Travel

Confessions of an English Backpacker in Australia

There are a lot of ways to swear in Australia. This was one of the first things I learned about the country, having newly arrived in Melbourne after a 26 hour flight from London, Heathrow. My friend and I were sat in a bar in the city’s north district with an Aussie bloke named Patrick, who’d had a few drinks and was now explaining, in great detail, the many ways you can swear in Aussie slang, and the different meanings behind each one.

As introductions go, it was certainly unique. We were struggling to pay attention, having spent all of the last two days on planes, trains and buses. When we arrived at our hostel (ambitiously titled The Mansion), I had slept for fourteen straight hours under the effects of jetlag and extreme tiredness. And now I was being delivered a drunken lecture in profanity by a man I could hardly understand.

My friend and I had decided, quite impulsively, to move to Australia for a year on a working holiday visa. I quit my job in Bristol and we flew out at the end of summer, arriving at the start of September. The city of Melbourne was our starting point: a fashionable and multi-cultural melting pot of Asian, European and Australian.

It might have been 10,500 miles away from London, but the second lesson I learned in Australia is that the world can sometimes be a very small place. While in Melbourne, I received a message from a friend I lived with at university, who told me he was working in Tasmania and coming to Melbourne that weekend to do some sightseeing. By complete chance, he had booked to stay in the exact same hostel we had, on the exact same floor, in a room three doors down from ours. The universe can be a crazy, mystical thing sometimes.

In our first week in Melbourne, my friend and I ended up at a hippy commune. A small group of us, based on a tip from someone at the hostel, made the long walk through the city’s Fitzroy district, in search of a restaurant that was rumoured to serve food on a pay-as-you-wish basis. When we got there, following a trail of wild lemurs through dark suburban streets, we were served Sri Lankan pancakes by dreadlocked staff wearing tie-dye t-shirts, as psychedelic New Age music played on the speakers overhead. That was an experience I won’t soon forget.

We stayed, for most of our trip, in hostels. There are plenty of horror stories about hostels, some of which I experienced first-hand. In one, there was a mysterious red stain on my bedsheets, which could have been either blood or ketchup. In another, an entire colony of ants emerged from out of the plughole at the same moment I decided to take a shower. And in another still, a backpacker on the same floor as ours consumed some illicit substances, then started screaming as he hallucinated that the hostel staff were demons with horse heads.

Generally, though, hostels are a fun and cheap way to live if you don’t mind the lack of privacy. Here are a few tips for anyone planning to stay in one: first of all, avoid that guy in every hostel who sits on the stairs and badly plays the guitar, in an attempt to impress the ladies. Second, don’t let yourself be bullied by dishonest hostel owners and landlords – the majority are very friendly, but there are some who try to take advantage of travelers who don’t speak the native language well, and don’t stand up for themselves.

And lastly, be aware of the person who sneaks into the communal kitchen and steals any food that isn’t padlocked shut. One anonymous backpacker in Brisbane became my mortal nemesis, after he/she repeatedly stole the strawberry jam (and nothing else) out of my fridge bag, forcing me to leave a very sternly worded note (that’s about as angry as the British get).

I mentioned already one stroke of fate. But there was another coincidence later in our trip, when my friend and I moved to the city of Sydney. The apartment we rented here was home to an Indian man by the name of Sheldon, who was originally from Goa but had moved to Australia to study. When we told him we were English, he said that he used to live in England, in a little town by the name of Chippenham. My friend and I stared at each other in disbelief – Chippenham is the very same small town both of us live in, and Sheldon had lived there for a year when we were in school. We’d probably walked right past him.

Sydney itself is a sight that has to be seen at least once: the grandeur of the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge, the hustle and bustle of George Street, the restaurants and bars shining under the coloured lights of Darling Harbour. I spent New Years Eve in the Botanical Gardens, queueing all day to get a view of the bridge and the spectacular fireworks show that brought in the New Year. That was a fantastic way to welcome 2017.

The nightlife, too, is very colourful. Sydney’s Ivy Bar is worth the cost of entry: an enormous complex spread out over two buildings, each with multiple stories where you can buy fancy cocktails, Australian beers and just about any other alcoholic beverage imaginable. The rooftop bar even features an open air swimming pool, if you fancy taking a dip while you sip.

The only downside is the cost. Everything in Sydney is very expensive, from the $15 pint of beer I spotted on a restaurant menu to the cost of a hostel, which can be as high as $60 a night. That’s about three times as much as you can expect to pay in other parts of Australia, and five times what you might pay in another country. For anyone thinking of making the trip, make sure you book accommodation far in advance: in Sydney, every hostel in the city will be booked a week ahead.

My favourite place in Australia, though, and the one I would recommend above all others, is Brisbane. Brisbane is a gorgeous city, one which seems to be in a perpetual state of tropical summer. The streets are busy but not crowded, and the views along Eagle Street Pier, which follows the river from the city center through the Botanical Gardens and beyond, are magical. If you take this path all the way down the river, the Brisbane River Walk is a hidden treasure – a running/cycle path built right on top of the river, which takes you right alongside the shining lights of Story Bridge.

Running and cycling are a huge part of Australian culture, both in Brisbane and beyond. If you make the trip, pack a pair of running shoes and experience it firsthand. At 5pm in Brisbane, the city becomes a fluorescent explosion of runners and cyclists as everyone leaves work, allowing you to witness Australia’s famous fitness culture for yourself.

And you can’t leave the country without experiencing a proper Aussie barbeque, either. Streets Beach is a must see in Brisbane: cross over the bridge from the city center into the South Bank, and there are parks, free access swimming pools, and a huge playground for the kids, all of which feature free barbeque stations. It’s the perfect way to soak up the sun and enjoy the city views.

Wherever you go in Australia there is lots to see, and backpacking is a cheap and exciting way to experience the sights and get off the beaten path. I was sad to leave, but the year I spent there was full of stories and people that I’ll remember for many years to come. If nothing else, I learned how to swear like a proper Australian.

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