A brief, and very incomplete list of things I discovered (usually the hard way) are important for Geeky Americans to know before travelling to Australia:
- Sunglasses are not optional. Neither is sunscreen, which must be applied several times a day to every square millimeter of your body unless you wish to look like an unholy cross between a Maine lobster and an extra from Day of the Dead.
My best new idea for an invention: The Suncreen Shower Nozzle, which would mist you in a spray of SPF-30 right after you get done using the regular showerhead to wash the sand off from the day before. Expect to see me pitching it on a late night Aussie infomercial if this comic book thing doesn’t work out for me.
- There’s that whole “driving on the left” thing, the gas prices are for liters instead of gallons, and there’s a baffling series of controls on many pumps to let you stop the flow at a specified dollar amount as the dollars spin by–essential as transactions involving odd pennies are simply rounded off . If you use this, pick a large number, as I’ve never figured out how to reset it afterward. God bless them, the Australians are also lovely, trusting folks who expect you to pay after you’ve pumped instead of prepaying.
- Toll roads are now entirely electronic in Victoria and New South Wales, which means that Australians don’t even need to slow down for bridges and toll roads. Unfortunately, this also means that somewhere in the photo footage of the Australian equivalent of the Department of Transportation is a toll camera picture of Carolyn and me holding a five dollar bill up to our window and looking really confused as we searched in vain for the toll booths which were no longer there. A helpful sign informed us immediately afterward that there was a number we could call to give the folks at the traffic violations department our credit card within 72 hours before they hunted us down like rabid dingoes.
- Don’t get too excited about those speed limit signs: they’re in Kilometers per hour, not miles per hour. Best case, a sign saying 110 means a rockin’ 68.3 miles per hour, but all too frequently, it’s 80, 70, or even 60 (37.5 miles per hour) on the highway. Adding insult to impediment, there are about a million billboards questioning the manhood of folks who want to go faster, and speed cameras to make sure you don’t.
- Speaking of speed cameras: I counted 16 of the unholy things on the highway going from Newcastle to Sydney. Apparently, labor costs are so high that Australian traffic enforcement is done almost entirely by robots. Heaven help us all if they ever upgrade to the new ED-209 Enforcement droids.
- That figure you see immortalized in bronzes everywhere in mall curio shops wearing the armor and bucket-mask and waving six-guns is called Ned Kelly.
He’s sort of the Australian Billy the Kid, who did his own Maker Faire thing to create a bullet-proof outfit to do battle with the lawmen who were gunning for him. He’d make a great comic book character, and I love to think that if he lived today, he’d relax by paint-balling speed cameras.
- Australia has amazing wildlife. You can actually walk amongst kangaroos and pet koalas in the zoos. Unfortunately, it’s not all cuddly bears and kangas: I also spotted the largest bug I’ve ever seen materializing out of nowhere and trotting across the floor of our Sydney hotel room. In many ways, Australia is so much like the sunnier parts of California that you forget you’ve left home…”But then sometimes” as Neil sagely put it as he watched me squish the aforementioned bug, “Australia reminds you.”
- When you look for a place to stay, the magic search term is “motel”, not “hotel”. “Hotels” are often a sort of roadhouse (or casino), and may not offer lodging at all, although they are rumored to be required to give you a place to sleep off whatever you just drank there.
- Internet can be really tricky to find in a hotel, err, motel room. Often, it’s not available at all, and when it is, the signal is often wireless, weak, and billed at outrageous (by US standards) rates. “Free Internet” advertised with a hotel room often turns out to mean “Free for the first 45 minutes”. If you’ve been Googling for “Hotels” instead of “Motels”, that’s just about long enough to find your next place to stay. In general, however, be prepared to pay an average of $20 for a night’s worth of access, and forget about downloading more than web pages and emails–you’re capped by total data transmitted as well in most places.
- Go with the wine over the beer–speaking as a proud Californian, the Aussies put together a very decent bottle of Sauvignon Blanc or even sparkling wine, at a price not far from what you’d pay back home. With beer, however, it’s a crazy game of all-in alcoholism, with six packs running up to $18 each, but dropping back to $1.25 to 1.50 a bottle as long as you buy the next size up…a 24 (or 30) can slab. I feel like a girl admitting this, but even I’m going to stick with the Zin if the alternative means knocking back a case of beer just to get my “per unit” beer price down to a manageable level!
All in all, an amazing country, and I’d love to go back. The sights are spectacular, and their beaches put ours to shame. Best of all, the people are some of the brightest, friendliest folks I’ve ever met, and they’ve got a terrific spirit which really made the trip a joy.