There is no doubt Sydney is one of the worlds most spectacular cities and a pleasure to live and work there, which I briefly did. But it is very English on the streets and in the workplace and in its cosmopolitan feel as visitors and tourist only ever end up there, the stunning harbor a magnet for cruise ships. Sydney, Ayres Rock and a boat trip to the Barrier Reef is most peoples OZ Experience. There are many places and things to do in Australia other than Sydney and if I was to live and work in Australia again it would still be Melbourne for me. My experience of Sydney was constantly running into British backpackers looking for work and it ended up like being in London, exactly the reasons why I had come to Australia. There are only so many students on a year out in Australia you can have the same conversation with in the hostels and bars. The brag when you have a backpack on your back is how long have you been travelling and how many countries have you been to, the two questions you get asked a hundred times a week. For me I just wanted to make friends with a beer or two and work in a big warm city that had access to premiership football on satellite TV and a beach. Sydney didn't even have that back in the 1990s. In fact I had to travel all the way to Brisbane from Cairns just to watch Euro 96. I suspect that's not the case now and Premier League football everywhere.
The harbor is the city, the portcullis of the proud Sydney Harbor Bridge welcoming you in with a fanfare, and the post modern Opera House the modern crown of Australia. Because there is lot of shark infested water that laps the cities many coves and bays in the natural inlet you had the option to go to work everyday by taking the armada of ferries, my run being the bustling Circle Quay in the centre of the city to Manley Beach, which beats the number five bus to Brackmills industrial estate in Northampton anyday! The city is connected equally trains, buses and those ferries and the metro system quite cheap to get around. I think the travel card is still a color based affair and the top end Purple Pass is now $a63 per week (about 28 quid) and so you don't really need a car if you work or holiday there. They still operate a one year work visa if you are under 30 and if you want to escape our never ending recession then now is the time to go guys.
From September to May the weather is good and the outdoor lifestyle rampant, Sydneysiders not ones to stay indoors all-day watching TV, plenty of sports events and things to do in temperatures in the 80s. The most spectacular daily Sydney event when I was there was the evening migration of the Fruit Bat colony from the city zoo, literally hundreds of them hanging from the park trees, ready to swoop over the city as the sun sets, a nice place to be on the warm humid nights on the many public walk ways.
Sydney in the winter is not so Australian and can be quite cool and wet. The TV is dreadful and so you need to be the type of person to go out to bars and restaurants to get through the winter. There are always things going on through the year but you just don't feel like you are where you should be when it's June in Sydney. I wanted to be back in England for our summer of sport.
Backpacking accommodation is good although the central IYH in the notorious Kings Cross district is big and noisy and full of cockroaches and weirdoes. In my ten bed dorm room we had an old American chap who slept using a portable ventilator and this nut job who would get up in the middle of the night and make cold tea in a sauce pan and then wobble his hand around all night. I would recommend elsewhere, the Glebe YHA much nicer up near Sydney University.
The beachside backpackers are very rowdy affairs and so prepared to get drunk every night if you hit those places. They are cheaper than the YHA ones so worth a look. I stayed mostly in Bondi Beach in an apartment with friends I had met on the road so not the best judge of Sydney hostels. The city has all the major hotel chains and you can also stay just outside of the city in the various nearby beach resorts to enjoy the Aussie surfing culture.
Heathrow do excellent direct flights from London for about £900 return (if you are very flexible) or you can do the round the world ticket and take in places like South East Asia and America, New Zealand easy to tie in if you go anti clockwise. I would personally recommend Air New Zeeland's Sydney flight from London as you can stop off at no extra charge in Los Angeles. Wellington or Auckland and the beautiful Cook Islands. That way cost slightly more but it's a one off trip so why not.
I personally would say Sydney is a must to visit but you can do it in five or six days as the oldest thing of note there is less than sixty years old. It is a sturdy anchor to base yourself for work or a rest up and sort you're ironing out when you are travelling around the world and you will never get tired of the beauty of the place or the beach and surf lifestyle. As with most places in Aus the museums and attractions feel forced in search of some sort of Australian history and the most notable place when it comes to that past is a little plaque under the Sydney Harbor Bridge that claims to be where Cook came upon Australia and so discovered it, even though the Aboriginals had been there for a fair few millennium previous. The truth is that Cook crunched a reef out to sea up the coast and that was his first contact of this extraordinary paradise. But if the whites had not claimed it then it would be Africa all over again.
When I was young I used to swear i would never set foot in Australia, I was terrified you see, Of spiders and snakes and dare i say it....Sharks!!!! But as I grew older my curiosity slowly began to grow until I could resist it no more.
I packed in my job, coralled my brother in tow resolved to set out for the land down under more specifically, Sydney. Before I knew it had gone from a pipe dream to a reality and we set off on our way. The plan was to stay out there for as long as possible (which turned out to be around two years).
