by Philip Greenspun; created 2000
Australia is home to two cultures. The most obvious is Anglo-Saxonism, transplanted from England little more than 200 years ago. If you dig a bit deeper you can find the Aboriginal culture, continuously developed over 30,000 years. A modern Aborigine's painting or music could well be directly appreciated by a forebear dead for thirty millenia.
Australia contains nearly all the ecological niches of the Continental United States, in an area roughly the same size. A unique collection of flora and fauna occupy those niches. Most obvious are the 180 species of marsupials including various kangaroos (same niche as deer in the US) and Koalas. Most unusual are monotremes like the Duckbill Platypus and the reef-building bacteria (stromatolites) in Shark Bay (west coast), the oldest form of life on Earth. Some of the world's most interesting and largest coral reefs are found on both east and west coasts of the country. Dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, saltwater crocodiles, whales, and whale sharks roam the coastal waters.
The best months to visit Australia are spring and fall. In the Red Center (e.g., Ayer's Rock), winter is the most pleasant month. Summer is oppressively hot throughout most of the country.
In general, Aborigines do not like being photographed and are generally scornful of photography as a means of recording experience.
The largest cities in Australia have camera shops that are sort of like the professional camera stores in small American cities. They can order anything that you want but don't count on them stocking unusual items. For example, there is only one camera shop in Sydney, the largest city, that stocks Fuji NPH in 220. This is a standard wedding photography film and there are probably 10 stocking dealers in Boston, a city of comparable population. Generic 35mm cameras, digital cameras, and 35mm film are widely available at similar prices to what you'd pay in the US.
Everyone except New Zealanders needs a visa to enter Australia. If you're from most Western countries and staying for less than three months, you can get an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) from a travel agent.
You will most likely be flying into Sydney. There are convenient buses that will take you from the airport to the hotel of your choice for a few dollars. The airport is not far from the city center and taxis are inexpensive as well. Most planes from the US arrive in Sydney around 6:00 am. Sydney is a hub for both national airlines and therefore it is quite easy to continue straight on to another city. There are international flights into Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane, and Cairns as well.
You'll have to try very hard to get food poisoning in Australia. The guidebooks caution only against raw bear meat and raw wild boar due to risk of trichinosis.
Electric power is 220-240V, 50 Hz and plugs are unique three-prong affairs. Most laptop and digital camera power supplies will work fine in Australia. Convenience stores in tourist areas sell plug adaptors. Most good hotels have adaptors as well.
The time in Australia is 10 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (London), which makes it 15 hours ahead of New York. Thus if it is 9:00 am in New York, it is already midnight in Australia. Daylight Savings Time complicates matters. If it is winter in Australia and summer in the US, New York has sprung forward so the time difference is only 14 hours. If it is winter in the US and you're in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, or Tasmania, your part of Australia has sprung forward so the difference should be 16 hours.
The currency in Australia is the Australian Dollar. You can buy one of these for between 55 and 60 cents. Basically divide all the prices that you see in Australia by 2. Services such as food and hotel rooms are substantially cheaper than in the US; manufactured goods are the same or a bit more expensive. Australia has a very advanced credit and bank card infrastructure. You can pay with plastic for just about anything and ATMs throughout the country work with American credit and bank cards.
Australia is fairly safe and crime-free, especially in the smaller towns.
Health care in Australia, even in smaller towns, is very good. Your US health plan will cover emergency care but probably by partial reimbursement months after treatment. Make sure that you have an ample credit line on your Visa card! (See my decompression illness story for a glimpse into the Australian hospital scene.)
You can rent a car with an American driver's license and if you keep it for more than a week, the nationwide companies such as Hertz won't assess a drop-off fee.
Text and pictures Copyright 2000 Philip Greenspun.