31. Sydney, Australia

Lost in Space

I’m going to start this blog with a warning: this will be a totally unfair reflection of what Sydney is like as a city.

I’ve spent a little bit of extra time here than I have at most other places, primarily because this is my last stop in Oz, and that’s just how the timing of my travels worked out before I catch my flight to Auckland.

That extra time has given me the opportunity to reflect on a few things. First, I considered how a country that I very nearly struck off my itinerary because “there wasn’t many interesting things to see” has turned into a memorable experience that, for several reasons, I’m very glad I didn’t.

I’ve been here for six weeks now, which is more time spent in a single foreign country since my US/Canada trip in ’07, and that time has been spent learning a lot of things.

I’ve learned about Australian history, its discovery by Western civilisation, and the ensuing mass populisation of the country at the expense of the indigenous people.

I’ve learned about experiencing terrains and landscapes that I’d never seen before. Off-road driving, being the only person for miles around, getting lost in forests, to name but a few experiences that I won’t get (in that way, at least) anywhere else in the world.

The most profound thing that I’m taking away from this country, however, is that I’ve learned more about what I think I want from my life in the future. Returning from my travels will provide an opportunity to start another new chapter in my life, and I have an urge to make it look different from the previous one.

That doesn’t mean to say I wasn’t enjoying my life before I embarked on this journey. In the last few years I’ve had wonderful partners, a thoroughly enjoyable job, and lived in a fantastic city. But, I’m someone who likes change, adaptation, new experiences, and I feel like it’s time I did that again.

I’m well aware that my current thoughts are being soundly influenced by my current, unfamiliar surroundings. I’m also aware that casino work is something I very much enjoy, am good at, and pays well, and is therefore likely to be the career I head back to once I return. This means I’ll likely be living in or at least near to a big city, as that’s where the busiest, most interesting casinos are located. My partners are unlikely to change any time soon either, hopefully.

However, as I sit at a cafe outside a hospital listening to a jazz band play (yes, that’s really happening), there’s a part of me that looks past all of that, and says that I don’t want to live in a city any more – not because of the band, they gave me the most relaxing toastie-eating experience I’ve had since I can remember, but because of the realisation of what a big city is, and what it offers, and I’m not sure I want that any more.

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I’ve been a Londoner for 9 years now, and as much as I love her, I feel like I’m ready to part ways and move somewhere quieter, greener, perhaps by the seaside. This same part of me also says that there are other jobs out there to consider, that I could enjoy just as much, and that will allow me to branch out and diversify my life to a degree that I’m happy with, rather than run the risk of getting stuck in a rut of familiarity.

I have a few jobs in mind – train driver, teacher, video game journalist. All similar stuff, really.

That part of my brain has been nagging at me several times now, including when lost in that forest, at several occasions on various beaches, and most recently whilst taking in some sunshine in one of Sydney’s many parks.

Sydney felt like a loud city to me, but that’s probably because of these thoughts I’ve been having. It’s probably also because my hotel was slap-bang in the centre of the noisy Haymarket district (but hey, chinese food everywhere), and that I spent most of my time in tourist-central areas such as the Opera House and Harbour Bridge.

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You’ll no doubt be pleased to know that I did have some time to put my cocktail of thoughts to one side and enjoy some of what this city has to offer. The bridge/opera house at sunset is particularly beautiful when viewed from Mrs Macqueries Point. I also enjoyed meeting a school friend of mine I haven’t seen in many years, along with his wife, and a ludicrously tasty burger, at Mary’s in Newtown.

Oh, and my hotel room was a space capsule. A flippin’ space capsule.

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Flying out of the city – and leaving Australia – was a mixed experience. I made absolutely the right decision in coming here, partly for the memories it’s given me, and partly for waking up a section of my brain that is questioning the direction I want to take my life in when I’m done having this mid-life crisis.

For now, though, that part of my brain needs to be quiet, because it’s time to get all kid-in-a-sweet-shop excited and finally visit the #2 entry in my Countries I’ve Wanted To Visit All My Life list – New Zealand.

30. Bathurst, Australia

A lesson in history and geography

Regular readers will have noticed that I am quite the fan of motor racing. Usually this manifests itself in a love for Formula One, but NASCAR, IndyCar, and GT-style races are also spectacles to enjoy during a quiet few moments between busy life plans.

One of the most important and influential components of any race worth watching is the circuit it’s being run on, and I’ve very much enjoyed my experiences visiting some of these tracks and being able to (sometimes) literally stand on the places where automotive history has taken place.

