Former FMCA president Charlie Atkinson and his wife, Marcia, relive their dream vacation. First stop: Australia.
By Charlie and Marcia Atkinson, L10327
Before and during FMCA’s 2001 summer convention in Redmond, Oregon, people would ask us what we would be doing with our free time once Charlie’s tenure as FMCA national president was completed. Fortunately, we had an immediate answer. For several months prior to the convention, we had been planning our dream trip.
We were going to take a five-week journey to Australia and New Zealand. Even after the tragic events of September 11, we decided that we should go through with our plans. Fellow travelers in the tour group felt the same way; no one canceled for that reason.
We chose a tour from Bill LaGrange’s Creative World Rallies and Caravans, C1350. We had participated in Bill’s 2000 New Year’s Pasadena Rose Parade Rally and knew his reputation for conducting top-rated tours. In our many years of traveling, we had always made our own tour arrangements, which worked very well. But on a trip such as this, we felt that we should leave the arrangements to professionals. We’re glad we did.
Here are some of our impressions of Australia and some of the people we met there. We hope it will whet your appetite to make this trip or help you dream of your own fantasy vacation. We’ll detail the New Zealand part of our trip in next month’s issue of FMC.
On October 5 we flew to Los Angeles and met most of our fellow tour members at a hotel for an evening of getting acquainted. The next day we departed on a 14-hour flight to Sydney, Australia. The week before our trip, we had found out that the airline we were to use to get around Australia had gone into bankruptcy and was no longer flying. This was one instance when I was glad the responsibility for making arrangements was left to professionals. In a short period of time, Creative World found another airline that was able to keep our itinerary as intact as possible.
After we arrived in Sydney we hopped on another plane and flew to Cairns (pronounced “cans”), Queensland, which is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef in northern Australia. When we arrived, it was early spring in the Down Under. Before arriving in Australia, our perception of the country was that of desert, outback, and bush. But we were surprised to find the northeastern part of Australia covered by vast farmlands where sugarcane is the main crop.
The Great Barrier Reef is the main attraction at Cairns. We took a 45-minute ride aboard a large catamaran to Green Island, a great location to see the reef from both above and below the water. There you can snorkel, scuba dive, or ride in a glass-bottom boat to view the varied fish and coral reef. The Marineland Melanesia on Green Island featured many aquatic animals from the area, including sea turtles and saltwater crocodiles. Marcia was brave enough to hold one of the small crocodiles.
On the fifth day (we actually lost one day when we crossed the international date line on our flight to Australia) we boarded the Kuranda Scenic Railroad and traveled just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean into a mountainous rain forest. The sudden contrast in scenery was unbelievable. Kuranda is an old logging town in the mountains that has been transformed into a tourist shopping area featuring Australian wares. Charlie bought a genuine Australian hat made of kangaroo leather at the Kuranda Heritage Market, and we received our first taste of Australian meat pies, a regular lunch staple.
Nearby was the Rainforestation Nature Park, a sanctuary and display area for koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, saltwater crocodiles, and other Australian animals. Marcia, along with others, took turns petting the kangaroos. We also enjoyed a program by the Pamagirri Aboriginal Dance Troupe. This was followed by spear throwing demonstrations and natives playing didgeridoos, Australian Aboriginal wind instruments. We even learned how to throw boomerangs. Charlie’s first throw went right into the dirt, but his second throw was pretty good. Several in our group bought didgeridoos to take home.
We spent the next day in Cairns enjoying 90-degree-Fahrenheit temperatures (30s Celsius) before flying south to Melbourne, capital of the Australian state of Victoria, where the temperatures were much cooler — nearly the same as what they are in April in the northern part of the United States. In Melbourne, we toured the city on buses, and in every case the drivers had fantastic personalities and a wealth of stories about the local environs and history. Only the drivers knew how much truth was in those stories, but they were entertaining, nonetheless. Our hotel in Melbourne was across the street from the entrance to Chinatown. So, naturally, a restaurant there was recommended where we enjoyed a great Chinese dinner.
