I was arriving in the window between Ben's return from his South and Central American expedition and starting his master's degree and he had invited me to stay at his mum's place in Willoughby near Sydney's north shore. I called him when I made it to arrivals at Sydney airport and 25 minutes or so later I was picked up from the short stay car park. Sweet as... As I had only just started saying, once I had already left New Zealand. Hopefully it wouldn't last. Ben's mum lives in a lovely house in a quiet but pretty central neighbourhood and I took it in as a sipped a glass of aged rum imported from Central America. Nice. My first full day in Sydney boasted beautiful blue skies, sunshine and a strange cacophony of bird sounds from the back garden. I met Ben's mum who was very very friendly and chatty and encouraged me to help tackle the problem of all the fruit on the massive mandarin tree out back. I was happy to help and to boost my vitamin C levels which had taken a dent during my somewhat austere dietary experience in New Zealand.
I had little idea of what I wanted to do in Sydney so I was glad that Ben kindly took it upon himself to show some of the sights over the coming days. First up was a trip down to world famous Bondi Beach. We took the train from Artarmon into the city centre and I experienced my first crossing of the Harbour Bridge and glimpse of the Sydney Opera House. We switched lines and headed down to Bondi Junction where we took a bus down to the beach. I had seen it not so long ago, perhaps in Brazil, whilst watching a fly-on-the-wall docu-soap about the life guards who work there. It looked even better in reality, mainly because there were just a handful of people on the sand, mainly dedicated surfers heading in or out of the water. We stopped for a bite to eat and to take in the view before heading along the headland to a couple more beaches, including Bronte, which was deserted.
The sun was shining and Ben told me I was lucky as the previous 10 days or so had seen torrential rain. How does that Crowded House song go again...? We topped off the afternoon with a couple of schooners (a beer glass smaller than a pint) on a rooftop terrace before making our way back home for a night spent cooking up an ad hoc curry and watching TV in front of the fire, reserving energies for more intense tourist activities. Already I was glad that I had given Sydney a chance - at least now I had some idea of why so many people fall so in love with life Down Under. If this was winter then what must summer be like? It was the first time I had worn just a T-shirt out since Brazil.
Thursday saw me hit the well worn tourist trail across the Harbour Bridge from Milsons Point on the north side to the city centre to the south. I got some great views in the sunshine that would light all of my stay in Australia and we climbed to the top of one of the pylons on the south side which provided an awesome perspective on the bridge and the harbour. I could see groups of people walking the steps to the top of the arch but I was pretty happy with what I was seeing for a fraction of the price. From there we made our way through The Rocks and down onto the quay side where I got up close to the opera house and posed for that hackneyed snap. But it had to be done. It's what you do.
That night we were going to stay at Ben's brother Matt's beach house so, after popping into his office (an experience that made me realise just how long I had been out of work for), we caught the Manly ferry across the bay.
The sun was setting as we went and the Sydney skyline looked beautiful in silhouette. We had a couple of beers at a pub by the ferry terminal as we waited for Matt to finish work and make his way over. From there it was a 30-minute drive or so over to the house he shares with his wife Bec and their daughter Ella. Everyone was very welcoming and we sat down to the TV show Swamp People and spaghetti bolognese. Awesome. Before long it was time for bed and I was awake early the next morning to accompany Ben down to the beach. While he went surfing I hung out on the beach trying to capture him in action. Very impressive stuff. Not just Ben's surf skills, but also the beauty of the beach.
Later, after a tasty lunch at The Newport Arms, and with Ben's shortboard appetite satisfied, I put on a wet suit and we headed down to the beach with a couple on longer boards so I could give it a try. My bare feet were pretty numb by the time we made it down the oh-so steep road to the beach. The water was a shock at first but not as cold as I had feared -
I quickly forgot about it as the water in my wet suit warmed up. We started to paddle out and it was obvious I was going to lag behind. Ben is so quick in the water whilst I am so cumbersome. Still, with much huffing and puffing, and with some new surf lingo briefly stored in my brain, I made it out to where we wanted to be. I was great to be out there, to see the surfers catch and ride the waves up close, just as the sun began to nudge the cliff top. I caught my breath as Ben surfed, seemingly reappearing to catch another waves just moments after aborting the previous one.
My attempts proved far less successful as Ben helped me out with a push and instructions on when to start paddling. I was being picked up by the waves but just couldn't make it up right before falling into the water. And then came the ordeal of trying make it back past the breaking zone without getting caught in a succession of crashing waves. I failed in this aim a few times and found myself really battling to get back out there. After an hour or so in the water I was absolutely spent. My upper body was already really sore and I had nothing left to give. But I had enjoyed myself, it had good to be out there and I was taking quite a bit of sea water back with me in my belly as a salty memento.
After a hot shower and a wrestle to get the clinging wetsuit off I was ready to go. It was Friday night but I was shattered and both Ben and I were watching our pennies. Saturday was nailed on as the big night out so we took one bus and then another back to Willoughby and had an easy night. Saturday began in painful shopping fashion as we both had some things to buy. Ben took me to Chatswood and we did the rounds of the shopping centres. I picked up a new travel towel to replace the one I had lost in New Zealand while Ben needed stationary supplies for his upcoming return to studenthood. With that over it was a chilled out afternoon before hitting the booze in the evening.
Beer and disgusting shots of gin ensued before we headed into town to meet some of Ben's mates. Beers and whiskey shots followed and it all got a bit hazy as we jumped from bar to bar. We ended up in Flinders where Ben used to work and around 3.30pm I was starting to fall asleep. Ben was
in full swing so a taxi back awaited me and it was only when I arrived that I realised I didn't know the code for the burglar alarm. Ben's mum was at the beach house for the night so I had no choice but to go in through the always open back door and set off the alarm. I went straight to bed and thankfully the ear splitting noise ceased after a couple of minutes. I would not be able to leave the room without triggering another aural onslaught but the alcohol played its part and I was immediately out for the count...
Sunday was a horrible hangover and Monday meant that the time had come to leave Willoughby as Ben started his course. The thought of staying in a hostel in Sydney didn't really appeal, it would feel like I was wasting time, counting down until my flight to Japan. The Blue Mountains seemed like a much better bet. I said goodbye to Ben on the platform as he caught his train to uni, thanking him for his hospitality. Before I could catch the two-hour train up to Katoomba I needed to buy my rail pass for Japan. It can only be purchased outside the country and I had written down the addresses of a few agencies that sold it. From Central I marched up George Street with my full backpack for numerous blocks until I found Australia Tower. On the 17th floor was Price Travel and the lovely Ruth, a delightful older lady who helped me out no end. I wanted a two-week pass for the princely (but ultimately massively economical) sum of $520 (£350). They didn't take debit cards so I raced around the ATMs trying to rustle up the cash. By using both my cards to extract half the amount I was in business and left for Katoomba with a flimsy voucher which I would need to exchange for an antiquated pass upon my arrival in Japan. Lose either and I would be up the creek. How exciting!
To begin I must rewind back to Colombia to explain my presence in Sydney. My initial plan was to fly from Auckland to Sydney and then switch to a Japan-bound flight without leaving the airport. There were a few reasons behind this, mainly that Australia is very expensive, it would be winter, I did not have the time to give that the country deserves and that I expected it to be over-run with English people. In fact, it is over-run by Germans - there are currently four million in Oz - but that is besides the point... The point is that when we were in Cartagena Ben did his bit for the Australian Tourist Board and convinced me to at least spare some time for Sydney. I gave it nine days to be exact. I had wanted just seven but there was no availability on a flight to Tokyo until 4th August.