Here’s a little recipe for you:
Take 1 part bogans (Australian rednecks), 1 part blue collar workers, and 1 part university students. Mix them all together, set them down next to some gorgeous beaches, and garnish with a big ass Buddhist temple. What do you get?
Actually, it’s Wollongong, but calling it “The Gong” is way more fun, so let’s do that. Wollongong – with a metropolitan population of around 280,000 – is the ninth largest city in Australia. It sits an hour and a half south of Sydney and is one of Australia’s major ports. It’s also a hub for fishing, steelworks, and mining. My Canadian mate Jeremy was studying abroad for a year at the university in Wollongong. I kept saying that I’d go visit before he left, and seeing as he was leaving at the very beginning of December and it was the end of November and I still hadn’t gone, I figured I’d better get my butt in gear and head down there. John and I planned on renting a car for a few days when he was in town from Seattle, so I thought to myself that it would be the perfect time.
So, we woke up early, hopped in our rental car, and headed down to see The Gong Show. First stop: Nan-Tien Temple!
The temple grounds were serene – and so well-manicured. It was gorgeous. It’s one of the largest Buddhist temples in the southern hemisphere (but really, how many can there be?) and is one of Wollongong’s largest tourist attractions. I had never been to a Buddhist temple before, and I think this is a good preview of what I should expect when I travel China and Mongolia one day.
Why they would build this giant temple in Wollongong of all places befuddles me, but I’m sure they have their reasons. Also, John, I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to leave your fish in the car. Thanks.
Next stop: into the city for some beach time! Jeremy – along with our mates David and Elcid who were also down visiting from Sydney – and a bunch of Jeremy’s lady friends – headed down to the beach. It was a gorgeous beach – nice sand, nice waves, and a decent amount of topless hunky eye candy. I was pleased.
The water just looked so inviting that I had to go in for a little swim – a first for me in Australia. Luckily, I survived without getting eaten by a shark or stung by a jellyfish or getting pulled out to sea by a lethal rip current. Woohoo! Did I mention there were skydivers? Fun.
Afterward, we were hungry (we may have forgotten to eat all day…) so Jeremy wandered with us down to the main drag in Wollongong. It was there that reality set in. It was around 4pm on a Sunday afternoon and the main drag in a city of over a quarter-million people was… completely dead. Dead. Everything was closed. Seriously. Everything.
Jeremy had a few lunch places in mind. They were all closed. I had read about a good brewpub on the beach, so we headed back in that direction. They had a patio with a great view! But… they weren’t serving food any more. We had missed it. In my twenty-seven years of existence, I had managed to tactfully stay away from small town America, but I imagine this is what it must be like: dead. And starving. And quiet.
So that’s why the Buddhists built their temple here. So eerily peaceful.
We wandered back to the main drag and ended up eating at virtually the only open restaurant: Oporto – a nationwide fast food chain that is sort of like Chick-fil-a but with a Portuguese flair and a disappointing lack of waffle fries and sweet tea. Still, it was better than McDonald’s or Hungry Jacks.
Then, we bid Jeremy adieu and headed back to Sydney via a scenic coastal route. We made a brief stop at the Sea Cliff Bridge. The bridge, which opened in 2005, replaced an earlier road that was subject to frequent rock falls. The bridge is unique in that it runs parallel to the shore – one of only seven in the world to do so (according to Wikipedia).
They even filmed a Ferrari commercial there and showed it internationally. So I guess the bridge is pretty famous now.
I will admit that it was pretty neat, but in all honesty, I was expecting a bit more. One interesting thing: the railings were covered in locks that people had engraved – mostly for weddings – but a few had some other various commemorations on them. I think I’ll go back one day with a lock and attach it to one of the posts. Obviously, it won’t commemorate my wedding – largely because I’m not married and don’t plan on it anytime soon – but I’ll have to think of something clever and moderately offensive to engrave on my bridge lock. Something like “This lock touched Oprah's bare bottom” or “Those who read this lock will have an eternity of pain” or anything involving feminists or those pesky Lithuanians. I don’t know. Something witty. Suggestions?