Australia: A Few Things Oprah Probably Won't Tell You / by Amy Thibodeau

Me in Australia This post is going to sound negative - like I'm trying to convince you that visiting Australia is a bad idea. So let's just clear the air now before we get too far into it: I love Australia and think it is one of the most stunning places in the world. This place - not only a country but a continent - is almost unimaginably vast. From the rugged coastal towns that line the Great Ocean Road, the very European flavor of Melbourne, the big city excitement of Sydney, the turquoise waters and white sands of the endless beaches to the stunning red earth of the interior; if you can't find a landscape that wows you here then you probably can't find it anywhere.

If given the opportunity, I think everyone should experience this magical country. Oprah Winfrey is slated to visit and broadcast her day time talk show from Oz and I have no doubt that once Americans are exposed to some of the stunning landscapes, there will be an increased interest in visiting. I think that's a great thing, even if Australians have mixed feelings on the multi-million dollar price tag the government is spending out of their tourism budget to get her there.

Australia - Water and Storm

Recently, I spent a month and a half in Sydney, Melbourne and some of the country-side of Victoria (the region where Melbourne is located). This was another stop on my year long around-the-world trip following: six weeks in the USA, six weeks in Mexico and six weeks in Canada. Part of what makes this ongoing travel possible is that my partner and I run our own web consultancy and it just so happened that our time in Australia coincided with a great deal of deadline driven work we absolutely needed to focus on. Some of my points below are probably colored by this reality and the fact that we couldn't just kick back and relax. Most people don't need to be tied to a laptop or Internet connection while they are on vacation.

With that disclaimer in place, for better or for worse, here are a few things I wish I'd known before visiting Australia:

Australia is incredibly expensive.

I wasn't expecting Australia to be cheap, but I thought it would be in line with average living costs in Canada and certainly a bit less expensive than London (UK). Out of everywhere I've visited this year, including my London home and Tokyo (where I am now), Australia was by far the most expensive place to find accommodations, to eat, to drink and for miscellaneous expenses.

We rented a fairly large private room in a family home in the bustling St. Kilda area of Melbourne for a month at the cost of $350 (Australian Dollars) per week. Although this certainly falls within the realm of what we would expect to pay in cities like London, Vancouver and Tokyo, in those other locations we've been able to find a complete (albeit small) self-contained apartment for around the same price. In Melbourne we regularly passed a dingy looking hostel where a private room ran visitors $80 a night. Unless you were willing to stay in a dorm room with strangers, the cost was on par with what one generally expects to pay for a budget hotel.

Although there were some genuinely good deals to be had on food (more on that later), overall we found the price of eating or drinking out to be much higher than in other countries. One Sunday morning we decided to go in search of brunch. We did our research and went to a St. Kilda cafe called Las Chicas - we'd heard that the food was good and affordably priced. After we were seated and presented with the menu we were fairly stunned. A muffin was over $4 and a poached egg on toast was around $10. We eventually settled on two breakfast burritos that included scrambled eggs, bacon, salsa, guacamole and cheese inside a flour tortilla. It was delicious but at $18 each with no sides or beverages included, it was no bargain. As we wandered around the neighborhood, these kinds of prices seemed fairly standard and what's more, no one seemed to mind much because most places were packed. I have so many examples of being floored by restaurant and food prices such as: Daneli's Kosher Deli where a plain hamburger with no sides costs $15, and Argy Bargy, a pub where two pints of domestic beer cost us $18. We quickly created a rule of not eating or drinking anywhere that didn't have a menu with prices posted out front.

My friend Marnie, who lives in Melbourne, pointed out that there are ways of eating and drinking more affordably in Australia but you need some insider knowledge. Some of the top things that saved us some money:

  • Taking advantage of the beautiful, abundant food at the local markets - produce and meat are considerably cheaper there than in grocery stores.
  • If you're looking for a substantial, delicious meals on the cheap - go ethnic. North Richmond in Melbourne has an almost endless array of really wonderful Vietnamese restaurants all at reasonable prices. Similarly China Town and Tattersalls Lane in particular in Melbourne has some great dumpling restaurants where you can have a giant and tasty meal for about $6 per person.
  • Cleanskin is a wine shop chain that offers really good quality wines at very affordable prices. You can get a reasonably tasty bottle for as low as $3 and if you buy in bulk, it gets even cheaper. And it doesn't taste like piss.
  • Many restaurants have special nights where they'll have some kind of a deal on offer. Keep an eye out for these. Banff is a local pub on Fitzroy street in Melbourne; they serve cheap beer (particularly between the hours of 3 and 6 pm, where you can get a pitcher for about $8) and make really lovely little pizzas which are on offer all day on Mondays for $5 each.

