Sydney or Melbourne?

Most Aussies (and foreigners alike) would take sides on the controversial “Sydney vs Melbourne” debate. Australia’s two biggest cities are constantly scrutinized and compared to feed the discussion between Sydneysiders and Melbournians.

Having visited both, I conclude that Sydney and Melbourne aren’t THAT different. They’ve both got a tick over four million residents. They’ve both got a dense CBD, trendy inner city ring and sprawling, endless suburbs. Both cities also share very expensive prices.

Surely, Sydney makes a better postcard. The views of the harbour are just impressive. And the opera house is probably the best-known landmark in the country. It is fashion and glamorous. The old bridge across the harbour is a privileged spot to photograph the opera house, harbour and CBD as I did:

Sydney harbour

Sydney harbour

Melbourne’s Yarra River doesn’t sparkle like Sydney Harbour, although it’s pretty nice too. Melbourne’s treasures are somewhat more hidden. Federation Square is home to live music  and fairs. The trendy inner city suburbs host sporting events, festivals and shows. The music, arts and food&drink scenes in Melbourne are world-class. It is a very cosmopolitan city with an interesting racial mix. The old-style trams add to the city’s charm. Finally, Melbourne has been named “the world’s most livable city” by prestigious publications such as The Economist.

Melbourne

Melbourne

Between these two big cities I also stopped in what seemed to be a different world. The city of Wagga Wagga is on the interior of NSW and serves as the main shopping and services hub for neighbouring villages and farms. There are no hostels and it didn’t look like it receives many international visitors. I’d never have gone there had I not found a couchsurfing host willing to invite me to his home (or his little farm) and share his insight of live in that region. And it was definitely worth it!!

We went to dinner at a local pub, sports, gym, zoo and other places. But perhaps the highlight of my visit there was the livestock market. On Thursdays, the animals on sale are sheep, and farmers and wholesalers gather to auction individual lots of sheep. This market is the same concept but completely different to the one I wrote about in Kashgar, China. They move quickly from lot to lot, having inspected the lots beforehand. Traders, farmers and agents in-the-know dress appropriately in their jeans and cowboy-style hats. A different glam to Syd/Melb’s. 🙂

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My host, who was very educated and well-travelled yet proud of his Australian “bush” roots, told me that this is very traditional Australian lifestyle. Before the resources boom, farming and ranching always was the main source of income and jobs in this vast land.

Well, so leaving Wagga aside, you may wonder what side I take in Melbourne vs Sydney. Having been only about a week in both, I can only have an outsider view, but I won´t dodge the issue. My pick (to live): Melb. 🙂 And yours?

Snorkelling in The Great Barrier Reef

Seeing The Great Barrier Reef was undoubtedly one of the highlights of all my round-the-world trip. AWESOME!! 🙂

My trip to the Reef started in Port Douglas, which is way nicer than neighbouring Cairns. The North of Queensland feels like a tropical paradise, with sandy beaches, clear turquoise water and palms. Just have a look of the Four Mile Beach from this lookout:

Four mile beach, Port Douglas

Four mile beach, Port Douglas

From either Port Douglas or Cairns, there are heaps of tours that offer snorkelling or diving in The Great Barrier Reef. I took one of them and from the early morning we sailed towards three different spots in the Reef.

Once we got to the Reef, the crew handed out the snorkelling gear, and so I got prepared with this weird look :):

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Prepared to snorkel

And so it’s time to get into the water and get wet!

That's me getting wet

That’s me getting wet

The first impression under the water was just AMAZING!! I could see everything crystal clear, with such strong and beautiful colours. There were many fish wandering about, also with spectacular colours. I had never snorkelled before and I thought I’d see the colours much less bright and everything vague under salt water, but the truth is that I could spot everything really clear. It really feels like being inside a National Geographic documentary!! 🙂

Clownfish

Clownfish

I encourage all of you to do the same. It is not cheap, but it’s worth it. If you have a higher budget, you can also dive, which is more interesting. Or if you have even more time and budget, there are also multi-day scuba diving courses, and I can’t imagine a better setting for taking one of those!

Exploring the ‘Outback’ in Broken Hill

It’s 6:00 am in Sydney. Half asleep yet, I struggle to make my way to Central Station with my heavy backpack.

Broken Hill Outback Explorer

Broken Hill Outback Explorer

The train I boarded there has an inspiring name: ‘Broken Hill Outback Explorer’. Once per week, it covers the route between Sydney and the mining town of Broken Hill, in the interior of New South Wales. See photo. Okay, it’s just a normal train!!!! :). Not one of these scenic retro trains, but anyway, it took me to Broken Hill after a 14 hour journey.

