Winging it

Making waves in Sydney

I could be about to find a solution to paying my way in Australia for the next few months.

I had to reply to an email from Chris, a guy who runs a roadhouse down in Mount Gambier. I’d replied to an ad on the Gumtree website asking for a hand around the place, in return for free accommodation and food. It sounded like an ideal solution to the problem of my quickly depleting finances in what is now an expensive country to visit, while at the same time giving me a flavour of life in the outback.

He’d asked for me to ring or text him, so I sent a quick text with a few details about myself, my experience in hospitality (always knew five years at Pizza Hut through college and university would come in handy again!) and awaited a response. It soon came – he was interested in what I could offer, and said he’d be in touch again soon.

Darling Harbour, Sydney

In the meantime, I had some time to enjoy Sydney, and after a great few days catching up with friends from home, I was about to go and meet yet another great friend in the city – and she lives here.

I first met Katrina 10 years ago now, working on a childrens’ summer camp in upstate New York. We immediately became great friends in America, and would often spend time together, even travelling around with others on visits to places like New York, Atlantic City and Philadelphia during our time off.

With Katrina and drinks at Darling Harbour on a sunny day!

We stayed in touch, with Katrina staying with me at my parents house in Grimsby soon after the summer of 2002, as she was making her way around the world on her own travels. I had visited for New Year a few years later, and then stayed for a weekend on my way through to America from Thailand last year, thanks to a cheap round the world ticket I’d got my hands on.

Now I was back, and on my way to the office where she works, not far from Darling Harbour, to meet her.

Yet again, the weather had turned. It was absolutely throwing it down, and Sydneysiders were not happy. Everywhere you turn, people were complaining about their ‘abysmal summer’. I overheard so many conversations of people on phones while waiting for pedestrian crossings, and it seemed like everyone was ranting about it.

Sydney is one of the world’s most beautiful cities – in the sun –  but something has gone badly wrong with the weather this year. Across the news and weather, reports of how it was one of the wettest summers on record were dominating headlines, and apparently the worst was yet to come. The forecast for the next month was almost straight rain, thanks to a weather system stuck over the east coast. Apparently it was all down to El Nino – remember that?!

I arrived at Katrinas’ office, and soon the door opened behind me and her radiant smile beamed through.

“I told you I’d be back,” I said as we hugged on the steps to her building yet again.

We walked down to her car and another marathon catch-up session got underway. We went to a bar and Katrina bought dinner, while we chatted about my journey to Oz, our lives back home, how work was going and what my hopes were for the rest of the trip.

Suddenly Katrina said: “Isn’t that your best mate on the tv?”

Sure enough, it was. My friend Dan, who I was on the way to visit in the States last time I was with Katrina, was on the huge plasma screen in the corner, presenting his show on ESPN. Its funny, I can be on the other side of the world, but somehow it still feels a like a small place thanks to the wonders of technology.

With Katrina's aunt Ronnie

For the next few days I stayed with Katrina’s aunt, Ronnie, who lives above her, and we’d spend lots of time chatting about what was going on in the world. Ronnie is a bit of a news fan, and would often have the latest news on the television in the background, or have the latest papers on the kitchen table. We’d talk about stories I have worked on, and I’d give a bit of an insight into the stories in the newspapers in Australia, perhaps how they had been covered or how they were presented on the page.

Dragon Boat Racing for Chinese New Year in Sydney

I would often catch the train from the nearby Hurlstone Park station into the city centre to use some of the free wifi I had found, to upload blogs and to keep an eye on my email incase I heard anything back from the roadhouse. After a few days with Katrina, and having not heard anything from the roadhouse, I decided to bite the bullet and just text back. Straight away, Chris in Mount Gambier replied and asked how long I would want to stay. I told him a couple of months, before he then asked if I had worked in a roadhouse before. I said no, but I’d heard all about it and it sounded right up my street. I then had another text.

“Me and my partner are gay, you’re not homophobic are you?”

It came out of the blue and took me by surprise – I seemed to be having an interview by text, but it just wasn’t the sort of question I had been expecting. I replied that I have many friends who are gay and that it wasn’t a problem at all. There was a brief pause in the text conversation before this one arrived:

“You can fly from Sydney to Melbourne, and then with Regional Express airlines from Melbourne to Mount Gambier. Cheers Phil, let me know when you are booked and you can stay with us. Come as soon as you are ready, the job is yours.”

Brilliant!

It was a huge weight off my mind, and the perfect way to spend a few months while waiting for my friends Matt and Siobhan to arrive in Melbourne – it was near enough to Melbourne to go meet them, it meant my finances would be ok, and by the sound of it, it would be fun to involve myself in local life and see the real Australia along the way.

Fireworks at Darling Harbour

Buoyed by the news, I met Katrina in Darling Harbour and we went for drinks at one of the bars, before going for dinner overlooking the harbour. We spent hours people watching, laughing together at boat loads of hen party girls heading out for a harbour cruise and meal, joking about how a guy in a very flash and expensive speedboat would parade himself around the harbour at least once every half hour, and watching as darkness fell. That night, there was a great fireworks display in the harbour, and we had a brilliant view from the balcony where we had spent a brilliant few hours.

