Australia and I, a love and hate story
My fascination with Australia started on my first week in University. I always wanted to study abroad at least one year, and I always thought I would go to the United States. Those are the Universities that count, I thought, and I had always been very practical about that.
But then I read the list of all possible exchange Universities the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) offered and I read "Sydney". I never thought that was possible. And suddenly that became my obsession. There were 2 spots per year for the whole UAB and the criteria was mostly your average academical score.
So there you had me, with a challenge I didn't share with anyone else, finding ways to score big in all exams and papers without sacrificing the party time. That's when I started with the community management of my class, the raising money selling tickets to events and parties, the political incursion in the Students Faculty Board, all while working at the family business on the weekends. Basically, my routine of multitasking way too much.
If you ever met me in Berlin and thought I was very active, you should know Berlin calmed me down. Barcelona does the opposite.
Nothing beats the light in Australia.
I was absolutely jet-lagged in Sydney International Airport, and I remember it a bit in a blurry. But the light, I'll never forget: it was a smoked yellow sunshine, a bit dusty and dreamy. A student representative helped me around, gave me the first briefing and bode me farewell with an innocent comment that was key for what was about to come:
"You are definitely a late arrival, tomorrow is my last day welcoming students in the airport."
Oh yes, I was late and unprepared. I got in the transfer van my hostel in King's Cross provided that I could only contact because the student rep lent me his phone, and soon enough I was in the filthiest place I've ever slept until then. NYC would come 6 months later.
My classes started the next day and after 1 week in Shanghai, I had almost no clean clothes left. I rushed out to meet Anna, the UAB student who had been the previous year in the exchange program and who was leaving the day after. When I returned to the hostel, there was no way to do any laundry.
Next morning, when entering the shower, it was flooded. As disgusting the shower was, it didn't top the moment where I accidentally wet my socks when leaving. Unable to decide what was worse, dirty socks or wet socks, I went for the quickest option, and that was a really bad mistake.
I spent my first day in the UTS without socks covering my feet, running from class to class praying nobody would get a sniff of my increasingly smelly self.
As soon as I was done, the flat hunt started. I hadn't considered how cold Sydney in August could be and I was walking all those unknown streets in the dark not finding a place to warm up my fingers. It was 2008 so there were no smartphones, no WiFi spots, no Google Maps, no "let me check my emails to see if the flat visit is still on".
My mental budget was destroyed soon enough. In Berlin I had shared a 80sqm flat with a German flatmate for 300€ monthly warm in Friedrichshain. That is with all expenses included. In Sydney to start you pay rent per week and sharing flat is a luxury, many share room and even bed.
I fell for all the Sydney traps. I visited one of the CBD luxury flats with gym, pool, great views, low prices - around 120$ AUD weekly, around 400€ monthly. Which is only possible by putting 3 bunk beds in every single room and renting out to Asian international students who share the room with 5 other people.
I asked for the private single room and that was where we were standing. The living room.
I ended up sharing a flat with two ladies, Chilean and a Korean, in Ashfield, one suburb along the Parramata Road. The thinking was that being the UTS in Broadway, which is a straight line on the same road to Ashfield, the commute would be easy with the bus. The rent was 720$ AUD for a 12 sqm room, but both flatmates were nice and we had a cute living room and kitchen.
I was so wrong about the buses. The average time waiting to one to appear was 40 minutes. And most times, after waiting one hour, 3 of them would appear at the same time.
The Uni wasn't going any better. I was only allowed to pick first year and second year subjects, meaning I was at age 23 in class with 18 years old classmates. And while I have no problem with age, first year Aussie students, while very smart, are emotionally still in high school. I divided my choices between Media Arts and Production and Writing subjects. You can imagine which classes I enjoyed the most.
I don't know the Australian educational system in depth, but compared with the German one, it definitely doesn't foster critical thinking, political opinions and is absolutely focused on business. The Universities make heaps of money with Asian students, charging them triple than to local students and in exchange not really providing them with a chance for success. Most are accepted even if they don't actually speak any English and when in Sydney, they stick with their country peers.