When we first arrived in the city we settled in a hostel in Kings Cross, which we ultimately reffered to as crack town. It wasnt the greatest of areas with derelics and tramps yelling the night away, also crack alley would have to be negotiated each night before getting to the hostel.
But I'm no snob so after a while found i'd settled in pretty well. It was a good base to get out into the city and start seeing the sights and attractions that I anticipated Sydney could offer.
Sydney is my favourite city I have visited, it's modern, really clean and has numerous parks to soak in the gorgeous sunshine.
One such park I spent alot of time in was St James' park. Located just next door to Kings Cross (East of Sydney's CBD) , it features a beautiful fountain which comemorates the association between France and Oz in World War 1. Its a collection of nude male and female statues with stags and turtles at the base. It is known as the Archibald statue.
Right next to the park is the beautiful St James's church, a triumph in ecclesiastical architecture and a ruddy fine church if you ask me.
Just south of the park you have the notorious Anzac monument, which is a fine memorial to the brave Aussies and Kiwi's who died in the great war.
If you stroll North for a few minutes you'll soon arrive at the water front y Circular Quay. Home to two of Sydneys most well known landmarks (as well as a smattering of bars including the sub zero 'ice bar').
The sydney Opera House, is a truly iconic building, its absolutely stunning, and worth a visit even if (like me) you never get to see an opera there.
The Sydney Harbour bridge (nicknamed the coat hanger) crosses the Parramatta River and when crossed provides excellent views of the harbour and the surrounding city.
The ice bar (Minus 5) is a great experience and its located right near the Opera House. You are given a thick coat as the bar is kept at a frosty -5C, you're led into the bar which is adorned with ice sculptures, the cups are made of ice and the actual bar is completely made of ice. If memory serves it costs a pretty reasonable 30AUD, you get one free drink but the rest are gonna cost ya'.
A whisker to the east is the Royal Botanic Gardens (spitting distance from Ice Bar) It stretches all the way down to St James' park so its a great way to get from the two must see locations. Full of amazing plants and trees its a reall relaxing place to have a walk or read a book under a tree.
Accross the pyrmount Bridge and about a fifteen minute walk west will bring you to darling harbour which is a vibrant mix of bars and shops with an electric atmosphere. One sunny afternoon i was reading my book dangling my feet over the edge towards the water when i noticed tiny jellyfish bobbing along, like stars as i saw one i began to see more and more until there were hundreds of the amorphous little devils bobbing about all over the shop.
Its around this neck of the woods that you'll stumble bleary eyed into the fabulous Sydney Casino, a large and airy Casino with slots, craps and pretty much every form of gambling known to man (including the gee gee's). I had a brilliant night when i visited. Towards the end of the night I was running low on funds, so I sat down at a 2 cent slot machine, pulled the arm and on my first 2 cents i won 580AUD which at that time was about £220 off a penny!!!
Arse Wax yelled Kate a split second before the raft flipped and the group of us were spent spiralling into the water.
My Australian flatmates seem constantly surprised by me, for all sorts of random things. For example, Im British but until last week had never seen a movie version of Pride and Prejudice. I grew up near Blackpool, but I dont like roller coasters. Heres another one: Im scared of log flumes. That moment at the top when you pause before coming hurtling back down the chute? Scary. And yet last weekend I agreed to go White Water Rafting here in the Sydney area.
Penrith is home to a set of man-made rapids, created especially for the Kayak event at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Its an hour from Sydney by train, and is close to the edge of the Blue Mountains. Penrith itself, however, is not very picturesque. In fact, the main thing we concluded from out brief visit is that its where old shopping trolleys come to die: there were literally dozens of them randomly discarded on the streets surrounding the station, looking as if theyd been then for quite some time.
Trains to Penrith run regularly from Sydney and take between 50 mins and 1hr 10 mins. We caught a taxi from the station there to the stadium ($13 = 5.50 GBP) as public transport links are virtually non-existent, though we ended up walking back afterwards as there were no taxis in site and we thought we might find one if we started walking. 2.5 km later we were back at the station, a bit tired but feeling like wed earned the ice cream sundaes we were about to indulge in.
I booked over the phone as online booking is not yet available. Advance booking is essential as its popular and departure times are limited due to the way they run it, but we booked about 4 days beforehand with no problems. The rafting costs $72 (= 30.50 GBP) for 90 minutes on the water, and starts with check-in and disclaimer form signing (the usual If you die or lose a limb its not our fault) half an hour before hand, so the entire experience takes over two hours. We had been threatened with an alcohol breath test when booking, but this did not materialize, so we must have been looking sober (and scared). Since checking-in took only minutes, and we were already dressed for the water, we killed time at the café on site as many others seemed to be doing. They stock sandwiches and hot food, and a good selection of cakes, chocolates and protein bars along with any soft / hot drink you could ever want. Prices are reasonable, despite the fact theyre the only place for miles around, but picnic tables are provided for those who wish to bring their own provisions. There is no shop as such though the check-in desk sells mugs and a few other items, emblazoned with the centres logo so we made do with the free postcards on offer at the café.
