Terra Australis – New South Wales
The more I travel, the smaller I feel; like a tiny grain of sand in a vast desert. Sometimes, when I am travelling long distance or visiting somewhere new, I imagine my location in my head and then I can zoom out like on Google maps, and picture myself as a little pin on a map. It gives me a sense of how small I am to the world, and it adds a degree of thrill to my journey. Arriving at a destination that I have seen in photographs for most of my life, and just being there and feeling it all, is a large part of why I love travelling – the butterflies and the grin that I can never hide from my face makes all the months of saving up and waiting worthwhile.
It was just like that the day I stepped off the train and saw the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour bridge in front of me. The sun had shone for my arrival in Australia, and I found myself in the centre of Circular Quay surrounded by the bustle of locals and tourists alike. I was staying in the Rocks area of the city, at a hostel which consequently became one of my favourite hostels ever, the relatively new YHA. The view from the rooftop balcony overlooked Circular Quay with the Opera House standing guard at the Quay entrance, and the Harbour bridge to the side. I could never get enough of this view.
I set about getting myself on a boat, and headed out through the harbour heads into the Pacific Ocean in search of humpback whales. We sailed down the coast past Bondi beach which was barely visible on the coastline as we turned further out to sea, reaching about 10km off shore before coming across 3 male humpback whales. At this time of year, in September, the whales were migrating south towards the rich Antarctic waters for the Southern summer. The mothers and calves follow close to shore for relative protection, whilst the males stay further out to sea, near the east Australian current. I know that I will never get bored of seeing these creatures, no matter how many times I come across them, and they gave us quite a display of lunging out the water, breaching, and tail slapping. We spent a long time with them, bobbing about on the ocean before heading back, passing below the Harbour Bridge into Darling Harbour before heading back to Circular Quay. Whilst Sydney’s CBD is nothing spectacular, this city to me is all about the long stretch of waterfront, and I took to spending my evenings wandering around the waterfront, soaking up the atmosphere of glorious vibrancy.
Under a glorious blue sky, I took the ferry to Manly on the north shore. Manly straddles a peninsula at the eastern margin of Sydney harbour, with the sheltered bay to the west, and the openness of the Pacific Ocean to the east. I followed the coastline round the peninsula, past Little Manly Cove, Spring Cove and out into the Sydney Harbour National Park. Whilst walking through the bush, I came across a Bearded Dragon. They are a fantastic lizard that are very popular as pets in the UK. As a vet with an avid interest in the more exotic patients, I have seen plenty of them in my clinic over the years, but like many things, I was ecstatic to see a wild one, and watching it shuffle around in the undergrowth, made me sad to think of all those captive bred lizards that don’t get to experience this lifestyle.
Eventually the route swung back towards the beautiful, but exposed, stretch of Manly beach, and I joined the crowds once more. Cutting back through the main streets back to the ferry terminal, I continued west this time, following the coast through North Harbour Reserve, Wellings Reserve and into another section of the Sydney Harbour National Park. Away from the streets of suburbia, it was peaceful, though oppressively hot, and I was getting quite thirsty. I trudged as far as the Spit Road bridge, hoping to find somewhere to eat, only to find nothing apart from a park bench, so after a brief respite, I began the long walk back to Manly to catch the evening ferry back to Circular Quay. The sun set as the ferry headed off, and we approached the main terminal beneath a beautiful red and yellow sky.
One of the things that I had wanted to do in Sydney since first finding out about it, was to climb the arc of the Sydney Harbour bridge. I headed to the check-in station early with the sun beaming above me and barely a cloud in the sky. However, between checking in, going through the briefing, getting kitted up, practicing our clipping on technique, and actually getting out onto the structure of the bridge, the clouds had rolled in and a breeze was picking up. It was still a pleasant walk amongst the lower girders of the structure, looking out to the traffic and boats below, and to either side of the harbour vista. As we climbed higher onto the outer arc, the wind speed was picking up considerably. It was still sunny enough for our official photographs, and I enjoyed the view and the climb immensely. By the time we reached the summit with the Australian flag flying proudly, it was gusting 82km/hr, and as I posed for my triumphant photograph, the wind threatened to take me off my feet. The return journey was made difficult by the crosswind whipping at us from the side, drumming into my ears, and forcing me over to one side as I negotiated the descent step by step. The noise had become quite painful in my ear, so I was glad to regain the relative shelter of the lower girders. The wind continued to pick up, and the clouds became denser as the day wore on, so I was definitely lucky to have gotten up when I had.
