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The Outback: Not Just a Steakhouse

Sydney Opera House, Ayers Rock, Great Barrier Reef and that nut Steve Irwin stalking crocodiles (“Isn’t she a beaut?”) is what many people picture when they think of Australia. Yes, there are those things (unless Irwin is out irritating wild animals in another country), but there is so much more to the ‘Land Down Under.’

While airfare to Sydney or Melbourne isn’t exactly cheap by standards of budget travel, it’s well worth the 14-hour flight (from LA) and higher fares to get to the warm, sunny beaches of Oz. There is nothing like a good tan to help beat the “winter blahs” as Mother Nature dumps heaps of snow on New England. Plus, once you’re there, the currency exchange rate is a blessing, working in favor of the American dollar 2-1.

Accommodation is absurdly cheap with hostels starting around 10 USD a night. These aren’t roach motels either, many through New South Wales and Queensland could rival an average hotel in the U.S., with separate bathrooms and/or kitchenettes. Transportation is also easy enough to come by without emptying the wallet whether you go by bus, train or even leasing/buying a car.

And the shopping…Torquay in Victoria is a ‘must’ for any surf junkies. It is home to the Ripcurl headquarters as well as the best surf outlet shopping. Here you can get more than your fill of Billabong, Rusty, Roxy, O’Neill and other surf brands as you travel the coast.

Australia is roughly the size of the continental U.S., a fact that often eludes the minds of well-meaning travellers who think they can see it all in a couple weeks. If you’re studying overseas, it is possible to see a sizeable chunk of the country by breaking up the sights into smaller treks.

A great long weekend trip is to Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world. The title is a bit deceiving because while there certainly is a lot of sand, there are also large bits of land covered in dense forest. You definitely will be digging sand out of your shorts for days, however. The best way to see Fraser is to take a 4-wheel drive self-drive journey. It’s cheaper and allows more flexibility than a guided tour during the 3-day stay on the island.

What could be more amusing than a group of 6-9 people who have no idea how to drive a 4WD around sand dunes and thickly vegetated areas? By the end of the trip, after being thrown about the 4WD, chasing dingos away from your campsite and getting up at 6am to hike to the top of Indianhead to watch dolphins and sea turtle glide through the water at sunrise, you’ll have a new group of international friends.

Many people don’t have endless vacation or travel time but if you’ve got more than a week or two, hop on the Oz Experience. This “Adventure Transport Network” offers more than just a bus pass to get you all around the country, without the feel of an organized tour (which are often reminiscent of a high school field trip with set itineraries of things to see and do). Sure, it has its cheesy moments (bus drivers have a weird fascination with playing that song by the Scottish twins, “500 Miles” and singing along with it), but thankfully, those are few and far between and what you get is an easy way to navigate the country and meet a wide variety of other travellers.

Oz Experience prides itself on having bus routes all around the country that allow you to experience off-beat attractions that most people never see. One stop on the East Coast pass is at Dingo, a cattle station in the middle of nowhere. Here you can spend a day making your own digeridoo under the supervision of an Aborigine who will help cut down a tree, sand and paint authentic Aboriginal designs on the didge. The station also offers sapphire mining and evening entertainment complete with tug of wars, drinking with cowboys and dancing on tables (picnic tables that is, and it is strangely encouraged by the staff.)

Of course, there’s the “big red rock” in the middle of the Outback which is not to be missed, as well as odd activities in Sydney such as climbing the Harbour Bridge – as part of a group, that is. No renegade rock climbers here. Whether you focus on the uninhabited bits of the country or swanky club scene of the cities, Australia is a destination that will make this winter memorable.

October 28, 2002
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