Editor at Large
Smithsonian magazine editor's job involves working mostly behind the scenes. We think of ourselves as deskbound, though the truth is, our combined travel experiences would fill months of magazine pages. So from time to time one of us will share a journey or two. This month we present the down under travel experiences of longtime editor Edwards Park, originator of the magazine's "Around the Mall and Beyond" column. Ted got up from his desk a number of times over the years to go to "Oz," a land that became his second home.
Going the Distance
by Edwards Park
For some arcane reason, Americans need a visa to visit Australia. Until computers took over, we had to apply for it, and those who lived near Washington, D.C. often went straight to the Australian Embassy. My passport still has one obtained there in 1994. I remember answering the standard questions, including: "Have you visited Australia before?"
"Yes," I said.
"When was your last visit?"
"Two years ago."
"Was that your first time?"
"No, that would be 1942, during the war. Then 1946."
The official looked up from the application form. "Any other visits?"
"Yes," I said. "Between 20 and 30."
And then I had to explain that my wife is an Australian, that we lived in Melbourne for five years, and have since returned whenever we could. Australia is my country-in-law, and obviously, I'm very fond of it.
Getting there used to be half the fun. In the late 1930s it called for a seagoing vacation on a comfortable Matson liner, or a mostly luxurious aerial journey by flying boat from Britain. Our first tickets for transpacific flights in pre-jet days included a 30-hour layover in a good Honolulu hotel, a couple of hours at tiny, equatorial Canton Island and an afternoon and evening at Nandi, in the Fiji Islands. Time in the air was spent chatting with fellow adventurers—there weren't many of them—eating splendid food and nodding off to the lulling beat of four mighty engines.
Some of these propeller-driven planes were sleepers, the seats compartmented and made into berths by the steward. But who could resist stepping out in the wee hours at Canton for a cup of U.S. Navy coffee and a look at the atoll's one tree? The whole flight took about four days, and left indelible and pleasant memories.
Today, Australia's famous government-sponsored airline, Qantas, makes the trip nonstop from Los Angeles to Sydney in less than 15 hours! You board a jumbo jet, modified to take fewer passengers and more fuel, and settle down for an arduous—but shortened—sentence in an aluminum jail. Many Australia-bound passengers prefer to stop over in Hawaii for a touch of paradise before facing the nine-hour leg to Sydney.
Qantas (the name is an acronym for Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service) is still the dominating Pacific airline, though some American lines take on the Australia run at various times. Also, Air New Zealand does it, usually laying over at Tahiti before going on to Auckland, then across the Tasman Sea to the faint white line of surf that marks the 4,000-mile east coast of "Oz." It's a longer, more costly flight, but a good one. Ask a New Zealand air hostess for a martini, and she's likely to pass over the necessary bottles. "I'm no good at that," she'll say, charmingly. "Help yourself."
Cost for any ticket fluctuates with the seasons. You may pay surprisingly little. But face it: the physical demands of sitting, cramped, hour after hour, are a special torture alleviated only by struggling out of your seat and trying to walk up and down the aisles, past food and drink carts, perhaps to join the line waiting to get in to the loo.
If you have Australian hosts awaiting you, remember that their "sin taxes" on liquor and cigarettes are much higher than in the States. So perhaps you may risk trying an American duty-free shop for your present. But real duty-free bargains are elusive, and stories are told of famous-name Scotch whiskey that turned out to be mostly water. Sydney's duty-free shops, many of them along Pitt Street, seem more trustworthy, and are always worth a look.
The demands of arrival in Sydney may prove almost too hard to bear after your long flight. The airport is just as overcrowded and under-efficient as those in the States. If you've scheduled an immediate domestic flight to another city, you probably can't make it. But the airport's porters can help greatly—for a few American bills. Aussies avoid tipping unless for extra service. Help at the airport often qualifies.
Generally, if you plan to go anywhere else in this enormous country, you should stop over in Sydney for a night or two after your arrival. You need the rest, and this is a glorious place to get it. Many of the big hotels are outrageously expensive, but others, more reasonable, can be found. And at the time of writing, at least, the exchange rate is highly favorable to us Yanks.
Australian money is simple, attractive and easy to learn—coins for one and two dollars, bills for five, ten, twenty, fifty and a hundred dollars, growing in size as their value goes up—a convenience when paying for a taxi at night.
As the regretful time to leave Oz approaches, check to see if you'll need a departure fee and keep it handy. And have a good look at your last Australian sunset. The whole trip's worth it.