The Royal Botanical Gardens sits immediately east of the Opera House. Following the promenade round from Circular Quay, I got up close to the Opera House, and was nearly blown away. Literally. The wind was whipping up across the water, and when I turned the corner, out of the protection of the building, it blasted directly in my face. With it came the overcast sky, and there was occasional drizzle as I wandered through the gardens, cutting up and down various routes, eventually coming out at Woolloomooloo Bay. One of the penthouses across this bay is reported to be owned by Russell Crowe, and the eateries on the wharf seemed very upmarket. As I walked along the edge of the gardens, I was surrounded by sulphur-crested cockatoos. These were another species that I was more used to seeing in captivity as pets in the UK, and I loved watching the flocks of them screaming above the streets of the city in the evening, coming to roost in the trees above my head.
One of the peculiar things about Woolloomooloo Bay is that there is a block of apartments that have a publicly accessible roof garden. The path leads out from the Botanical Gardens, over a bridge, and along the roof of the building past flowers and bushes, and even up to a little viewing platform at the far end. Heading into the city itself, I delved deep into the busy streets of the CBD, and wound my way south towards Central Station. From there I took the soon-to-be-removed monorail to Darling Harbour and spent my evening there enjoying ice cream, and taking a wander around the compact aquarium. Rounding off the day was a trip to the State Theatre to see one of my favourite comedians, Bill Bailey. I was so excited when I discovered that my trip to Australia coincided with his World Tour, and I was exhausted from laughing so much by the time the show finished.
In the early hours of the following day, I caught a taxi back to Central Station, and jumped on a train to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains National Park. After the heat of Sydney, I got a bit of a shock at how cold it was when I got off the train. I hurried to dump my backpack at the hostel before pounding the brief streets of Katoomba town, and out the other side to Echo Park. The Three Sisters is one of the most photographed, and therefore recognisable natural features of the National Park, and when I reached the viewpoint at Echo Point I was not disappointed. Immediately below me was an impressive canyon, covered in dense bush, with the iconic Three Sisters just off to my left. I was excited to discover that there was a trail leading out onto the first of the sisters, and then down a very steep collection of stair cases to nearly the bottom of the canyon. The view was amazing, although often hidden by dense bush, and on reaching the bottom, I headed west on the Federal Pass, surrounded by dense trees, and under watch of the myriad of parrots that flew in flocks above me. The route eventually brought me out at a memorial for an old mining system that used to be there, and after a brief walk through the exhibit and trail, I took a ride up the canyon on the world’s steepest incline railway, bringing me back out at the top of the gorge. By this point, the sun had shifted in the sky, and I had a differing perspective of the Three Sisters. It was an easy walk to the same viewpoint, and having noticed some waterfalls marked further round on the map, I decided to keep hiking. Staying up high this time, I passed by the Three Sisters for the last time, and hiked on the Overcliff Track first to Leura Falls and onwards to another waterfall even further east. I found myself in a part of the track that had been devastated by a bush fire, benches charred, wooden steps disintegrated and the remnants of bush blackened and crumbling. It was an eerie sight. Eventually, as the sun was preparing to set, and the temperature dropping, I cut back towards the streets of Leura, and dragged my aching feet back towards Katoomba for some much needed sustenance.
Full of enthusiasm for exploring the beautiful outdoors, I hopped on the train to the nearby stop of Wentworth Falls. I had been given a map and some advice on walks in the area the day before by an enthusiastic woman at the information centre at Echo Park, and today I was following her advice. I’m exceedingly glad I did, for this day was one of my favourite days of my whole holiday. Cutting through Wentworth Falls itself, I headed straight for Wilson Park and Darwin’s Track which followed a path through native bush alongside a stream as it built into a river, passing little waterfalls and pools on the way. It was a long walk, and I wasn’t sure what to expect at the end of it. Eventually though, the bush opened up before me to expose a large canyon, and I found myself at the top of the Wentworth waterfall looking out on a grand vista of thick native bush carpeting the canyon floor, and steep canyon walls on either side of me. I instantly felt tiny and insignificant, and for a moment I stood silently taking it all in. There were quite a few tourists waiting around to take photos from the top of the falls, and after I had my turn, I headed off on the National Pass track. This track involved a steep descent down the side of the canyon, skirting the waterfall itself, to a ledge roughly halfway down. From here, the track cut over the water at the base of the first section of the waterfall, but above the second section. It then hugged this ledge for some distance, providing a most spectacular view for a most spectacular hike. It was a busy trail, multiple people taking the path in either direction, and I even came across a little marsupial at one section. All around were flocks of loud parrots, mainly cockatoos, both sulphur-crested and black. Eventually the track brought me to another waterfall, and from here, it climbed back up to the top of the canyon where I took a nature walk through the bushland before heading back along the ridge-top to the falls, and back through the Darwin track to the train station. It was an epic hike in what felt like wilderness, despite the amount of other people there.
