The beginning of the end

Following my stay in Mildura, I rushed back to the city with open arms, thoroughly enjoying the crowds of people, flocks of pigeons and general city-ness that comes with walking through a main train station at rush hour. I’d chosen to leave the CBD hostels in favour of a smaller place off Chapel Street in Windsor. On arriving at Back of Chapel and being offered alcohol before stepping through the door, I knew I’d made the right decision.

I’d previously been staying on Flinders Lane, in Greenhouse Backpackers, and while it was clean and central, it had the atmosphere of Tescos and the key-cards required the precision of a surgeon to buzz in correctly. Having explored St Kilda and the surrounding streets while in Sandringham, I knew this was the place I had to be in: Chapel Street is perhaps the best street I’ve ever walked down in my life. The smells, colours, people and shopfronts are utterly overwhelming, and it takes a lot of willpower to not blow my entire budget on sampling food, cocktails and coffee from every cafe and bar I walked past.

So, feeling much more settled and almost at home, it was time to make the most of being in Melbourne for the last time (this month, anyway). First up was another trip down to central St Kilda, namely Aclan Street, the pier and the beach. Everything about this place makes me want to cancel my flight home and live here permanently: from the art-deco shop fronts, to the leftover gothic architecture, no two buildings are the same. The lack of chain stores and name brands is refreshing, while the rows of bakeries and patisseries are too tempting for their own good.

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My roommate and I struck gold with the day we chose: it was hot and sunny, and a school of sailboats were hovering over the horizon. The warm, crystal clear (crocodile free) bay water is something I’ll miss the most once I leave the state. We headed over to the St Kilda pier next: it doesn’t look like much, but the colonies of water rats and fairy penguins make it a top destination for most people visiting the city. Sadly, the penguins were playing elsewhere when we went, but had they been there I just might have been arrested for stealing wild animals.

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After having tried to get to the Melbourne Botanic Gardens about four times, I finally made it with the help of a few friends at the hostel. Before we made our way into the Gardens, we visited the Memorial Shrine: a combination of monuments built to commemorate the lost soldiers in the World Wars, and every war the army has been involved in since. The World War One memorial was majestic, towering over the surrounding forecourt and Gardens. Inside is a sunken plaque, reading ‘Greater Love Hath No Man’, and at 11am on Remembrance Day, a gap in the ceiling is opened, allowing a beam of sunlight to travel across the stone, resting on the word ‘love’ after 11 minutes. It was a poignant place, built for widows and families to grieve for their loved ones, especially when bodies could not be returned, or even found graves for.

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The Gardens themselves are stunning: we visited as a family years ago, and there are many, many awful pictures of my brother and me posing with giant trees, and despite barely remembering much from our last trip, I could still recognise the trees from our photos (though I suppose they don’t change much in ten years). Despite being 23, 25 and 19, the hidden pathways and bamboo tunnels proved too hard to resist, and instead of following our strictly planned route, we ran in and out of paths in the forested areas.

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Melbourne is full of so many things to do for free – or incredibly cheap – that it’s every budget traveller’s paradise.

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The first steps of travelling solo

When I first started attempting to plan this trip, I gave little thought to the being alone part of it (to be quite honest, I didn’t give much thought to any part of it). However, now the reality’s beginning to sink in: I have almost two months of travelling around Australia on my own. It’s daunting, and the speed in which I flick between being paralysed with terror and paralysed with excitement is equivalent to the speed strobe lighting moves at. I started out in Melbourne: a safe bet, as I’ve got friends and family a phone call away, and even though it’s easily one of the best cities I’ve ever visited, the start of my stay there was a massive learning curve, fraught with tears and a large amount of willpower to not phone home, begging someone to come and get me (unlike Brownie Camp, aged 9).

Coping with homesickness

Homesickness and loneliness are funny feelings. It’s like bobbing around in the middle of a lake, with reeds caught around your leg: they’ve got you, and the more you struggle and the more worked up you get, the worse it is. All you can do is acknowledge their existence, and do your best to keep your head up. The best cures I’ve found so far include listening to songs that cheer you up or remind you of home; getting stuck into a book so good you can’t put it down; giving yourself a proverbial kick up the bum, staring out around you, and telling yourself you’re the other side of the world, so quit moaning and enjoy yourself.

