Bill Bryson claims in his book, In A Sunburned Country, that Australia “has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures – the funnel web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish – are the most lethal of their type in the world.” A little research confirmed it. The lethality of the local fauna, it turns out, would be the least of my worries. The closest I’d come to any of them as far as I know was at the Australian National Zoo where we were safely separated by a thick pane of glass. More likely threats to my health and well-being would turn out to be my lack of experience driving on the left side of the road and Vegemite, a particularly nasty yeast-based condiment Aussies use to ruin everything from a breakfast sandwich to pizza.
When we got off the plane in Sydney it was not immediately apparent that we’d traveled halfway around the world. The signs were all in English and people appeared to speak the same language. Sure, the weather was a lot nicer than the 32º F and snow we left behind in Madison, but it didn’t really strike me that we were on another continent until I got behind the wheel of the Ford Ranger Wildtrak and began our three-hour drive from Sydney to Canberra.
A former British colony, there are many vestiges of The Empire still evident. The most obvious is that cars are driven on the left (I’ll refrain from saying wrong) side of the road. This means not only orienting yourself to different traffic patterns (make sure you keep to the left and look to the right before turning) but also getting used to having the controls on the opposite side of the truck. The pedals are in the same order as a US-spec truck, and all the controls for a fully-loaded mid-size truck are where you expect them to be as well. Other than having to operate most of them with my left hand, everything was pretty intuitive, that is until I went to make my first left and hit what I thought was the turn indicator, only to activate the wipers, something that happened far too often throughout the rest of the week much to my wife’s amusement and my embarrassment. A few minutes and only one turn into the wrong lane later, we were outside the city on the M31 heading southwest toward Canberra.
Even though it’s the capital city, Canberra is not among Australia’s most popular tourist destinations. Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, even Darwin, and Ayres Rock get more visitors and media attention than Australia’s capital. Truth be told, it wouldn’t have been on our radar had our daughter not moved there six months prior to our trip. But having a relative in an exotic foreign land is as good a reason to go anywhere, so Canberra it was with Ford providing a vehicle for us to test in its natural habitat.
I say natural habitat because the T6 Ranger was developed in Australia for global markets and has been doing yeoman’s work throughout Australia, Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East for the past 8 years. In Australia, most trucks of this ilk are sold with a diesel engine and our tester was no exception with Ford’s Duratorq 3.2-liter, inline 5-cylinder turbodiesel clattering away up front. Making 347 pound-feet of torque, the engine lives up to its name while smoothly delivering 185 horsepower to either the rear or all four wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission and electronically controlled transfer case. This is essentially the same truck as the new-to-America Ranger I drove last year, except for the swapped controls and diesel engine which isn’t available in the U.S.
Since full-size pickups are rare in this part of the world, Ranger is used for everything from commercial and agricultural applications to recreational pursuits. With its off-road set up, blacked out trim, retractable tonneau cover, and all-terrain tires, the Wildtrak is the intended the latter. It’s only available in a four-door, five-passenger, crew cab setup and sells for all of 60,000 Australian dollarydoos, which translates to roughly $43,000 American, so about the same as a well-equipped four-wheel drive Ranger FX4 in The States.
Having been warned that Australian police take speeding seriously I was content to set the cruise control at 110 kilometers per hour, settle into the far left lane, and take in the scenery of the fourth continent I’ve had the pleasure of visiting (just South America, Africa, and Antarctica left to go). Like everything else in Australia, the terrain is familiar, but just a bit different. Much of it reminded me of the Texas Hill Country as the roadway wound through a rolling landscape of farms, ranches, and vineyards. The big differences were the ocean to our east, the mountains to the west, and road signs warning of kangaroo and wombat crossings.
About one-third of the way between Sydney and Melbourne, Canberra (pronounced CAN-brah) is the country’s eighth largest city and was founded as the result of a compromise when the leaders of the two largest cities – Melbourne and Sydney – couldn’t come to an agreement which should hold the seat of power. In 1908, the location for the city was chosen. In January 1913, the Minister of Home Affairs, King O’Malley, selected an urban plan developed by Chicago Architect, Walter Burley Griffin from over one hundred submitted via a competition. On 12 March 1913, Lady Denman, wife of Australia’s Governor-General, revealed the name of the new city would be Canberra and gave it its unique pronunciation thanks to her aristocratic British accent. Finally in 1927, after what was anything but a smooth construction process, the Prime Minister and Parliament moved to Canberra.
