Jane Mathews, a tour guide for Overseas Adventure Travel, highlights the wonders of her home country, Australia. The in-depth discussion starts with excellent suggestions for travel Down Under, and about the Aboriginal culture. She goes on to share her expertise about, among many other things: Sydney, Melbourne, the Blue Mountains, Ayers Rock (Uluru), the island of Tasmania, and of course, the Great Barrier Reef.
Jane ends with a fond memory, and we finish the interview with the indescribable sounds of a didgeredoo.
Jane Mathews lives in Sydney, Australia, She joined OAT as a guide in 2018.
Besides showing off her country, she enjoys traveling, cooking Asian food, Aboriginal history, and sewing.
Podcast host Lea Lane blogs at forbes.com, has traveled to over 100 countries, and has written nine books, including the award-winning Places I Remember (Kirkus Reviews star rating, and 'one of the top 100 Indie books' of the year). She has contributed to many guidebooks and has written thousands of travel articles.
Contact Lea- she loves hearing from you! @lealane on Twitter; PlacesIRememberLeaLane on Insta; Places I Remember with Lea Lane on Facebook; Website: placesirememberlealane.com.
New episodes drop every other Tuesday, wherever you listen. Please consider sharing, following, rating and reviewing this award-winning travel podcast.
Lea Lane 0:06
Hi, I'm Lea Lane an award-winning travel writer and author of Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries. On this podcast we share conversations with travelers about fascinating destinations and memorable experiences around the world.
Australia in the southern hemisphere is the world's sixth largest country. So we'll just be covering the must-sees, including tropical beaches, marine reserves, Aboriginal culture, cute koalas and kangaroos, rolling wine country, lush rainforests and a couple of dynamic cities. Our guest Jane Matthews grew up in Australia, and is a guide there for Overseas Adventure Travel, known as O.A.T. She has worked in that major travel company since 2018. Welcome Jane to Places I Remember.
Jane Matthews 1:03
Thank you very much.
Lea Lane 1:04
So what inspired you to work and travel and become what OAT calls a trip experience leader.
Jane Matthews 1:11
I worked in advertising my whole career; started in London, and moved to Sydney and then Chicago, Amsterdam, and Singapore. So I've traveled a lot. And I don't know if you know anything about advertising at all, but it's not a very age-friendly profession, is one thing. And I just to be honest, my interest just sort of waned, and I've always loved travel. I've always loved sharing. I like presenting, like being a little bit bossy. And I met someone who was a guide, and I just said, I blurted it out, I said, I'd be a really good guide. So I went to guiding school. I did that for three months. And then off I went, and I've loved it. I haven't looked back ever since.
Lea Lane 1:54
That's wonderful. A lot of people ask, how can you get into travel? You know, how can you see the world? Well, this is one way to, to work as a guide and love it, and you study a bit.
Jane Matthews 2:04
You have to do some work, you know. I don't pull facts out of thin air, you know, I read a lot, do a lot of research. And one of the things I love about my job is every time I go, because we normally do the same itinerary. Every time I go to them, you learn new things, you know, just all the time, I'm learning, learning, learning, and you learn from the guests as well.
Lea Lane 2:26
I'll bet. What would you say is the ideal length to experience the highlights of Australia? I mean, forever would be the ideal, but ...
Jane Matthews 2:38
I would say two to three weeks. Okay. And we know it's a long way to come. We know that. So every single American I've ever had on any of my trips tells me how far it is that they've come. I know, we know. Because it takes that far for us to go anywhere apart from New Zealand and Indonesia. So it's about a 14 and a half hour flight from LA. I know. I know, it's a long way, but you just have to do it. It's fine. It's not such a big deal.
Lea Lane 3:07
No, it makes it special. When you spend that time it it makes you appreciate the distance and I think both New Zealand and Australia after you get off the plane, you feel ready to explore, explore completely.
Jane Matthews 3:23
That's right. And it's a really good point. It's good that you mentioned New Zealand because I don't understand Americans who come this far and don't go to New Zealand as well. It's three and a half hours away, three hours away. It's nothing. And most people when they come down here, it's a bucket list thing. They're going to do it once. And if you're going to do it once do a couple of weeks in New Zealand as well. It's crazy to come down here and not go on to New Zealand.
