australia

Road trips n whale watching at Australia's most South - Westerly point.

I have decided to fly to Perth to see one of my good friends from University and drama days - Teresa - for a little Western Australia road trip! 

Typically when people visit Perth they tend to head North to see sights like The Pinnacles and swim with the dolphins at Monkey Mia. The landscape gradually becomes drier, deserty and more barren. 

We are not going to go with the in crowd - the South is home to greener, lusher landscape with forestries and wineries as well as the opportunity to do some whale watching so we head to the South Westerly most point and Teresa's friends in Denmark have very kindly lent us the use of their beautiful - built from scratch - home for a few days. 



We start our roadtrip by driving for a few hours to a little village called Margaret River. Its a beautiful picturesque drive down with a winding road surrounded by native Australian trees called Karra trees. Their bark is almond coloured, spindly and bare until the very top which erupts in soft green clouds of foliage. Margaret River is a small village famed for arty little shops and cafes. Although its pretty there are still some rather ordinary brands and fast food chains here so it doesn't quite have the quaint feel of an old fashioned British village. The best thing to do in Margaret River is sample some of the local wineries however we are going to continue our way down to stay in Denmark and Albany to do that. We decide to stay just outside of Margaret River in another small village called Augusta which in hindsight is a BIG mistake! We should have got the hint at the local hemp store when we asked for good places to eat in Augusta and pretty much got laughed out the shop. 

“oh well girls...” the shop assistant says

“its not the place that matters right...its spending time with good friends, cracking open a good bottle of wine.....” 

We check into our hotel but its a bit of a dive for the price (around 60 quid each a night!) oh well at least we get a free breakfast... 

Every single cafe in Margaret River and onwards shuts around 3pm so on the hunt for dinner we are left with two options. The only pub in Augusta is brightly lit with plastic table tops, 80s rock and filled with “Bogans.” Australian chavs.The menu is a typical pub menu of steak and fish with fries except they are charging horrendous Ozzie prices of between 30 and 40 dollars a plate -and there is only one vegetarian option – noodles. Which puts veggie Teresa into a mood. 

The only other alternative is a Chinese which is BYO so we find the bottle shop just before it shuts and then make our way to the restaurant. Its a bog standard affair– we order all the vegetarian options and crack open the wine. The Chinese owner lets us stay and drink it all as she is happy watching "Australia's Got Talent." God we needed a drink and after a bottle each the woman from the shop is right – if you have the company of good friends and enough of a half decent wine it really doesn't matter where you are....


The next morning we are up with the lark to go whale watching with a company called Albany Whale watching tours. 

As we've already established -sea sickness is a particular strength of mine - luckily the company seem to be well used to people with less than average sea legs and advise on taking some pills the night before as well as up to an hour before the boat leaves. 

John is our Captain – a hoary old sea dog with snowy white hair, a freckly sun burnt pate and comfortable paunch. He starts with a speech to us all before we set off -explaining his personal philosophy around the tour - the deep respect he so clearly has for these magnificent creates and the joy it gives him to share this moving experience with other people. Then he talks around the physics of sea sickness and gets us all standing up and moving as if we were rocking a baby in our arms. This allows the body to get used to the fact that it is in motion – and then he explains the best part of the boat to stand on (at the back near the centre for future reference.) It's the first time anyone has taken the care to explain the science behind my illness and even practical tips to try out helps focus the mind. 

We head out from the harbour where two hump backs have already been seen – and John consults the group of us at every step of the way – explaning how rough each patch of water will be, where there have been sightngs and taking a vote on whether or not we want to venture forward. 


We leave the tall peach coloured cliffs and softly rising green backs of the hills behind. The sea is a deep deep navy blue and swells all around with huge waves that must be 10ft tall. They tilt the boat and froth and crash against the side. John's sea sickness tips along with the tablets last night and this morning have worked miracles as after a brief patch of queasiness where he gets me to stand up with him and take the wheel (!) i feel fine. 

“This - this is my cradle...my bassinette” he says wiping hs glasses and moving gently from side to side in time with the waves. 

He kills the engine and the only sound is the gentle creaking of the boat as we rock in the huge swell. And then - rather unexpectedly - he pulls out a recorder and begins to play. 

“I'm going to play them some music to see if we can lure some of the gorgeous creatures towards us...” 

The high pitched and haunting melody of the recorder floats eerily out over the waves and as the sound dies we see the slick black backs of two whales rise in unison out of the sea and come crashing down to dive down deep again. It is a strange and magical experience. In a few moments we see two spurts of steam and saliva far off as they make their way further out to sea. 

They are a pair – John informs us – “the female will lead the males a merry dance of exhaustion unti only one remains for her to mate with...its not unlike us in a nightclub..." he muses. 



And so with some sightings under our belt its time to head back inland. The cabin crew - who have been serving us tasty little snacks all afternoon - continue to feed us with afternoon tea. John's wife, Forrest, has made home made scones and apricot jam which are delicious. 

