Was the story when I arrived in Australia. The first day I arrived was overcast and the next few days were predominantly sopping wet too with seven months of rain in two days.
Perhaps because of this or perhaps because I’d expected more of Sydney I found the place pretty disappointing. We stayed in the Central YHA which is in a nice location right next to Central Station. Complete with it’s own bar in the basement, a cheap cafe on the ground floor (if staying there get the bacon and egg roll as it’s cheap and HUGE) and friendly staff the place was nice. The basement bar was called Scubar and offers discounted drinks for guests at the hostel. Which is a good thing because I was really shocked with the massive cost of Sydney. In the past the GBP had been about 3 times the value of the AUD but now it’s just over 2 times. This coupled with Sydney being generally quite pricey have made Australia much more expensive than I’d anticipated. Despite the shock we did have a pretty good time in Sydney. The views of the opera house and harbour bridge from Mrs Macquarie’s Chair are great. The Australia Museum is good as well. Manly is pretty with it’s fantastic fish and chip shop (grilled Baramundi with garlic sauce and chips – drrrrooooooooooooollllllllll) near the fish market and our first view of the Pacific Ocean horizon. We ate pretty well with boxes of sushi and Dim Sim really cheap and a Vietnamese restaurant called Pho Pasteur offering really good dishes for about $10. We also spent an evening at Scruffy Murphy’s devouring $5 steaks which were superb (Martyn had two). They also do cheap jugs of Tooheys New on Mondays so these, with the generally good music choices, made a good time. Three Wise Monkeys was expensive but pretty good with a good covers band and an awful one to ridicule. We took part in a pub quiz in Scubar which we abandoned half way through, Kristina’s friend arrived so they were chatting and I went to sort out some laundry. I ended up getting into an extremely surreal conversation with an Irishman called Paddy where we decided to rob a gun shop, then a bank, then another gun shop so that we could go and impress hunters in the woods… I’m not really sure how it happened but I just couldn’t escape him as he talked non-stop! I ended up spending about 90 minutes trapped in this hellish crime planning state of mind that culminated with me being the face of a new superpower where Paddy was the evil mastermind… I finally just about managed to escape and fled downstairs again. He was a really nice guy but he can talk for the whole of Ireland! Anyhoo, we had mulled over buying a car or van for our trip around the country but opted to hire a car and drive north to Brisbane in two weeks. We shopped around and got a good deal from Backpackers World in Kings Cross. They got us a Europcar Hyundai Getz for a much reduced price with unlimited mileage and no under 25 surcharge.
We picked it up, named it Hermes and drove west to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. Having not driven for 9 months Kristina was a bit wary at first but soon got into the swing of things. We arrived in sleepy little Katoomba without any problems. The town is really just one road of shops and cafes leading all the way down to the national park. We stayed in the YHA and managed to get a whole room to ourselves (they were quiet so they blocked the remaining bed off for us). We soon found that the time of year meant the hostels all around were quiet. We spent the first day just viewing the massive gorge and strolling around the little town center. The next day we drove to the Jenolan Caves a few hours away. They are a series of huge and beautiful caves twisting through the limestone hills for many miles. You have to choose which one to view as they are viewed by guided tour. We went for the most popular one and weren’t disappointed, despite the corny Enya music occasionally piped in for dramatic effect… I got to see stromatolites which are amazing rock/cyanobacteria formations millions of years old, basically living rock. The caves are well worth the excursion. Plus I spotted wild kangaroos for the first time! And a dead wombat by the road.