In the food court, in the halls, in the classes, the division is stark. Australian students in closed groups on one side and international students in huge groups on the other. And exchange students like me trying to break walls somehow.
I think the lowest point of my academic experience came the day I asked my classmates where were they going to meet for the demonstrations against Bush and Putin, who were visiting Sydney for the APEC conference. They all talked about the 1 million water cannons the government had bought to stop the demonstrations, the public holiday on Friday the government had granted so the city would be empty, the fact that I was on a Student Visa and I shouldn't go because if they arrested me I was going to be deported. I never felt more in disconnect, isolated and third class citizen - as an European, what they were saying made absolutely no sense. I also couldn't understand how the next writers, producers, directors of the country could be so brainwashed. I went to the demo alone, and of course nothing was really happening there.
After way too many hours waiting for the buses, I decided to switch flats - and so I ended up sharing flat with 6 other people, 4 of them Korean, in a two-story house in Surry Hills. My room was a 9 sqm corner where my bed barely fitted and a balcony with a privileged view to a brothel. It sported a fancy red door and a loud bell, and we naturally loved to peek behind every time a customer rang it and we were drunk. Which was basically every night. The flat was a complete mess, my flatmates nicknamed me "the Spanish cleaner" and I was pissed at them most of the nights.
I was living the Aussie dream, really.
Of course I made friends, you know me. But I never fitted in. In Sydney, if you are not about showing off, driving a car, dining and wining, shopping and taking instead of sharing, you are out of place. I slowly found people who actually enjoyed long conversations about complex topics, who showed me where to go out with sneakers, baked me some banana bread and were kind to me when I was at my worst. Rather sad, depressed, worried and angry most of the time.
My monthly expenses had doubled: in Berlin I lived like a queen with 600€ monthly in 2006 and in Sydney I barely made it with 1.200€ a month in 2007. And that added with the fact that I had to attend University, limited my traveling around Australia. After I left, I slowly started to see that Sydney had tainted my views on the magic of Oz.
I managed to work the 20 hours a week I was allowed with my Student Visa and while I was gutted to ask for even more money to my mother, I couldn't leave without traveling a bit around. I visited the Blue Mountains, Hunter Valley, Melbourne and Cairns.
Melbourne saved the day and my whole time in Australia. Melbourne is a little Berlin down under with beach. Somewhere to retire. After so many Starbucks-like cafés in Sydney, I almost cried when entering a cozy and charming café in Melbourne. It was not cheaper to hang around, but it felt home: this city had a soul. I think the time I spent in Fitzroy was the happiest I was in the full 8 months.
And on my last month I went to Cairns. I put all the money I had left in a week getting my PADI certificate and diving for the first time ever, in open water in the Great Barrier Reef no less. It costed around 900$ AUD for a week but it was worth it: I dived at night, I went down 26 meters, I loved the underworld. I got seasick at least 3 times in 3 days, but it was marvelous.
Sydney is beautiful, Australia too. Just, don't visit without money to spend, because it will be spent in no time. And don't expect much more than sun, surf, scary and spectacular nature and beaches. They have the most beautiful of them all. Once someone told me that Australia was the worst and the best of England and the United States together in one place, and in the case of Sydney, it is true.
Take Sydney as a NYC, London or SF. A crazy town who only those who "made it" and survived the way up to the summit feel home and can really say they understand it and love it.
I was very happy the day I took my flight away from Sydney. I was going to visit Los Angeles and New York on my way back to Europe, and most importantly, I was going to spend my 24th birthday in Berlin. Only when 3 or 4 years passed and my friends in Australia started asking me if I was ever going to visit again, I thought about changing my approach to Australia and enjoy it as it should be enjoyed. On the road, with time and money to spend. In good company.
