I got more than my fair share of funny looks while standing in Sydney Central train station. I suppose they were deserved to an extent; I was still sporting my vest, shorts and flip flops combo that I’d been wearing at the airport in Bali, whereas the rest of Sydney’s residents were in full winter mode: hats, gloves, scarves, umbrellas, the works! Not for the first time on this trip, Hels and I turned to each other and said, shivering, ‘What have we done..?’
So, yes, Sydney was grey, much like a wet winter’s day in London. Unlike the tropical rain to which we’d become accustomed, here it was raining like it rains at home – lightly but persistently, annoyingly, miserably, draining the life out of everything. We begrudgingly dug out our raincoats, hoodies and long trousers and wrapped up with the best of them before venturing out into the city.
But that’s the last I’m going to write about the weather! Of course, it often affects your perceptions of a place, but we knew we were heading to an Aussie winter, so no complaining… (Well, maybe just a touch more, we’ll see..!)
As far as cities go, we thought Sydney had a lot going for it. Good open spaces in the form of the Botanical Gardens and Hyde Park, the fabulous harbour scenery and landmarks, decent beaches within striking distance and more cafés and restaurants than you could possibly imagine! You can’t go ten steps in Sydney without coming across another café with an alluring clear glass cabinet full of all manner of pies, cakes and pastry based treats.
We explored under our own steam for a couple of days and then took in a walking tour of the city which was well worth it to get a bit of a grasp on some of the history since Captain Cook’s arrival in Botany Bay on 29th April, 1770. Walking around, I was continually struck by something that just couldn’t place – something distinctly different, something more than the weather, more than the more developed infrastructure, and then it struck me – there was a conspicuous absence of scooters!
One of Sydney’s most famous beaches is Bondi. Synonymous with sun, sea, sand and super cool surfer dudes, Bondi is classic Australia. Since we were not racing to re-live our Bali surfing experience, we may have ended up skipping it had it not been for the BRAT Club connection. For those of you who don’t know, the Birmingham Running Athletics and Triathlon (BRAT) Club, the club of which Helena and I are members, was inspired into both existence and name by the Bondi Running And Triathlon Club; the original BRAT Club. We did a quick scout on their website, found a club session, popped on our BRAT vests and went to join the Bondi BRATs for a run. It was a small-ish group but they were very friendly and welcoming, and the intervals session along the beach front was mercifully short!
We made an two awesome discoveries in Bondi though. While waiting for the session to start (as we were early – something that never happens in Brum!) we wandered into a little bookshop cafe. We ordered a coffee, a tea and a banana bread – gotta get fuelled up for the session, right? But then the lady behind the counter asked of the bread, ‘Would you like it toasted with butter?’ This is something we’d never heard of, and so we enthusiastically replied, ‘Oh, yes please!’ If you have never tried it, you really must. It turns a normal banana bread from a cake experience into some sort of series of heavenly, warming, buttery, bananary, mouthfuls of awesomeness. Oh god, it’s so good! Needless to say, this was not to be the first time we ordered toasted banana bread over the next couple of weeks.
Our second discovery was finite to Bondi though – and this was due to post-run refuelling; well, it was dinner time! Making our way back to the bus, we spotted a sign saying ‘Fish and Chips’. ‘Ooooohh, I could just eat some fish ‘n’ chips,’ I said, so we popped in. The shop was called ‘Mongers’, and if there are any Sydney based readers reading this, I implore you to go. It was the most amazing fish and chips ever. We ordered a ‘Mongers Box’ to share, which not only had fish and chips, but some amazing calamari, sweet potato crisps and homemade tartare sauce added for good measure. The only decision you have to make is whether you’d like your fish battered, grilled or barbecued. I chose battered (of course) and it was beautifully cooked, golden brown, light, crispy batter coating the two succulent and juicy fillets. I could write about this meal for days! It was plenty enough for two to share, too, and we left completely satisfied.
So we enjoyed our few days in Sydney despite the dampening attempts of the weather. Our other major job though was to plan what to do next! Fully inspired by our scooter experience in Bali, we looked into hiring a campervan so that we could get ourselves on the road in Oz too. We had dreams of doing a big, romantic East Coast road trip, and luckily, we managed to find ourselves a reasonably priced van and were soon on the open road, arguing about which was the best route out of Sydney to get to the Blue Mountains. Ahh, blissful motoring holidays, eh!
To be honest, the camper was less of a ‘van’ and more a glorified. We hired it from a company called ‘Jucy’, which annoyed my because I was always mentally replacing the inexplicably absent ‘i’ from the middle (i.e. Juicy).
It was a Toyota Lucida, so she presented herself to us with her name straightaway: the Juicy Lucy fun wagon! Although, not being ones for naming vehicles per se, we rarely used it. It (not she!) had basically had its rear seats ripped out and replaced with a space big enough for a two people to sleep, a sink (which was a pointless feature), space for an ice box, and a handy single burner stove. Add in a few pots, pans, plates, bowls, cups and a few utensils and pieces of cutlery and you literally have everything you need. It was a good option for us really as, despite the occasional annoyance of having to move bags around the make the bed and vice versa, we really didn’t need much more space for anything. Plus, being a car, rather than a van, it was very easy and comfortable to drive long distances and manoeuvre around in towns too. So that’s my bit on logistics for those of you thinking about doing it in the future!
