Sydney and its Circle

Australia was the first destination where our traveling began to pick up pace. We only had a month. In New Zealand, we had six glorious months to explore every geographical masterpiece and we left feeling like we could hold our own in a conversation with Captain Cook. Then, we took ten days to circumnavigate the two main islands of Samoa and again, we felt that it was enough time to understand its essence.

But Australia was different.

We walked into Australia like a man walks onto Mars, fully cognizant that we wouldn’t even be able to scratch the surface of what was out there. Not in our lifetime. We would never know the half of it. But it didn’t matter. We were there, and we owed it to ourselves to try.

Thus, our plan was to spend a couple of days in three major cities (Sydney, Melbourne, & Perth) and rent a car to explore the area around each of those cities.

We started in Sydney, taking in a concert at the Sydney Opera House the same evening we flew in from Samoa. We thought this would be a good way to ease the jetlag out of our bones and it was, but I was immediately stricken by another strange malady. The moment I dragged myself down to the harbor and set eyes on that glittering opera house, my knees faltered. My heart leapt out of my chest and I simply could not look away. I have fallen in love with many men, countless landscapes, and quite a few Mexican tacos, but until that night, I had never fallen in love with a building. But madre mía, what a building!

There is a name for this, my mind reminded me. Object sexuality. Weirdly, I can remember it from a TV special report I watched with my Derry flatmates one stoned afternoon. There was a woman who was in love with the Eiffel Tower and another who was emotionally involved with a rollercoaster. We had all been rolling on the floor laughing at the time, but now I felt a duty to call my flatmates and announce, “You’re not going to believe it, but I‘ve fallen in love with a building. It’s for real.”

“So what do you think?” Damián asked, gazing up at the shell-shaped wonder.

“It’s a bit overrated,” I lied. I didn’t want him to get jealous.

But in reality, it was mesmerizing. She was soft curves and sharp lines, warm with light but cold in her concrete crevasses. She was everything at once, appearing to rise up out of the water like an imperial schooner ready for war or simply float over the harbor like a lotus flower lost in eternal meditation. And she was definitely a SHE: the Mother of Sydney and Australia, a reference point for the world, the way we look at our mothers whenever we are in doubt of who we are. A symbol of a country’s greatness.

My second thought was that if any kid felt like learning to fly, the Sydney Opera House was the perfect launch pad for this feat. The building was so magical and grandiose that it offered no possibility of failure. Her essence would lift you into the sky! She could guarantee your flight, at least for a short while, until you hit the water. Because mothers make you believe that anything is possible. And sometimes, really good architecture does the same.

Yet, I am ashamed to admit that I fell asleep shortly after intermission during the symphony concert, the jetlag (or my mother’s knack for falling asleep in public places) having finally caught up to me.

The rest of Sydney is equally worth exploring, but it is better to visit on different terms. As a backpacker, it is a bit disconcerting to find yourself suddenly surrounded by slick men in suits, smartly dressed women, and high-end cars. While in New Zealand it is perfectly acceptable to walk into a bank barefoot, I got the impression that the Sydney followed a slightly higher standard. It is also a very expensive city, as is Australia in general, so we had to choose our activities wisely.

Before Sydney was the city we know today, the area was home to several Aboriginal tribes for thousands of years. Unfortunately, the arrival of the British in 1770 would forever disrupt their peaceful existence. The Aboriginal story is one that many indigenous people faced under the threat of colonization, each with their own unique circumstances but sad realities. Particularly in Australia, the path to reconciliation is arduous and ongoing, even today. We recommend watching the film Rabbit Fence by Phillip Noyce to get a sense of the difficult history that the country is still working to overcome.

Sydney was first established as a penal colony and this bred a lot of interesting characters. This demographic is best expressed in the Rocks, a historic area that was established after the colony’s founding in 1788 and quickly garnered the reputation as a slum.  Convicts fresh off the boat, sailors, prostitutes, the impoverished, and the infamous street gang, the Rocks Push, all lived in a kind of harmonious squalor inside the neighborhood.

Our tour guide told us about a convict who was hired to build a bank. As was to be expected, after finishing the construction and knowing exactly how it was built, he then proceeded to carry out its first bank robbery. There is another historical rumor about a convict who had a wife back in England, but picked up another one upon arriving in Sydney. He was a butcher by trade and when he heard his first wife had bought a passage to Sydney, he had to find a way to get rid of the second one. I will let you figure out the rest.

When the Bubonic plague broke out in the summer of 1900, the government used it as an excuse to inspect and demolish many of the buildings in this unfavorable part of town, but the start of World War I stopped these demolitions.

