As soon as the plane hit the tarmac, I could no longer contain my excitement. I raced off the aircraft and through the world’s most intimidating immigration, having watched many an episode of Border Police, to find my sister on the other side, beaming as we had not seen each other for over a year. To boot, I was the first in the family to make the trip Down Under. Granted, being in China I was already half-way there but it was also obviously because I am the most dedicated of the bunch! Excitedly chatting away we almost walked into a glass door and then Doreen could not remember where she had parked the car. Eventually we made it out of the airport and I was given a grand tour of the neighbourhood and the city. I was taken down to the ‘money shot’ overlooking the Bridge and the Opera House and it felt so surreal to be there. I had never really considered visiting Australia before they had moved, thinking it would be much the same as England. Everybody speaks English after all so it would not be enough of a challenge. But being in China has taught me that you do not have to constantly push your limits in life and it’s OK to sit and enjoy the easy life every once in a while. So I did, and loved every minute. That evening, I was thoroughly spoiled by my Sister and Brother-in-law with a welcome drink in the early evening sun down in the harbour overlooking the Bridge and the Dirty Projectors’ gig in the Sydney Opera House. It was a beautiful welcome.
My first few days were filled with wandering around Sydney, getting a feel for the place and befriending strangers of all ages. These included a retired Serbian man who talked about how he earned $50 dollars a week when he first arrived in Oz and the subsequent effect of inflation on his ability to purchase tickets back to his homeland and another clucky 40-odd man who tried (and failed) to entice me with coffee after he welled up at seeing me chase an inflatable ball down the beach to give it back to a distraught toddler. Sydney’s finest were out in force it would seem! Thankfully, Friday was Burns’ Supper and I was introduced to Doreen and Malcolm’s buddies. After an emergency haggis run to David Jones, we had a hilarious evening of kilts and flip-flops, a Quaich full of whiskey, dancing and poetry, tatties and tennis as the Australian minority and I weathered the banter of the Scots during the Federer-Murray semi-final. It was a fantastic event, which gave me a heartwarming glimpse of their life on the other side of the world which really isn’t bad at all!
The next week was spent in Melbourne. After an hour’s flight I arrived into what felt like an altogether different world as I had gone from scorching sunshine to blustery winds and a dreary seafront in St Kilda. Shivering in my summer dress and sandals, I could not see the hype and likened this new place to Peacehaven with a dodgy accent. However, the old adage ‘never judge a book by its cover’ could not have rung more true and as I slowly got under Melbourne’s skin it grew on me, being upgraded to a Brighton by the end of the week. We met a couple of their friends who owned a dog who gave you a high-five on your way out of their apartment and we had dinner and a dance in St Kilda. As I had placed a UN-esque sanction on all Chinese food and a total ban on rice, Ichi Ni, a delicious Japanese teppanyaki was as close to the line as they dared to get. Moving on to another establishment that was reminiscent of a cross between Warwick SU (during it’s ‘The Graduate’ phase) and Eastbourne’s Weatherspoons just with more dreadlocks and less chav, we threw some (dangerous) shapes on the dance floor as Vicky set about potential husband-hunting on my behalf. A great night out!
The next morning I set about discovering Melbourne’s version of Brighton’s lanes and had probably the best coffee I’ve ever tasted. Melbourne is famous for its coffee culture and for just cause. Dozens of off-beat coffee shops so small that proprietors can only afford to hire the ‘so cool I look malnourished’ types, jostle for space but not for customers in narrow backstreets. The effortlessly cool vibe they exude, no doubt entirely due to the staff, ensures that they are all packed to the rafters with a suitably hip-crowd at all hours of the day. Add to this the Yarra River that runs through the heart of the city and whose banks are populated by street Picassos, parcour artists, and swanky bars and it’s easy to see how Melbourne has been voted the most livable city in the world.