It is with a fair dollop of irony, then, that one of the tracks I’ve always wanted to visit the most, resonates very little with me in terms of historical racing moments.

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Bathurst, a town situated around 3 hours West of Sydney, is best known for the Mount Panorama Circuit, which, amongst other things, hosts the annual Bathurst 1000. It’s a track that has everything – fast straights, narrow switchbacks, tight hairpins, and a spectacular mountainside setting. Its best known section is the Esses, a series of quickfire lefts and rights down a steep hill, with walls lining the narrow track, and a very tight left hand hairpin at the bottom. Get this section even slightly wrong, and your race – which may well be 12 hours old by now – is over.

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Perhaps that’s why I love this track so much, despite watching very few races it’s hosted over the years. The combination of its daunting challenge and wonderful backdrop is a thrill to drive on a racing simulator, and a joy to experience in real life in a rather more modest Toyota Corolla.

The most fascinating aspect of this track, though, is that it’s a public road. And I’m not talking about some normal roads that have barriers and pit lanes erected every once in a while to cater for a race like in Melbourne or Monaco. Here in Bathurst, when there isn’t a race happening, you’re free to drive (at a limit of 60kph) on the track as much as you like, amongst tyre barriers, kerbs, gravel traps, and pit complexes. There are even driveways to houses and farms that back onto the road, and it’s open 24 hours a day.

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Once I was done pretending I was [insert successful Bathurst driver here], I popped into the museum, located just off the final corner of the circuit, which provided a history of the track, and the cars and bikes that have helped shape it. Stock cars, bikes, even open wheelers were on display, with TV screens dotted about explaining some of the more memorable events and finishes in the circuit’s history.

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Bathurst is a circuit to be loved and respected, and I’m glad I was able to tick it off my bucket list, which now looks a lot more manageable as most of its entries (Nurburgring, Spa, Indianapolis) are somewhat closer to home (okay maybe not Indy, but I’m hoping to visit that on my US section of this leg of my travels).

29. Tasmania, Australia

Good things come in small(ish) packages

Every so often I come across somewhere that surprises me, for one reason or another. It might be a mountain view that I drove to on a whim, or a sudden snow storm at the Grand Canyon, or perhaps it’s a city that offers far more than I expected.

However, when it comes to places I didn’t think a whole lot about but which leave a substantial impression, Tasmania trumps the lot.

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An island-state off the South coast of Oz, I only initially came to “Tassie” for one reason – penguins. I’d heard that, if you’re lucky, you can spot these animals that are as cute and flightless as I am, in the wild. So I put a pin in the appropriately-named town of Penguin, and set off with a sprinkle of hope and a lump of naivety about what this island could offer me.

Since I was making the hour-long flight to come here, I thought I may as well borrow a car for a week and have a potter around the island, encouraged by the percentage of landmass Google saw fit to cover in green blobs and a few white roads.

Boy was that a good decision.

Ironically enough, Penguin was perhaps the biggest disappointment of the entire week (that and the lack of WiFi in my cabin in Stanley, seriously guys, how are you supposed to go more than 24 hours without any internet?). I did catch a glimpse of a ‘guin enjoying yet another day of near-perfect weather on the beach, but it wasn’t exactly the Attenborough-esque wandering amongst hoards of chirping, cute birds I was hoping for.

What followed, however, stakes a serious claim to being my favourite travelling experience thus far.

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The thing that makes Tasmania so wonderful is that it manages to throw so many different views and landscapes, in a relatively small area. I say relatively because compared to Australia, everywhere is small, including Britain, France, Europe, Russia, and Mars.

Picturesque mountain ranges as far as the eye can see? Check. Never-ending winding roads through dense forestry? Gotcha. Spectacular, miles-long beaches without a bucket or spade in sight? No problem. Hotels with gorgeous lakeside views to wake up to in the morning? Done. There are so many different things to see here, and they’re all as surprisingly amazing as the first time you try raw fish (unless you’re my parents, who have no taste in food).

 

What makes this place even more incredible is that virtually nobody knows it exists. Had you asked me to name a single town or city on the island a month ago, I would have struggled, and I’m sure most of you are in the same boat (don’t say Penguin, that’s cheating). Driving along the main roads, scything through the countryside and not coming across another car for hours on end merely cements this place as one of the most underrated destinations in the world.

Tassie also provided me with some interesting memories.

  • The car ferry – which was essentially one man and his boat and oh my days how did I not drown – at Corinna.

