Local conditions

This is a grab bag of handy bits about local conditions.

ATMs | Beware of the sun | Christmas Period | Credit Cards | Currency and coinage | Exchange | Internet Cafes | Interpreters | Mail | News from newspapers and television |
Public holidays | Radio coverage | Scales and Measures | Scams affecting tourists | Showers and baths | Tides | Toilets | Traffic | Washing your clothes |

Tourist scams

It seems that the touts who have been working the doors of the Sydney International Terminal have finally been pushed out. When you leave the terminal, look for the signs to the taxis, where you will join a queue which is managed by complete incompetents, but at least everybody is delayed, and you will get your fair turn. The problem is that the company running the terminal (privatised by the previous government) places a toll on taxis (which you will be expected to pay). This means taxis are held up geting to the pickup point. Be nice to the driver.

It is cheaper to get a public bus, a shuttle to the area where you are staying, or a train. Be aware that the train has a special surcharge on it.

If you have encountered a scam in Sydney, please contact me and let me know about it. Contact details are below.

There is one scam operating in the town of Collector near Canberra that it is worth being aware of.

Scales and Measures

Australia is completely metric, with larger distances measured in kilometres (km), smaller distances measure in metres (m), centimetres (cm) and millimetres (mm), although approximations will often be given in terms of inches or feet.

One metre is 39.37 inches, a kilometre is about 1100 yards, a centimetre is 0.4 inches, and a millimetre is about 1/25 of an inch. A mile is 1.6 km, a foot is just over 30 cm, and an inch is 2.54 cm. One hundred metres is very close to 110 yards, and a kilometre is about 0.6 of a mile: a mile is about 1.6 kilometres. For rougher measure, centimetres (cm) are used, so the average height of an Australian adult is about 170 cm. Basketballers, on the other hand, usually top the two metre (200 cm) mark.

Weights for goods are normally given in grams (g) or kilograms (kg), as are the weights of people, although the old English "stone" unit (14 pounds) is still used because it is convenient. People in Australia have never given their weight in pounds, except for infants. A man weighing 11 stone, or 154 pounds, also weighs 70 kg.

One kilogram is 2.2 pounds, and one pound is 454 grams. An ounce is about 28 grams. A tonne is slightly less than the long ton of 2240 pounds, being about 2200 pounds, or 1000 kg. If you are buying food, it will be sufficient to regard 500 grams of cheese as a pound of cheese.

Land area is measured in hectares (100 m x 100 m), although the expression "quarter acre block" can still be heard. A hectare is 2.5 acres, an acre is 0.4 hectare, a square metre is a little over ten feet.

Fluid and other volumes are measured in litres (L) and millilitres (mL). A litre of water is a kilogram of water, and the terms pint and gallon, which may still be encountered refer to an Imperial gallon of ten pounds. The term gallon is still heard in "4 gallon drum" or "44 gallon drum".

In soft conversion, the 4 gallon drum is now a 20-litre drum, and the 44-gallon drum is now a 200-litre drum, while 300 mL and 600 mL are used in place of half-pint and pint (really more like 285 and 570 mL, so you get a bit more). The American "fifth" measure is very close to the standard liquor bottle used in Australia, once 26 2/3 fluid ounces, usually rounded now to 750 mL.

Temperatures are measured in Celsius (sometimes called centigrade) degrees. The conversion formula is (F-32)/9= C/5, but this table will save you some of the work

Fahrenheit 32 41 50 59 68 77 86 95 98.6 100 110 113
Celsius 0 5 10 15 20 25 30 35 37 38 43 45

Air pressure in tyres is measured in kilopascals (kPa), with 200 kilopascals being about 30 pounds per square inch. On the weather maps, we use hectopascals, which are equivalent to millibars. Just to be contrary, we still measure wind and boat speeds in knots (nautical miles per hour).

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Like Britain, Japan, Indonesia and quite a few other places, normal vehicles have a steering wheel on the right, and all traffic stays on the left. Slow traffic sould keep to the left lane on highways.

If you normally drive on the right, be extra alert when making a left turn, as you will instinctively go to the wrong side. If you normally drive on the right, hire an 'automatic' vehicle, not a 'manual'. That gives you one less thing to worry about, and may mean that you learn sooner to tell the windscreen wiper stem from the indicator light stem. Don't worry -- Australians have all the same problems in reverse in the US and Europe.

