The Latest from Down Under

It’s been a while since I updated you on my Antipodean activities and, knowing how you all worry, I thought it only right to fill you in on the latest on my life down under.  At the end of my last report I was happily working for a web hosting company, the weather was absolutely appalling and Fabio Capello was a coaching genius about to make our team of underachieving multi-millionaires finally deliver at a major tournament.  How quickly things can change.

Where to start?  Being English I suppose the natural choice is the weather and firstly I have to apologise for and, embarrassingly, withdraw my previous statement that the ‘Australian winter is not much better than ours’.  By way of mitigation that comment was written in the midst of Sydney’s wettest May for seven years (I was delighted that I was able to witness that particular record being set) but things have greatly improved since then.  It’s still very much the middle of winter here and you often see the Australians heading to work wrapped up in gloves, hats and scarves but I would class it as being the equivalent of a decent British spring – by no means scorching but some very pleasant days with temperatures around the twenties.  Sydney reputedly has 315 days of sunshine per year – just as well seeing as their city literally grinds to a halt at the first sight of rain – and I can well believe that having experienced the ‘depths’ of their winter.

Amusingly Waverley Council (which covers the Bondi area) has tried to capture some of the seasonal spirit with a special winter festival on Bondi Beach – lucky attendees can (for

Ice skating on Bondi Beach

a, naturally, exorbitant price) drink mulled wine, eat Sauerkraut and even ice skate surrounded by a traditional Alpine-style snow scene complete with log cabin.  There’s only one minor problem with this otherwise impressive display – it’s not bloody cold!  It’s not even close to being cold!  I have to admit that skating on an ice rink that overlooks a beach bathed in beautiful sunshine and an ocean reflecting a glorious blue sky does have an enjoyably surreal feel though.

Other than my heroic, Christopher Dean-like efforts around the Bondi ice skating rink the big sporting talking point of the summer (or winter) has obviously been the World Cup.  I was slightly concerned, prior to my arrival, that the coverage here would be extremely limited (if non-existent) but I need not have worried – SBS provided pretty much continuously rolling coverage for the duration of the tournament although the standard of commentary and punditry was not the most inspiring; their chief commentator made Clive Tydlesley sound like Kenneth Wolstenhome.

As for the natives, the Australians surprised me with their level of interest and passion for the game which continued even after their national team, the Socceroos, were despatched in the group stages.  As a side note – is there a worse nickname in world sport (let alone football) than the Socceroos?   I can’t decide if it makes them sound more like an under-ten tiddly-wink team or a gaggle (if that’s the right plural) of cheerleaders.  Nonetheless the majority of the Aussies seem genuinely interested in the football although I can’t imagine that it will ever overtake rugby, cricket and AFL (in the more southern states) in terms of popularity any time soon..

Unfortunately the fact that Sydney is eight hours in front of South Africa did somewhat cloud my enjoyment of the World Cup; it was something of a novelty at the beginning of the tournament to get up at or, more likely, stay up until 4.30AM to catch a game but that initial excitement soon wore off, especially considering the horror show that England were producing and I was almost relieved when the tournament ended and I was able to resume something of a normal sleep pattern.

As a footnote to the World Cup, I must give props to our landlord who went well beyond the call of duty when summoned to our flat at 5.30AM to remedy a power cut that occurred during half time of the England-USA game.  In hindsight the decision to run three heaters, the TV, the stereo, and every conceivable light simultaneously was perhaps not a wise one in our prehistoric flat and the fateful decision to attempt a half time cup of tea and slice of toast proved too much for our antiquated wiring, plunging the entire flat into darkness.  Luckily our Landlord is also a football fan and took our pleas to come round and fiddle with our switchboard to restore the electricity in good grace.

He was less sympathetic, however, when I made exactly the same mistake during the Germany-Argentina quarter final and pretended not to hear his phone on that occasion.  Understandable really I suppose.

Aside from the footballing festivities I have managed to undertake a few trips in the New South Wales area and plan a whole lot more – some local, some further afield.

First up was a three hour train trip north to Newcastle accompanied by Cameron.  I won’t waste too much of your time on this particular excursion, needless to say if Australia ever get round to producing a version of the UK’s ‘Crap Towns’ book, Newcastle will be a worthy entry.  The main reason for the journey was to check out the local beach so, naturally, it pissed down the day we went there.  Newcastle, like Sydney in truth, is very much a summer town:  When the rain starts to fall there isn’t a huge amount to do and we were forced to retreat to a wildlife park which at least afforded me the chance to take a few obligatory Koala pictures before heading home.

More successful was our road trip up to Hunter Valley –  a huge wine region about a two hour drive north of Sydney and a five hour drunken drive back (that’s a joke by the way Mum).  Carly and I were fortunate enough to be chauffeured around for the day by my housemate Greig who was generous (and foolish) enough to agree to ferry two inebriated idiots around.  I did agree to drive up there, a decision that I was beginning to regret when the engine of our hire car started making some alarming noises on the motorway after about an hour of driving.  Carly then helpfully pointed out that I had in fact driven the first hundred kilometres stuck in third gear (it was an automatic if that is any sort of defence).

