WORDS: SIRISH CHANDRAN
‘There’s no such thing as Australian cuisine, yet their food is great, and a lot of it has to do with MasterChef’
IN THE FIRST PART OF OUR AUSTRALIAN ROAD TRIP, WE DRIVE FROM BRISBANE TO ULURU IN THE HEART OF THE OUTBACK
It’s been ages since I last came to Australia, probably over a decade, but I still remember my first time Down Under. I was barely six months into my very first job, so you can imagine the delight with which I packed a suitcase for Canberra, to report on our Indian MRF team’s maiden shot at the Asia Pacific rally championship. It was a blast. Aussies are an incredibly outdoorsy bunch; they love their cars, sport, barbeques and beer. The sun is always out, the weather, at least during the rallies, was always nice, and every important city glistens against the oceans – except Canberra whose planners were so enthusiastic about parks that they even threw a lawn on top of the parliament house. Most of all, the Aussies are fun loving guys and it’s impossible not to be entertained by a lot whose standard response to anything is ‘no worries’. “Can I have my steak medium rare?” “No worries.” “You mean to say the room doesn’t have an attached bathroom?” “No worries mate, it’s just down the hall.” “How many kangaroos did you say you hit?” “Two mate, but no worries the hopper stopper took it. Your cars… umm… don’t seem to have one.” Err
CUTE AND CUDDLY
Our road trip begins at Brisbane and we drive out to the Lone Pine sanctuary, the world’s largest reserve for the koala. The koala is that little teddy-bear like animal that, along with the kangaroo and emu, are unique to Australia – and like the kangaroo, it is a marsupial, in that the young are nursed in the belly pouch till they are ready to step out into the big bad world and… sleep for 20 hours every day. The koalas feed only on eucalyptus leaves and that has such a low calorific value that they have to conserve energy by sleeping. For 20 hours! It’s why the park rangers only allow the animals to be held for a maximum of 20 minutes everyday (and they have a weekly off!) – which is a good thing as they don’t really seem to enjoy being hugged by an assortment of excitable visitors, some with questionable personal hygiene. And in any case they’re cutest when perched on a branch, eyes shut tight, oblivious to the world rushing past.
Half an hour out of Brisbane on the M1 highway, begin the series of towns that together form the Gold Coast. It’s impossible to miss it, glitzy towers shimmering against the beautiful waters of the Pacific, all with a decidedly Miami beach vibe to it. What was supposed to be a quick breakfast dragged on for hours as we got our feet wet, strolled down the promenade buzzing with joggers and got distracted by ladies in yoga pants doing their stretches. Surfer’s Paradise was once called Elston. Imagine going half way across the world to the beaches of… Elston, which is why the city fathers renamed the town after a groovy hotel on the shore. Surfer’s Paradise picked up in the fifties, followed by a construction boom in the seventies, and then the arrival of unsavoury elements of all sorts. There are now, allegedly, so many mobsters around that you really don’t want to get into a fender bender here.
SYDNEY V MELBOURNE
“In Melbourne all views are equally depressing, so there’s no point in having one… no one in Sydney ever wastes time debating the meaning of life – it’s all about getting yourself a water frontage. People devote a lifetime to the quest.” David Williamson, one of Australia’s best known dramatists is right – Sydney is all about the water. The view of the Opera House. The grand old Harbour Bridge. The bewitching blue waters that lap on to Darling Harbour. The seal that lazes on the steps near the Opera House. It is a spectacularly grand and opulent sight, and everything looks even better when you take a boat out into the harbor. Whatever has to be said about the Opera House has already been said, so I won’t go into it except reiterating that it really is as dramatic as every travel magazine and blog has made it out to be. For me though, the Harbour Bridge is an even more magnificent sight, a hulking great iron structure that looks like the heaviest thing on earth.
The arch alone weighs 30,000 tonnes. Four great stone pillars support the bridge on either end. The metal plates and girders are held together by six million rivets, each nearly the size of a football. And you can walk the entire arch. It’s an unshakable symbol of might – of engineering prowess and industrial strength. You don’t go to war with people capable of building such edifices. Yet for everything that Sydney has to offer, I prefer Melbourne. It’s the same Delhi versus Mumbai debate we have back at home, and it all boils down to personal preference. Melbourne has a less hectic pace of life, all the random art installations dotted around the city make it more interesting, there’s a more cultural vibe to it, the bars we went to in the evening were more friendly and – I’m told – things are a fair bit cheaper too.
MELBOURNE CRICKET GROUND
My world doesn’t come to a stop when a man hurls a ball at great speed while another man with mattresses strapped to his legs tries to club it out of the way often jauntily uniformed guys. But I have to say there’s history in the game, and it’s all captured beautifully at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The MCG is as old as the founding of the city (the Brits really liked their cricket!) and the pictures and paintings in the great halls capture the evolution of Australia’s two favourite games (cricket and Aussie Rules Football), commemorate the iconic batting and bowling performances at the grounds (only test cricket counts) and pay homage to the masters. They’re particularly proud of a picture of Don Bradman and Sachin Tendulkar shot on the former’s 90th birthday, of which there are only four copies in existence, and in front of which every Indian goes mental with his camera phone. The MCG has become a major tourist destination for us Indians and you don’t have to be a fan of the game to take in the magnificence of the member’s lounge, peek into the commentary boxes and marvel at the views the journos get, poke about the changing rooms, wander through the stands and whistle at the majesty of the ground itself.
