Sydney: Ticking off the Tourist Stops

Seeing as my time in Sydney was so limited, I didn’t have the chance to get to know it like Melbourne – and I wasn’t overly bothered about doing so either. Sydney is a gorgeous city; the views, city skyline, awesome beaches, and of course the Opera House are stunning, but for me, that was where it ended.

As soon as the rain cleared up and the sun came out, I headed straight for the sights: the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. While you can climb the bridge itself, I didn’t fancy passing out from vertigo and scaring myself to death, so I walked along the pathway instead. Exploring The Rocks was next: the old buildings and classic architecture was a nice break from sleek, steel skyscrapers. As I walked around the Opera House, crowds of well-dressed, suited people started to descend on the area, and I left. Turns out that Kate, Will and the baby were visiting – you really can’t escape the royal family.

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The first half of my week in the city was rainy, grey and cold, so I spent the morning exploring the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the various exhibitions it was featuring. I love art galleries, but mainly for people watching: what paintings or installations people are drawn to; how long they spend with certain pieces compared to others; what ones they avoid entirely; how they engage with the piece in front of them. Seeing as it was the Easter holidays, there were plenty of people around, and a lot of thought provoking pieces of art. It’s free to look around, and you can easily spend hours inside; the building moves you around of its own accord.

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After we had finished at the gallery, a friend of my mum’s took me to a spot you wouldn’t normally associate with Sydney: there were no white sandy beaches, surfers, girls in bikinis or spectacular horizons, but a ferocious cliff edge, and high wire fences. The Gap, a cluster of rocky cliff edges, is notorious for its synonymy with suicidal jumpers, and it’s easy to see why. I visited on a grey, stormy day, the weather suiting the mood of the park perfectly. It was austere and unforgiving, and unsurprisingly one of Alfred Hitchcock’s favourite places.

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As we drove back into the city, the sun began to set behind the Harbour Bridge, streaks of vivid orange breaking through the white-washed sky. Though it wasn’t the scene you get on the front of postcards, it was breathtaking all the same: a constant reminder of how beautiful Sydney is.

Next up on my whistlestop tour of Sydney, was Manly and Taronga Zoo. I caught the ferry over to Manly, a quick 30-minute journey across the bay. No matter what form of transport you’re used to using, catching the ferry is a definite must: the views you get of the city as you move further away are incredible. Being back on the beach was exactly what I needed: Sydney is a lot more ‘cityish’ than Melbourne: it has London’s unfriendliness, and it was a shock to the system seeing people walk around wearing make-up and smart clothes again. Manly’s a brilliant town: a beautiful beach – and enough of them to keep you occupied for a while – a cluster of surf shops and ice cream cafes, and a selection of buzzy bars, already full in the early afternoon.

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Everyone I’ve met has raved about Taronga Zoo, so it was top of my list of things to do in Sydney. Admission was pricey at $44, but it was worth paying just for the views of the city alone. Taronga’s built around a hill, so looking over the city and across the water is like looking at a postcard – especially with tall ships sailing around the Opera House. It’s an immaculate zoo, with beautiful grounds and well-taken care of animals. The highlight of the day was the bird show: eagles, owls, galahs and cockatoos soared around the mini amphitheatre, demonstrating their hunting abilities – or their personalities (I would very much like to train a cockatoo to take gold coins off people).

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No visit to Sydney would be complete with going to Bondi (and my brother was fanboying over Bondi Beach Rescue or whatever the show¬†is). It’s easy enough to get there from the CBD: either take a bus, a train and a bus, or a train and walk. I chose to get the train to Bondi Junction, then walk from there as the weather was so lovely – although on the steep walk back, I was slightly regretting it. As it was Good Friday, the beach (and buses) were packed. A long, sloped lawn with plenty of shade sits in front of the beach itself, ideal for those who don’t fancy sitting in the sun or on the sand all day. I’m sure I could have made my first TV debut and gone for a swim (and therefore nearly drowned/been rescued by lifeguards/made it onto the show), but the size of the waves made the possibility of actually drowning a bit too likely.

Watching the surf, and the surfers (though sadly no lifeguards, sorry bro), made me realise how much I’m going to miss this: for the last almost three months I’ve never been more than 30 minutes from a beach. Going home will be strange.

Sydney was different: I don’t think I gave myself enough time to properly explore the city, and I never felt that instant connection with it like I did with Melbourne. Everything was too normal: women were wearing make-up, people wore normal clothes, and it was about as unfriendly as London can be. Next up is Byron Bay, and judging from what I’ve heard, I may never leave.

