Like everyone else who was waiting for Australia to open up after three years of lockdown, when it finally happened - in Autumn 2022 - I quickly booked a flight there. My plan was to spend long overdue time with my daughter in Melbourne, revisit some favourite places… and check out of the real world for a week in the artists' and surfers' paradise, Byron Bay.
I'm lucky enough to work for Great Rail Journeys, so - with the aim of getting to know more about one of our holidays - I was pleased to able to join the last few days of the 21-day Ultimate Australia tour.
Early one Friday morning in November, I met the Tour Manager and the friendly group at Melbourne's Southern Cross station. Everyone seemed surprisingly cheerful for 8am. We set off - with a good coffee supply from the buffet car, books, and a banter the group had built on since meeting three weeks earlier - on a day-long train ride across the country. Or rather, we set off across just a fifth of the country. Australia stretches 2,500 miles wide, and the distance between Melbourne and Sydney is only 521 miles. We'd be travelling for over 11 hours.
Our train took us through endless miles of farmland, fields dotted with sheep and cattle, past swollen dams and overflowing rivers - evidence of recent floods. We stopped briefly, at Victorian-style train stations with names like Wagga-Wagga, and flew past abandoned railway sidings, where rusty machinery and burnt out cars were strewn across the red earth. The landscape changed from agricultural to scrubland and bushy plains, then to rounded hills and forests of eucalyptus and flowering indigenous trees. From my window seat, I saw colourful birds, a kookaburra and possibly a lone koala in a tree. Sadly, no kangaroos.
Bright Lights, big city
It was dusk when we reached Sydney but the city streets were buzzing with Friday night energy (and early summer excitement) as a coach took us to our downtown hotel. The CBD seems a similar scale to New York with grid style blocks, but without the masses of people. Architecture downtown ranges from heritage cottages of early British settlers in the harbour, to grand Victorian government buildings and the neoclassical Art Gallery. There's also an impressive outcrop of inner city high-rises, plus a pretty spectacular tower with restaurants and an observation deck.
The magic began the next morning as I walked down to Sydney Harbour, slightly dazzled by the space, light and brilliant blue skies. Climbing to the top deck of our cruise boat, as you do, I felt a satisfying familiarity, as images from a hundred travel brochures - of the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House and the iconic Sydney skyline - came to life. Besides that thrill, was an uplifting feeling which grew as we cruised into other bays, passing smaller boats and a regatta of yachts, seeing the city and the Royal Botanic Garden, from the water. My first 'introduction' to Sydney was through the writing of Australian Booker prize winner, Peter Carey. In his brilliant novel 'Oscar and Lucinda' he describes Lucinda's glassworks and, even though his story is fictitious, from the top of that boat I could clearly see the world of his 18th century characters.
Eating out in Sydney was an absolute pleasure. What I love about Australia generally is that freshly prepared food is a given. A favourite lunch there is a protein packed 'buddha bowl' - overflowing with grains, nuts, avocado, feta, sweet potato and butternut squash, maybe topped with salmon and chilli prawns. The places I found to eat included a lively Greek restaurant with bubbly staff and excellent Greek wine - M.I.M on Pitt Street - a small but bustling Italian in the Rocks area, and a Quayside seafood pub in Darling Harbour.
Blue Mountains, Leura and Katoomba rainforest
Sunday was a dream. We drove north out of Sydney on a guided coach tour of the Blue Mountains. Our knowledgeable guide shared stories, based on history and myth, as we travelled uphill into the blueish eucalyptus haze of this lush and hilly area. We learned how to tell the difference between a kangaroo and a wallaby - wallabies are under a metre high, kangaroos over - we were reminded that Australia's Aboriginals, who lived in small tribes of 20 to 40 people, are the oldest continuing culture in the world. Nomadic 'hunter gatherers', the people who lived in the Sydney region would have survived on fish and small marine animals. The original custodians of the land didn't regard themselves as 'owners', unlike the white settlers who mapped and fenced off areas, naming favourable locations after themselves - naturally!
As we reached Echo Point - in a misty but atmospheric haze at that point - our guide told us the folk tale of the Three Sisters rock formation. The myth involved a medicine man with a magic stick who was looking for plants in the valley; a monster was nearby so the man turned his daughters to stone to keep them safe. When the father accidentally dropped his magic stick he changed himself into a bird so he could fly down to find it - legend says the bird still swoops down, looking for the magic stick to free his daughters.