The next day, we met Katrina’s friend Ged for breakfast, another Aussie way of life that I love. Breakfast is a huge thing here, and people go to great lengths to make sure they are up and out, ready to meet up for some of the biggest breakfasts around. Back home after a heavy night, you might struggle to make it out for a late lunch. In Oz, a next day meet up for ‘brekkie’ is ‘as common as’ as they say over here. It was good to see Ged again – last time I saw him i’d just stepped off a sleepless overnight flight from Thailand last year, and was entering a strange hallucination stage of jetlag!

With Katrina and Ged before the beach

Full of bacon and eggs, Katrina and I headed to the famous Coogee beach, which was absolutely packed. We found a good spot though, lathered up in suncream and relaxed. I was taken back by the size of the waves, something I could tell Katrina was secretly laughing about.

Coogee Beach, Sydney

“They’re just waves,” she’d say, but like most Aussies, she takes them and their sheer power for granted. If a roller like some of those crashing on the shore hit Cleethorpes, there would be some who would think a small Tsunami just struck the prom!

Powerful!

After burning slightly in the sun, we headed round to the rocks where huge plumes of foamy white sea spray was flying into the sky as the waves pounded the coastline. Incredibly, there were scores of people having fun, clinging onto rocks and being hit by the powerful wash. Some were being washed over the rocks and into the bubbling rockpools below. Most had big smiles on their faces. Some had painful-looking cuts, but it didn’t seem to put them off. Out to sea, the huge swell meant I could time some great photos of the powerful waves hitting the rocks.

Huge waves, and lots of kids dodging them!

Clinging on!

I dragged myself away from the photography and went with Katrina back home. That night I was playing ‘dad’ for Katrina who had to meet a friend in the city centre. We drove into the city and to the Rocks district, and armed with some notes about how to find my way back to her house, dropped off Katrina and swapped seats. The directions worked a treat, and thanks to the fact Aussies drive on the same side as us, making my way around the streets and driving back to Hurlstone Park was a doddle. Picking her up at the end of the night, I did smile slightly as I drove under the beautifully lit Harbour Bridge and past the Opera House.

Clouds and cruise ships in Sydney

While Katrina was out, I’d been researching how to get to Mount Gambier, and found there was an added bonus. The flights from Melbourne to South Australia were expensive, but there was an alternative – the train. As an extra bonus, it passes through the town of Ballarat, where I’d need to swap onto a long distance bus. It also happens to be where my friend Natalie lives, a girl who I also met on the summer camp in America and who was part of my group of friends with Katrina. I messaged Nat and told her I could be coming to stay for a couple of days a lot sooner than I first thought, on the way through to Mount Gambier. She was delighted.

Cruise ships and clouds arrive in Sydney

I earmarked a cheap flight, and the day before I was to fly to Mount Gambier and the roadhouse, my phone bleeped. It was a text from Chris.

“Hi Phil, we have a major problem, my second in command has put three people on unknowns to me, so I’m really sorry to inform you all the positions are taken. Sorry mate, Chris.”

The fact I was in a mobile phone shop, finding out if the mobile broadband network coverage was any good in Mount Gambier, seemed to add salt to the wound. It was a huge blow, and I walked out into the street. I was gutted.

I’d actually been really looking forward to the experience, and to the journey over there. Suddenly I felt like it had all been taken away from me, and in a poor way too. Quite why it was done by text I’ll never know. I’d done some research on the internet about the roadhouse, and picked up that it was under new management. Perhaps Chris was new to the game and new to management. Perhaps he didn’t realise how much of a blow it could be to someone who had just planned the next few months around the promise of a placement. Either way, I had some quick thinking to do.

Being filmed by the cruise passengers

I decided to stick with my plan – I booked the flight to Melbourne as planned, and decided to see Nat for a few days. After a short stop at Sydney’s Apple Store, where they thankfully replaced yet another duff iPhone 3GS, I headed to the airport.

A Tiger tail

I had booked a cheap flight with Tiger Airways, the company I had flown with from Singapore to Thailand before New Year, and which still made me think of home. With Tigers being synonymous with Hull City football club back home, I cant help but think of it when I see the paint scheme on the plane. There’s an EYMS bus painted up like it that I often see around the streets of Hull, but this takes it to a whole new level!

A plane for Tigers

Not quite knowing what my next move was once I was in Melbourne, I was delighted to make contact with Ian, yet another friend from Camp Na Sho Pa in America, who was one of my fellow bunk counsellors for the summer in 2002.

Winging it to Melbourne

He lived in London for many years, so we’d remained good friends, but now he’s moved back to his homeland and moved to Melbourne a couple of years ago. He offered to meet me at the airport, and it was great to see him waiting by his BMW that he bought in the UK and had shipped Down Under. After checking into my hostel, we had a great night catching up over a few ‘frothies’ as he called them.

With Ian (Laingy) in Melbourne

He’s in charge of some bars in the city and was able to give me some good tips on things to do. He invited me to meet his parents the following day, and we had a great night at one of Ian’s pubs talking over dinner.

With Ian and his parents in Melbourne

The next day, it was time to head west, and to Ballarat. I caught a train from Melbourne’s Southern Cross station and settled into the seat, watching the cityscape disappear as I headed into the outback. I have no idea how long i’ll be in Ballarat for, but as Nat said in a message to me, “I love the way you’re winging it, how exciting.”

I’m certainly winging it, taking each day at a time, and I must admit, it is quite fun.

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