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Friday, 20 April 2012

Epic Aussi Adventure: Sydney and Around

Today's Scenery:
The Opera House and Harbour Bridge

Today's Travelling Track
MGMT- Weekend Wars

Here’s the thing about Sydney, and I’m not saying I don’t like it, or didn’t enjoy my stay there, but I feel its slightly missing something. Don’t ask me what or how this could be changed, but there’s a definite lack of the je ne sais quoi that makes my favourite cities feel different, special and generally nice places to be. Maybe it’s the age of the place, or the sheer number of tourists and backpackers compared to full-blooded Sydneysiders. Whatever it is I found I was looking for something more during my whole stay. Despite this I had a great time there and spent a good few days wondering around its streets, parks, malls, gardens and shops. The following are some of my highlights

1. Chinatown: Sydney’s Chinatown is probably the best I’ve visited, although it has grown into more of an Asiatown with restaurants of every cuisine you could imagine from the continent. Myself and the BF spent decent chunks of two different days meandering around its streets looking at the culinary delights on offer. As backpackers our favourite place was the food court in the mall above paddy’s market; almost a microcosm of the streets around it offered sushi bars, Thai noodle carts, yum cha and dim sum and everything else under the (land of the rising) sun. All the food we sampled there came in huge portions and was tasty and reasonably priced. A lot of Chinatowns are rundown streets in the bad end of town, but here in Sydney it’s an affluent area full of life and colour. It’s nice to see and almost gives you a feel for what classier districts of Asian cities might be like.
Cool statue we saw on tour

 2. Free walking tour: For the first time in Australia we managed to find a free city walking tour. Whilst backpacking around Europe, free tours like this one had been our favourite pastime and were generally the first thing we would do in any city. Sydney’s offering took us around all of the walkable sights, although it lacked kooky fun elements of tours we took elsewhere; in Berlin our tour guide was an opera enthusiast, and treated us to a rendition of one of his favourite songs outside the venue which was hosting a performance of the play from which it came that evening; in Prague our slightly mental Czech guide told us stories of ghosts who wander the city streets and took us to a piece of modern art which was a mechanical representation of a man peeing. If you text a certain number your message would be spelt out by his urine stream. Despite no urinating statues, or opera renditions the tour gave us some great photo opportunities and helped us to get our bearings for the rest of our stay
Old Skool rides at Luna Parl
3. Self-directed wandering. The BF and I try and use public transport as little as possible. We had a couple of days in Sydney where we just walked with some vague eventual goals and points of interest along the way. We walked from kings cross to the fish market. We were too late for the auctions themselves and yet too early for lunch so we had an oyster each and returned to the city, passing the lovely Darling Harbour area. On another occasion we walked from our hostel into Woolloomooloo and then around the bay into the botanic gardens, after exploring them for a while we headed to the opera house, and then decided to just do the whole tourist route and traversed the Harbour Bridge. We visited Luna Park which felt like a slice of 50s seaside entertainment aside from all the One Direction merchandise everywhere (we think they were playing a gig there that night.) It is the opportunity for this aimless meandering which is the most enjoyable aspect of stops in cities and it makes me sad how many people miss out by taking busses and trains everywhere.

4. The Royal Easter Show: ever since I arrived in Australia the BF has been telling me that I HAVE TO go to a show. It seems these shows are the highlight of any Australian child’s year. The Sydney Royal Easter Show is the biggest of these shows, which seem to have originated as an agricultural event designed for showing your best animals and developed into a crazy mixture of Carnival, food festival, Outback performance and children’s toy shop. Show bags seem to be a large focus; these are packs of merchandise put together by a startling array of companies and sold for extortionate amounts. They’re sold in show bag halls, where kids run riot trying to decide which is the best combination of bags to buy to ensure the most chocolate and yet also the coolest toys and gadgets. We walked through arts and craft tents showing off the countries best photographers, sculptors, cake decorators, embroiderers and everything else imaginable. We filled up on free samples in the gourmet food tents and watched a particularly bizarre wood chopping competition. 
In the largest stadium the evening’s entertainment included rodeo, country music, motocross (unfortunately cancelled due to rain) and finally an amazing fireworks display, set to aboriginal music and complimented by lasers. It was a pretty cool day, but I left just wondering how much money the average Australian family would spend at such a show, especially considering the number of pricey show bags dangling from the back of each pushchair and up the length of each mother’s arms.

