A parallel universe in Australia

Rays at SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Kevin Maimann/QMI Agency

Rays at SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Kevin Maimann/QMI Agency


, Last Updated: 10:31 AM ET

I found myself in a strange parallel universe after a 24-hour plane ride.

I left Edmonton in the dead of winter and was suddenly standing in Edmonton, Australia, surrounded by rainforest, while the December sun fried my pale skin at a sizzling 35 C.

In nearby Cairns, the beautiful city of 150,000 where I landed, I sat by a pool in the town square gawking at a gigantic decorated Christmas pine surrounded by palm trees. I quickly understood why they call Australia the Land Down Under — everything is upside-down, or at least a little topsy-turvy.

I was about to discover a whole new kind of topsy-turvy. Since I booked my vacation on a whim and relied on my credit card and boyish charm to compensate for my lack of planning, I hadn’t familiarized myself with details of a three-day snorkeling tour I booked in the Great Barrier Reef.

Expecting day trips and easy living, I wound up on a boat for three days in the middle of the ocean, sleeping precariously on the top of a half-single-sized bunk with no railing to prevent me from rolling off every time a wave hit. Sleeping was soon the least of my concerns as I quickly discovered I get seasick, and spewed off the side of the boat within 30 minutes of boarding.

Beautiful coral reef

Once I calmed my nerves and jumped into the water, the initial shock became a distant memory. I swam through clusters of fish in more colours and sizes than I could have imagined, as they slipped in and out of astounding mounts of coral reef that peak just below the ocean’s glistening teal surface. If you go diving, you’ll be treated to sharks, stingrays and turtles as well.

After three days of snorkelling alongside 30 other travellers from around the world, our crew wound down with a nice dinner in Cairns, followed by dancing on top of picnic tables at a local backpackers’ bar.

On Day Four, I rolled out of my hotel with a sense that the ground would not stop swaying underneath me after getting off the boat. I caught a three-hour plane ride to Sydney just in time to see Norwegian rock ’n’ rollers Turbonegro play at the Hi-Fi, located in Sydney’s sleek, hip Entertainment Quarter.

The next day I settled into the Sydney Central YHA Hostel and explored the harbours, trendy Surry Hills, and requisite tourist sites like the legendary Sydney Opera House. The weather in the big city was more bearable, mostly sitting below 25 C.

The next day I went up the Sydney Tower and walked out on a glass plank 268 metres high, catching blustery winds and a spectacular view of one of the planet’s most gorgeous cities.

Exploring the nightlife

There’s only so much you can learn about a place without exploring its nightlife, and that night I did so with five stereotypically hard-drinking Irish lads who had just arrived in Sydney. After eight rounds of drinks I opted to sit the next one out, only to have my new friend politely tell the waitress, “He’s Canadian. He doesn’t really drink.”

We left a three-floor nightclub called Scruffy Murphys around 4 a.m. and stumbled over to King’s Cross, where the bars don’t bother to close. I had heard about the notorious area — the rough part of town, once riddled with gang activity but sort-of reformed. What we found was more akin to a red-light district; not what we were seeking to say the least. I later discovered the area has small music venues and cool shopping spots, so don’t avoid it — just exercise caution at night.

I spent the rest of my time in Sydney meeting European and Asian travellers and checking out spots like the Wild Life zoo and the Sea Life aquarium, which boasts a glass-floor shark tank. Feeling a touch homesick without my guitar, I stopped by Sydney’s Hard Rock Café one night to play some tunes on the open stage, which was run by a failed ’80s rock star with an extensive repertoire of Bon Jovi and Poison songs.

On my final day I took a full-day tour to the magnificent Blue Mountains, driven by a chatty elderly tour guide who claimed he once played rhythm guitar for Roy Orbison. Beautiful streams and waterfalls hid among the trees and mountain paths en route to the renowned Three Sisters rock formation. In the distance, an impenetrable sea of deep green trees was iced with a subtle blue fog that seemed to stretch forever.

I hit the town once more on my last night before whiling away my scorcher of a final day on the pristine, golden sands of busy Bondi Beach.

Kangaroo back scratchers

At that point I had exhausted my bank account, as everything in Australia is exorbitantly priced. Gas was $1.50 AUD per litre, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a coffee for under $3 or a beer for under $7.

If you take issue with leather and fur, you should also brace yourself for innumerable items made from kangaroos in nearly every shop. The strangest ones I came across were bottle openers attached to kangaroo scrotums, and back scratchers made from the animals’ disembodied arms. Although, the kangaroo jerky was pretty tasty.

For a solo traveller looking for warmth and adventure without giving up first-world amenities, the Land of Oz turned out to be an ideal destination. After a scenic walk through Hyde Park, I’ll admit my eyes watered as I hailed a cab to the airport. In two weeks I had barely scraped the surface of the massive continent.

The salt on my fresh wounds was a 42-hour plane ride home, with a 12-hour layover in Beijing during which security refused to let me leave the airport. Even freezing my man parts off in -20 C weather back home is paradise compared to that nightmarish commute. Still, I could have done with a few more weeks of that sizzling Aussie sun.