Our trip to Australia has been, done and gone. In pre-Covid times, a trip across the ditch was not a major one. For us it is just two flights with a total of about 4 hours in the air. Four hours can get you a long way in Europe but for New Zealanders, it gets us to our closest neighbour. We fly longer and further than anybody else to get to most places so it is not long haul until it is a 12 hour flight and that only gets us into Asia or Los Angeles.
But times have changed with Covid and this trip to Australia to reunite with our children felt like a major event. It was between two and three years since we had seen them in person and that was our focus. We met up in Ulladulla first, a beach town three hours’ drive south of Sydney. What a pretty coastline that is, full of attractive bays, golden sand and an unthreatening ocean – though it was too autumnal for any of us but the five year old grandson to go swimming.
Where we live in Taranaki, our beaches and coastline are grand and wild west coastline with unpredictable seas, big surf and vast expanses of dramatic black sand. That Australian coastline seemed benign and user-friendly in comparison. Ulladulla had a vibe that was vaguely reminiscent of Cornwall fishing villages to us.
The sight of the most enormous stingrays we have ever seen was a reminder that it is not as benign as it appears. I was not at all sure I would want to swim amongst monsters like that. The Australian Museum site tells me that ‘The Smooth Stingray is the largest of all Australian stingrays (Family Dasyatidae). It grows to 4.3 m in length, 2 m disc width and a weight of 350 kg.’ I have no idea if we were looking at smooth stingrays but it does confirm that my memory is not playing tricks on the astonishing size of the ones we saw.
While the temperatures felt very similar to those we had been experiencing at home, the common garden plants told us that the climate is warmer than ours. We have seen Cordyline fruticosa (formerly C. terminalis) growing wild on the roadsides of Bali but unless you have a very favoured spot in NZ, preferably in the more sub-tropical north, it is a house plant here. It was in every second garden in that area of coastal New South Wales. What it lacks in subtlety, it makes up for with its exotic tropical vibe.
Australia has its own native cordylines but gardeners there embrace all manner of different species and cultivars and, galling though it is to admit it, our native NZ cordylines look better as garden plants there than here. That is because our plants get attacked by a native caterpillar – Epiphryne verriculata – which gives our plants a perpetually motheaten, chewed appearance.
The splendid tibouchinas in full bloom also featured strongly. Commonly known as lasiandra in Australia, these are tropical plants originating from Central America – mostly Mexico, Brazil and the Caribbean. Again, these are conditions that can only be replicated in the warmest areas of northern NZ so we don’t see them like this in Taranaki. Some may think they are garish but there aren’t too many plants that are a blaze of glory in mid to late autumn.
While this pink one was highly visible from the road, I stopped to ask the garden owner if I could photograph it because I thought it may worry her to see a random stranger photographing the front of her place. I did take more arty photos of close-ups of the flowers, but I quite like it in the context of the whole front garden, which had its own flavour. The owner was so thrilled by my request, she took me round the back to show me the purple one above.
Australians love their sasanqua camellias and they were looking very pretty everywhere but I came home with not a single photo featuring them, so you will just have to take my word for it.
After Ulladulla, we relocated a little further south to Bateman’s Bay. This was entering bushfire territory from the summer of 2019-2020, now referred to as the Black Summer. That was haunting but the story of 37 000 hand-knitted wattle flowers commemorating the event will have to wait for my next post.