A wonderful week – snorkelling not included.

Our week in Manly started with hopes of a few days on the beach, topping up our tan and making the most of the Sydney sun. We woke up on our first full day, open the blinds and saw the beaming sun, perfect! Beach day. First, we needed to get organised. A trip to the local supermarket to get our weeks worth of groceries, bargain $10 mobile phones purchased with inclusive $10 of credit, and sandwiches made for a picnic on the beach. Swimmers on, towels packed we headed down to Shelly Beach. It’s a smaller, more private beach with less tourists and more locals, with sand made up mostly of broken shells (hence the name), it’s also the only inland facing ocean beach on the east coast of Australia – perfect for limiting the number of waves that take you out! On immediate arrival we scout the beach for a space – Easter Monday on a sunny day, spaces were few and far between – the towels were out before we knew and we’d chosen our position for the day. The sandwiches were demolished almost instantaneously and we were horizontal on the beach once again. 

….within an hour big, black clouds had rolled in and the beach was emptying at a staggering rate. We thought best to take heed and follow the locals lead, got re-robed and headed for a wander around the town’s Corso of shops and cafés. We made it round to the main Manly beach and into the shops before the heavens opened. Sunbathing will have to wait for today. 

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We decided that a rainy day calls for an indoor activity – the Penguin Sanctuary! We saw all types of sea life, from Little Blue penguins, sea horses, clown fish, fish with noses(!?!) big Nurse sharks, and a very large turtle called Myrtle!

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On Tuesday we decided to beat the rain and were down at the beach a couple of hours earlier than before. By 11am we had been snorkelling and tanning on the shells for over an hour. When I say snorkelling – this may be a slight oversight. We borrowed our hosts snorkels and jumped into the shallow ocean pool (between Manly and Shelly beach) and surrounded by rocks, the water here is between 4-6 metres deep. The ocean pool provided a great practice trip face down in the shallow, wave-less water, breathing practice and goggle to face suction tests. We were as ready as we were ever going to be. Adam climbed into the ocean first, lowering himself down and testing the water (pun intended). He let me know that there was no easy way in and to jump in further out as the rocks were still quite shallow around the edge.

Once in and with the breathing pipe (possibly not the technical term) in place we set about our snorkelling adventure. Before I knew it, Adam was away, face down scuttling along happily. My snorkelling adventure lasted all of 5 seconds when I realised I did not like the deep, dark water, or the sensation that I was being watched from all angles. Throwing my head back up I started to tread water like there was no tomorrow. Searching desperately for Adam I saw his pipe poking out of the water and tried to get his attention. Swimming over and grabbing his arm as hard as I could did not strike as alarming with Adam at all. I popped my head back under, giving my best attempt at feeling calm, and swam over towards his face to try and communicate my panic. Instead, Adam waves, gives me a thumbs up and points behind me in an emergency fashion. I panic more, spin around as fast as I can thinking it must be a shark – after all our host saw one the previous day (though only small, a shark is a shark)! Feeling more than claustrophobic I try to calm down my breathing, at the moment I sound like a cross between Darth Vader and a Moose. I slowly dip my head back in to be met with the eerily dark seabed and seaweed that wraps itself around anything that passes by. There is so much sea life to see. I understand this is the purpose of snorkelling, but I’ve learnt since that it’s better for me to be blissfully unaware of the ocean and it’s contents. There are fish, very large fish of all shapes and colours, swimming extremely close to me. Fish that we saw yesterday at the sea life sanctuary, swimming in large schools and in tanks ensuring humans cannot be in contact with – and now I’m very much in contact with them! I finally get Adam’s attention, he bobs out of the water confused at why I am making such a splash. I tell him that if I hold his hand I think I’ll be more calm and last longer face down. In return, he kindly advises me that I need to swim and not hold on to him as swimming is harder if I do, and he swims away. Fantastic. So I’m back to treading water. How bad can it be, it’s just the sea, I’ve been in the sea so many times. I dunk again, this time I’m met with 20 big black fish just staring at me, the imposter in their habitat. Just floundering around in their territory. They aren’t even swimming any more, they are stationary, point blank staring at me. Time to get out. I grab Adam’s attention a little more forcefully this time, tell him that I am in no way enjoying this experience and need help to get out. There are no exits, the rocks make it nearly impossible to climb out with help, trapping me in the dreaded water!