The train journey itself is half the reason to visit. You encounter an ever-changing landscape: from the tall buildings of the ‘Big Smoke’ (Sydney), through the forest and vegetation still near the coast, to the arid scenery of the ‘bush’ (countryside). After a month in Australia, I had only been to places along the coast, where most people live, but I didn’t want to leave the country without seeing at least a bit of the vast, largely unpopulated ‘outback’.

Landscape from the train

The origins of Broken Hill are traced to the discovery of silver mines in the late 19th century. Here, the Broken Hill Propietary Company was founded, today known as BHP Billiton, a world giant mining corporation. In just a few years, there were 60 hotels two blocks from the main street. Some of the original buildings are preserved, so the town has a certain feeling of ‘Far West’, which is the main tourist draw today. Most inhabitants still work in mining. There are no buses or any public transport between Broken Hill and neighbouring attractions (as is often the case in Australia), so I rented a bicycle and started exploring.

Broken Hill

Afghan Mosque

Afghan Mosque

What is the last thing you’d expect to find in a town in the Australian outback?? An Afghan mosque!!!! 🙂 As incredible as it seems, this town has an Afghan mosque. The building itself is nothing special and is almost always closed, but I wanted to visit it if only for the surreal.  Apparently, Afghans came to Australia with their camels to help ‘open’ the ‘Outback’, and in 1891 they erected this mosque in the camel camp. Very curious.

Near Broken Hill lies Silverton, a small town that the Lonely Planet refers to as “an absolutely obligatory visit”. I started cycling that way, and after just a few minutes a vehicle coming in the opposite direction stopped and an old guy offered to put my ‘push-bike’ (bicycle) in his pickp-up and take me to Silverton. I told him I would cycle, but as he insisted I finally went with him. Later, I realized he had saved my life, because Silverton was farther than I imagined and the temperature quickly surged to unbearable heat. I spent the next 2 hours with this old man, who said I helped him “fill in the day” 🙂 Seriously, outside of the big cities people are really friendly and will get out of their way to help you. The only problem was that I didn’t understand ANYTHING of what he said. In one month in Australia I hadn’t had any major problem to communicate with my imperfect English, but the accent of old people from ‘the bush‘ is really hard!

Silverton Hotel

So we arrived to Silverton. This village is no more than a handful of houses. It developed first, but after the mines in Broken Hill were discovered, people moved there and Silverton was left almost a ‘ghost town’ until today. It has been the setting for several movies, including Mad Max. The best known building (although it was pretty empty) is the Silverton Hotel, which displays some of the vehicles used in the filming of those movies. It’s quite scenic, but if I had to pedal all the way there it wouldn’t be worth it. 🙂

Silverton

After that, the old man drove me to the a historic mine, and back to town.

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Display of old mining equipment

It was a short visit to Broken Hill. However, if you go to Australia it is very advisable to go somewhere in the interior, to get a feeling of a completely different lifestyle, opposed to the ‘beach culture’ in the coast.

Wine and prisons in Western Australia

I first arrived in Australia at Perth, the capital of the huge state of Western Australia. The region is experiencing rapid economic growth driven by a surge in mining and resources. That makes its capital a modern boom town. The population has grown in the last few years from what used to be a quiet provincial capital. Money flows here…the streets are really clean, there’s lots of grass and free wifi in the parks. Still, most of the city are low-rise suburbs and I got the impression that the gleaning CBD was something that just didn’t belong in such a place.

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Perth

Just South of Perth is Fremantle, a small and nice town popular for its beach, pubs and cafes.

In Fremantle I had the first opportunity to explore an important element of Australian history: a prison. Actually, English convicts were among the pioneering Australian settlers. Today, many Aussies can still trace their roots to convicts.

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Fremantle prison

Cell in the prison

Cell in the prison

Fremantle prison shows what prison life was like in the 19th and 20th centuries. They maintain some of the cells from different periods intact. Well, they got somewhat better with time, but not much. Living conditions in the prison were hard. The guided tour covers all aspects of prison life, from the cells or kitchen to lashes or the gallows, where some of them ended their days.

Moving away from the capital, I spent a few days in a rather different environment, Margaret River. This region is famous throughout Australia and internationally for its wines. I bought a bottle and it was pretty good. Outside town you find vineyards time and again.

All the backpackers I met there were working or looking for work in the vineyards or restaurants in the area. Unlike anywhere else I’ve been to, in Australia 90-95% of the backpackers I meet are working with a one-year Working Holiday Visa. They work in one place for 1-2 months, then continue travelling, settle in another place for other 1-2 months and so on, managing to fund their travels by working. A lot of European youths do that, gaining an interesting life experience while improving their English. Unfortunately, this visa is not offered to Spanish passport holders :(.

Vineyards in Margaret River

Vineyards in Margaret River

But other than the vineyards, Margaret River is also a place with a beautiful natural environment, and I took my time to do some hiking around. I also visited some of the caves famous around the region, with huge stalactites and stalagmites!

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Margaret River