“Are u an Indian ? “ I asked the cabbie, going by his chaste Indian look and the Hindi one liners he had spoken while stowing our baggage outside the airport . “No, I am a Pakistani , from Lahore” , was the pat reply . My wife cast me a sidelong glance, her facial expression betraying the uneasiness engendered by the P -word .
Going by the situation we were in at the moment, Moon’s edginess was understandable ; we were after all, alone inside a taxi with a Paki at the wheels – on a near deserted, suburban highway at late evening hours; and all that in a far away island we had descended on only minutes back.
We had touched down at Tullamarine Airport, Melboure , Australia at 09:30 pm local time on a warm, sunny November day after an eight hour Thai Airways flight from Bangkok , and were now on way to our city hotel.
A few minutes of into our conversation and it played out that our cabbie was indeed a fine, well behaved gentlemen living in Australia for ten years. Knowing that we were from India, he genially briefed us about the city, places to be visited, the Australian weather and the like . My wife too joined the chat soon, by now relieved of her misgiving generated by Altaf’s nationality .
In no time we were at our pre booked hotel Travelodge Docklands. The cabbie, all humble, signed off with a warm handshake and good night wish. Our eyes followed the departing cab, conjuring up the realization that all Pakistanis are not necessarily hostile or unfriendly to Indians.
Calling home to tell them of our safe arrival, we took a quick dinner as next day’s pick up for Melbourne city tour was to happen at seven a.m.
True to the Australians’ punctuality, the coach arrived at the hotel gate dot at seven . Four other tourists from the hotel also boarded with us. The seemingly seventy plus driver cum guide’s agility was remarkable, as was his grasp on Australian history and geography – evidenced from the non-stop commentary he was articulating through the dashboard microphone .
The city tour included, apart from imposing museums , cathedrals and the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground – better known as MCG in cricket world , the sprawling Fitzroy Gardens wherein stood the famed Captain Cook’s Cottage . The cottage that belonged to Captain Cook who discovered the east coast of Australia in 1770 was brought and assembled in these gardens . The Flower Conservatory that housed a bloom of beautiful flowers and exquisite varieties of orchids was a real treat to the eye.
As the city tour was a half day affair, we got down at Melbourne City Centre so as to be on our own for the rest of the day. Having walked around the busy cultural centre teeming with visitors and eye catching monuments all around , we could spot the nearby tram stop when we decided to have a first- hand experience of the city tram . Started in 1885, the Melbourne Tram is the largest urban tramway network in the world, with punctiliously maintained coaches flashing neon signs with information on everything about the routes . There is a Free Tram Zone ; any tram trip that starts and ends within the City Centre is free – an initiative to assist visitors to move around. We hopped on and off the tram in the free zone to have a feeling of the city that bore a colorful and artistic heritage environment. In the evening, after a stroll in the nearby Docklands Metro station agog with home bound commuters , we lazed around the Yarra riverfront where hundreds of anchored silver white canoes presented a spectacular view against the backdrop of dazzling skyscrapers giving an effervescing feeling of Melboune night life. On way back to our hotel we stumbled upon an Indian restaurant abuzz with bubbly Indians and so decided to rather have our dinner with pure South Indian Idli- Dosa .
Next morning we drove, enjoying the panoramic view of the city skyline, to the world famous Great Ocean Road – also an Australian National Heritage, about 200 Km from Melboune. Built by returned soldiers between 1919 and 1932 and dedicated to soldiers killed during World War I, the near 250 Km road snaking through varying terrain along the South Eastern coast of the island country is the world’s largest war memorial . The nearly four hour bus drive continually offered breathtaking views of the sea with white, sandy beaches .
Our next destination was the 12 Apostles – stark, natural and humongous stone monoliths grandiosely standing on sea shore as if proclaiming the truth of their having stood witness to the eternal vagaries of nature . The specially built Selfie Corner offered visitors the right vantage point to click pictures of the apostles against the overwhelming backdrop of a tranquil , blue sea and towering cliffs.