We were told not to miss Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market. It was five or six blocks from our hotel, and turned out to be very similar to a large flea market. For us, it brought to mind the big flea market in Webster, Florida, or the swap meets at the College of the Desert in Palm Springs, California. At the time we were in Australia, the country’s dollar was worth approximately 52 cents in U.S. currency. Needless to say, those in our group purchased a number of Christmas gifts there.
The second evening in Melbourne we boarded a bus and rode to Phillip Island to witness the Penguin Parade, as hundreds of penguins waddled ashore for the evening. On the way, we stopped for a fabulous dinner at Taylor’s Waterfront Restaurant, which looked out over Bass Strait. The highlight of the dinner “” besides the great food “” was the sight of a whale lounging approximately 100 yards offshore, occasionally sounding and showing off his flukes. He kept us amused for the entire dinner, and as we were ready to leave, he swam away.
We then went to the viewing area of Phillip Island Nature Park to see the penguins come ashore. The nightly ritual begins at dusk as the penguins pop out of the ocean and cross Summerland Beach to the sand-dune slopes where they have their burrows.
We watched the penguins come ashore and make their way home for the evening from a brightly lit wooden walkway in the viewing area. We heard continuous chatter among these interesting birds as they reached their burrows. We found it amusing that, after we watched the penguins come ashore, many of them lined up along the boardwalk to watch us walk back to the bus.
Our next adventure started in the city of Adelaide, which is the capital of South Australia. It is also known as the City of Churches and is the only city in Australia that did not start as a penal colony. Part of the tour around Adelaide was a trip to Hausdorff, the oldest of many German settlements in the area. Australia’s wine industry got its start in the Adelaide region.
The Adelaide adventure continued on a riverboat cruise on the Murray River aboard the P.S. Murray Princess. The Murray Princess is a 200-foot-long stern paddle wheeler that is very comfortable and well-appointed. Built in 1976, it is the largest boat on the Murray River. We learned that its size was limited only by the size of the locks on the river that it must pass through.
At first I questioned why we would spend five days of our two weeks in Australia on a river cruise when we could cruise a river in the United States at any time. Well, we did much more than eat and sleep on this cruise, although the food and service were fabulous. The crew on the boat, from the captain on down, was the friendliest and most helpful group of people we have ever met. Not only did they provide super service, but they also entertained us with a variety of features.
We soon found out that the Murray River was really the best way to get to South Australia wine country and enjoy many of the other outback experiences. After we cast off and headed upriver, the captain and some of the crew hosted a cocktail hour and a boat orientation, and gave us our cabin assignments. After an hour or so, the captain pulled up to the left bank, the crew threw some ropes around a couple of trees, and we docked for the night before dinner.
The second day we just laid back and relaxed as we cruised along the Murray River. The scenery was spectacular with the sights of floodplains and steep cliffs constantly changing from one side of the river to the other. We saw many different species of birds. Some of the most fascinating were the cockatoos, which live in little caves that they carve into the soft sandstone cliffs. We spent time that day getting acquainted with some of the other passengers, who were mostly from Australia and New Zealand. The “Aussies” and “Kiwis” offered us much sympathy and support in light of the September 11 tragedy. That night the captain tied up on the left bank of the river at a place called Muldronie Creek. There was nothing there to see except for the ruins of some old dams on the creek, but we had an opportunity to get off of the boat and roam around out in the bush.
There were several locks on the river, and maneuvering through the locks was an interesting operation to watch. The lock keeper controlled the opening and closing of the gates and the water level on a remote-control box on his belt that looked quite a bit like a TV remote control.
During our third day on the river, we passed through the first lock at Blanchetown. We disembarked and got on a bus for a tour of the Barossa Valley, the heart of Australian wine country. We visited three wineries, after which we had lunch at a beautiful homestead estate of an early settler.
After lunch we left for Morgan, where we were to catch up with our boat. This trip was through the outback and bush that most of us picture Australia to be. We stopped at an inn for a spot of afternoon tea and biscuits (cookies) in the town of Mount Mary, population 7.
