Our first port of call in the lengthy bus ride from Melbourne to Sydney was a brief stopover in Albury on the Victoria/NSW border. We poured ourselves from the bus at around midnight, before flumping into the nearest cheap motel we could find for the night, beating a fellow traveller to the last available room by about 10 seconds in the process... score!
The following morning, we reluctantly peeled ourselves from our surprisingly comfy motel room bed and hopped back onto the next greyhound coach to make haste towards Gundagai, where we would again be breaking our journey with an overnight stay. Apparently, Gundagai is quite the popular town in Australian literature, having been mentioned in all manner of folk poems down the years, most prominently in the famous "Dog on the tucker box" limerick. However, our understanding of famed aussie literature was hazy to say the least, and we primarily chose Gundagai as a location because it prevented us from being cramped up on the bus for more than a few hours.
We were dropped off at the tourist information centre servicing this distinctly one-horse little town, and were pointed in the direction of the criterion hotel, which was essentially an outback pub with a few rooms attached on the promise of a free drink upon check in. We were greeted with enthusiastic warmth by a barmaid who insisted on calling us both "dahl" but who managed to put our noses a little out of joint by telling us that they don't do the free drink anymore (she waited until after we'd checked in to let us know). With our thirsts unsated, we grumbled up the the stairs, dumped our bags and made our way back out onto the streets to investigate our surroundings. This little exercise took all of about 30 seconds. Gundagai is not exactly a throbbing urban hive of activity.
Nontheless we appreciated the laid back and friendly nature of this village, and after a wonderfully cheap meal and a couple of beers - Upon ordering which Dunc had his first taste of outback life when the barmaid resquested if he wanted "minis or scooners, dahl?". His confused face clearly belied his lack of understanding, prompting her to sympathetically grab an example of each glass before explaining which was which in her best playschool voice. Two scooners of VB it was - we settled into bed.
The mercury had been off the charts all the previous day, and was no different when we eventually got out of bed, having got precicely no sleep all night (a lack of air-conditioning coupled with an unwillingness to open the windows and thus let the local bugs in were the chief causes). We sweated our way, complete with backpacks, down to the air-conditioned sanctuary of the tourist information centre to await our onward carriage.
The trip from Gundagai to Canberra was, to be frank, less than enjoyable. As we boarded the coach, our faces immediately shrivelled as we noticed the unwelcome scent of rotten feet. Vickie loudly announced that "It stinks in here!", before reluctantly taking her seat, to nods of agreement from nearby passangers who were also wrinkling their noses in disgust. Using the air-con (plus judicious use of Vickies perfume all over the seats and surrounding area) to filter out the worst of it, we occupied our minds with some reading to pass the time. However, our concentration was regularly disturbed by a clearly unwell chap hacking up some sort of chunky nastiness from the depths of his lungs. If it wasn't "Hacky Hackerson" annoying us, it was "The snorer". That popular scourge of public transport was right behind us, rattling his sinuses and slobbering all over his front in a desperate attempt to distract us from our books.
As if to add to this, we became the objects of unwanted attention from that other accepted public transport nuisance, the obnoxious child. This little blond toe-rag was more irritating than needing to go to the toilet in the night in a cold house when you're warm in bed. He began his campaign first by staring intently at us over the back of his seat. Not too bad you may think, but soon enough he upped the ante by peering round the sides of our books as we tried to block him from view. Unsatisfied by his lack of progress, he then began reaching around towards Vickies seat, occasionally flicking his middle finger up at us in a continued search for a reaction. Vickie was desperately attempting to contain her giggles as baleful stares from Dunc did absolutly nothing to dent this little monsters enthusiasm in his activities. Eventually, he managed to overstep the mark and reached round to grab Vickies leg. Enough was enough and we both yelled at him to knock it on the head, waking his dozing mother up and earning the little git a wallop in the process. That'll learn him!
The much-maligned Australian capital city was our next port of call, and we decanted into the bus station, procrastinated a little as to where we were going to stay, and eventually plumped for a nearby hostel. But not before we had discovered the source of the aforementioned foul smell on board the bus. Just ahead of us in the queue to disembark was a hobbling, crutch-weilding chap who was more than a little unwashed. As if this wasn't enough, we soon caught a glimpse of the reason he was on crutches. One of his legs was close on double the size of the other and was a blackened, festering and rotting mess from the ankle down, only covered in a dirty dish rag masquerading as a bandage. The smell of decay was palpable and we choked back a gag each as he stumbled off, hopefully in the direction of the nearest disease control centre.
