welcome to the next part of my Australian Adventure. If you missed the first part it's here for you to enjoy.
The drive from Canberra to Sydney was lovely (more Taylor Swift, a satnav, air con, quite green countryside) until I hit the edge of Sydney and into one of the tunnels that whisks you from the outer suburbs to the city centre (without satnav as it's in a tunnel, we realised too late). This meant I got off the tunnel and we spent a wonderful twenty minutes in a suburb with a used car garage, rows of houses and a big supermarket. We didn’t stay long. We’d arranged to drop the car off at 4pm, and, due to the tunnel/satnav occurrence, arrived at 4.30 to a man closing the gates of the returns yard for the hire car. ‘We close at four. You’ll have to take it to the airport.’
The airport was half an hour back the way we’d come, and our hotel was in the city centre round the corner from where we were at that moment. The BF tried to reason with the man. I almost ran him over (in slow motion) by putting the car in Drive and accelerating (slowly) into the yard. I sat in the car, preparing to cry, and the BF ran round the corner to ask the reception desk if we could drop the car off since we were outside the yard. BF returned / reception man radios yard man to let us in / I drive car into drive, smile on my face / satnav adaptor plug remains stuck in car / we both give up and get a taxi to the hotel.
We stayed in the Grace Hotel, which was trying to be glitzy, but actually ending up being shabby but still expensive, hotel in the city centre. We asked them to remove the mini bar contents from our fridge (who wants to pay $10 for a small bottle of water, or $5 for a small chocolate bar) so we could use it to store our food for when we didn’t want to eat out all the time.
We saw my friend, D and his boyfriend who’d just started a year in Sydney, having sorted their working visas. Their flat was in Woolomoloo, an inner suburb overlooking the park. As we sat drinking champagne and eating pizza on their balcony, overlooking Hyde Park, D pointed to the birds and said they were bats. During the day, surely not? When I looked closer I saw they were flapping their wings in an odd not very bird-like way, and the silhouette wasn’t very feathery either. Eventually I realised they were bats. Pretty magical.
Bondi beach – full of very good looking people, who seemed a bit too knowing of their beauty, which was, I thought, a bit of a shame. The novelty of being able to get a bus from the city centre to an amazing sandy beach like that was great.
Erskinville and Newtown – inner suburbs that are quite independent, grungy and not corporate. There was an exhibition of Newtown shop keepers in the library, showing the wide variety of people/things/cultures in an area of 2 km squared. BF took a picture of the hotel used at the start of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, where they start their trip.
Manly beach – caught a 30minute ferry (return only $6 each, which is cheap I think) to the beach. One side of the harbour has high waves for riding on surf boards, the other has no waves for swimming and paddling (inside the shark net, or outside you take your chances). I didn’t swim. For me, the water would have to be as warm as a bath, and that’s not going to happen anywhere but a swimming pool or the Bahamas. I prefer to people watch and read on the sand.
We met the BF’s friend, G (an old friend from Essex who used to live in London, then moved to Sydney with his wife and boy). We all went for a walk around Darling Harbour (a complex of restaurants and shops by the harbour) found nowhere to eat that didn’t have an hour’s wait, so ended up in Chinatown. After a few drinks I declared I was out (I very seldom drink) and left them in a cocktail bar near the hotel. The BF finally rolled in at 3am.
There were a few wild goose chases for restaurants to eat, as we jumped from one closed place to the next. We’d not even considered this, thinking the city centre of a big city like Sydney would be open *all the time* like London. But no.
North Sydney – walked over Sydney Harbour bridge to get here. An amazing view back to the city. We went to Balmoral beach with G, his wife and boy, and mum who was over from Essex for her annual summer holiday. I discovered prawn cutlets (battered prawns bought from a fish and chip place) and they are delicious, eaten on the beach, with ‘hot chips’ as they call them (chips = crisps) and a bottle of water. We caught a $6 each ferry back from Greenwich (next to Putney, and Woolwich – you can see where they got their name ideas from) to Circular Quay in the middle of Sydney. It was a wonderful ride under the harbour bridge.
I partook of the enormous Uniqlo in the enormous Westfield shopping centre. You’re probably thinking why buy from a brand you get in the UK. Well, they had T shirts with koalas on, I’d not seen in London. They were cheaper than in the UK, and I like to buy clothes on my travels so when I wear them I’m reminded of the holiday.
I bought the latest jazzy jacket from a department story – sort of an Australian John Lewis I reckon.
Their H&M was enormous, in an old Post Office over about six floors. I bought some red trousers for $10. Red is my favourite colour and they were winking at me from the shelves.
Oxford Street is the gay bit of Sydney. We went into the bookshop and their classification of books confused me. Under gay fiction were gay authors who’d written what I think are mainstream romantic fiction: all Jonathan Harvey’s books, Matt Cain’s book. There weren’t any gay romance authors whose names I recognised. And the books were very expensive – a £7 book was $25. I really wanted to buy something so I could say, ‘I bought this from Oxford Street,’ but no.
