Mike started his working life as an astrophysicist and made his way into tourism via the scuba diving industry. He built one of Australia's first backpacker




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7 Clubs



You'll find them everywhere. Football teams have them and so do surfers, returned servicemen (RSL), the Catholic Church and many other large organisations that can raise enough money and get a liquor licence. Most welcome visitors.

I belong to a surf club. They are one of Australia's great institutions. Many have bars and restaurants. That's one of the ways they make money for their main activity, which is lifesaving.

Those bronzed young people patrolling our beaches are volunteers. They joined their clubs at an early age and received instruction from older members. It is no coincidence that many lifesavers on Asian beaches are Australian trained.

So, if you want an introduction to the Aussie way of life and you are a surfer, you could hardly do better than join a surf club. Age is not a consideration. There's no shortage of grey-haired surfers on our beaches and plenty of teenagers. The sport is almost as popular amongst women as it is with men.

If you are not a surfer that is not a barrier. Go along and have a meal. You'll be asked to sign the visitor's book to comply with the licensing authorities but no more is involved. In many clubs, most of the staff are volunteers. You will be served by lifesavers and surfers.

My part of Australia, which is the Gold Coast, is home to some of the world's top ranking competitors. Go to the south of the strip for the best action. Despite its name, Surfers Paradise is not the main hot spot. That honour goes to Coolangatta where the incoming waves run along the beach.

On a good day at Coolangatta, you can stand on the shore and get a clear view of the surfers as they travel down the tubes created by the breaking waves. It's a great place for photographs. Major international surfing competitions are held at there and news teams gather from all around the globe.


8 Colonial Australia



In the 220 odd years since the arrival of the first European settlers, Australia has developed a distinctive architecture of its own.

My father-in-law was a keen photographer and took hundreds of photographs of old buildings when he visited us from England. As he said, Australia is a very young country compared with Britain but that doesn't mean it has no historical buildings.

The old colonial buildings were designed to suit the needs of a pioneering society. They are very different from the buildings of Europe and they are very different from those going up in Australia today.

Pubs are an institution in Australia, just as they are in Britain and Ireland. Grog arrived with the First Fleet and it did a lot to shape the nation's character. Back in the early colonial days, hotels weren't just drinking houses. They were places to stay and the licensing laws made it clear that landlords had an obligation towards travellers. The old laws have lapsed but the old hotels remain.

Some fine examples survive in our capital cities but most have been swept away by recent development. Heritage listing has saved some but hasn't prevented others from falling victim to mysterious fires. You'll find a few old pubs that still provide accommodation. Some have become backpacker hostels. Others provide motel accommodation in adjacent modern buildings.

If you are travelling round Australia and have an interest in beer and architecture, check out the old hotels. They are a fine reminder of the colonial days. You'll find them right across the country. Those in the old mining towns are particularly impressive. Australian miners prided themselves on being amongst the best paid in the world. They expected style and comfort in their leisure hours and their drinking houses testify to that.

The picture above is of Buchanan's Hotel in Townsville. It was taken by my father-in-law and was later destroyed in a mysterious fire. Buchanan's was used by General Douglas Macarthur during the War in the Pacific. Many stories are told about those memorable days and their aftermath. They were the inspiration for my novel Curtin Express.

Colonial architecture is not confined to drinking houses. Domestic architecture soon took on a distinctive Australian look. In the temperate regions of the south, the need for innovation was not strongly felt. But, further north, in the demanding climate of the tropics and sub-tropics, it was irresistible.

When the British arrived on Australian shores they were not strangers to tropical living. The Indian experience influenced architectural thought and continued to do so during the early years of settlement. It can be seen in military barracks and domestic buildings.



One of my favourite examples is the type of house often referred to as a Queenslander. They are found across northern Australia and are well suited to hot climates. The typical Queenslander is of wooden construction and perched on stumps. It has a corrugated iron roof and extensive verandas. Rooves are often curved and ornamented with ventilators and decorative ironwork. Louvered blinds hang above veranda rails to provide shade and decorative panels fill the space below. High ceilings and ornate mouldings help to create pleasing interiors.

