(Warning: this one’s long).
So here’s the thing about New Zealand: I adored it. It’s currently holding the #1 spot for my favorite place in the world. High praise, indeed. That said – I couldn’t live there. You see, despite it’s holy-crap-is-this-even-real views, incredible hiking, and adrenal adventures, it just doesn’t have enough of a cultural identity to really keep me satiated. I’m such a sucker for art and music and kickass food and that indescribable ‘buzz’ that you only get in vibrant, creative cities – and New Zealand just doesn’t have the footprint to deliver that, nor does it really try or pretend to.
Enter Melbourne, Australia. If New Zealand is my favorite country in the world, Melbourne is a pretty viable contender for my favorite city. Unbelievable street art, free museums and galleries for days, astonishingly strong food culture (Asian cuisine in particular), friendly Aussies, cheeky bars, and coffee that many call the very best in the world. This place really delivers, and it has found a big fan in me – but I’m not alone. It’s been voted the world’s most livable city for SEVEN YEARS RUNNING, nailing perfect scores in healthcare, education, and infrastructure. Damn.
I spent a fantastic week exploring the city’s vibrant laneways, renowned cafes, delicious eateries, beaches, and a rather famous drive – let’s jump in, shall we?
After booking into my first hostel (a former 19th century nun convent now called The Nunnery, complete with a fantastic sense of humor), my first priority was checking out the city’s famous street art. Melbourne has played a massive role in the spread of street art culture throughout the world, and the city is increasingly supportive of public art in sanctioned, legalized parts of the city where artists can leave their mark. It’s one of the foremost street art cities in the world, and checking out murals and guerrilla artwork is something that’s always interested me (as any of my Instagram followers are well aware – @osnap88).
While I’m usually content to wander around and just check out the art on my own time, I elected to book a half day street art tour with the guys from Blender Studios, a prominent artist commune here that contributes a lot of the artwork around town. The tour is given by one of the local artists, who was an awesome guide to share some of the seemingly infinite pieces of public art around the city. Not only did I see some of the best and most prominent spots – I also learned about the history of graffiti culture in Melbourne, gleaned contextual detail about the artists, their crews, and the significance of many pieces that made political or cultural statements about Australia, and even had a chance to tour the studio space and meet several of the artists who are contributing to the incredible creative culture of Melbourne’s streets. It was a pretty great experience – not to mention the beers they bought us to wrap things up.
Early on, I spent tons of time stuffing myself with incredible Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Malaysian cuisine, plus what is UNDOUBTEDLY then best coffee I’ve ever had at a number of incredible cafes around the city who are upholding an incredibly consistent high quality across the board. One such spot was Proud Mary, where I participated in a free community coffee cupping event, which allowed an opportunity to taste rare geisha coffees and single origin blends from Panama, Costa Rica, and Ecuador – all gratis. To treat myself, I got my haircut in extravagant fashion at the barber that Cristiano Ronaldo chose the last time he was in town – 90 minutes worth of hot towel, straight razor, scalp massage, and beard oil bliss. My version of a mani/pedi!
I also spent a lot of time in the city’s many museums and galleries, soaking in some more traditional, permanent artwork. My favorite gallery was NGV International, which showcases a lot of groundbreaking contemporary art. And every bit as good as any piece of art I saw was the incredible State Library of Victoria, a masterpiece in itself. Through my lens:
After settling in for a few days on my own, I was in for an awesome treat when Kenzie and Sarah, my friends who you’ll remember from my Sydney updates, arrived in town to visit. Better still, Charlotte, the third lovely lady from those early days, lives here in Melbs – so it was a proper reunion. I met some of their awesome local friends, as well – Alex and Mariela rounded our crew out really nicely for some bar hopping, indoor putt putt, and a day of music at the free St. Kilda festival at St. Kilda Beach. Our time together this time around was short, but sweet – and it won’t be the last I see of them this year!
Next up on the agenda was the Great Ocean Road – one of the best drives in the world, running along absolutely incredible Australian coastline that evokes memories of California’s Pacific Coast Highway (US-1/101). And while the road and the views were great, the way I tackled the trip was the absolute highlight of my time in Australia so far!
Generally, to do the Great Ocean Road, you have a few options. You can rent a car, but it’s pretty expensive and a long, exhausting drive that demands the focus you’d otherwise dedicate to soaking in the views. It’s lonely, unless you wrangle up some other backpackers, which is hit-or-miss. Alternatively, you can book a tour – but these are generally cheesy and take place in massive coach busses packed with typical tourists, aiming to move you along as quickly as possible without a whole lot of personality.