Whale watching has brought us all a hearty appetite except some of the poor younger passengers who have been throwing up steadily down below for some of the trip. My heart goes out to them and I empathise! Parents never really take motion sickness seriously for some reason. 

Back on dry land we make our way to Lewin Lighthouse - the most Southern Westerly point of Australia where the pacific and indian oceans meet. ne a great grey wash coming straight down to be kissed and criss crossed over by the other a deeper blue .(Or tto visualise it another way -the litte dangly bit that hangs of its bum cheek – to the left – if you imagine the map.) 



Our final stop tody is to visit one of the many caves in the area – we opt for the Jewel Cave – said to be the most stunning. 

Standing deep inside its bowels - the cave is a beautiful natural sight to visit. Calcite shards hang from the ceiling and soar from the ground glowing a dainty pale pink. Some are tapered into icy thin straws that narrow into points like pen nibs - some are huge and salty cylinders. The guide shines his torch on places of interest and at one point he switches all the lights off so that we can stand in the cool and silent stillness of the dark. He points out how sometimes the formations of the stalactites and stalacmites mimic nature from the nearby outside world – and shows a great corally mass of crystal that have delicately formed themselves into the shape of a cluster of Karra trees. Isn't nature wonderful... 



Later on in the afternoon we go visit “the blowholes” - natural made holes in the rocks along the shoreline which blow steam and sea spray. They are not so much craters as one large slit – that puffs out a little steam every now and agian -so fairly underwhelming -but hey we've ticked it off the list. 

The marketing of W.A is keen on promotion through superlatives. The most this...the largest that...but they really outdo themselves with this one and even Teresa has to admit that playing home to one of the "largest pine cones" in the world is clutching at straws - just a teensy bit...

Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb and a night at the Opera (House)

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I arrive into Sydney at 6am having had quite a lot of sleep on the plane. I'm going to be staying in the leafy posh bit of the 'burbs called Redfern with cousin Nick and his Chinese girlfriend Ivy. 

After a relaxed first day warding off jet lag I get the bus over to Circular Quay which is the main touristy part of town - down by the water where the Harbour bridge is. I go take a look at the Opera House which is all egg shells and cream and plan the rest of my trip. Although i've arrived in Sydney winter time i've been blessed with bright blue skies and brilliant sunshine. I hope it lasts. 

Sydney is all health food crazy, soy lattes and extortionately expensive almond croissant. The ongoing boom has meant prices are astronomical here, far higher than London and the property market is off the scale. In Nick's neighborhood the little two up two down houses are around the milion pound mark. I wonder when its going to bust. 

As ever when i arrive somewhere new I think its nice to ease myself in gently by doing something obvious and touristy. I ponder....what shall I do today... ?

I know i'll do the Sydney Harbour Bridge climb! 

I'm inordinately excited about this, firstly because i am like a big kid and get excited really easily but also because I think its going to be some kind of daredevil adrenaline junky activity on a par with skydiving. 

"Oh sweetie, no " says my friend Michelle later..."its so tame my grandmother could do it..." 

Oh well! Luckily Michelle has a friend who works on the Bridge climb so I get a 20% discount that brings the exorbitant price down from $220 to under $180. And take note - I also get the tip of NOT paying extra for the sunset trip but booking onto the last daytime trip which leaves at 3.35pm as you get to see the sunset anyway for no extra – if its a good day. 

Fortunately the weather gods are on side again and I am blessed with china blue cloudless skies. We all get kitted up in attractive matching jumpsuits and head sets and after a practice run go out onto the bridge. Casey – the tour guide - has stories to tell along the way.

In the days of its construction before such things as harnesses were invented the workers would shimmy up the metal arch of the bridge using only the rivets for grip – even in the pouring rain. They still only had 16 deaths in the construction. We hear the story about one man who fell from the bridge and thought it would be a good idea to try and save himself by hitting the water in a pin drop (straight down with arms by his side.) He landed straight down into the bottom of the water (which isn't that deep) buried up to his waist in the soil and it took three days to excavate him....needless to say he didn't make it! 

I'm lucky enough to get some fabulous of views of the harbour at sunset – and see the shells of the opera house lit up rose by the sun melting down behind a glowering dark bar of cloud. 



I meet Michelle - a beautiful dewy skinned Australian with Sri lankan heritage, the sweetest voice and rather brilliantly uncompromising attitude to fools. She is (another) Marketing Manager whom I met doing the Inca trail (more accurately the Lares trek) two years ago. She had the misfortune to share a tent with me, so as well as putting up the tent singlehandedley she also had to help me everytime I needed to zip up anything (I am brilliantly inept when to comes to zippers.) Zippers on tents, zippers on sleeping bags, my zip off trousers. She fondly reminisices about watching me looking absolutely befuddled by the zips on my trousers – only to give up and get off the bus we were on with them gaping around my arse. That was before we became room mates.

She told me about her horrendous ex - a boyfriend who decided to dump her via note left at reception in Buenos Aires (yes the middle of South America) by herself. He also committed a far more cardinal sin before this by sending back a bag of her makeup without telling her! Definitely best rid of... 