The opportunity took 9 years to appear. Here I am now, with my sweet Cihan on the wheel, German rap in full volume, and the road ahead.
We took our flight from Christchurch to Sydney on Halloween Day 2016. After landing we took an Uber to the car rental grounds 20 minutes away. The advantage to travel with Cihan is that everything is planned and he has a bag full of hacks on how to make our budget road trip even more budgety.
We spent 2 hours trying to get our camper van, you know, the same thing that in New Zealand took 20 minutes. The "nice folks" at Apollo don't tell you until you arrive that the basic insurance is so basic that doesn't insure you for damages you cause in other drivers' cars. Only for the personal damages, no property damages. Also only upon arrival they let you know that the 3.000$ AUD deposit was not going to just be blocked from our account, rather transferred to their account and given back later on. Guess who pays for the transfer fees back and forth?
After some more deep research on the Internet we found out how it exactly worked. The only way to avoid the 3.000$ AUD transfer - and avoid the risk that it took them around 6 months to give it back to us - was to upgrade our insurance and pay 700$ AUD for the 28 days of rental. In that case only 100$ AUD deposit was needed and we were covered for damaged property.
At least our van was the cutest - meet George, who in the middle of the trip had to be replaced by Bela. And that went pretty fine, so we have mixed feelings about the Apollo - Hippie Camper guys.
And after the first armed robbery of the day, we headed to Sydney. First though we went to the supermarket and to get us SIM cards. And again, what in New Zealand took less than 10 minutes, in Australia took over an hour. And getting the Internet to work another extra hour... at least we could throw a kebap and some sushi rolls in the mix!
We finally made it to Sydney and the other surprises started to arise. Of course I had never had a car in the City, so I didn't know about the tolls, the complex parking rules and expensive fees. We kinda hit rush hour and for a moment I thought Cihan was going to crash the van on purpose out of frustration. Almost at sunset we reached Mrs. Macquarie's Chair for the first touristy pictures and a glimpse of the spectacular Sydney Harbour.
I had really sad memories there, I used to drown my sorrows in a bench in front of the Opera House. But on that day the sun was shining, the air felt great, and I knew I'd be out of there in no time. For the first time, Sydney didn't give me pain.
We met Anna for dinner in Surry Hills: after finishing her year studying in UTS before me, she came back to Sydney and she just celebrated 10 years as Sydneysider! We left just in time to pay 7$ AUD to leave the city and make it to our camping place on the Macquarie Park, an hour away ride. A pretty spot, and the most expensive one we paid on the whole trip: 44$ AUD to park the camper van for the night.
Next day we learned our lesson and took the public transportation: since the last time I was in Sydney, now the city had the Opal card, the New South Wales answer to the London Oyster card.
I had crossed before the Harbour Bridge by car and by bus, never by train. We explored the CBD and the city, got closer to the Opera House, walked Koreatown and Chinatown, had the best dumplings in Haymarket, said hallöchen to the UTS ugly building and my old Surry Hills flat in Commonwealth Street. I walked around Redfern (which I didn't dare to do 9 years ago and now I wonder why the hell not) and met my friend Mark over an almond milk matcha latte in Glebe. Yeah, the neighbor in Ashfield who cheered me up with banana bread.
Later in the evening, I caught up with some friends from the Surry Hills commune in a pub in Petersham. Of course the price of the beer almost tripled in 9 years, but also my love to the guys. I had such a bad taste I had forgotten that actually we connect. Revisiting all we did together, we actually fit and it made me glad that I landed in that disastrous place. I barely made it to my last train connection to the camping place, all tipsy and regretting messing up with my 3 weeks without alcohol, but with my soul full of laughs and good vibes.
Next day Mark took us to Newtown for a hearty breakfast in Barmuda and later on to take the walk from Bondi to Coogee beach, which in spring is also an sculpture exhibition. We had even time to have a fine CBD Laksa and soon enough we said goodbye to Sydney.
