After a long drive from Melbourne -with a stop at Glenrowan, a place of renown in Aussie lore – I arrived in Wollongong, a little seaside city south of Sydney. Famed for its surfing and beauty, it’s home to my friends and fellow traveling fiends Tim and Beth. They kindly welcomed me to their home late that evening, where the bed in the guest bedroom was spectacularly comfortable.
I’d been looking forward to reconnecting with them for a while. We’d met nearly a year earlier on A Great Journey, buzzed biking separately in the Maipu region of Mendoza, Argentina. That afternoon, after my brakes stopped working and nearly falling in love with an Argentine vintner named Sol at the Cecchin organic winery, our paths crossed again.
After entering little La Botella – a fantastic, no-frills wine bar in Maipu – solo, they invited me to join them. A few bottles/hours later, we ended up in a truck with Mario, a friendly local pimp. He kindly gave us a ride to the main plaza after we walked onto the wrong side of town. More drinks, dinner, and the Argentina vs. Bolivia match followed. One of my favorite days on A Great Journey; truly had it all.
But back to Australia…
With Beth at work, Tim took me on a tour of the area. A sunny day, great views and little cafes were in order, as were flat whites, avo toast, and, eventually, beers. I also followed through on a promise – and faced my fear of great whites & failure – by trying out surfing for the first time. I was in good hands, as Tim is an experienced surfer and former surf coach. But teaching an old dog new tricks isn’t easy.
A weak knee didn’t help, but I eventually got up a couple times, albeit briefly, the next day. It was a good feeling after having the board slide out from my beneath me and drinking salt water more often than I’d bargained for.
We also met up with his parents for a tasty lunch. And though we didn’t make it out as planned that evening, pizza, malbecs, and Scrabble at their cozy home, preceded by haircuts, courtesy of Beth, were a damn good call.
A nice morning hike, another surf lesson, a visit to the farmer’s market at the greyhound track, and getting caught in the rain before, and after, some flat whites by the beach rounded out my visit to serene city. I really appreciated the fantastic Australian hospitality and the opportunity to link up with two truly good people.
An hour after leaving Wollongong, I made it to rainy Sydney’s famed Bondi beach. My friend Kevin lives there and graciously invited me to reconnect and couchsurf at his beachside bachelor pad. I spent many more days there than I anticipated (sorry, Kev), but Sydney was certainly a good time. Probably too much so, especially since it was every bit as expensive as promised. And then some.
But it was cool to walk around so much, experience the famous Sydney Opera House, get really familiar with Woolworth’s, Tim Tams, and Ravesis, catch NBA playoff games with Kev and his roomies, and enjoy the Bondi life a bit. It wasn’t so cool to start the job search in earnest and get the boot from T-mobile, but I digress.
Sydney is a cool, beautiful city, nonetheless, on the south-eastern coast of a humongous country where drinking is a key cultural component and national pride runs deep. I first experienced both at the World Cup in Germany, but they really came to life on ANZAC Day.
ANZAC stands for Australia and New Zealand Army Corps. April 25th is ANZAC Day in both nations, and it once commemorated all the lives lost in the battle of Gallipoli in WWI. It is now a day of remembrance for all soldiers who have lost their lives while serving; and it is truly a matter of consequence that galvanizes an entire nation.
Basically, and respectfully, ANZAC Day in Australia is what Memorial Day wishes it could be, and should be, in the U.S. It’s very much part of the national identity and important to people young and old. I was blown away by the respect on display. More than just a big national excuse to skip work and party, it grips the country in a solemn reflection of the sacrifices men and women of the armed forces have made.
ANZAC Day starts before sunrise, when thousands across the nation gather for dawn service, many at the local RSL (Returned and Services League) outpost or parks. Kevin and I did the former, and it was hard not to get teary eyed during the service. Hearing poignant words from military leaders and dignitaries, as well as Last Post (akin to Taps) played on a WWI bugle, while seeing throngs of proud Australian veterans, service personnel, and citizens of all ages was a sobering, touching, and unforgettable experience.
After dawn service, the North-Bondi RSL started the ANZAC Day celebration with free beers. At 7:30 am. Welcome to Australia.
Kev was a fantastic tour guide and it was great to catch up many years after we left UNLV. We drank the day away and played two-up at a few places before the night was over. I called it a night somewhat early because my backpacker chic wasn’t cutting at some spots and neither was my budget. Plus, I had to pack for my flight to Shanghai the next day.
Delaying my flight to China by a week to experience ANZAC Day was mostly worth it. And it was great to catch up with so many people during my Aussie adventure. Would I go back? Probably not unless I was gainfully employed and able to visit the Outback. It’s simply too similar to the U.S. and too expensive for my taste. But it sure is beautiful in many ways.
As for the great Melbourne vs Sydney debate? I liked both, but definitely enjoyed the Melbourne vibe more. It felt more authentic, chill, sporty, and less touristy/douchey, plus, it had better public transport and kangaroos.
Now it was off to Asia, where A Great Journey end sooner than planned. But not before getting into some fun parks, onto very fast trains, and experiencing three lively sporting events in China & Japan.