Getting out of Sydney: 24 hours in the Blue Mountains

I lived in Sydney for about five months, and its quietest moments, it’s at best busy. Escaping the hustle and bustle of the city fumes is a must and thankfully, Sydney’s well connected travel links provide an easy option for tired city dwellers: the Blue Mountains.

Catch a train from Sydney’s central station, and you’ll be whisked away to the beautiful mountains in a little under two hours. Go on a Sunday, and you’ll benefit from Sydney’s travel-cap too, paying just a few dollars for your trip. The train travels through sleepy countryside towns, the idyllic landscape unfolding before your very eyes.

The main stop for the Blue Mountains is called Katoomba. Whilst you can get off at other places and still technically reach the Blue Mountains, if you get off here you’ll find your biggest range of restaurants, hostels/motels, and the visitors centre. A bus runs directly from the station down to the visitors centre and the start of trails, pretty regularly.

When we visited last year, we chose to spend the night in a nearby motel just minutes from the visitors centre. However, this isn’t entirely necessary. If you’re short on time (or money) the main sections of the Blue Mountains can easily be walked in under a day, and you’ll be back in the city by evening. If you are looking for a more relaxed and slow-paced weekend though, I would definitely recommend pre-booking accommodation. This way, you can do what we did and stroll aimlessly around the less traversed trails…and get horrendously lost too!

Many maps of the Blue Mountains showcase the main walking tracks, however in peak times, these can be exceptionally busy. These are the Giant Stairway, Three Sisters, and the tracks to the waterfalls. Whilst these are all beautiful and definitely worth a look, we found our best scenery and walking tracks in the areas where tourists don’t usually go. In the few hours that we were walking we saw just a handful of people…and it was lovely!

For those with families, or people who just want something a bit more established, the Blue Mountains are also home to Scenic World. This a combination of a skyway, walkway, cableway, and railway – the steepest railway incline in the world. We did look into tickets, but we found them too expensive and not really the kind of thing we were looking for. However, things like the skyway and cableway would offer amazing views of the surrounding area, so do some research if you are interested.

Our short time in the Blue Mountains was definitely one of my highlights of being in Australia. It’s so easy to reach from Sydney and you don’t need to stay overnight, that I’d encourage anyone staying in the city to embark on this nature-filled day trip. You’ll capture stunning photographs, exercise your lungs and legs, and appreciate some of the natural beauty that Australia has to offer.

 

 

Valentine’s Day at the Beach

Happy Valentine’s Day! As it’s #travelTuesday and Valentine’s Day, I thought I would combine the two and write a post dedicated to what my better half and I got up to, this time last year.

As you may or may not know, this time last year we were just beginning the Australian stint of our year abroad. By now, we would have been in the land down under for just under two weeks…yet we were still feeling the effects of the dreaded jet-lag! Hot days and heavy heads meant we’d just explored the city that I lived in, Sydney, so far. So, on Valentine’s Day, we took advantage of the Opal card travel-cap and went up to Nelson Bay, Port Stephens, for a wonderful couple of nights.

As mentioned, the Sunday travel-cap that Opal card have, meant that we travelled roughly 5 hours up New South Wales for just a couple of dollars! We went first to Newcastle (meant to be a train, but actually ended up being a bus replacement service), then got the bus to Nelson Bay. Yes, the journey was long (and hot), but boy it was worth it. Even on the way back to Sydney, the daily-cap Opal have meant our journey didn’t exceed around $15 – so cheap compared to UK transport fees!

Our accommodation, costing us £30 each for two nights, was a beautifully decorated one-bed ‘beach-house’, complete with Jacuzzi bathtub. It had its very own entrance leading down to the beach too. Perfect for a couple of nights of relaxation. In fact, we both admitted we could have definitely stayed there longer too.

