From Sydney to Byron Bay: trains and turkey juice

Train from Sydney to Casino

My carriage awaits!

As you’ll no doubt have gathered by now, I don’t like flying (although as I said previously, self-hypnosis is working wonders), so when I was planning my journey from Sydney to Gold Coast I decided to use the train, stopping off at Byron Bay along the way.  This was not just related to my fear of flying – I really do love trains!  My first mistake was thinking I could get a train for the entire journey, but that was just the beginning…

I had a very early start in Sydney, catching the 07:11 to Casino.  Yes, that’s right: only as far as Casino (an 11 hour train ride), and then it would be a bus for a further 90 minutes.  I was sad to leave Sydney, and my lovely friend Pete, but I guess a big part of this adventure is seeing new things and travelling to different places.  I was in such a rush to get the train, I didn’t stop for a cappuccino or breakfast – a decision I was to regret later.

So, the train: quite old-fashioned, really, and a bit quaint.  All the seating was airline-style, so the first bit of my plan was scuppered – I thought I’d be able to work at a table, getting some writing done while I admired the scenery, and feeling generally inspired.  Never mind, I thought, I’ll do some writing at my tiny little airline table.  But no, the train ride was definitely not conducive to handwriting – this was not a smooth rail track.  Well, my next idea was to do some work online via my trusty iPad – emails, reading some documents I’d been meaning to catch up with, maybe write a blog post – but flipping heck, no wifi connection!!  I was beginning to think I’d travelled back in time a few years!

At least the train itself was comfortable: the seats were reclining (these journeys are long…), and there were cute little fold down footrests.  Happily, I had some papers with me, so I settled down to at least have a peaceful read of those.  But at the very first station (and there were an awful lot of those along the 800km – no super fast railway system here), an elderly lady came and sat next to me (the seats are all pre-booked).  I made the fatal error of mentioning the lovely weather, in true English fashion.  That was it, she (Diane) was off: she was travelling all the way to Grafton (one stop before Casino), and she was intent on chatting all the way.  That’s 10 HOURS. I thought I could talk, but honestly, she made me seem reticent.  And the funniest thing was, she had that way of telling you about people (her large and complex family) and places (I developed a mental map of her life travels) as if you should somehow know them all.  Yes, I sound mean.  Yes, I’m probably going straight to Hell.  But really, I had been sooooo looking forward to this peaceful day!

Meanwhile, I was hugely enjoying the witty chat over the tannoy from the chief steward, in which he generally slated the food he was selling!  There was a choice of hot meals, and when mine arrived I understood his feelings entirely.  It was not good.  But on the plus side, it only cost the equivalent of £4.50, so at least I didn’t feel like I’d paid for more than I received.

These first world problems aside, the scenery really was stunning, and it was fascinating to watch the landscape change.  And actually, to watch the passengers evolve – somewhere around Taree, we began to pick up lots of hippies and surfer dudes: dirty hair, guitars and tiny amps, backpacks, tie dye, hair braids, tattoos, killer tans, interesting aromas… You get the picture.  Oh, and I saw kangaroos hopping around in the fields near the tracks, and nearly went into tourist meltdown!

At Casino (the end of the train line), everyone spilled out and onto 3 buses destined for various points north.  I ended up sitting right at the front of my bus to Byron Bay, which meant I had a good view of the speedometer.  Sadly, the driver didn’t – or at least, he was inclined to ignore it.  Which meant that when a MASSIVE BIRD (a bush turkey, apparently) hit the windscreen, it really did hit it hard.  Amazingly, the screen remained intact – but I spent the rest of the journey watching big bird juices dripping down the windscreen…

I arrived in Byron Bay in the pitch dark, lugged my suitcase for 2km to the house I was staying at, and on arrival wondered why on earth I’d thought doing that journey by train/bus was a good idea.  Still, at least I know all about lovely Diane’s epic family troubles…

Sydney, part 3: the zoo!

