Here is the obligatory kangaroo photo that visitors need to produce in order to prove they were actually in Australia. Kangaroos are common in many parts of Australia, just not where we spent our time. This centerfold pose was struck during a photo session at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo.
Here is the obligatory kangaroo photo that visitors need to produce in order to prove they were actually in Australia. Kangaroos are common in many parts of Australia, just not where we spent our time. This centerfold pose was struck during a photo session at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo.


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If you set out to bore a hole from Maine through the center of the earth, your wife would probably leave you. That aside, you would end up in Australia. Okay, technically you would end up in the Indian Ocean. As the ocean water rushed into the hole you had so painstakingly dug from Maine, you would have to somehow escape the torrent and swim northeast to the nearest landmass, which would be Australia. The point is, you can’t get much farther from Maine than Australia without starting on your way back.

Because of this antipodal positioning, my wife and I figured this was the perfect place to spend February. It’s mid-winter in Maine so it’s mid-summer in Australia. Aside from basking in the warm sunshine, walking upside-down relative to the orientation of our solar system, and having people smile and say “G’day, mate” to you, could Australia be so much different?

Instead of giving you a blow-by-blow travelogue of our experience, I thought some details about what to expect would be more useful, and would prepare you for next winter when perhaps you will make your own escape from Vacationland. It turns out Australia has its quirks and here is a primer on what you might want to be aware of before you start digging to get to the land down under.

On the Left

As with all trips to exotic places, your first thought is probably, “How do I avoid accidental death during my stay?” Australians are understandably proud and quick to point out that their entire continent is overrun with the deadliest spiders, snakes, rip tides, sharks, crocodiles, dangerous things on the water and deadly things under it. They lay claim to outrageous wildfires, poisonous this-and-that wherever you go, and killer kangaroos. This is just a load of hokum and typical Australian flamboyance. Everyone knows that kangaroos are generally harmless.

Sure, there is sea-life and wildlife and nightlife that can kill you but you have to go looking for it. What they don’t tell you about is the two things that will almost surely get you if you don’t watch out: traffic and sunshine.

It’s easy to get killed as soon as you leave the airport terminal in Australia (or in any other country where they drive on the left). After about nine days in the economy seats on your aircraft, you collect your luggage, shuffle through customs and can’t wait to burst outside to breathe that warm Australian air. You step through the terminal doors, get to the nearest street and look to your left like you do in the U.S. to see that no vehicles are coming. Stepping out into the street it’s BAM, you get hit by a bus coming from your right. The buses are very quiet here.

Even though I have visited and even driven rental cars in “keep to the left” countries, it’s still a surprise to open the front car door on what we consider the driver’s side to find that THERE IS NO DRIVER’S WHEEL there. It’s on the “passenger side,” which is fine if you like your passenger doing all the driving.

Australians are experts at driving on the left but I am sure there are confused foreigners renting cars and driving on either side of the road. You are generally much safer in the water with the sharks and poisonous jellyfish than you are on the side of the road, unless you encounter one of those killer kangaroos.

The Roundabout

The roundabout, known in America as a traffic circle or rotary, is about 100 times more common in Australia than in the States. Oftentimes the smallest of intersections in residential neighborhoods are graced with a roundabout featuring no stop signs but plenty of yield signs. Cars and trucks enter and yield at what appears to be random occurrences while all traveling in a clockwise direction. There are rules about who has the right-of-way in a roundabout. They are just hard to decipher, occa-

sionally changing and largely unknown. Allow me to explain as it was explained to me.

There is a concept here about right-of-way in a roundabout. It goes: “First in, best dressed.” This means that if you have already entered the roundabout, you have the right-of-way unless you are going by the old rule of yield to the right. This is ironclad unless someone who is “better dressed” enters the roundabout. Best dressed could mean that they have a bigger vehicle, are going faster or just have more confidence and are better at asserting their right-of-way than you are. Buses are always best dressed. So there you go. Good luck.

Sunshine

Lucky for us, we had almost no direct sun during our four weeks’ stay in Australia. It’s not that this huge continent doesn’t have sunny weather someplace at any given time. After all, it spans three time zones.

From the time we landed in Sydney, anxious about the heat and drought that helped advance the devastating bush fires, it rained for two weeks straight. Not only did it rain, it poured like it rarely does in Australia. Record rains coupled with severe winds brought down trees and caused flash flooding in roadways. But right before the widespread rains were replaced by intense thunderstorms with a record 74,000 lightning strikes near Sydney in a six-hour period, the sun came out for an hour or two. During that brief intermission, my wife and I had lunch in an outdoor cafe. That is when I sunburned my forearms silly. And my nose. I can imagine that a break in bad weather with more than an hour of straight sunshine can kill off any visitors from the frozen north in a matter of days.

