced it vicariously, until this opportunity came knocking. The trip, which included three other journalists from the UK, had been truncated for organisational reasons to just six days, and of course, it’s not supposed to be possible to develop an affinity with a country’s character in that space of time. But the organisers were determined to give it their best shot; easing us in luxuriously by granting access to the Qantas executive lounge (pleasant surroundings, but with free food and beer to really add to the ambience). In many senses, that pre-flight chill-out was as relaxing as it was going to get, as we spent the next few days ploughing through an elaborately constructed itinerary, executed with near-military precision and taking in a huge variety of activities thousands of miles apart.
Within two hours of landing, we were kitted out in wetsuits, ready for a surfing lesson on Manly Beach. I had been dubious about this one. “Should I sign you up for surfing?” enquired Margo, a couple of weeks before we departed. “Absolutely. Does it matter that I can’t really swim? I'm not afraid of water, just shit at being in it?” “Nah, the water’s shallow, you’ll be right.” One serious riptide later and I really did struggle, though the relief of finally hitting the sand afterwards was almost worth it in terms of euphoria after the previous (probably only 45 seconds worth, but seemed a lot longer) episode of pandemonium. Margo’s later reaction, with classic Aussie candour: “Not as shallow as I thought it would be. Sorry.” Snorkelling just above the Great Barrier Reef was possibly a predictable highlight (not scared, incompetent, remember?) – but the world’s largest organic construction really does live up to the hype in terms of majesty. However, it was the boat ride out there that really stuck in the memory. On a seriously choppy day, as everyone on board tried to outlast each other in terms of succumbing to overwhelming nausea (a fun, if decidedly masochistic game to play) the efficiency of the staff was such that no person was without a fresh sick bag at any one time. It really crystallised my friend’s point about respect for all professions – because here, it was seriously due.
There was also some abseiling from 50-metre high ledges in the spectacular Blue Mountains (not actually a mountain range, fact fans – sandstone plateaux, since you asked) to serve as a not-so-subtle, yet quite exhilarating reminder that New Zealand is not the only Antipodean destination for adventure holidays, and a ride in the spectacular feat of engineering that is the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway which showed that they can construct more than permanent barbies. There were more sedate moments – walking tours around Sydney and Various YHA premises; our other highly personable chaperone, Ted, proving my ‘other sister’ wrong by showing us some ‘great little places’; receiving confirmation after confirmation that Australia deserves its esteemed culinary reputation – which all added up to a wonderfully engrossing and spectacularly enjoyable time for me – so I’m really glad I went, even if it's difficult to transpose this particular experience to Australian life in general. But you knew that already? So now, as well a big thank you to everyone who put the trip together, there’s only one thing left to say. Please go to Australia, tell them The Skinny sent ya!