Arriving into town around 11:00 AM, we unpacked the truck, cleaned up a bit, then headed out to grab lunch and explore a bit of city. Our strategy, recommended by others we know who’ve visited Oz, was to stay up as long as possible our first day there to try to get our bodies adjusted to Australian Eastern Time as quickly as possible. Our lunch choice was Little Oink, a coffee shop and cafe across the street from my daughter’s house where the first order of business was to order a coffee, something else that was not exactly what I had anticipated.
In Australian cafes, brewed coffee generally isn’t on the menu. Most serve espressos, cappuccinos, lattes, and two uniquely down under drinks, the Flat White which is similar to a latte but with less foam, and Long Black, hot water poured over a double shot of espresso. Slightly stronger than an Americano, it was exactly what I needed to re-energize me for the day. Serving breakfast and lunch all day, we ordered and I learned two things during our meal. One: when eating in a restaurant called Little Oink, one must have pig in some form and you really can’t go wrong with braised pork belly over roasted tomatoes and hash browns with a fried egg on top. Two: a chicken burger isn’t a burger as we define it. It’s a grilled chicken breast sandwich. Apparently any hot sandwich served on a bun in Australia is a burger. The more you know…
We spent the afternoon running errands to pick up a few things we chose not to bring with us on the trip, getting the lay of the land, and doing anything to keep from falling asleep. Then it was off to pick up my son-in-law, Dr. Nick, from his office on the top of Mount Stromlo just outside the city.
Home to the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics for Australian National University, Mt. Stromlo’s grounds are open to the public, but it’s not your typical tourist destination. We probably wouldn’t have known to visit were it not for the fact that Nick works there researching Galaxy Structure and Evolution, Phased Array Feeds, ISM Turbulence, and other subjects that are way beyond my comprehension. More than just an academic institution, the observatory is one of the key facilities for tracking objects in orbit and exploring space in the southern hemisphere. In addition, they test satellites in the Wombat XL space simulation facility, an anechoic chamber, and on an electrodynamic shaker that would reduce the building to rubble were it not anchored to a separate foundation. The observatory is also ground zero for removing space debris from earth’s orbit.
It turns out, we humans are not only great at littering our planet, but also the space around it. More than 500,000 pieces of space debris are orbiting earth threatening satellites, the international space station, and rockets as they emerge from earth’s atmosphere. The observatory houses a photon pressure laser that is capable of hitting objects as small as two centimeters in diameter to a little over a meter with enough force to destabilize the object and send it tumbling into the atmosphere where it burns up upon reentry. We’re talking about hitting something about the size of a dime from over 25 miles away which is impressive considering I’m lucky to hit a bullseye at 200 yards with my bolt-action, .308 Ruger M77.
Mount Stromlo was also the location of our first Kangaroo sighting. The place is lousy with them, hopping up from the forest below to graze on the tender vegetation at the top. While fascinating for us, Kangaroos are mostly a nuisance for Australians, like deer in my neck of the woods. They destroy gardens, cross the road at inopportune times, and have been known to attack skydivers. While not exactly tame in this environment, they will allow you to get close enough for a few good snapshots before disappearing into the woods.
If you want to actually pet a kangaroo, I suggest a trip to the Australian National Zoo and Aquarium. There you’ll find not just all those poisonous critters Bryson talked about safely behind glass in the herpetarium, but natural exhibits featuring all of Australia’s other exotic species. Two interesting differences between this and other zoos I’ve visited both involve interacting with its residents. First, the kangaroo and wallaby enclosure features gates you can enter, allowing you to walk among and even approach the marsupials. Here they are tame enough to pet. The zoo also has on-site lodging – bungalows, cottages, and condos that overlook various exhibits including the tiger, lion, and giraffe enclosures. So if you don’t mind waking up to a big cat sleeping on your deck, this is a pretty good option for an adventurous overnight.
Canberra, like other capital cities, has a number of museums, galleries, and other attractions to showcase the history and culture of the country. We spent an afternoon at what turned out to be the incredibly moving Australian War Memorial. The machines of war are well represented both in and outside the building, but walk past the Lions of Ypres – a gift from Belgium to thank the Aussies for their efforts in the battle for that city – through a short portico and the first thing you see is a memorial area with a reflecting pool at the center. It’s surrounded by arched cloisters with bronze panels on the walls. Those panels bear the names of each of the 102,000 Australian servicemen and women who lost their lives in combat. Red paper poppies, a tribute whose origin can be traced to John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields, adorn the walls placed in the crevices between the names by loved ones and those who come to honor their fallen countrymen and women.
