‘Land of Oz’ Nickname Fits Australia’s Magic

Posted By Mike Padgett

April 20, 2010

MELBOURNE, Australia – The wheels are coming up on this steel bird lifting off from the Land of Oz.

Our United Airlines 747 climbs easily, pointed east from Melbourne, bound for Sydney. There we’ll change planes for a nonstop flight to Los Angeles.

The 747 crew’s commentary fades as I look back at Melbourne and Port Phillip Bay. Melbourne is a city of more than 4 million.

Melbourne is said to have the nation’s most elaborate Victorian architecture. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Victorian architecture blends with gleaming contemporary high-rise office buildings. And to keep up with Melbourne’s growing population, there are plans for several new high-density residential towers and other developments.

Australia sometimes is affectionately called Oz. Maybe it’s because the nation’s name sounds like Oz-tray-lia. Or maybe, like the fantasy novel, “The Wizard of Oz,” it’s because Australia is a land of come-to-life magic. It has koalas, kangaroos, cassowaries and other creatures found nowhere else.

Australia’s people, too, are magical. They are outgoing and full of energy. They enjoy sports and athletics as much as, if not more than, Americans, if that’s possible. The sports sections of their newspapers are as large as the rest of the paper.

Although Australia is about the size of the United States, about 90 percent of Australia’s 22 million residents live within an hour’s drive of the coast.

During our journey in Oz, I was impressed by the warmth and courtesy exhibited by most workers in hotels and restaurants in Sydney, Melbourne and the friendly beachfront communities along the Great Ocean Road.

A businessman with enterprises in the United States and Australia invited us to dinner at the Meat & Wine Co. Steakhouse at Melbourne’s Queensbridge Square. He says Aussies have a powerful work ethic, but without the level of competitive pressures found in the U.S.

That competitive pressure in the U.S., he adds, can be a negative influence on productivity. Maybe we need tea breaks, like Australia.

First stop: Photographs and memories

Our Easter trip began in Sydney, where during our 2006 adventure we explored the Opera House and enjoyed the play, “Pirates of Penzance.”

This new adventure in Oz, four years later, took me back in time. We stayed at the Radisson Plaza Hotel Sydney. And because of my career in newspapers, the boutique hotel became a personal time machine. The Radisson is in a historic building that drew me into journalism’s past, a legacy that – because of the digital age and the 24-hour news machine – today exists only in photographs and memories.


The Radisson Plaza Hotel Sydney is in a historic building that once was home to Australia’s oldest newspaper. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

The original building on the site dates to 1856 “when it was home to John Fairfax & Sons, publishers of Australia’s oldest surviving newspaper,” The Sydney Morning Herald, according to the hotel’s web site. The existing building was erected on a triangular-shaped city block in the 1920s.

The final edition of the Herald written and typeset in the building was in December 1955. The Radisson, with 336 rooms and 26 suites, was opened in 2000 in the heart of Sydney’s business district. Two of the executive offices have been preserved largely as they were when the Herald was in the building.

As I studied historical photographs of the building’s earliest years, I could only imagine the generations of reporters responsible for countless news stories and writing honors.

The black-and-white photos show streets filled with horse drawn buggies and streetcars. They show workers loading bundles of newspapers onto small flatbed trucks. It was a different era.

I could almost feel and hear the vibrations of giant printing presses. I remembered, from my own experiences, the camaraderie and energies of a daily newsroom, the adrenaline rushes, the smell of ink, and the vacations and weekends sacrificed to catch up with sources and finish stories.

On the hotel lobby walls are a few inspirational quotes. One is especially appropriate to the building’s link to wordsmiths. “It’s all a big game of construction, some with a brush, some with a shovel. Some choose a pen.” The quote is attributed to American painter Jackson Pollock.

The Radisson is a short walk from many of Sydney’s major attractions – the harbor, which is busy with commuter ferries, whale watching cruises, and the occasional ocean liner; the Opera House next to the harbor; and The Rocks, a historic part of Sydney listed as the “birthplace of European Australia” in a walking tour pamphlet. Visit www.rockswalkingtours.com.au for more information.

The Sydney Opera House is a multi-venue facility completed in 1973. Two security guards were among a handful of visitors on an early March morning. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Pedestrian traffic in downtown Sydney is heavy because of the choices of mass transit – the ferries, buses, monorail, trains and light rail. Also noticeable is the mutual respect between motorists and pedestrians.

One of Sydney’s most popular events is The Rocks Markets. Every Friday evening, city workers erect barricades to convert a block of George Street into an arts and crafts fair venue. The city crews then install canopies for dozens of local arts and crafts dealers and food vendors. Saturdays and Sundays, The Rocks Markets is packed with thousands of shoulder-to-shoulder visitors perusing or buying the arts and crafts and enjoying local foods and produce.

Vendors offer arts and crafts, fresh produce, jewelry, bakery items and other goods every weekend in The Rocks Markets. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Our favorite places in The Rocks include the Baker’s Oven Café, where we enjoyed lunches at covered bistro tables in the courtyard; local bakeries and restaurants; and art galleries.

