Sydney & Katoomba – Australia
Never, ever, ever, ever, ever travel with excess baggage! This is especially so when travelling in a country where you can get everything you could possibly need but this being my first time I was yet to discover the joys of travelling light. Standing outside a hotel in the middle of Sydney on New Years Eve I watched the ex-girlfirend depart with her words from the night before still echoing around my head, those being that I was, “immature, irritating and……… A wet blanket”. It’s fair to say that at the time I was all three of them and twelve years on the first two still apply but the third insult was definitely a consequence born out of a weird, unhealthy and ultimately short relationship. Still, it was New Years Eve in Sydney and Phil, Laura (Phil had imported his much more successful girlfriend), and I had six weeks of travelling around Australia to look forward to. First up was a little known firework display over a little known harbour.
Sydney is a classic tourist destination for backpackers and rich luggage-with-wheels type people alike and I would assume New Years Eve in Sydney is on the ‘bucket list’ for many people. I hate to admit it but it was certainly something I wanted to do and after spending two months earning heaps of cash harvesting wheat and barley in Western Australia, it was time to blow it all away. Sydney isn’t as good as you think it will be. It’s so much better. A simply stunning city thanks to the obvious advantage of it’s location and not one but two of the most famous landmarks in the world. Not only did they build the Harbour bridge and Opera House but they also managed to maintain one of the most beautiful city parks (The Royal Botanical Gardens) in the world where you can soak up the sights while sat on green grass, surrounded by trees full of huge bats, with gleaming skyscrapers in the background. I haven’t even mentioned the weather yet but I’m sure you can imagine that the whole scene was cloaked in bright, hot sunshine. The only reason I refuse to say it’s my favourite city in the world is because I was already in love with Perth for many of the same reasons as Sydney, and ordinarily I don’t do cities.
We had arrived in Sydney several days before and had explored many of the sights including a well equipped zoo that sat up, overlooking the city. Bondi Beach was obviously a place to visit but I can safely report back that it’s not worth the bother. Yes it’s Bondi, I have no idea why it’s so famous but at the time of my visit it was rammed to the eyeballs on the beach and in the surf. Australia is surrounded by incredible, empty beaches and sure enough Sydney boasts many other beautiful beaches which are much less busy and are only a short walk from Bondi. But lets be honest it was New Year and so the time had come to once again join a crowd, this time of 22,000 people, waiting patiently for seventy-five minutes to get into Mrs Maquarie’s Point where we would settle down for the afternoon drinking wine and beer, looking across the harbour awaiting nightfall and midnight. These events are always tricky. You have to arrive early to get a decent spot but then what do you do for the next twelve hours? Obviously enjoy the sun and drink but drink too much and you risk missing the main event, drink too little and run the risk of getting bored. Either way for once in my life I treaded the line pretty much perfect and before we knew it the 7.30pm children’s firework display kicked off. Essentially the warmup act before the main event a few hours later. When midnight did arrive, it failed to dissapoint with the harbour and the city centre erupting into fire causing everything to glow. The cost of such events come into question more and more these days but I can safely say that the benefits far outweigh any costs. Simply being there, getting to watch such a display makes you feel good. Traditionally a hater of New Years Eve, Sydney is one of the few times I’ve genuinely loved being part of the celebration, a surefire way to get anyone pumped up for the New Year and what a year I was about to start with Australia, East Africa and New Zealand all awaiting me.
Ironically the first few days of the year were reasonably miserable. I spent New Years Day moping around Manly Beach on my own being the ‘wet blanket’ I am and then on the 3rd we went to collect our hire car that we had booked months in advance and would be taking us around Australia. We had debated whether to bring over the Pulsar from Perth but as reliable as the car had been we didn’t trust ourselves to cross one of the largest and loneliest expanses of desert in the world, the Nullarbor plain, 1675km long and that would only get us about half way to Sydney. It just so turns out that the rental company didn’t trust us out in the Outback either and hiked up the price of our hire once they realised we wanted to drive to Alice Springs and just to really hammer that point home they also refused to accept my Mum’s credit card. Excess baggage and credit cards, I was learning a lot during my first week of travelling. Cancelling the car hire we left completely deflated. Phil and I had spent months planning our trip and within minutes it had been shattered. We then made a quick decision that would ultimately define the way I travelled forever more.
Sydney is full of travel stores for every price group. Travel centres for backpackers are especially prolific as I was soon to learn they are in every major tourist destination in the world. It just so happened that we walked into one with a representative who was surely immortal. Completely deflated it was time for Laura to step up and rescue our plans and she told the nice lady in the travel store where we wanted to go. Melbourne – Adelaide – Alice Springs – Cairns – Sydney. No flying. As cheap as possible and seeing all the key sights. I kid you not, with the wave of a magic wand and a few taps of a keyboard we had a full six week, flexible itinerary all planned and pre-booked with extra destinations we hadn’t even heard of thrown in for good measure. A mix of trains, buses, boats and small group tours all for a bargain. Within the hour all our excitement and expectations had returned and so we grabbed our bags and immediately made our way to the train station to catch the very next train out of Sydney.
I don’t believe Katoomba was on the to-do list until the travel wizard in the travel centre told us we had to go and I’m very grateful she did. Sat just to the west of Sydney, Katoomba sits in the Blue Mountains and although it’s location to civilisation makes the whole area very…… well…….. civilised and American tourist friendly don’t let that put you off from visiting. It’s naive of me to say but the Blue Mountains isn’t what I expected from Australia. Red dust and absolutely nothing is what I was expecting when heading inland but there is one huge consideration to make when trying to imagine Australia. It’s effing huge! This means a short train ride from Sydney to Katoomba is the same as arriving to the Moon from Earth yet you are no way near the centre of the galaxy. The scale of Australia also means a colossal area of mountain range and trees can literally just pop up out of nowhere should you wish to go looking for it, as is the case with the blue mountains. We spent an entire day walking the bush trails surrounding Katoomba stopping at numerous waterfalls, descending ‘The giant stairway” with its 900 steps taking those who feel fit enough down into the tree covered valleys. What goes down in this case had to come back up and we did so through the means of a bloody steep railway line which then dropped us next to a huge cable car which transported us over the steep ravines with birds eye views of the canopy below us. Finally we ended up at one of the best viewing points on earth with “The tree sisters” as the centrepiece, three ancient looking columns of rock strutting out into the open. Realistically they resemble three heaps of rock, not as grand as a column yet still worthy of a photo. The view behind is next level with escarpments and forest rolling for as far as the eye can see.
The following day in Katoomba offered up a cave themed day as we explored the Jenolan and Orient cave systems nearby, claimed to be some of the oldest caves in the world. Once again well worth the visit with Australians really knowing how to put on a display with the caves lit up in a variety of colours and well maintained pathways keeping both the tourist and the cave’s features safe. On one hand it’s all very staged, on the other hand it makes some natural wonders easily accessible for most while also protecting the site. It’s safe to say we that we had a busy two days in Katoomba and it had been an impressive start to our time on the road yet little did we know that this was just the beginning of what was to be an epic maiden adventure.