It was January in Sydney, and I was happy to be back.
2020 had been a long year, but I had finally made it back home to Australia. I landed in Darwin in December and spent 14 days in hotel quarantine, before returning to Sydney on the 30th of December, just in time to celebrate the New Year. Darwin was a hot and humid little city, but I enjoyed exploring it, walking along the coastal paths and watching beach sunsets in the evening. I had gained a new appreciation of air-conditioning during my time there! My dad picked me up at Sydney Domestic Airport after my over-priced (but beer and snack serving) Qantas flight, and we went straight out for dinner. Luckily, I wasn’t jet-lagged, but after so long away from home, I was still feeling a little weird. It was going to be a very big new year; I was moving back home after so long away, so there was a new job to get, an apartment to find, a university course to start, and there was also the matter of getting my partner over here, all during a pandemic! I’m writing this now, in February 2022, and everything has turned out ok. However, I want to cast my mind back to a year ago, as well as not give any spoilers away for future posts! Let’s go back to the start of 2021, when everyone had hopes of vaccines, the end of lockdowns and the last days of the Pandemic. How naïve we all were!
It was January in Sydney, and although La Niña was having her way with the East Coast, it was still summer and I was still happy to be back. I hadn’t spent any real time with my family in years. In fact, the last time I was here for more than a month was back in 2014 when I lived here for a year. Much of my adult life, more than half actually, has been spent living overseas. Now back home, I hope to change that a little bit – spend time with family and building connections and relationships again. The first step in this was to take my two nephews out for the day. I went down their place, which is in The Shire, right on the southern edge of the city, and spent the day with them, doing whatever they wanted to do. This wasn’t much to be honest; they are 11 and 16, so it was all day at home, playing video games and eating junk food. We watched a movie before going to bed, but I told them that tomorrow we were going out. The big plan was a train to Circular Quay (pronounced 'key'), then hop on a ferry to Manly for nice walk around. The boys were excited, although being teenagers it was sometimes hard to tell. The morning started off well as one of them forgot his masks, and as I wasn’t carrying spares, we had to buy some before getting on the train. The shop was only selling jumbo packs so it was an expensive start to the day. We made it to Circular Quay without any further drama, grabbed a big frozen slushy for the ferry ride and then boarded. It was hot, being February, but there was a fresh sea breeze which made it feel less like an oven at 1000c. The sun in Australia is fierce, much stronger than people believe, that is until they’ve come within an inch of burning to death at Bondi beach after sunbathing for only half an hour. I always love a good ferry ride, and this one didn’t disappoint! The weather was amazing and old Sydney town was at her best, which is breathtakingly beautiful. There were a few new things in Sydney since I'd left, namely trams along George Street. At first I thought that they were slow and unnecessary, but I've been growing used to them; they are cleaner than buses, cause less traffic and also remove cars from a once busy street, giving pedestrians more power on the pavement. What's not to like?
Everyone had to wear masks on the ride, but the rules were relaxed a little on the outside of the ferry, as the wind was so refreshing and brisk that you just had to breathe it in maskless. We pulled up at Manly wharf, excited and ready for a walk. At least I was. The boys were ok for a bit, but they aren’t great walkers and would rather be indoors on a screen, so they lost their enthusiasm quite quickly. Luckily, I had packed some snacks, and dangled those in front of them like a carrot while I pushed with the stick to keep them walking. We meandered past the East Esplanade Park, crossing through the leafy streets of Manly and popped out facing the Pacific Ocean at Fairy Bower Beach. There were plenty of people, walking along the path which runs from Manly Beach to Shelly Beach, as well as many sitting with coffees in the cafes, but there were also a load of people chilling on rocks or swimming in the sea. This, I thought, is Sydney. The sun, sand and sea – a perfect combination. Covid was also pretty much non-existent here in Australia at the time, masks a mere precaution on public transport only, so I really did feel privileged to be here. We found a nice place on the beach to sit in the shade, and snacked while enjoying the view. I’d been to Shelly Beach a few times before, but my favourite memory of this place is of many years ago when I learnt to scuba dive. It was way back in 2002, when I got my PADI (sometimes called ‘Pay And Die Immediately’) Open Water Certificate over a weekend, starting with a dive here and culminating in two dives off Maroubra Beach. My dive here at the beach was the first one out of a swimming pool, and I will always remember it as I saw the famed motorbike as well as the local Blue Groper (which I even touched!). No diving adventures today, but we spotted some Eastern Water Dragons bathing on the rocks along the path. and even some guy walking his goats!
