(Not quite) on the other side of the third rock from the sun

Most Australians were horrified to hear that I would only be giving their country a fortnight, and utterly flabbergasted when they heard of my plans to spend more time in neighbouring New Zealand than in the fair land Down Under.

Needs must, however, and I made plans to skim across the surface of the Eastern Australian seaboard, using unsuspecting friends in the major cities as reference points and refuge stops.

Blossoming Brisbane, Sassy Sydney, Mellow Melbourne

It was my Melbourne host, Howard who summed up the Australian dilemma most succinctly, responding to my inquisitive probing with a straightforward explanation as we sat in one of the city‘s many trendy coffee bars.

“Mate. You have to understand – the real economy here is based on a couple of things. One, we dig some bloody big holes which make us money by keeping our Asian cousins happy, and Two, we’ve realised that actual building work – labouring – is about the only thing that can’t get outsourced to China…”

It was a typically laconic Australian analysis, and backed up some of what I had been seeing over the past fortnight as I worked my way down the coast.

First stop, Brisbane. Unwittingly, I timed my arrival with the blossoming of the beautiful lavender blue jacaranda trees along the tree-lined cul-de-sacs of this emerging city. Over a wonderful family dinner in the city’s Highgate Hill area, I started to understand that Brisbane is a city (and Australia is a country) still very much in formation as power shifts East. Brisbane itself is attracting migrants from within and without Australia by the bucket-load, an estimated 1800 a week, as the city adjusts to the opportunities that the Chinese economic juggernaut presents. I suspect that, hand-in-hand with this economic gold (coal) mine there will also be political challenges over the next couple of decades as cultures rub up against each other, but all that can wait. Today, the money is flowing.

It is one of the beauties of travelling that brief encounters on the road can lead to life-long friendships. In Sydney, I spent three days catching up with someone I met 15 years ago in Northern Pakistan. Despite four children in the interim, we slipped into easy conversation as if we were still sipping chai by the river in Gilgit.

I arrived late, and took a bus up to the Northern beaches, an area known as the “Insular Peninsula”. This meant that I had the privilege to approach Sydney proper in the best possible manner – by boat, on the ferry from Manly. As we rounded the headland into the magnificent natural harbour, the Opera-house and the Bridge swung into view. Sydney it is a city with a swagger – a see-and-be-seen city still basking in the reflected glory of the 2000 Olympics. Despite the never-ending traffic problems, it wasn’t hard to see why this is a city consistently in the lists of those with the highest standards of living. The relaxed atmosphere of the Northern beaches so close to the city give it a unique feel.

And so to Melbourne. With the heritage of free settlers and the Victorian Gold Rush in the 19th century, Melbourne feels more international than either Brisbane or Sydney. 20th century migrants from Europe – Greeks and Italians in particular – have retained many elements of their national identities, lending a cosmopolitan feel to the streets. Add to this a proliferation of achingly cool hipsters hanging out in cafés and you have a mellow, earthy city glorying in its distinction from Sassy Sydney.

2 weeks was never going to be enough time for the Australian continent. But it was fascinating to get a glimpse of what’s going on here. I’ll be back.

“You poor bastard…”

A flight across the Tasman sea, and I was in Christchurch New Zealand.

I arrived after midnight, so it wasn’t until breakfast at the Globe Café on the following morning that I managed a coherent conversation with a Kiwi for the first time. I told the café owner proudly that this was my first meal in New Zealand, and that I was here for three weeks.

“You poor bastard”, the café owner responded.

You have to have a fair amount of confidence in your country to be that self-deprecating.

Within a few hours, I was driving through fresh snow and slate-grey skies on my way into the mountains. A few more hours and I was sitting in a hot spring watching the clouds roll in for the evening over the mountains. Within another day I had been running up a 1000m peak and kayaking on a placid, incredibly beautiful Lake Tekapo. The view from my kayak will remain with me a long time. It’s like Scotland on steroids here.

I’m now in Dunedin on the (not quite diametrically) opposite side of the planet from its namesake, my birthplace. With my hosts here, the intergalactically named Mars and Clouds who I met in India, I’ve been busy aggravating sea-lions on the Otago peninsula, visiting Farmers’ markets in town, and watching dolphins off New Zealand’s John O’Groats (Slope Point). With George Street, Princes Street, Dundas Street, Hanover Street and even Royal Terrace, I could be on the (not quite) other side of the world. My slow transition out of Asia and back into Western life continues.

I head back into the mountains tonight and will do the world-famous Milford Track hut-to-hut for four days, before travelling up the West Coast and on to the North Island in my NZ $1-a-day hire car (20 days for the equivalent of 8 quid). What’s not to love about the Global Financial Crisis?

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Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, Australia and NZ '09

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