On a more pleasant note, we were looking forward to our hostel, as again it promised us a free drink on check in. However, again, we were foiled as the check in woman informed us that they had recently changed management, and didn't think the free drink still applied. People should really keep their marketing material up to date!
Although Canberra gets a whole lot of (partly unfair) press from the rest of Australia, one thing it definitely has is a strange feel of emptiness to it. It bears all the hallmarks of a "new" town that has been designed by architects before a single brick has been laid (Brasilia and Milton Keynes are two other examples) in that everything you need is there, and yet something indefineble is missing. You could almost picture the planning process in a room. "Ok chaps, we need: shops", "Check", "Cinema", "Check", "Parks", "Check", "Cafes", "Check", "Ok then, its all sorted, shall we go for a Tooheys?"
Call it soul, call it Joie-de-vivre, call it atmosphere. Something wasn't quite there. Don't get us wrong though, Canberra is a very agreeable city to spend some time in, and as we ambled around the CBD we definitely felt that some of its press was unduly harsh.
One thing that did strike us as slightly odd about Canberra though was the volume of bearded crazy homeless types. This was all the more surprising and ironic by the fact that this was a city designed specifically to house the Australian political policy makers, and yet there was apparently more of a homeless problem here than anywhere we'd been since San Francisco. Satisfied we'd seen most of what Canberra had to offer, we settled in for a rather surreal evenings activities. Vickie had been growing increasingly unhappy with the state of her hair for some time now, and after several moments of earnest discussion, she let Dunc have a go at trimming it. With a tiny pair of scissors. We initially concluded that this was a grand measure of the level of trust in our relationship, but eventually changed our minds and agreed that Dunc couldn't really make Vickies hair look much scruffier. A few tense minutes followed - Dunc attempting to break the silence by jocularly enquiring as to Vickies plans for the weekend in true hairdresser style - before he camply announced "Finished!" and Vickie dashed over to the mirror to inspect the damage. Much hair ruffling and semi-satisfied "Hmmm" noises later, she concluded that he'd not actually done a bad job after all.
After spending the next morning meandering around the south side of Canberra and wondering where all the people were, we headed back to our hostel to pack up and jump on the bus to continue our journey to Australias spiritual capital, Sydney.
As was the case in Melbourne, we were fortuitous enough to be staying with a friend for the duration of our stay in Sydney. This time, a chum of Duncs from back home in Newbury, one Mr James Pakenham (affectionatly monikored "Pokey" by Dunc much to the polite confusion of the rest of his friends and housemates, who all actually called him by his name... how very odd), had drawn the short straw, and met us with a grin and a handshake at Milsons Point train station on the evening of Friday 23rd December.
Bearing in mind that, for both of us, the festive season had always conjoured up images of shopping in dark streets in the drizzle, sitting in front of fireplaces watching "only fools and horses" and gorging ourselves stupid on chocolates, it was more than a touch odd to be wandering around on christmas eve in mid 30oC heat shopping for boat towable inflatable rafts with Pokey. In the evening we met up with the rest of the gang we'd be spending christmas day with in their local pub, and immediately felt right at home amongst all the friendly faces and funny chatter.
If christmas eve was odd, then christmas day was both completely surreal and spectacular in equal measure. We kicked off the festivities with the traditional aussie "Barbie", festooned with steaks, sausages and all manner of meaty goodness. Fully stuffed, it was then time to push the boat out. Literally. Pokey is the proud owner of a fine vessel, and was determined to take it out into the waters as much as possible over the next couple of weeks. Needless to say, we were more than happy to go along. We wasted no time readying the boat and, accompanied by another friend Rob (who part owned the boat), made straight for the brine.
Now there are not that many people who can say that they've travelled underneath the iconic Sydney harbour bridge. Even less can say that they've done it on Christmas day. And even fewer still can say they've done it in their own boat. We were full of excitement and enthusiasm as we jumped, ploughed and generally sped through the choppy harbour waters towards the bridge. Vickie in particular was having a rare old time, and didn't seem to be able to stop whooping and giggling every time we catapaulted the boat over a swell. A boat has now been added to the growing list of "Things we need to get" when we get home (we did, however, agree that it probably wouldn't have quite the same attraction hooning up and down the Newbury canal). Dunc desperately attempted to capture some of this action on tape for posterity, but only succedeed in getting mocked for his juddery camera action recording more of the inside of the boat than the surrounding scenery. The pass under the bridge was greeted with loud cheers and exlamaitions before Rob spun the boat round so we could do it all again. Glorious stuff!