Daylight saving and time zones, day lengths

Sydney is ten hours ahead of Greenwich mean time (Universal Tiime or Zulu Time) for the cooler months: from a variable time in November to March (decided by politicians!), the clocks are put forward one hour, for what is known locally as "daylight saving" (which you may knows as "summer time". Daylight saving is decided by the state governments and no two seem to be able to agree on uniform dates for change-over. In 2000, daylight saving operated during the time of the Olympic Games, when Sydney was eleven hours ahead of GMT. In 2006, all of Australia stayed on daylight saving until the weekend after the Commonwealth Games,

South Australia are a half hour later than the eastern states, Western Australia is two hours behind, and Queensland and the Northern Territory do not have daylight saving at all.

In Sydney, Adelaide and Perth, in the depths of winter, there is ten hours between sunrise and sunset, in high summer, you will have fourteen hours, with about half an hour of twilight added on. In Melbourne, the extremes are about nine and fifteen hours, and closer to eight and sixteen in Hobart. The further north you go, the more even the days become.

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Public holidays

There are also public holidays. First there is New Year's Day, January 1, and then there is Australia Day, January 26, generally celebrated on the nearest Monday (to give a "Long Weekend"). Lots of factories close down for January, or part of it. Then comes a short working period until Easter, when half the city disappears on the Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday.

Easter is a variable holiday somewhere in March or April, and in Sydney it also means the Royal Easter Show, so people are often hard to find in the week before Easter. Good Friday sees most shops closed, Easter Monday is a public holiday, and many people take the Tuesday off as well, and the rest of that week is school holidays in any case. Most museums and galleries operate normally through Easter (or they may close on Good Friday), and so do most places of entertainment.

When business returns to normal, some time on the Tuesday after Easter, people are already getting geared up for ANZAC Day, the 25th April. This is when Australians celebrate a gloriously failed attack on Turkey in 1915, and remember others who died in war as well. ANZAC Day is not a public holiday if April 25th is a Saturday or a Sunday, but otherwise ANZAC Day is a holiday like any other, except that the streets are full of old soldiers marching and reminiscing to anybody who will listen. There was a time when the young would sneer at this, but our values seem to be maturing a bit. Each year, you will see thousands of Australians and New Zealanders travelling to Gallipoli around ANZAC Day for a dawn service. Across the Dardanelles, in the town of Canakkale, the Turks celebrate their victory. Here is a link to some of my shots, taken in 2002. There are no credits to me there, because we set them up as an anonymous education resource. I have my own Flickr site which has a few more shots.

The next break from work is a Monday holiday in early June, usually the second Monday. This is called the Queen's birthday weekend, although she was actually born in late April. We don't need a holiday then, as we have just had Easter and we are about to have ANZAC Day, so we have a delayed birthday party, based on the birthday of King George V, who died in 1936. His birthday was at a more convenient date, it seems.

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Christmas Period

The year rushes on, and in no time at all, Christmas is with us. Office parties begin early on December 24th, then everybody goes home. The 25th (Christmas Day) and 26th (Boxing Day) are holidays, or if they fall on a Saturday or a Sunday, an extra day or two will be added in their place. This means hardly any working time between Christmas and New Year, so anybody with any sense takes the three official working days off and gets a continuous holiday of ten or eleven days.

Many factories actually close down for the whole of January, as I mentioned before, so that it all gets a bit like Paris in August, except that Sydneysiders stay in town. If you are in Sydney at that time, do as the Sydneysiders do: go to the beach, or to the Festival of Sydney .

Or go shopping: you will find lots of shops open, but be warned: most of the larger stores run after-Christmas sales. Watch out for stampedes of Little Old Ladies pursuing super-bargains! Museums, art galleries and holiday places are open most holidays, except Christmas Day, when nobody would come anyhow, and a few museums still close on Good Friday.

When people talk about "the holidays", they may be referring to the public holidays described above, but more usually they mean the school holidays. It is important to know which kind of holiday is referred to, as some places open specially (or shut up completely) on public holidays, while treating school holidays as normal operating days. There are, of course, many more ankle-biters around in the school holidays.

