One of Brisbane’s principal attractions for animal lovers is Australia Zoo (home of the late, great Steve Irwin), a leafy subtropical site nestled out in the Glass House Mountains. As I arrived, one of the staff sprung a surprise on me (and, in turn, everyone else going through the gates) by offering the chance to pat a three-month-old Tasmanian devil (this turned out to be a hand puppet, which immediately attacked the unwary patter and thus caused much hilarity). Alert for any (real) dangerous critters that may have escaped (curiously, the zoo included elephants and tigers but no spiders or platypuses), I visited a fine cross-section of Australian wildlife – including koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus; mostly asleep), red kangaroos (Macropus rufus), laughing kookaburras (Dacelo novaeguineae), cassowaries (Casuarius sp.), emus (Dromaius novaehollandiae; these guys are pretty aggressive and make a kind of growling sound), Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii), short-beaked echidnas (A restless short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) at Australia Zoo.; they have a kind of waddling walk and rarely stop, which means they run into things a lot), and of course the crocodiles. Before the Wildlife Warriors demonstration, the audience pays tribute to Steve by doing a double thumbs-up and shouting, “Crikey!”
In a dramatic reversal typical of fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants travellers everywhere, my plans turned 180 degrees and I decided to head initially south instead of north. My new plan was to do what Greyhound Australia dubs “the cosmopolitan” and hit up the various museums, galleries and other cultural attractions in the south-east. I began with a tour of Brisbane’s South Bank area, where most of the artsy places are conveniently located (the Gallery of Modern Art is surprisingly similar to the Tate Modern, having a large hall at the entrance and being on a riverbank), and was suitably impressed by some gigantic fibreglass Chariman/Emperor Mao statues (part of the Long March Project). On my way back, I took a wrong turn and ended up on the Floating Walkway, which offered brilliant views of Brisbane by night and turned into a waveform when the backwash from a water bus hit it.
Next on the (post-colonial) culture tour was Sydney, which turned out to be easily walkable – I’d somehow assumed it was the size of London. As I waited at a road intersection on my first day, several police cars and motorcycles stopped traffic to allow three buses through – the Prime Minister and his entourage, if the wisecracks made by the various locals were anything to go by. The city itself was crisp and clean, contained several art galleries and had a huge botanical garden that was home to hundreds of little red flying foxes (Pteropus scapulatus) roosting in the trees. Feeling the need to do some typically Australian holiday things, I saw the Opera House (though there weren’t that many other tourists) and bought a pretty decent boomerang from a small locally-run shop in Kings Cross. It remains to be seen whether I can use it properly, as the instructions admonish the thrower not to get it wrong or the boomerang will zoom up 100 feet vertically and probably break something on its return to earth.
Heading inland a little, I stopped off at Canberra (Australia’s little-known capital) for an afternoon – not enough time to do the place justice, but just sufficient to run round the major sights. Canberra is a planned city, with green swathes running around the lake shore and leafy avenues hiding various government buildings. All the museums I visited (the National Museum, National Gallery and War Memorial) were full of school parties, and I derived some satisfaction from not getting gawked at as an obvious foreigner. The National Museum had a puppet (stuffed but unmounted skin) thylacine, the National Gallery some pretty important pieces (including Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952, actually on loan) and the War Memorial (a lot of information and dioramas about Gallipoli). The sun set all too soon, and I prepared to rest my weary head and get the morning train to Melbourne.