The time came for the real Australian adventure: Sydney to Cairns in 28 days. Here the highlights:
Wedding Cake Rock. This is the only time we went south of Sydney. I would have loved to visit Melbourne and drive along the Great Ocean Road. But Australia is way too big and there's a limit of what you can achieve in 28 days. The Royal National Park in Wollongong provided exceptional views to cliffs and beaches, specially the Wedding Cake Rock, where people risk their lives in order to get the perfect Instagram picture. I mean, that crack in the rock IS REAL.
Avoca beach and Caves beach. My first swim in Australia this time was in Avoca Beach. I stumbled upon it searching on Foursquare for high rated beaches and as usual, it was a great tip. Caves Beach was still closed but what we saw was definitely worth a look or two, but yes, you are going to risk your life to get a picture in the cave. The currents in Oz are STRONG as hell.
Seal Rocks. Incredible beaches and an impressive lighthouse combined with the strongest winds you can imagine made this place pretty magic.
Booti Booti National Park and 7 Mile Beach. We spent 24 hours in a camping spot just between the Wallis Lake and the stunning 7 Mile Beach. We could choose to go to one or the other just walking to the right or to the left. The beach was completely deserted both times we walked it and ran it, so yes, we got pretty romantic even if we are not into it that much.
Surfer's Paradise, Byron Bay, Sunshine Coast. Usually this area is the absolute highlight of the East Coast drive in Australia. Mostly because it is full of beaches with perfect waves for surfers, the best beach parties and beautiful backpackers. There are smoothies, yoga and barbecues. A sort of Australian Bali. For us, it didn't have much appeal because we were not surfing, we don't party when we travel (the best party in the world is in Berlin, so why bother) and we've been to Bali, where the same offer is 90% cheaper. But if you are young, single and wild, stop for a week around here!
Brisbane. We stopped is Brisvegas only for a day and somehow I regret it. The nicest thing the city offers is a free ferry service to tour the city from the river. We certainly enjoyed our 90 minute trip and sunburnt, but we didn't really see the city from within. Mostly because the 18$ an hour parking price tag everywhere we looked made it impossible. I wish I had spent a couple of hours in the Streets Beach, but luckily many more urban swimming pools were yet to come!
Rainbow Beach. Yes, there's rainbows in there. They are supposed to be on the sand, but on that day, one appeared in the sky. Go figure!
Fraser Island. This is when Australia gets REALLY expensive. If you wish to visit the most famous spots in the East Coast, prepare your wallet. No matter how budget or how short the tour you choose is, it won't be cheap. BUT thank God we booked a tour: on the day we visited, the biggest sand island in the world hadn't seen rain in days, so the sand was really soft. That meant that almost all 4WDs were getting stuck in the sand, and even our monster bus had difficulties during the day and broke shortly before tour ended.
The trip was worth it only to be on the Lake McKenzie. Even if we didn't have a really sunny day, the water reflections were fantastic. I wanted to swim a bit on the lake, but the dark part gets really scary, so I stopped 10 minutes after. The walk through the rainforest was another highlight of the day: those creeks with transparent water and sandy ground... too pretty!
Emu Park. Yet another spectacular beach!
And a spectacular evening. Supermoon!
Cape Hillsborough. Mangroves, Kangaroos, Wallabies, beaches, big announcements and love. That's how I will remember my 2 days in there.
Airlie Beach. WOW, just wow. The main point to access the Whitsundays might be just another conventional touristy strip, but I haven't seen such beautiful colors in the water at a conventional touristy beach. Schade that as almost always everywhere in Australia you have this amazing beach and you are not supposed to enter the water, unless you want to be stung by a jelly fish or killed by a crocodile... so no, you cannot enjoy Airlie Beach without a sting suit!
