Australia: The Lions’ Den…

14th June 2013
Pól Ó Conghaile

“This is your f-king Everest, boys.”

So spoke Jim Telfer, forwards coach on the 1997 Lions Tour of South Africa, in a motivational speech long since immortalised in rugby folklore.

But as Telfer well knows (given he has just parodied the speech in a promotional video for Tourism Australia), touring with the Lions isn’t just the pinnacle of a rugby player’s career. It’s tailor-made to be the pinnacle of a supporter’s, too.

It’s a dream ticket. When else could you combine an epic tour of Oz with nine matches pitching the cream of British and Irish rugby against their Wallaby counterparts? Or intersperse three bone-crunching test matches with time spent diving the Great Barrier Reef, bar-hopping in Melbourne, or grape-grazing in New South Wales?

The Lions are scheduled to play a total of nine games in Oz, including encounters with all five Aussie Super 15 franchises, and three tests against the Wallabies in Brisbane (June 22), Melbourne (June 29) and Sydney (July 6). Organisers expect about 20,000 fans to travel, and most will undoubtedly arrive towards the business end of the tour.

If this is the plan, the first airport you’re likely to land into is Brisbane. Queensland’s subtropical capital (or ‘Brissie’, to locals) has traditionally been seen as the parochial kid sister to Melbourne and Sydney, but it has made strides in recent years, and its cafes, live music scene and toasty climate should be hopping when the Lions roll into town.

Brisbane may be Australia’s third city, but it knows how to party. Just ask anyone lucky enough to have been along for the ride on the 2001 Lions tour of Australia. After Brian O’Driscoll’s wonder-try led the Lions to a 29-13 victory in the opening test, the festivities went off like a firecracker. A new tour song – ‘Waltzing O’Driscoll’ – was born.

Two or three days is plenty here. There are lush parks to kick back in after the match, Queen Street is a sweet spot for shopping, and it’s worth checking out the Queensland Cultural Centre on South Bank. Afterwards, my money is on the majority of touring fans heading south to the Gold Coast. Surfers’ Paradise has the perfect pitch for downtime: chilling on golden sands, catching waves, hitting Sea World or going whale-watching. The Gold Coast is actually Australia’s sixth-largest city, so you can pack in the shopping and nightlife here too. It’s where the ‘bikini’ was born, allegedly…

If you’re doing the full five-week Monty, of course, another Australian city will already have come into play: Perth. The Lions take on the Super 15’s Western Force at Patersons Stadium here on June 5th, when you can expect throngs of Irish ex-pats to swell the ranks of red-shirts. Afterwards, shake off the long-haul flights on Western Australia’s Indian Ocean beaches, an outback adventure, or the Swan Valley vineyards.

The second test, and in all likelihood the crunch game of the series, takes place at the Etihad Stadium in Melbourne on June 29th. Melbourne is not only a great sporting city (it hosts the Australian Grand Prix and Australian Open), but to my mind Australia’s greatest city, period. Whereas Brisbane has a touch of the backwater about it, and Sydney comes on like a drunk at an Open Mic, Melbourne is all about seduction.

I love this place. It’s not just super set-pieces like Federation Square, with its glossy restaurants and big-time cultural institutions. It’s the fact that you can spend days exploring the laneways and side streets of a dozen different precincts. You can splash the cash in the Bourke Street Mall, pick up the chopsticks in Chinatown, stumble across brilliant bars down beat-up alleyways (don’t miss the Croft Institute, a cocktail bar themed around a science laboratory), or roll the die at the Crown Plaza Casino.

Early on, I’d take the tourist tram loop of the Central Business District (CBD) to get your bearings. Then dive right in. Soak up the elegant decay of Brunswick Street, the spooky spirit of Ned Kelly in Old Melbourne Gaol, the Italian eateries on Lygon Street. The first ever Lions tourists arrived in Melbourne just in time for the city’s centenary celebrations in 1888. Back then Oz was home to three million souls. Today, it’s 23 million.

If you base yourself in Melbourne for several days, Victoria is also your oyster. You can drive up to the Yarra Valley to go wine-tasting amongst the foothills of the Great Dividing Range. You can hit the Mornington Peninsula on Port Phillip Bay, spending time exploring snug little villages like Sorrento – chocabloc with sidewalk eateries, galleries and shops. And of course, you can take a trip along the Great Ocean Road.