That afternoon, I was the envy of at least two of my tennis-mad friends here in Asia as I went to the Australian Open Final to watch Murray battle it out with Djokovic. This was my second tournament on my second continent this year. The sun was blazing and we soaked up the festival atmosphere in the grounds before taking our seats in the stadium. We were completely surrounded by Djokovic fans of Asian origin that kept waving their Serbian flags in the face of the only Scot among us. I do enjoy watching sport but I am by no means a dedicated fan. I have never understood the rationale behind those who spend their lives following a particular football team, grieving when a player is lost to another side or crying in the arms of another man when their hopeless team inevitably loses in the first round of what they lead you to believe is a life-changing tournament, incomparable to the other 200 that happen during the season. However, as the excitement built in the stadium I felt myself get carried along. I cheered merrily as Murray powered through to take the first set. My cries grew louder as Djokovic held fast and took the second set. Then as Djokovic grew stronger I felt myself become nervous, crying out desperately in an attempt to block Djokovic’s strikes that eventually broke Murray. As the game progressed my cries grew louder still as my brow furrowed further and my hands gradually clenched into defiant fists. Then, as the match started to slip beyond Murray’s grasp I felt the dreaded ache of impending defeat stir deep in my belly until finally I was awash with despair as I watched Djokovic raise the cup to his lips to mark his victory. The rationale is that there is no rationale. It was totally irrational but incredibly exhilarating. A match and a feeling I shall never forget. To lift our spirits the party continued in Windsor but, despite being the youngest by at least 12 years, I made a run for a taxi after the first bar as I felt my ‘sleep immediately’ instinct kick-in leaving the others in search of a Souvlaki bar.
After all this fun, it was time to go it alone as, being grown-ups with proper jobs, they felt the need to return to Sydney in time for work. The last few days in Melbourne were taken up with experiencing the backpacker lifestyle as I made friends with some people in my hostel and went on a couple of excursions. My first tour was to Philip Island to watch ‘the penguin parade’. On the way we stopped at a wildlife park where I saw several native Australian animals including koalas, kookaburras, wallabies, dingoes and I even fed a kangaroo or two.
On Philip Island, which is oddly twined with the Isle of Wight, we sat in little stands on the beach and waited for the sun to set. Once it was sufficiently dark, several rafts of penguins swam up onto the shore and hurriedly made the long journey from the water, across the wide open and thus dangerous beach to the cover of the bush and all the way to their little shelters to nest for the night. They were small penguins, barely 30cm tall, and some had eaten so many fish that day they could barely waddle. Several times, they fell flat on their large bellies as they tried to run fast enough to catch up with the rest of the raft. They were just adorable and judging by the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of the spectators, I wasn’t the only one that thought so. Another day and another excursion, this time it was the length of the Great Ocean Road up to the Twelve Apostles. This is essentially a road that runs along the coast, hugging the cliff in some parts and winding through rainforest in other parts. The views were breathtaking and the beaches were some of the most beautiful I have seen where multiple grey-haired Sandy Cohens in wetsuits dashed past me down the beach with their surfboards under one arm, ready for an early morning session. One of my favourite parts was the story that accompanied our trip to a bay a few kilometers along from the Twelve Apostles. It was a picturesque bay where, in 1878 the Loch Ard had shipwrecked. Busy celebrating their arrival in Australia, they had failed to see the rocks in the thick fog and only two people survived the disaster; a man and a woman. They sheltered in the bay overnight and the man went to look for help. He was successful and as soon as possible the woman set sail again for England, vowing never to return. The lucky or perhaps unlucky man went on to survive a further 3 shipwrecks. You would think one would never set foot on a boat again after just one bad experience! The two survivors unfortunately never saw each other again.
I learnt two things from my time in Melbourne. The first is to stop passing judgment instantly (an unfortunate habit I have picked up living in China). And the second was how easy it is to travel alone. One of the best aspects of my excursions was meeting people from all walks of like. I met many people around my age, living the dream on a work-holiday visa. I met others who were fulfilling a life-long dream by journeying to Australia. I found that Germans and Swiss-Germans are amongst the most friendly and engaging travelers. I found that everybody had a unique and interesting story to tell and that travel helps you appreciate just how incredible human beings can be. Clichés aside I made my way back to Sydney, happy to swap dorm-life for a double bed and home cooking.