Whitsundays. Probably the most beautiful part of our stay in Australia. People are not lying to you when they hype the Whitsundays. The only thing they might not tell you is how expensive a visit turns out to be. Our 1 day and a half sailing trip was 350$ AUD per person. And that was in the most budget tour you can imagine. I understand this doesn't feel like the world, but compared to the prices we have paid around in other places in our trips (including Costa Rica) and accounting the hours and the service provided, this is probably one of the most expensive excursions we've ever booked. Also mind we are on a 9 month trip, so every euro counts!
All that said, it was a blast, and I'd do it again. But if I could afford it, I would book 2 weeks in the Whitsundays and visit every. single. island. and. beach. there.
Balgal beach. After our exhausting trip to the Whitsundays, we took it easy and got some rest in Balgal Beach. Our camping site was on Rollingstone, but we were growing some moss instead. At this point, every beach we visited was sporting big signs warning against crocodiles, but my scariest encounter was a frog in the toilet that jumped on me and made me wanna die. I'm a city girl...
Mission Beach. Da shit. I got into the protected part of the beach to swim, since there are crocodile warnings everywhere. It's so painful to walk such a beautiful beach and being terrified while doing so, but that is the magic of Oz, really.
Lake Tinaroo - Kuranda - Barron Falls. We found this beautiful camping spot on the shore of Lake Tinaroo and we spent a full day there. It's pretty scary to walk at night to go to the toilet, and also to wake up to a foggy landscape, but it was the perfect place to relax. In Kuranda we visited the Koalas, Kangaroos and Crocodiles. I know what I said recently in this blog about zoos, but OMG I couldn't go without seeing koalas up close. 9 years ago I cuddled one that left me marks on my arms, so I wouldn't dare to do that again, but OMG they are way too cute!
Last thing we did before heading out was to visit the famous Barron Falls. Sadly we were on dry season and the stream is less than spectacular. But hey, what a gorge!
Cape Tribulation - Daintree Forest - Port Douglas. With 4 days left in Australia, we sprinted to go check the Daintree river and surroundings. The crocodiles hid from us and we spotted just a couple either very far away or very small ones. Regardless, the landscape is just amazing.
On our way to Cairns we stopped for an hour to Port Douglas to see how the rich and famous live in the prettiest town around. Not bad, I tell you...
Ellis Beach near Palm Cove. We just saw it from the car while rushing to our camping spot outside of Cairns, but it looked like a stunning beach to spend your weekend.
Cairns. I have a heart for Cairns since that's where I took my first diving classes. And that's the first time I saw a public free pool next to the sea front. The Esplanade and the Lagoon are everything I wish for a city on the beach. I know it exists because getting into the sea water is just not possible for those without a death wish, but I just find it fabulous. And to top my fascination with Cairns, the flying foxes aka fruit bats gave us a show to remember. Yes, those black things on the trees are HUGE AND SMELLY BATS!
Our last hours in Cairns were quite frustrating - the expensive last lunch, the 17$ AUD for a less than 5 minute taxi ride, the sign to pay 3$ to use a luggage cart inside of the airport, the 1h limited free WiFi, the 1h delay for our flight to Bali. It felt like Australia wasn't going to let us go that easily, just because we were so eager to leave.
Australia is always a love it or hate it. There's no doubt some of the best beaches in the world are in here. The biggest and most fascinating animals and plants. The most epic stories about explorers who dared to enter the scariest place on Earth at the time. The nicest people who constantly call you love, darling, sweetheart and you kinda believe them. I really want to see Alice Springs - Uluru one day. And would love to see the porno beaches many told us about in the West Coast. Get scared about the Outback.
Whether I will take those trips it's yet to be seen. They might make me love Australia a bit more. Or I might decide to just keep dreaming on them so I can stay fascinated with Straya instead of constantly annoyed.
Mal sehen. Australia is worth a ride, but it will be for many a conflicted emotions ride. Take your time and money and go for it. Either you fall in love, you never want to visit again, or you spend years trying to decide whether to hate it or to love it, just like I do.