Lea Lane 3:49
What's the best time of year do you think to visit in Australia.
Jane Matthews 3:53
We all laugh about it because Americans come mostly at the worst time of year, which is our summer. So Americans traditionally come here between September and April, which is our hottest time of year. And I would say the best time is -- all the Australians travel around Australia in winter because it's still hot, but it's not boiling hot. So I would say the best time, probably the shoulder times like March, April, May or September sort of Yeah. September October, around those shoulder times.
Lea Lane 4:28
All over the world that seems shoulder times are the best times because it's less crowded, the weather is lovely. And it's just a good time to go.
Jane Matthews 4:38
You're right, all of that. And especially when we go to the Outback to the center of Australia, which is desert, it gets incredibly hot. So I mean like well over 100 degrees every day and we have no ozone layer. So dehydration is a real issue. I mean, I'm always on my guests to drink, drink, drink, drink, drink, drink, drink, drink,
Lea Lane 4:58
Drink, drink, drink water. Yeah, make sure.
Jane Matthews 5:01
Lots of water. And also we have the highest incidence of skin cancer in the world; two out of three Australians get skin cancer. So you know, you have to wear a hat and be covered up, if you're coming in, especially in those peak summer months.
Lea Lane 5:17
Good to know. Now I read that there are over 250 different indigenous languages and 800 dialects spoken across Australia. Tell us a bit about the Aboriginal culture.
Jane Matthews 5:29
That is a really good point. And it's really interesting that you raised that because I was gonna say it, and I'm really glad that you did. Because it's something that most people don't realize. And they think that Aboriginal people, it's one culture and one language, which it is with the Maori in New Zealand. So we're very, very different from New Zealand in many ways, but that's one of the main ones. So Aboriginal people represent three and a half percent of our population. But there are a lot of issues with that. It is the most incredible culture. It's the longest continuous culture in the world, by far that we don't know. Between 60 and 80,000 years, they came over here, we think from Indonesia 60 to 80,000 years ago. So if you combined ancient Chinese, Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, whatever, all together, Australian indigenous culture would be over twice as old as that. So it's really important to remember that we're, you know, between half a million and a million people here, before Captain Cook turns up in 1770. So they say that if Aboriginal culture was 24 hours long, the British arrived three and a half minutes ago. And we do call them Aboriginal people or First Nations people, not Aborigines, which is now considered very colonial, not a good word. But they got the most amazing history and culture. Sadly, there are some issues now. So 26% of our jail population is made up from indigenous people, you know, there are some quite systemic issues that we are trying to address. We're working on it. But you know, there is some way to go, I think it's fair to say, but there are amazing things to see. In Aboriginal ... I have a real interest in it. There's a shameful past because when the British arrived, there was a culture clash straightaway. Because the way that they operate and the way they think they share everything, they take what they need, they need what they take. It was such a culture clash with the British who put fences around everything straightaway and Aboriginal people saying, well, how can you put a fence around a waterhole because that belongs to everyone. So and, you know, how come Aboriginal people get in trouble for spearing one of those white fluffy things or sheep? You know, whereas British cars could spear their kangaroos and they was okay. So there was a culture clash straightaway. And we introduced smallpox and some, you know, Western diseases that decimated them. So, by the 1920s, there were only about 20,000 Aboriginal people left in Australia, down from you know, half a million to a million. So, you know, it was a terrible, we have a very shameful history where the indigenous people are concerned, and we're trying to put that right now, but it's a complicated issue, and it's an ongoing complicated issue, but beautiful cave art, beautiful arts, especially (How about the didgeridoo? It's a musical instrument. It's made from a hollowed out log. Got the most amazing sound. It's actually made when termites eat away the inside of a log and make it hollow. And they blow into it and make the most amazing sound. Do get your listeners to Google didgeridoo because it's the most haunting music. It was actually a man's instrument; women are not allowed, still not allowed to play it. The Aboriginal people have very much a men's business and women's business. They're separate. It's an instrument from the center of Australia but now has traveled out and around, and it is incredibly hard to play.
Lea Lane 9:14
And people big log I would think it's hard.