We meet up at Circular Quay close to the Sydney Opera house and go for a coffee with a view before seeing a play. The Duchess of Malfi – the famous John Webster revenge tragedy is showing and the production is great. 

 

– Michelle is treating me to a ticket which is 30 for under 30 year olds . Luckily they don't check I.d! It's a good production, a sparse set which doesn't hide the over melodramatic slighty more absurd plot points of Webster's original script. The lower class characters (servants and henchmen) speak in an Australian accent – which as its close to cockney...really works once i've got used to it and stopped getting images of Alf from Home and Away looming into view. 

Afterwards we go to hotel nearby upstairs for a lychee Martini and a cheese platter. Its all very civilised after my roughing it around Central America... 

The next day Michelle and I go to Bondi beach for a lovely walk along the sea front. Its another beautiful sunshiny winters day and the surfers are out in force. We meet Gerry – a fellow survivor of the Lares trek and member of "Team Gloria" - for a coffee. We discuss Bogans -the Australian equivalent of chav and how straight men are never capable of dressing in an ironic fashion. Oh and the fact that usually Sydney is very safe to go out but recently somone has been accidentally killed in the Kings Cross area so police are everwhere

People getting stabbed or shot down my road is a regular occrence so I think God its not quite city life here as I know it! 

Saturday and we decide to go clubbing. I go for a nice Thai meal with Nick and Ivy followed by some glasses of crips Australian Sauvignon at The Winery – a fashionable outdoor bar – decked out with aged oak barrels, hanging vines and twinkling fairy lights -and then Michelle meets us. 



I've been lookin forward to a good dance and to let my hair down. There hasn't been nearly enough of it on the journey so far – and my party girl status has been sorely let down recently by a month long illness. I'm relying on Michelle to take me somewhere fabulous and fun. 

Oh well never mind. We go to a place called Retros. Its upside is it has no dress code so I don't look out of place in my hiking boots and jeans. The bad news is it doesn't seem to have an age, looks or taste code either. Never have so manyunattractive badly dressed people been gathered in one room. And the music. Well if you like 80's it could be bearable I suppose – but I don't - I hate the entire decade – and even then the DJ was so low rent that it wasn't “good” 80s. The men are ugly....the women are fat, and then they all start making out to Australian rock ballads and anthems I've never heard of...ungrateful me? Its not - as Michelle says sweetly "to everyone's taste.." I bid her and the cousins farewell and take my leave. 

Sunday and Michelle – being an eager beaver has decided we don't need a lie in and will head off early to the Blue Mountains. We stop for soy cappuccinos and brownies en route for breakfast. 

The mountain air is sweet and crisp and very very fresh – she lends me her padded anorak with fur hood. The mountains stand in sandy jagged strips ringed in clouds of blue mist from the eucaplytips leaves which give them their name. "Are we going to see koalas?" I ask excitedly – thinking maybe we will as there are all these eualyptus trees around... 

"No sweetie" 

she says smiling - then tells me the time she was doing a photography course and started snapping one in a zoo only for it to fix its beady eye on her then launch its full fat furry weight in her direction. And I always thought they were such sweet snoozy cuddly little things. 



We look at The Three Sisters – three jagged pinnacles of sandy rock which to be honest aren't exactly overwhelming -but the view overall is silencing.The air is biting and mountain fresh, the dark wooded valleys stretch out below us and in the distance the smoky blue grey shapes of the mountains merge into another perfect sunset. 

“I can imagine an aborigine sitting on one of those cliffs with his legs dangling off, surveying this incredible setting and thinking...yeah this isn't bad..” says Michelle. 

There is a beautiful little boutique art deco hotel by the three sisters called Lily Lodge which unfortunately was a little out of my travellers budget otherwise we may have made a weekend out of it – however we go there for a spot of high tea anyway. I have Lapsang Souchong in honour of Zeb who I'm thinking about and Michelle has Earl Grey. Its another of those places that I think...if I'm ever back this way with money.... 



Back in Sydney and Ivy and I go to meet my friend from university - Polly in 1 Martins Place. 

“I've chosen it because it reminded me of St Pancras..” says Polly. St Pancras International was the redevelopment of another 19th century national icon. 

We share Champagne and deep fried spring rolls and Polly gives me some tips on China and the rest of South East Asia where her and her fiance have just travelled. 

“She has a very dramatic laugh!” Ivy whispers to me as we leave - 

Ah yes, well we all studied drama together at University... we weren't exactly shy and retiring even back then! 

Ivy Lee who works for one of the harbour cruises has booked me a free sunset cocktail cruise on my last night. She joins me – and we drink pistachio green cocktails and share some dessert together. The cruise is an hour and a half around the harbour and we get to see the sun setting against the Bridge and gently make our way around the water facing front of the Opera House. 



When we are far enough out we are able to see the entire city skyline of Sydney lit up and twinkling as the sun set turns to twilight turns to night. A perfect way to say goodbye to the city.