Several months ago I travelled to Australia for a series of meetings with government officials of the State of Victoria, Australia. Our company is responsible for development and management of some of the key government websites in the State of Victoria (http://www.vic.gov.au/ and http://www.egov.vic.gov.au/). I travel a lot but the trip to Australia has really become one of my instant favorites. I hope that the readers of our blog will enjoy reading about my experience as much as enjoyed travelling there.
I started my exploration of Australia with Melbourne and I immediately fell in love with it. It is a vibrant and a culturally diverse city with a flare of Toronto and Paris but with a much warmer climate. The city has an amazing coffee culture that rivals those of France and Italy. Forget about Starbucks – Melbournians take their coffee seriously. I have to admit that a daily cup of a freshly brewed coffee during my morning stroll to the office became a daily routine that I miss dearly.
Besides coffee, Melbourne (and Australia in general) boasts an impressive restaurant culture. Food is very diverse and delicious but expensive. My personal favorites: Kangaroo streak, oysters, meat pie (traditional Australian dish) and of course fresh seafood (barramundi and Tasmanian trout are to die for). The only thing I have to say I didn’t like was Vegemite - a dark brown, salty food paste made from yeast extract. No offence but I honestly don’t know why would anyone voluntarily choose Vegemite over butter on their toast. Sorry, Peter! :)
Enough about food. We are a technology blog so let me shift gears to that. Australia struck me as a technologically advanced country. Something that you notice right away is the shining new infrastructure, from airports to busy city centers. It is impressive how everything is well planned and functional. In fact, it is this mix of ultramodern developments combined with a rugged “Crocodile Dundee” outback that makes Australia so unique.
Surprisingly, broadband Internet in Australia is slower and more expensive than in most other developed nations. For example, I paid nearly $200 USD for a week’s Internet access in my hotel in Melbourne, which was also capped at 500 MB/ week. That is barely enough to check e-mail. Forget about uploading photos or using Skype. There are hotspots around Melbourne and Sydney but they are all extremely slow and most of them limit your use. This came a surprise compared to the States and Europe where every restaurant and coffee shop has unlimited free Wi-Fi. It is understandable that due to Australia’s large size, sparse population and relative remoteness to other countries, it requires an enormous investment into infrastructure for Internet communications. Nevertheless, limited Internet connectivity in large metropolitan areas such as Sydney or Melbourne came as a surprise to me.
Another thing that you may not now about Australia is that the government censors the Internet. The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has the power to enforce content restrictions on Internet content hosted within Australia and also maintains a “black-list” of websites which have undesirable content blocked by government filters (much like in China). The debate over Internet filtering has incited some tension in Australia and remains a highly debated topic. Current filters often mistakenly block websites that don’t violate laws and there have been reports of controversial misuses of the program to block websites for political reasons.
Besides censoring Internet (with which I personally disagree) I have to say that I was impressed by the efficiency with which the government in Australia operates. I had a pleasure working side by side with the State of Victoria government (Department of Business and Innovationt) employees and I must admit that the efficiency, dedication and the long term vision not only exceeds that of the U.S. government, but rivals that of some of the most well-run private firms. Projects that would normally take years to plan in the U.S. get done quickly and effectively reaching the end user when they are most needed. This has to be one of the reasons behind the recent impressive development and growth in the technology sector in Australia.
After taking care of business, I decided to take some time off to continue my exploration. I rented a car and set off to see the real Australia I always wanted to see – its rich and diverse natural treasures. My first obstacle was the bizarre Melbourne hook turn (of course, it had to be the first turn I took after getting out of the car rental place) that in addition to driving on the left side of the road took some time to get used to.
My first destination was the Great Ocean Road – a coastal highway with views so breathtaking that it is hard to take a corner without constantly pulling over to take pictures. The Great Ocean Road stretches for a few hundred kilometers and took me to the Great Apostles – a collection of limestone stacks off the shore of the Port Campbell National Park.
Australian Wildlife is out of this world. Literally, it felt like visiting a different world. After seeing kangaroos, koalas, wallabies and penguins (yes, penguins) in their natural habitat, it is hard to find another place on Earth with a more diverse and exotic flora and fauna that one in Australia. It is definitely a “must visit” destination for anyone who enjoys nature.
It is hard to summarize the entire trip in a single post. It is even harder to explore much of Australia in just two weeks. Australia is a vast continent that takes 4 days to cross by car and is about the size of the continental United States. Nevertheless, I am actually glad there is more left to explore as I will definitely be back!
P.S. Special thanks to Amanda, Peter, Vanessa, Cheryl, Simon, and others at the Department of Business and Innovation for their hospitality!