Highlights of the museum include several incredibly detailed dioramas of some of the most significant battles fought by ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corp) forces. These are accompanied by audio recreations of the action which adds to the intensity of the exhibits. In the World War I wing, photographs, uniforms, relics of battle, and the dioramas of the battles of Ypres and Gallipoli highlight both the heroism and horrors of the conflict. It’s clear that the Memorial is not about the glorification of war, but a testament to the bravery and sacrifices of those who fought. One of the more moving exhibits is a temporary installation titled, “After The War” which is a blunt look at the impact of war on those who return and their families. With stories from World War I through the present day, the exhibit covers everything from medical and physical challenges war takes upon its participants to the psychological toll suffered by families, friends, and others at home. We found the whole experience incredibly moving and a valuable introduction to the character of the people of Australia.
We arrived in Canberra toward the end of the summer season. Temperatures had moderated a bit from the record-breaking heat wave they’d had earlier in the year. It was ideal for walking and exploring the rest the city had to offer. On Canberra Day, the celebration of the city’s founding, we took a visit to the Capitol District taking a tour of Parliament House then sticking around for a festival that evening on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin.
Parliament House is home to the Prime Minister, his cabinet, and Congress. In addition to the working offices, it’s also a de facto history museum with exhibits, art, and images scattered throughout the building. The architecture uses familiar structural motifs, but in unique ways. The traditional dome is represented by a pyramid of beams with the flag flying proudly atop. Where you’d normally find columns in front of a classic government building there’s a marble facade with openings that are a modern interpretation of a classic Greek temple.
Everything I know about the Australian government, I learned from watching this episode of The Simpsons, so it was useful to wander through the halls reading about the people and events that shaped the nation. Of particular interest was the country’s shortest serving Prime Minister Frank Forde, who after a long career in both parliament and as a cabinet minister, became acting Prime Minister when, PM John Curtin passed away. Forde stood for election but was soundly defeated by Ben Chifley and resigned after just a week in office.
We walked from Parliament House down the hill toward the lake, past the original capitol building and onto a large lawn that was the centerpiece for the evening’s festivities. Beer gardens, food stalls, and music stages ringed the field. As the sun set, the lights came up and the entire capitol district became a canvas for art that was projected on the side of buildings. In addition hot air balloons were tethered to the lawn, their roaring flames illuminating the canvas and the revelers gathered around them.
Australia is, of course, a continent of great natural beauty. We went in search of it a few of our days down under. Not far from Canberra is Tidbinbilla Nature Preserve, a 13,440 acre park where you can see almost every species of indigenous wildlife. kangaroos, koalas, platypus, potoroos, wallaroos, possums, wombats, echidnas, emus, lyrebirds as well as many other birds and reptiles. We walked several trails in the park spying Koalas nesting high in the forest. Asleep for up to 22 hours a day, their lethargic lifestyle is influenced by the nutrient poor diet of Eucalyptus leaves. Though cuddly looking, Koalas are notoriously dumb, vicious, and chlamydia ridden. Experts are unsure whether their underdeveloped brains are the result of their poor diet or whether their poor diet is a result of their underdeveloped brain. At least they’re cute.
Since I was behind the wheel of Ford’s off-road equipped Ranger, the Wildtrak, we spent one afternoon in search of wild places. We didn’t have to look far. About 45 minutes west of Canberra is Brindabella National Park with access to the Australian Alps. A heavily forested mountain range, unpaved access roads wind through tall pines reaching elevations of well over 8,000 feet. With its all-terrain tires, full-time four wheel drive, and turbocharged diesel engine, my ascent was a stroll in the park on this sunny afternoon.
The beauty of the 3.2-liter engine is that you get the low-end torque from the diesel, and you don’t lose power as you gain altitude thanks to its forced induction system. As the oxygen thins out, the turbo pumps more air into the combustion chamber, not allowing it to bog down. The trails weren’t terribly difficult, though I’m sure a little rain would have turned the red dirt roads from dust to mud in a hurry. The drop offs were steep, however, and as I kept climbing looking for a break in the trees to get a panoramic view of the surrounding area, my passengers grew a little more nervous, not knowing how sure footed the Ranger was. When we finally reached the summit, trees still blocked any real view. What we could see, however, was both wild and spectacular. The park is home to much more aggressive terrain and you see a lot of trucks with winches, fat tires, and snorkels entering and exiting the area, proving the popularity of overlanding in the outback. But I wasn’t interested in getting Ford’s truck mired in the mud in a foreign land so we stuck to the beaten, yet rutted and rugged paths.
