Big, brash, boring and full of Pommie-bashers. That's what I thought of Australia... New Zealand; now there's a place I fancy going. But not Australia. They'll be rude and they'll laugh at me behind my back. With prejudice like that, it's no wonder that I didn't enjoy the journey. Twenty-five hours shoe-horned into a middle seat, eating plastic food and watching B-movies, is bad if you're fit. I wasn't. My left arm was fresh out of plaster and my wrist was swollen, semi-rigid and almost useless. You try pulling yourself straight one-handed when you've slipped down half-asleep in a reclining straight-jacket. Half-asleep was the best I could manage as the Redcoat crew kept us under control, closing the blinds to avoid stimulating us with interesting views. Though I didn't known it, I was being prepared for a surprise.
Melbourne airport is no more interesting than any I've seen. It has the usual moving walkways, spiced up with slick posters in polished glass displays. I couldn't afford anything they were advertising. Australians drive on the left, so the airport highway looked much like an English motorway, apart from the palm trees. Then, as the taxi drove out into the countryside, novel scenery and unfamiliar wildlife began to melt my curmudgeonly prejudice. Not only that. The Aussie driver was welcoming. There was a chance that this place might not be bad after all.
"I've been here for a week and I haven't seen a kangaroo".
I was talking to the Scots landlady of a motel in Geelong, and this is the time to tell you that I hadn't paid my own fare to Australia. I'd gone out on a business trip, and my first week had been spent in a remote conference centre. Whilst there, the time I had left between business sessions, meals, course-work and sleep was spent doing physio exercises for my injured wrist. The only significant country sight I encountered was a particularly nasty snake I saw guarding a path in the grounds (I gave way to him, and chose another route). While I was in conference, my wife whiled away the time back in busy Melbourne preparing for the brief holiday we were tagging on to my business trip. Now, I'd come back, so we hired a car and left Melbourne's traffic behind us. At last, we could look at Australia.
"You'll be going through Anglesey on your way to the Great Ocean Road, so make a detour to the Golf Course and I promise you'll see kangaroos".
Mrs MacLandlady was right. Kangaroos bounded across the fairway; they lolled on the greens; they crawled along, one munch at a time, with a gait unlike anything I've ever seen. They lean forward on their pitiful front legs, plant that extravagantly thick tail on the ground, then swing their back legs forward. Apparently they do that because their back legs can't move independently. Monday to Saturday, i'd seen no kangaroos. Now I'd lost count of them. Time to look for koalas.
You may not know this, but the wren is one of Britain's most common birds. But how many have you seen? It's like that with koalas. They're everywhere. I know that, because I kept seeing road signs, just like the ones promising views of deer on British roads. But can you see them? Well, yes, you can. But you've got to get your eyes trained. We trooped off among the eucalypts at a reserve in an extinct volcano called Tower Hill (we had checked that it wasn't smoking). The Reserve map showed this woodland as a favourite haunt of these marsupial cuddlies. We saw eucalypts by the thousand, got stiff necks by staring at forked branches, and gasped with shock when a Large Grey kangaroo bounded unexpectedly across a woodland path. Irritated and footsore, we trudged back to the car and saw one of the elusive creatures in the car park. Then there was another; then a third. We had been all that way and they were hiding back at the start. Mind you. They weren't laughing at us. Koalas don't do anything as energetic as that. They sit in the fork of a tree and they sleep. That's all. If you wait long enough you may see one stretch. If you're really lucky, and really patient, you may even see one eat, or defecate, or walk slowly along a branch. But only for a short way.
If you really want action, look for parrots. Now there's excitement. The off-white ones with the pink heads are called Galahs and regarded as vermin. I like them. They roost by the hundred and take off in whirling flocks like starlings; but I can't see them as pests. How can you hate a creature dressed in such style? Cockatoos behave the same, but more noisily, and their white suits really set off their sulphur coloured Mohican haircuts. For colour, look to the Rosella family. Crimson Rosellas come in smaller groups than the Cockatoos, but steal the scene with their rich red waistcoats and royal blue caps. The Eastern Rosella sharpens up the fashion scene with a bright yellow vest. The most amazing thing is that these snappily dressed creatures live out in the open. No cages, no chains, no perches. These are local birds in their natural habitat; even if the habitat is a park in the middle of a state capital.
Adelaide is the capital of South Australia, and was our final stopover before leaving the island continent. The fast set sneers at Adelaide and heads North East from Melbourne to the bright lights of Sydney. Westward was the way for us, with time to linger, look and breathe in the scenery. We had traversed the Great Ocean Road, with its thundering surf and its unlikely shaped cliff formations, sea stacks and arches. We had trained our binoculars on pelican colonies. We had visited caves and inlets, islands and parks and even a natural rain-forest. The spacious city at journey's end signed off the holiday with a satisfying flourish. Broad streets lined with balconied colonial houses; clean buildings and a wide central park flanking both banks of a clean, well ordered river. My kind of town. Australia is a delight. It has broad, empty beaches. Its interstate roads don't have traffic. Its wildlife is unique and entrancing. We wondered at the scale of the place and the striking differences compared with our tiny homeland. Our seven day journey had taken us just one inch across the map of this enormous country which welcomes Pommie tourists with honest, down-to-earth warmth. We will return.