Oh, the Australians will warn you about the sun; they’ll say something like, “G’day, mate, fair bit of weather we’re having today; reckon you should mind the sun.” But by then it’s too late. Words like baked, broiled and incinerated come to mind.

Apart from tips for merely staying alive, you may want to note some other oddities while preparing for your journey. These includes the basic necessities of life like money, coffee and electricity, but let’s look at cities first.

Cities

In spite of all the media attention on wilderness areas, the outback and open ocean, Australia does have cities as grand as any you will find in the U.S. To be sure, there are vast areas of desert, farmland, range and forest. Traveling between Sydney and Melbourne on a train you will get your fill of farm and ranch. You are likely to see about 40,000 cattle and 50,000 grazing sheep to every kangaroo you may spot. But after all that rural landscape, approaching Sydney and Melbourne is, depending on the light, like the scene from “The Wizard of Oz” as Dorothy approaches the Emerald City.

We spent time in both Sydney and Melbourne and were amazed to find them as big as Los Angeles and as grand as any city we’ve visited in North America. Sydney and Boston were incorporated within 20 years of each other and both offer the impressive architecture plus the infrastructure and cultural amenities you might expect from that era, but Sydney is 71⁄2 times larger, population-wise, than Boston.

There are cathedrals, magnificent government and private buildings, historic public infrastructure like parks, train stations, bridges, ferry boats, museums and public toilets to rival anything to be found in Boston, Washington, D.C., or New York.

Both Melbourne and Sydney are clean, vibrant and growing. They have markets and festivals, museums and galleries. They have world-class sport stadiums and teams that play immensely popular games most Americans don’t understand. They even have shopping malls that are oftentimes packed with real shoppers. There is regular and reliable public transportation and enough quirky things to confuse anyone visiting a big city.

For example, Melbourne sports a traffic maneuver called a “hook turn.” Imagine that you are in a busy intersection and you want to make a right turn, which is the equivalent of a left turn in the northern hemisphere. Instead of waiting in the middle of the intersection for the traffic to yield when the light turns before proceeding, you wait in a little square designated by painted lines in the far left lane. When the traffic lights turn favorable (or “favourable” here) — and I am not sure when that is exactly — you proceed across all the lanes of all traffic in both directions to make your turn. It’s equivalent to turning left from the far right lane on a four lane road. This is so you won’t be in the way of the street trams that use the tracks set in the middle of the roadways. I think. Yikes.

Money

People think that when they go overseas they are going to need a pile of money. This is not true. Oh, you need money all right but that will be when you return home and get your credit card bill. While in Australia, you will hardly need any local currency. Here, even locals hardly carry cash, the older ones carry credit and debit cards and the younger ones just conduct all their transactions using their smartphones.

While we’re on the subject of credit cards, let’s talk about what they do in Australia. Americans like to think of themselves as the most technologically advanced people in the world. But while our country as a whole is really good at space exploration, theoretical physics, business innovation, computer design and fast food franchising, we sometimes lack in getting our technical prowess into the hands of normal people when it comes to, for example, paying for health care or even making everyday transactions. Let’s take public transportation for example.

Most city people here have either credit cards or transit cards that do not have to be swiped or inserted for a machine to read the cards. They are simply “tapped” against a small screen where it usually says “tap here” and, when you do, the screen beeps or reads out that the transaction was successful and the amount charged to the card. A lot of the younger citizens don’t bother with cards and simply tap their smartphone or smartwatch to the screen using Google Pay or some kind of financial transaction voodoo. If you tap it and the funds are not there, I understand that it will let you know you’ve come up short and to try another card. Or, maybe the finance police will jump out and take you to debtor’s prison. I did not experiment with this firsthand.

This tap technology makes for extremely fast transactions when people pile onto buses or rush through train station turnstiles taping as fast as they can board the bus or walk through the gates. However, tap technology is not only used for public transportation; almost every business, from the smallest of coffee shops to large supermarkets, allows you to pay by tapping. You just tap and go, unless you’re an American who wants a printed receipt. But most people here have come to realize that printed receipts just clutter up their lives so they tap and go.

As I was exiting the bus enthralled with this new-to-me technology, I attempted to slap my transit card across the reader and instead flung it a considerable distance away onto the floor. Retrieving it, I imagined being trampled by the good citizens of Boston or New York under similar circumstances. But in the good-natured Land Down Under, people are for the most part exceedingly polite and will allow you — and even help you — to pick up your card without anyone firing or even producing a handgun. I know! It’s different, and you may never get used to it, but it’s still kind of cool.

