Originally published on Advocate.com August 20 2002 12:00 AM ET
Adventures in Australia
Setting up a shoot
The home of Gay Games VI, coming in November, offers an incredible variety of sights and experiences, including a thriving gay community and an array of accommodations and establishments that cater to visiting gay folks. Join our reporter for a 10-day journey through many of the country's most appealing destinations in Sydney and beyond.
For most of us Western Hemisphere types, Australia is just so very far from our geographical homes that it exists more as an idea rather than an actual physical realm. Before my visit my own concept of the place was a pretty random amalgam of notions: I imagined a big, dusty land of scantily clad blond lifeguards and surf gods set against a backdrop of frolicking kangaroos where dingoes stole babies, where men were men and Priscilla was Queen, and everyone drank copious amounts of Fosters as wafts of didgeridoo and Kylie drifted across the hot breeze--in short, a bizarre but wonderful fantasy land. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Australians call their land Oz (and pronounce "Aussies" as "ozzies"), for it all seemed surreal and probably too good to be true.
Australia may not exactly be over the rainbow, but it is across the international date line. The long flight (15 hours on nonstop flights from Los Angeles to Sydney) isn’t as bad as it sounds, in my case thanks largely to Qantas’s lovely staff and creature comforts--something had to be going right for me to actually enjoy Kate & Leopold. Yet far more unsettling than my sudden lapse in taste was the nagging knowledge that I was losing an entire day. We left on Thursday evening and would be arriving Saturday morning, so would Friday ever exist? It was a bit much for my neurons to process, so I thought it best not to try. Besides, how dare I fret over losing one measly day when poor Meg Ryan was facing the infinitely more dire time-travel dilemma of whether or not to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge into a time warp which may or may not exist, ostensibly to live as Hugh Jackman’s 19th-century wife? Jump, girl, jump!
Checking the fit of the AussieBums on the models
I can now report that the best way to arrive in a new country (and forever erase any lingering concerns about day-loss) is to be shuttled directly to a beachside photo shoot of 20-odd barely clad hunky natives. An enterprising and amiable Sydney chap named Sean Ashby has created a glorious line of traditional (meaning "skimpy") Australian swimwear called, for a few reasons, AussieBum. It seems that Aussies favor the Speedo-style brief rather than the longer, baggier swimwear currently in vogue in the United States, so Ashby created a new prototype form-fitting suit and launched the AussieBum line. The suits have been wildly successful both at home and abroad, thanks in no small part to Ashby’s stable of sexy friends-turned-models: the Aussie bums themselves. And as our great luck would have it that Saturday morning, there they were, cavorting about on Sydney’s famous and stunning Bondi Beach, showing off the virtues of, well, Aussie bums.
Lining up, bum-to-bum, on the beach
Our film supply and shutter fingers worn out, we bid fond farewells to the boys and set on our way to the Gap, reputedly Sydney’s favorite suicide point. Yes, we’ve all had suicidal moments at the Gap for one reason or another, but this has nothing to do with ill-fitting khakis. The Aussie Gap is a clifftop park just south of Watsons Bay with breathtaking views of Sydney’s downtown in one direction and the Pacific Ocean in the other, hundreds of feet below.
Next in our onslaught of Oz experience, we were duly whisked to Sydney Football Stadium, a site for the upcoming Gay Games VI, which happen this November. On this afternoon a footy (that’s soccer to you and me) match was in full swing, replete with all the testosterone energy that such events induce. Imagine, if you will, 15 gay American journalists being led on a tour through a stadium of beer-soaked and rowdy Aussie hetero men. The sense of danger was at once tangible and alluring, especially as we piled en masse into the first restroom we’d seen in hours.
The Sydney Football Stadium
By now we were thoroughly spent, physically and mentally. We’d lost a day, we’d been blatantly teased on the beach, we’d contemplated past Aussie suicides, and we’d escaped being beaten senseless by a bloodthirsty horde. We needed naps. We were glad to be going back to the W Hotel, a magnificently converted dockside warehouse a few short blocks from Sydney’s main cluster of accommodations. Pretty much everything about the W is wonderful, from the harbor setting to the attractive and amiable staff to the large and perfectly appointed rooms: I had a bilevel number with a bath and a half. There’s also a lively and trendy mezzanine lounge. (The W Hotel is located at 6 Cowper Wharf Road, Woolloomooloo, NSW 2011; phone +61 (2) 9331-9000, fax +61 (2) 9331-9031).
Alas, we arrived at the W with just enough time to change for drinks and dinner. The adventure continued. Now they wanted to get us drunk and stuff us. It occurred to me that our hosts were trying to kill us either physically or psychologically, but I realized they could have easily offed us at The Gap if they’d wanted to.
