Simon Calder: Reasons to head Down Under

The man who pays his way

The standard measure for geographic comparison – the size of Wales – is plainly inadequate when trying to convey the scale of Australia. To fill even the smallest mainland state, Victoria, you would need a dozen of the principalities. Victoria alone is bigger than Britain, while Western Australia is 11 times larger.

My favourite calculation goes beyond planet Earth. If you left out the island state of Tasmania (as cartographers are prone inadvertently to do), you would need only five Australias completely to cover the surface of the moon.

Given the lunar desolation that much of Australia resembles, some might say it would be tricky to tell the difference. Poms used to suggest that the "Lucky Country" was as impoverished artistically as the endless deserts of South Australia. As the old joke about the capital of the driest state in the most arid continent went:

Q: What's the difference between Adelaide and yoghurt? A: Yoghurt has live culture.

Not any more. This weekend, the Royal Academy in London launches Australia, an exhibition reflecting the nation's artistic journey through the past two centuries; see for details. It is significant that the opening takes place over the equinox. For the next six months, the daylight advantage rests with the Southern Hemisphere. British autumn corresponds with the first flourish of spring in Australia's southern states. That is why we have chosen to celebrate the nation today. We aim to provide inspiration to explore everything from Tasmania to Aboriginal art in the Northern Territory – which, from 1 November, becomes more accessible thanks to a new connection on Malaysia Airlines from Kuala Lumpur to Darwin. That adds yet another option to the choices for disappearing Down Under by Airbus or Boeing.

The world's favourite fares war

Q: What's the difference between a Boeing 747 and a Pom? A: the 747 stops whining when it gets to Sydney.

The British visitor on a tight budget in 2013 will find plenty to whinge about in Australian prices for everything from beer to beds. The strength of the Australian dollar means the country can be as eye-wateringly expensive as Norway and Switzerland; but today's Big Six on backpacker beds may help you save something.

Poms pleading poverty, though, can have no argument about the cost of reaching Australia. Until the Eighties, air fares were so astronomical that a journey to Sydney was as remote a possibility for the average Brit as a trip to the moon (and in those days the joke about the moon having a better atmosphere than some pubs in Queensland still rang true).

Then air fares started to tumble. Part of the credit rests with Britannia Airways, as Thomson's in-house airline used to be known. In the mid-Eighties, it hit upon a smart answer to the perennial question: "What can we do with our Boeing 767s all winter?". It launched charter flights from UK airports to Australia. The move coincided with steeply increasing capacity, competition from Asian airlines and increasing desperation from European carriers. A fares war began, which has rumbled on ever since.

The cheapest fare I managed to find was £599 in 1994, on a combination of Malaysia Airlines and Britannia – out via Kuala Lumpur, back via Singapore and Sharjah. But the very cheapest London-Sydney return ever sold publicly was £352. Two airlines offered it at different times. A decade ago, Alitalia offloaded some of its vast "distressed inventory" from London via Rome to Sydney, subsidising thousands of happy Brits and Australians. More extreme was the deal offered 20 years ago by Northwest Orient (now part of Delta). It began with a DC-10 flight from Gatwick to Boston. Then a hop on a commuter plane to New York's La Guardia airport and a cross-town transfer to JFK. Here you boarded a 747 to Osaka in Japan via Anchorage in Alaska. The jumbo continued from Osaka to Sydney, where passengers stumbling off the plane gave new meaning to the term "dis-Orientated".

At the start of this century, BA had frequent Boeing 747 flights to Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney; today, it has a token daily departure to Sydney, using a smaller 777. Qantas used to fly via Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore to Melbourne, Perth and Sydney. Now it has only a daily service via Dubai to Melbourne and Sydney, albeit on an Airbus A380. Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific are very much in the game, but many others have withdrawn in the face of competition. In their place: the Middle East carriers. The default airline between the UK and Australia is now Emirates. It offers multiple connections from six British airports to five Australian cities, with a single touchdown in Dubai. Etihad and Qatar Airways are intensifying the fares war via their Abu Dhabi and Doha bases. In October, when the UK minimum wage increases to £6.31, Vietnam Airlines will take you from London to Sydney and back for £850 – representing just 17 days' work for people on the lowest legal rate of pay.

Passport self-control

After touchdown, when the Australian immigration official asks: "Any criminal convictions?", don't be tempted to look aghast and respond: "I didn't realise they were still obligatory." Instead, you might like to point out it would take 555 Tasmanias to cover the surface of the moon. Or nearly 2,000 Waleses.

sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing