Normally when I arrive in a new country, I’m on my own and heading to a hostel, where hopefully I’ll find my bearings and meet new people to pass the time with
Not so in Sydney.
Thanks to two previous visits, I already knew my way around the city somewhat, but even better than that, I had a week of catching up with close friends.
My flight from Bangkok was one of the first to touch down at Sydney’s international airport just after 6am. Two hours later and I’d already bagged an Australian mobile sim card for my phone, caught a train and was walking along the city’s George Street in search of the World Square Hostel.
Staying there was Cat, the girl who helped inspire my whole trip by inviting me to spend some time in Thailand with her last May. Back then, her year-long backpacking trip around the world was in its early stages, and while I had been back to the UK, worked, planned a trip and then made my way on my own trip for almost four months, Cat had been working on a ranch and was now preparing to leave Australia.
We’d stayed in touch, with the original plan being to possibly meet up and spend some time travelling together, but having changed my New Year plans and deciding to spend more time in southeast Asia, there was no time to do that. Instead, she sent me a message on Skype telling me she was flying out to New Zealand at the end of January.
We cross-checked our tickets – I arrived at 6am on January 30, and Cat left on an afternoon flight on January 31st. Our paths would cross for just a little more than 24 hours, which was barely enough time to catch up, but I was grateful – our flights could quite easily have been different, meaning we’d have missed each other completely by a matter of hours.
And so with instructions of where she was staying, I got into the lift at the hostel and made my way to the fourth floor, knocked quietly on the door, and as if by magic, there she was. It was a hushed reunion – the whole dorm was still sleeping, but we spent a good couple of hours talking about our journeys barely above a whisper.
With the sun shining, we headed outside and towards Darling Harbour. I suggested we catch one of the famous ferries around to Circular Quay, the main transport interchange near the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. I also knew from my previous visits that the journey from Darling Harbour offers some of the best views of both famous landmarks, with the bridge framing the Opera House perfectly underneath.
It soon began to dawn on me how expensive Australia will prove to be. On my journey so far, anyone I have met who was from the country, or fellow backpackers on their way back to Europe in the opposite direction from Australia, would often talk about how even simple things seem to cost a fortune. Its all to do with the powerful Australian Dollar, largely thanks to the huge exports of raw materials the country can offer developing nations. It means that Australia has largely escaped the global recession, and that anyone travelling from overseas gets drastically hit in the pocket.
After months of paying anything from a few pence to a couple of pounds for public transport in Asia, it comes as a shock when the short boat journey we’d taken cost almost $5 (about £3) My 15 minute train ride from the airport to the city centre in the morning cost over $16 (£10). The same amount of money in Thailand could almost get you down the entire length of the country on a third class overnight train!
It was just a small part of the culture shock that hit me, and in a surprising way. I hadn’t realised just how much I had become used to the organised chaos way of life in Thailand, Vietnam, China et al. Here in Sydney, people were waiting patiently for the green man at pedestrian crossings, rather than just wandering through traffic. Businessmen in smart suits were strolling meaningfully through the streets, everyone seemed to have their eyes fixed on smart phones while walking, so many people were listening to iPods and music.
It even seemed strange to see scores of people jogging around parks and harbours, many on their lunch breaks. Of course, this is normal life, a way of life that back in Hull or London, I wouldn’t think twice about. But suddenly, after months of not seeing any of this orderly, sensible normality, it was incredibly noticeable. I can only wonder what it must feel like to be someone from a developing country who steps into the hustle and bustle of one of the world’s greatest cities for the first time if after just a few months it can begin to feel alien to me. It was a strange sensation, and one Cat had noticed in me. I felt a little spaced out at times, although the jet lag that was creeping up on me may have played a part. Others would just say it was normal for me!
We bobbed our way around and under the famous bridge before arriving at Circular Quay and making our way to the Botanical Gardens. Cat spotted some flying foxes hanging from the trees, one of which decided to have a fly around, only to be promptly chased around by some Chinese tourists. After a brief stop for a sit down on some grass in the centre of the gardens, we headed to Mrs Macquarie’s point, an area of the gardens that juts out into the water and offers great views of the harbour.
The water was deep blue and crystal clear, and the waves were bouncing off the rocks that lay around the area. We found a spot on one of the larger ones and spent what could well have been hours on it relaxing in the sun, watching the boats and ferries making their way to the beaches, talking about our travel experiences since we last met up and basically pinching ourselves that we’d managed to meet up.
I’d spent some of my nine hour flight working out the dates of when Cat and I first met in the Zest bar on Hull’s Newland Avenue. It was on a Saturday night after the BBC pantomime – I’d spent the day as Baron Hardup in Cinderella, and probably still had far too much eye liner on than was good for me. Back home, my colleagues were once again treading the boards for this year’s panto which made me check the calendar.
Incredibly, working out dates and time differences, it was about a year to the exact moment that we’d first began chatting, when Cat told me of her travel plans, and how I mentioned that it was something I was considering.
We laughed about what we’d have said if someone had interrupted us that night in Zest to say that in a years’ time we’d both be sitting on rocks on the other side of the world, laughing and joking together with a view of Sydney’s Opera House and Harbour Bridge!
Back in Thailand last year, I’d told Cat about a great little pie place called Harry’s Café De Wheels, somewhere that I’d been to with another friend in my last big visit to Australia seven years ago. I’d actually seen it on a television holiday programme, and it was someone like Ainsley Harriot that had said it was one of the best places they had eaten in the southern hemisphere. Well, Asia isn’t a big lover of pies, and Cat hadn’t been yet, so we decided that was the place to head to for tea.
It started out as a cart on wheels, feeding the Navy sailors from the nearby Woolloomooloo naval yard, but established itself both in the local neighbourhood and in local folklore. Over the years, countless famous people and celebrities have stopped by for a pie, as proven by the photos plastered on the walls of the small shack. This place was doing amazing pies well before the whole ‘pie’ craze caught on – right through to the careful positioning of mashed potato on the top of the pie, before a little well is formed for the rich, tasty gravy. For anyone reading this who is heading to Sydney, it’s a little out of the way from the main city centre, but its well worth the visit.
Having caught countless hungry eyes from fitness conscious runners who passed by as we were tucking in on the quayside, we headed back towards the city centre and the hostel, where I was introduced to goon, the local cheap wine. It comes in a box, which is removed, and countless silvery foil bags of the stuff can be found in hostel fridges across Australia.
With a beer in the pub costing anything up to around $9 (£5+) going out for a drink is expensive business – too expensive for most European backpackers who are struggling with exchange rates. Instead, for around $10, you can buy a big box of cheap wine. Countless bad headaches are clearly included in the price, and while its never going to rival the best glasses of red or white you’ve ever had, it was, almost, drinkable.
The following day was largely spent searching for a pair of the famous Australian Ugg boots for Cat with her friend Teresa, which she then sent home to Hull, before we went for a relaxing lunch in Darling Harbour. While most main courses on menus here hover around the $20-25 mark (£14-18) there are some great lunchtime deals on offer in some places. We opted for a $10 steak and chips deal, which for the equivalent of £6 was actually a fantastic meal. A huge bit of steak that melted in the mouth and perfectly cooked – this could be something to look out for in the future!
That afternoon I went with Cat back to the airport and helped her with her bags. She was heading off to Christchurch, and in just a month’s time, she’ll be heading back home. We’d had a great day together, and we were glad our flights allowed us to at least catch up for a few hours. I’ll always be grateful to Cat for inspiring me to make this trip – if it wasn’t for her, I probably wouldn’t be in Australia right now, and I thanked her for being the kick up the backside I needed to stop me thinking about doing it and to actually book the trip. We gave each other a hug before she walked away waving, and disappeared behind the departure gate screen.
Back at the hostel, it was time to start planning exactly how I’m going to spend my time in Australia. Finances are being squeezed, especially by the living costs. My hostel is setting me back £20 a night for a dorm bed, in stark contrast to the £5 or £6 I was paying just a few days ago. Cat told me about how she worked at a roadhouse in the outback, which provided free accommodation and meals in return for doing some work around the place. It sounded like a solution to my problems, and spent hours scouring the Gumtree website for a place to stay.
