On the 27th of December 2013 I embarked on my first trip outside Europe. I was going to Australia for a month of vacation and I rejoiced in the thought of experiencing summer in the middle of winter.
After two days of flying, lay-offs and airports, the plane landed in Melbourne. Like any other first time traveler to Australia I stretched my nech and stared out the window plane hoping to see kangaroos on the airport grounds. To my disappointment I saw only people.
I spent my first week down under on the Mornington Peninsula, a popular holiday destination for Melbournians. I was amazed by this place: it’s completely designed for fun and relaxation. It has a bit of everything: secluded beaches, water sports, wild animals, hot springs, vineyards and wine tasting, fruit picking farms, scenic walking trails.
Besides being busy with all the fun activities, my first week had a high learning curve. I was getting my mind around all the Ozzie cliches that rolled before me, one by one.
On my first day in Australia I was dying to go to the beach. Partly because going to the beach on a beautiful summer day at the end of December gave me the giggles and partly because I wanted to see those famous beaches with surfers and shark nets.
I went to the beach and the beauty factors were all there: golden sands, turquoise waters but no giant waves and no surfers. It was what they call a safe beach.
That’s when I learnt that beaches are of two kinds: safe beaches usually found in gulfs with very calm waters, free of dangerous waves, perfect for families with children and back beaches, Australia’s trademark.
Back beaches, although not very friendly for swimmers are far more beautiful than the safe ones. Two of them stuck to my heart: Sorrento- that seemed to have fallen out of a wallpaper and the adrenaline pumping Gunnamatta surf beach.
I was also given the lecture about swimming on my first day. Accidents involving tourists are quite frequent in Australia as they either don’t know or stupidly disregard the rules.
Rule no.1: always swim between the flags. If you care about your life this is simply non-negotiable.
Rule no.2: never swim against a wave. It will overpower you, you will get tired and then the possibility of drowning is high. Instead, go with the flow until the wave breaks and the water comes back to the shore.
- Active people
People are very active and outdoorsy in Australia and that is in spite the hot weather and a dozen of lethal animals. From what I’ve seen almost everybody does some sort of exercise on a regular basis, even on vacation.
I can safely say that water sports are preferred, with no.1 rank going to surf. Besides this, you’ve got kite surfing, SCUBA diving, wake boarding, riding sky jets, sailing. They are so passionate about water sports that it’s contagious.
This experience changed the way I feel about going to the beach. I realized that I didn’t make the best out of growing up at the seaside. For me, going to the beach meant tanning, reading, listening to music, maybe napping and a chitchat with my friends. It was fun and relaxing but not really entertaining.
The month spent in Oz I surfed, snorkeled, SCUBA dove and rode a ski jet to see wild seals. I developed a sense of adventure and respect towards the sea. I now own snorkeling gear, a SCUBA Diving certificate and have my heart set on taking up kite-surfing lessons. I only needed a trip to the other side of the world to open my eyes.
If it’s not a good day for the beach then it’s time to engage in any other activity that means spending time outdoors. On the Morningotn Peninsula, the winners for me were the “pick-your-own” fruit farms. If running around in T-shirts and sunbathing in winter didn’t seem out of place, fruit picking messed a bit with my internal natural clock.
I really fell in love with the concept: people get to choose the fruits that they want and the farmers save the costs of picking the fruits. The Sunny Ridge Strawberry Farm is the most famous one. Besides picking strawberries you can splurge in some homemade ice cream, cakes, jams, chocolate strawberries, chocolate fountains. It’s a sort of strawberry paradise.
Bonkers about cherries? Then the Red Hill Cherry Farm is for you. It’s a bit less fancy than the Sunny Ridge but the January cherries are delicious.
- Exotic animals
I was walking slowly from the beach towards the house, tired from the jet lag when a pink-headed parrot flew in front of my eyes. I turned to my left and saw an entire flock of parrots on someone’s front lawn. I was in awe because I had never seen parrots as free birds before.
My amazement grew during the following days when I saw big, white, beautiful parrots eating out of dumpsters. Australians consider them to be annoying as they dig out trash cans and destroy fruit orchids. Meanwhile the rest of the world pays loads of money to own one as a pet.
This is the least crazy thing about animals in Australia. Their coat of arms shows a kangaroo and an emu. Australians eat them. Imagine my face when, while eating pasta with Bolognese sauce I was told that the meat in the Bolognese is kangaroo. Please don’t hate me, but it tastes really good.
After the hobo parrots and the kangaroo dinners come the horror snake stories. Snakes in the closets, snakes in the backyard, snakes in your flower pots, (poisonous) snakes are everywhere. The household that hasn’t had a cat or a dog killed by a snake is a rare thing.
- Crazy weather and sunburns
I arrived on the Mornington Peninsula at the end of December and to what the weather was concerned I expected full on summer fever. To my surprise, the days were chilly with temperatures orbiting 20 degrees.
There is no piece of land between Southern Australia and Antarctica so there’s nothing to stop the freezing Polar winds which results in a rather moody weather. I experienced days with 16 degrees in the morning and 34 degrees at noon. To make things spicier, the Ozone layer above Australia is thinner than the rest of the world meaning that the sun burns even at lower temperatures.
I would know since I managed to get a pretty nasty sunburn. My mind couldn’t believe that one can get sun burnt at 22 degrees so I ignored the “bathe yourself in sunscreen before going to the beach” warning. A rookie mistake never to be repeated! Sunglasses+ sunscreen+ hat is the holly triad if you want to go to the beach or wander the streets in Australia.
Right about this moment I finally understood the fashion of wearing shorts with long sleeves T-shirts: it keeps you warm and protects you from the sun.
A home is not a home without a barbecue grill and no day should pass without a proper Oz barbie dinner. This seems to be the ground rule of Australian cuisine. In all honesty, they are true masters of the grill, be it lamb chops, pork or the traditional prawns.
Australian thongs are a different kind of thongs and rather unrelated to what the rest of the world thinks about when the word thongs comes up in a conversation.
I was sitting in the car with my young cousin when he asked:
Hey, Alex! Can you please give me my thongs?
**awkwardly staring at him**
Sorry, give you WHAT?!?
My thongs, they’re by your feet.
I looked down and saw a pair of rubber beach flip-flops. Mystery solved, awkwardness cleared off!
Thongs are Australia’s national footwear. Back home, in Europe, flip-flops come off once you left the beach but in Oz thongs go everywhere.
Because every day is a good day in Australia!