Bondi Beach
5. The beaches: On one afternoon whilst in Sydney we took the famous Manly Ferry from central quay to the buzzing suburb of Manly. We had been told that half of the fun of visiting was the journey, as the ferry offers views to rival all the luxury bay cruises operating around the area for a fraction of the price. True to form, we found Manly itself busy and unoriginal. Bondi Beach, on the other hand, pleasantly surprised us and despite a cold snap which had arrived overnight, we explored some costal walkways and then enjoyed some food and drink in one of a plethora of cool, gourmet cafes. In fact the BF and I both agreed that it was the only area of Sydney that we could actually see ourselves being able to happily spend an extended amount of time in.

6. The Blue Mountains: on leaving Sydney we headed to the Blue Mountains and spent a couple of days there. Despite the suddenly arctic temperatures (it was getting down to 5 degrees at night) we had a fantastic time and enjoyed a very long and somewhat challenging hike down a steep staircase under the three sisters and around the valley below. Later on that day we went mountain biking around some fire trails and awoke the next morning very sore and tired. The natural beauty of this area makes it a great city break, although we found it slightly touristy around the three sisters themselves, where parking costs were even steeper than in Sydney’s CBD.
The Three Sisters
Our experience in Sydney was also marred by a couple of minor details. Firstly we were there over the public holiday of Easter and staying in Kings Cross we found the area almost intimidatingly busy, this made driving around and parking very difficult and deterred us from visiting any of the bars, clubs or nightclubs in the area (the term meat market can be accurately applied to the streets of king’s cross on a weekend) Secondly the staff at our hostel, whilst very nice and friendly, were lacking in organisational skills and didn’t have much knowledge of the area. When we signed up for a pub crawl on the Monday it was cancelled due to lack of promotion and no one thought to let us know that it wasn’t going ahead. A lot of our fellow guests were staying at the hostel long term and didn’t seem interested in meeting new people or making us feel welcome. Nonetheless we did enjoy our stay and came away with some great memories, and even better photos!

Turk Visits....Bathurst Race Track
Turk lived out a lifetime dream of racing around Mount Panorama in Bathurst!

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Epic Aussi Adventure: Learning to Surf, Newcastle and the Hunter Valley

Today's Scenery:
Newcastle at Sunset
Today's Travelling Track:
Beach Boys- I Get Around

Spot x is an awesome place to visit even if you aren’t interested in learning to surf. Situated on a fantastic, deserted beach and aimed at backpackers it is a great place to waste a few days. The all-inclusive meals package is also amazing and I would have happily stayed there just to lie on the beach and eat. The camp is extremely relaxed and uncomplicated; I’m sure if we had wanted to we could have stayed for twice as long as we paid for, attending meals and surf lessons and nobody would really have noticed. Unfortunately, what myself and the BF learnt from our stay at Spot X is that surfing isn’t really for us, I will sum up why with a list of pros and cons.


· Surfboards are harder to carry than snowboards
· The hardest part is actually getting out to the right spot in the water, you spent most of your time battling past waves which break on your head and send you flying backwards, making your last 5 minutes of struggle pointless
· When you finally make it to the right place to catch some waves, the monster waves which crashed down on you as you struggled deeper into the sea invariably disappear and are replaced by an entirely calm and flat expanse of water with nothing remotely surfable
· So as not to offend anyone else, you then have to wait your turn with the other 50 surfers wanting to rip it up.
· When a wave finally comes, and it is finally your turn you then have to hit it in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time, with exactly the right speed. If you don’t you will either end up popping up in the calm water behind the wave, feeling and looking like an idiot, or nose diving into the swell, just as it breaks and wiping out so hard that you lose track of where your board is, and swallow half of the ocean. You then have to repeat the previous steps.
· This all results in actually catching a wave correctly about once every half an hour, making it somewhat difficult to actually progress
· When you do actually catch a wave correctly, you then have to pop up perfectly, with your feet in the correct position and immediately attempt to turn if you actually want to get anywhere at all.
· After a couple of hours of all this, your knees, toes, fingers, elbows and any other part of your body in contact with the board will be covered in a painful, ugly rash. You are also likely to have swallowed a decent amount of salt water, and have water stuck in your ears. Even if you remembered to apply sun cream, it will have washed off and you will probably be sun burnt

· You look pretty cool
· It is quite fun when you actually catch a wave
· Once you make it past the waves, it’s pretty relaxing sitting on your surfboard out back, and the BF even caught sight of a sea turtle at one point.