The zoo was on my list of must-do things, mainly because of the whole ‘see a cute koala’ issue – I’d promised my youngest I’d do this at the very least.  So it was onto the ferry again – by now, I was feeling like I knew my way around a bit, and I enjoyed the ride out to Taronga.  It turns out you can buy a ticket that gets you on the ferry and then into the zoo.  I noticed it could also include a cable car, but I told the ticket lady I wouldn’t be needing that (like planes, cable cars are really not my thing).  I did think she looked at me a little strangely, and when I got off the ferry I discovered why: if you have a pre-paid zoo ticket, you get to the entrance via the cable car.  Well, this being a time of bravery and new adventures, I decided I should continue to conquer my fears.

Around this point, I realised I was the only person standing in the cable car queue without an entourage of small children (apart from the Chinese tourists posing for hundreds of photos).  Somehow, the cable car attendant seemed to think a middle-aged woman must necessarily be attached to offspring, so he assumed I was with the people in front of me (a dad and his three children), so they adopted me for the ride, and being their momentary mum took my mind off the fact that we were in the sky!  It was amazing, actually, because you get to look down on the whole zoo.  Happily, we didn’t appear to travel directly above the crocodiles – and how many times in your life do you get to take a photo of elephants from above?!

Elephants from above!

Taronga is an excellent place if you want to see Aussie animals and birds – I decided to stick mainly with creatures that normally live here, although obviously I had to have a little look at my other favourite animal.  Check out the giraffes’ daily view – yes, it’s that skyline again!

Giraffes with the best view

I found emus, wallabies, kangaroos, lemurs (like little cat-bears, I think!), tiny penguins… I tried to see the platypus, but was a bit creeped out by the very dark room you had to go in – having just visited the reptiles, I was slightly anxious about what I might not be able to see in the dark!  And apparently, platypus (platypi?) are very shy, so I didn’t stay in there for long.

I’m reserving my award of ‘new favourite animal’ to this: a tree kangaroo.  A TREE kangaroo!  Yes indeed, it turns out there’s a kangaroo that lives in a flipping tree!  Even Pete, my Aussie friend, thought this was a joke along the same lines as drop bears (you definitely have to google that one!), but no, I have the photographic evidence – this was not some weird, sun-induced dream.  Sadly, that evidence is currently only on my proper camera, but for now here’s a picture from Taronga’s library, with bonus tiny baby tree kangaroo:

Tree kangaroo!

So, the koalas – I was toying with the idea of actually doing that tourist thing and having a cuddle, but what do you know, they only have a limited number of ‘appointments’ and that day’s had all been sold.  However, I did get some quality time cooing over them from a short distance – the zoo has a little family of three, and the baby was performing death-defying acts of climbing and nearly falling out of the tree.  At one point, it fell onto its mum’s head, and she bit it on the bottom as punishment!  So here’s the obligatory photo of a cute koala:

Cute koala

Sydney, part 2: beach bonanza!

Anyone who knows me will tell you how much I love a beach.  Generally, the wilder and further north the better, and if there happens to be a castle nearby then I’m pretty much in Heaven.  So of course, I had to visit some beaches here in Australia – actually, it would be difficult not to, given my route up the coast!

My friend Pete decided that part of my initiation to the life of Sydney should be visiting a couple of their beaches.  Happily, the weather improved rapidly last weekend (after my highly English welcome of rain and cold), so on Saturday we headed over to Manly beach (I know – what an appropriate name!)  To get there, you have to take a ferry, and boats are not really my thing.  But these are great – full of happy people taking innumerable shots of the Opera House (yes, I did), and pretty speedy across the harbour.

When we landed, I thought we were at the main beach, although it did seem rather petite… We discovered there are sometimes little penguins there, but today they were hiding from us – although it didn’t stop everyone scouring the beach, just in case.  Anyway, it turns out (thanks, Pete) that if you walk down a little high street, you find yourself at the proper Manly beach, which is just beautiful:

Manly beach

From the beach, you can walk up onto some cliffs, from where the views are spectacular – I’ve never seen such a turquoise (aquamarine?) sea – it’s as if someone emptied out a massive version of those tablets you put in the toilet cistern! To get to the top of the cliff, you get to walk through some proper Australian bush (small scale, probably, but still impressive to me), where we stopped to listen to a massive argument going on between some bullfrogs (well, they sounded pretty cross!)