We were in Sydney for New Year’s Eve, and saw the fireworks over the bridge in one of the viewing areas. Sydney takes NYE very seriously: they had 1.6million people there. I hate crowds, I actually get a bit panicky. My ideal NYE would have been watching it in the hotel with the BF, some Fererro Rocher, a glass of champagne (I’d make an exception to not drinking for NYE). Some of the viewing areas had people queuing from 7am. In the sun. With bags of wine. However, Himself found some app that showed when the viewing areas closed, as they reached capacity, and he’d identified one near our hotel which was likely to close quite late. After talking to relatives, and one bottle of champagne, smoked salmon and cream cheese later – the room’s fridge came in handy – we headed out for this special viewing spot. As we were leaving the room at 11pm, we bumped into an American family from Louisiana who didn’t know what to do since they’d got back from Circular Quay and it was packed with people. They were thinking of seeing the fireworks from the hotel’s roof. Our secret, uncrowded, still open that late place was Observatory Hill. We swept in, through the barriers as they counted us in to check thtey’d not exceeded the allowed number of people, took our spot over-looking the harbour and waited for the fireworks. There were enough facilities, drinks, toilets, plenty of space to walk about and after taking advantage of the facilities, I easily found my way back to the others – that’s one of the biggest fears I have about crowds. It was wonderful. The American family were so grateful we’d ‘saved’ their NYE for them, they took us to the Irish bar in the ground floor of our hotel and bought us drinks as a thank you.
The Outback – Alice Springs and Yulara
We flew to Alice Springs, which has an airport about the size of my back garden. There we picked up another hire car. The second one, as the one we’d booked, which was meant to be Holden Barina or similar, was actually the size of a liquorice all sort. It only just squeezed in our luggage and us, and that was it. We were meeting another friend, K who lives in Tennant Creek (300 miles from Alice Springs) so we needed the space for the road trip from ‘the Alice’ as they call it, to Ayer’s rock. So, after bracing myself to drive the biggest car I’d ever driven, we got a Mitsubish SUV roughly the size of a semi-detached house in London. Since we weren’t doing any city driving, we felt it would be ok.
It was wonderful having K, a resident of the Northern Territory, as our guide to the outback part of our holiday. We couldn’t have done it without her. She knew when was safe to drive in the outback (not at night or sunrise or sunset due to more wildlife likely to be on the road, and the risk of hitting it) where to eat in the Alice, other outback spots to visit near Yulara.
After a night in Alice Springs when we went to Lassiter’s Casino for dinner – where they filmed part of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. As you can imagine, this made me very happy. I even asked the hotel receptionist if this was the hotel and she nodded in a way that said ‘I’ve been asked this every day I’ve worked here since the film was made in 1994’ but I didn’t care. Lassiter’s Casino did an amazing burger and ‘hot chips’ which we ate on the patio with a fan blowing cool air and water spray.
The next morning we drove the 300 miles to Yulara, which is Ayer’s Rock resort. They stopped hotels and camping near the rock in the eighties as it was damaging the wildlife and rock, so they built a new town 10miles or so from the rock. It’s got accommodation and eating options from youth hostel to glitzy five star hotel all in one place. It’s a very sensible idea I thought.
This drive was driving properly through The Outback. Every 100 miles or so there would be a little place to fill up with petrol, buy a drink and sometimes pitch a tent. I say place, because they weren’t really towns, or villages, or even service stations, but a few buildings with water, and some facilities. When you’ve driven for three hours, only seeing road killed kangaroos by the roadside and miles and miles of desert oak trees, seeing one of these ‘places’ was really the genuine meaning of an oasis in the desert. You don’t muck about in the outback, you don’t walk about in the 42 C heat for long. You don’t think, I’ll fill up with petrol at the next stop. Because the next stop may be 150miles away. You stop at these places, fill up with petrol, water, coffee/tea/ chocolate, and you make the most of the rest. The drive, although very beautiful, red sand, desert oaks, blue sky, was also slightly mesmerising as the roads were pretty straight. It was easy to sort of descend into a sort of hypnotic state, so we swapped drivers every hour or so, cranked up the music and kept the conversation flowing. One of the stops had some emus which reminded me of dinosaurs.
The Yulara resort had an outdoor salt water pool which was exactly what we needed after sitting in the car for six hours.
We saw black wallabies who climb and live in the rocks high up from the ground. Their fur was almost exactly the same colour as the rocks, so we had to stand very still very quietly until one moved and we saw it.
We drove to Ayer’s Rock to watch the sunset reflecting against it. And, although I’d been a bit cynical about this, it really did change colour as the sun went down.
We had dinner in the one step down from the glitziest restaurant, and I foolishly ordered fish. In a place that’s probably 1000 miles from the sea. Just let that sink in for a moment.
I had food poisoning, so couldn’t walk around Ayer’s Rock the following morning with the BF and K.
They came back from Ayer’s Rock and we drove to The Olgas (42C which felt like breathing sand and with so many flies crawling on my face I ran back to the car very quickly having taken a picture). We drove to the base of The Olgas and walked among the rocks. It looked like a giant had been playing with clay, holes in the boulders and large broken off parts scattered on the floor. There was a sudden rainstorm (normal for that time of year) which caught all of us out. This was the first time it had rained since arriving in Australia, and it was in the arid, 42C outback! After a change of clothes in the car, we left for Alice, another five hours’ drive. The last bit was taken very slowly as it was dusk, and we were all on ‘roo watch’ in case any wildlife jumped out in front of the car.
The next day we said goodbye to K, who was keen to get home as the storms were predicted, and if it had rained hard, she’d have been stuck in Alice, as her car wasn’t much more than a liquorice all sort and wouldn’t have been able to pass the flooded roads. She texted us that evening, the rain had started, and she’d got home just in time.
We flew to Adelaide, and I wrote to distract myself from the usual stress of flying, which worked well.
Next time, Adelaide, Kangaroo Island and some overall reflections.
Liam Livings xx