Australia in a fortnight

By Daniel Hickey, TravelMail

Last updated at 12:20 21 October 2002

Once considered the destination of a lifetime (for many deportees, it was literally that) Australia now seduces two-week tourists into its Sydney-Uluru-Cairns triangle.

With only eight days on the ground, I had to abandon visiting Ayers Rock (Uluru), but otherwise squared up to my challenge. How much could a first-timer in Oz squeeze in?

I started with four days in Sydney, with its fizzing harbour, startling opera house and Jaws-defying Bondi surfers.

To acclimatise, I gravitated towards a familiar name: 26 hours from London, Oxford Street, Sydney is a laidback affair of clothes, music shops and fast-food joints.

Its Saturday Bazaar offers essential oils, crafts and Thai food, while at the Paddington end, steep side-streets of colonial villas with intricate 'Sydney Lace' balconies overlook Rushcutters Bay.

Past the brash surfing shops on Campbell Parade, Bondi beach unfurls. To the right, above its walled off ocean pool, the revamped Bondi Iceberg Club - an institution of a bar - overlooks the action.

From there, I enjoyed a 40-minute walk around sandstone cliffs, past old men fishing for drummer fish, towards the cafes of picturesque Bronte beach.

Any trip to Sydney involves a mandatory visit to the Opera House, billowing at the water's edge.

Its conception was suitably dramatic - with the rescue of architect Joern Utzon's original drawings from the reject pile, his resignation, and even a possum incursion at the first opera in 1973.

As Utzon, now advising on a renovation project, once stated, the building "cannot be imagined on any other site".

For a panoramic view of it and the rest of Sydney, try the Harbour Bridge climb. This exhilarating adventure on day two involved me being kitted out in an outsized romper suit with a walkie-talkie and clipped to a safety wire for a sedate but spectacular climb to the top of the arch, 134m up.

From there, I could see my next stop: the Royal Botanical Gardens' steamy glasshouses sprawl behind the Opera House. Down amongst the giant bamboo clumps and tropical exhibits, I watched flying foxes squabble in the trees.

Beyond the gardens, the promontory at Mrs Maquaries Point makes for a fabulous harbour view.

Heading back past the Woolloomoolloo Bay naval base, through the Domain, I popped into the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Highlights included Arthur Boyd's Expulsion (1947-8), featuring Gabriel as a bush fire and a fine Aboriginal collection including Melville Island totems.

The Hyde Park Barracks in nearby Macquarie Street revisit Australia's convict past. Detailed displays told of the Aboriginal police who were used to track escapees, and other fascinating historical facts.

Back out in the sunshine, it was time for some more beach-worship. For a contrast to Bondi, try Balmoral Beach on the northern shore.

Joggers pass poodles in front of the stylish Bathers Pavilion restaurant. Mums picnic on clipped lawns. A sign warns that the netted swimming enclosure is not shark proof.

From here its a 20-minute bus ride to Taronga Zoo, where the captives overlook Sydney. Asian elephants pace and a huge silverback gorilla yawns.

I get the ferry back to Circular Quay, which is where you can catch innumerable cruises and ferries or the 80km hour jet boat, with its 270-degree turns and bum-numbing bounces past exclusive harbour suburbs.

Starting to get a sense of the city's shape and atmosphere, I manage to fit in a few more highlights on day three. The cobbled streets and pubs of The Rocks district are worth wandering through, and the Sydney Aquarium's underwater walkway beneath Grey Nurse Sharks, turtles and rays is unmissable.

Beyond Sydney, about 40 miles inland, the foothills of the cool Blue Mountains rise. These formed an impassable barrier to early colonisers, but today attract hearty bush-walking Sydneysiders.

Day four was a tour from the city (see In and Around Sydney) in a rugged 4x4, which took in Euroka Clearing, with its Eastern Grey kangaroos, galah birds and cockatoos.

Our entertaining guide John listed deadly locals including the funnel web spider ("It can bite through your shoes.")

Further on, Anvil Point overlooks a mini Grand Canyon and we could see Sydney through the blue mist rising off the gum trees.

John took us lurching down fire trails that ended in terrifying sheer drops. From the town of Katoomba, cable cars and funiculars shuttled through the valleys.

Four days of fascinating exploration gone, four to go...

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