I was now in the southeast of Australia, a part of the country I had already visited before, and I was alone. So what was I going to do? The answer was simple: party! Well, not quite. Over my years travelling and living in London (which is the 12th largest Australian city by population) I've accumulated a fair number of Australian friends whom I rarely get to see due to the obvious insurmountable distances. My little sojourn in the southeast would hopefully redress that, as the urban strip stretching from Newcastle to Melbourne is home to around two thirds of the country's population so pure probabilities meant that I would be able to see most of them.
|A cliched photo of the Sydney opera house and CBD taken from the iconic harbour bridge.|
This is not really the place to enumerate my friends and their private lives. But there are a few generalisations that stood out for me. The most touching was that although I hadn't seen any of them for many years, and some of them I had literally only spent a few days with face to face, I was overwhelmed by the genuine kindness, affection and generosity with which they treated me. I am truly lucky to have such friends, and at the same time unlucky not to be able to see them more often. One of the double-edged swords of today's globalised lifestyle. Though, to inelegantly paraphrase Tennyson, I would rather have met them and not be able to see them again than never to have met them at all. The other aspect of my friends' lives that I couldn't help but notice was the settled, grounded nature of their lives. Some already have little children of their own and others are in long-term relationships complete with shared apartments and couples holidays, a far cry from my solitary vagabonding.
|Will and Bex (and their little Poppy) with whom I spent a few relaxing days in Albury on the Murray river. We had met 7 years ago in southwestern China for only 3 days and had not seen each other since.|
Which allows me to segue seamlessly into my musing for the day. My travels and the life I lead are, for many people (especially those in non-Western countries), baffling in the extreme. Not only do I have no job, but I gave up a good one to go gallivanting around the world for an indeterminate (but by all accounts long) period of time with no income and just frittering away my savings; I'm far from my family and friends who I see rarely, if at all; and I have no wife or even partner. To this the only response I can give are some platitudes about learning, experiencing, tasting and trying to understand this world. For people who do not have the luxury of time and money, who must work constantly just to make ends meet, such a life choice is unfathomable. And even for most Westerners it's only just the right side of acceptable eccentricity. Naturally this also elicits a certain suite of questions: "am I married?" (or from the more forward: "do I want to get married?"), "do I want to travel indefinitely?", "what will I do when I get home?" All of which are valid questions. In Indonesian culture people try to avoid confrontation and so instead of a straight no, the answer to most queries can be sidestepped by a polite belum, meaning "not yet", thereby expressing the idea that although now it is out of the question, there may be some point in the future in which the possibility will be contemplated. And so it is with me: a settled, responsible life with all the trimmings (partner, family, job, mortgage, Ikea furniture, etc.) is, for the moment, belum. But to each thing its time and season, now being the season (for me at least) for exploring, being solitary; hoping just that I haven't missed the planting time for the settled season.
I would hate you to think that it has all been lounging, chatting, introspection and general indolence. I take my commitment of personal inconvenience very seriously and so got together with Ali, the girl I had briefly travelled with in Sumatra, who had made her own, circuitous way down to Australia, to hike the fabled Blue Mountains. They form what was once an impassable barrier to the west of Sydney thanks to the uniform sandstone escarpment that tops these relatively low mountains (whose highest point is a measly 1215m). Ali, being a Canuck, is a big fan of outdoors pursuits and so we arranged to do a hike into the remoter reaches of the national park, away from the coach-loads of tourists who are simply bused to the viewpoints (which, admittedly, afford stunning vistas). Neither of us having any experience of hiking in the Blue Mountains we plumped for a loop which would take us out to the enticingly-named Mount Solitary, a conspicuous mesa living up to its name, surrounded by deep valleys. So we packed our bags, picked up an emergency beacon from the information office (although the Blue Mountains are not that wild as mountains go, every year a number of unprepared idiots manage to get themselves into difficulties - though it was more the geek in me that wanted to have the beacon) and set off. Within an hour we had left the day-trippers behind and had the forest to ourselves and the birds. Normally I don't notice the birds much because they dart away before you can get a decent look, but Ali is a bit of a twitcher and could identify many birds just by their calls. We were even lucky enough to come across a superb lyrebird, special not only because it is the world's largest songbird, but also because of its uncanny ability to imitate other birds' calls and even man-made, mechanical noises (for an example check out this incredible David Attenborough clip). The only disadvantage of hiking with a birder is that now again she would disappear off into the undergrowth, reemerging a while later saying, "sorry, thought I saw a scrub wren. I've only got one species left to complete the set." (Whereas I would just see a small brown bird.)
|Looking across at part of the Blue Mountain escarpment with the famous 3 Sisters rocks in the distance with the valleys blanketed in gum forest.|
A steep, scrambling slog at the end of the day got us up onto the top of Mount Solitary where we set up camp and quickly fell asleep, pleasantly exhausted. The next day the sun rose, but the mist and drizzle descended, depriving us of the spectacular views either side of Mount Solitary and drenching our trousers as we tramped through the damp brush, down into the valley and back up the escarpment on the other side. A good bit of training for the hiking extravaganza that I've got planned for New Zealand.