A friend of mine researched the origins of the Queenslander as part of a postgraduate degree. He started off with the idea that the design was inspired by the wooden-framed buildings of California and received an American grant to go there and further his inquiries. The idea proved to be mistaken but he enjoyed the trip.

The Californian house is superficially similar to the Queenslander but quite different in its basic construction. After further inquiries, my friend discovered that the Essex house is a more likely contender.

The wooden buildings of that part of England look very different from their Australian counterparts but the basic construction is the same. Terms such a base plate, top plate, strut and noggin testify to a common origin. As my friend points out, the ultimate origin can probably to be found in Scandinavia. The Essex house appeared when the English ran out of oak for their half-timbered dwellings and started to import softwoods from the Baltic.


9 Backpacker Hostels



The modern backpacker hostel came into existence about twenty-five years ago. My involvement began when I was working as a divemaster on boats taking tourists to the Great Barrier Reef. I have friends who got into the business through mountaineering and others through sailing. We saw a need for cheap basic accommodation and set out to provide it.

Since those early days, the industry has evolved into something quite different from what many envisaged. Looking at the advertisements on the net I am sometimes disappointed to see how commercialised everything has become.

My wife and I sold our hostel eight years ago. I have no financial interest in backpacking and will do my best to give independent advice.

Q. Why stay in a backpacker hostel?

A. a) It's relatively inexpensive;

b) a good hostel has a communal atmosphere;

c) you can meet people and share experiences.

Hostels come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some are huge resorts that cater for the travelling party animal. Others are small and laid back. Some provide accommodation for fruit pickers. Others are more like eco-resorts. Many have private rooms with en-suite as well as dormitories. Laundries and kitchens are always provided. Internet access is the norm.

Many hostels belong to organisations: notably VIP, YHA and Nomads. They are meant to ensure high standards but do not always succeed. Surf the net and see what they have to offer.

Get personal advice from people who have been on the backpacker trail. Talk to friends and use social networking sites like twitter and facebook. Different people have different tastes. Try to learn from people like yourself.

Most backpackers are under thirty but many are older. Backpacking is a state of mind. I had prosperous middle-aged guys leave the Sheraton and stay with me. They had been out on dive boats and had met their younger diving buddies in town. When they learnt that my place had private rooms they booked into my hostel so they could be with their friends.

My oldest backpacker was an eighty-five-year-old lady from Canada. She was taking her fifty-five-year-old daughter on a hiking trip round Australia. The younger woman didn't seem enthusiastic about the enterprise but mum was in her element.

Finally, a note on backpacker buses. Some people love them. Others have nothing but scorn for the drivers and their passengers. I suggest you ask around and get advice before buying a ticket. One young lady told me she was using the buses because she was travelling alone. She figured there is safety in numbers. I wouldn't argue with that.


10 Other Accommodation



In some countries I've had difficulty finding a place to stay for the night. The fault has been mine. I've been too casual, expecting to turn up at a new location and find a motel or campsite without difficulty.

In Australia you can often do that. In many places there's a lot to choose from and you can shop around for the best deals. There are, of course, exceptions to this general rule.

Hotels and motels: Except in major cities, the term hotel usually refers to a pub. Historically, hotels were obliged to provide accommodation. Outside major centres, few do today. In country areas, look for motels. Your will find them on the main roads leading into towns and scattered along highways. Many motels are attached to old hotels. Go to the tourism web sites to get an idea of what is available.

Camping resorts are plentiful and standards are high compared with many countries. Individual caravan sites usually have power outlets and some have their own shower/toilet annexes. Many resorts have cabins for rent on an overnight basis. Camp kitchens (pictured above) and barbecues are generally provided. Laundry, shower and toilet facilities are required by law. Many resorts belong to organisations. Their web pages are easily found. Some are geared towards families, some to older people and others to young adults. As a general rule, avoid campsites that are primarily residential. You could hit unlucky and find yourself entangled with the neighbourhood's social problems.