Nelson Bay itself is a beautiful, relatively quiet place. Its main attraction is the beach and the nearby harbour, so there isn’t much to do beside lounging around and getting a tan…ideal for us anyway! However, a longer stay might have been slightly problematic without a car. The main centre has little to eat outside the realm of fatty fast-food, which is not really what you desire after a day spent in the sun, and not great for breakfast either. We managed to track down a very small (and very overpriced) supermarket, but that was around a 45 minute walk from our accommodation, so we could only go in the evening when it was cooler. Although, if you’ve got the money to rent a car, Nelson Bay would make a perfect week-long getaway from the hustle and bustle of nearby Sydney.

In all honesty, Nelson Bay was probably my most favourite place I visited during my time in Australia, and I wouldn’t be surprised if my boyfriend said the same thing too. Although we did little more than lay around on the beach and tan (read: burn), it was so peaceful and relaxing to get away from inner Sydney. Although, I did later realise how much I wasn’t a ‘big city girl’, so maybe this was simply a sign of things to come. As I sit at my desk this cold and rather dreary English February afternoon, I find myself wishing for the sound of waves, the feel of sand between my toes, and the heavy rays of sun beaming down on me…however cliché that may sound.

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The San Xavier Mission – Tucson

Going through my old posts about my time in States, I realised I’d neglected to write about one of my favourite experiences – visiting the San Xavier Mission.

Located just 10 miles south of downtown Tucson, the mission is a world away from the colourful, student-filled streets of the city centre and campus surroundings. In fact, it was one of the only times I felt I experienced the ‘real Tucson’, and understood that it is actually a complex city rooted with many (seemingly forgotten) socioeconomic problems.

We took a bus from the main bus station, still in the downtown area, and traveled just 20 minutes or so to another bus terminal where we would need to change buses. Just this short drive made me aware of the college bubble I had been living in for the past few months. The roads were less looked after, many stores looked closed or failing, and the people had changed too; instead of being mainly white and college-aged, they looked older and of Mexican or Native American heritage.

Being at the bus stop definitely cemented this idea; me and my boyfriend were by far the ‘whitest’ people there, not just in terms of skin tone, but the way we dressed, acted, spoke…we felt uncomfortable and like outsiders. This was new to me. I had been living in Tucson for a little over three months and had begun to feel comfortable with my surroundings, the people there, and the way of life. Waiting just 30 minutes or so in that bus stop made me realise that I’d merely scratched the surface on some of the complex issues embedded in Tucson’s core.

Even when the bus came, we were shocked. It wasn’t a bus: it was mini-van, and many of the locals used this transport everyday, as a way of getting around the mission. They knew one another, and the driver. Again, our tourist status was exemplified. The drive round the mission was also eye-opening. Tucson itself has a relatively modern looking downtown area, complete with skyscrapers and a tram. This was the complete opposite. Roads were dirt-tracks, houses were shack-like, and it looked as though the government had simply given up trying to improve it.

The church itself is beautiful, filled with stunning figures of Christ, amazing architecture, and if you climb the neighboring hill as we did, some amazing views of the area surrounding Tucson. You feel like you have stepped out of the mainstream, white America, and into a rural Mexican village of sorts. What I liked in particular was the way in which the brilliant white of the church contrasted against the sky – which is always bright blue in Tucson – and the orange of the sand.

Whilst you definitely won’t get a days visit out of the church, the whole experience of being in the mission and getting to the mission, will stay with you. Especially, if like me, you had previously only experienced Tucson’s relatively college-focused centre.

To this day, I still don’t fully know how to talk about my snippet of ‘true Tucson’. When I tell Americans that I spent time living in Tucson, I am either told that the school is really party-focused (which it is!) or that the city is a dump outside the campus. It’s sad to think that what Tucson was originally noted for is slowly fading away, and becoming less favourable. Sadly, this kind of reaction to missions in America is not unique. They are often surrounded by negative stereotypes and a general fear by outsiders.

However, the only way to ‘conquer that fear’ and prove the stereotypes wrong, is to visit one, and spend some time around the people who reside there. San Xavier is a great starting point, and it did really help me to appreciate the diverse society I lived in. I hope in the future to explore more places like this, and to create a conversation where people really know and understand these kind of areas.

For more information about San Xavier Mission, click here.