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Currency and coinage

Since February 1966, Australia has had dollars and cents, while before that, they had pounds, shillings and pence. There are "silver" coins for five, ten, twenty and fifty cents, "gold" coins for $1 and $2, and polymer (plastic!) notes for $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100, described at http://www.rba.gov.au/Museum/Displays/1988_onwards_polymer_currency_notes/complete_series.html, while some of the information you may want on Australia's coins can be found at http://www.ramint.gov.au/, the Web site of the Royal Australian Mint.

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Credit Cards

The main Australian credit cards are Visa, and MasterCard (Access). Less commonly accepted are American Express and Diner's Club. Many merchants do NOT accept the last two because they charge too much. Decent people will have nothing to do with American Express who are employment pariahs. A few establishments make a charge for the use of credit cards, generally of the order of 1%, enough to infuriate the customer, not enough to make a real difference.

You should not need to be told that you need to keep details of your credit cards, your travellers cheque numbers, your passport title page and such in a safe place, away from where you carry your passport and credit cards. A single photocopied page is all you need.

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Most television news broadcasts give common exchange rates just before the weather forecast, as a measure of economic strength. If you are carrying pounds sterling, euros, US dollars, or Japanese yen, you can get an exchange rate quite easily.

The more touristy the area, the more likely you are to get foreign currency accepted - and the more likely you are to be totally ripped-off, just as in any other part of the world. You are better off keeping a stock of Oz dollars, and drawing on that. As a general rule, the exchange booths operate with a 10% difference between their buy and sell rates, because they rip you off in both directions.

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Yes, there are automatic teller machines everywhere, dispensing $20 and $50 bills. You may call them a cash machine, a hole in the wall or something else, but if you are asking for one, Australians understand "ATM" best of all.

ATMs are programmed to hand out as many $50 notes as possible, which can occasionally be a problem in a small shop. To get some $20 notes, don't draw $100, but request, $90, $110 or $130, and make the machine bow to your wishes, at least partly.

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News from newspapers and television

Americans: there is no PBS in Australia. Use the ABC or the SBS instead. If you know Britain, the ABC is like the BBC, and SBS is like the BBC but in other languages. The ABC and the SBS offer radio and television coverage. The nearest thing to PBS is the Music Broadcasting Society, which operates in Sydney and Melbourne. They have no news service.

A lot of overseas programs can be seen here, and we tend to get most of the high-rating US and UK shows, which helps us understand people from those countries when they speak, but it does, ever so slightly, colour our perceptions. SBS is a gem, offering programs in many languages. The shows are often 6 to 12 months old by the time they are released here. The commercial networks are Seven, Nine and Ten, and they appeal to people who read tabloid newspapers and move their lips as they do so.

That Daily Telegraph is a ghastly tabloid but without the naked ladies. The Australian is a pretentious broadsheet, but like the Telegraph, it is owned by Rupert Murdoch. QED, but Rupert's Adelaide Advertiser is far worse. So is the Illawarra Mercury which isn't his, but looks like it. That leaves the Sydney Morning Herald, or SMH. This has reasonable overseas coverage, and English visitors will be comforted to see quite a few stories from the Grauniad. Talking of that, the Guardian Weekly is printed here and offers a range of the best from the Guardian, Le Monde (in translation) and the Washington Post.

In touristy areas (Martin Place, Circular Quay and others) you can buy overseas newspapers at great expense. Internet machines that print out a limited version of selected newspapers can also be found.

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Radio coverage

Digital radio began in August 2009. These are the same stations that are on the FM band (88-108MHz) and on the AM band (530-1630 kHz or so). The format adopted here is DAB+, said to be slightly more advanced than in some overseas areas, so if you bring in a radio from another country, you may be disappointed. Do some research first!

For in-depth news, turn to ABC Radio National, 576 kHz in Sydney, and poke around. (In fairness, I should note that I do a bit of freelance stuff for them myself, but that is beside the point.)

For overseas news, SBS TV carries many overseas news feeds. The SBS radio stations are probably of less use, but worth checking out. Then there is ABC News Radio, which offers 24-hour news. Check their frequency list to see how to listen to them.

Commercial radio and television pretend to present news and current affairs, and if you have a gothic sense of humour, you may gain some amusement from them, but forget about getting reliable news from your home.

Need classical music? You have two main choices: across Australia, ABC FM, 92.9 MHz in Sydney, provides good coverage of mainstream classics, with some jazz, some talk, and the occasional threnody for ruptured parrot and enfant terrible. If you go to their site, you can look ahead and find the frequencies for other transmitters. Click on a state, then work through the list, trying to work out which ones you may need. When you click on one, a map comes up showing its approximate coverage.