Tourist attractions like museums and zoos are also very pricey. To take the ferry to the Sydney Zoo and spend an afternoon there, it cost us $100. And that doesn't include the soggy, sub-par fish and chips we ate there for $12 each.

Prices Vary Wildly - You Must Shop Around

One of the most surprising things for us was the very wide discrepancy in prices from store to store. You could visit one news agent to find that they wanted $3 for a can of coke only to go to the guy just across the street and find that he only charged $1.50. During our time in Australia, I think the most expensive price I saw for a can of coke was about $3.50 and the cheapest was $1. The median price was probably somewhere around $1.75. Chocolate was similarly pricey and depending on the shop, you could easily end up spending as much as an extra $2 for a simple Dairy Milk. Water was possibly the most overpriced and a small bottle could rarely be acquired for less than $2 and could be priced as high as $4 for the same brand depending on location. Street vendors were usually the cheapest option for anything snack or beverage related.

When planning a road trip outside of one of the larger cities, be aware that prices in rural areas tend to be much higher and get increasingly more expensive the further out you go. The same can be said for gas - so don't wait to fill up the tank thinking you'll find something cheaper on the road. You won't. During our trip down the stunning Great Ocean Road we stopped at one station that was charging over $1.30 per liter, $3.50 for a standard chocolate bar and $2.50 for a can of pop. In Melbourne gas had been as low as $1.16 in some stations. The same is generally true for food in restaurants - we spent the night in Port Campbell and were hard pressed to find anything for dinner for under $25 per person, even in a working man's club with no table service.

Great Ocean Road

Make Time to Get Out of the Cities

Melbourne and Sydney are the obvious stops for most tourists and they are well worth seeing; but although they are beautiful and full of culture and excitement, they aren't the real reason to visit Australia. The landscapes of the country, the 'red earth' of the interior, the lush tropics further north and the harsh cliffs of the Great Ocean Road are honestly unlike anywhere else in the world. You will find yourself standing on the edge of a hill overlooking a sight like the Twelve Apostles (pictured above) and you will honestly shake your head and blink your eyes, as it slowly sinks in that a place so beautiful actually exists and that you can visit it.

Parrot

The wild life of Australia is strange and stunning - many of their species do not exist anywhere else in the world. But you have to get out of the cities to view most of them. In our travels we were lucky enough to see penguins, wallabies, wombats, kangaroos and koalas - all up close and without the artificial enclosures or screaming school children that are often so distracting in a zoo. Although they are less prominent in the cities, there are some creatures you may be lucky enough to run into like parrots, cockatiels, possums, bats and flying foxes.

Although we weren't terribly lucky with clear skies when we were outside of the bright lights of Sydney and Melbourne, another reason to spend time in the country is star gazing. In the southern hemisphere, the sky looks completely different than it does for those of us from north of the Equator. It's something to take note of and take in.

The Internet is Unreliable

We had almost endless difficulties with accessing the Internet while we were in Oz, which really surprised us given how cosmopolitan both Sydney and Melbourne feel. Thinking back, I still shake my head and wonder how people maintain web-based careers given our experiences there.

The first thing and probably the most crucial for us was that we found the web much slower in Australia then anywhere else we'd experienced except for possibly Mexico. Our home network was alright, but the speed in public places like libraries or Internet cafes made working nearly impossible. It was slow, like 1995 slow.

There also seems to be a bit of a lack of finesse about dealing with Internet-based problems. Banff pub (the place with the lovely pizzas and cheap beers) also advertise themselves as being one of the few places with free and reliable Internet in Melbourne. Despite the fact that their free wireless even has its own tab on their website and that they promote it fairly enthusiastically, when we went to use it we were told that they no longer offer the service because some guy in an apartment nearby was using their connection constantly to download porn. When I asked them if they thought about password protecting it to ensure only patrons could use it they shrugged. When I suggested they might amend the information on their website, they shrugged. The info is still on their website where it continues to say: "Technical issues may cause connectivity problems - this may result in a disruption to the service. However, you can be assured these will be corrected ASAP should they occur, and hey, it's free!"