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48 Hours on Magnetic Island

Magnetic Island, just off the coast of Townsville in Queensland, is simply Australia in a nutshell. The small picturesque island, relatively unknown to tourists before they visit Oz, is included in most East Coast tour packages, which is how we came across this little piece of heaven last month.

Me and my boyfriend were fortunate enough to spend a couple of nights in a hostel with its own private beach entrance, on the island. As I said, Magnetic Island perfectly sums up all that Australia has to offer. White sand, coral reefs just metres from the shore, wild koalas and hillside treks are just a handful of the splendours that await you once you arrive. The island is easily accessible from the Townsville ferry terminal, which takes about 20 minutes. However, it is now also featured on many tours that go along the East Coast, which usually include return ferry transfers as well as accommodation.

We stayed at Base X Backpackers, a popular hostel chain in the country. It’s certainly not the nicest hostel I’ve stayed in but it definitely isn’t the worst. It’s quite a ‘party hostel’, with its own bar and entertainment (however cringy it may be). However, the private beach entrance and stunning sunset views make up for anything that the hostel lacks. Plus, it has its own pool and small cafe, where you can get cheap, hearty, backpacker meals.

Our first day on Magnetic Island was mostly spent exploring the beaches and catching some afternoon sun. The highlight of the trip came the next day though, when we visited a ‘Koala Village’ in Bungalow Bay. Koalas are a key part of the Aussie experience, and this hostel/wildlife sanctuary offers you a close encounter with the cuddly creatures. Other Aussie animals such as baby crocs, turtles, parrots, and wallabies are also housed in the sanctuary, most of which you can handle too. The two-hour tour is finished off with a memorable photo of you and your new furry best friend…which believe me, you will struggle to let go of.

In terms of what else to do on the island, you need not look far. Open-top jeeps, or ‘Barbie cars’ as they are more commonly known, are available to rent from many points around the area, allowing you to travel in style to the various bays. However, cheap public transport will also get you there if driving isn’t really your thing. We spent most of our afternoon at Horseshoe Bay, which was honestly one of the prettiest places in Australia I visited. Not only were  the views insane, but there was barely anybody there too. There is something so magical about being virtually alone on a beautiful beach in the sun. However, if (for some insane reason) lounging on the beach isn’t your idea of fun, there is a ubundance of water sports and walking tracks around the island. The reefs are seriously only metres from the shore, so snorkelling or diving is easy and a lot simpler than trekking out to the Great Barrier Reef. The walking tacks offer sublime views from the tallest parts of Magnetic Island, amongst lush rainforest and (fingers crossed) a wild koala sighting or two.

Many people back home hadn’t heard of Magnetic Island when I mentioned that I was visiting there – heck, some people in my classes in Sydney even looked at me dumbfounded when asked if they had been there. For some reason, it’s just not as big as say Fraser Island or the Whitsundays. Don’t get me wrong, these places are beautiful too and definitely worth a visit, but they’re often a lot busier and just don’t have the same remote feel to them. Plus, Magnetic Island is so easily reached (Townsville even has an airport offering flights to/from major cities) it really still shocks me that this place isn’t on more bucket lists! Nevertheless, if you are ever over on the East Coast of Aussie (which I hope all of you are at some point in your lives), make sure to make it part of your itinerary.

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Newtown’s King Street

Forget the Opera House – Newtown’s King Street is Sydney’s ‘place to be’!

OK…so don’t actually forget the Opera House, I mean it would be silly to go all the way to Aussie and not check out their most famed attraction. However, once you’ve finished battling your way through the hordes of tourists and almost bleeding your pockets dry, hop onto a bus/train for little more than 20 minutes and head on down to Newtown.

When I was living in Sydney, I was luckily around a five minute walk from the glorious King Street of Newtown and all the delights it had to offer. For those familiar with London, the area has a kind of Shoreditch/Camden Market vibe. You can pick up all your groceries, alcohol, and toiletries, whilst also nipping into unique vintage shops and one of a kind eateries in between. In short, you can certainly find what you’re looking for on King Street.