Next up we headed to Cessnock in the Hunter Valley vineyard region. The Putty Road from Katoomba to Cessnock had been blocked by recent flooding and storms but the day we drove it there was nothing wrong at all. It was a stunning drive along winding roads through national parkland. When we arrived in the Hunter Valley we could see just how bad the flooding had been as the horses in some fields were marooned on tiny patches of high ground or plodding sadly through huge puddles. Apparently almost the whole valley had been submerged… We finally found the Hunter Valley YHA just outside of Cessnock. It’s been open less than two years (I think) so it’s really clean and well kept. Gordon the manager was our first stereotypical Aussie with a thick drawling accent, dry sense of humour and enthusiasm for everything. One of the long term guests Luke was a very strange man. Beardy alcoholic and permanently pickled he immediately told us ‘If I say anything out of line just tell me to get fucked’. Fine! He was a pretty nice guy once you got past the repetition of conversations and the forgetfulness. A proper character. I don’t understand why he was staying in the Valley and drinking the disgusting wine he was though. We explored a few of the valley’s vineyards (Hungerford Hill and Tempus Two) and tasted pretty much everything we could. We bought a couple of fantastic bottles and visited the cheese shop by the McGuigan cellars. There we tried various lovely local cheeses and pates. Back at the hostel we got our first amazing view of the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. Anyone who lives in a city should be disgusted with what we’re missing. You can see directly into the Milky Way and the sky is filled with countless thousands of stars. Every time I see it I’m still filled with awe.
After Cessnock Martyn drove us to Port Stephens which is just north of Newcastle on the coast. He did very well considering it was only his first attempt since passing his test, just one slight error – almost driving the wrong way around a roundabout… We stayed at the Melaneuca hostel near beautiful One Mile Beach. It’s owned by two couples who alternate working each week, they are brilliantly friendly people and the hostel is stunning. Set in a eucalyptus grove the style is classy wooden shacks, there is a kanga joey as a pet who roams the large grassy area and there are koalas in the trees. At night all the sounds of the wild can be heard under and around the shacks, it’s a great place. The only downside was that the long term guests there were a wee bit unsociable and quiet. Not a massive downside really but it would have been nice to chat. We spent a few days here and explored the area quite thoroughly. We visited One Mile Beach in the afternoon with a picnic and watched as all the colours changed with the passing clouds. The ocean was rough but I wandered in for a brief paddle, my first in the Pacific Ocean. It was just too cold for a swim and the currents had a tremendous strength which daunted me slightly. It’s been a long time since I last swam and though I’m pretty good I wasn’t totally confident. If you’ve seen Mad Max or the music video to ‘I Come From A Land Down Under’ then you will have seen Stockton Bight Sand dunes. A huge length of towering yellow sand separating the ocean from the eucalyptus groves. We explored these on foot whilst 4 wheel drive vehicles plunged down the sides in the distance. After spotting some children leaping off the top of one we decided we wanted part of that action. Climbing a different mound we stood at the summit and caught our breath whilst gazing over the endless ripples of dunes. Then we proceeded to leap off with varying levels of success. Not too big a drop but pretty good fun nontheless. It lead to me finding sand in every pocket and fold of my clothes for weeks. It was also the beginning of the end for my trusty Adidas trainers. One of my ambitions was realised here too – whale watching. We boarded a catamaran at Nelson Bay and motored out to sea. At this time of year the humpback whales are migrating north from the Antarctic to give birth in warmer waters far away from killer whales, this is what we wanted to see. Since the worst days of commercial whaling the numbers have risen from 200 to 10,000 migrating every year so we had a great chance of spotting at least one. We ended up seeing about 4 different whales surfacing for air every few minutes. The sheer size, even of the youngsters, is incredible. They swam north as we motored alongside, keeping a discreet distance. It was well worth doing as we saw dolphins alongside and penguins nearby too. We also drove out to the Rock Roadhouse which is the tackiest service station ever! Basically a cafe and petrol station inside a miniature replica of Ayers Rock (Uluru). Typically Australian really. In the Port Stephens area we also began to indulge in Aussie pies. They were the tastiest I’d ever had! So much variety!