Bingo. I found a place in Mount Gambier, South Australia, which was looking for help around the place. I sent off a letter and a few details about me and awaited the response. I then set off to meet Alyssa, one of my tour mates from Asia, who was also in the city. We chatted over dinner and laughed about all the good times we had on our tour. Its already seems a long time ago!
I went on to have a brilliant couple of days in Sydney, largely down to the fact one of my closest friends from home happened to be working in the city for the week. I’ve known Jack since my university days, even living together for the last year of our studies in Southampton. He’s a brilliant, brilliant guy – he works like an absolute trooper for his own photography business, but its all paying off. He’s winning awards, getting countless magazine and journal spreads and covers and setting the world of hair photography on fire with his style and composition of images.
He was in Sydney to carry out a shoot and meet representatives from one of the world’s largest upmarket hair companies, as well as meeting former editors of some of the world’s leading magazines. Exciting times indeed for him, and a brilliant coincidence that meant we could catch up over lunch.
He made the mistake of saying he’d meet me by Pie Face – a chain of hundreds of pie shops which appear as frequently along the streets as 7-Elevens do in Thailand. Eventually we worked out a meeting point that’s easier to find, at a hotel and bar, and sure enough, the moment I walk around the corner, there he was, arm held aloft from his 6ft 6in frame and walking across the street, complete with big cheesy grin.
We had a manly hug, and laughed. It seemed a bit surreal – Jack was one of the last friends I’d had a proper conversation with on my final night in London, and we had no idea fate would bring the opportunity to meet up halfway through my trip, and on the other side of the world.
For a few hours, we forgot where we were. It was as if he was at my house, or I was in a bar near his north London home. We talked about everything – the travelling, the people I’ve met, how his business was going, life back home. After months of not properly speaking to or seeing any of my close mates, it was brilliant pick-me-up. While there’s no doubt the last few months have been incredible, there are still moments where you think of and miss everyone back home. And when its one of your closest mates, complete with all the banter and laughter we bring out in each other, it really does lift spirits.
Jack was struggling too, mainly because he was still operating on British time thanks to having just six days in the city. For those who haven’t met him, he’s by far the tallest person I know, so naturally I asked how he found the 26-hour flight.
“Brutal,” was his summary, in one word.
He told me how he’d paid for extra legroom, only to be stuck in a seat next to toilets and the galley on the flight, therefore ensuring he got next to no sleep for the entire duration of the flight with him being knocked and bashed by all and sundry in the aisle next to him. Naturally, I cracked up as his exasperated face told more of the story than any words could ever do justice.
Jack bought me lunch – yet another steak special – and we agreed to meet again for a few hours the following day in between his meetings.
The weather had well and truly turned. Infact, in the five days since I arrived in Sydney, only my first day had been dry and sunny.
“I take great pleasure in the fact that you chose this year, the wettest on record for Sydney, to spend summer in Australia,” Jack laughed in typical fashion when I meet him in pouring rain the following day.
I laughed back, and told him it was all about to change in time for me to enjoy some sun at the end of the Aussie summer.
We spent some time buying gifts for the family he had been staying with, while he also came back with me to have a look inside the hostel. Jack did a lot of travelling in his younger years (quite a while ago now!) and his stories of times around the world would fascinate me while at university. He also encouraged me to travel to America to work on a summer camp for the summer after my studies, something that would turn out to be one of the best things I’d ever done as far as opening eyes and doors on the world.
We stopped for coffee and cake before we had to say goodbye. In a few hours, Jack would be back on another 26-hour flight home via Hong Kong, hopefully being nudged, bashed and bumped into for the entire duration yet again. I took a lot of pleasure in reminding him of the “brutal” journey he yet again has to endure, but I was also sad to see him go.
Most people when they set off on round the world trips wave goodbye to close friends on home soil. Yet, by chance, I’d been able to catch up with Cat and spend some quality time with Jack in the middle of my trip. It had perked me up, and made me feel much more at home in Sydney than I could have imagined. I walked back to the hostel, a broad smile across my face, and feeling ready for Australia.
I got back to the hostel and checked my email – the roadhouse had got back to me and asked me to give them a call. Could I be outback bound?