I’m somebody who likes their space and privacy.
So the idea of sharing a room with 6 or more people whom I don’t know was a pretty daunting idea before heading out on this adventure. But that is exactly the situation you will find yourself in whilst backpacking around Oz, so I would have to face my fears of cramped rooms, snoring, cockroaches and shagging room mates.Supposedly all of that is part of the backpacking experience, meeting new people who are all thrown in together in the same situation cramped together in rooms too small for the number of beds in it. But you know, when in Oz do as the backpackers do.
Pilling all my gear into the hostel on my first night in Sydney was the first time the reality of living in a hostel started to sink in. The Sydney Harbour Youth Hostel Association (YHA) was an ideal place to be starting this adventure with a pretty modern set up and a stunning view over the harbour there was really no other place I wanted to have the starting line. However my expectations of walking into the hostel and immediately making friends with my chirpy northern charm wasn’t as straightforward as I wanted to believe. Whilst there were always groups up on the roof terrace catching the final rays of sun as it set behind the skyscrapers of Sydney they would keep to themselves.
Typically these folks seemed to have known each other for some time be it from back home or meeting them on this big red rock in the southern oceans. Whilst typically you could hold an amicable conversation with them managing to find drinking partners for the evening proved to be more challenging than I thought. Not that it ever stopped me from drinking I hasten to add.
Maybe deciding to travel solo had been a bad idea. Had I travelled with friends would it have been easier to integrate with others rather than sipping my gin and tonic in looking out over the harbour on my own?
My first night sleeping in a hostel was not as bad as I had feared (probably due to the 25 hour flight the previous day and the quarter a bottle of gin I knocked back) although the fact that my room mates didn’t speak the next day had me worried. Was I a snorer? Had I kept them awake all night with a chorus or snorts and grunts? I didn’t want to be that room-mate that is hated by every one in the dorm so I decided that from then on I was going to sleep only on my front to cut down on the risk of snoring.
Along with my fear of snoring I was finding it harder than I had imagined this backpacking malarkey in my first few days. Thousands of miles from everyone I knew and the fact that even messaging by the internet proved an issue because of time-zones further compounded the feelings of isolation.
Although alone I was still finding this new country fascinating. Whether taking in the colonial history at Cockatoo island and the Hyde Park barracks or the natural beauty of the coastline at Bondi and Manly still made it an amazing place to get lost in. Although some people I talked with didn’t find it as spectacular. Marco a French lad who I spent an afternoon talking with found things out here less than idyllic. Complaining about the slow pace of life and the lack of posh restaurants he seemed to have a talent of finding faults with anywhere he went. Like some sort of terrible tour guide he rattled off places he had visited and told me the many reasons I should never go there. Whilst everyone is entitled to their own view this guy seemed to have the philosophy every silver lining has a cloud, determined to spread his displeasure with Australia to anyone daft enough to listen to him. Needless to say I’d had enough of this winging frog and decided it was time to move on to another hostel, and not before time.
Leaving the YHA I headed for the Mad Monkey hostel in Kings Cross. I had heard mentions of Kings Cross throughout my introduction to Australia as party central with lots going on all the time, whether it was for good or bad there was only one way to find out. Arriving in the hostel at 10am I went to drop my bags off and was greeted by a dozen drunk, singing and louder than normal Americans who judging by the bags under their eyes their beds had remained awake to greet midday once more before their session was over. The Mad monkey was in a different league to the YHA, whilst the latter resides in the premier league the Mad Monkey would probably be conference league at best. With cramped rooms and broken air con the place took on the smell and appearance of a month old gym bag forgotten in the boot of a car on a hot day. I thought I had made a terrible mistake. ‘I can’t do this’ ‘I need to get out of here’ I kept saying to myself. I frantically started searching for another hostel or Air B’n’B just anything to get me out of this place. But to no avail.
I left the hostel and took the short train journey to Bondi Beach and spent my afternoon reading in the sun staring out at the idyllic blue sea dipping my toes into the Tasman Sea for the very first time. All the time putting off returning to mad monkey with the thought of it making me long for home and feeling doubt in this adventure and the black dog beginning to set in.
However the next day offered a change in tempo and another insight into the wonders of Kings Cross. Whilst sleeping in a shared bedroom is difficult being woken by alarm clocks and fire alarms makes it seem all but impossible.
