Australia is the world's sixth largest country and its largest island. It is the only island that is also a continent, and the only continent that is also a country. It was the first continent conquered from the sea, and the last. It is the only nation that began as a prison.
It is the home of the largest living thing on earth, the Great Barrier Reef, and of the most famous and striking monolith, Ayers Rock (or Uluru to use its now official, more respectful Aboriginal name). It has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world's ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures - the funnel-web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick and stonefish - are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you but actually sometimes go for you. Pick up an innocuous coneshell from a Queensland beach, as innocent tourists are all too wont to do, and you will discover that the little fellow inside is not just astoundingly swift and testy, but exceedingly venomous. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or let to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It's a tough place.
And it is old. For 60 million years, since the formation of the Great Dividing Range, Australia has been all but silent geologically, which has allowed it to preserve many of the oldest things ever found on earth - the most ancient rocks and fossils, the earliest animal tracks and riverbeds, the first faint signs of life itself. At some undetermined point in the great immensity of its past -perhaps 45,000 years ago, perhaps 60,000, but certainly before there were modern humans in the Americas or Europe - it was quietly invaded by a deeply inscrutable people, the Aborigines, who have no clearly evident racial or linguistic kinship to their neighbours in the region, and whose presence in Australia can be explained only by positing that they invented and mastered oceangoing craft at least 30,000 years in advance of anyone else in order to undertake an exodus, then forgot or abandoned nearly all that they had learned and scarcely ever bothered with the open sea again.
It is an accomplishment so singular and extraordinary, so uncomfortable with scrutiny, that most histories breeze over it in a paragraph or two, then move on to the second, more explicable invasion - the one that begins with the arrival of Captain James Cook and his doughty little ship HMS Endeavour in Botany Bay in 1770. Never mind that Captain Cook didn't discover Australia and that he wasn't even a captain at the time of his visit. For most people, including most Australians, this is where the story begins.
The world those first Englishmen found was famously inverted - its seasons back to front, its constellations upside down - and unlike anything any of them had seen before, even in the near latitudes of the Pacific. Its creatures seemed to have evolved as if they had misread the manual. The most characteristic of them didn't run or lope or canter, but bounced across the landscape, like dropped balls. The continent teemed with unlikely life. It contained a fish that could climb trees; a fox that flew (it was actually a very large bat); crustaceans so big that a grown man could climb inside their shells.
In short, there was no place in the world like it. There still isn't. Eighty per cent of all that lives in Australia, plant and animal, exists nowhere else. More than this, it exists in an abundance that seems incompatible with the harshness of the environment. Australia is the driest, flattest, hottest, most desiccated, climatically aggressive of all the inhabited continents. (Only Antarctica is more hostile to life.) This is a place so inert that even the soil is, technically speaking, a fossil. And yet it teems with life in numbers uncounted. For insects alone, scientists haven't the faintest idea whether the total number of species is 100,000 or more than twice that. As many as a third of those species remain entirely unknown to science. For spiders, the proportion rises to 80 per cent.
The above extract from
Bill Bryson, Down Under
And this is the country where we boldly went. We actually knew that people who had gone there had also come back, so we did not think it would be too bad. And it wasn't, it was great! It was amazingly great! It was marvellous! It was bloody marvellous!
The flight, we knew, would take us 22 hours plus all the waiting times. That is why we decided to fly business. A good decision it was, too. You can get two suitcases each making the grand total of your luggage 92 kg in addition to cabin luggage, of course. Between the two of us we did not come even close. Flying business is great. Everything is made real easy for you. No queuing. The only minor problem we had was where to find our designated lounge. At Changi in Singapore we found the Qantas business lounge only to be told that we should go to the Qantas first class and premium lounge. Ok, that makes sense! The lounges are great places where you can take a shower, if you so wish, or drink yourself senseless or stuff yourself with food, watch TV, read newspapers etc. Since we are very poor drinkers we decided to try all the vegetarian options they had on offer. Only the Finnair lounge in Helsinki wasn't very good for vegetarian options, but since we had to spend a long time there we noticed that it was getting better and dinner seemed to be OK.