Damaged transmission aside, we reached Hunter Valley in one piece and it was a worthwhile journey.  The scenery is absolutely astounding – valleys covered with

Carly and Greig on their way to taking to taking the piss in another winery

vineyards as far as you can see enclosed by a stunning mountain range.  There are literally hundreds of wineries to choose from all of which are happy to provide free samples to prospective buyers so we spent the day travelling from vineyard to vineyard pretending to be interested in buying their wares before inevitably disappointing the winemaker and leaving with nothing more than a slightly rosier complexion.

In fairness there were some excellent wines on offer and the winemakers were generally friendly although my observation that one particular Cabernet Sauvignon tasted like “burnt hair” was not altogether warmly received – it was met with the first (and surprisingly last) “get out” of the day.

It was a hugely enjoyable day out though and the alcohol, doubtless combined with some lingering sense of guilt at taking so many free samples led me to buy some cheese which I

Giving the $22 cheese the respect it deserves

convinced myself was the finest I had ever tasted.  The fact that it tastes slightly average on reflection combined with the fact is cost $22 suggests that I didn’t make the decision with an entirely clear head but at least I had some sort of souvenir of the trip, other than a pounding headache the next day.

The next weekend Carly, Greig, Pete and I travelled north again – three hours up to Port Stephens.  Port Stephens is basically a seaside resort but is surrounded by some spectacular sand dunes which are the largest of their type in the southern hemisphere, fact fans, and are in constant motion, moving inwards at a rate of about ten metres per year.

There are a number of activities that you can indulge on the dunes and first up we had a go at sandboarding which basically involves hurtling down the dunes on a glorified tin tray.  We were driven to the top of a large dune in a four wheel drive vehicle where we were met by Brad from Neighbours who would be supervising our efforts that day.  Obviously it wasn’t the Brad from Neighbours but if you imagine the stereotypical bleach blonde, outdoors-type Aussie bloke and you are just about there.  Standing at the top of the dune with some trepidation I asked Brad if there were ever any broken arms or legs suffered on this particular run.  “No” he replied, comfortingly.  “A few collar bones though”.

With Brad’s reassuring words ringing in my ears I began the first of many ill-fated attempts to actually stay on the board until the bottom of the dune.  I’ll save you the humiliating details but I can safely add sandboarding on to the list of outdoor activities that I am no good at.  All good fun though but with the inevitable consequence that I ended up literally covered in sand and I was still finding sand in places where I didn’t even know I had places for days afterwards.

As it is currently off-season we were able to afford to stay in a pretty luxurious resort which came complete with gym, steam room, a huge swimming pool that circled the entire

Living the High Life in Port Stephens

resort and hot tub.  We headed to the hot tub on our return to the hotel and I would like to tell you that we sat in the hot tub all evening drinking lager and recounting the day’s excitement.  In reality we sat in the hot tub for five minutes before a security guard kicked us out but at least the thought was there.

The hotel room also featured excellent cooking facilities which was a major result as the standard of cuisine in Port Stephens is not the highest; again I will save you the details but serving up Smash instead of mashed potato and tomato puree instead of a salsa is surely a firing-squad offence for any chef?  Luckily Carly cooked us a fine roast dinner – my first in three months and something that the English will always do better than the Australians I think.  After a few dozen beers we retired to bed, still slightly aching but content with the day’s activities.

The next day’s sand-based activity was quad biking across the dunes, something I have not tried before but will certainly be doing again.  It’s certainly not cheap – $90 for an hour – but worth every cent in my opinion.  It takes a little while to get your confidence up but once you get the hang of the bike it’s enormous fun and you soon find yourself hacking along the dunes at 70KM/H with ease.  The landscape is extremely surreal; we would negotiate up a 100ft sand dune and, when reaching the top, find ourselves looking across an alien landscape with nothing but sand and blue sky as far as you could see.  It was amazing to think that you were literally a few kilometres from a reasonable sized town when, to all intents and purposes, you could have been in the middle of the Sahara.

The hour flew by and we were soon heading back to the town for a final culinary atrocity before returning to Sydney.  This time not only was the food crap, the waiter surly and the bill extortionate but the for some reason the restaurant was playing ‘Stand By Me’ by Ben E. King on a seemingly endless loop – we heard it at least five times whilst sitting there.  A recipe for insanity if ever there was one.  Self-catering is definitely the way forward in Port Stephens.

That’s pretty much it for this instalment but just to tie up a couple of loose ends:  I am working again after quitting the first horrific telesales job that I rashly took as soon as I got here.  I’m now doing Sales Co-Ordination for a ATM company called First Data, a pretty easy job and the company is excellent  – I’ve been there a month and have been out on three (all expense paid) drinks already.  I’m only contracted until the start of September but I’m desperately hoping that they extend my stay there for a couple of extra months – and not just for the free alcohol.

The past month has also seen a blitz of trip-booking:   I have weekends away in Melbourne and Brisbane planned in September and October to see friends and from November onwards, the fun really begins.  First up I have three nights in Los Angeles with Carly before driving to Las Vegas for my cousin Simon’s wedding.  We stay there for five days before returning to Sydney for a couple of days and then I am off to New Zealand for a month with my other cousin Paul and his girlfriend, Lou.  We then return to Sydney and hire a camper van to drive up the east coast to Brisbane over nine days and spend Christmas with friends before flying to Thailand on Boxing Day to catch up with some mates for three weeks of debauchery.  From Thailand I’m then off to China to stay with another friend who lives in Shanghai before retuning to Sydney around the end of January.  Jealous?

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