There is also the Music Broadcasting Society, 102.5 MHz in Sydney only, which works on a subscription system, not unlike the PBS in the US. You don't have to pay, but they encourage you to do so, and quite right!

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Internet Cafes

These are now common, especially in tourist areas, so arranging a "free" ID such as a Hotmail, Gmail or Yahoo account is a good idea before you leave home. There are also a number of Australian providers of such services, but the best part of setting it up before you go is getting your address book set up.

While there appears to be no adequate master list of these establishments, an advanced search on Google, using the string [ sydney "internet cafe" site:.au ] produces enough hits to get you started. Some libraries will allow access for a nominal charge. Places like the State Library of NSW, while they have wireless access, don't allow people with their own machines to access Web-based email, but if you download and read offline, I guess you are OK.

It is worth checking with libraries to see if they offer e-mail access.

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Postal deliveries happen once a day, Monday to Friday, and post offices are open from 0900 to 1700. Service standards are about on a par with those found in British post offices, which means that British tourists, at least, will realise that they need to set aside some quality time for a postal exercise. Mind you, I saw a PO in Washington DC where two clerks were putting up decoratiuons, another stood watching them, another stood by to give customers a free cordial drink and a long survey form, leaving just one clerk to serve the long queue of customers. Only banks in Australia have a similarly woeful standard of service, though post offices can often do better than banks. Please recall that the slowness is not necessarily the fault of the staff behind the counter, who have been downsized by clever managers, so as to ensure greater efficiency. Be nice to them.

The fastest way to get postal service is usually to find a business which is a postal agency in a smaller shopping centre. You can sometimes buy stamps in larger newsagencies, and you can buy booklets of standard internal stamps, or small sheets of air mail stamps, air mail envelopes and aerograms, which will save you having to queue again.

While the actual post offices are often slow, the mail services are quite fast in getting things from A to B, and there are express services that you can use if you need something transported even faster. We have Fedex, among others.

There is very little mail that leaves Australia by sea these days, except for parcels: if you are sending material to yourself overseas, post offices can sell you padded bags and boxes in various sizes, and most of them can also sell you packaging tape: the nice ones will give you some. If you wish to carry or send prints, paintings and maps, a hardware store can sell you a length of 50 mm (2 inch) or 90 mm (3.5 inch) PVC tubing, and most can also sell you caps to go on the ends.

The Australian standard for packaging is that any parcel should be able to withstand a two-metre fall onto a concrete floor. This does not mean that your parcel will be treated this way, but keep the criterion in mind.

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Washing your clothes

As a rule, most suburbs will feature an establishment called a coin-op laundry, a laundromat or a laundrette. If you are here for a while, you can save money by buying your own soap powder from a supermarket, but for convenience, it is often easier to buy it on the spot.

Many of the places will keep an eye on your wash for you, move it to the drier, and even take it from the drier and fold it for you, but these local variations are something you will need to check. Typically, there will be a charge for this service, which is usually referred to as "bag wash service". If you are staying in a caravan park, there will be a laundry area, and it is worth asking at motels if they offer access to a laundry.

To find the nearest such shop, look in the "Yellow Pages" phone book under Laundries - Self-Service, or on the Web, at http://www.yellowpages.com.au/, and then seaching for "laundry laundrette laundromat", remembering to put in the state and the suburb or post code, and to tick the box for "serach surrounding areas". The search box ORs these, and this avoids you having to work out that what you see elsewhere as the category "Laundries - Self-Sevice" is "Laundries--Self-Sevice" in the database

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Finding Toilets

A "toilet" in Oz-speak is a place for eliminating waste, often referred to as a "bog" or a "loo" or a "dunny", with dunny probably the best-known slang term. If you are lucky, an Australian may recognise terms like "bathroom" or "rest room", but they do not generally use them, and may show signs of confusion. So if you are desperately looking for a place of relief, and you need a quick answer, ask where "the toilets" are.

In the city, hotels which are mainly for selling liquor will always have toilets available, and residential hotels will always have one somewhere on the ground floor. Large transport interchanges like railway stations and Circular Quay will always have toilets. By law, a licensed restaurant must have toilets, and sporting facilities, parks and swimming pools will always have a toilet block somewhere. So will theatres and movie houses, though some of them get a bit objectionable about non-customers using them. In office buildings, the toilets are often located near the lifts (which are elevators to Americans).

