By Carla Sue Broecker
We left a very hot Cairns, (pronounced “Cans”) Australia on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager to sail toward Townsville, Australia. From what we understood, Townsville is an interesting enough city, but we chose to take an excursion by coach to Charters Towers about two hours inland.
Charters Towers is a gold rush town founded in the mid-1800s. At the height of the gold rush, it had 87 hotels and was the second largest city in the province. After the gold glitter subsided and the mines closed, it still has a quaint charm. The city center’s civic buildings, eight remaining hotels and quaint cottages can all be seen on a walking exploration.
When we arrived, we got off our coach at the Stock Exchange building to be greeted by the Charters Towers mayor. This was the first time this has happened to us. We shook hands with her, and she presented us with a souvenir city lapel pin. The Stock Exchange building has been repurposed with small retail shops for tourists. In its domed roof center were tables set up for the Stock Exchange Café to serve us a mid-morning tea that included sandwiches and local pastries, all of which was quite nice. We walked up and down the nearby streets exploring and enjoying the small-town charm.
Then, we were off to the Venus Gold Battery, which was opened in 1872. The Battery was the site where miners brought their iron ore to be battered and have the gold extracted. Closed for more than 40 years, it has been converted into a tourist site with guided tours and explanations of what had once been quite a prosperous operation. A real local character with a great beard and an expansive girth did the tour. It was obvious he loved his job, and he explained every last little detail of the operation for over an hour.
Next, we were off to a local restaurant that serves fish and chips, rump steak and chicken curry. Trust me, this Regent crowd is never very far from its next meal or drink. Dessert was lemon meringue or apple pie fresh from the oven.
The ride back to Townsville got us there only 20 minutes before the ship sailed away. There was another relaxing sea day in store with arrival the day after in Brisbane.
We had dinner with some new friends from Charleston, South Carolina, in the ship’s main dining room, The Compass Rose. Husband Brad calls it “The Lunch Room.” The service there is spectacular and the menu is always good with too many choices at times. You have to be careful to not let your server know you are trying to make a choice between several things: He or she will just bring you both!
The evening’s entertainment was presented by our friend Ray Solaire, the cruise director. He is English and started off life as a music hall entertainer. Sailing for 50 years, he has a good voice and is a master puppeteer and ventriloquist. We have dinner with him about once a week, and each time he regales us with new stories about his life on the sea.
The next day, we docked at Brisbane, where it was bright, sunny and hot. Brisbane is a city that just doesn’t come to mind easily when Australia is mentioned, which is a shame because it is beautiful and has a lot to offer. It has approximately 2 million people and is the third largest city in Australia, which equals 7 percent of Australia’s entire population of 28 million.
After a leisurely breakfast, we went on a shore excursion that started out with a coach tour of the Brisbane’s highlights. We had an interesting tour guide. She was from Austria, had lived in Chicago for 25 years and then moved with her husband to Brisbane. Her English was quite good but still bore traces of her Austrian heritage. She clearly loves her adopted Australian home very much.
One curiosity of Brisbane’s central business district layout is that the streets running toward the Brisbane River are named for female British royalty and the streets running parallel to the river are named for male royalty. Now all you have to do is remember where the river is and you are well-oriented.
We next proceeded to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary on the outskirts of the city. This was to be a self-guided tour of the well-planned facility that included not only koalas but emus, kangaroos, platypuses, crocodiles and water dragons along with various tropical birds, including different species of cockatoos.
Visitors could stand in line and pay $20 to hold a koala and have their pictures taken. We declined and headed for the koala exhibit to simply see these wonderfully charming animals in their somewhat natural exhibit. There we learned that the Sanctuary has a eucalyptus forest where 5,000 pounds of eucalyptus branches are harvested each week just to feed the koalas. The branches are placed in tall cans that hold water like a vase and then hang in the branches of the trees in the exhibit.
Another area of the Sanctuary had some friendly emus. Being nearly five feet tall, you could walk right up to them and give them a pat on their feathery backs. Their feet are enormous and look those of an ostrich.
When we stopped for a beverage at a rest station, we had wild turkeys all around us and several water dragons. The turkeys were great at begging for French fries from a boy sitting nearby having lunch. The water dragons, which you had to be careful not to step on, enjoyed bits of his chicken nuggets.
That evening, we had dinner with some new friends. The evening’s entertainment, “Broadway in Concert,” was put on by the ship’s production company. We saw this show earlier in the cruise and it is one of their best.
The next day, we sailed across part of the Tasman Sea, arriving in Sydney the next morning. This was the end of a segment of the cruise, and a whole lot of people that we had grown fond of disembarked while lots of new potential “friends” got on. To keep those of us that were continuing on the cruise busy, the ship offered us a tour around the Sydney business district and an extended guided tour of the iconic Sydney Opera House.
We had been to an opera performance there several years ago but had never heard its conception and construction explained in such detail. The tour started with a brief video and explanation about the site of construction. We learned it was an Aboriginal people’s gathering spot. The guide went to great lengths to express respect and admiration for the Aborigines and the sacrifice they felt when the site was chosen to be a new gathering spot for the arts.
Most know that the design by Danish architect Jorn Utzon was chosen from hundreds in a worldwide competition. We were told that it was a design the original selection committee initially rejected. There was much strife and political consternation throughout the whole process, but finally led to the building’s completion and opening by Queen Elizabeth II on October 20, 1973. The project was more than 1,300 percent over budget.
Utzon resigned from the project in 1966 and never returned to Australia, but others completed the project using his plans. The relationship with Utzon was somewhat patched up over the years, and his son served on the facility’s management board until his death. Sadly, the designer of one of the world’s most recognized buildings never saw it completed.
The building has an interesting and unique plan for continuing the care, maintenance and expansion of the facility. Every two years, a major section of the building undergoes planned renovation; they don’t wait until it desperately needs work. A well-oiled plan to finance the anticipated renovations is also in place. The tour could easily have lasted several more hours, but time wouldn’t permit.
Back on the ship, we had a sail away cocktail and headed for Melbourne. VT