Sydney’s Backgarden: The Blue Mountains

Drive for just under two hours from Sydney’s CBD, and you’ll assume you’ve been travelling months on end as you arrive at the start of the Blue Mountains. Despite being so close to the city, with various train and bus lines running to the area, I decided to book onto a tour instead. For $79, OzTrails would pick you up first thing in the morning, give you breakfast of sorts, and take you to a selection of sites around the mountains, before putting you onto a boat in the evening, for a ride through Sydney harbour. If I wasn’t on my own, I’d love to explore the region in more depth, but many of the best vantage points are a decent drive away from each other, and I don’t have the confidence (or money) to hire a 4×4 and go alone.

So, at 8.20 the next morning, we got on a very battered, well used mini-bus and headed out of the city. Our guide, Nick, was brilliant. Growing up in the area, and being of Aboriginal descent meant he gave us much more than the typical tourist spiels – but more on that later.

Nick briefed us on the area on the drive over, explaining that only 8% of the 11,000 kilometre forest has been explored (to give you an idea of size, the Blue Mountains are just over half the size of Belgium), and considering it’s home to five out of 10 of the world’s most dangerous snakes, and the world’s most dangerous spider, I’m not surprised. However, thanks to Australia’s world-class venom and antidote knowledge, no one has died of a spider or snake bite in five years.

In fact, Australia’s most dangerous animal doesn’t have scales, and doesn’t have eight legs. In the country’s 240 year history, this animal has killed over 10,600 people. At this point, I was beginning to think there was some terrible dark side to the koala or kangaroo, until Nick revealed it’s the horse. Ah. Killer of ten-thousand people they may be, but I’d much rather take my chances with Rodney than a funnel web spider.

We arrived at our first stop, Wentworth Falls, and piled out of the bus into glorious blue skies and warming temperatures. Considering that the mountains have had nothing but rain for over three weeks, everything was vivid green – and I finally got to see sunshine after almost two weeks of grey skies.

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The UNESCO world heritage site has over 120km of visibility; the reason behind the mountains appearing blue. Over large distances, our eyes struggle to distinguish between green and blue, so any green mountain ranges seen from far away will look blue – and due to just how green this area is, the blue is even more vivid.

Our next stop was ScenicWorld: home of the steepest railway line in the world. It cost $35 to get into the park, but the price included a trip on the railway down to the bottom of the ranges, a ride on the world’s steepest cable car back up to the top, and a trip over the valley. Considering these were the best ways to see the Three Sisters and Katoomba Falls, it seemed well worth it.

When we got to the railway, Nick asked for four people to sit at the front. Not really thinking about the whole ‘world’s steepest railway’ part, I momentarily forgot about my fear of heights and headed down. It wasn’t until we were strapped into the train that I realised just how steep it was: there was no track, just a hole in the mountain that we’d drop through. The Star Wars theme tuned started up, and the train began its vertical descent.

After an agonisingly slow ride to the bottom, we all leapt out, very happy to be on solid ground. The views were incredible: the Three Sisters were stunning, and looking out over the blue ranges was breath-taking.

Nick soon enough told us the Aboriginal story behind the rock formation’s name. There are many different versions, but they all follow the same story line: an Aboriginal father has to protect his three daughters from something (the ‘something’ varying from a bunyip to a group of rapists), and turns them into stone, then something happens to him that prevents him from turning them back. However, Nick followed up his incredibly unenthusiastic rendition of the story with a very enthusiastic “bullshit!”.

This area is a sacred space to any Aboriginal tribe, and no matter where you go in the country, and what tribe you speak to, they will always refer to the formation as the Seven Sisters. Nick burst into this story with much more vigour. The Aborigines have seven important stars: from these, they can find their way home, and navigate around the bush with ease. To help convey the importance of these stars, they made this landmark a physical representation of them, and created a story around them in order to teach their children the significance of the stars.

The story goes that a clan had seven beautiful sisters, all of whom were at marrying age. Their father arranged a marriage between the eldest daughter and a warrior from north Queensland, who was told he could have this woman, if he made the journey down from the top of Australia, to the Mountains. So, this warrior continues on his journey, travelling thousands of kilometres over many months. As is the way with warriors, he ends up killing many men while travelling. On his arrival at the clan, the father realises who he is – and announces that many of the men he killed were related to him and their tribe. Due to this, he is no longer allowed to marry the eldest daughter. He, having travelled all this way, is not happy about it, and threatens to kill the father and take all seven women. In order to save his daughters, the father changes them into stone – and in a fit of anger, the warrior kills him, rendering the girls as stone formations forever. This story has been told by Aboriginal tribes for thousands and thousands of years – while the story of the ‘Three Sisters’ was made up by white people, for white people.