And do it you must! Driving in Australia is easy. There are only two catches: 1 – everywhere you want to go is hundreds of kilometres away from where you are right now, and 2 – the speed limits are set at nausea inducingly low speeds almost everywhere, only exacerbating the issue of distance! Apart from that though, it’s simple. They drive on the right side of the road, for a start, and there is next to nothing in the way of traffic anywhere. Certainly not by UK standards anyway!
So – back to the Blue Mountains. This was to be our first stop. We popped into an information centre on the Grand Western Highway as we approached the national park and the helpful guys in there pointed us in the direction of a couple of free camp sites in the Megalong Valley. Turning up at dusk, we raced to collect bits of wood from around the place to build a fire. My man skills were put to the test here as most of it was quite damp but you’ll be pleased to know I succeeded in lighting a fire, albeit a ridiculously small and smoky one! We then drank tea, cooked a dinner of sausages with pasta and sauce, all washed down with a bottle of red wine. Perfect! And free!!
There were two other couples in the same campsite and once we’d finished dinner, we wandered over to say hello, mainly because they had a hearty looking fire going and ours had petered out to a wimpish, mildly warm orange glow. ‘Any chance we can join you? Your fire looks a lot better than ours…’ We were welcomed and got chatting. It turns out that they brought their own firewood – which is cheating isn’t it, surely? Either way, we drank more wine and chatted away while watching the sparks drift up into the star-filled night sky.
As the fire burned down to glowing embers, we said our farewells and retired to bed with a warming wine glow in our cheeks. That didn’t last for long though – it was bloody freezing in that car!! We slept in all of our clothes and I still woke up at 4am to put the engine on in a desperate attempt not to get frostbite!
The following morning, we got the chance to explore some of the Blue Mountains, and they were spectacular! Our first port of call was Govett’s Leap which offered the most incredible views over the tree filled canyon. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this took my breath away. We moved on to the Wentworth Falls and spent pretty much the whole afternoon exploring the trails, marvelling at the falls, and taking in the scenery. As dusk fell, you could see the blue hue rising from the eucalyptus which gives the mountains their distinctive blue colour.
At the end of the day, we hopped back into the car and headed for Wimbledon – there are a lot of British inspired names in Oz of course, no tennis here though. As it happens, I have family in Wimbledon – apparently! I say apparently because I never knew. I just got an email from my mum saying, ‘You need to send an email to a lady called Janelle, she’s your Australian cousin.’ I must confess, it felt a bit strange emailing out of the blue, but I got a response from Janelle almost immediately and after a couple of exchanges, we’d arranged to meet at her farm.
With her address at the ready, and having scouted a map, we got moving as the sun went down. ‘It doesn’t look that far,’ I said, figuring we’d be there in about an hour. Famous last words – the sat nav gave us an estimated journey time of three hours. We’d better get moving!
Arriving slightly later than planned, we were greeted warmly by Janelle and Mark, and their son Nathan. It seemed so strange to be on the other side of the world, meeting people we’d never really heard of and yet for it to seem so natural at the same time. We had a fabulous pumpkin soup for dinner as we tried to decipher the history of the family tree that somehow connects us. I’m going to be honest here, I’m still not entirely sure what the link is, but I know you have to go up about five generations to find the start of the two diverging paths.
After the night before, we were slightly perturbed about the potential of sleeping in the van again (yet still determined to do so) although the chill was tempered by Janelle’s kind offer of an extra duvet which we gratefully accepted! We definitely needed it – there was frost on the outside of the car before we even got in!!
Waking up the following day, we had a relaxing breakfast with some of Janelle’s homemade granola. ‘I’m sorry, this is all I’ve got,’ she said – it was amazing! I still need to learn how to make it. We then took their two dogs, Charlie and Snow, for a walk around the farm. ‘It’s just a hobby farm really,’ Janelle explained, as she took us down to their dam. This was also our first sight of wild kangaroos – we spotted them off in the distance in the neighbouring farm, initially grazing on the land, they soon bounded off majestically – a seriously impressive sight!
After some lunch, Janelle and Mark took us for a short tour of Bathurst, the nearest large town, including doing a lap of the world famous Mount Panorama motor racing circuit. The race track, it turns out, is a public highway (although it has a strict 60kph speed limit – spoil sports!) so we put the Juicy Lucy wagon through her paces up and down its famed twisting climbs and descents. It’s a mind-bending course actually, one that you can’t truly comprehend taking at speed. Apparently, the racing drivers absolutely love it.
Our final stop in Bathurst was at Janelle’s mum’s house. One of the first things Janelle said to us when we arrived at the farm was, ‘Oh, by the way, you can’t leave before I’ve taken you to meet my mum.’ We were more than happy to meet another family member and so popped in for tea and biscuits at Marjorie’s house. I had the family connection explained to me one more time. Now, don’t quote me on this, but I think my grandfather’s grandfather, was Janelle’s grandfather’s brother.
Helena and I enjoyed hearing stories of Marjorie having met my grandfather when he was in Australia many years before. Marjorie’s knowledge of the family tree is incredible and it was great to look through some old family photos with her. One of the most incredible moments for me though was when I asked Marjorie when she had last seen my grandfather. ‘Oh, the last time I saw Gordon was in 1947,’ she replied. They have kept in contact through letters ever since. I was speechless.
All too soon, it was time to move on. Armed with various provisions from Marjorie, including some fabulous local honey, and a whole raft of East Coast tips from Janelle and Mark we bade our farewells and headed off. Our next priority was to get to the Hunter Valley to indulge ourselves with some wine before heading north in search of the sun…