I didn’t see much of Melbourne, just managing a quick tram ride into the city and back, and I set off at about 9am for the only day of solid driving on my trip. Once clear of Melbourne, the Hume Freeway was easy driving at 110km/h, and pretty boring too. The landscape on this side of the mountains was drier and dustier, and full of flies, most of which seemed to be swarming around my car when I stopped for petrol, presumably in protest at the outrageous number of their dead cousins splattered all over the front of it. The windscreen washers were no defence against this barrage, so I employed the soap and water bucket and squeegee at the petrol station before continuing my journey. Despite the dustier conditions, this is still cattle country and herds were out grazing in fields either side of the road which were covered in beautiful blue/purple flowers. These flowers were everywhere – under the trees at the roadside, through the fields and up the hillsides beyond. It was a lovely sight, but apparently this plant, known locally as Paterson’s Curse (Echium plantagineum) is toxic to horses and is regarded as a weed and a nuisance. Still, it looks nice. By late afternoon I arrived in Yass, some 550km down the road from Melbourne and checked into another Golden Chain motel, earning the right to win a free holiday and $1400 spending money (I didn’t, by the way). After dinner I collapsed into bed exhausted, but was glad to have just a short drive in the morning up to the Southern Highlands, my last stop before returning to Sydney.
The next day I set off at a leisurely pace and left the Hume early to follow the tourist route through Bundanoon where I stopped at the Lonely Planet recommended bicycle shop/café for coffee and a cake before heading on to Moss Vale and the Southern Highlands. This area is popular with Sydneysiders at the weekend and as I arrived on a Friday the motels in popular Bowral were either full or expensive, so I carried on to Mittagong and found the Best Western to be just the thing for my last night on the road. From here I headed back down to the lovely Fitzroy Falls which, unlike most of the falls in the Blue Mountains earlier in my trip, was full of water and looking quite dramatic. After the short walk to the viewpoints I returned to the Fitzroy Falls Visitor Centre to buy a steak sandwich for lunch and a wombat in the gift shop (not a real one, but just as cute). I continued along to Kangaroo Valley where (again according to Lonely Planet) I “drove off the edge of the world”. The sudden descent down into the valley via a succession of steep hairpin bends was indeed quite alarming, but the glimpses into the valley through the trees were beautiful. Kangaroo Valley village was a worthy place to stop and potter in gift shops before carrying on down the valley and out towards the coastal highway at Berry, where I retraced part of my earlier coastal drive on the way south before turning inland and winding back up another steep road to Robertson and eventually completing the loop back to Bowral and then Mittagong for the night. Studying the map of my route later, I discovered more literal and amusing place names. There seemed to be hundreds of national parks, state parks and nature reserves in New South Wales alone and if I’d had the time I would have loved to have visited Strike-A-Light Nature Reserve, just to see what was there. On my map it was situated just south of Burnt School Nature Reserve. I kid you not.
The next morning I completed my long road trip (around 3000km, I think) by returning to my friend’s house in Sydney. Being the last weekend of my trip I decided to do some more touristy things and headed to Taronga Zoo on the ferry from Circular Quay. I knew from the start that this would be the only way of seeing a koala – and they were waiting just inside the entrance, dozing in little eucalyptus trees. They were so unbelievably cute that they looked more like cuddly toys than the cuddly toy koalas in the gift shop. I had to wait for ages for one to open its eyes, yawn, and doze off again to be sure he was real. Next on my visit were kangaroos and wallabies. The only kangaroos I’d seen on my trip were sadly dead at the side of the Hume Freeway, so it was great to see some of them at last, and be able to walk amongst them in their enclosure. The zoo hosted African and Asian animals as well, but I made sure of getting to the indigenous species first and so sought out the wombat enclosure which was a patch of dry earth with a few burrows and no sign of any animals. Fortunately, a trip to the platypus house arrived at the other end of the burrows where Mr Wombat was happily munching away on his lunch. My wombat purchase at Fitzroy Falls had been a gift, so I immediately went off to the gift shop to buy another one for myself, as I thought it would be impractical to smuggle a large burrowing creature out of the country in my hand luggage, never mind keeping one in a terraced house in Yorkshire. (Wombats are brilliant and I recommend you go out and see one at the earliest opportunity). I continued my “wildlife” extravaganza on the other side of the harbour with the obligatory trip to the Sydney Aquarium at Darling Harbour, which did not disappoint. The platypus had stayed hidden at the zoo, but here there were three of them having a bit of a feeding frenzy, darting around their large tank poking their bills into the sandy bed and along the surface. After that I viewed numerous fish before arriving at the walkway above the salt-water crocodile tank, and was amused by the sign saying “do not enter – if the fall doesn’t kill you the crocodile will”. At which point the resident of the pool below opened its mouth to show off rows of sharp teeth as if to emphasize the point. After this the seals were a bit tame, just sitting around on rocks asleep (as they do) so I moved on to the fabulous Oceanarium to marvel at sharks of various kinds, rays and turtles swimming alongside and above me. Spectacular.
And so, my last full day in Sydney was upon me. It was a hot Sunday in spring, so it was beach weather. Bondi beckoned. Still, not being a big beach-goer I couldn’t just do Bondi, so I got the Bondi Explorer Bus from Circular Quay (with informative commentary) around to Watson’s Bay, where I walked up to South Head and the Hornby Lighthouse, admiring the view across the harbour along the way. On the way back Camp Cove was filling up with sunbathers and the ferry had just unloaded more sun seekers back at Watson’s Bay. I stopped at Doyle’s seafood restaurant on the seafront and asked for a table and was told there would be a ¾ to 1 hour wait, at which point I noticed the queue. I declined (I can queue up for fish and chips in Whitby any time I like) and headed back to the bus stop to continue the bus tour, which I took beyond Bondi to Bronte Beach where I walked back along the coast to Bondi (a popular route). The beaches were packed – thousands of people had turned out to enjoy one of the first really hot weekends of the season. I could see why Bondi was popular – the long crescent shaped beach looked beautiful from the headland, and the soft sand is lovely to walk on. I got my fish and chips at Bondi – cooked to order in a few minutes – and enjoyed a bit of afternoon sun before boarding the Bondi Bendy Bus with hordes of beach-goers to make the more direct trip back via Paddington to Circular Quay. Here I took a final stroll along the quayside as the last rays illuminated the Sydney Opera House across the water. I could never get bored of this view, so it was with some sadness that I returned to Wynyard Station knowing that the next morning I’d be setting out for the airport and the long trip home to a somewhat colder English autumn.
For more images from Australia, visit the Australia gallery on marksunderland.com.