This was all, I began to understand, the Aussie way to have fun, and moreover to live. Keep going. "No worries," as they are very wont to say. So drinks it was in the aforementioned W bar and dinner at the adjacent restaurant Manta Ray, a newly opened seafood paradise. There, our charmingly thespian waitress Tillie served our every need. Just past 11 one of us looked at his watch and that was all it took for the entire table to hit a collective wall. Like weary rats we scurried to our holes. (The Manta Ray is on Cowper Wharf Road, Woolloomooloo, NSW 2011; phone +61 (2) 9332-3822, fax +61 (2) 9332-3655.)
The next morning I awoke in Australia, a tad shell-shocked, but with an odd sense of contentment mixed with continuing intrigue. Where was I, really? What was this place? I turned on the telly. One should never underestimate the value of local television, by the way, for adding layers of cultural depth to one’s experience in a new country. Sunday morning Down Under, what would it be? Church? Hardly. Stand-up comedy. I watched a clearly very popular female comedian tell jokes that left her audience in stitches, but made absolutely no sense to me. "You know when your gran serves vegemite for tea…" Well, actually, no. The term "parallel universe" entered my head and echoed through it for the rest of the trip.
After breakfast our little group was bused to Sydney’s Olympic Park, an impressive testament to the creative and planning potential of modern man. Although it sits atop what was once a public landfill, the site is now the postcard of sleek utilitarianism. Every development facet--past, present, and future--seems to have been painstakingly considered. Many of the athlete apartments from the 2000 Olympics are being converted into sought-after condos. Conservationists ensure the ongoing preservation of a unique species of frog native to the site. It’s all part of the master plan. It felt vaguely Logan’s Run-ish: It was all a bit spooky in its utter perfection.
The Sydney Olympic Park
Our next destination was Katoomba, about 50 miles west of Sydney in the Blue Mountains, so named for the hue imposed by the eucalyptus oil rising off the trees. Here we met up with the lovely folks from Cox’s River Escapes, who run a variety of area tours and who on this day packed us into four-wheel-drive vehicles for an exciting (if somewhat harrowing) journey into the wilderness for a hillside picnic. Aussies, it seems, know what four-wheel-drive vehicles are meant for, and it ain’t show. One must breathe deep and trust that one’s driver knows intimately the power and tipability of one’s vehicle. We saw our first 'roos (as in kanga-), and we learned from our driver what to do if one is suddenly challenged by a 'roo in a contest of alpha-male showmanship: cough. Seems to a 'roo it’s a sign you’re submissive (note: tactic untested in Aussie gay bars). (Cox’s River Escapes can be reached at P.O. Box 81, Leura, NSW 2780; phone +61 (2) 4784-1621, fax +61 (2) 4784-2450, E-mail [email protected])
While at Katoomba the Scenic Skyway highwire is a must, via one of two routes from top to bottom and back. The slow route offers spectacular views of the Three Sisters rock formation and involves a glass-enclosed car dangling precariously from a tiny rod, sauntering into open space before shooting suddenly and lunch-disturbingly downward. The fast route is more or less a roller coaster, literally scaling the cliffside at a rapid 90-degree angle. We took the slow route down and the fast route back, which seems to make the most sense, save for the totally nonsensical experience of scaling a cliffside backwards at high speed in the dark.
In any new group environment, there’s generally a defining moment where old social barriers come crashing down and the variables of the burgeoning community dynamic come rushing forth. For us, this watershed moment happened on the bus ride back to Sydney that Sunday afternoon as we hit a nonscheduled snag: the end-of-weekend returning-to-Sydney traffic crawl. We were worn out, jet-lagged, and irked that the sun was setting at 5 in the afternoon in May. So, naturally, the topic turned to hanky codes. It was all downhill from there--although not nearly fast enough for our poor but ever-cheery driver, Marilyn. She later claimed she’d heard it all before, but I could tell she was lying. I mean, I’ve been gay for 38 years, and I heard stuff that day I’d never heard before and quite frankly hope to never hear again.
After a much-needed, not-long-enough 10-minute nap, we re-convened for dinner at Bistro Lulu where we met up with Dominic O’Grady, editor and publisher of Gay Australia Guide. Kudos to Dominic for indulging and taking us on an after-dinner Sydney pub-bar-club crawl. (Bistro Lulu is at 257 Oxford St., Paddington, NSW 2021; phone +61 (2) 9380-6888, fax +61 (2) 9331-8572, E-mail [email protected])
Our first stop was ARQ (16 Flinders St., Paddington; phone +61 (2) 9380-8700), Sydney’s main gay disco--which was wholly underwhelming. We could’ve been anywhere in the Western world, given the average gay look, the average gay dance music, and the average gay drugginess. We ventured onward to the Barracks (at the rear of the Taylor Square Hotel, Patterson Lane, Surry Hills; phone +61 (2) 9360-6373), Sydney’s leather bastion, where we found two people, one of whom was the bartender. Daunted but determined, we set off for Phoenix at The Exchange Hotel (34 Oxford St., Darlinghurst; phone +61 (2) 9331-1936). Good tribal vibe, but we were, by now, toast. We stumbled home.
