I didn’t know it at the time but this was to be the last time I’d use my passport and go abroad. Back at the end of November 2019, completely oblivious to World events that were to come, myself and my partner stood in line at Christchurch airport, ready to hop the ditch for a weekend in Australia. My best friend had been living in Sydney the previous few years but was readying to return to life in the UK and with Sydney being my favourite city in the whole World, it was an easy decision to cross the Tasman Sea to visit her before she was to move to the other side of the World. I would have loved to spend more time with her, but at just 3.5hrs, an early flight there and a late flight back a couple of days later made a 3-day weekend jaunt do-able.
The Southern Alps were shrouded in low cloud as we took off, crossing the breadth of New Zealand’s South Island before spanning the width of the Tasman Sea. I adore Australia and will happily visit anywhere and everywhere within reach, and as always I was giddy when I saw the New South Wales coastline approach and the Sydney suburbs appear out of the clouds as we descended into the city. Sadly the country had been hitting the headlines due to the extreme amount of wildfires that were taking place in various states, but as we landed there was no evidence that any of that was going on.
I always stay at the same place every time I visit, the YHA hostel in the Rocks district. Not only do I love this part of the city, but the hostel is the best hostel I’ve every stayed at and its rooftop viewing deck with a view across to both the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House is worth every cent of this dearer-than-most hostel. After dumping our bags there, we met up with my friend and her partner, taking a leisurely stroll through the Royal Botanic Gardens by the waterfront of Sydney Harbour. It was a bit overcast and hazy but it was warm and in the bay a couple of catamarans were parked on which Christmas parties were in full swing. Despite the years I’ve now lived in the Southern Hemisphere, I fail to feel festive with a summer Christmas but I did acknowledge that the summer did lend itself to better parties and outdoor festive fun. We laughed at their crazy antics as we passed by, and as we moved beneath the trees I sought out the loud and obnoxious cockatiels that I adore to spot when I’m in Oz.
At the far side of Mrs Macquaries Point, a swimming pool was built a few years prior which spans the side of the gardens. We stopped in at the poolside bar to enjoy an Aperol Spritz, a neon-orange cocktail that despite being Italian in origin, to me is quintessentially Australian. It turned out our waiter was from Glasgow which is where myself and my best friend used to live so it was both nice and surreal to chat away with him about life at home and life in Oz. We were pretty much the last people in the place by closing and we continued on our merry way back through the gardens, musing at the various painted koala statues as we passed.
As we reached the Sydney Opera House, the behemoth of cruiseliners, the Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Sea was negotiating its exit from the harbour. It’s strange to think how uncommon this must be now after everything that has happened in the last year, but at the time it was a normal Sydney event, and we stood to watch it turn with precision and be guided out of Circular Quay by a support boat, tiny in comparison to the enormous multi-decked ship. Sydney harbour has a constant flow of leisure and commercial craft ploughing its waters and these other vessels were simply dwarfed as they zipped past the slow moving liner.
After a while we continued on into the Rocks, taking my friend and her partner up to the roof of the hostel to see the view before we all headed round to Darling Harbour for expensive cocktails in a swanky bar up one of the skyscrapers there. I felt rather underdressed among the fancy socialites out for a Saturday night, but from the bar we had a view up the Paramatta river and the suburbs that flank the river. After dinner it was time to retire to the hostel and get some much needed sleep after the early rise for the morning flight.
Stepping onto the rooftop balcony first thing in the morning I was immediately confronted with another cruise ship which had arrived in the middle of the night. Now the first day of December, this was peak season here, and there would be little gap between the myriad of cruises that include Sydney in its route. We walked down through the Rocks past a giant inflatable snow globe, and down the many steps to Circular Quay where it was busy as usual. It was a familiar walk round to the Opera House and back before it was time for the 4 of us to get together once more, this time catching a ferry across to Taronga Zoo wharf on the north side of the harbour.
It wasn’t the zoo we were aiming for, but the coastal walk that runs the length of the harbour from the headlands far up the Paramatta river. I’ve walked sections of it before, but this was to be a new part, where we first headed east towards Bradleys Head. Bradleys Head cuts deep into the harbour and is well positioned to offer a view across to the Sydney skyline. There are so many places to get a view of the Opera House, Harbour Bridge or both, and every time I come to Sydney I go somewhere new to obtain a new perspective. When we reached the amphitheatre near the lighthouse, we found some bush turkeys strutting around the grounds and a couple of kookaburras. Although New Zealand to me is the land of birds, Australia has some incredible bird life, many of which, like the cockatoos and the kookaburras, are loud and raucous. It adds a whole level of auditory stimulation to city explorations. We sat there talking for a bit, watching some people out on the pier as the waves smashed into the concrete.
After a while, we headed back to the Taronga Zoo pier but continued on the harbour trail to the west, where the coast cut deep into Sirius Cove. The water was littered with boats and the beach in the cove was busy on a Saturday. Enjoying the company and the views, we reached the far side of the cove and cut up over the headland through the residential streets to reach Mosman Bay, another cove that was crammed full of boats. I often dream about living in Sydney, but the reality is that the city is an expensive place to live, and as much as a harbour view would be the dream, I know it’s not a realistic option for me. So instead, I just admire people’s houses as I pass. We eventually reached our lunchspot, the Mosman Rowers restaurant where it was time for more cocktails and a bite to eat. These are the kind of days that make me immensely happy, away from the stresses of life, with no schedule to keep and little care in the World. Just a group of old and new friends hanging out, enjoying the Australian way of life.