While I’m not the biggest fan of organised tours – I much prefer being able to walk around and explore at my own pace – Nick’s commentary, love of the land around him, and Aboriginal ancestry made the day incredible. He gave us bush food to eat (lemony flavoured nuts that Aborigines use to keep hydrated while travelling) – and the honest truth (“go have lunch in that cafe, I get free lunch if you do”).

We finished the day on with a cruise down the Parramatta, and into Sydney harbour. It was my first time seeing the Opera House, and no matter how many times you see it on TV and in pictures, nothing can prepare you for what it’s like in person. The building is breath-taking, and gave me goosebumps just looking at it.

 

The East Coast: Stop 1, Sydney

It’s no secret that leaving Melbourne was hard: not only was I saying goodbye to a city I fell head over heels in love with, but also to an assortment of brilliant people who helped make me feel at home instantly. As tempting as it was to spend the remainder of my time in Melbourne, I was beginning to feel like I’d never leave if I stayed much longer, so it was time to get back on a night-bus and get to Sydney.

Even though flying is quicker and easier, prices started at well over $100, without checking baggage, so I opted for the Firefly bus – a steal at $60. The 12 hours to Sydney passed quickly: the seats reclined to almost horizontal, a film was played to while away the hours until 11pm, and the air conditioning was cool, but not Arctic. Soon enough, we arrived in Sydney, and I ventured out to find my hostel.

Before I arrived, I’d decided that I’d rough it in the cheapest hostel I could find, then splash out for a night at the YHA on the Rocks. I’d emailed my hostel a week before I turned up, asking if it was possible to check in – after 12 hours on a bus, all you want is a shower and a cup of tea, without having to wait until the standard check in time of 2pm. However, when I turned up, the door was locked, with a note saying call reception. My two dead phones now seemed like much more of an inconvenience than they did on the bus when I wanted to listen to music. Being over tired and unhappy about leaving Melbourne, I sat down outside one of Darlinghurst Road’s many, many strip clubs, and waited for someone for leave the hostel.

Sadly, at 7.30 in the morning, not many travellers venture outside, and I was beginning to resign myself to the fact I’d be sat outside for half the day, when two girls left the building. The hostel owner rocked up just after 9am, told me I couldn’t check in until 2pm, but obviously I looked sad, tired and pathetic enough to be pointed in the direction of the showers. When I came back to ask about luggage storage, I must have looked even sadder, tireder and more pathetic than before, and he gave me a free upgrade to a 4-bed dorm, and let me check in early.

Being over tired and therefore slightly emotional, I did what I always do when I’m down, and went to find a museum. Luckily for me, Sydney is home to the Australian Museum, and for $15, entry was reasonable. I spent the afternoon wandering around the various exhibitions, including the Wildlife Photographer of the Year, which was incredible.

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The rain had cleared up slightly by the time I left the museum, so I spent the afternoon exploring some of the city, and attempting to get my bearings. The transport system in Melbourne (minus the trams) was easy, but arrival in Sydney meant getting to know a whole new train service. Out of the amazing things I’ve seen while travelling,¬†Sydney’s double-decker trains probably are topping my list. My hostel is opposite Kings Cross station, so getting around is easy enough: one way into the city centre, and the other to Bondi.

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On returning to the hostel and attempting to keep myself awake until at least 9pm (the night bus may have been better than the Canadian ones, but I still barely got 2 hours of sleep), I met my roommates: one Korean guy (who was the only one to notice I was having a sneaky cry and offered me beer), one guy from the north of England (surprise surprise… though is there any people left up there? They all seem to be here), and a girl from LA who has an aversion to wearing clothes (I’ve seen her naked four times now and still don’t know her name. Was later filled in that she’s a stripper from next door, and I’m 100% in awe of how she manages to wear the collection of shoes she has piled up in our room).

After a much needed phone call from home (yes, an actual phone call – thank you Telstra for giving me $200 of credit), and a bed with a decent pillow, I felt slightly less sorry for myself, and ready to crack on with Sydney. We may not have gotten off on the best foot, but with trips to the Blue Mountains, Manly, Taronga Zoo and Bondi coming up, who can mope for long?