It’s different Down Under

by

It was with a heavy heart that we bade farewell to Argentina to fly to Australia.  Our first three months travelling, spent in South America, had allowed us to experience people and places we would never forget.

South America, and Buenos Aires in particular, were very much starting to feel like home. Also, Marc’s Spanish was getting good enough that I didn’t have to do all the talking anymore.  But time was ticking and new horizons were calling. And so we boarded our Qantas flight, armed with books and valium to help us survive the 15-hour flight from Buenos Aires to Sydney.

Never seen that before, whatever could it be?

Australia was our obligatory stop-over between South America and Asia. And Sydney was to be the first time we were going to try our luck with CouchSurfing.com. We had encountered many travellers who had hosted and been hosted, and all raved about what a great experience they’d had through this social networking site aimed at backpackers. It offers an easy way to meet friendly locals and is also every budget traveller’s best friend.

Fifteen sleepless (for me) hours later, we were spat out of the arrivals door after having managed to jump through all the loops of the insanely strict immigration and customs formalities of Sydney airport. We headed into the city clutching instructions emailed to us by our Sydney-sider host Karl, and after some wandering around the streets of Central, we found his building.

We rang the doorbell – nobody home. But he had already warned us that we would probably have to let ourselves in and, as promised, the keys were in the mailbox! So we walked into a complete stranger’s flat in a completely foreign city as if we were visiting old friends and marvelled at how easy it all was.

I spent the next two hours sleeping in a stranger’s bed, whilst Marc used the computer, internet and hifi facilities. Eventually, Karl came home and met Marc and after a while Marc woke me from the bed I claimed (turned out to belong to Karl’s housemate Tom).

But it was no problem. In fact nothing was a problem for Karl, Tom or their third housemate Stefan. They were all super-chilled. And it was great to just get off a plane in an unknown place and automatically have some form of social circle! We chatted to them for a bit but quite soon called it a night and crashed out on one of their couches.

There are animals everywhere in Australia. Here, a pelican on a lamp post, as you do.

The next day we found out that Sydney is THE MOST EXPENSIVE PLACE IN THE WORLD. We already had our suspicions from our $15 train ticket into Central from the airport – a ride that took at the very most 10 minutes. When we ventured out of the flat the next day it didn’t take us long to make up our minds. The prices were out of control! Our “cheap” kebab lunch at a local Lebanese joint cost us $30. A visit to the Sydney Aquarium set us back $35 each. (We did get to see some platypuses, giant sharks and ‘dugongs’, or manatees, though.) We walked around some more and gawked at all the price tags.

Dugong (pronounced "doo-gong") from underneath. Apparently at the origin of the mermaid myth.

Big shark!

That evening we met up with Tanya, our friend and yoga teacher from Paris who had moved back to Australia two months prior. Over drinks by the Opera House she told us how she had also been amazed at the cost of living in Sydney, much higher than that of Paris. She told us how the Australian Dream is basically to own your own home, and that the continuously growing demand for owning a house keeps the prices very high, also making rent very high. In many places rent in Sydney is higher than in London.

Paging Tom Hanks.

We then crossed Sydney Harbour to the famous Luna Park and had dinner at a waterfront restaurant. Here we learnt something about Sydney again: the Bring Your Own (BYO) restaurants. It’s not just the cheaper places that have this. In fact, loads of restaurants in Australia allow you to bring your own booze and will charge you a corking fee. Except there are no corks in Australia, because all bottles and even the most expensive wines have screw tops! It’s all upside down Down Under…

But it was really nice to see Tanya and we were really happy to have a familiar face to show us around some of the best places in the city – ie. the bars and restaurants.

Coastal walks - on everyone's Sydney To Do List

The following few days were spent trying (and failing) to spend as little money as possible, which we did by limiting our activities to outdoorsy ventures like walking. One day we embarked on a 12km coastal walk from Narabeen to Manly beach with Stefan from the flat and his engineering buddies from university. It was all going smoothly until one of Stefan’s colleagues dislocated his shoulder in a big Australian wave, just one beach away from finishing our walk. The qualified nurse who showed up to help said all she could do was give him some paracetamol and drive him to the nearest hospital because she was not legally allowed to pop his shoulder back in…

Sydney Ferries: The best place for watching tourists.

Which brings me to the other thing we learned about Australia: you are not allowed to do anything because of the insane litigation laws. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but let me illustrate: One day we got to Bondi for our obligatory tourist afternoon by the beach and came across the kind of information sign that we were to encounter everywhere we went in Australia. While the French love to pepper their streets with signs enlightening passers-by of the historical/cultural/revolutionary significance of the particular street corner/café/cobblestone you may be standing on, the Australians make sure you are aware of everything you are not allowed to do.

Marc on his best behaviour on Bondi Beach, lest the fun police are watching!

On Bondi Beach, you are not allowed to litter, drink alcohol, smoke, bring your dog, swim from this spot to that spot, no bicycles, no barbecuing, no beach vendors, no radios, no walking, no talking to other people, no having fun between the hours of 11am and 7pm (some of these might be made up but you get the point). And people were following the rules, as did we, threatened with huge fines we would never be able to afford.

Koalas. Everywhere. In the trees. In our bags. In our bed. Everywhere.

This came as a slight shock coming from South America where there are absolutely no rules, and where every beach we visited is the site of all of these activities going on all at once, and very loudly. It made for a quiet, relaxing time on the beach, but then we got thirsty and hungry, and without a beach vendor in sight, we decided to go find our own dinner.

In a similar vein, we found the rest of Sydney to be a little too cleancut, plastic, maybe a little sterile… The people weren’t, mind you. Everyone we met was friendly, nice and super helpful and funny. But the city itself, well, it was like everything had been built in the last five years. All the shops looked like they were chains, even if they weren’t. Every street looked like the high street. Maybe the one exception was Newtown, a more studenty neighbourhood we visited on our fourth day in Sydney. Granted, we never ventured very far from the well-beaten path, but it was something we noticed. I am sure we would have felt differently had we spent a little more time there.

Wombat!

But one great thing about Sydney is how easy it makes it for people to spend time outdoors. There are public facilities everywhere encouraging people to be outside, running, swimming, playing tennis, golf, climbing, walking, barbecuing, and everything for free… Europe could definitely take a page out of the Australian public facilities book! It goes without saying that the clement climate of Sydney is more inviting towards spending time out of the house, but they really do make it easy for you.

Public swimming pools by the beach using sea water -- a way to enjoy the beach while exercising and avoiding dislocated shoulders. Genius!

We also enjoyed going to Taronga Zoo and petting a wallaby; crossing Sydney Harbour on the different ferries and watching the giant bats that fly over the city at twilight; and the thousands of delicious authentic Asian restaurants everywhere. But after five days in Sydney and a rapidly growing hole in our finances, we were relieved to be heading to the Whitsundays and the Great Barrier Reef, the main event of our stay in Australia.

Marc and a wallaby.

My turn.

Sydney skyline from Taronga Zoo

Giant bats flying at twilight.

Sunset under the Harbour Bridge, and pirate ship.

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2 Responses to “It’s different Down Under”

  1. Gabrielle Says:

    To the batcave!

  2. cynthia cutler Says:

    Thanks Manna for the brilliant commentary. Keep it up xxx

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