Do your research

Now that I have approximately three friends in the southern hemisphere, TripAdvisor has quickly ascended up the ranks to position of best mate. Being alone has made me that more wary before booking into hostels, so instead of just judging a place on price and photos, I’ve started to do some proper research. Before I’ve booked into any hostel or gone to any attraction, I’ve spent half an hour or so scouting it out on TA, and reading in between the lines of the reviews (it’s quite blatant when a non-backpacker stays in a hostel). Similarly, other travel blogs are brilliant to get ideas from when you’re alone, and are often a lot more detailed than TA reviews.

Get organised

As much as I may talk it up on my CV, organisation has never been one of my strong points. I’m great at getting to the point of being organised (i.e. making lists, colour-coding things, buying notebooks), but implementing my lists? Nuhuh, rarely happens. However, when you’re on your own, everything becomes your responsibility. When I was travelling with Sophie, there was two of us to remember our to-do list: what buses we had to book, dates for hostels, shopping lists, but now it’s just me, and if I don’t do it, no one does.

Ditch the bitchy-resting-face

Over the years, I’ve been told I have a ‘resting face’ (i.e. the face you pull when you’re not pulling a face, if you weren’t familiar with the term) that looks scared, worried, and like someone should smash a watermelon over it (personal favourite, obviously). However, when you’re on your own in a hostel, creepy-smiling face should become the default.
Nah, not quite, you don’t want to become the hostel’s resident Cheshire cat, but smiling rather than looking like a rabbit caught in the headlights is much more effective when it comes to making friends.

Yes is best

Obviously this is not the case if the question is ‘will you transport these class-A drugs across international borders’, but other than that just say yes. Hostels are great in that they’ll run organised trips and events, and most of these are either free, or incredibly cheap. Check out what’s being planned when you first arrive, and a make a note to slip some of their events into your schedule.

Learn to be happy on your alone

Now this I can do, most of the time anyway. I love wandering around at my own pace, stopping to read or write for a while, then carrying on when I fancy it. The ability to be independent, and not need anyone around is hard, and it’s taken me three years to get to this point (and I still have a long way to go), but it’s given me so much more freedom. Everyone reaches a point where they realise it’s 100% fine to be by themselves, and that actually you’re a pretty cool person, and worth hanging around with.

This is only my second-ish week of travelling alone, so if anyone has any tips, I’d love to hear them.

Canada, eh?

Seeing as I’ve spent nearly 23 years trying to escape the clutches of Reading, I’m not sure why I was surprised when 5,000 miles from home, it still clings onto me like a koala on a tree. We arrived at our hostel in Vancouver, and started chatting to the guy working at reception. He asked where I’m from, and on hearing Reading, says that his geographical knowledge of the UK is pretty limited, and everything he knows comes from watching his fave TV show – Motorway Cops. I already know where this is going, and he proudly announces that he knows all about Reading and Slough (“you spell it s-l-o-u-g-h, but it’s not pronounced ‘sluff'” he added, clearly happy to avoid the general pronunciation fail of the town). 

So, after being reminded of all the things my town is known for (bad driving and boy racers, clearly), we went for a wander through the city. Sorry family and friends, but I don’t think I’ll be coming home. Vancouver is the prettiest, friendliest, buzziest (most buzzing..?) city I’ve visited, and was well worth the ten hour plane journey to get here. Strolling through downtown Vancouver, British Reminder Number Two pops up: posters advertising a Biffy Clyro gig at a fairly small venue next door to our hostel. Unluckily, we won’t be in Vancouver when they play, but it was pretty surreal seeing such a big British band playing such a nondescript venue here.

After my jetlag began to disappear, we headed to Stanley Park for a 10k walk. It’s easy to see why Canadians are always so happy and friendly: with mountains, the sea and beaches less than 10 minutes from the city centre, there’s little reason to be miserable about anything.

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Stanley Park is amazing: from beaches to mountains, you’ve got scenery that you wouldn’t catch anywhere apart from on the front of a postcard. Sophie is somehow coping with my scatty-injury-prone-self (strained foot and mild concussion from bunk beds) like a pro, and I couldn’t be much more thankful to have someone who knows the ropes showing me around/how not to die.

Talking of not dying, crossing roads here is brilliant. You have to wait for the man to go green (jaywalking is a thing here), but if there’s no traffic lights, pedestrians have right of way.

As if Vancouver doesn’t get much more perfect, the available post-night-out food ranges from giant slices of pizza to tubs of ice cream in any flavour you want. Literally, perfect. 

Please believe me when I say I’m not exaggerating: everyone in our hostel is Australian (I’m slightly worried that there won’t be any left in the country when I arrive…). The next two days are going to be pretty manic, celebrating Australia Day in Australian time, and then Canadian time. If we survive that, it’s off to Seattle on Monday for my birthday.