Jane Matthews 9:17
You have to breathe in and out at the same time. It's circular breathing, it's incredibly hard to play. But the most amazing sound and it's lovely seeing the look on my guests faces when we have a didgeridoo player, because it's just not like anything you've ever heard. I think we're
Lea Lane 9:32
I think we're gonna put a didgeridoo at the end of this session. So good. Okay, here. Let me ask you, is a boomerang from the indigenous people?
Speaker 2 9:39
It is, and again that's one of these ... a boomerang they call them boomerangs is it's a hunting instrument. There are lots of different sorts. What people are used to seeing is the returning Boomerang, which is sort of two sides of an angle, is a right angle. Again that came from a tree. They took off the root of the tree, they didn't actually have to carve it, they let the tree do the work. And it's very sophisticated because it actually has the wing of an airplane. It's flat on one side curved on the other. And it was designed to go over, fly over birds that were in flight because they would see a shadow above them. It's meant to hover. So they would come down because they think an eagle or something was above them. Sometimes it was used like that. Sometimes it was used to hit them. So a returning Boomerang is actually a failed one with failed mission into their other longer boomerangs, like the one that shaped like a seven, very heavy and that was used to bring down kangaroos and just break their legs. So there's lots of different sorts of things.
Lea Lane 10:48
Well, let's talk a little about a few of the places not to miss. Let's start with Sydney. Just briefly what are the keys ... we all know about the Sydney Opera House and climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge where you have to go on catwalks and ladders and get these views. Is there anything else you would feel that's important to see in Sydney,
Speaker 2 11:10
I am a bit biased because Sydney is my hometown. It is the most breathtaking city. It really is. The Opera House is one of the most beautiful buildings you'll ever see. And it was opened in 1973. It's 50th birthday is this year. And it was never meant to be built. So they had a competition. And they had 200 entries. And four judges, and one of the judges, an American judge, Eero Saarinen, arrived late at the judging. And the judges said oh, don't worry, these are the reject piles. Don't worry about this pile, because we're gonna just look at the ones that we haven't looked at yet. And Saarinen insisted on looking at the reject pile. And number 218 Was the design for the opera house as we know it today. And it was meant to cost you know, $4 million dollars, it cost $106. Meant to take three years, took 14. The most breathtaking thing you'll ever see. And the Harbour Bridge is beautiful right beside it. There are always things to do at the Opera House, there's often a, you know, a play or an opera or a ballet or concert on and it's well worth booking those well in advance when you plan your trip, because otherwise they'll be sold out. The other thing is there are some beautiful walks in Sydney. Bondi Beach is very famous. There's a walk along there from Bronte beach to Bondi Beach. There are beautiful museums, fantastic art galleries. I mean, you get trips on the harbour cruises on the harbour is a really good thing to do. Lots of markets, lots of shopping and people are interested in that. There really is an enormous amount of things to do. I mean, I give my guests a thing saying you know, if you're interested in being outdoors, you know, get a ferry to Manley and go and walk around there for the day, beautiful beaches to explore. If you like culture, there's all sorts of museums really catering from everything from the story of Sydney to Aboriginal arts, you know, there's so many things to do here. There's obviously a lot of colonial history, especially in an area called The Rocks, which is the oldest area of Sydney and a round circular quay that's just near the Opera House. So everyone always is very easy city to navigate, very safe. We've got our Chinatown, which is fantastic. We're a very multicultural country. So our Chinatown also has a Thaina town, which is where the Thai is next door to Chinatown. So in Chinatown, we have Thai, Korean, Malaysian, Indonesian, Japanese. We have Vietnamese we have so many restaurants and so many cuisines. And it's the same really across Australia. It's very easy for us here to access ingredients for Asian food and we sort of take it for granted because we are in Asia. If you look on the map, we are really in Asia. So we have a lot of a massive influence of Asia, in in the cuisine and also in the culture.
Lea Lane 14:05
When I was in Sydney, my favorite neighborhood name was Woolloomooloo, charming, I just I still remember.