After lunch, we continued to follow the coast round the very deep Mosman Bay towards Cremorne Point. I was surprised to see a bush turkey sitting in a tree as we walked. Used to seeing them rummaging around in the undergrowth, it was strange to see one just sitting on a tree branch. Once at Cremorne Point we were back in view of the Opera House again, with an unrestricted view across to the far side of the harbour once more. We didn’t have to wait too long for a ferry to carry us back to Circular Quay where we passed the light rail that was new at the time, before heading into the Rocks for their Christmas market.
The last time I visited Sydney was for Vivid Sydney, the annual light extravaganza that occurs in autumn, but this time, instead of light installations spread between the streets, it was Christmas trees, and toy soldiers and fake snow. These are the kind of events where I wish my family lived nearer. I moved to the Southern Hemisphere on my own in late 2011, and only getting to see my family in Scotland every few years, I miss out on a lot of family outings and celebrations. Sometimes I see mothers and daughters out for tea or siblings hanging out at a bar, or families having picnics and I simply ache to have my family closer. One of my brothers at least has had a brief snapshot of my life over here with a visit a few years ago, but for the most part, my family has no idea what I experience with life Down Under. New Zealand and Australia feel as much, if not more so, of a home as Scotland does, and I know that being here is the right thing for me. Still, I walked round that market, soaking up the buzz, enjoying myself immensely, albeit with a small piece of my heart wishing my mum especially was there with me.
At the far end of the market, we posed under the neon sign before cutting down to Campbells Cove. We were simply dwarfed by the Norwegian Jewel cruiseliner that was parked up at the harbour, and under a hazy sky we just hung out, watching the World go by. The benefit of having friends living in a foreign city is that you get to find out about cool local hangouts. We mulled over choices of where to go for drinks, eventually deciding to catch an Uber into the city. Unfortunately where we aimed for didn’t work out, so we walked through Hyde Park and made our way to Marble Bar, a speakeasy underground in the Hilton. This place was incredibly atmospheric with walls lined with whiskies and liqueur, and a grand ornate ceiling above leather couches. The weekend had already been about cocktails and now it was cocktail time again, with a bit of whisky to balance it out.
Having made the most of the cocktail hour at this awesome bar, we eventually headed back to Circular Quay where there was still a few hours of daylight to ogle over the Opera House. The cruiseliner had by now left and we went for dinner at the Squire’s Landing at one end of the ferry terminal. Over the years that my friend had lived in Sydney and I had lived in New Zealand, I had seen her more often than when she had lived in London and I had lived in Scotland. She treated us to a delicious dinner as a goodbye, and we ate as the sun lowered, and the sky changed colour over the sail-like roof of the Opera House, the harbour ferries ploughing back and forth in front of it.
The four of us had a final catch up that morning, enjoying breakfast out in a suburb somewhere, sharing stories and making plans for my trip home in August 2020, 8 months later. We said our goodbyes at the end of it, plans in place for our catch up in Scotland, cheerily oblivious to what was to happen over the coming months. Alas, my trip was cancelled, and 16 months later I still don’t know when I’ll see my family or friends again. But at the time we knew none of that, and with our flight home not till later that day, my partner and I took a walk to Sydney Observatory where we had a view of the opposite side of the Harbour Bridge than we’d been looking at so far. I’d been to Sydney more recently than my partner had and he wanted to go to Manly, so we worked our way back to Circular Quay to catch the ferry.
As much as I always want to do something new when I visit, I do enjoy a few firm favourites and taking the ferry across to Manly is one of them. For less than the tourist ferries charge, the Manly ferry sails the length of the harbour offering stunning views the whole way before depositing you at a pier by a small beach. From there it is a short walk up the Corso to the gorgeous Manly beach, a long curved stretch of yellow sand that is a popular place to swim and just hang out. From there, a promenade leads round the coast to the more secluded Shelly beach where we grabbed an iced fruit lolly to enjoy in the sunshine. The previous couple of days had had high cloud and a slight haze, but out there we’d left the clouds behind, and we were under more of a blue sky. It was exceptionally hot. After lapping up the views and the heat, we headed back to Manly beach, walking under the summer banners declaring Merry Christmas next to an ice cream cone. Once again I laughed internally at the absurdity of a summer Christmas.
Rather than head straight back to downtown, we caught the private ferry across the harbour mouth to Watson’s Bay on the south side. The wind was stronger over here and the weather felt like it was turning. We headed up to the Gap, a clifftop lookout that gazes out onto the Tasman Sea. Sadly this is a popular suicide spot, and over the years since my first visit in 2012, suicide prevention fencing, security cameras and emergency Samaritans notices have been erected all around this area. As the waves crash on the rocks below, it almost feels a little mournful. Cutting back through the park we finally got close up to a Sulphur-crested cockatoo, one of my favourite Australian birds. It simply watched me as it ate above my head, not caring that I was taking so many photos of it.
The wind was starting to whip up so much now that as we waited for the ferry back to Circular Quay, we were surrounded by grounded seagulls that stood by our bench, reluctant to take off to save being whipped away on the wind. There was a good bit of chop as we sailed back and after taking a final walk round the waterfront to soak up the view and the atmosphere, we retired to the rooftop of the hostel to sunbathe until we had to leave for the airport.
As we lay there, we watched the sky change, at first subtly but then quite dramatically. From behind the downtown skyscrapers an increasingly thick wall of smog appeared, turning the air thick and the sky a funny colour. It didn’t take long to realise it was the smoke from the nearby wildfires that were raging a little way out of the city. The wind direction had blown the smoke towards Sydney, and as we left the hostel for the last time, the visibility was closing in. For a brief while I was worried our flight home would be cancelled, but although the sky was a hazy pink when we got to the airport, we were able to take off without much concern. The sun was getting ready to set as we left Australia behind, returning to New Zealand to scan my passport for the last time.