On my birthday we passed the Rock Roadhouse again on our next trip north – to Coffs Harbour. It had been raining on and off for weeks but now the weather began to be kinder to us and it cleared up! We stopped at Port Macquarie for lunch and had a fantastic steak sandwich with perfect chips in a small place overlooking the bay. When we reached Coffs Harbour it was getting dark. We checked into a Motel/Hostel called Hoey Moey which is right next to the beach. Then we went into the pub which is part of the complex and the only bar nearby (in fact it’s one of four pubs we found in the whole town). It was like something from Phoenix Nights! Nearly empty and frequented by the strangest looking characters. In typical Aussie style it has a room on one side of the bar for a bookies, another for ‘pokies’ (slot machines) and the main area was for entertainment. There was also an area with pool tables and arcade machines. We met our room mate, a lad called Luke who comes from Hull, but couldn’t initially place his accent. He’s been travelling Oz for many months alone and it’s taken on a very local tang. Something I’m glad I’ve avoided! Anyway, I gobbled down cheap spag bol and we passed the night playing every good tune on the juke box and playing pool. Not the most exciting birthday ever but that’s what you get for being in a one horse town like Coffs Harbour. Memorable for different reasons to usual. The rest of the time here was spent strolling the long and near-pristine beach down to mutton bird island which is the breeding home to some rare migrating birds. They had already left for the year but we chilled out on the cliffs and watched more dolphins below. Instead of walking back home along the waterfront we decided to find these other mythical bars. The first was the Pier Hotel. We walked in and Kristina was terrified. There were other women in there amongst the thronging crown of rough-looking Aussies but they fell into two categories: 1. black-toothed hags 2. lingerie-clad serving wenches… It was 4pm on a sunday afternoon and we’d walked into a very surreal place. It was extremely busy in there, we were on the bookies side of the place and I got the impression word of mouth had drawn everyone in. Gradually Kristina felt a bit less freaked and we just absorbed the interesting atmosphere. The two very cold lingerie women (one with some extremely nasty looking mouth herpes) strolled about as the local guys salivated and we laughed. Next up was the CBD area. We expected to find a bit of life there but no, none. A couple of schoonies in an Irish bar and a Dominos pizza later we walked back home and went to bed soon after. No point sitting in the Hoey Moey pub, it’s more fun alseep.
Glad to be leaving we got out early and drove via the ‘Big Banana’ (a great big concrete banana and the first place to spark off Australia’s weird obsession with big things from mangoes to gumboots) to Byron Bay. We passed a big prawn on the way too. We stayed at the Cape Byron YHA and went for a walk around quaint little Byron. The town used to be a hippy haven but is gradually getting more and more commercial. It’s already got a lot of expensive boutiquey hippy designer shops. Apparently the local green council banned McDonald’s from setting up a franchise here and have also been actively discouraging highrise building. This is most evident from the lovely beach – looking back at the town you can barely see it’s there at all. The first night we went to a couple of local places and stayed in the Friendly Railway Pub for a while watching a good covers band perform. The following morning I was a little hungover so a nice big brekky was in order. Ready for a day of strolling we set forth for the lighthouse overlooking Byron’s beach. It’s a really nice walk up to the wind-swept summit and the views are stunning. I have no idea what was in the water that day but for some reason there were loads of whales out at sea breaching! Literally leaping out of the water and splashing down again, sending huge white explosions of water shooting into the air. Yet again the whales enthralled us. We could also see sharks, turtles and dolphins swimming dangerously close to the wave-smashed rocks below. We spent the afternoon trekking around the paths, taking in the scenery. Back on the beach Martyn made a pretty lame sand castle and I said I’d help him the make a better one the next day. As promised we returned to the beach and made the best sand castle I’ve ever made (better than Jerusalem II for those who remember that one!). It had everything from bridges, arches and a deep moat to an Indiana Jones style rolling rock to block a doorway, a stroke of Martyn genius. Many people came past and though they thought we were insane they secretly loved what we were doing and wished they hadn’t lost their sense of wonder and fun. Martyn and I went for a swim in the chilly, choppy and clear water before Kristina and I buried him. He fashioned the sand into the shape of fat man until the weight of his boobs made breathing difficult. As the sun dipped and the lovely heat disappeared we sat on the grass and ate fish and chips. In the evening I discovered the pure joy of chili chicken and mango pies, climbed a tree and went to bed pissed. A lovely seaside day!
Waking up the next day I was sorry to leave Byron Bay but we had to keep up the relentless northwards journey to drop our car off. Kristina drove us out of New South Wales and into Queensland.
(11/10/2011 NOTE: At this point the server of my then blog host was disrupted and I lost all future blogs. The photos too are missing but I will try to retrospectively re-insert them when I have time. Needless to say, the rest of the trip went well and I ended up exploring Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand before running out of money and heading home.)