We were right, in many ways, New South Wales is different to Queensland. Probably the three differences with the biggest impact on ourselves are; it is far busier, the camping is slightly different and the weather is much more changeable. For several months now we have been wandering around Queensland and The Northern Territory pulling into excellent campsites of all descriptions at will, in what felt like never ending glorious sunny weather. Now we are having to plan and, especially at weekends, book our sites in advance and take into account cooler weather (plus the occasional bit of rain). There are also a substantial amount of permanent residents on some sites, sometimes over half of the occupants are ‘permo’s’. This is something that was virtually non existent before and certainly gives the sites a different feeling. The free or cheap campsites in beautiful locations with only a couple of other people around are definitely harder to come by in NSW.
So are we enjoying ourselves? You bet we are! NSW isn’t Queensland, just like France isn’t Spain or India isn’t Thailand (OK that analogy might be extreme). But they are both great in slightly different ways and we have found some real gems.
Our first stop was in Yamba. Sometimes we look back and think why did we choose to stop in a particular place? Sometimes it’s because we fancy going there, sometimes it’s because someone has recommended it, and sometimes it’s because when looking at a map it looks like a convenient location to stop. Yamba fell into the latter category and what an amazing place it was. A lovely clean little town with a selection of pristine beaches which we left far too soon. In hindsight, another couple of days there would have been well spent.
The ‘Yamba model’ became a regular sight along the NSW coastline. A coastal town where a river meets the ocean, with steep rocky headlands and a series of beaches facing in different directions, some exposed to the ocean, some sheltered by the headland and some along the river. This gives something for everyone; surfing, paddle boarding, swimming, fishing, kayaking, sun bathing, hiking, kite surfing, and the list goes on.
Another noticeable difference in NSW was the distances we were travelling between locations. Yamba to Sydney, for example, is just over 400 miles and we had a month to do it. We were driving much more than that in a single day in The Northern Territory, so we had to readjust our mind set.
We spent the next week or so drifting slowly south along the coast, spending some time on the beach and some time walking the headlands. We soon discovered that by finding campsites about 20 miles or so inland they were more to our liking. The pick of the bunch was in someone’s back garden. It was a hundred acres of back garden though! It was a beautiful garden with all sorts of wildlife including a few kangaroos which watched us closely as we set up a campfire for the evening.
We visited Red Rocks, Nambucca Heads and Crescent Head, all of which were really lovely places in their own right, all pretty much following the ‘Yamba model’, all slightly different to one another, but if we are honest, they were all starting to merge and we were needing to find something different.
Then quite by accident we dropped into Booti Booti National Park. We were heading towards the seaside town of Forster for Steve to have a trip down memory lane. He came to Forster in 1999 to race The Ironman there and arguably had his best ever race, qualifying for the Hawai’i World Champs. Back then it was all about the race and he was completely unaware of the amazing place lying a few miles to the South. After driving through town, and seeing how much building had happened over the last 20 years, we continued on without stopping. The map showed a slither of land between the ocean and a lake which looked interesting and was a short cut back to the highway, so off we went. The slither of land turned out to be a couple of hundred metres wide with ocean and beach on one side, and bush and a huge lake on the other. We found a campsite on the lake side and, although it was a bit rough around the edges, it was certainly a case of the worst house on the best street!
Booti Booti was magnificent. We spent three glorious days there; paddle boarding in the lake, cycling around it, lazing on the beach, playing in the surf and walking through the bush. We were spoilt for choice with five amazing beaches on hand and with only a couple of pockets of beachside communities the beaches were all pretty much empty. It was easily our favourite place in NSW so far.
We had to leave Booti Booti maybe a little bit earlier than we would have liked but we were under a little bit of time pressure as we had tickets for a rugby game in the city of Newcastle and we had another place we fancied visiting on the way.
Nelson Bay is a very popular area indeed. Three hours North of Sydney, it is a popular weekend and holiday destination for the ‘Sydneysiders’. We were there on a Friday and Saturday when the temperature on both days was over 40 degrees centigrade!! The area is visually stunning but with an audience of six million on the doorstep (three hours drive is definitely on the doorstep in Australia!). Local businesses have cashed in on the opportunity and I suppose who can blame them. Fast food outlets, bars, and restaurants are everywhere. But like in so many places we have been in the World, if you are happy to stay just a short way out of town, and visit the more inaccessible spots, you can soon limit the crowds and still see some amazing places, sometimes even better than the well known sights.
One evening while in Nelson Bay we made the 45 minute trip into Newcastle to watch the All Blacks play Argentina. What a fabulous experience it was, with great seats, a warm evening, a view of the ‘Haka’ and New Zealand were on fire putting on a dominant display to win.