Lockers are provided for those on self-guided tours, though you have to pay a few dollars for these. For those on guided tours, however, bag storage is provided free, as are changing facilities and hot showers. We met our group (about 40 people can go at once as there are numerous rafts) and kitted up with the safety gear life jackets and hard helmets (regular for smaller headed people, Lego-man style for the bigger headed). Then it was time for a safety briefing including what to do if / when you fall in, lose a paddle etc etc. You can book as a group or as individuals, and they make up the rafts accordingly, so since there were just two of us, we joined another group. They were boys of about our age on a stag do, and were, to put it mildly, completely insane. Excellent.
Once in the raft and on the water we got a quick lesson in the commands of the rapids go left means go left, go right means go right, get down means .well you get the idea. Then it was time to begin our first trip round. Being man made (and constructed with kayaking in mind) the course is unusual. There are 8 rapids in the loop, and you typically go round at least half a dozen times, returning to the top on the conveyor belt. The base is concrete blocks, so a lot of the safety briefing included how to avoid damaging your knees by whacking them into these, and how best to drift / swim while in the water. There are also those funny dangling sticks (I believe that *is* the technical term) that kayakers need to navigate at times, like the things skiers glide in and out of on the piste.
Each raft has a guide at the back who gives instructions and generally keeps you on course, though we did get stuck at one junction for quite a while. The rapids didnt seem to change, but it felt like they were getting stronger each time because of the way the guide navigated us. After a few laps we started going down backwards which was one of the scariest things Ive ever done since I hate not being able to see where Im going or knowing when we are going to hit a rock.
Several laps round, it was decided that we should go for a bit without paddles, so we left these on the side and reboarded the raft. It was shortly after this that we capsized, sending us spiralling into the water, and all rules on what to do in that situation spiralling from out of my mind. We got separated from each other but only for a few minutes, and were soon struggling back into the raft to go round once more.
That was the only time we fell out several of the boys deliberately fell / jumped over board, but that was intentional. At the end we also go to abandon ship for a quick swim in the surprisingly warm water before crawling to the shower block to rinse off.
· Wear old clothes youre happy not only to get wet, but not to have back for a week or so. My shorts and t-shirt and still drying on my balcony here, and weve had 3 hot days since getting back. My trainers, Im convinced, will never fully recover, so its a good thing I had them down to be dumped out here anyway. Wetsuits can be hired at the venue for $10 (about 4 GBP) but very few people bothered with these youre unlikely to hurt yourself that much and if you do a wetsuit will be of little use. Plus bruises add character.
· On log flumes it says you will get wet, you may get soaked. If they were to have a sign here, it would read you will get soaked, you absolutely will. One guy on our raft memorably said I didnt think we were going to get wet Apparently hed planned to wear the t-shirt he had on when they went out that night. Doh!
· Only attempt this kind of thing if youre a strong swimmer. We were asked if (IF!) we could swim at the start, but I really cannot imagine doing this if you couldnt swim, and swim well, despite the life jackets. You need a certain level of water confidence not to freak out when youre under the water and have a raft and 8 big hairy men over your head.
· Prepare to become intimately familiar with the strangers you share a raft with. Within moments of our first get down I was on the floor of the raft, apologizing to a guy for kneeing him in the balls. He looked like a young Mr Big from Sex and the City, and in all honesty, I think he jumped his balls onto my knee rather than the other way around, but Im British and we say sorry when other people step on our feet or bump into us, so I instinctively apologized.
· Similarly, be prepared to see various body parts as clothes have a tendency to slip down in fast flowing water. We saw several of the boys hairy arses, prompting the comment at the start of this I subtly described to Kate how Id just seen an immensely hairy, um, crack, and we thought it would be hilarious to recommend a wax to them, but didnt have the nerve to do so when there was a good chance of them hearing, hence the timing of the comment at the start of this.
· Take shampoo! That water was rank even though those rapids were artificially filled, so I cant imagine how natural rapids would be any better. We didnt think of shampoo or shower gel, so could only rinse off there, not remove the gunk.
If Id stopped to think before hand I might never have gone through with the trip. But now log flumes will no longer scare me, Ive done something outside my comfort zone, Ive played in an Olympic rapids set up as well as swum in Olympic and Commonwealth pools and I have some funny stories to tell. I am really, really glad we did this, though its not likely to be something I try again any time soon. There are many worse ways than this to spend 30 GBP in an afternoon, and I dont think we missed out by going on a man- rather than nature-made course.
Theres a very thorough website here:
Penrith White Water
New South Wales