Australia

The Three Sisters, Blue MountainsThe term “bucket list” is just a nicer way of saying “stuff to do before you snuff it”, and while I knew there were specific things I wanted to do in my life, I didn’t think of compiling them into a list until I accidentally did them all. How? By going to Australia.

To give a bit of context, I was 21 before I even crossed the English Channel. When I was a child, budget airlines were a thing of the future, and when a boy in my class said he went to Spain on holiday, the amazed intake of breath created a vacuum in the assembly hall. Financial backing aside, to one relative getting on an aeroplane seemed just as terrifying and dangerous as a walk in space, and so jetting off to exotic lands was just as likely at that point.

As green and pretty as England can be, it lost its charm for me at age 6 when I realised that kangaroos and whales weren’t just hiding in the neighbour’s garden or under the pier near the Punch and Judy stand, and were in fact thousands of miles away bar a visit to the local zoo or natural history museum. Rainforests would similarly end up languishing in my daydreams or in a David Attenborough documentary, so I was stuck with mile upon mile of green deciduous woodland, farmland and herds of lethargic cows while elsewhere in the world there were some spectacular sights. I was evidently wrong in my assessment of England, but spot on in 2013 when I finally saw the Land Down Under.

If you’ve  barely left your island home and are flying over countries and oceans that entirely dwarf your own, you’ll find it agonising shutting the aeroplane window shade, even when there’s nothing out there but darkness. However, my policy of peeping and no sleeping for ten hours was rewarded; on the leg from London to Singapore I bore witness to the pink and amber mirror that was the South China Sea at dawn, and the eight hour stint from Singapore to Sydney carried us over smoky volcanic islands that looked like giant green footprints wreathed in the dust kicked up by their owners. A bit.

Seven of said eight hours were over endless, red raw Australian desert, and while I squinted as best I could I didn’t see any great herds of kangaroos roaming the plains. Instead, I was later treated to a view of an entire colony of fruit bats literally hanging around outside a train station, and boisterous pairs of cockatoos bobbing up and down on the branches of a tree opposite the  local supermarket. For a sheltered Englishwoman who’d only seen these creatures in pet shops or 1980s confectionary adverts, this was more than a fair exchange.

Another unexpected discovery was the detail of the Sydney Opera House.

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Its silvery white sheen comes from the multitudes of miniature grey tiles that make up its structure rather than panels of white plastic left over from 1950s sci-fi movies, as was my first impression. It’s also a cleverly angled set of buildings rather than one, and its entrances bring to mind a medieval church organ.

As for the people, Sydney lacked the hectic feeling you often find in major cities, but then again this was in June, when it was caught in the receding tide of tourists. I was never acutely aware of being a tourist myself, except at my reaction to a delightfully cynical dish known as the “Coat of Arms” – kangaroo and emu – and the only idiots I encountered were the usual rowdy lot swigging and stashing beer on the train on a Friday night, so small fry compared to some parts of central London.

The most noticeable differences were people’s propensity to wear scarfs and gloves in 19 degrees, especially when I was tottering off to Thirroul Beach wearing nothing but a summer dress and sandals, and their living in villa-sized bungalows as opposed to two storey houses. This brought home the difference in space and climate, and was further compounded when I looked up at the night sky one evening and didn’t recognise any of the stars.

I was so far from home, and only at this point did it sink in that I’d finally ventured forth and crossed the Equator into the Southern Hemisphere. Because flying for 18 hours hadn’t been obvious enough.

Being there had ticked one thing off my then-non-existent list, but there was more to come, involving phantom waterfalls, foul-mouthed whale experts and masochistic zoo keepers.

Just to clarify, those weren’t the items on my list. The next one is whale watching, which you’ll hopefully find just as interesting.

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