Another day, another train ride, this time to Blackheath where I walked through the edge of town to Govett’s Leap, another spectacular lookout over another stunning vista of canyons and bush. I managed to get about 10 minutes of peace at the lookout before a school bus arrived, and a whole class of teenagers bustled out and took over every inch of viewing space that there was. I left them to it, and headed along the Pulpit Rock track, passing above Bridal Veil Falls towards Evan’s Lookout. A little back from here was the start of the Grand Canyon walk. As I started the descent, I met a few people on the way up. None of them had done the full walk, they had all gone down to see the view from the canyon floor and were coming straight back up again. They commended me on doing the full hike and I wondered several times on the way down if I was letting myself in for something extreme. Aside from a few rock scrambles in the river bed, the walk itself was not too difficult. But it was through thick bush, and it went up and down so much that it was tiring, and after a while, just a little bit tedious. Unlike the previous day’s hike which had rewarded me with a fantastic view at every turn, there wasn’t much to see here but trees, and there was little bird life to keep me company. The canyon twisted and turned, and I began to wonder if I had underestimated the time the walk would take me. Eventually, I came round a bend to find a woman beginning to strip off her clothes. I quickly alerted her to my presence, and she went bright red as she turned to see me. It turned out, there was a group of people ahead that were going canyoning through the river, and she had separated herself so as to change into her gear. They blocked the pathway with their equipment, but everyone welcomed my presence and we passed pleasantries as I squeezed past them to continue with my hike. They gave me the most welcome news that I was nearing the climb back up to the top. Back at the canyon top, I followed the road a little while before heading up a dirt track to join the Breaside walk. As the shadows stretched, and the temperature dropped a little, I came out at the top of Bridal Veil Falls again. Heading back to Govett’s Leap, I enjoyed some more time at the lookout before following the Pulpit Rock track to join Popes Glen walk back into Blackheath.
It was an early start back to Sydney. The train was crammed with people heading into the city, and when it reached Central station I thankfully didn’t have far to go. My hostel this time was attached to the train station, but it was stuffy and the window to the dorm room opened into the train station itself, so it was easy to hear the goings on of the busy platforms. On arriving, I was immediately absconded by an exiting backpacker who was looking for someone to look after her surfboard whilst she went elsewhere for a few days, to save her carrying it. Hostel life and backpacking in general involves a lot of trust and open mindedness. I’ve had some bad experiences in hostels before, from cold and damp rooms, to stolen food, people having sex in a bed across the room, noisy snorers and rude roommates who refuse to acknowledge your existence. It’s all generally part of the experience. But on the good side are the shared travel stories and tips, someone to keep you company, and the genuinely nice people that you meet. When no-one else would help out this girl, I agreed to look out for her stuff at the hostel and let her back in at the end of the week to get her things back before her flight home.
That first day back in Sydney I quickly headed back to my favourite place: the waterfront, and hopped on a boat over to Taronga Zoo on the north shore. I have mixed feelings about zoos. Whilst I appreciate that they allow people to see animals that they would otherwise never see, and potentially educate them about them, as well as offer breeding and conservation programmes, I’ve spent too many visits at too many zoos cringing at the cramped enclosures and depressed-looking animals within, pacing back and forth, back and forth. I had heard mixed information about Taronga, so I headed there with trepidation. From the ferry terminal there is a gondola ride up to the entrance building, and this swung above one of the elephant enclosures, giving an unusual perspective of these creatures. Having been duped into the typical tourist folly of expecting to see koalas and kangaroos at every turn in Australia, it was my first chance to see these native creatures in this country. Having seen them in other zoos in other countries, I was a little disappointed with the irony of needing to go to a zoo in their native country to see them too. Whilst the zoo suffered from the same space restrictions as other zoos, meaning that there were several of those moments of cringing next to an all-too-small enclosure, there were several areas where the occupants appeared to be catered well for, and in all, it did rate as one of the better zoos that I had been to for a while. I was disappointed that the giraffes were not on display as I had hoped to be able to hand-feed them, but I happily spent several hours walking round amongst the immense crowds in the immense heat, all the while getting a varying view out into the harbour, and back towards the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. In fact, it is often joked that the zoo is on prime real estate with regards to their harbour views. The one thing that made the whole entry price worth it though was the bird show. I sat down at the back of the mini-amphitheatre, looking across the harbour to the Opera House with no expectations, and was pleasantly taken aback by the antics of the birds and some rodents. The handlers deftly sent the birds flying through the gathered crowd to gasps amongst the audience, and I was outwardly grinning at the surprising display that the handlers had trained them for.