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  • Giving a lift to a couple of French hitchhikers trying desperately to make their flight (I hope they did, they were lovely people).
  • Having to drive 62km with only 35km of range in my fuel tank because I somehow managed to miss the “THIS IS THE LAST PETROL STATION FOR THE NEXT 100KM” sign. Yes, I made it, and I officially apologise to the guy stuck behind me during my very-eco-thank-christ-it-was-mostly-downhill drive.
  • Lake Pedder (featured image), which I sat on my hotel bed and gawped at for hours.
  • The National Automobile Museum of Tasmania, which included some pretty funky cars, both old and new.
  • Realising I’d booked the wrong hotel in Hobart whilst trying to walk up what is officially (in my head) the steepest hill in the world whilst full of burrito.
  • Eating fish and chips in the rain in Swansea (yes, that really happened).

 

For most of you reading this, travelling is either practically impossible or mostly undesirable, and trekking all the way to the other side of the world is a substantial investment that simply can’t be done. That’s fine, but please, if you do find yourself anywhere near this delightful corner of the globe, or if you’re mass-debating over whether to visit, I urge you to go to Tasmania. Hire a car, drive round the island, and enjoy everything it just keeps throwing at you.

One piece of advice though, that ferry at Corinna is only open until 5pm, so turning up at 4.58 probably won’t impress the operator.

28. Romsey, Australia

Destinashhhh…

One thing is becoming increasingly apparent as my latest adventure unfolds: I didn’t realise just how much I missed the quiet, open spaces of the countryside. Luckily, I’m in exactly the right place to get some.

Few destinations would be able to hold a candle to my time on the Great Ocean Road, but in its own way, the little (by Australian standards) corner of Victoria that I subsequently found myself in continued the outdoor viewing trend in perfect style.

Base camp was the town of Romsey, home to a quaint little church, a smattering of friendly locals, and the mother of one of my partners, who very kindly/bravely offered me the services of one of her beds for the week. From there, I was able to use the rather nifty Holden that I’d rented to leave her (and her exceptionally large chicken) behind and explore the great open Australian countryside.

My destinations included the peaceful, idyllic Yan Yean reservoir, the not-so-peaceful-because-I-stupidly-went-on-Easter-Sunday Hanging Rock, and the slightly-creepy-but-still-majestic Lake Eppalock (featured in the image above).

However, as lovely as these places were, I often found myself enjoying the drives around the countryside just as much, sometimes more than the destinations themselves. It’s a type of scenery I don’t get to see back home, large expanses of yellow punctuated by rocks, trees, and wildlife I’m largely unfamiliar with.

At one point, whilst getting rather lost on a gravel road that Google barely registered the existence of, I simply pulled over, turned the engine off, and basked in the awesome surroundings of virtual nothingness. It was at that moment that I realised how much I’d been missing some quiet time in my life over the past few years. Between living in London, working a noisy job, and schmoozing with four partners, it’s far too easy to overlook the importance of just taking some time out and catching your breath every once in a while.

It also got me thinking again about whether or not I want to go back to the noise and grey-ness of old London town, but that’s an internal monologue to divulge further into another day. First, I need to work out where the flippin’ heck this road leads to.

27. Melbourne, Australia

Fitness freaks and funfairs

Alright, I want a show of hands, who here has been to a motor racing circuit, a volcano, and a beach, all on the same day? Well, I’ve found somewhere where you can do just that.

The subject of my post-travelling future is one that will become increasingly important as the days wind down to my return to normality and the inevitable decline into sensible middle-agedness. Whilst those days might still be a way off – thus making this subject about as important as learning the quadratic equation at school – I find myself considering this very subject for the first time in this very tasty leg of my travels.

I love Melbourne. It’s a city that knows what it loves, and loves what it knows. It has character, it has attitude, it has an enviable diversity of cultures, including one of the biggest Chinatowns in the world.

Melbournians are sickeningly active people. Even at 3pm on a Wednesday afternoon, the parks are full of sweaty bodies running back and forth between cones, throwing heavy balls over their shoulder, and generally making me feel very inadequate as I sit on the park bench eating my burger. They love sport, too, a fact that is in clear evidence in both the passion they display for their local heroes, and the sheer number of sporting venues that the city holds.

One of these venues is, for the most part, a handful of public roads winding around a lake. Every so often, however, it is transformed into one of the country’s most famous, and well populated race tracks.