Australia’s largest city, Sydney is a gleaming and sprawling metropolis with the world’s biggest urban-suburban area, twice the size of Beijing. Its myriad unique enclaves tend to render overall descriptions inadequate. Monday was a spectacularly bright and sunny late-fall Australian day, perfect for our leisurely sailboat ride around Sydney’s incredible harbor. Aside from affording us great vistas of the gorgeous waterfront scenery (including the magnificent and famous Jørn Utzon-designed Opera House), the cruise enabled us to size up our coming challenge, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, by passing under it several times. We knew in a few hours time we’d be climbing atop it, just like the tiny folks we could presently barely see astride its massive arch.
The Sydney Harbor
The Harbour Bridge was the greatest Australian industrial undertaking of its day. Built from 1923 to 1932, for many years it held the record as the world’s largest single-span bridge, affectionately called "the Coat Hanger" by locals. Until a few years ago, climbing the bridge’s great arch was possible (thanks to an ingenious maintenance-crew staircase) but highly illegal. Leave it to the enterprising Aussies to turn what was once the domain of rebellious thrill-seekers into a full-fledged and highly organized tourist attraction. Hundreds of people now climb the bridge every day under the expert guidance of BridgeClimb (5 Cumberland St., The Rocks; phone +61 (2) 9240-1100).
We joined the ranks that afternoon by donning specially designed suits and gear that would link us each to the bridge itself for the duration of the climb. We were carefully trained what to do and what not to do. The entire operation is a marvel of efficiency--so thorough that nothing is left to chance and so quick and assembly line-like that before you know it, you’re climbing the damn bridge. You realize that you’re very high above the street below, then you’re climbing ladders between lanes of traffic, then you’re on a staircase that takes you ever higher and higher above the Bradfield Highway. You can’t help but be amazed and bedazzled. The view is simply incomparable. Though it meant descending in darkness, I’m so glad we climbed at the time of day we did, since watching the sunset with the whole of Sydney from our vantage point was unforgettable.
Tuesday morning we left Sydney for the northern Australian city of Cairns (pronounced "cans"), the main jumping-off point to resorts and sights of the tropical Queensland state. The heat and humidity were immediately tangible, as was an overall earthier feel. Here I glimpsed my first aboriginal woman, a dark black lady with an intensely powerful aura, clad oddly, it seemed to me, in a dainty mid-length pastel cotton frock, the kind of summer dress a trendy Hollywood actress would throw on. She was striking--a sight to behold--and she knew it, but she didn’t like it. Heads turned. I turned away, embarrassed for staring. When I looked back mere seconds later, she had vanished. Goosebumps. I knew I’d just sensed a power more ancient and profound than anything my lily-white Western mind had previously comprehended.
Like the lemmings we’d now become, our diverse but ever-closer little group of gay and lesbian American (and one Canadian) journalists and our Aussie hosts filed aboard a waiting bus, which duly hauled us north along Queensland’s spectacular coast. We stopped for lunch at Turtle Cove, an intimate and friendly gay beachside resort. It was Nude Week at the Cove--unlucky for us because the full bookings meant we couldn’t stay the night. But even for a drop-by, Turtle Cove is a lovely and relaxed locale with quick and easy access to larger area resort towns like Port Douglas, where we now headed. (Turtle Cove can be reached at P.O. Box 158, Smithfield, QLD 4878; phone +61 (7) 4059-1800, fax +61 (7) 4059-1969, E-mail [email protected])
Our home for the next two nights was the delightful Port Douglas Peninsula, a beachside boutique hotel with just the right mix of luxury and casual, run by the kiwi expatriate Batkin family. (The Peninsula is at 9-13 The Esplanade, Port Douglas QLD 2871; phone +61 (7) 4099-9100, fax +61 (7) 4099-5440, E-mail [email protected].)
Our first night in Port Douglas was magical. A warm Pacific breeze blew through the cozy hamlet as we walked to On the Inlet, a lively dockside seafood restaurant-bar, where we scarfed down sea creatures and beer as the sun set and the moon and stars rose. For most of us it was our first time to see the Southern Cross. We must have been quite a sight: 15 tipsy homosexuals strolling down the street with our heads all turned to the sky as we moved onward to a fantastic dinner at Swish, a gay-owned restaurant with an absolutely divine array of food and drink (the Mango Queen dessert wine is indescribably excellent). Our host was the suave and engaging Jeff Gale, who told us about Port Douglas’s rising visibility as a gay and lesbian destination (a new resort, Pink Flamingo, just opened). Hopefully we didn’t disappoint Jeff too much by pooping out on him--he was anxious to show us the town’s gay nightlife, but we were simply too satiated for anything but bed. (Swish is at Upstairs Club Tropical Resort, Wharf St., Port Douglas QLD 4871; phone +61 (7) 4099-4889, E-mail [email protected]).
Our guide, Andrew Dineen, having an inflight nap