A few of my favourite places in Sydney were along King Street – some independent, others more popular. It was handy to have all that in one place though, and not spend hours trawling around the city for various items. My favourite (and probably the place I spent the most money) has to be Doughnut Time. These small ‘fast-food’ doughnut stores are surely a gift from heaven. I’m not even going to try and list all the amazing flavours they do and the many I tried…although I will leave you with this thought – Nutella doughnut. Mmm.

Doughnut Time isn’t the only commercial food chain to have found a home on King Street. Other delights include Max Brenner Chocolate Bar and various Mexican and burger joints. However, the independently owned food establishments steal the show by a long shot. Every kind of Asian cuisine (and for less than half the price and double the authenticity then we’d get in the U.K.), bakeries, fish and chips, kebabs, pizzas, and even vegan/gluten free restaurants that offer a healthy alternative to eating out. However, my go-to place was a small café aptly titled ‘Juice and Pork Roll’…because they really do only sell juice, and various types of roll. The juices are made fresh in front of you in any flavour combination you like. My personal favourite is watermelon and lychee, perfect for a hot, sticky Sydney day. The rolls are also personalized to order, and are certainly a bargain for your money considering the amount of meat, salad, and veggies they pack in there. Cheap, guilt-free, and never a queue – what more can you ask for in a ‘restaurant’?

Although I’ve focused rather a lot on the food of King Street (I may have been hungry at the time of writing this) you can’t ignore the abundance of independent fashion and boutique shops that filled the gaps between the eateries. As this area of Sydney is just so trendy and hipster, the charity shops are filled with exciting finds at a fraction of their retail price. The vintage shops are also reasonably priced too, especially where there is a sale. Other stores include shoe stores, art supplies, a really cute second-hand bookstore, and an Asian-inspired store that does the best rugs and teapots…if you have enough room in your case that is!

So, if you’re ever lucky enough to visit the bustling city that is Sydney, be sure to take a visit to King Street and Newtown in general. It’s not on many tourist’s radars but it really should be – especially if you’re a budget traveller like myself! Central Sydney can become tiresome and repetitive, so it’s nice to escape the harbour area and the various shopping malls to witness the true quirkiness of the city and what makes it unique. P.S. if you do get bored of shopping/eating (how could you??), happy hour in most of the bars is usually from around 5-7!

Travelling Abroad with Depression and Anxiety

I haven’t posted in a while, mainly due to the fact that this semester has been a difficult one. You may ask how this may be, having been living in the beautiful Australia (Sydney of all places) for the past five months. However, depression and anxiety do not care where you live, no matter how exotic it may be.

I was halfway through my year abroad when, whilst back home in the UK over Christmas, my anxiety spiralled out of control. Panic attacks were an everyday occurrence, I was unable to enter public places without feeling the immediate need to escape. Sometimes I’d try and ride this feeling out, stay in the same place and battle the intense sensations – however, the panic always won. I lost roughly a stone in weight (which if you know how petite I am anyway, is a lot to lose) due to the unexplainable fear I’d developed over eating. It was a tough Christmas, and I was glad when I finally got prescribed medication to help me manage it as I embarked on the second half of my year abroad, to Australia.

However, as I’ve previously said, a change of scenery doesn’t cure everything. It seemed that it was one step forward and two steps back. Yes, I could eat more and was putting on weight. Yes, I was managing my fear of public spaces a lot better than when back in the UK. But on the other hand, my social anxiety was getting increasingly difficult – I had made friends so easily in America, but I just felt I didn’t have the energy to go through it all again over here. I wanted a comfort blanket of friends that already knew and understood me…which, as fellow travellers are probably well aware, is something that can make you feel so alone despite being surrounded by people.

Eventually, I learned to accept that everything wasn’t going to come all at once. Just because I’d put on weight, started taking tablets, and improved some other aspects of anxiety, didn’t mean that I was going to become the most confident person out there. And it certainly didn’t mean that the depression would vanish too. Once I started to accept this, and take my counsellors advice of ‘being kind to myself’ (probably the most valuable thing I can pass on to fellow mental health recoverees), each day became a little easier. And the days that weren’t, well I tried not to look into them too much. After all, I was (and still am) on a journey to recovery and it wasn’t going to happen overnight – in other words, it was OK for me to fuck up sometimes. Luckily, those bad days have become less frequent as the semester has progressed, and I would class myself as a lot ‘better’ than when I arrived here in February.

