Whether it’s the food, wildlife or the sheer size of the place, Australia is full of surprises for first-time visitors from overseas. David Whitley, British travel writer and regular visitor to our shores, shares the top 20 things that first timers here won’t be expecting.
The Sydney Harbour recalibration
The Sydney Opera House is the international icon. But it’s smaller and more beige than most people expect. The Sydney Harbour Bridge, however, is way more impressive than billed. So on balance, the views from Circular Quay are slightly better than expected, but for surprising reasons.
The classic error first-time visitors make is trying to ‘do’ Australia in two or three weeks, forgetting that it’s a continent as well as a country. It’s far better to pick two or three areas to tackle well than attempt to tick off the highlights in one visit. Otherwise, most of the visit is spent in transit.
The nothingness in-between
Not only are the gaps between major cities bigger than they are in Europe or the US – there are generally far fewer small towns between them. This delineation between urban and bush is massively to Australia’s credit. Once out of the city, it feels like you’re in the wild, rather than getting a short blast of green before the next settlement comes along.
Another common misconception is that because Australia is in the southern hemisphere, the seasons are reversed from the northern hemisphere. That’s true in the south of the country, but definitely not in the north. The best time to visit Sydney may be November to April, but visitors don’t realise it’s the opposite for the Great Barrier Reef and the Top End – when that’s the monumentally soggy and sweaty wet season.
The size of kangaroos
The eastern grey kangaroos are bigger, leaner and tougher-looking than most visitors imagine. And the red kangaroos are all that doubled. They’re still incredibly cute, though. Just don’t stand near one when it’s about to kick.
Wombats trump koalas
The other much-adored Aussie creature is the koala – which are heavier and sharper-clawed than usually anticipated, although you can only ‘cuddle’ them in Queensland. Otherwise, they meet expectations in cuteness. However, their close relation, the wombat, completely steals the koala’s thunder once spotted. Somewhere between a guinea pig and a panzer tank, wombats are a strong contender for the world’s best animal title.
Lower ranking natural areas
Australia designates pretty much every patch of greenery as a National Park. It’s tempting to write this off as overzealousness. But then you go to them, and they’re absolutely gorgeous. Put the likes of The Grampians or Oxley Wild Rivers National Park in the Eastern US or Western Europe, and everyone would be raving about them.
Even the spots that don’t have a massive wow factor tend to be pepped up with a blizzard of educational signs explaining what the trees are, how the ecosystem works and what creatures can be found living there. Australia has a knack for turning moderately pleasant walks (Manly to Wynnum in Brisbane is a classic case in point) into something a little bit more interesting.
They’re not the British ones, as might be expect for historical reasons. But neither are they the American or European ones. Australia gets its own plug sockets, which are basically the American ones, but drunkenly slouching inwards.
No-one drinks Fosters
And only Queenslanders drink Castlemaine XXXX. With the rest of the country thinking they’re a bit weird for doing so.
The beetroot menace
Due to some freak aberration in the laws of nature, Australians have come to believe that putting huge slices of beetroot in sandwiches and burgers is not only OK, put practically mandatory. Until the UN gets round to issuing stringent sanctions over this, the only course of action available to visitors is extreme vigilance. ALWAYS ask for no beetroot, even if beetroot isn’t mentioned in the ingredients on the menu.
Quality of ingredients
Aside from the inexplicable beetroot thing, Australian food has long shed its British stodge on the other side of the world reputation. This is partly due to a high quality of ingredients. Your average pub or café steak will generally be of better quality than the equivalent elsewhere in the world. Notable exceptions are to be made for cheese, bacon and chocolate here.
Cheap Thai food
Ingredients are only part of the story, though: A willingness to embrace and integrate cuisines from around the world makes a big difference. Nowhere is this more obvious than the massive plethora of Thai restaurants and take-outs. Most are pleasingly cheap, and it’s wonderfully rare to pick a dud.
These cheap Thai joints also tend to coincide with Australia’s other great contribution to the restaurant world: BYO. Essentially, this means you can bring in your own bottle of wine for a couple of quid. It’s not a universal policy (and it’s definitely not going to happen in expensive restaurants), but it’s admirably prevalent.
The sporting divide
Not content with getting excited about two sports no-one else cares about, Australia has a strong regional divide over which one is the daddy. There’s a teensy bit of crossover, but Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia will generally bombard you with unnerving levels of Aussie Rules coverage. Queensland and New South Wales, meanwhile, attempt to bore all-comers with relentless banging on about rugby league.
Americans, in particular, struggle to grasp the absolutely impeccable Australian tipping system. Basically, you tip if you want to, but nobody particularly expects you to or pressures you to. Bravo.
The world of “mate”
Australians will call everyone mate, whether they know them or not. Do not, however, assume that being called “mate” means they like you. There is key nuance in how long the letter ‘a’ is stretched out for. If it’s a “maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaate” rolling on for seemingly eons, they love you. If it’s a short, sharp “mate”, they might be about to punch you.
Australian pubs are rarely just pubs. Many have a sports betting section, and an area for the dead-eyed to pour money into slot machines (called poker machines or “pokies”). Most Australians recognise this as bleakly grim, but the pub industry has a lot of power and makes a lot of money from this.
What are you talking about? Oh. Bedsheets. Right. OK. And “doona”? Oh… a duvet.
The most common accusation levelled at Australia – that it has no history or culture – is total nonsense. It’s just not that well known. Go to virtually any Australian attraction or site concentrating on the history, and it’ll probably be fascinating. Remarkable stories such as those of the Batavia shipwreck, First Fleet and Burke and Wills expedition are worth looking up as an introduction – and that’s before you even start on 50,000 years of Aboriginal culture.
What do you think surprises visitors most about Australia? Post your comments below.