We experienced a similarly frustrating response at the State Library in central Melbourne. We'd spent the better part of a week working there when all of a sudden it became obvious to us that for some reason their system had locked us out of being able to search the web beyond the State Library's own website. We tried talking to the librarian who told us that they offer no technical support for the free web service (because, hey, it's free) and that we would need to email their technical department. After waiting over a week for an answer we received a canned response that told us to contact our computer's manufacturer. It just seemed like either no one cared about web access or that even the people in charge didn't really understand how to make things work properly.

We spent an entire day wandering around Sydney's city centre trying to find a reliable Internet connection. We probably tried five or six advertised hot spots only to give up because either the connection was down or it took many long minutes to load a single page.

Hotel Basics

Unlike hotels in the rest of the world, check out time from most hotels in Australia is almost always at 10 am. Yes, that's right, not eleven, not noon and certainly not 1 pm. 10 am. And if you want to sleep in, you often have to pay a late fee for it, which can range anywhere from $20 an hour to much, much higher. Some hotels will even charge you an hourly fee if you want to store your baggage if, for example, you have an entire day to kill before heading to the airport for a flight.

The Internet is also very rarely complimentary in hotels and is often quite expensive. The cheapest rate we paid for Internet in Sydney was $12 for 24 hours and it was an almost uselessly slow connection. The most we paid was $24 for a 24 hour period. It's also worth noting that this fee is only good for one device, so unless you are adept at sharing Internet between computers or to your mobile device - it will only work on one machine.

It's not a bad idea to look into these kind of incidental costs before booking your room. You may think you've found a good deal, but it could possibly end up costing you more once you add up the hidden fees.

Public Transportation is Good But Know Where You're Going

In the list of things that matter to me about big cities - solid, affordable public transportation is very high on my list. As a non-driver, a great network of trains and busses makes me feel free, like I'm in charge of my destiny and I don't need to rely on anyone to drive me around.

Both Sydney and Melbourne have great public transportation systems. Sydney is connected by a wonderful range of trains, buses and even ferries and it's all relatively affordable. Melbourne is really advanced in this area as well - the trams in particular make getting around and seeing something of the city easy.

My advice regarding public transport in Australia is use it because it's great *but* make sure you look things up before heading out. We found that there was a surprising lack of real-world user information: bus and tram stops rarely had maps, they often don't announce stops (so you have to guess where you are and when to request a stop) and even on the underground, if you don't already know the name of your train's final orienting destination, it was very much a matter of guess work to try and work out where to go. This is all made more confusing by the fact that certain trams and trains only run on some days of the week or at certain times. Somehow, you are mostly expected to just know this.

After a week in Melbourne, we caught on very quickly and began to take for granted that there really was very little user information for the public transportation. Once you know how the system works, it's wonderful. While you're getting familiar with things, however, it's good to do your research before heading out (that is, if the Internet is working..)

Added: Dan suggested I also mention a great app called Tram Tracker that allows you to enter the details of your Melbourne tram to as a way of situating it in real-time.

It Gets Cold

I admit to being an ignorant tourist and believing that Australia (the entire continent) is always hot. While I'm sure this holds more true for the tropical regions of the country, it is definitely not true of Sydney and particularly the Melbourne area, which can have quite a European climate outside of their summer season. We were in Melbourne from early September until early October and it was freezing. Not middle of Canada in February cold, but it was certainly as cold as January or February in London can be: wet, windy and bone chilling.

Australia Beach

During spring and fall, the weather in the coastal areas can change very abruptly. In Melbourne they often joke about having four seasons in a day - and we experienced that first hand. It was very common to wake up to beautiful sunshine, then half an hour later it was windy and pouring rain, then ten minutes later the sun would be out again but the wind would be strong off the ocean causing the temperature to drop, and then by dinner it was 20 plus degrees ... Unless you are visiting in summertime, make sure to pack a very diverse wardrobe and plan for the wet and the cold.

Added: Great suggestion in the comments by Jackie. People from the northern hemisphere will want to note that Australia is one a different schedule of seasons from the one you're used to. Roughly speaking - November to February is summer, March t0 May is autumn, June to September is winter, September and October are spring. Make sure you research the weather before making travel plans.

In Closing

Even if I'd known about all of these things before visiting Australia, I still would have wanted to go. None of these are reasons to not visit the country, but they are things that, if you know about them in advance, hopefully you can prepare for. Knowing what I do now, I think I would have done a better job of planning my work accordingly and budgeting more appropriately for my time there.

Anything to add? Please leave a note in the comments.