Finally, I’m out. After a whole 10 minutes. The relief is overpowering, I had a cry. What a wimp! Looking back, the experience is laughable, but at the time I was going to die. I asked Adam what he thought I was doing the whole time, could he not hear the banshee that he was snorkelling next to?! Turns out he thought there was something wrong with his breathing pipe so readjusted it and continued to enjoy his experience. I can’t imagine what the locals thought of my demonstration, we quickly retreated away from the water and down to Shelly beach where I got back in the water, in much safer territory. With the sandy sea bed between my toes I was safe in the knowledge that if I didn’t like it then I could just simply stand up. This would have been a better place to start my snorkelling experience. There were luckily no photos of this event.

 A storm interrupted our second beach day so we retreated back to the apartment before lunch for a hot shower and cup of tea after a traumatic experience. We met Natalie and Will later that afternoon after they walked the Spit to Manly route – they also thought the 10km trek was somewhat excessive but still enjoyable! Will was prepped with his swimmers for a dip to cool down so Adam ran back to the apartment and grabbed the snorkels for round two – this time with a partner more than capable of more than 5 seconds face down! Phew, at least Adam was able to enjoy snorkelling after all! Dinner and drinks on Manly seafront was an excellent way to finish off the day – with a view of an orange moon too!

Wednesday, we decided despite the clouds we would head north towards Palm Beach – the home of ‘Home and Away’! As soon as we arrived we ran onto the beach and were met with soft warm sand! Though, despite the few British scattered between the flags who are determined to catch some sun, it’s definitely too chilly to be sunbathing. The clouds got darker and little spits of rain started so we walked around to the harbour and had some fresh seafood!

We had been waiting for the weather to pick up for at least a week when finally a sunny clear day was forecast for the Blue Mountains. After just less than two hours on the train from central station in Sydney we arrived at Wentworth Falls. Adam and I were unsure of the details that the Blue Mountains entailed, but knew that Natalie and Will were on the ball with the routes so we successfully gate crashed their trip.
As soon as we got out of the train carriage the air was immediatley colder and fresher. Good job we brought the coats!

We walked the Charles Darwin route, where in 1836 he passed through, the track then links with the National Pass route which begins at the top of the Wentworth Falls waterfall and follows the cliff face around the top and down all the way to the bottom.   The steps down seemed like they were past the vertical and over a foot deep so it was a test for our knees – we were glad to be going down and not up. One boy was crawling (yes, actually on his hands and knees) and complaining to his mum about lying to him as she’d told him ‘not far now’ a little too prematurely. On our first turn we were overcome with awe from the view. You could see so far into the distance, and it was entirely made up of trees. The blue haze that is visible is from the Eucalyptus oils emitted from the Eucalyptus trees – learning as we go!

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Once we got to the bottom of the cliff face we were at the base of the biggest waterfall you ever did see (Wentworth Falls), to get the whole thing in a photo you had to adopt a ‘professional photographer’ pose and get low to the ground, lens pointing high (double chin realm). We were glad to have decided to go all the way to the bottom and not turn around half way down the cliff. A group of American hippy / ‘at one with the earth’ girls had retreated early on through fear of having to climb back up the vertical steps – after performing their yoga poses (in their hemp jumpers) for photos at the top of the rock. Not so at one with the earth after all it seems. The view down here was worth the climb down – plus the National Pass route continued around past the waterfall and along a trail that leads to more natural treasures. We had our picnics just outside the splash zone, at risk of piles sat on the cold rock but a risk worth taking to take in the surroundings for a little longer. In the shade and surrounded by water the temperature drops quite dramatically but as soon as you turn a corner into the sun you feel the heat again. The cooler temperature is appreciated when climbing up and down rock stairways – hand carved by worker men in the early 1900’s (not only hard work, but unbelievable when you consider the height in which they were working, health and safety a low priority)! 