FOOD, FOOD, FOOD
There’s no such thing as Australian cuisine, yet their food is great, and a lot of it has to do with MasterChef. Ever since the series took off, restaurants all over the country have been paying more attention to quality, presentation, and the small little things that elevate a good meal to greatness. We visit George Calombaris’ Greek restaurant Gazi in the heart of Melbourne, and since we landed at prep time, head chef Guillaume threw us an apron and showed us how to make two of Gazi’s acclaimed dishes. The signature fries – first fry the fries, then throw in a generous amount of garlic oil, sprinkle oregano salt, add more garlic oil, top it with feta cheese and you have ridiculously delicious fries. Even better were the crabs – soft shell crabs dipped in Aleppo flour (how do they get that out of war torn Syria?), seared in olive oil and folded into a naan-kind of bread that’s seasoned with Japanese mayo and herbs. Over the two weeks in Australia I put on nearly five kilos and don’t need a belt to hold up my jeans anymore. And now my wife has me on a salad and roast chicken diet.
GREAT DRIVING ROAD
I’ll be brutally honest here, driving in Australia is boring as hell. The maximum you can do on the motorway is 110kmph, most places it is between 80 and 90kmph. Out of Brisbane, the roads are brilliantly smooth, amazingly well marked and not a speed breaker or pothole in sight, but it’s boring. Really, really boring. We head out of Sydney into the Blue Mountains and on to old Cox’s road, built by thirty convicts who won their freedom by cutting a path through the rugged and treacherous mountains in six months. The road passes through quaint villages and some awesome sights like the Three Sisters. But if there’s only one drive you can do, it has to be the Great Ocean road. I’ve read so much about it, seen so many pictures, but still the first time you hit the Pacific coast, your mind is blown. For the next three hours the road hugs the mountainside, snaking sinuously past awesome lookout points, waves crashing against the cliffs on your left, camper vans lazing by the back waters on the right. It’s properly awesome and gets even more otherworldly at the Twelve Apostles.
All those Great Ocean road pictures have the Apostles, essentially limestone pillars, sticking out of the ocean, getting plastered silly by the waves, eroding at the rate of 30cm every year. Some even let out a big old sigh and crumbled into the ocean in what I can only assume to be a spectacular event. Today, the eight Apostles make up one of the world’s great sights. The mountain, it’s called the Blue Hell – a track as dangerous as the Green Hell (the Nurburgring) and perched across the Blue Mountains, hence blue. If you’re a PlayStation regular you’ll be familiar with the Mount Panorama circuit, at Bathurst, definitely one of the world’s great street circuits alongside Monaco, Spa, Le Mans and Macau. And it’s a proper public road; within the loop of the 6.2km circuit are vineyards and a homestay that urged us to buy some of their home made jams. It’s only closed on race days and so we set off in our Mercs, fully-laden with all our luggage and equipment, for a few laps.
What goes with great food? Great wine! We visited the Barossa Valley close to Adelaide and what followed was a great day at Jacob’s Creek, a vineyard that started way back in 1847 by a German immigrant Johann Gramp who sold his wines under the Orlando name. It was only in the seventies that the vines took the name of the creek running through the property and today they are one of the more popular Australian wines, familiar even back home in India. A tasting session with Jacob’s Creek’s wine ambassadors revealed some full-bodied reds, light and fresh whites, and a really lovely sparkling rosé that all of us had to take back home. I’m not a wine connoisseur to be honest but the great thing about Jacob’s Creek is the unpretentiousness of the whole thing. Australia is your archetypal no-bullshit country and their wines are in the same mould – to be enjoyed without requiring you to stick your nose in the glass, gargle the wine and know a Shiraz from a Muscat (they are grapes, by the way). The bigger treat was another cooking session with head chef Nick Tucker, in the style of all those new cookery shows on the tele. Out in the sunshine the coals had warmed up on a big barbeque and as soon as we got there, bowls were thrust into our hands and we went picking in the gardens for roots and leaves.
Farm fresh takes a whole new meaning when you decide on what you’re going to cook based on what’s ready in the garden – and even for a hardcore meat eater there’s great joy to be had in cooking, and eating, what you’ve just picked by hand. In the pan went Jerusalem artichokes along with all the salad leaves and in another pan, carrots were sautéed and then tossed around with yoghurt. On the meat side we had chicken seasoned only with salt (Nick’s tip – when you think you’ve put enough salt, add some more) and then placed on the barbeque. You’d think just salt on chicken, how will that taste, but the coals and the slow-cooking really work a treat and the meal ended up being outrageously delicious, washed down with a lovely Chardonnay. I say washed down but it was only one glass, after which we spent a few hours wandering through the Jacob’s Creek vineyards before heading back on to the road and on to Port Augusta.
STAY ON THIS ROAD FOR THE NEXT 450KM
That’s the Google Maps lady giving us directions. There’s one road leading up to Uluru in the heart of Australia through the Outback and that’s that. Hit cruise control, crank up the tunes and keep eyes peeled for the kangaroos. Out here there are (many) more SUVs than cars and all have sturdy off-road bumpers with immense bullbars on them called Hopper Stoppers – for when a kangaroo comes bounding in front of the car. Everybody, and I mean every single person who heard we were driving in Australia, warned us to be careful of the kangaroos; the cops that stopped us to check our Indian number plates had just hit two on the road we were about to head out on, and the nice old lady at the motel in Port Augusta happily recounted gory details of patrons coming into her driveway with chunks hanging off their cars. You then start to notice all the carcasses by the side of the road. And then you realise why you passed so many cars with missing headlamps and dented bonnets. High beams on, speed dropped right down, maximum alertness. This is where our adventure into the outback begins.