The meal options in Singapore lounge were a bore. They seemed to have the same options all the time, at least they did when we went there going down and coming back. Their special feature was the fast cleaning after the clients. You could hardly put down a plate when it was taken away!
Another thing that got to us were the public announcements, which all began with "Hello everybody!" or rather "Hello evelybody!" After a while it began to sound really funny, like the computer in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's guide to the Galaxy which always went "Hi there".
Our flight from Singapore to Melbourne was a Qantas flight. Airbus A380. Their flagship. They even had a customer service manager (!) on board. One of the reasons why boarding the plane was real slow was because he addressed every passenger by their name. My name was something that he greatly and timeconsumingly struggled with.
The plane was great. Not only did the seats recline to a completely flat position but in addition there was still room for people to walk from one aisle to another between the seats. The service was great but awfully slow. The champagne was great, if you like that sort of thing. Served in a champagne flute. The plates were real plates and the cutlery was not plastic. You had a real menu to choose from. Our meals were specials but they made no bones about changing them into whatever we wanted, which was great.
Most of the time they seemed to be serving us something or other. But when we got a break from eating, the selection of films, games etc was great. So we did not even take out our iPads. Of course, most of the time we found that the best way to pass the time was to go to sleep wearing the pyjamas that they were distributing for people to change into.
So after a good breakfast we were ready to take on Melbourne almost refreshed.
It took us ages to get through the passport control although we had our express lane card. There were heaps of (like Aussies seem to say) people, since our flight was a bit late and a flight from China had just got in before us. It was hot and the clothes we wore were completely unsuitable for queuing in that heat, but in the end we got through and were welcomed to Melbourne.
At the airport we had to find what they called the 1-minute pickup zone. It was easy since we had downloaded the Apple app of Tullamarine Airport. We phoned our car rental people to come and pick us up. We had rented a car at home just to make sure we got what we wanted. Rental cars are also cheaper online. We used izzyrent.com, which had very good references and actually ended up calling them before completing the actual transaction of renting a car.
They are based in Slovenia and said that should we have any problems at any time with the rentals they would be online 24/7 to help us. The only snag was that we did not know what company would be responsible for the actual business. You could only see the name of the company, which was actually renting you the car, after you had paid for it. We decided to have a good and roomy car since we would be driving quite lot (i.e. over 2000 km) with our three large suitcases and two smaller bags. The car on special offer was a Mitsubishi Outlander, which turned out to be a good choice. When we knew the name of the company renting us the car, we noticed that it was not at the airport, but that they had a shuttle bus service to come and pick you up at the airport when you phoned them. We arrived very early on Saturday morning and so did a lot of other people. So it took them quite a while to come and get us. At the office the girl at the desk convinced us that the only sensible thing to do was to have an insurance, which would cover nearly everything.
Had we not chosen to get thus insured they would have made a reservation of 3000 Australians dollars on our credit card, which would have considerably limited the amount of money we would have been able to use while in Oz. Not that we expected to use that kind of money anyway, but we did not like the idea of them being in charge of our money and chose to pay $300 extra for the insurance. She also said that the Aussies were bad drivers and took unnecessary risks on the roads. This, we found out later, was not true at all.
So we finally got our car and thanked our lucky stars that we had gone for a roomy car.
We set the SatNav or the GPS, as it seemed to be called in Oz, to take us to our hosts in Melbourne. We got to the second set of traffic lights when the screen went totally black.
Nothing we could do would make any difference, it stayed black. Emerge plan B. iPhone Maps. Just as we had been reading how bad they are. But the app seemed to work and we just hoped that we would not find ourselves in Uluru or Sydney... It wasn't great but we managed to avoid the toll road, which seemed like an awfully expensive $12-fee to pay to gain 5 minutes in time since on a Saturday morning the traffic wasn't very busy. We took the Western Ring Road and headed to St Kilda.
To be continued...