This is Australia’s quintessential coastal drive, built by WWI soldiers and still the world’s biggest war memorial. The 240km cruise not only passes above some of the most spectacular surf breaks, rainforests and rock formations (the 12 Apostles being the most famous) in the Antipodes – but there’s lots of day walks spotted along it too. So you can both drive and hike the countryside, getting a real flavour of the southeast.

There’s a week’s downtime between tests two and three, so once your body recovers, this is a good opportunity to get about and see a bit of Australia. Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane should take care of themselves in the few days before and after the tests, but midweek is the time to look further afield – by taking a hop to Uluru/Ayers Rock, for example. Sunrise or sunset at this sandstone marvel is an awesome sight, but there’s nothing particularly memorable about the resort, so get in and out quickly.

At least one tour operator is offering a three-day scoot to Queenstown at this juncture – the adrenaline capital of New Zealand – but why take on so much? There’s no shortage of things to see in Australia… and there’s always 2017 for New Zealand.

Cairns is where most tour ops seem to be basing customers between the final tests, and that’s a good idea: with a tropical climate and feisty nightlife, Cairns is also the gateway city for trips to the Great Barrier Reef. R&R could just as easily stand for ‘Rainforests and Reef’ in a city where you can snorkel, surf, sail or get stuck into the World Heritage Wet Tropics Rainforest over the course of a few, unforgettable days.

If you get this far, it really would be a crime not to take the boat a little further (but grab a sick bag, the crossing can be choppy). The Great Barrier Reef is visible from space, for chrissake… and the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem. Snorkelling or diving here is one for the bucket list. Famously, this is where Queensland’s original ‘Best Job in the World’ campaign kicked off, offering employment on an island paradise. If you like to sail, this could also be a neat window in which to hit the Whitsunday Islands.

By now, your Oz itinerary will feel like it’s flying by. The Lions’ third and final test takes place on July 6th in the harbour city of Sydney (pictured above, courtesy of Tourism Australia) – and if fate sets it so this one is the decider, there’s absolutely no place else you would wish it.

Where Melbourne is subtle, Sydney is right up in your face. It’s Australia’s oldest city. Its Opera House is one of the most recognisable buildings on earth. Beaches, bars and beautiful people come on thick and fast. Subtlety may be thinner on the ground than in Melbourne, but in truth, you’ll have such a barnstorming time you won’t even notice. Sydney is brash, multicultural, sizzling with foodie scenes (you can gobble everything from char-grilled kangaroo to Cantonese dumplings, from Vietnamese noodles to suckling pig panini), and its nightlife is thumping. It’s an awesome place for a final fling.

Must-do’s here include the gorgeous harbour, which you can see in any number of ways: by crossing the bridge, kayaking under it, taking a surf lesson at Bondi Beach or just soaking it all up by the sails of the Opera House. You can go walkabout in The Rocks, a jumble of cobblestone streets dating right back to the colony’s formation in 1788. Things get pretty touristy here, but there’s a great Friday night market buzz, and street festivals are ubiquitous. If you’re planning a night at the opera as a counterpoint to the ANZ stadium, this is the place to come and wet your beak… before or after (or both).

Sydney’s bar scene has made an evolutionary leap since licensing laws were loosened in 2007, so thankfully, it’s no longer dominated by obnoxious super-pubs. Cocktail joints like 13B and Grandma’s, as well as wine bars like Love, Tilly Devine, are worth a look in the CBD. Time Out is singing the praises of Wild West-themed whiskey dive, the Shady Pines, and its slick little sister, the Baxter Inn, too. “It’s a simple recipe of nice staff + tasty drinks = success,” the magazine says, rating both in its Top 10. “And for some mysterious reason, this combination works as a perfect anti-douche mechanism.”

Personally, I don’t need Jim Telfer to convince me this is a trip worth taking (although, with packages costing the guts of €7k, his motivational powers could come in useful with my bank manager). Given a gold-standard chance to combine a once-in-a-lifetime trip with an historic test series, die-hard rugby fans may feel the same way.

Everest never looked so tempting…

The Three-Test Trick:

Killester Travel has a package taking in all three test matches (travel June 18 to July 8th) from €7,950pp, with official match tickets and accommodation in three and four star hotels included. Club Travel has a similar offer from €6,950pp (taxes and charges extra). Both include downtime in Cairns, with single supplements of around €1,700pp.

Details: killestertravel.com; clubtravel.ie.

Further information:

Visit Tourism Australia’s website at australia.com.