On yet another ferry from Circular Quay, I headed east to Watson’s Bay on the south shore. It was another blisteringly hot day, and after a delightful breakfast in a little cafe along from the ferry terminal, I headed across the isthmus to the eastern shore and the bluff that took the brunt of the Tasman Sea. I followed the clifftop south through Gap Park and Signal Hill before heading back, and cutting through another part of the Sydney Harbour National Park to Camp Cove. Camp Cove is a beautiful, though popular, stretch of beach, and there were plenty of people swimming, snorkelling and sunbathing. I paused there for a while to rest my feet before following the tip of land round past a nudist beach to an old gunnery and lighthouse that used to protect the harbour entrance. It was quite windy here, being so exposed to the ocean as it was, so I didn’t hang around long before heading back to the ferry terminal.
Whilst the evenings at the Rocks had been spent enjoying the view from the rooftop, and enjoying the vibe round the waterfront, the area around the train station left a lot to be desired. It was a good hike south to a mall for some food each night, and the nearest cinema. The immediate area around the train and bus station was rather drab and devoid of anywhere decent to go. The cinema was rather poorly designed, with no tiers to the rows, meaning that anybody sitting in front of you blocked a large portion of the screen. Having sat through the direness of Kath & Kim-darella (where else would you watch an Australian-made film, but in Australia?), missing half the picture probably wouldn’t have been a bad thing.
Having climbed the Harbour Bridge the week before, I had received a voucher for reduced entry into the Pylon Lookout. One of the 4 pylons on the iconic bridge is open to the public as a museum to the construction of the bridge itself. At the top is a lookout offering a different perspective of the bridge itself and the busy road that passes across it. I can never get enough of the harbour vista, so for me it was another opportunity to get my camera and photograph the same things from a slightly different angle as before. By the late afternoon, I headed to the Westfield shopping mall to head up to the viewing tower. I hoped to get up to the top in time for the sunset, so I (among others), was monumentally pissed off to discover that we had to sit through a stupid 4D movie before being allowed up the tower. What was worse, only so many people could fit in the theatre at one time, which meant there was a queue for the pointless movie, and despite the pleas of another man near me in the queue, there was no skipping this section. He too was wanting to be at the top for sunset. To add insult, after standing through the movie, and getting wet, I slipped on the wet floor on my way out and landed hard on my butt. The usher saw me do it, but said nothing. He assumed that I was fine because I walked out, but I was irked by his lack of customer service. I was also rather peeved to get out of the lift at the top to be greeted by darkness. The sun had set, and there was very little light left in the sky. We had missed the sun setting. I hung around for a while, watching the city light up below me, but with the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge hidden behind other buildings, I could have been anywhere.
My last day in Sydney was overcast, and gloomy. I took the ferry over to Luna Park which was closed, and headed along the harbour front round Lavender Bay and onto Berrys Bay. It was yet another alternate view of the city’s most famous landmarks, but I was really just killing time till my friend finished work. One of my university friends had moved to Sydney shortly after graduating, and this was going to be the first time I’d seen her in over 7 years. We had arranged to meet up to walk the Bondi to Coogee cliff top walk, but by the time I arrived at her local train station it was torrential rain. She took me on a road trip around the south harbour suburbs, including my first and only view of Bondi beach, albeit in the rain. It was fairly deserted, a far cry from all the photographs of crammed sands and surfers riding waves that adorn many holiday brochures and websites. I was impressed with the view from her apartment which looked back towards the Harbour Bridge, and she introduced me to some of the best ribs I have ever tasted. When her husband returned, we all headed out for dessert, and I was introduced to the world of Max Brenner. Max Brenner is a cafe-come-chocolatier who offers every possible chocolatey indulgence that you could think of. It is pure sickly sweetness in both liquid and solid form. I both loved it and felt sick with it at the same time.
After being driven back to my hostel, I said farewell to my friend, and settled in for my last night in New South Wales. The following day, I boarded an early train bound for Melbourne, eager to get there to see my partner who was flying in from Christchurch. I had a long 12hr train ride ahead of me, so I settled in for the long haul.