All it takes is a random event to get a conversation started. Be it a football game, currents affairs or some guy a few cans short of a six-pack setting off the fire alarm at an ungodly hour for no reason. Whilst waiting for breakfast I ended up chatting with two brothers from the US and a girl from Spain all of us looking bleery eyed and a tad grumpy to be up this early. A few cups of coffee and pancakes later and plans were made and in the afternoon we found ourselves sharing peaches on Bondi beach and jumping through the surf. Suddenly I seemed to have found some kindred spirits. The idyllic blue sea and the laughter and wails of fun being smashed around by the towering turquoise barrels smashing us into the shore made me realise I was in the right place. Maybe that nutter with the fire alarm had saved my trip?
The following nights spent with the mad monkey led to more people wanting to join us, our little international brigade added Irish, Germans and Canadians to our ranks. In the end our little posse had us drinking in all the local venues and awake until ungodly hours.
The highlight was the night of the US election. Whilst Donald Trump’s victory night might seem like a peculiar highlight, I must explain it was not for seeing a bigoted, racist, tangerine faced, balding and all round cretin elected to the most powerful office in the land. It was for the people surrounding me when we received this news. Whilst all of us distressed at the way the world was going with the rising tide of the right-wing and scientifically ignorant gaining power on both sides of the Atlantic we decided tonight was the night we would hit the town and set the world right. Sharing in the love of this diverse community we found ourself in the hostel we set about trying to dispel all the hate nations can hold towards one another. This trip makes you open your eyes to new ways of life and new attitudes, whilst you may not live like them you find that you are more similar than you ever realised. That all people hold goodness in there heart and want the best for their fellow human being regardless of where you may call home. For the first time in a long time I felt a wave of optimism for the future. If the youth can hold these beliefs and remain true we can endure and win against this rising tide of hatred and fear.
As my time at mad monkey drew to an end so it did for many of the others. Moving on from a hostel that I originally held animosity towards I now felt sadness. Maybe I was too quick to judge this place where I later found myself settling into this new status quo of this new bizarre lifestyle I had chosen to lead. Or maybe it was the hangover from the night before starting to scramble my grey matter, I couldn’t be sure.
Moving into the central business district of Sydney and being slap bang in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Australians largest city took some getting use to. The constant comings and goings of the endless streams of people, the incessant drone of cars and the endless supply of watering holes to quench your thirst on an evening made it difficult to decide where your should drink that evening. What a place to be! I checked myself into the Wake Up! (Punctuation obviously makes the place more edgy and down with the kids) having once again lost a stone in sweat arriving carrying a bag the size of a person looking bedraggled and sweating profusely, like a fat man who had heard there was free nuggets at McDonald’s. “This place was in the right direction” I thought to myself. It had seen the right end of a mop and duster in the last week, gleaming polished floor with an open plan reception with beautiful women behind it, I guess hostels aren’t so bad after all. I got checked in and carried the dead weight of my bag to the lift and through the corridor to room 402. I had now got the routine of arriving in a new room down. Firstly circling the room checking for a free bottom bunk, sadly my luck wasn’t in this time. Settling for the top bunk near the window I turned back to take another look across the room looking for a free locker and then I saw something that all backpackers dread. I don’t know how I missed it. A bed surrounded in an improvised curtain of blankets, sheets and towels. Affectionately known by backpackers as a sex fortress. “There’s a bloody couple, fucks sake.” The bastards better not try anything tonight or their will be hell the to pay.
Wake up! Was a great hostel, the rooms although a little small and compact were more spacious than that at mad monkey with less beds cramped in and were blessed by the divine wind that is air conditioning. Pleased I didn’t have to wake up in swimming in a pool of my own sweat any more I headed down for and check out the kitchen and cinema room I was told about by the lovely Dutch girl on the desk earlier. The movie room was impressive with big screen and piles of pillows it was ideal! Although no one could find the remote to turn the TV on so I ended up having a few drinks with an Australian actor here looking for work and a fantastically hippified German techno head. The theme of only a few drinks in the afternoon soon got sufficiently out of hand and obviously finished at 2 in the morning. But you know, these things happen.
After scrambling up the shear and jagged cliff face that was the 3 stairs into my bunk bed I collapsed face first and passed out into as drunken stupor. I couldn’t tell you how long I slept for but what I can tell you I was greeted by moaning, creaking and cracking from the bottom bunk at the end of the room. “Is that? Are they? Oh for fucks sake!” Needless to say the inhabitants of the Bangborough Castle whom I hadn’t met yet had taken up residence and were inspecting the ramparts. I rolled over and could see phones lighting up the faces of my other room mates also not invited to the shenanigans in Camp Shagstion. I don’t know why but it’s at this point my phone appeared in my hand and Spotify had opened. Like a man possessed my thumbs worked over time finding just the right song to set the mood for the star-crossed lovers in the corner. As I slowly increased the volume on my phone to its maximum volume playing out Marvin Gayes perfect love-making anthem sexual healing. Things seemed to come to an abrupt stop in Fort Bonksville replaced by the cackling laughter of all my fellow room mates. After my point had been made I rolled back over into my drool sodden pillow and had a great night of undisturbed sleep.
