Monday, 11 April 2016

Hitting the Ground Down Under

Landing in Sydney, I was, as expected, in a dreamlike state, the night-terrors kind. Thankfully, I sailed through immigration and customs, despite ominous forewarnings of having to turn right back should a grain of earth is found on the soles of my shoes, and I was launched into the hot and sticky arrivals lounge. I'd been vehemently advised to pre-reserve the first couple of nights' hostel stay, to avoid having to engage in any interaction on a level more complex than signing my name and collecting room keys on arrival. Smart.

A shuttle service was allegedly to be provided by the hostel, and fairly soon an overheated and irritable man could be spotted lurking in the foreground, making no attempt to identify himself to us waiting backpackers as the driver. Eventually, though, he deemed it convenient to absentmindedly ask us to follow him, then proceeded to drive around the city, losing his way frequently, negotiating U-turns in streets too narrow, and getting increasingly agitated. By the time I was dropped off, last of the group, steam was visibly emanating from his ears.

My hostel was an early 1800s colonial estate, converted into a labyrinth of dormitories. It was based centrally, albeit in an area far from desirable, one street down from a prostitution hub. Yet there were plenty of other hostels in the area, with convenient transport links to all parts of the city.

 I was shown to my room, shared with 5 others, 4 of whom were sound asleep in their cots, no doubt sleeping off a night of wild backpacker abandon, was my assumption. In spite of the midday sun, as well as the strong and distinctive sock-sweat odour, I immediately heaved myself onto my top bunk, fully clothed, and fell into a sound asleep for the next 7 hours.

I woke up with just time enough to make a few phone calls before dinner, confirming my Wwoofing farm stays. Farmers participating in the Wwoofing scheme can be peculiar characters, as my story will amply demonstrate later on, and negotiating your engagement can be a fickle and capricious process. One wrong word could often mean the arrangement is null and void, as sensitivity and volatility levels are on the higher end of the spectrum. A fair number expect housekeeping and/or babysitting duties, which, all things considered, may be a reasonable thing to contribute towards, but - let's face it - that's not why you're doing this. For me, it was about the opportunity to sink my hands in the mud, develop blisters, make friends with farmyard animals, just purge some of my supermarket urbanity by learning about the holistic natural process. I was therefore very vigilant in my choices of stays, knowing once I'm there I'd be totally at the mercy of the owners, in the middle of nowhere and alone. I'd heard stories, you see.

There was also a call to confirm the first week's stay with my Narrabri dwelling distant relative and his family, arranged to help cushion the acclimatisation blow. I haven't see him since we were kids, and was quite excited about meeting family at this remote corner of the world! Besides, I was still reeling from the recent discovery of my sister's illness, and although I tried to put it out of my mind for the moment, it was stubbornly hanging in there like a hulking shadow over everything I did. I needed sympathetic company.

Once all arrangements were confirmed, I joined a hostel organised Korean buffet dinner in the green and pleasant yard. BBQ meat skewers and salads. It was cheap, tasty, and plentiful – just was I needed to aid my recovery. Having eaten, It made sense to venture out into the Sydney evening, for a drink in a local pub with some of the hostel guests already heading that way. However, I was beginning to sense that whilst a traveller in their 20s is greeted with a revellers’ carefree tribal yelp of inclusivity, a traveller in their 30s borders on falling into the hobo-weirdo category, to be treated with wary caution. My jetlagged state perhaps didn't help, as any attempt at an easy-going demeanour fell flat. Talking to people felt a chore. I tried some light pub chit-chat with a NZ guy, but, other than being introduced to the concept of ‘Movember’ for the first time (and he did have a magnificent 'tach), I was politely rebuffed. It may have been the jetlag, or not yet being in ‘travel mode’. Whatever the reason, I clearly needed to adjust and knew it was going to take time. I was also keen to get out of Sydney – urban city-scape was not what I came here for - and commence true traveling. But first, I had two days to get a taste of this city.

To that end, the next day I decided to walk around the city, allowing the residue of my haze engulf me like a cloud, and I began to relax a little bit. I started around Chinatown, which always makes me feel in an familiarly urban environment, as it's found in most Western cities, including London. I then walked to the Sydney Opera House, on the bay. I'm a sucker for harbours, marinas and seascape, and the whole area was very beautiful, water glistening, boats lapping, all that. Conveniently, I was right on the edge of the botanical gardens, a great big park - free to visit - and which has a wonderful feel to it, full of different types of odd flora and fauna.
One of the things I immediately noticed about Sydney and Australia in general is the incredible collection of birds I had never encountered before, roaming freely, which truly overwhelmed me. I was simply not prepared! Various big birds, particularly parrots and cockatoos, flying around everywhere! It’s quite something.
I also noticed gangs of huge flying foxes at the botanical gardens, in fact furry bats (but actually called flying foxes, clearly I'm not the only one with limited imagination),  zooming around in the midday sun. They were residents of the gardens but were apparently considered a pest and the city was trying to disposed of them.

After tiring myself out at the gardens, I found a travel agency and excitedly booked my ferry trip to Tasmania, where I planned to Wwoof extensively, then went out looking for some dinner. Having already scouted Chinatown, I was in the mood for some Asian food, and deposited myself in a lovely little Malay place, where I had a gorgeous veggie Laksa - a spicy, rich noodle soup made with coconut milk, herbs and tofu, savouring the bountiful, rich, glistening broth. Here I realised with sadness I must keep a sharp eye on my expenses, as budget was tight and so dining out, even for relatively cheap street food, was going to be a rare luxury. Included in price hostel breakfast, slow release energy snacks, dried fruit and nuts were going to feature heavily over the next few months...

 The next morning I only had a few hours before catching the northbound coach to my cousin's town, a 14 hour journey... in Australian terms a mere jaunt, of course. The annual Glebe Street Fair seemed like a decent place to pass my free morning. A suburb of Sydney, Glebe is a fairly trendy area, with dinky little boho shops and beautiful colonial houses. While I mooched around, a band played what they insisted referring to as "jazz", although twee folky tunes, with lyrics such as "...i gotta get rid of my pussycat, he'll be the end of me... " brought out the critic in me, and very quickly I removed myself from listening radius. Various market stalls and even pony rides were available, and I managed to procure a couple of gifts for my hosts, and got back in time for the bus, feeling a little like Captain Oates, perhaps somewhat less apprehensive and doomed.

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