Iced Coffee in Australia: A Continent of Distance and Danger

“Australians are very unfair in this way. They spend half of any conversation insisting that the country’s dangers are vastly overrated and that there’s nothing to worry about, and the other half telling you how six months ago their Uncle Bob was driving to Mudgee when a tiger snake slid out from under the dashboard and bit him on the groin, but that it’s okay now because he’s off the life support machine and they’ve discovered he can communicate with eye blinks.”

― Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country

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Justine Leonhardt. The Great Ocean Road. 2011. JPEG. 

When it comes to vacation, there is nothing like a super sweet coffee laced with multiple shots of syrup and whipped cream, enough sugar and fluff to create a sense of lightheadedness so severe you’re left wondering just how many heaping tablespoons were in the cup altogether. Of course, it’s one thing when you’ve purposely chosen something enticing and rich, but when it’s thrust upon you without realization – a cultural food difference that’s forgotten in the rush of the morning – it can turn out to be an entirely less pleasant thing.

Iced coffee may very well be one of Australia’s many surprises, but it’s one I never would have come across if it weren’t for having a friend in the capital city of Canberra. Places like Spain and Germany and Brazil had long been on the top of my travel list, but the sprawling and vastly vacant continent of Australia was one I had never seriously thought about, probably one that I only would have gone to after time spent in Thailand or Cambodia or some other distant country that happened to be close to the continent down under.

Since I could take for granted the knowledge of my friends, I didn’t read much about Australia before getting on the plane. The only thing I knew, outside of what I read the first few days in Bill Bryson’s book In A Sunburned Country, was passed on to me from them. I heard about kangaroos and ‘drop bears’ and the cassowary bird with its menacing claw. Worst of all, I arrived at the beginning of magpie swooping season and was likely witnessed by a few Australians waving my purse in the air to GET THE BIRDS AWAY. After running from the black and white monsters for a few days, thinking I’d learned, I was frightened anew when I mistakenly thought myself safe on a bench outside of the National Library of Australia, only to see two appear stealthily from between the bushes. The horror, the horror…

A few weeks in, we travelled by plane to Cairns in Queensland, a coastal city well known for its tropical climate and proximity to the Great Barrier Reef. We took a bus tour that travelled north to the Daintree Rainforest, past Double Island and Palm Cove and on through the lush coastal vegetation and deceivingly beautiful waves that hid box jellyfish and crocodiles. The striking beauty of a place like Cape Tribulation in northeast Queensland could only be met in equal force by the menacing creatures that call the place home.

But the fear instilled in me by travelling to an area full of so many dangerous and awe-inspiring creatures caused me to forget the danger inherent in Australian iced coffee. The morning we were set to head off the Great Barrier Reef by boat, we stopped at a café and I ordered an iced coffee, forgetting in the moment that Australia’s version of iced coffee often comes with syrup, whipped cream and even ice cream. As soon as my order was placed on the bar, I was made aware of my folly, but I thought to myself What the hell? It couldn’t be that bad.

But, oh, it was. Besides gorging on a few sandwiches and a couple of brownies from the all-day buffet as soon as we got onto the boat, the rough ride assaulted my stomach with swift brutality. By the time we got out to our first snorkel spot, my body was racked and my friend was left holding a plastic Ziploc bag for me as I wretched. I soon felt better, but the feeling didn’t last and I missed the second snorkel session too, only to make it out for the 3rd and final swim before projectile vomiting all over the boat’s controls in mid-afternoon. By then, of course, I had completely emptied out and felt good enough to prepare for the return to Cairns, the beautiful blue waters much more enticing in the aftermath.

My day on the Great Barrier Reef is certainly not the one that most might expect, laden with sea turtles and clear blue waters and brightly coloured coral, but it did end with a glass of champagne and crocodile wontons so it wasn’t all bad. While I still got to see some of the stunning sights in one of the world’s most amazing natural wonders, I’ve also had the experience of surviving one of Australia’s lesser-known menaces along the way: iced coffee before a boat ride.

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