On the road, your best bet will often be a service station (which sells petrol or gasoline). The toilets will either be to one side of the main building (and probably locked - ask at the cash register for the key) or inside the area where you go to pay for petrol (and then they are probably unlocked).

The standard male and female signs are used, and the doors on cubicles have a small sign which says "vacant" when it is unlocked, and "engaged" when the door is locked from the inside. Signs may read "Men" and "Women", "Gentlemen" (or "Gents") and "Ladies", or something more cute and hard to understand in certain eateries.

Ladies! Do NOT leave your handbag on the floor with all your money in it, or it may be snatched from the next cubicle: hang it on the hook on the back of the door.

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Showers and baths

As a rule, you can find cold-water showers (to wash off the salt) on the path behind most beaches, and you will usually find warm or hot showers in camping grounds and caravan parks. Squash courts and gymnasiums will usually have hot showers available.

Motels always have a shower in an en-suite bathroom, and while country hotels, guest-houses and some bed-and-breakfast places may lack such facilities, the more expensive ones have an en-suite, and all have access to showers.

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The fact that you are reading this book means that you probably will not need an interpreter, but you may be better at reading English than you are at speaking English.

There is a 24-hour telephone interpreter service available from the staff of the Ethnic Affairs Commission of NSW. Phone 1300-651-500 for help. There is also a Telephone Interpreter Service on 131-450.

This service is for people who speak community languages: the main languages spoken by people who live in Australia, but this is better than nothing. Many of the interpreters are able to speak other languages as well, so perhaps they can help you.

As long as you can make it clear that you need an interpreter, and tell people what language you speak, with any sort of luck, you will find a person who can understand you, nearby. And the good news for overseas visitors, the Australian SBS broadcasts news and entertainment in all the main languages, on both radio and television, in all the main capitals. (SBS is short for "Special Broadcasting Service" - for more information, go to http://www.sbs.com.au/ and follow the links.

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Beware of the sun

The biggest danger you face is sunburn. Please be assured: you do need to take this seriously, especially if you come from the wrong side of the 40th parallel. The solar noon in summer Sydney is at 1 pm, because of daylight saving. This is an important point to remember, because the main sunburn danger time is from 11 am to 3 pm. People are only now starting to realise that there is no such thing as a healthy tan. Australia has the world's highest skin cancer rate: please don't add to it.

Wear a shirt, a hat, and protection for your nose, shoulders, and any other exposed parts. Hats should have a brim all the way around. If you wear a baseball cap, you will find that burnt and blistered ears look most unpleasant. If you are planning to be on the beach in those hours, you will need a suitable suntan protection cream. If you are all pale and pasty, use at least a factor 15 cream, but if you want to improve on a reasonable tan, try a factor 8 - though you do so at your own risk. This applies particularly if you are trying one of the Unclad Beaches.

Most pharmacies (chemists' shops) carry a range of sun creams, as do some grocery stores. You can get more advice from a pharmacist than from a grocer, but you will pay more. North of Brisbane, forget it - get the highest SPF that you can. Some sun creams are more or less water-proof, others have to be replaced after you have been swimming: check the label on the product that you buy.

The people you see lying on the beach all round you have been doing it for years, and are well on the way to their first skin cancers, but they know when enough is enough. On windy days and cloudy days, though, even they can be tricked into too much of a good thing. Ultra-violet radiation comes right through clouds, and on windy days, you don't feel the heat that is the first warning of sunburn.

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There are two high and low tides each day in Sydney, about six hours apart, and at least some of the tide times will be given each day, both in the newspapers and in the TV weather news at night. The tides the next day will be about one hour later, and the maximum tidal variation is about two metres, with 1.2 metres more normal. Tide information is available at http://www.bom.gov.au/oceanography/tides/MAPS/sydney.shtml

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This file is http://members.ozemail.com.au/~macinnis/syd/conditions.htm, first created on March 29, 2006. Last recorded revision (well I get lazy and forget sometimes!) was on August 6, 2009.

© The author of this work is Peter Macinnis. You are free to point at this page. Copies of this page or set of pages may be stored on PDAs or printed for personal use.

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