Speaker 2 14:15
Yeah, that's a lovely area, it's right down by on the water there. And a really interesting area; the longest oldest Wharf in the world, which was a bit like our Ellis Island at the time. It's been repurposed now and it's a beautiful place with restaurants and things and there's just so much to do in Sydney. It really is. There's a lot more to it than the Opera House and the bridge
Lea Lane 14:37
Nearby, of course, the Blue Mountains, about a 90 minute drive away, and there I took a cable car and I got to walk a bit in the valleys: eucalyptus trees, waterfalls, and the birds were exceptional. I didn't see all of them but I know there are Lyrebirds and cockatoos and kookaburras and all kinds of beautifully colored birds. And that's fine. So it's a nice day trip and
Speaker 2 15:01
We do have some beautiful birds, the Lyrebird of course, L Y R E, copies, things. He has no song of his own. At the zoo where I work, he copies car alarms, and he copies babies crying is amazing bird Also, there's a lot of Victorian architecture, some of the suburbs like well, Lara and Paddington have got beautiful Victorian terraces with what we call iron lace, the iron lace balconies. Beautiful fretwork, really lovely to walk around, and great pubs, you know. You could do worse than doing a pub crawl from pub to pub, you know, friendly, nice neighborhood pubs. It's incredibly safe. I mean, Australia is a very safe country 24 hours a day.
Jane Matthews 15:01
But I know there were strict gun laws, and I loved it.
Speaker 2 15:17
I would have taken care of you. Yeah, it is. It's a really good point. And this is what I say to some of my guests because we start off often in Melbourne, and they feel very familiar, but we are in quite a different country. So we have compulsory voting. We're one of the few countries in the world. So we have 100% turnout to each election, the results are true, we accept them. You can have a rifle but only as a farmer or someone that needs it. It takes about three years to get a gun license here. So we have universal health care. And the minimum wage here is $22 an hour so it's an expensive country and New Zealanders as well because we pay people well.
Lea Lane 16:26
But you mentioned Melbourne, which is the other major city which I think it's a wonderful city as well. It has a great artsy feeling, a foodie city. That's right, green. Lots of arcades. I remember shopping there, people were going for black opal, very cosmopolitan. Then you could take a balloon ride over the city.
Speaker 2 16:44
I'm seen them up in Queensland. You're absolutely right. That's a very good description of Melbourne. It is a very cosmopolitan city. It's a Victorian city. It was called Marvelous Melbourne because gold was discovered in the 1850s just outside of Melbourne. So it had a sudden rush of people. Very beautiful, ornate Victorian architecture, including the arcades, which are shopping arcades, like between two buildings with mosaics and classrooms. It's not like arcades like gaming arcades in America. At one time, it was the richest city in the world. And also as you say there's always a fight. There's a rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne. We both have got about 5 million people Melburnians think that they are a little bit more sophisticated. Old Money takes a little bit of time to get to know Melbourne she opens her secrets quite gently one at a time. Whereas Sydney goes Look at me. I've got a bridge. I've got an opera house. I've got Bondi Beach. I've got handsome lifeguards. Look at me. I'm amazing. Melbourne has got pebbly beaches. You know we've got the most beautiful beaches.
Lea Lane 17:44
Well, Melbourne has whales. I will say that I remember when I went over to Ocean Road and I heard that within 60% of the whale population comes into Port Phillip Bay in May from the feeding grounds and Antarctica, so they raised their calves there so if you go and shoulder season, you get to see whales
Jane Matthews 18:02
You see them in Sydney as well. They come up and down the coast. So we both have whale season and are quite easy to see. They're right there. Yeah, and since COVID, and with no cruise ships, the whale populations apparently increased exponentially with Southern humpback whales and Southern Right whales, totally illegal to kill them so the numbers have really come back.