An afternoon of sunbathing and larking about on the lovely nearby Balmoral beach (weirder and weirder!) worked up a fine appetite for christmas dinner. We were entertaining 13 people at Pokeys house, and the lounge had been converted into a very festive looking dining room table. A fine and jolly meal later, and Pokeys housemate Nigel disappeared upstairs, only to return 20minutes later in full Santa regalia, hollering "Ho ho ho!" at the top of his voice to cheers of appreciation from the assembled throng. Everyone took it in turns to perch on santas lap and recieve their "Secret santa present". Dunc was disinclined to squash the poor sweating fellow when it came to our turn, so instead Vickie gleefully hopped onto his lap and gave him a big festive squeeze before collecting our present - a compendium of "Aussie slang" words containing such gems as "Don't come the raw prawn with me" and "Fair suck of the sauce bottle mate" - and returning to her seat with a wonderfully childish grin on her face.
Boxing day involved doing pretty much nothing in particular so when the 27th came, we jumped at the chance to once again go out on Pokeys boat for some more aquatic mischief. This time our destination was the picturesque and characterful Hawksbury river with some water skis and a large inflatable raft in tow. As we had already been water skiing on Christmas day, we were looking forward to another crack at it (well, Vickie was, as she was capable of getting vertical and going behind the boat quite capably whilst Dunc couldn't even manage to keep himself stable when sitting in the water, much less stand up when being towed). Vickie once again displayed her skiing credentials with a couple of highly impressive runs before her tired limbs gave out and she simply let go of the rope before holding her nose and ducking into the water in a very controlled if slightly girly fashion.
In the afternoon, we got the raft out and Vickie and Dunc eagerly hopped on in preperation of getting flung about behind the boat for a wee bit. It was a most exhiliarating experiance, made all the more intense by our weight difference adding some real unstability to the raft and frequently causing us to take off and spin around with alarming force whilst we clung on for dear life by our finger tips. The day took a bit of a sour turn though, when the pair on after us suffered a bit of an accident when the raft took off and flung them into the water. Only problem was that one of the group, Sarah, had wedged her hand underneath one of the handles, and the resultant force as she was torn clear of the raft succeeded in dislocating her elbow. Ouch.
Needless to say, that drew the days action to a rather swift close, and Sarah was speedily transported to the nearest hospital for drugs and plaster, while the rest of us cleared the boat up and headed home. This unfortunate turn of events was made slightly more ironic by the fact that Sarah is a physio, and had spent some time earlier in the day fixing a neck injury Dunc had picked up on the boat previously, before coming a cropper herself.
By this time, we were long overdue a trip into the city, so the following day we hopped onto Sydneys marvellously comprehensive public transport system and made our way to circular quay. As we soaked in the atmosphere, we began to notice a few things. First up, you can't help but love the place. And it knows you can't help but love it. This gives Sydney much more of an extravagently strutting self confidence in itself, in stark contrast to the more relaxed "Hakuna-matata" feel you get from its sibling city, Melbourne. It is true that there are not many cities in the world that can rival the gorgeous setting that Sydney is fortunate enough to revel in, and its charms became more and more infectious the longer we spent there. During our time perusing the CBD, Vickie struck upon an unusual idea and elected to skip lunch, allowing her to "re-invest" (There's that word again!) said lunch money into the search and purchase of a new top. Satisfied but peckish, she consoled her grumbling stomach with a late afternoon ice-cream purchased on our way back from a beer with Pokey and another friend, Marilyn, at the plush Opera bar right next to that most iconic of Australian architecture, the Sydney Opera house. We were rapidly getting used to this place!
We were amazed by the volume of clean and pretty beaches in such a close proximity to the city centre, and swiftly resolved to sample several more during our time here. The smal resort town of Manly was next up on our hitlist, and we spent a scorching afternoon strolling up and down its busy and bustling beach, marvelling at the multitude of surfers in the churning waves. We also began to understand why Aussie life guards are regarded as the best in the world as we observed them going through their vigerous training schedules, and several of them maintaining a beady eye on the various care-free revellers in the surf. We also got to understand just how dodgy some beaches can get if you're not paying attention as on several occasions while we were there, notices went out over the tannoy instructing beach goers to either leave the water completely or change where they were swimming due to the numbers of dangerous rips in the area. There was even a "Bluebottle" (Aka Portuguese Man-o-war) warning, urging parents to pluck their children from the water lest they cop a severe stinging from the floating nasties drifting into shore. It was certainly livelier than any beach in the UK.