My bucket list of Formula One circuits to visit continues to be slowly ticked off, as Melbourne joins Adelaide, Imola, Monza, Monte-Carlo, Montreal and Donnington Park on the ‘visited’ side of the spectrum. But what makes this track unique to the others, is that it’s the first time I’ve actually driven around it myself. A pretty cool experience, despite the slow speed limits and mobile chicanes on the home straight that stop wannabe Verstappens from hurtling towards a potential hospital visit.

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For those of you who couldn’t give a brace of hoots about motor racing (you’re wrong), or even sport in general (you’re very wrong), there are plenty of other things to see and do in this memorable metropolis.

The centre of town boasts an impressive array of eateries and shopperies, down main roads and through its famous laneways. You can spend a truly ridiculous amount of time getting lost amongst the back-alleys and busy intersections, admiring the culinary and retail choices around every corner – I know, I did it.

Looking for something a bit more on the peaceful, beachy side of things? No problem, simply hop on an appropriate tram – Melbourne has the largest tram network in the world, and travelling in the middle of town is free – and make your way down to St Kilda beach, where you’ll be joined by fellow sun-seekers and relaxation-enthusiasts. St Kilda itself is an enjoyable walkaround, with a funfair and theatre next to the beach, and a centre that’s oozing with culture and providing a nice change of pace from both the hustle and the bustle of the city centre.

Then there’s Melbourne Park and the Royal Botanic Gardens, which take you away from all the noise and the grey, and throw you into a world of greens and tranquility, and, weirdly, a volcano. Not that Guilfoyle’s Volcano looks much like your traditional mountainous, hot, why-the-hell-am-I-standing-here affair. It does have cacti though, something I wasn’t expecting to come across.

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On the west edge of said park is one of the largest war memorials I’ve ever seen, and one that provides a view of the city that rivals in spectacle the outlook from the memorial at Albany.

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It was staring in wonder at this very view that got me thinking about my future plans. I’ve said to/warned everyone that I’m keeping an open mind about what I do and where I go in the future, and that may or may not involve moving to another country. This is the first place I’ve been to and gone “yes, I could live here”. Will I? Probably not. There would be a lot of hurdles and difficult decisions to make in order to make it happen, but I get the distinct impression that this won’t be the last time I find myself in this amazing cacophony of culture and atmosphere.

26. The Great Ocean Road, Australia

It really is.

Let’s not beat around the Australian bush here, the Great Ocean Road is the main reason I’m in this part of the world. 150 miles of picturesque, winding, seaside highway along a stretch of South Australia that was sure to provide an unforgettable experience.

At least that’s the impression I got from all the perusing of appraisals and oggling of pictures I did before I got here. However, after setting off from the fairly forgettable town of Allansford – on the Western end of the road – I spent the next half an hour or so wondering what all the fuss was about. The road wasn’t exactly great, it wasn’t anywhere near the ocean, and the most interesting thing that happened was when I had to brake sharply to avoid hitting whatever that Australian version of a pheasant was.

But then the road found the ocean, and I was treated to a swathe of dramatic landmarks, each as unique and fascinating as the next. The Bay of Islands, the Bay of Martyrs, The Grotto, London Bridge (no not that one), The Arch. Each of these was a geological masterpiece, a symphony of ancient rock carved into wondrous, diverse shapes by the relentless pounding of the ocean waves. Of these, the Bay of Islands takes the prize for being the most photogenic – just be prepared to muscle your way past the bus load of Chinese tourists all getting in the way whilst gawping at the same thing (seriously, I think that bus is following me around the globe).

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Port Campbell provided a convenient enough lunch stop (dear British cafes, you need to start selling beef and bacon pies), as well as a thoroughly lovely view of the ocean that I was able to admire whilst drifting in and out of consciousness in a desperate attempt to make amends for my early start.

The second half of the day oversaw the drive from my picturesque nap spot to Apollo Bay, a seaside, tourist-centred town half way along the Road. The drive itself was punctuated by two stopping points, the first of which was the only slight disappointment of the entire day.

There’s no doubting that the Twelve Apostles is the most famous landmark along this most famous of roads – a fact that becomes all too abundantly clear by the exponentially greater number of tourists flocking to see them (some of which weren’t even Chinese). Named for religious and touristy reasons rather than numerically accurate ones (there are actually only eight of them), this formation of rock-pillars is undoubtedly a sight to behold, and allows one to indulge in a spot of “I’ve been there”-ism.