Lea Lane 18:21
I especially enjoyed the Yarra Valley outside Melbourne where I went to the vineyards, and there I could see kangaroos hopping around the vines. That was something I've never seen before. I'll say that. And I also went to the Healdesville Sanctuary, where there were about 200 native species: there were koalas on branches there were dingos, platypuses that looked like they were created by a committee, and wombats, and of course kangaroos. So you can go there and again, it's only a little ways away and see most of the indigenous animals. Yeah,
Jane Matthews 18:54
iIt's a really good point because 90% of our native animals here are only found in Australia and not anywhere else. Healdesville in Melbourne is one place, but also Taronga in Sydney, there are lots of zoos and sanctuaries where you can see native wildlife. And it's definitely worth going to one of them because your chances of seeing those animals in the wild are not particularly high. Kangaroos are everywhere. There are twice as many kangaroos as there are people in Australia, there's about 26 million of us and about 50 million of them, by the way with the same landmass as America. We're the same size as the United States, but we only have seven and a half percent of the population. Most of our animals are at dawn and dusk and most tourists aren't around there. And also as the cities get bigger and bigger, the animals go further and further away. But kidmus, emus. Cassowaries Tasmanian devils, you know that will only found in Australia and extraordinary to see. One of the places is Tasmania, which is often left off people's itineraries. It's an island state. It's our smallest state off the south coast, big island. That's really the wildlife capital of Australia, so you're more likely to see wildlife in the wild. If I was going to have a third week I'd spend my third week in Tasmania. It's the cleanest air in the world. (Is that true?) Cleanest water. Yeah, because there's nothing around it. The Antarctic is the next stop; boats for Antarctica leave from Tasmania. It's incredibly clean, the water is crystal clean, very cold. It's quite innocent in a way because it's a bit further behind the mainland -- gentle introduction to Australia, but we offer it as a an optional and I always feel really bad for the people that didn't take it so that when we join the people in Melbourne who haven't been to Tasmania, we have to try and pretend that we had like an okay time. Fantastic time.
Lea Lane 20:42
Feel like right you don't want to brag right?
Jane Matthews 20:45
Tasmania's, a hidden secret: beautiful countryside, beautiful, unspoiled beaches and, and wildlife, lots and lots and lots of wildlife.
Lea Lane 20:56
Wow. Well, let's go to the desert. That's kind of the Australian outback where Ayers Rock or Uluru Am I saying that correctly? Yes, it's the largest rock in the world, I think taller than the Eiffel Tower. And nearby is Kings Canyon. Can you tell us about that?
Jane Matthews 21:12
We've got 20 UNESCO World Heritage listed sites in Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is one, Sydney Opera House is another, and Uluru. Ayers Rock was named after Sir Henry Ayers 150 years ago, but Uluru is 500 million years old. So it's really quite presumptuous of us to give it a Western name. It's like an iceberg. It goes down much, much much further than we can see. It has a sort of aura about it and has huge spiritual significance to the indigenous people. And when you see it from the air, you know, there's nothing really not much else around for miles and miles. It's this red desert like bright red terracotta, like a flowerpot; red with sort of little scrub everywhere. If you believe in these things, you know, ley lines cross underneath it. And there's Kata Tjuta as well, which is bigger actually. But then made from 36 different boulders that's just nearby. It doesn't appear as much in all the tourists things, but it's actually beautiful. And Kings Canyon is about three or four hours away, like a mini version of the Grand Canyon, but much older. So when people say oh, it reminds me the Grand Canyon, it's like yeah, but we're 50 million years older than you are, but anyway.
Lea Lane 22:21
Well, you can take camel tours, there's a million camels roaming wild in Australia's deserts, according to what I have read that the largest number of purebred camels in the world is actually Australia that exports them to the Middle East. Is that correct?
Jane Matthews 22:36
You've done very good research. Yes. I
Lea Lane 22:39
love Australia. And I have Yes,
Jane Matthews 22:41
We do. So they were leftover when they put in the overland telegraph line from Adelaide in the south to Darwin in the north, which connected us to the rest of the world by telegraph. So instead of things taking six months, it would only take a matter of days for messages to come through. A lot of Afghans, people from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, they came with their camels to work in the desert because they had to put holes right across Australia. So it was a lot of work in the desert. So they use the camels to help them move the poles around and move goods around with camel trains. And then when they left and they had 150 of them and they were meant to shoot them but they couldn't bring themselves to so they let them go. And now camels, it's a big problem. They're feral. And the camels are really tough. They've got a pure bloodline. They've got no disease. So we do export them to Saudi Arabia. So like there are no more emus in the desert because camels have eaten all their food.