That evening we were scheduled for a “fancy dress” (costume) dinner on the boat. So when we got to Morgan, we paid a visit to a shop where we picked out our clothing for the evening. Charlie found what appeared to be a railroad conductor’s uniform, and Marcia chose a ladybug costume. We rented the costumes for $5, with the proceeds going to a local health organization.
We donned our costumes and went for dinner. Most of the people on the boat were dressed up, while the remaining passengers were spectators. After dinner we paraded around the dining deck in what resembled a conga line. The captain was to select winners for the best fancy dress, but he said he could not make a decision. So, everyone who dressed received a prize: a Murray Princess patch.
The next evening we tied up at a place called Sunnydale for an Australian barbecue and a night ride through the bush, where we saw wombats and kangaroos in the wild. Most of the animals in Australia (other than kangaroos) are nocturnal and can be seen only at night. We rode in a rather comfortable wagon through the bush, which was towed behind a four-wheel-drive all-terrain vehicle. Our guide shined a very bright spotlight on the elusive wombats. The kangaroos aren’t as shy, and when you find them in a field eating, they just stand there and look back at you.
The barbecue that night was great. The food was prepared on a grill just as it is in the United States. The only difference was the menu. We had steak and chicken, plus kangaroo, crocodile, and emu. Kangaroo tasted very much like steak and was very lean and tender. But it was emotionally difficult to eat kangaroo, especially after seeing several joeys rescued after their mothers had been killed, usually by a car on the road. An organization takes care of these babies and raises them. The orphaned kangaroos cannot be put back into the wild after being raised by humans, but are kept in protective preserves around the country.
The last evening aboard the Murray Princess was the Captain’s Dinner. The crew wore full dress uniforms and they performed a skit they had put together for us. The captain also presented each lady with a corsage.
Our last stop on the Murray River was at the Ngaut Ngaut Conservation Park, a significant Aboriginal archaeological excavation site located in the cliffs along the banks of the river. We also climbed more than 200 steps to the top of the cliff to view an Aboriginal ceremonial site and village, which is being restored by Aboriginal volunteers. It was interesting to view the artwork carved in the cliff walls and to learn about the Aboriginal culture, which has many similarities to that of American Indians.
Returning to Adelaide, we flew to beautiful Sydney, the largest city in Australia with nearly 4 million people. We had a great two-day stay. Highlights included a complete city tour by bus; a stop at the Koala Park Sanctuary; a catamaran tour of the harbor, including a gourmet lunch; a visit to the famous Sydney Opera House and all of the performance areas, and a view of the massive Sydney Harbour Bridge. Near our hotel was the Queen Victoria Building, which occupies an entire city block and houses a large indoor and underground mall. To get around the city, we hopped on the monorail, which we could ride from our hotel around the downtown area all day for an $8 (Australian) pass. We spent a Sunday morning and early afternoon at one of the harbor areas near the convention center. This was a great area for families to walk around, shop, and have lunch. We also got to see a sports car show while there.
Our bus tour took us to numerous Sydney landmarks. We even visited several of the city’s more than 20 public beaches, including the famous Bondi Beach. It was easy to see the effect that Australia’s moderate climate has on the vegetation. Palm trees grow among the oak, pine, and large fern trees. Another feature of this tour was traveling to Olympic Park, home of the 2000 summer Olympics, and viewing all of the venues that are now used by the Aussies for a variety of sports. Not many countries have the open space to build and maintain such a park for the outdoor Olympics.
One of the leading sports in this country, other than Australian Rules Football, is horse racing. Race tracks and horse farms are numerous, and much space in the sport sections of the newspapers is devoted to the latest horse racing results around the continent. Australian newspapers also kept us up-to-date with what was happening in the world, including all of the latest NFL scores.
In fact, we felt very comfortable in Australia. Other than driving on the left side of the road and having everything in metric, it was very much like the United States. In almost every town or neighborhood we saw a number of the big American fast-food restaurants “” McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and KFC “” often, all in a row.
After a final afternoon in Sydney, we boarded an airplane destined for Christchurch, New Zealand, the next and most exciting part of our adventure Down Under. More about that in the next issue of FMC magazine.