In Australia, Diving Right Into Summer

Our columnist, Sebastian Modak, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2019 list. His stops in Australia were his 45th and 46th locations, following a visit to Danang, in Vietnam.

On a Sunday afternoon, at least 100 people were at Scarborough Beach, 20 minutes from downtown Perth, for the same reason: to dance. As the sun began to set behind a dense layer of clouds, turning the sky a pale lavender, salsa and bachata blared. With the free salsa lessons just ended, the party, put on by a group called WAZouk, began, and people from across ages and ethnicities paired up and twirled.

On a different Sunday, on the other side of Australia, I watched another crowd converge. Families strolled through the Bangalow Market, which takes place on the last Sunday of every month in the small town of the same name, browsing the stalls selling healing crystals and watercolors of the surrounding countryside. I bought a plate of gyoza and a mango smoothie and found a grassy corner to people-watch. Children pestered their parents for more ice cream, dreadlocked hippies sat in the shade of a giant eucalyptus tree. A performer, tangled gray hair cascading from underneath his top hat, controlled the strings of a fiddle-playing cat puppet. The unrelenting sun was like a furnace in the sky.

I arrived in Perth and the Northern Rivers region, the two Australian stops on the 52 Places list, on the edge of summer, which begins there on Dec. 1. I followed the season’s pull to local beaches. I hopped between farmers’ markets and open-air street food festivals. I saw so many smiles. I reveled being in a place that so values the magic of a sunny day — and I left rejuvenated as my yearlong journey entered its final stretch.

Perth stands out for its newness. The city seems to glisten, with shiny glass buildings lining clean streets and a waterfront that looks like it opened yesterday. This struck me all the more because the last time I was in Perth — as a teenager on a family trip from our home in Indonesia — I remember thinking how forgotten it seemed: You could walk down the middle of a road at 10 p.m. and not worry about being hit.

Perth, tied as it is to the mining industry that dominates Western Australia, has lived through a constant cycle of booms and busts. One of the more recent booms was in the mid-aughts and many of the city’s big new projects were conceived then. Many of these developments put the city on this year’s 52 Places list.

There’s Elizabeth Quay, opened in 2016, an amalgam of expensive-looking restaurants and hotels overlooking the Swan River, and Yagan Square, a new public space opened in 2018, which was being turned into a Christmas-themed wonderland when I arrived. In the courtyard outside a shopping mall, I ate Salvadoran pupusas from one of the food carts at the Twilight Hawkers Market, a global food fair that takes over the space every Friday night during the summer. For a city infamous for being far away from everything — including other Australian cities — it felt remarkably futuristic and cosmopolitan, bolstered by a huge population of immigrants.

While Sydney and Melbourne compete for cool points, Perth has risen above the fray to find contentment with what it has.

Take the 990-acre Kings Park, for example, which spreads across the city’s Mount Eliza like an emerald crown. Bigger than Central Park, it extends seemingly forever — and much of it is wild bushland. The park transitions seamlessly into a botanic garden, where bridges stretch over ravines and you can go on a self-guided walking tour of Western Australia’s surprisingly varied flora in just over an hour. Walking through the park on a weekday, crowds were thin but I encountered a couple surreptitiously sharing a bottle of wine while looking out over the city’s skyline.

“Where are you from?” I asked, assuming they were tourists.

“Here,” the man replied. “But it’s such a beautiful day out, why go to work?”

That utter embrace of all things summer — extended into after-hours, too. While Sydney’s lockout laws, an attempt to curb drunken violence, have all but killed the city’s famous night life, in Perth, bar culture is thriving. A recent change to the law lets establishments serve alcohol without food, and casual bars have popped up everywhere as a result. There’s plenty of messiness if that’s what you’re after, but I also had a quiet and world-class Negroni at Ezra Pound, and caught up with old friends in the giant backyard of Picabar, housed in a corner of the red brick Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts.