The problem I have with the site is that despite its dramatic appearance, it isn’t, in my opinion, the most interesting landmark that this half of the Road has to offer. A large part of me wanted to grab all these extra sightseers and say “this is great and all, but have you seen what’s over there?”

The other stopping point on my way to the youth hostel (an unusual step for me brought on by the expense of all the nearby hotels) was the lighthouse at Cape Otway. This much quieter, more understated sight not only provided some interesting sunset photo opportunities, but also allowed me to catch my first glimpse of a koala in the wild – one of the few reasons I’m ok with half a dozen cars blocking the road for.

After a much more pleasant evening than I was expecting at the hostel (apart from the pizza I ate, which I’m still apologising to my behind for), day two on the Road saw me drive all the way up to my accommodation for the upcoming week. This second half wasn’t so much about what I saw along the way, it was about the nature of the road itself. Zipping and whizzing around seaside bends (at a sensible speed Mum, obviously), through forests, past waterfalls, and in-and-out-of villages was an utter joy. A fitting way to end what has, on reflection, been an experience I had high hopes for, and that did not disappoint.

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My journey’s end saw me in the town of Romsey, about 45 minutes north of Melbourne, and home to one of my partners’ Mum. Oh and two cats, two dogs, and the biggest cock you’ve ever seen.

More on that later.

25. Adelaide, Australia

Close encounters and the bird kind

My original plan was to head from Perth up to Darwin (on the North coast), then down to Uluru, and down again to Melbourne to begin exploring the Southern section of this gargantuan country.

However, upon conducting further research into costs and logistics, I came to the conclusion that flying straight to Uluru from Sydney would be a much more efficient way of doing things, and since the weather in Darwin is currently about as pleasant as a visit from the bailiffs, I have opted for plan B.

Plan B involves flying to a city that I wasn’t planning on visiting, but which plays host to what to me is a very important landmark. As a city, Adelaide doesn’t have very much to offer. It’s layout is fairly uninteresting, there are no real attractions or tantalisingly exciting things to see, and from what I could see it had the highest concentration of poverty and homelessness I’ve seen in a long time – and I live in London.

What Adelaide does have, and what formed the main reason for me popping in for a few days rather than flying straight to Melbourne, is a spot that hailed the beginnings of one of my greatest passions – Formula One.

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The junction of Hutt St and Flinders St looks, to the naked eye, like just another ordinary junction. However, on the 13th of November, 1994, it became the most talked about junction in the sporting world.

It was the final race of the Formula One season, and Michael Schumacher, who led Briton Damon Hill by a single point in the Driver’s Championship, had made a mistake on the previous corner. Hill bore down on him like a ravenous hyena, sensing blood and his opportunity to overtake and seize the upper hand in the title contest. Schumacher, however, had other ideas. The two crashed into each other at turn 6 (that junction), and both retired from the race, handing the championship to the German.

As a seven-year-old watching the events unfold live, I was jumping-up-and-down-shouting-at-dad incensed at what had happened. Clearly, Schumacher had deliberately caused the crash, knowing a double retirement would give him the title. This moment, at this junction, was what sparked my passion in the sport, a passion that has continued to grow to this very day, as I threw all my support behind Hill to exact his revenge and win the title he so desperately wanted and thoroughly deserved.

He did, two years later.

Aside from corners of sporting significance, there were a couple of other enjoyable locations Adelaide had to offer. The Japanese-inspired Himeji Garden provides a wonderfully picturesque spot to relax and unwind in, something I did for a not-inconsiderable amount of time.

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Then there was the Migration Museum, which I impulsively decided to visit upon the realisation that my knowledge of Australian history and colonisation was severely under par.

We all know the bare-bones facts: Europeans found the country, and migrated here in mass numbers, severely damaging the population and welfare of the indigenous people that had been residing here for millennia beforehand. It’s a story that’s so well-known, it’s easy to become numb to the severity and sheer scale of the atrocities that unfolded over numerous years.

I read numerous accounts of white people taking advantage of the aboriginal people’s initial hospitality, and subsequently destroying their land, crops, and way of life, just to live the life they were accustomed to back home. It’s hard to portray in a simple blog post the magnitude and effects of these actions, which probably explains why I was so moved by the recollections when I was at the museum itself.

Perhaps it’s a tad hypocritical of me being disgraced at large portions of this country’s history, given that the British Empire wasn’t exactly built on peace and equality. It was an eye-opener though, almost as much as the hundreds of birds that opted to fly over my head in unison as I walked the street back to the hotel.

I’ve never tried so hard not to look up.