The Daily Telegraph - Travel
‘I wanted to charge into the Outback’
Former MP Ann Widdecombe fulfils a lifetime’s ambition and spends two weeks marvelling at some of Australia’s most memorable sights
After 23 years closeted at Westminster, where often all you can see out of the windows are other parliamentary buildings, I appreciate space, and I retired to Dartmoor to find it. For the same reason, I always enjoy cruising because the ocean is so vast and the stars so hard in a sky unblemished with urban glow. So the prospect of visiting Australia with its miles of bush and whole areas unspoilt by humans was always going to be appealing, even if it was likely to be unpleasantly hot.
The first visit I made to Australia was in 1996 when I was the prisons’ minister and was looking at other countries’ penal systems. I had half a day off to cuddle a koala (the civil servants with me knew their careers depended on this embrace being scheduled into the programme) and I stayed in a hotel overlooking the Sydney Opera House but otherwise I spent my time behind bars in various parts of that vast continent. I caught sight of the occasional kangaroo and I was determined to return one day. So last November I went with a friend to the other side of the world on a Grand Australia tour with Scenic. The itinerary covered Perth, Margaret River, Alice Springs, Uluru and Melbourne and was a varied mix of sightseeing, adventure, culture and relaxation – and overall a good balance was achieved. After I left it continued to Cairns, the Great Barrier Reef and Sydney. I am not normally a fan of organised tours: few public figures are, feeling themselves objects of constant curiosity. Even without that, I hate not being able to choose my own travelling companions, so this is not a form of holiday I would have selected, but this time it had fallen to my friend to organise everything and I have no regrets. I could undertake only two of the four weeks on offer because I was due to begin pantomime rehearsals, where the wildlife would consist only of Basil Brush, but that did not dent my excitement as I arrived. Koalas. Kangaroos. The Outback. Uluru.
The stopover on the way out was at Dubai so it was still a long second half of the flight and I should have felt ready for bed, but arriving in Australia, I felt a mad desire to track down the nearest koala or charge off to the Outback there and then. Unfortunately we had landed not in such adventurous parts but in Perth. I am not an enthusiast when it comes to cities, preferring rolling scenery, wildlife and stars to museums, monuments, architecture and traffic.
We were met by the tour manager, Danielle, a young, humorous fount of information. She was about as resourceful as anyone I have encountered. At one point, when I casually mentioned that I was sorry to be missing the penguin parade in Melbourne because the excursion returned too late for me to catch my flight home, she organised a visit to a local site and as night fell we watched the charming creatures climbing out of the sea and flopping down on the rocks. That, however, was still a fortnight away.
As we joined the river boat for our introductory dinner, I thought, “This is more like it”. If I couldn’t immediately have wild terrain, I could at least have a good expanse of water. The cities kept getting in the way but my undying memories are of Uluru at sunrise and of watching kangaroos hopping about in the bush under the setting Australian sun. The seascape was breathtaking and at Cape Leeuwin I wandered down to the shore and watched a shark in the shallows. At least that is my story: it was probably a harmless dolphin. I was sufficiently unconvinced of that to stay away from the water, reflecting that if it really was a shark then terra firma was the place to be and the firmer, the less terror.