That’s when I found TeePee Tours, a small independent outfit run by a pair of local Australian locals who are backpackers, themselves, and saw an opportunity to fill a niche with a better experience for travelers like me. TPT is just 2 guys, their dog, an 11-passenger van, and a little plot of land with a massive teepee, a fire pit, and a barbecue. Though one of the two guys who run the show (and his dog) weren’t around for my tour, Andrew – my driver, guide, and new friend – was absolutely amazing. He’s one of those people who’s ceaselessly hysterical, incredibly warm, and just a downright good dude – not to mention an extremely talented guitarist and singer-songwriter.
We rambled along the seaside road for 2 days, cracking warm jokes and cold beers, stopping occasionally to soak in the view or re-stock on snacks. To break up the driving, we spent a night under the stars by the fire, drinking late into the night, eating kangaroo sausages and tasty burgers, and laughing for hours until we huddled under the teepee to listen to some good tunes and even better ridiculous bedtime stories. Ultimately, we made our way to the Twelve Apostles, the best known stop along the route, before making our way back into town. Andrew and the group really made those 2 days incredibly fun and memorable, and I came away with so much more than any typical ‘tour’ could have possibly provided.
I spent one last quick day in Melbourne (where Charlotte joined me for Valentine’s drinks and dinner at the oh-so-chic and oh-so-Melbourne fancy cocktail and asian fusion purveying ‘Cookie’) before it was on to the next leg of my trip – a very different adventure, indeed.
The Red Center
Yes, it was on to Yulara, the spiritual crown jewel of Australia and ancient centerpiece of the red-hot outback, sprawled across the arid and unforgiving Northern Territory. It’s this place that holds indescribable significance to aboriginal Australians – the oldest known humans to have ever tread foot on our earth, as little as 60,000 or as many as 120,000 years ago, depending on which scholars you choose to believe. Let’s take the middle ground here and call it 90,000 years. Then take a second to let that sink in. Holy crap, right?
Though you may not recognize the name Yulara, you might be familiar with its most famous attraction: Uluru, later christened ‘Ayers Rock’ by the white men who took over the land under unsavory circumstances (That story’s comparable enough to the fate of the Native Americans that I’ll spare you the history lesson; you can pretty much imagine how it played out).
Uluru holds profound spiritual significance to native Australians, and each of its features has a derivation story in ‘Tjukurpa’ or Dreamtime, the Anangu narratives that were handed down over centuries to explain how the world was created – all in the absence of any form of written language. The rock’s many caves and features are covered in aboriginal paintings, prehistoric art, and ash from centuries of night fires around which natives would gather.
You can imagine, then, that the place has a tremendous spiritual presence – matched nicely by the physical presence evoked by a tremendously imposing rock thrust violently from the earth, looming 348 meters above what is otherwise an incredibly flat landscape. That’s higher than the Chrysler building or the Eiffel Tower. Here’s some light reading re: how the rock came to be, in case you’re interested.
Also in the neighborhood are Kata Tjuta and King’s Canyon – perhaps even more physically impressive landscapes which also have important ancient stories to tell. I spent 4 days exploring all 3 of these sites, sleeping under the stars in open-air ‘swags’ and rising around 4 AM daily to beat the oppressive heat. Needless to say, the Southern Hemisphere’s night sky in the middle of the outback, completely devoid of light pollution, was a moving sight to take in – and I learned native tales about constellations, along with narratives around how those natives were able to navigate the monotonous landscape using only those brilliant night lights to guide them. Awe-inspiring stuff.
In a country where my exposure has been limited to big metropolitan cities, it was nice to visit a pice of the ‘real Australia’, the vast expanse covered by red soil and illuminated by fantastic sunrises and sunsets that evoke shades of orange, purple, and crimson in the surrounding landscapes, adding color to a land so rich in history and spiritual significance that you can’t help but feel moved – nor can you help but buy a snazzy cowboy hat. Despite the constant merciless onslaught of flies and 104 degree temperatures (it’s not all fun and games, folks), this was a special stop for me – I’m glad I made it.
I’ve got one last week in Oceania, and I’m spending it in Cairns – better known as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and one of the best diving towns in the world. Over the next several days, I’ll be learning how to scuba dive – today and tomorrow in a classroom and pool environment, and the next three living on board a boat out on the reef. This is something I’ve been looking forward to for years, and a new skill and hobby I’m really excited to learn.
It’s also a skill that’ll come in handy again real soon, because once I’ve finished diving Australia’s Northeast coast, it’ll be time to bid this corner of the world adieu after an unbelievably fantastic and adventure-filled 2 months and move on to Asia – another region with incredible diving opportunities. And incredible food. And incredible mountains, beaches, customs, and cultures so radically different than those in the Western World that they’ll really make my head spin.
Stay tuned for underwater photo ops and a likely love letter to Australia and New Zealand as I wrap up the first major chapter of my trip later this week!