Nowadays, the Rocks is no longer a run-down slum and long-time residents have fought hard to maintain its integrity. Much has been done to preserve the historical importance of the neighborhood, but it has also become partially gentrified. It is at risk of further gentrification due to its prime location in the city center and its appeal to tourists. As tourists, we realize we form a part of this problem, but it was certainly the highlight of our visit to Sydney! We hope the city is able to preserve this authentic neighborhood so that everyone can benefit from its history and flavor.

After five days in Sydney, we rented a car and headed for the Blue Mountains National Park, an hour and a half west of the city. Here, we had our first taste of awe that so many other travelers had expressed when they spoke of Australia’s natural landscapes. They possess a wildness and a vastness akin to the American West, but are full of unfamiliar animals and their own unique histories.

We hiked the National Pass, an impressive trail that was first cut into the cliffs with picks, shovels, and dynamite in 1906. In 2008, the pass won a major heritage conservation award from UNESCO for their restoration of the aging trail. It takes about 3 hours, with plenty of stops along the way to enjoy the view. It is not too strenuous, but there are some steep stair sections that require extra effort. The National Park gives it a Grade 4 and categorizes it has having a “very steep” gradient.

It was nice to disappear. You walk down into this never-ending forest, a canyon of life, and suddenly the most significant thing about you becomes your insignificance. You are muted by the cries of the cockatoo, you are dwarfed by thunderous waterfalls, and you are humbled by a world that every man once knew how to navigate, but you – modern age fool – must rely on signs and stepping stones.

Australia is like that. If you’re not looking, it will swallow you whole.

Next, we visit Royal National Park. It is another great national park, located only fifty minutes south of Sydney. It offers spectacular beaches, rebellious coastlines, serene hikes, and a sense of relief that these places exist, and so close to the city.

There is a great multi-day trek that you can do along the coast of Royal National Park, but as we were only there for the day, we only managed a couple of short hikes. The star attraction used to be a rock formation known as the Wedding Cake rock, but it is now fenced off from the public. A tourist fell to their death from this location and since then, park rangers have determined that the rock is unstable and in danger of falling into the sea. It’s best to skip it.

Finally we head even further south, about 2 1/2 hours from Sydney to Booderee National Park. Like any Australia first-timer, it was important for us to see kangaroos and if possible, in their natural habitat.

Luckily, the kangaroos were waiting for us. The ones we encountered at the park entrance and near the picnic area were clearly used to humans, but there were plenty of others that were far more elusive and we could watch only from a distance.

Kangaroos are another one of Australia’s symbols that unequivocally live up to their name. They are cute, inquisitive, and slightly silly-looking animals that invite you to marvel at the diversity of our planet. Without exaggeration, we spent at least an hour observing and interacting with each other. Darwin would have been proud.

Before we drove back to Sydney for our flight to Melbourne, we spent one night with a lovely Couchsurfing couple in their fifties. We taught them how to make Argentinean empanadas and compared our mess of cultures over dinner. Australia is not all that different from the U.S. in terms of lifestyle, but people do seem to have a better appreciation for the work-life balance.

“I admire what you guys are doing,” the husband said. “I think that when you get the urge to do something – like travel – you should do everything in your power to go and do it. And do it as soon as you can. Don’t put it off. Because to be honest, you don’t know what your interests are going to be when you get older. They might be different. I was surprised to find out that I don’t like the same things I did when I was younger. My interests have changed. And that’s okay, but that’s why you’ve got to take advantage of those feelings when you have them.”

His words were a gift, and I keep them close to me even as I write this, a few months down the road. On days when I get a little tired of sightseeing, translating, or haggling a fair price, I lean hard on those words, reminding myself that now is the best time. My 80-year-old self will thank me later for my persistence, for grabbing life by the horns and trying to experience everything all at once, while my heart can still hold it.

Too soon, we had to close Sydney and its circle and move on to our next destination.

-Ashley

INFORMATION FOR DIABETICS

Australia is a country that shouldn’t pose any problem for diabetics. A wide variety of food options are available almost everywhere so it’s relatively easy to eat healthy and medical facilities are top notch. There are plenty of possibilities for hiking and other outdoor activities so make sure you monitor your glucose levels accordingly. Most importantly, if you are roadtripping, it is best to get a campervan with a fridge so that you can store your insulin safely.

WHERE TO STAY

We found that Australia is a fantastic country for Couchsurfing and Airbnb. We traveled in May – low season for southern Australia – but even so, staying in a hostel was always at least $3-$5 AUD more expensive than Airbnb accommodation. Sometimes they were the same price but we always opted for the Airbnb stay because it is a homier rather than a dorm room. But our first choice was always Couchsurfing. There are active Couchsurfing hosts in major cities as well as small towns and the community is strong. Australians are very laid-back and friendly and we really enjoyed our hosts.

 

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