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Along the route you walk under more, smaller, waterfalls that give you a nice spritz when feeling a bit flustered from the exercise. Stepping stones and trees of all shapes and colours lined the trail with viewpoints dotted along for opportunities of seeing both the landscape and animals. Though we didn’t see much in the way of wildlife, it didn’t inhibit our day and we were more than happy with seeing the vast height of the rocks we were on vs. the sheer drops that were only metres away at times. Towards the end of the walk we came across a group of brave individuals who had paid for the privilege to be swung from the cliff top and battered by one of the waterfalls in an abseiling quest of outdoor pursuits. One woman made it to the bottom successfully, but would have been black and blue from her traumatic descent through the water in which it seemed near impossible to get gripping on her feet against the rock face to abseil down with ease. Instead, most contact with the rock was made using her hip bones and knee caps alternately as she cascaded through the falls. Needless to say she was exhausted by the time she reached the water below and needed to be dragged out of the pool by her peers. An activity we’ll pass on for now. Considering the height of the steps we came down at the beginning of the route, we were glad that the way back up on this end was a lot more gradual and we were able to climb the rock face at a more leisurely rate – with the bonus of a final photo opportunity at the Queen Elizabeth 2nd lookout point. 

A quick nap on the train during our return journey saw us revitalised and ready for $10 pizza and $5 coronas (which the barmaid forgot to charge us for). Well earned and definitely needed! 

Friday day-time we spent organising the rest of our travels here in Australia (and by the “rest of our travels” we mean 4 days into the future, tops). Somehow though things just happen to fall into place; it has been both rewarding and enjoyable living life one day at a time. I’ve always found that planning too far in advance only serves to create too many grand expectations that are rarely if ever met, so, for a long time I’ve adopted the Harold and Kumar philosophy of “the universe tends to unfold as it should” – despite her initial doubts, Steph seems to be getting on board.

Anyway, once we got our lives in order and had the planes trains and automobiles organised from Sydney to Brisbane we set off on the Ferry from Manly to Circular Quay. Despite the calm demeanour of the weather that day, our trip over resembled George Clooney’s struggles in the perfect storm – minus the rain, lightning and imminent death – I have dramatised the whole ordeal; it was choppy. 

Having survived the aquatic rollercoaster we met up with Nikki (Steph’s friend from Challenger Sports British Soccer Camps 2011, of all places) – we took advantage of the good weather and made a trip round to Darling Harbour and sank a dozen beers/ wines/ spirits along with complimentary finger food – Sydney has its fair share of bargains, you just have to find them….kind of like TK Maxx.

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Lost in catch-up conversation and swapping stories, before long it was 7pm and time for the main event of the evening – Counting Crows Live at the Sydney State Theatre. I mean, I’d listened to this band for as long as I can remember; thanks to my parents, car journeys were normally filled with sounds from their first three albums and as a result I became fluent in every song without really knowing so – it’s funny how that can happen. Anyway, being in the same place at the same time and finding resale tickets for row B in the stalls was, in and of itself, far too good to be true – I took it as a sign. 

The gig was phenomenal; flawless and unique renditions of tracks old and new resounded through the theatre for more than 2 hours. If i’m honest, I stood a little awe-struck watching the 7 members switch seamlessly between instruments and improvise according to Duritz’s flamboyantly brilliant lead vocals and stage presence. It was everything I hoped for and expected it to be and more – to say anymore or any less about it, I feel, would do it some degree of injustice. 

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Following the encore, our night was bettered still (somehow) when the Crows lead guitarist Dan Vickrey singled us out from the crowd so that he could personally hand us a copy of the set-list they played from that night. Shocked and at the same time sincerely grateful we accepted the memento as those in front us reluctantly passed it our way. What possessed Vickrey to pick us, we don’t know, but we are certainly glad that he did.