The next day we took a morning flight to Cairns, Queensland , and drove straight to Kuranda National Park in the midst of the Tropical Rain Forest. The sky rail ride gave us a fascinating panoramic view of the dense, luxuriant forest with the placid sea at its periphery.
The whole of the second day at the beauteous Green Island, 27 Km offshore from Cairns , was full of fun and excitement as we cruised in a catamaran to the Great Barrier Reef , the idyllic and world’s largest coral reef system stretching over 2300 kilometres in the Coral Sea off the coast of Queensland . The Great Barrier Reef can be seen from outer space and is the world’s biggest single structure made by living organisms. It is a World Heritage Site and is also labeled one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The view of thousands of sea fishes and coral reef of all hues through our glass bottomed vessel several feet below the sea surface offered an exhilarating experience to the tourists from across the world.
The next morning saw us take a flight to our final destination of the trip, Sydney. After a quick lunch at our downtown hotel, we proceeded to Sydney Tower Eye at CBD , Central Business District. Sipping coffee at the observation deck 50 metres above ground we viewed , overwhelmed, the spectacular panorama of the city including the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House . Before descending down the second tallest observation tower in the Southern Hemisphere, we also enjoyed a captivating show that provided an enthralling experience with 4D simulation. We ended the day with a stroll around the abutting Darling Harbour with hundreds of tourists rambling in the promenade and flocking the lively restaurants lining the bayfront . Columns of well lit skyscrapers and neon signs provided the milling crowd a perfect backdrop for candids, the wafting cool breeze from the bay lending a festive aura before the imminent X Mass.
The second day at Sydney started with a bus trip to the World Heritage listed Blue Mountains National Park, a two hour drive from the city . The vast expanse of the park is an awe inspiring mix of dense rainforest, canyons , plateaux and escarpments. Visitors can amble along the craftily built tracks skirted at regular intervals with vantage points to click the picturesque landscape.
On way back from the park we were taken to Featherdale Park where we encountered the famed kangaroos, cuddly koalas and a varied species of animals and amazing birds. The last stop for the day was at the Sydney Olympic Park where we could see some of the beautiful facilities built for the 2000 Olympic Games .
On the ultimate day of our trip we took the Sydney city tour that included a visit to the Sydney Beach where we could see men and women playing beach volleyball. Later we stopped at a vantage point near Sydney Harbour Bridge to have its dramatic view and click pictures . Opened in 1932 and known across the world for the spectacular firework display around it on new year eve, this is an iconic image of Sydney and Australia itself .
Our next visit was to the world famous Opera House. It is one of the 20th century’s most famous and distinctive buildings that was formally opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 20 October 1973 after a long gestation and construction period of fourteen years marked by political and structural hurdles . The building comprises multiple performance venues which together host well over 1500 performances annually, attended by more than 1.2 million people. One of the most popular visitor attractions in Australia and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, more than eight million people visit the monument annually, and approximately 350,000 visitors take a guided tour of the building each year . Walking around the engineering marvel with our tour guide and capturing photographs from rare vantage points , we stuffed a quick lunch and proceeded to the nearby Royal Botanic Gardens with lush green grass and elegant flower beds. The ravishing park housed the Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair , an exposed sandstone rock carved into the shape of a bench by convicts in 1810 for Elizabeth, wife of Macquarie, the then Governor of New South Wales . Sitting on the chair in the serene ambience we really savored the captivating view of the Opera House with the Harbour Bridge at the backdrop. It was late evening by the time we were done with our selfies and so sauntered back to our hotel along the busy streets of the country that can definitely boast of its disciplined traffic and well mannered citizenry.
The next morning it was time to bid adieu to Sydney with a bagful of vivid memory from one of the finest cities in the world. The car as usual reported dot in time to take us to Qantas airport for the last leg of our journey home via Bangkok, in culmination of a lifetime experience of our sojourn Down Under.