A stay in Sydney isn’t complete without visiting the Queen Victoria Building, a block-square Victorian building that opened as a shopping market in the 1890s. Today, the QVB houses more than 180 boutique shops and restaurants on four levels.

A few blocks away is another popular shopping site, Pitt Street Mall, which is undergoing $1.5 billion in new investments. A recent Sydney news story about the plans says the Pitt Street area is “among the top 10 most expensive retail spaces for rent in the world.”

Flight to Melbourne

After a week in Sydney, we boarded a Qantas 767 for the hour-long hop west to Melbourne. And like Sydney, Melbourne pulses with the energy, friendliness and smiles of its people. So much to see, so little time. The city architecture is a blend of old and new, of historic and contemporary.

The ethnic diversity of Melbourne, the largest city of the state of Victoria, is fascinating. Recent surveys show that 46 percent of Victoria’s residents either were born in another country, or their parents were born in another country.

The result of this international background of Victoria’s residents is obvious in the foods, clothing, and celebrations, and in the languages heard on the streets. A wide selection of fresh seafood and aged beef is standard fare in restaurants. Kangaroo, which has a taste and texture of tender lean beef, can be found on the menu.

Melbourne’s rapid growth began in the 1850s when immigrants flooded Victoria’s gold fields. This influx of new residents led to the 1880s land boom and the city’s status by the end of the 19th Century as Australia’s financial capital.

Melbourne is bisected by the Yarra River, which is popular with local tour boats and local rowing clubs. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Restaurants, shops, a casino and the convention center line the wide river walk on the south side of the river, hence the Southbank name.

Southbank’s broad promenade is popular with street musicians and artists. The artists’ work is genuine; you can watch them create it on the concrete or stone walkway with colored chalk. But when musicians surround themselves with loudspeakers and other electronics, how can one tell if their music is genuine, or if they are lip-synching to CDs?


Flinders Street Train Station at Flinders and Swanston streets was built in 1854. It is called Australia’s oldest train station. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett


Several times, I walked Collins Street, lined with new and historic buildings that house offices, hotels, restaurants, bakeries, and many other types of businesses. Part of me said, “So many enticing foods, where to begin.” Another part of me said, “Diet, diet, diet.”

We accompanied friends to a football game in Melbourne. In scoring and strategy, the game is different from American football. There are no scrimmages, and players wear no padding or helmets.

Dead Ships Sailing

Australia is more than a magical land known for koalas and kangaroos. Off its rugged southern coast, dominated by the Great Ocean Road, are hundreds of shipwrecks dating to the 19th Century. The captains of the doomed vessels didn’t know, until too late, that they were aboard dead ships sailing. They couldn’t see the reefs hidden beneath the waves.

The Great Ocean Road, at about 245 crooked kilometers long, or 150 miles, makes for a memorable day trip. We rode a tour bus so we could focus on the magnificent scenery. In places, the road has straight-down, adrenaline-pumping views of hidden beaches and powerful waves smashing on rocky shoals.

The rugged cliffs and freestanding rock stacks are limestone versions of massive icebergs, sculpted into spectacular formations by fierce waves.

For hiking fans, there are several bushwalks (hiking trails) meandering through the forest.

The skies during our journey were steel gray, except for a short glimpse of sunshine, and the winds were cold. Autumn was blowing in. Late in the afternoon, we began our return to Melbourne. The green countryside we crossed resembled the rolling hills of western Oregon and Ireland.

Return to Arizona

For the next morning, we set an early alarm. We needed extra time to pack luggage. In my carryon bag, I pack two books  – James Thurber’s “Credos and Curios,” and former publishing executive Arthur Plotnik’s “Spunk & Bite.” Thurber and Plotnik – and the attentive United Airlines crew – will help me survive the long flight back to Los Angeles.

After a hail from our hotel concierge, a taxi in the waiting queue across the street pulls up next to us. We tell the driver we want to go to Tullamarine International Airport. We’re headed home to Arizona.

“Arizona,” the driver says, looking at me. “America” he adds, savoring the word.

He pulls away from the hotel, gently insisting that I fasten my seatbelt. Then he eases into morning rush hour. I learn that our softspoken driver is from India. His black turban tops his head like a magnificent crown. He’s been in Melbourne 18 months.

After a few more kilometers, he points to himself and says, “Someday, America too.”

I nod. He smiles.

At the airport curb, before I step out, I give the driver a tip. Not a large tip, just adequate. He gets out and pulls our luggage from the trunk. Then he steps forward. He grabs my hand and pumps it like a friend.

“Safe trip,” he says. “See you next time here.”

Never has a cab driver anywhere else shaken my hand. Many have been courteous, whether silent or talkative. This driver from India was different. There is magic in Oz.




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Apr 20th, 2010

One Comment to '‘Land of Oz’ Nickname Fits Australia’s Magic'

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  1. Peggy Hodges said,

    Terrific article, Mike. You do an awesome description of the sights and sounds of Australia capturing the history of the country as well. My guess is that you found the country to your liking.

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