  • A must-do day trip is to Fremantle, or “Freo” as it is abbreviated. In the laid-back port town, just a train ride away from Perth, make sure to visit the bustling market and grab lunch at Little Creatures, an expansive brewery with surprisingly good food. The brewery also will rent you a bike for an hour free of charge.

  • A crop of new, fancy hotels has come up in Perth. I chose the QT Perth, part of a very hip Australian chain that leans into luxury by way of quirky décor. It’s well-located, walking distance from the city center’s main attractions, and more reasonably priced than some of the other new luxury offerings.

Much of Perth’s appeal is that it’s a base for great day trips. There are the beaches of course, like Scarborough where you can learn to dance salsa for free on Sundays, or Cottesloe, for gelato shops and quirky cafes. Or, farther afield, there’s the Margaret River region, a place of pilgrimage for wine lovers the world over. And then there’s Rottnest.

Despite its less than appealing name (from the Dutch “Rottenest” or “Rats’ Nest”), Rottnest Island has somehow managed to maintain the impression that you’re stepping onto pristine land, despite being immensely popular. A 90-minute ferry ride took me from Perth’s glittery waterfront, across inky blue ocean and onto the island.

There I rented a bike, included in the ferry ticket, and started winding up and down narrow roads under a cloudless sky. Sparse forests gave way to scrubland and marshes. Turning one corner I almost rode into a pale pink lake. Every once in a while, I’d come across a quokka, the perpetually smiling marsupials that the Dutch mistook for rats. And then, turning toward the coast, I started hitting the beaches.

The Indian Ocean radiated in multiple shades of blue, extending out into the horizon. I stepped onto a stretch of sand that looked like flour. I cooled off as other bathers took underwater selfies. I stepped over a quokka and got back on my bike. The beaches got emptier as I skirted the north coast of the island, away from the ferry terminal. I spent most of the afternoon down a steep hill at a beach called City of York, named after a ship that hit Rottnest’s perilous reef and sunk in 1899. I dozed off in the shade of an overhang, watching a leathery skink scuttle between the rocks.

Throughout my stay in Perth, I had the benefit of a guide — a childhood friend who has settled down in the city. Just before she dropped me off at the airport, as we had lunch at one of the countless Indonesian restaurants in the city, she thanked me when I should have been doing the thanking.

“You coming here has actually made me see how great this city really is,” she said.

I understood what she meant: when life is good, it’s easy to take it for granted.

If summer came early to Australia, bringing long days of hot beaches and cold beer, it also brought some less desirable phenomena. Bushfires, a regular summer occurrence in Australia’s dry eastern forests, are happening with greater frequency, intensity and reach. A three-year drought and above-average temperatures have turned entire stretches of the east coast into a tinderbox. Some of the worst-affected areas are right on the border between New South Wales and Queensland — precisely where I was headed next.

Northern Rivers is the name given to the northeast corner of New South Wales, where lush valleys spread out between three rivers and hug a sparkling coastline of white-sand beaches. Bohemian towns are spread across the region, where weekenders ride barefoot on bicycles turned rusty with salty air between throwback motels and beachside bars.

It was strange then to drive south from Brisbane into this vacationers’ playground armed with an app that tracks fires. After a fire-free drive, I arrived at Brunswick Heads, a quiet town where the Brunswick River empties into the Pacific Ocean. Families kayaked down the river and barbecued sausages in the park and the sky was blue. The only sign of something amiss was the haze that settled over the sun once it began to set.

Driving through the region, hopping between farmers’ markets and viewpoints, it was impossible to forget the tragic backdrop to my visit. I passed groves of hulking macadamia and pecan trees and ate lunch in the embrace of a cool breeze at The Farm, a farmers’ collective just outside of Byron Bay. But I also passed makeshift road signs advertising koala rescue hotlines and more than once hit dead ends, where volunteer firefighters asked me to turn around. I found Killen Falls, but it had slowed to a trickle from years of drought.