Travelling and being in a new environment is often not an easy thing to do for someone who doesn’t suffer from depression and/or anxiety. Homesickness can hit hard and you can find yourself craving the comfort of your own bed. However, I admire anyone with a similar illness to my own that is defying themselves (and the awful stigma that surrounds mental illness) and taking the plunge. A year abroad was not something I could really choose to opt out of, and looking back if I was given the option back in January, I definitely would have stayed back in the UK for this semester. However, working through this turbulent few months or so has given me so much strength and admiration for anyone doing this on a day to day basis. It also gives me hope that it does get better – which I know is hard to hear if you are having a dark day, believe me the amount of times my boyfriend has said this to me and I’ve wanted to scream at him is too many to count – but seriously, it does.

Despite all this, I’ve still had an amazing time in this diverse country, having been lucky enough to spend a few weeks travelling down the east coast and seeing some incredible things. No, I’m not coming away with the buzzing social life I had in America, but I am leaving having learned a lot more about myself (however cliché that may be) and with a new found confidence.

Cultural Traditions with a Twist

Living in Tucson has definitely opened my eyes to a few new traditions that I hadn’t experienced before. Most of us in England are already familiar with the typical American holidays – 4th of July, Thanksgiving. And we can all name some of the standard American societal behaviour – football games, burger bars, smores, hanging a flag in every classroom… However, as most of you may know, Tucson has a large Mexican population. Being only an hour away from the Mexican border, it has become one of the famous border cities where their community is thriving.

Consequently, many of the Mexican cultural traditions and holidays have also been carried across the border. Over the many years they have adapted into something unique, in which they are neither traditionally Mexican nor fully integrated into American culture. Instead, we are presented with a wonderful hybrid of what happens when two alternate societies come together.

Last weekend, I managed to witness two perfect examples of this ‘culture clashing’. Friday night, I was exposed to the odd and intriguing art of ‘Lucha Libre’, in other words, Mexican wrestling. You may have seen images of the brightly coloured masks around the internet – the sport has definitely gained popularity in recent years. Whilst I may not have fully been sold on it as a leisure activity (it is definitely more of a ‘guys’ thing), it was interesting to watch and highly entertaining. Rather than focus on the fights, it is more about the ‘show’ – the introducing of the competitors; the bad-mouthing of each-other; the staged flips; the extravagant costumes. Everything is an act, intended to shock and amuse the audience…and shocked and amused I certainly was.

A couple of days later was Tucson’s biggest festival – ‘Dia de los Muertos’ (Day of the Dead). Again, images of the colourful skull have circulated around American and European culture, but many people do not know of its origins in the festival. The festival is intended to celebrate the dead ancestors of Mexican families, and all those who wish to join in. In fact, many of the groups walking in the parade were American, showing the adaptation and diversity of what was once a traditional Mexican festivity. On the final night there is an All Souls Procession, which I had the pleasure of attending. People gathered, dressed up in traditional costume, carrying photos of their deceased loved ones (pets included), and walked in a truly spectacular parade. At the end, a concert-type thing takes place, in which a huge urn filled with messages for the deceased is burnt. The whole thing was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. In actual fact, the Tucson parade is the biggest in the U.S.A. and bigger than most in Mexico…although this is most likely because nowhere else besides Tucson celebrates it to such extremity.

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The blend of cultures in Tucson is something I’m not sure I’ll ever get over. I think it probably mostly stems from having such a lack of Mexican presence in the U.K. –a lot of my classmates can speak Spanish, and have knowledge of Mexican-American culture. It’s sad to admit that most of what I understood about Mexican immigrants came from movies and stereotypes! Thankfully, I am lucky to have spent four months in a city that has not only taught me about the standard American culture, but a little about the Mexican-American way of life too.

KODAK Digital Still Camera