So totting up the score so far: Sydney CBD was lively and cool, Neutral bay (where we were staying) was hip and full of late twenties proffessional types, Balmoral beach was pretty and homely, and Manly was "Like, right on dude". We suddenly realised that we had a new pole position holder in our "Favourite city" list. San Fransisco had been trumped at last. We were going to struggle to leave this place at this rate.
New Years was soon upon us, and we had decided to celebrate it in relaxed fashion with a picnic and alcoholic beverages on a lookout point in the harbour. A brief reccie a few days previously had uncovered Cremorne point, a 45 min walk from our residence and with a clear view to the harbour bridge and opera house, it seemed spot on for our needs. Dunc ventured down to the site at 10:30am on New Years eve to set up our sun tent and blanket and effectively "reserve" our spot". The area was already thick with revellers, so we made haste to return just after midday with our food and drink and settled in for the afternoon. Before long, we had made friends with all the groups of people around us - everyone sharing their food and drink amongst each other - and spent a hot, sticky but very fun afternoon chatting, eating and drinking 2005 away while we awaited the midnight celebrations.
Sydney is world-renowned as going "large" on new years, and this year was most certainly no exception. After watching an enchanting sunset over the harbour, we were treated to an impressive fireworks display at 9pm, put on especially for families with small children to allow them to take part in the celebrations as well. This in itself was incredibly impressive, and held us spellbound for a long time afterwards. Following this up was a flotila of boats of varying sizes drifting in and out of the harbour, illuminated with a plethora of lights and displays. They were quite a sight, resplendant in their decorations, and this kept us more than amused as the clock continued to tick down.
Soon, midnight was upon us and all we can say is Wow! Neither of us had ever experienced anything quite like the sheer spectacle of the display in front of us. The harbour bridge was lit up with explosions, and at a series of set points up and down the harbour itself more fireworks lit up the sky in a bewitching array of colours and sounds. The atmosphere of friendship was further enhanced by the theme of "lovehearts": Boats had hearts emblazoned on their hulls, fireworks somehow formed heart shaped shilloutes in the sky and the bridge itself was festooned with a huge illuminated beating heart. No words we can think of here could possibly do the event justice but safe to say, we put it down as the best new year either of us had ever had (well, since the new year when we drunkenly first met each other in a pile of shoes at a house party three years ago to the day). We returned home on wobbly legs and fell into bed thouroughly partied out and chuffed about the end to 2005 and the beginning of 2006.
New Years day involved nothing more than sitting in a darkened room not only in an attempt to take the edge off our hangovers but also to give ourselves some small measure of respite from the insane 45 degree heat outside. Dunc briefly ventured out to pick up some soft drinks but the heat was such that it physically hurt him to breath the air. No way were we heading out today!
We had both wanted to check out the Sydney aquarium during our time here, and elected to venture back into the city on the 2nd to do just that. Before this though, we booked ourselves onto a tour to the world heritage Blue mountains and got Dunc a haircut. This act in itelf was highly amusing as we searched out a small "$10 mens haircut" salon, and stopped for a closer look. Within seconds, we were mobbed by a miniscule Korean woman frantically gesturing at us and repeatedly questioning "you wa' haircu'?". When we nodded (rather hesitantly if truth be told), she virtually dragged us into the salon, all the while saying "You si' here, we cu' hair". Within 5 minutes, Dunc had been thouroughly shorn of his locks and shoved back out the door, pausing only briefly to hand over the "Te' dolla'" fee.
The aquarium itself was a distracting place, and we checked out several large sharks of varying species, a saltwater croc (whose enclosure had the frankly brilliant and very australian warning sign telling people that if they climbed the walls, and the fall didn't kill them, then the croc inside probably would). The display that occupied Vickie's mind more than others though, was the small (and fortunately very dead) Box Jellyfish. These highly venemous and potentially deadly creatures are apparently plentiful in the Queensland coast (our next destination), and after spending several long closely inspecting the anti-venoms and sting symptoms, she resolved not to go swimming in the sea anywhere else on our trip.
No two ways about it, Sydney had grabbed us in more ways than one during our time here, and we were going to be very sad to see the back of it. It had been our favourite city destination so far, and we left with the sneaking suspicion that, in one capacity or another, we may not have seen her for the last time.