Serviced apartments have a day room, bedroom(s) en-suite and kitchen. The larger accommodate six of more people. The cost per person can be less than dormitory accommodation in a backpacker hostel and you can save money by doing your own cooking. When my wife and I visit a major city, we prefer to stay in a serviced apartment rather than a hotel. Advance booking is recommended but not always essential.

Cottages are available in many rural areas that have experienced a decline in population. They are usually rented for a number of days (rather than overnight) and are one of my wife's favourites. Advance booking is recommended.

Outside school holidays you can generally find overnight accommodation in the larger centres without forward booking. This means you can turn up and look for a good deal but don't leave it too late (after 5pm, say). If you are travelling in a busy period or visiting a remote location, secure accommodation at least a day in advance.


11 Vehicle Rental



Hiring a car, caravan or campervan is relatively easy. Major international rental companies operate here and there is no shortage of local companies, some offering very low rates.

Many national driving licences (including Canada, UK, USA) are accepted but, if they are not in the English language, a certified translation is required. For details visit www.austroads.com.au/overseas.html.

If your licence is in a language other than English I recommend that you obtain an international driving licence before leaving home. You will need to show your national driving licence so don't forget to bring it with you.

Driving in the more settled parts of Australia is little different from other developed countries. The same can't be said for outback driving - (see Outback, above).

If you come from a country that drives on the right, remain acutely aware that we drive on the left. One of my hostel guests died in a head-on collision when he strayed onto the wrong side of the road just north of Townsville. Another was killed when he looked the wrong way when stepping off the pavement (sidewalk). Be particularly careful when approaching roundabouts. Go round in a clockwise direction. It's appallingly easy to get it wrong as I know from driving in Europe.

Passengers and drivers must wear seatbelts and small children must be secured in safety seats appropriate to their size. It is an offence to leave small children unattended in a vehicle.

Most intersections are regulated by Stop and Yield signs. Where there are no signs, the driver on your right has right of way except at T-intersections. At these, the driver who is proceeding straight on has right of way.

When you leave the bitumen (tarmac) and drive on dirt roads, you won't see many road signs so bear these rules in mind. In country areas you may come across railway crossings without gates. Make sure you stop when the warning lights show red or you may add to an alarming list of casualties.

Finally, don't forget to lookout for wildlife. Kangaroos and other jumping creatures are most at risk (together with any vehicle that hits them). You are most likely to encounter them at dusk and night time.

Many country people fit their vehicles with bull bars (also known as roo bars). I fitted them to mine after I hit a feral pig. The porker rolled over a few times and ran off. My radiator was wrecked and I had to be towed. The accident happened in town. It would have been very expensive if it had occurred in a remote area.


12 Travel Hazards



You get used to where you live and know how to cope with its problems. You become "street wise". When you move to another environment, you meet different hazards. It's best not to learn by experience. I'll confine my remarks to hazards that are peculiar to Australia and similar countries.


Heat Exhaustion: The technical term is hyperthermia, which is often confused with hypothermia. The first refers to the body having too much heat. The other is the exact opposite. Here, I'm talking about too much heat. The problem comes on quickly and can have serious consequences. The symptoms are extreme weakness and lack of coordination. Avoid hyperthermia by drinking plenty of water and staying cool. Treat it by cooling the patient and giving drinks. Recovery is usually rapid. If it is not, seek medical advice. Children have died of hyperthermia when left in cars. It is a serious offence in Australia to leave a small child in a parked car.

Land animals (big): Local authorities don't put up warning signs for fun. Signs cost money and are there for a purpose. I had a guest who thought a sign showing a swimmer being chased by a crocodile was a tourism gimmick. It wasn't. A few weeks earlier a family lost their dog to a croc while picnicking at that very spot.
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