Cliffs at Manly

There’s a great circular walk back down to the beach, and I had fun spotting the stereotypes: surfer dudes, people playing voleyball, surf rescue in red and yellow, skateboarders… All Aussie life is here!

On Sunday, the weather was even better – warmer and sunnier, although I noticed the locals insisted on wearing coats!  By English standards, it felt like a late Spring-early Summer day, so we headed to Bondi beach.  No ferry this time, just a train (they have double deckers here!  Imagine my excitement!) and a bus.  Like Manly, it feels like you’ve travelled far, far from Sydney when you hit the beach.  I found Bondi slightly shabbier than Manly, but no less charming for that.  Manly feels lived in, Bondi feels transient – if that makes any sense.  Again, the beach is beautiful, and the sea is ridiculously blue (especially in the sunshine):

bondi beach

And look how empty it was!  I had a little paddle in the water, which didn’t seem cold to me, although poor Pete was definitely a little chilled!  There were plenty of surfer dudes, showing the rest of the world how it’s done…

From the beach, you can do a coast walk right round to Coogee, but we only went as far as Bronte (lunch was calling).  Along the way, we found a little gem: an outdoor swimming pool!  My youngest daughter would absolutely love this place!  Bronte’s a smaller beach, although I imagine in the Summer it would be somewhat crowded, and an easy walk from Bondi:

Bronte beach

So, how do these beaches compare with my usual?  Well, a lot more surf, but no castles… but it turns out, I can love a beach anywhere in the world!  Be warned, there will be quite a lot more beach shots in future posts…

Sydney, part 1: Opera House obsession

Sydney Opera HouseThere are few images more iconic than Sydney Opera House, and so I was slightly blown away when I glimpsed it from the train as I travelled into the city from the airport.  At about this point, I realised just how far I had come – on a plane, you get fed, watch some films, sleep a bit, occasionally marvel at the landscape below; but really, you don’t get any real sense of flying right across the world.

My friend Pete (a fellow PhD-er at Nottingham, but Australian) met me at Wynward station, and then I somehow ended up on the 15th floor of his work building, joining the tail end of a celebratory dinner for some project they’d just completed – a dinner that had apparently included copious amounts of wine, so everyone was extremely jolly and welcoming.  A great way to start, looking out at the beautiful skyline from a tall building (very different from the Tower of Doom), but the weather!  Torrential rain, and really a bit cold – reminiscent of England, except that at home I wouldn’t be running through the streets wearing ballet pumps and sans raincoat or umbrella, as we did after the wine extravaganza.  We ended up in a club called the Ivy, apparently very exclusive, but again much like England, and I began to feel the long flight catching up with me.  Didn’t stop me having a little drink, though – you know, just to join in… We eventually got back to Pete’s at about 1.30am, but then we had to pop out again (still raining, but now with sensible shoes and raincoat) to look at the view from the bottom of Pete’s road:

view from Pete's street

The next morning – I say morning, but actually I slept until midday (thanks, jetlag) – Pete was at work, so I was going exploring.  It was still raining, but only intermittently, and decidedly warmer.  I decided to walk across the Harbour Bridge and get up close and personal with the Opera House, my new favourite building.  I felt like embracing my inner tourist, so took loads of photos.  There were also plenty of photobombing opportunities, and I like to think of my gurning face appearing in a number of Chinese tourists’ holiday snaps…

The Opera House is a remarkably beautiful building, and the surrounding Circular Quay and Rocks areas are worth exploring, too.  Also the botanic gardens – I met my first ibis (what a funny design that beak is!) and lots of his friends.  And all the time, I kept turning round and marvelling at the iconic Opera House and Harbour Bridge views – I was still finding it difficult to believe I was really here!


So I’ve taken numerous pictures of the Opera House: by day, by night, from the quayside, the bridge, the north side, even from a ferry… I could produce an album simply called ‘My obsession with the Opera House’, but for now I’ve chosen this as my favourite: Sydney Opera House, just showing off its photogenic self, really…

the Opera House showing off