Coffee

Coffee seems to be all important in Australia. Everyone has to have their morning, noon and afternoon cup. However, there is no “coffee with cream” or “coffee, black.” An order like that will elicit only blank looks from the waitstaff. Most American coffee is based on the drip coffee brewing method. Not so Down Under. All restaurant coffee is espresso-based, made with highly sophisticated equipment and skilled operators. You need to know if you want a flat white, a cappuccino, a long black, a latte, a short black ristretto, a babycino or any one of a number of other hot beverages, some of which may or may not be coffee.

We’ve grown accustomed to sitting around after breakfast in American cafes, sipping our coffee and chatting until the waitstaff comes around so many times with the coffee pot that you just have to go. But here, you get a single cup of good coffee, and it is generally acceptable to sit around reading or tapping on your keyboard. You won’t be bothered with refills. Come to think of it, it’s very close to a Starbucks experience in America, where you can order your customized coffee and then sit around “working” on your laptop without any hassles, although sometimes it helps if you are white and speak English.

Even McDonald’s uses billboards here to advertise its “Barista Made Coffee” right in front of God and everyone. This is the same golden-arches McDonald’s that sells the Big Mac. Australians would not have it any other way.

And, oh, tipping is rare. Businesses are expected to pay their employees a wage substantial enough to live on without the benefit of receiving tips from the customers. This policy seems not to have brought down the level of service and it is rare indeed to find waitstaff who are not the most agreeable and eager to please. I know, it’s hard to believe; just another reason to come see for yourself.

Electricity

This is a concern when you are traveling with electronics. Australian households operate on voltages that are twice what they are in the U.S. There are advantages and disadvantages to this arrangement on which I would love to elaborate, but I’ve been told that that the only thing people care about is how to make their devices work when visiting.

There are four easy steps to follow when choosing electrical devices to take before visiting Australia from North America:

First, figure out what you will be taking; cellphone, laptop, cameras, hair curler, toaster oven . . .

Next, check the small print on your chargers and other electrical items and see if the input requirements are 120 volt or 120-240 volt. This is important. Most all of the new chargers are 120-240 volt or “dual voltage.”

Next, pile up all the electronics that you want to take with you and sort them into two piles: the devices that can accept up to 240 volts and the devices that can’t.

Finally, take all the devices from that second pile and set fire to them or smash them with a hammer. This will be much more amusing and easier than carting them all the way to the other side of the earth just to fry their innards when you plug them in. Order your American to Australian plug adapters (travel adapters) online before you leave so you will be all set.

Cellphones

Things get complicated with cellphones. For a traveling couple, it is impossible to arrange a cellphone plan where you won’t argue with your spouse at least part of the time about cellphone use. Any decisions are fraught with peril.

There was a time not so long ago that we didn’t have any cellphones to take on a trip. Unless you plan to meditate at a monastery for your entire stay, I would say cellphones are essential travel tools today.

If you are accustomed to using a smartphone, you will want its ability to pinpoint your location and map out driving and bus routes. You can use paper maps, but you will have to find them first, and if you’re lost, everybody knows you will never find a map. It’s easy to buy train tickets and book hotels with your phone and sometimes it’s nice to be able to locate or talk to your traveling partner on your phone. It’s also comforting to have your personal data and photos, any notes you keep, a calculator and everything else a smartphone has to offer — even without internet.

In a nutshell here are your options with not nearly enough details:

– Take your phone and use it only when you have a free Wi-Fi connection

– Get a local SIM card with a local plan and a local number that you can use with your unlocked cellphone while in Australia

– Get an international plan before you travel, and keep your U.S. phone and number

– Book your entire stay at a monastery

No solution is perfect. Rest assured that no matter which way you go, there is probably a better way.

Australia is well worth the effort of digging through the center of the earth to get to it, except for the part where your spouse leaves you and you drown in the Indian Ocean. It’s a continent’s worth of ecosystems, cities, culture, geography and history. Using a month to explore it is like spending a month trying to take in the United States.

We found it’s an environmentally conscious country where the landscape is clean and increasingly dotted with solar and wind power projects. People here are consistently courteous and polite to a fault. In general the cities are vast cauldrons mixing dozens of different cultures. People speak so many different languages on the street it’s hard to keep track, and no one turns their head as if these people don’t belong. The pastures are vast, the forests are deep, the mountains are wide and some of the animals are quite weird. There are too many restaurants to count.

Plan to visit. It’s warm in February. Always look to your right for that bus.