 I think I’ll stick to snow.

 We spent 3 days at Spot X, with surf lessons at 7am and spent the rest of our time eating, lazing in the sun, reading and relaxing. We also had a very entertaining Saturday night, when the staff organised drinking games and got everyone involved. The fellow campers were all really friendly and there was a definite community vibe that we enjoyed greatly our whole stay.
Painted Rocks at Port Macquarie
Moving on and back into the real world, we headed south along the coast and stopped late afternoon in a town called Port Macquarie. It was nice to see the seaside without beaches to make a change and the bay was framed with large rocks, which had been painted by different people in a variety of fun and inventive ways. As we meandered along the front looking at the rocks, we saw a pod of dolphins swimming in the sea, just a few meters away from us. The lack of reaction from the fishermen, tourists and locals alike assured us that this was a somewhat common sight. We spent the night free camping at a rest stop and headed towards Newcastle the next morning. We definitely arrived in this city from the wrong angle, and were grumpy because unleaded fuel was proving very difficult to find in New South Wales (where apparently they are phasing it out in favour of bio-ethanol which we can’t use in Turk.) The main strip of pedestrianized city centre was a bit of a dump, and somewhat deserted as Newcastle is a university town, and its students were on Easter Break. In search of food we wondered onto Darby street, a far more lively hub of restaurants and cafes and finally started to warm to the city.
Stockton Bight
We decided to stay in a caravan park to save some money and drove around to Stockton, a charming little seaside town just two minutes on passenger ferry from Newcastle itself. Our second first impression of Newcastle was much better from the water and the ferry deposited us onto the wharf, where there was a brewery and lots of expensive looking restaurants and a historical walk, marked by plaques started nearby. We enjoyed a locally brewed, alcoholic ginger beer and then headed off on the walk. We found ourselves liking Newcastle more and more with its pretty Victorian buildings and naturally beautiful headlands and beaches. We ended up on Newcastle beach as the sun set and watched the surfers catch their last few waves as the sky turned pink. We ended up back on Darby Street and had a fantastically priced curry for dinner, then returned to Stockton via the ferry.

 Stockton is most famous for the Stockton Bight; a 32km stretch of sand dunes which look a lot like a miniature dessert. We tried to visit them the following morning; however they seemed quite difficult to actually access. We ended up driving all the way to Anna Bay, where the dunes end and went for a little walk around them. They were really quite spectacular!
Amazing food at Mojo's
 We headed into the Hunter Valley; New South Wales most extensive Wine country. Following the instruction of our guidebook we headed to Mojo’s on Wilderness, a deli and fine dining restaurant owned by a Michelin starred chef. Surprisingly the deli was very reasonably priced and served us the best meal I have had in Australia so far on a tray whilst we sat on beanbags in the grounds. Extremely happy and full, we headed to our hostel, The Hunter Valley YHA, probably the only budget accommodation for a 100km radius. Despite booking and paying for the cheapest beds possible in an 8 bed dorm, we were moved into a 4 bed dorm of which we were the sole occupants for our entire stay. The owner was very friendly and helpful and arranged for us to go on a wine tour the next morning. The tour was fantastic value for money, and for only $45 dollars each we visited 3 different wineries (with extensive free tastings,) as well as an olive shop with a variety of gourmet spreads and sauces, a chocolate shop which gave us a sample of each of its most popular products, a dairy with some of the tastiest cheeses I have ever come across, and finally the blue tongue brewery where the BF and I shared a tasting paddle of their different brews. The next morning, successfully sobered up after all of the wine, we drove around all of the shops again, also visiting a gourmet smokehouse, and collected up supplies for the best picnic lunch EVER! We drove up to a lookout point in the hills above the valley and ate the delicious food with a great view. After a short walk we left the hunter valley, extremely satisfied. It’s an amazing place to visit if you like food or wine and doesn’t have to be as expensive as you would think!

Turk Meets...A Giant Banana:
Turk gets one of his 5 a day!

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Epic Aussi Adventure:Brisbane, Nimbin and Byron Bay

Today's Scenery:
the rolling countryside of NSW 
Today's Travelling Track:
Shaggy- Boombastic (Old Skool!!!)