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Saturday saw another travel day in our itinerary and we were headed to Brisbane. An 8am ferry from Manly to Circular Quay meant we missed the rush hour traffic of aimless tourists heading to the beach because the travel guide says to do so. Interesting fact we learnt from our host this week: Only 5% of the visitors to Manly beach actually step foot onto the sand. Most just get the ferry, walk through the shops and walk to the edge of the steps that lead to the sand – and then abruptly stop. When we first arrived we thought there was something going on at the beach, a surf competition maybe or at least a street performer, but in fact the hoards of people were lined at the boardwalk simply taking a selfie as evidence they’d made it to the water and then no doubt returning on the ferry after an ice cream. 

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Our flight was short and sweet and we’d landed a little after 1pm. Choosing our airbnb accommodation close to the airport still proved costly as a 12 minute cab ride here cost the same as a 25 minute one in Sydney – and Sydney is meant to be rated 5th in the most expensive cities in the world? We also noticed that the public transport in Brisbane has adopted some of the same procedures as Sydney and Melbourne in that you have the GO card (like Oyster card in London) that you tap on and off each mode of transport and you top up like phone credit. However, Brisbane money saving initiatives were less appealing and more difficult to accomplish. 9 paid rides a week then gets you free rides for the remainder of the week, whereas in Sydney you are capped $15 a day – after that it’s free (we made the most of this on our trip to the Blue Mountains where we travelled a total of 5 and a half hours on 3 modes of transport and only got charged $15 all day)! After getting to our hosts I slept solidly for a good 2 hours, not sure if this was from the 7am wake up – very early for my travelling body clock – or just a much needed recharge of batteries from all the walking and late nights! Adam spent this time becoming familiar with our new surroundings and located the supermarket, bus station and running routes that we’d use during the few days here. 

Brisbane was a very nice city. The weather was reliable, blue skies and a roaring sun – at worst it was a little cloudy, but this provided some much needed relief from the strong rays. We spent our first full day in the city finding our way around and asking for some guidance on the whereabouts of things to see and do. We got told we smelt like summer and tanning (must have been the coconut scented sunscreen) it baffles us that people don’t consider this weather to be hot anymore. 30 odd degrees and it’s autumn. Nonetheless we are now more than prepared when it comes to defending ourselves from the heat and sunstroke, no matter how touristy we smell. We found our way along South Bank and grabbed a coffee from a very cool looking VW kombi camper van. I took a photo for a group of Chinese tourists who were dressed head to toe in fluorescent colours each matching their partner in his and hers combinations of colour – green body and turquoise collar / pink collar and orange body / yellow body and pink collar. I regret not having a photo with them myself just as a momento and as payback for always featuring in snapshots of westernised travellers for their own travel memoirs. A trip through the gardens and parks at the bottom end of South Bank allowed us to see how the Australians have things just right. On a sunny day everyones just out on the grass, free deck chairs are placed at random, with jenga blocks and french bowls sets readily available if you have a hankering for a game. We sat for a while and enjoyed the view of the city on the opposite side of the river, before walking over the bridge and into the botanic gardens then on through the main CBD and shopping area.

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Day 2 in Brisbane was far less exerting and we positioned ourselves on the sand for hours at Streets Beach, Australia’s only inner city artificial beach. It’s like a watering hole for humans. Totally free and manned by lifeguards, tourists and locals (and everything in-between) can throw a towel down and recline on the sand. As it’s still the Easter holidays children were everywhere, which meant sand was also flying everywhere! We booked our accommodation and flight to Cairns earlier that morning (nothing like spontaneity) and made it home from the beach around 5pm for dinner and packing. Rental car booked for the other end meant we were as prepared as we’ll ever be – 4 hours prior to the alarm going off and we were due at the airport for our 7am flight! Flying early meant we can maximise our time at the other end where we know we’ll be in for an adventure as it’ll be the first time we’ve driven over here and nearly as far north as you can get in Australia so the heat will be turned up once again as we get closer to Malaysia than to Sydney! 

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