What to Buy in Australia: Souvenir Shopping Down Under

I’m partial to souvenirs that feel somehow authentic, that express something immediate and palpable about a country. The problem, of course, is that the more developed a country is, the more everything starts to look alike, as shopping malls, modern conveniences overwhelm quirky little holes in the wall. This is as true is in Australia as it is  in the U.S. or Canada. All of which means you have to look a little harder to find quirky treasures that distill the essence of a place  In  Oz, I was looking for gifts and mementos that would reflect the sweeping variety of Australia’s landscapes: the Outback, the subtropical north, the cosmopolitan coastal cities, and the towns along the Great Barrier Reef (just for starts).

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Pearls, opals, gold: You need a better reason?
  • Clothes and style items you buy here are similar to the language: There’s an accent, meaning that both stand out and fit in back home. (Except the Crocodile Dundee look: Best to skip that.)
  • Good for shoppers interested in accessories, swimwear, and cultural artifacts.

Australian Crafts and Cultural Artifacts 

Jewelry: Pearls, opals, and gold are Aussie specialties. Kitchy tourist jewelry made from opals cut into the shapes of koala bears and kangaroos are inexpensive, sometimes less than $10; more sophisticated designs and better stones, of course, cost more. Pearls sold here come not only from Australian seas, but from Tahiti and other South Seas islands known for multi-colored pearls, as well as from China, where virtually all commercial freshwater pearls are cultivated. Prices range from a few dollars on up to — well, if you have to ask, you’re not buying it! In Australia’s historic gold mining towns, you can buy small gold nuggets in jewelry settings. These are especially nice: They evoke both the place and its history, but beyond that, who is going to argue with gold jewelry?

Aboriginal Art: Colorful pointillistically styled paintings by aboriginal artists in traditional styles feature geometric patterns and animals, and are part of a lineage of story-telling. Paintings are available in aboriginal communities, in tourist markets, and in fine galleries. It’s worth purchasing the painting from the artist who actually made it because each painting has a story. Tourist-class paintings are available for less than $30; paintings by recognized artists can be many times that.

Didgeridoos: A didgeridoo is not the easiest souvenir to bring back. These long wooden or bamboo wind instruments can be several feet long, in which case you’d probably have to ship it, and that’s not cheap. Smaller instruments are available and more portable. The didgeridoo is the soul of traditional aboriginal music, with an otherworldly sound like a sort of bass drone. Fancifully decorated, these make dramatic, if unwieldy souvenirs. Decorations focus on Australian themes, often animals such as barramundi, platypus, echidna, snake, and crocodile. Prices can range from $20 or $30 for a tourist-class mass-produced item to several hundred dollars for true art objects.

Boomerangs: Definitely on the touristy side of the souvenir spectrum, but at least they have an authentic history, both as hunting weapons and for sport. Traditional boomerangs were made of bone. Returning boomerangs were designed for sport; non-returning boomerangs were used for hunting. Today’s models can be made of wood, bone, or (today) plastic and other high-tech materials, and are often decorated with traditional themes.

Outback and Designer Clothing

Coogi sweaters are popular purchases, but not cheap.

Coogi Sweaters. Coogi is a brand name for a unique sweaters made in Australia. (Note for Americans: they call sweaters “jumpers” here.) The patterns are computer generated in vibrant colors in asymmetrical woven patterns guaranteed to be unique for each sweater. Coogis are are available in the U.S.; whether they are a bargain in Australia depends to a large extent on the exchange rates between the respective dollars and where you shop. Airport prices are not usually a bargain, but in Melbourne, you can pick up factory seconds. There’s a  huge price differential ($50 to $100 Australian as opposed to the more typical U.S. prices of $200 – $400) and you probably won’t be able to spot the flaws. Watch out for knock-offs, though. One possible tip-off: Look at the tag. It should be squarish with the size on the bottom left, and the letters will be colored in the following order : C is yellow, O is green, O is blue, G is orange, I is red.

Woolen sweaters: Like New Zealand, Australia is a country filled with sheep stations, and wool products are found everywhere. In many cases. the wool is grown and processed in Australia, then shipped to Asia for knitting, and returned for sale as a finished product in Australia.

Beach stuff: Australians take swimming seriously. It’s not so much a hobby as it is a sacred ritual. So if you’re in the market for beach wear and beach accessories, from bathing suits to mats, you couldn’t pick a better place to shop.

Outback hats and camping clothing: Don’t overdo the Outback look! It brands you as a tourist, and it may not work all that well at home, either,  especially if home is New York City; you probably don’t want to look like Crocodile Dundee! But a bush hat can be functional on your trip, and you might use it at home while hiking, fishing, or camping.

Practicalities

  • As of this writing, the Aussie dollar is historically strong against the U.S. dollar, so check out prices stateside before splurging in Oz.
  • If you want to bring back some of Australia’s justly famed wines, you’ll have to either ship them or pack them carefully in checked luggage. If your flight from Australia is direct (for Americans, this means no transfers at U.S. airports) you can buy bottles airside at Australian airports and take those in hand luggage.
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About 

Karen Berger is the author of 15 books. She has hiked, ridden horses, kayaked, scuba dived, climbed, sailed, and marveled on six continents.

Comments

  1. Anna Leigh-Montre says

    I always try to think about what souvenirs to take back home because I like unique, one-off and creative things I can actually display for others to see instead of the cheesy ones! Excellent blog post and ideas. Thank you! I found some relatively cheap paintings of Queensland and I’d like to find some more souvenirs like these, only one of each! And originals.

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