As many reading this already know, I lived in Australia as a kid. Once upon a time I was a true Aussie kid, complete with tanned face and broad accent.
We travelled a lot when I was a kid, but exclusively in Australia. In the four years that we lived here I never left the country. So, the past few weeks have primarily been a revisitation for me, rediscovering places I first experienced over 20 years ago.
In my last post, I wrote about firsts — experiencing things for the first time — everything from a helicopter ride to getting engaged (which I am still getting used to!). In this post, I wanted to reflect on what it’s like to do something a second time, but more than 20 years later.
It was early 1997 when we left Australia, after living here for about four years. We left from the city of Sydney. To me it is the most appealing Australian city, with many green areas, great food, and beautiful coastline. Before we left, I remember going with my mother to buy pink nail polish in central Sydney. This time Andrejs and I went shopping for wedding rings. A lot has changed!
Still, the Sydney skyline is much the same, with the beautiful harbour bridge and the famous opera house. Andrejs remarked that it was smaller than he expected, but to me it looked the same as always.
One thing I will always cherish about Australia is the animals. I loved them then and I loved them this time around, too. The kookaburra is one of my favourite birds and it was wonderful to hear one laugh again. (For those who have not heard this, it’s like this.)
As a kid, I don’t think you really appreciate birds, but this time I think I did — the pink and grey galahs, the cockatoos, and the enormous black-necked stork known as a jabiru, not to mention all the other little birds, the colourful parrots and the enormous emus.
This time around, I was old enough to snorkel at the Great Barrier Reef, where we saw countless colourful fish despite all the horrible stories of it being in decline due to climate change. The most striking thing we saw underwater was an incredibly bright, blue starfish. It looked almost unreal.
As a kid, I loved going to the zoo, but as an adult, I feel I have the patience to observe more animals in the wild, where they don’t necessarily sit still in the perfect spot for you to see them. At our first campground near the Kakadu National Park in the north of Australia, we discovered a large number of wallabies, hopping around the park after dark. Inside the park itself we spotted a rock wallaby with a joey wriggling in its pouch. The park itself offered views that felt timeless, the peace only interrupted by flocks of noisy black cockatoos flying past.
That said, some animals are hard to encounter in the wild. Australia has countless snakes, lizards and skinks, most of which are nocturnal. In Alice Springs we got to hold Suzie — a python — at a reptile park. Who knew a snake would feel so soft and have such a beautiful colour? I said to Andrejs that maybe we should get a pet snake, but he warned me that they apparently smell bad, so maybe we won’t.
I knew I wanted Andrejs to see the centre of Australia — and I knew I wanted to see it again. Alice Springs is the largest town there, with a population of 24,000. Other than that, it’s a land of basically just desert, rock, and more desert. The rocks can be pretty amazing to see, though. We parked and watched the sun set over Uluru — otherwise known as Ayer’s rock — much like we did when I was a kid.
Two things shocked me this time, though. Firstly, we ended up in a campervan at a campsite with no powered sites left. This meant no heating. ‘But you’re in Australia!’, I hear you say. ‘Why would you need heating?’ Well, in desert Australia the temperature at night dropped to 1 degree inside our campervan. Our breath steamed as we lay in bed and I made it through the night by wrapping a towel around my head. Let’s just say I think I’d rather not do that again. On the plus-side, this campsite rewarded us with what I know is the most incredible starry sky I have ever seen.
The second thing that surprised me was the flies. Sure, these flies don’t bite. But when you have about 50 small flies circling you obstinately and landing on your face and in your ears, it’s not so fun. I find myself wondering — were there as many flies when I was here last time? Did I somehow just block them out of my memory?! If you go, get a net to cover your face. They are readily available to buy and they help a lot.
After about 12 days in campervans, we were pleased to head to a city again. We are ending our tour of Australia in Perth — the city I used to call home. It is a city of about 2 million, and it is a contender for the most remote city in the world. The nearest city of over 100,000 is over 2,000km away. (It’s Adelaide.)
This is where little Maria learned to speak English, to eat lamingtons, and to stay away from spiders with red spots on their backs. This is where my brother and I found a dead goanna on the road (totally flattened, of course), picked it up with a shovel, and buried it in the empty lot next to our house.
My memories are hazy and yet numerous. The suburbs all have familiar names and the stores sell familiar products. Visiting the house where we used to live, I walked the same path to the park, just like I did countless times as a kid. The simple corner deli where I bought ice cream with my pocket money has now become a fancy-pants gourmet store, though. Ah well.
We visited the sites that I remember going to as a kid. We drove north, into the outback again, to admire the limestone pinnacles at the Nambung National Park. I don’t think much has changed here in 20 years, and they still don’t quite know how these pillars came about.
We took the ferry to Rottnest Island, so named because it is home to marsupials that the Dutch mistook to be giant rats when they first encountered them in the 17th century. In fact they are called quokkas, and are quite charming little things.
I guess as a kid the quokkas were what intrigued me. What I didn’t remember was that the island has beautiful beaches and views, as well as abundant birdlife. It was the perfect place to take a long, peaceful walk. The quokkas went from being the star of the show to being a nice bonus.
As we prepare to leave Australia, I feel I have an updated view of the place. In some ways, not much has changed here. Sure, time has passed and the house we lived in is now worth three times as much (real estate prices have really increased), but otherwise, Aussies are still generally great people and the country still has a lot to offer.
Little Aussie Maria isn’t quite an Aussie anymore. But hey, I still know the national anthem by heart, so maybe they’d let me come back if I really want to one day. Or I guess I could just visit every now and then and gorge myself on Tim Tams.