Eventually, I looped back to the coast, where I walked the giant strip of sand that wraps around Cape Byron. When I got too hot, I hid my backpack in the underbrush that abuts the sand and went for a swim. Eventually I turned from the beach into the bush and followed the trail up to the Cape Byron Lighthouse where crowds were already staking out their spots for sunset while pulling six packs and portable speakers from their backpacks. After the sky turned orange and then to black, I made my way back to Byron Bay and was confronted by the first major crowds I’d encountered in this part of the country.

  • While most international tourists make a beeline to Byron Bay, I noticed Australians preferred rented apartments in the quieter towns of Northern Rivers. I stayed at The Brunswick (formerly the Brunswick Heads Motel), where new management has given a comfortable, if basic, motel a classy face-lift.

  • If you’re traveling to eastern Australia now, download the Fires Near Me app, which crowdsources data from firefighting departments across the country to create a live map of bushfires. Most times, thankfully, you won’t be able to just stumble upon one as roads are closed in a wide radius from the worst conflagrations, but it’s better to be safe.

  • Apart from the monthly Bangalow Market, the Mullumbimby Farmers’ Market — every Friday morning — is worth checking out. Come hungry for breakfast and chat with the local farmers for a slice of life in Northern Rivers.

It was encouraging to see that places like Brunswick Heads or Federal, a tiny mountain town that time forgot, still felt local and quiet, especially in contrast to Byron Bay, which over the last 20 or so years has grown from hippie hideaway to tourist magnet. But with that new interest — and money — in the region have come some other developments: namely, a rapidly growing and frequently praised food scene.

Most of the time, you need to book three months ahead to get a seat at Fleet, a bar-space-only restaurant in Brunswick Heads that’s so unassuming that at first glance you could mistake it for another fish-and-chips spot. Because of a last-minute cancellation, they were able to squeeze me in for their “late lunch” service, which starts at 3 p.m., so I took my seat next to a honeymooning couple from Melbourne and began the three-and-half-hour eating experience.

I watched Chef Josh Lewis, who started Fleet with his partner, Astrid McCormack, work in the open kitchen with the intensity of a mad alchemist. There was a raw radish, coated in sesame seeds and tiny flakes of seaweed; a “schnitty sanga” (that’s schnitzel sandwich in Australian), made from veal sweetbreads. Defying everything I thought I knew about eating oysters, the bivalves were lightly cooked and served in a pool of sheep’s milk yogurt and under a heap of shaved macadamia nuts. The short rib was smothered in squid XO sauce and melted away before it could even reach the back of my mouth. The provenance of every dish was explained and virtually every ingredient could be found at a source a bike ride away.

Despite it being an early meal, all my plans for the rest of the day were scuttled and after a nightcap with my new honeymooning friends, I stumbled straight into bed.

On my last morning, I started early with a wide, aimless lap of the region. I drove up until I had a good viewpoint over the valley below. I could see a single plume of thick white smoke coming from a few miles away. I watched it for a few minutes and started a circuitous route back to the highway that would take me to Brisbane. Having not encountered a car for a good 30 minutes, I was startled by the sound of a honk behind me, as I made my way down a narrow country lane. A beat-up sedan came careening around me. Just as it overtook, the passenger — a shirtless, sunburned teenager — stuck two fingers out the window (not a peace sign) and yelled a racial slur at me.

Momentarily shaken, I pulled over. Stepping out of the car, I found myself face to face with one of the most beautiful trees I’ve ever seen. Perfectly symmetrical and the size of a townhouse, the tree’s roots extended above ground as far as its branches. My anxiety melted away.

Everything seems so in your face these days. Racism no longer hides. Climate change has caught up with us and its effects are plain to see. Is travel, carrying a sizable carbon footprint of its own, the ultimate escape that we need to stay sane or an opportunity to confront our failings head-on? After almost a year of travel, I still have more questions than answers.

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