The following week I found I had to move on from wake up! as I hadn’t been sensible enough to book ahead at the hostel so I was kicked out and had to migrate the massive 200m to the other side of central station. Between being a new arrival at my new hostel, Bounce, and working as often as I could it took me some time before settling in. But with the ramping up of festivities in the build up to Christmas and New Years the opportunities to remain hidden and unknown diminished. With hostel parties galore the goon (cheep bags of Australian wine typically costing around $10 for 5L) was flowing and friends were made easily over a glass or seven of this dangerous hangover giver.
There is something about the festive period that seemed to open people up and in the end you weren’t able to turn and corner in and hostel without encountering someone you knew who would want to catch up on the days events, even though neither of you would be able to remember each others name.
Mixed in with people from all seven continents, of every race and creed gathered together her in a country so far from their homes is a moving experience especially when everyone is so friendly with one another. It didn’t take long to fall into a circle of friends who by the end of the 12 days of Christmas were as close to family as you could come.
Although I had fallen in with a crowd mostly from the UK and whilst others mistook my northern accent as a Welsh one I don’t think I could have found a nicer group. Finding myself constantly with something to do sleep continually evaded me. Whether it was cheep club night or just goon on the roof terrace overlooking central Sydney you couldn’t have asked for a better group of people or place.
When Christmas day finally arrived we arrived we revelled in our mock-up Christmas dinner served by bounce. Although lacking in Brussels sprouts someone managed to get their hands on some cranberry sauce so the day was not ruined. Like any tourist in Australia there is only one thing to do on Christmas day arrived and that was to head to the beach. So donning our Santa hats, reindeer antlers and Christmas inspired Hawaiian shirts and headed for Coogie beach.
The scene that greeted us was incredible. A sea of Santa hat clad revellers filled the beach all the way to the water line as if there was a titanic battle to hold the tide at bay. But undaunted and eskys (cooler boxes) in hand we laid claim to our own portion of the beach open a few tinnies and set to work on the festive spirits. As the day wore on more and more folks from Bounce began to join us ultimately there must have been neatly 40 of us enjoying the rays of the Christmas sun. To say my mind and body was confused at the fact it was nearly 30°c on December 25th would be an understatement. Although an incredible spectacle with the amount of revellers on the beach it felt any other day at the beach, but with more Santa hats. I understand now why aussies had an obsession about our cold winters. Being locked snugly in your home for a day of gorging yourself on food and drink with the only distraction being your grandparents snoring during the 5pm film was something different. Where as any day at the beach or any barbie in the back garden just felt like any other day making what back home feels like an exceptional day feel damn right ordinary.
But if Christmas was ordinary New Years in Sydney was extraordinary. With tickets sold out months in advance and queues miles long Sydney felt like the place to be to see in the New Year. Smuggling in our booze in resealed soft drinks bottles we managed to get into Mrs Mcguires chair hoping for a spectacular view of the firework show over the harbour bridge and opera house. Our view although limited gave us enough of a chance to see the harbour bridge between the tree as we spent the 17 hours lounging about waiting for the show to begin. During this time it began to sink in this is the last time we will all be together in one place. Folks had already began making plans the previous week to head up the coast for farm work, to being travelling to Melbourne or heading out to the red centre and Uluru. It was all coming to an end.
But what an end it was. The fireworks display in Sydney was everything it was hyped up to be with night turning back into day with as many colours as the mind could imagine. As the cascading sparks fell from the harbour bridge signalling the celebrations end i had that feeling every traveller gets rolled over me, that I will never pass this way again with this crowd of people. It’s an uncomfortable feeling knowing you will never be here with this crowd of people somebody whom you may never see again. How different could life be had I booked into somewhere else? For better or worse sipping the scotch I had smuggled in the bottom of my bag and linking arms singing out auld lang syne I knew that this was the best moment I could have wanted for.
Now that everyone has left bounce and I find myself with only a small scattering of friends still here I’ve found I’m becoming isolated. Whilst I’m still involved with day-to-day life around the hostel the Sydney doesn’t seem the same any more without the amazing people who made this city their home with me. When you throw yourself into the melting pot of hostel life it rewards you greatly, but when they move on you find yourself alone again. Maybe Joe Strummer was right when he said “without people you’re nothing”.