After spending the last few weeks mainly on the coast it was time to head inland a short distance for a stop and a spot of walking in The Blue Mountains. We combined a couple of the classic walks around the rim and then down into the bottom of the main canyon. It was a spectacular and varied walk, giving panoramic views of the mountains, winding tracks through the forests, steep decents to the canyon bottom, twisting tight pathways along the bottom across streams, and through thick vegetation before a seemingly endless set of steps cut into the rock to exit back to the top.
We have done some incredible walks during our time here in Australia and we both agreed this walk was right up there with the best of them, maybe even at the top of the pile.
We also did a shorter walk in The Blue Mountains which took in the iconic Three Sisters rock formation. On both of our walks we were blessed with beautiful clear skies and warm weather. It was really cold in the mornings but it soon warmed up, unlike the days before we arrived and the days afterwards when dark clouds, wind and rain were the dominant features.
So it was with a real feeling of sadness that the time came to drive into Sydney and give up our latest campervan. The last two months have been yet another great success for us, delivering everything we had hoped for and more besides. Now it was time to see what the big city lights had to offer.
In summary the big city lights gave us very little and the whole thing was a bit of a let down. It started off by us renting a large campervan on someone’s driveway. The photographs we had seen on Airbnb turned out to have been taken in a different location to where the van was situated, and also a few years ago when the van was in its prime. So our new home was a tired, old van, on a dark tree covered drive, two miles away from town, up a massively steep hill!!!
Adding to that, the weather was pretty miserable for a summer in Sydney, and the worst outbreak of Covid-19 in Sydney since April had started in the next suburb. So after five days we said “enough is enough” and we moved out.
This was easier said than done. Because it was the week before Christmas there wasn’t a single hire car available anywhere in Sydney. We searched high and low and in the end the best Steve could come up with was a flatbed truck! We initially came to Australia with two small hand luggage sized backpacks and one holdall. But in almost a year, we have collected a lot of gear, not least two cycles. So we piled it all in the flatbed, covered it in a tarpaulin, secured it down with a washing line, and set off in the pouring rain to drive through the middle of Sydney. We laughed at ourselves and our situation all through the suburbs, past the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, under the river via the tunnel and onto our new apartment in Sydney Olympic Park.
The new place was fantastic and so spacious. Sarah laid in the middle of the floor and pretended to make snow angels the place was so big. But the real treat, the epitomy of luxury, the new place had a flushing toilet, our first for over two months!
The weather was still quite cold and cloudy for Sydney but The Olympic Park had a cycle path of over 20 miles which wound through the woodland, down by the river, and around the various stadia that were used for the 2000 Olympics. With a couple of coffee stops along the way, we did the route most days and stayed out of the centre of Sydney as restrictions were now in force due to the major Covid outbreak (about a hundred cases) in The Northern Beaches. In fact, we even had to wear masks when we went to the supermarket. At least we felt like we were joining the world of Covid even if only in a very tiny way.
On Christmas Eve we moved again, only a few hundred metres away, into another apartment. This time though, we were house and cat sitting for a young couple who were going away for the holiday period. Sarah found us the place on an Australian house sitting website and it suited us just fine. Free accommodation in Sydney, over Christmas and New Year, we were never going to turn that one down. And, as if having a flushing toilet wasn’t blowing our minds, we now had a bath for the first time this year, “Merry Christmas Sarah”, said Steve!
Because we were still so close to The Olympic Park we continued our little routine as the weather continued to be poor. We also cycled the 10 miles into the centre of Sydney on Christmas morning and had a bag of chips for lunch in The Botanical Gardens, next to The Opera House. A bit different to the normal ‘full on’ Turkey roast! We then spent the rest of the day and some of the night making several video calls to family back home, over four hours in total.
The ability to make regular video calls to family and friends has been a real positive this year, for both them and ourselves. It’s been great to sit down and have a chat with a cup of tea, and is the closest we can get to ‘visiting’ people without actually being there. We are sure that has been the same for so many people all over the world.
So that is that. Another year done. Definitely not the one we set out to do, but probably most of the planet’s population can say the same. Everyday we remind ourselves how lucky we have been to have had such an amazing year, when others have not been so fortunate. We have been in a position to remain fluid with our plans and to adapt them at short notice. We are especially fortunate to have family who appreciate the life we have chosen, and have been understanding and supportive of the decisions we have made as this Australian odysey goes on and on!
We shall return to the UK soon, but there are still a few more miles left to do and a few more sights still to be seen. Let’s see what 2021 brings. A great year for all is what we hope.
**The original title for this years blog was “Oz to home”. We have changed it to “A year down under”. We thought it was more apt.**