I just got back from Sydney. Australia was as dramatic and beautiful as I remembered, but I’d forgotten the incredible optimism and genuine kindness of its people. Feeling that again made it harder to leave.
I am one of the Aussie ex-pats who was stranded overseas in London during the Covid-19 pandemic. Unable to return home to Australia, my longing for the great southern land was worsened by the work I do: writing and editing books and articles about Australia for publications like Lonely Planet.
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Home in London and Australia
Although I was born in London, I spent most of my life in Australia, growing up first in Sydney before moving to Melbourne for secondary school. Melbourne was my home from then on. I got married in Melbourne and started a family. But a decade ago I shifted to London for work very much on a whim.
I’d lived in London before in my 20s, working low-paid temping jobs and spending all my income on traveling and drinking, as Australians in London famously do. This time it was different. Having kids connects you to a place: we became part of a school community; recognized parents at the park; the kids joined the local choir and went to Brownies at the local church hall; we knew our neighbors.
However, until 2020, I was lucky enough to get back for an “Australia top-up” every year. I’d see friends and family and check on my things safely stored in a shipping container on a friend’s bushfire-zone farm. At one point, I returned to sit with my mother as she passed away.
Australia was an entire 24-hour journey away, but I took every opportunity to jump on a plane to head south (off-setting my carbon with outfits like the Gold Standard, of course). Yes, Europe was on my doorstep, but the wide open spaces of Australia called to me.
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Pre-pandemic times were different
Before the pandemic struck, airfares were at an all-time low. If you booked well enough ahead you could get to Oz for £650, less than a month’s rent in London. And of course, I’m privileged. In my parents’ day back in the 1970s, return fares from London to their birthplace (New Zealand) cost around £4000. It’s the main reason they only made a few such trips in their lifetimes.
In 2020 and 2021, tickets on half-empty planes were suddenly exorbitantly expensive once again. You also needed the money to cover self-funded quarantine, and a spare two weeks to ride out being locked in a hotel room. Getting home was an impossible proposition for many Australians, and the cause of a lot of frustration, anger and hurt. We bonded over social media groups, sharing intel on flight releases, and how to survive in hotel quarantine with a toddler while trying to work over Zoom. Shipping containers were scarce, sending things home impossible.
England is beautiful, but it’s a manicured kind of beauty: small pockets of forest and fleeting sections of river or seaside beyond signs of human habitation. Being in nature in Australia is an entirely different experience. It’s overwhelming the way a desert night sky can swallow you up. You’re suddenly hyper-aware of your insignificance and vulnerability. Australia has forests so dense and unexplored there are species of trees there that have only just been cataloged.
In Australia, you can walk for days in national parks far from any town or city. You can wander rugged landscapes of mountains, rocks or desert with only the calls of wildlife for company. The beaches where I spent my Australian childhood were sites of foaming ocean and relentless waves that could suck you out to sea if you weren’t careful. Australia hits you with its energy and drama, but it’s also about being alert to the detail, like tiny desert flowers in an inhospitable landscape.
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Finally arriving in Australia after years of longing
This month, three long years after I last stepped foot on Australian soil, I finally got back for a work assignment.
I hate to admit it but the moment I boarded that Singapore Airlines flight bound for Sydney the entire pandemic ordeal receded like a bad dream. It was replaced by the soul-stirring spectacle of the sun sparkling on Sydney Harbour, ferries skirting bushy headlands setting million-dollar yachts rocking.
And so I found myself photographing the iconic Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge once again, the wind whipping my hair as we sped from lunch at Rose Bay back to Circular Quay.
A new look at Sydney
Sydney was everything I remembered and more. With renewed appreciation, I noticed the crisp freshness of the local ingredients – dishes popping with color and flavor, seafood that was plump and juicy. I appreciated the service staff who wanted to be there, chatting because they were interested, not just working for tips.
I caught a bus to Coogee to swim in the sea baths chiseled into the rock cliff at the southern end of the beach. The water swelled with the ocean, alive with seaweed and sea urchins.
I wandered from cosmopolitan Surry Hills to revitalized Darling Square, a relatively new pedestrianized boulevard running down to Darling Harbour, next to Chinatown. The streets were busy with Sydneysiders: dining outdoors; rollerskating at dusk; or sliding into friendly-but-cool speakeasies for cocktails after dark.
I visited the latest addition to the city skyline, the incredible Crown Towers, after exploring the art at the Sydney Biennale. At 275m, its elegant concentric skyscraper of glass and marble is a beacon drawing visitors to thriving Barangaroo. It was too wet for a rooftop sundowner at Cirq, with its views of the Harbour Bridge, so I wandered on to the city, golf umbrella in hand, instead.
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Connecting with the history of the land
Not for the first time, the Aboriginal story of Australia was observable to me. The hills, plants, the harbor islands, the cacophony of birds and flooding creeks that make up this city endure, despite over two centuries of colonial interference.
Some awareness of Sydney as Aboriginal land is more symbolic: street signs, or cultural tours that share a Gadigal perspective with visitors. But at a deeper level, I have come to understand my experience of this place is merely fleeting. I am a guest here. We all are.
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Tackling a long list of unmissable experiences
I realize, on returning to the country that I still want to call “home”, that I need to know Australia better. Lonely Planet has got together 500 unmissable experiences for the Ultimate Australia Travel List. It would take me a lifetime to do them all, but I have decided it’s time I try.
With that in mind, I made a commitment to return within a year. As long as there are flights I’m heading back to the great southern land.