I didn’t come 9,314 miles to the southern hemisphere in the middle of winter not to enjoy a little time at the ocean. We packed up our beach bags, loaded the truck, and headed east. Our destination was the town of Batemans Bay, a small fishing and tourist village at the mouth of the Clyde River on the coast of the South Pacific. This is where the Ranger Wildtrak’s retractable tonneau cover came in handy. We were able to load up all our gear without having to worry about leaving it exposed to either thieves or the elements. Unlike a soft cover, it’s not easily removed and it serves as a nice surface to prep things. That’s another thing I like about the Ranger, its size. I don’t need the towing or cargo capacity of a full-size pickup, so buying the smaller Ranger makes everything more accessible. I can actually reach into the pickup box from the side without the use of a stepladder.
The drive to Batemans Bay takes about two hours and is in a temperate zone that was mostly spared from the heavy drought the continent had been suffering through the summer. One of the more interesting signs we saw along the roadway warned us to beware of Drop Bears. A mythical creature that’s basically a large, maniacal Koala, the Drop Bear is a modern invention, much like the Jackalope or Hodag. Some say it was invented to prank visitors and naive residents. More likely it was created by a wily entrepreneur who saw an opportunity to sell a few t-shirts, mugs, signs and other souvenirs.
Sited by Captain James Cook during his voyage in 1770, he named Batemans Bay after one of his early mentors, Nathaniel Bateman, captain of the HMS Northumberland. It is the closest beach town to Canberra and a favorite destination for its residents. The atmosphere is relaxed and feels underdeveloped compared to places that may be familiar to Americans like the Jersey Shore, Cape Cod, and Myrtle Beach. Oh sure, there are the requisite t-shirt and trinket shops. But missing – thankfully – are the big resort hotels and chain restaurants that sap a destination of any unique character. Case in point, our lunch spot for the day, Innes Boatshed, a casual seafood joint right on the Clyde River. Under third generation ownership and sourcing its fish, oysters, and prawns locally, it was one of the most memorable and affordable meals of our entire trip.
There are a number of beaches up and down the coast from the town. We found a couple of secluded areas that were perfect for wading, shelling, and picnicking, most notably Surfside Beach, Honeysuckle Beach, and Richmond Beach. But make sure you check before taking any shells with you, it’s only allowed at certain beaches and the fine for poaching shells is substantial. The views up and down the coast reveal nothing but undisturbed nature and staring out to the east reveals the vastness of the Pacific. Sail east from Batemans Bay and the first land you’ll hit is New Zealand after nearly 1,400 miles.
Back in Canberra a tour of the Australian National Botanic Gardens felt like the appropriate way to spend our final day down under. It was especially fascinating for my wife, who is a Wisconsin Master Gardener (that’s a real thing, Google it) and manages a retail nursery center back home. The variety and exotic nature of all the plants there were fascinating and a few hours wasn’t enough time to take in all 5,300 species on display from every territory of the continent including Tasmania. Also on display are local wildlife including this 18-inch long Water Lizard that was hoping to share my lunch at Pollen Cafe in the park.
Our final evening we were treated to dinner – one of the many benefits of raising a child to successful adulthood – at Aubergine one of the finer restaurants in Canberra. The four-course Prix Fixe menu changes based on seasonally available ingredients. There are a number of options including seafood and vegetarian selections. You can also add a wine pairing for each course. Driving someone else’s vehicle, I passed on that, but enjoyed the evening immensely as we lingered over our meal with the waitstaff providing attentive but not overbearing service. Like everywhere we went in Australia, the people were friendly, helpful, and genuine.
Up early the next morning for the three-hour drive back to Sydney we said goodbye to the kids, stowed our luggage in the Ranger’s back seat, and headed north. A light rain turned Sydney’s traffic into a snarled mess, but thanks to well-marked roadways and Waze helpfully guiding us around the worst of it, we dropped off the truck in the carpark and make it to the gate with plenty of time to spare. Though the travel to and from Australia is brutal for those who can’t afford to fly business or first class, the adventures that await make it well worth the pain and we are looking forward to exploring more of the continent on our next visit in 2021.