After seeing the Three Sisters in light drizzle, we continued to Katoomba - once a coal mining town - for a super-steep, short trip on the Katoomba Scenic Railway into the gorgeous rainforest. We wandered around this sub-tropical jungle, feeling as if we'd been dropped in a sci-fi movie set - King Kong, The Emerald Forest, or, more likely, Jurassic Park. Scenic World has adopted a dinosaur theme and - apart from wondering what they were doing on top of the trucks in the car park - it was a bit unsettling to hear dinosaur roars between birdsong. One of the birds in the forest is the Lyre bird, known to imitate the sounds of other birds. I think I heard a kookaburra, but it may have been a Lyre bird imitating a kookaburra…
Our day out continued with a visit to the cute Victorian town of Leura, just five minutes from Katoomba and with its own great look out point, surrounded by vast forests, exotic plant nurseries and a main street full of flowering purple Jacaranda trees. We had a couple of hours to look around the Mountain's quirky shopping village and browse the eclectic mix of independent shops, galleries of native art and musical instruments, a Toy and Railway museum, a wonderful deli, jewellery, craft and clothing shops... and some excellent coffee shops, cafés, and a pie shop. The pie shop was popular with a few people in our group, who went there to try the kangaroo pie. I managed to find myself in a Greek restaurant again for lunch, hearing conversation around me in Italian, South American Spanish and Japanese.
Blue Monday on Bondi
On Monday morning we drove to one of Sydney's most famous locations, Bondi beach, for fish and chips at the Bondi Icebergs club - established in the 1920s and once used exclusively by lifeguards for training. As I followed the winding path down to the beach after lunch I felt happy and elated - not just due to the sea air, but also because I was aware that my other life, in the wintry northern hemisphere, was looming in the near distance. The waves, however, were 'angry' that day - crisscrossing in a drunken and erratic way - so I decided not to stride out into the sea. I stuck to a very English 'paddle' on the safer area of the shoreline.
That evening, my last night in Sydney, I met up with friends I'd first got to know in a tiny Spanish village, who treated me to a meal in a vibey restaurant full of noisy, cocktail-sipping and beer-swigging city workers, who didn't seem to care it was a Monday night. We walked down to see the Opera House at night and the mood was very different to daytime - again, lots of socialising and outdoor drinking happening.
With one day left to see everything I'd missed, and a free final day on our itinerary, on Tuesday I walked, and walked. First I reached the Opera House for a close-up look at the building and to check what was on. Coming up were festivals, all genres of music, circus and magic, dance, film, First Nations talks and workshops… oh, and opera. Right now, this world-class venue has a Shakespeare season, an aerial interpretation of the glam-rock film Velvet (cleverly named Velvet Rewired), and shows starting with the brilliant flamenco dancer, Sara Baras, British sweetheart artist Kae Tempest, the Classical Brodsky Quartet and Angel Olsen. There's also a cool jazz programme starting in August.
Anyhow, keep walking past the Opera House along the coastal path and you're in the amazing Royal Botanic Garden. Established 200 years ago, to me the garden's most striking features are the colossal Moreton Bay Fig trees, with their leathery leaves and wide-reaching branches, lemony-scented Magnolias, huge flowering Jacarandas, a rainforest area… and some moving and beautiful native sculptures. I then turned back, walking into the heart of Sydney's downtown, along blocks that must be half a kilometre wide, to the Queen Victoria Shopping Centre. I was expecting an arcade similar to those in Leeds city centre, so this was a bit of a culture shock. This stunning centre has five levels of perfectly-preserved architecture, with high-end fashion stores, cool independent shops, and a photographic gallery. Its fine dining restaurants, exclusive bars and posh tea shops were fun to see but a little too upmarket for me…
My final visit that day was to Darling Harbour, for a late lunch at a waterside seafood pub, which was down to earth and a great place to watch the world go by. Thanks Sydney, I'll be back - to walk the Blue Mountains bush paths, take the ferry to Manly Beach, visit the Hunter Valley wine region... and to brave the waves at Bondi beach.