It was a great day, and topped off by a rocky and rough ride back past the heads on the ferry. This was always my favourite part as a kid, when the waves picked up and sea spray started coming up over the bow, and even when actual waves washed over the gangways. It wasn’t quite like that today, but one family did get wet when we crashed down into a wave, sending chilly seawater up and all over their Sunday best. We made it back home, tired and a little sunburnt, but happy. It wasn’t long before we were planning another trip, west to the mountains. This time it wasn’t just me and my nephews, but their dad and grandad (my dad) would be joining us. We all got in the car, prepared for a day trip to The Blue Mountains, an hour out of the city. I’ve always loved the drive to Katoomba and the Blue Mountains, and have done since I was a kid. The family used to have a house up here, and so we’d come for weekends in Summer or even Winter, and I have tried to make it up here as an adult as least once a year (when I’m in Australia that is!). In June Katoomba hosts the Winter Magical Festival, which attracts large (and often very bizarre) crowds, but its always a good day out, if not a bit cold. Today was hot though, very hot, and even up in at 1,000 odd metres of altitude, it wasn’t much cooler than the city. We wandered around Leura town centre, having a coffee at a quaint little café, before exploring the famous lolly shop. This place, a favourite off kids and adults alike, has every kind of sweet you can think of – from gobstoppers and Willy Wonker chocolate to Nerds and even some weird and wonderful products, like the “Aussie Poo” collection, “Ass Blaster” hot sauce and even edible insects. We bought a few things (no insects though thank you!) and then headed to the 3 Sisters. A favourite spot for big tourist buses to stop and offload their camera wielding passengers, Echo Point and the 3 Sisters viewing area was nearly completely empty. This was another sign of how Covid has hit tourism – with Australia’s borders closed, there simply were no tourists, apart from a few interstate travellers.
There are many walks to do in the Blue Mountains, from short 30 min walks to lookouts over the valley, and even 3 and 4 day hikes through the bush, camping and pretty much wilding it. Today with the family we did the short walk from Echo Point to the first sister and the start of the Giant Stairway. This is the typical tourist trail, easy to do as the gradient isn’t steep, and it takes less than an hour. The view, however, is great. You reach the first sister and are able to cross over and sit on a bench, while looking out towards Katoomba and Echo Point. From here the valley is very tranquil, green and welcoming, but in reality, people get lost and even go missing while hiking in this national park. This is something that I can’t understand, as all the walks are well-marked and not particularly difficult (as I’ve done a little bit of hiking and camping around here), so it must be that people leave the trail, don’t carry enough water on a hot day or are just stupid. If you aren’t experienced, or can’t follow the rules, then stick to the easy trails! We did just that, but because we had kids and my dad, who is 72, and still had a great time. Before leaving, we walked around Leura again, exploring the old second-hand store and some boutique shops on the main street. You could get lost in some of these places, especially the sprawling second-hand place, which had mountains of stuff, new and old, cool and tacky, and still a pile not on display! It is always tempting to buy something you see in one of these places, some Star Wars memorabilia (or Star Trek), but where would it go? We collect enough stuff in our lives already to be honest. Some things are best looked at and admired, rather than taken home to collect dust. We headed back to the car and drove home to Sydney, after a great little day trip to the mountains. So that was February 2021. It was the promise of a good year, with Australia remaining in a fairly safe position in the world, and the delivery of vaccines to arrive soon. I was about to start my first year at Uni and also work, then the visa process for getting my partner over. Breath was held around the world, hoping for the end of Covid and lockdowns, but we all know now that 2021 was pretty much a repeat of the previous year. In times like this though, you have to be positive – get your head down, work hard and look ahead to better days. They will come. We will get through this, and we will all be reunited soon.
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MyUncleTravellingMatt. February 2021.