Lea Lane 23:36
Let's go to the water, the Great Barrier Reef of course, on the northern coast, is the planet's largest living structure. That's about 70 million football fields, I think. Let's try to figure out how large it is. That's pretty big. Tell us what's going on there. I know there's a problem with climate change what is happening?
Jane Matthews 23:56
I was there last week, so I'm feeling it's a really good place to say it is enormous. It's the size of Japan or Italy; 3000 different reefs there. An amazing number of fish there still, climate change has been a problem. There were some major bleaching events about 10 years ago and eight years ago, and it is an ongoing problem and if people don't believe in climate change, you know, come to Australia because we have weird weather patterns happening all the time. Is the barrier reef ruined? No, it's not. Will you see amazing things? Yes, you will. Is it full of multicolored brilliant coral? No, it's not. But it's not necessarily bleached. I mean healthy coral here, a lot of the healthy coral, is brown. When I talk to my guests about what the best parts of the trip has been nearly always they say the barrier reef. There are plenty of fish there. Turtles if you're lucky, if you go on a cruise really normally out of Cairnes or Port Douglas. I prefer Port Douglas. It's a little bit smaller but more friendly Cairnes is like the gateway to the reef, but if you go on a boat that goes to the same place every day, the snorkeling won't be as good as if you go somewhere a little bit further out. And obviously it just depends on the day but it's extraordinary and definitely worth seeing and still something that's really special for people. I had one lady when she was a bit nervous about snorkeling, we have to wear Stinger suits lycra suits bodysuits because there are poisonous jellyfish. I mean, everything in Australia can kill you, you know; we're full of poisonous animals and snakes and spiders and things. But, you know, I rarely ever see them. They want to avoid people. And one lady was sort of nervous about snorkeling, she came out just glowing, and she would have been 80, and she just said, I feel young again, Jane might feel young again. You know, there's so many fishes.
Lea Lane 25:41
Yeah, it's one of those bucket lists for sure.
Jane Matthews 25:44
And the boats do very well and very well organized, very professional. Things like helicopter rides and bungee jumps and camel rides and trips out to the reef. You know, they're very professional. They're very strict rules in place about safety, and people should feel very safe doing all of those things.
Lea Lane 26:01
Sounds great. Well, the name of the Podcast is Places I Remember. So Jane, with all your travel experience in Australia, how about one special memory?
Jane Matthews 26:11
It actually was I took a busload of guests as about 16 of them. We were going to go and see the Sydney Opera House. And I was going down in the bus dropping them off, I was in the front with the microphone. And suddenly I heard in the back of the bus, they all went Oh, and I thought something terrible had happened. I thought someone had a heart attack or something. And I turned around and it was just their first view of the Opera House, they took their breath away, literally all 16 of them, all gasp at the same time. So that was really nice. It has that effect on people. It's amazing how much
Lea Lane 26:45
That's wonderful in Australia, and that's one of the thingss, absolutely.
Jane Matthews 26:49
Friendly people actually that's the other thing. The other thing that most of my guests say they say the Sydney Opera House, Uluru and the Outback, and I don't think unless you've seen the Outback, you really get Australia. It's too expensive for a lot of Australians to visit the Great Barrier Reef but also just chatting to people what a lot of my guests say is their favorite part about visiting Australia is the people. So if you're sitting on a tram in Melbourne, you go to a pub in Sydney people are friendly, people chat, we like Americans and like a bit of a chat and that's where that's some of the things they get the most pleasure from -- we're just a friendly bunch.
Lea Lane 27:24
Absolutely. I felt that as I said I went by myself and if I go to a restaurant people will be talking to me automatically and that doesn't happen everywhere. They're curious and friendly and it makes you feel very good. Well thank you Jane Matthews, trip experience leader for OAT tourism company. You make me want to hop on a plane like a kangaroo and returne to discover more about superlative Australia. And we're going to end with music from the didgeridoo. So thank you. (Thank you.)
My book Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries is available in print Kindle, and I read the audio version. You can follow me on forbes.com where I write five travel posts a month. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider giving us a review. And I'd love to hear from you on any of my links in the episodes show notes or on my website placesIrememberLealane.com Until next time, make some travel memories.