I know, I know, it’s been weeks since my last blog post. The problem is that this area of Australia seems to sell itself as an area in which it is best to do very little, which I’ve been enjoying immensely.

Our stay in Brisbane was all business, business, business. We took Turk to get his wheels aligned and had booked him in for a service. We were driving down a busy road when The BF went to change gears and the clutch went all the way to the floor and stopped engaging the gearbox. Somehow we crawled over two lanes of traffic with the momentum we still had left and came to a stop on the hard shoulder. We called Traveller’s Autobarn who told us the name of a garage to take it to- coincidentally the same place that was due to carry out our service the next day, and transferred us to the roadside recovery service that we had been given as part of the package when we bought Turk. We discovered we were only covered for 10km of free towing, and we were 12km from the garage, so we did have to pay an excess (only $55) but we were extremely glad at this point that we had bought our van from Traveller’s Autobarn. After a terrifying journey in the tow truck, with an entirely insane driver who almost never looked at the road and instead was constantly fiddling with his phone, radio or GPS, we got to the mechanics to find they had stayed open to receive us but were essentially closed for the day so we wouldn’t know anything until the following morning. It transpired that we needed a new clutch slave and master (this is all like a foreign language to me so I have no idea what it means) and that it was going to cost us about five hundred dollars for the parts, labour and aforementioned service combined. Unfortunately we had just passed the 5000km point on our journey and were therefore not covered by warranty anymore, but we decided to think positively that at least it had happened when we were in a big city, not miles from anywhere where the cost of a tow truck could have amounted to thousands. During the rest of our stay we fitted a new radio and speakers into Turk, and a new headlamp which worked for about 10 minutes, and took the opportunity to do some general organising, the details of which I will not bore you with.

On our final day we spent a lovely afternoon wondering around Brisbane city itself. We parked for free in Fortitude Valley and had a great time poking around the weird little shops and restaurants. We had lunch at an amazing taqueria called Mad Mex and then followed the Brisbane river all the way into the city. Again wondering aimlessly we found ourselves in an amazing little Asian bakery in a mall off of Queen’s street and bought a variety of delicious pastries for breakfast the next day.

On to state number 2!
We headed for Nimbin, a hippy New South Wales town, a couple of hours inland. Just before the state border we stopped at Coolangatta and had some amazing, reasonably priced sushi. I was amazed with how much the scenery changed as we headed deeper into the second state I’ve visited in Australia. It even looked a little like old south Wales; rolling hills, windy country roads and greenery everywhere. We found Nimbin itself a little disappointing. I guess it was a little too authentically hippy for our tastes, what we were expecting was San Francisco style ‘hippy chic’. We stayed at Rainbow Retreat, essentially a field with a few semi-permanent looking shacks, some of which had whole families residing within. The next morning we got slightly lost attempting to find protestor falls- an area which tree huggers had famously saved from logging. We realised we’d inadvertently managed to travel most of the way to Byron Bay along a series of terrifying unsealed roads and decided to give up on hippy culture for the time being and embrace surf culture in the beautiful seaside town. We drove right up to the beach and researched where to stay. We decided upon The Arts Factory just outside town and were very pleased with our decision when we found a bright, fun hostel-cum-campsite situated on the grounds of a Brewery and art house cinema.

Cockatoo Paul making fire!
 We spent our first evening at The Arts Factory making the most of the brewery’s $3 beer happy hour. The beer made onsite was delicious; probably the best I’ve tasted in Australia so far. Afterwards the hostel was holding a trivia night; we were paired with a few other backpackers and miraculously came first, winning over 20 dollars each. We spent an enjoyable and slightly tipsy evening chatting to our teammates, and really felt the community feel of a backpackers for the first time on our trip. The next day we explored Byron’s shops and cafes. The weather was somewhat unpredictable, raining on and off but simultaneously remaining bright and sunny. We enjoyed a precipitation-free hour on the beach before becoming peckish and finding an amazing Portuguese chicken kiosk hidden in some back lanes. Returning to our hostel we went on an interesting and informative bush tucker tour given by a slightly crazy guy known as cockatoo Paul, due to his pet bird, Mr Pickles, who came everywhere on his shoulder. We watched an awesome German film in the cinema and had a pretty relaxed evening and early night.

Next time: Spot X surf camp, Port Macquarie, Newcastle and Hunter Valley

Turk Visits... The Beach (Again...We think he's becoming a beach bum)
Parking right in front of the beach in Byron Bay