We weren’t planning on staying in Sydney for long but we struck gold when we found a HelpX right in the heart of the city. In return for a few hours work a day we got free room and board in Darling Harbour. With fireworks every Saturday and a constant array of street performers, there was always a relaxed, holiday atmosphere. We ended up staying over a month, and all the money we saved on accommodation, we spent on treats.
My Fair Lady
I was so excited to see the Opera House because to me it symbolised Australia, where I’d been dying to go for so long. So it was one of the first places we visited when we arrived, and we went back a few times afterwards. We saw the returning Olympians’ ceremony there; it was next to the entrance to the botanical gardens; and it was always the backdrop for any event happening in The Rocks, including the mouth-watering chocolate festival.
However, I still hadn’t been inside. So after much nagging, Sam agreed to take me to see a performance of My Fair Lady for my birthday. The dress code only stated that we had to wear shoes, so we dressed fairly casually, Sam wearing the only nice top he brought with him and had already worn to everywhere else remotely nice. With tickets to the 1pm showing, we arrived an hour early, expecting a long queue to collect tickets. However, it all ran smoothly, with plenty of ushers to direct us to the right hall. Inside were plenty of steps and a small bar; there were historical costumes and set designs on show; and doors opening onto a roped off area outside where we could enjoy the sun and the view while we waited.
Our hall, the Joan Sutherland theatre, was smaller than I was expecting. We took our seats towards the back. Annoyingly, I’d forgotten my glasses; even so I could see the quality and detailing in the production. The costume changes were super speedy, the set changes were seamless, the singing and acting was fantastic. It was just like watching the film as a little child again. I’d go back in a heartbeat if it weren’t for the price – AUD$190 (roughly £95) per person.
On my bucket list ever since I’d heard it was possible, there was no way I was leaving Sydney without doing it. My amazing cousin sorted everything out for us. With varying prices for day, sunset, and night climbs, we booked in for the first night climb which started at 16:45, hoping to catch the end of the sunset and see the city all lit up.
Despite being connected to one of the biggest landmarks in Sydney, it wasn’t too easy to find and the building (an old chocolate factory) did not stand out. However, we made it just in time to have a quick look around the museum before being called through to prep. A group of about fifteen, we signed papers, emptied pockets, suited up and secured glasses. We were given extra hats and fleeces – all attached to our jumpsuits – to deal with the wind when we hit the summit.
Finally, we strapped ourselves into harnesses and walked through the tunnel onto the approach. The underbelly of the bridge, it was the thinnest walkway and involved lots of ducking and careful stepping. We climbed a few ladders alongside one of the immense brick pylons – purely there for show and had no role in supporting the structure – and emerged on top of the arch to see the sky glowing pink behind the city.
Our guide took individual photos of everyone, and then I ran up the wide, metal arch, the steps getting slowly shallower until I reached the summit. The view of the harbour with the Opera House was straight out of a glossy brochure. Below us, all eight lanes – built ahead of their time to cope with future traffic – as well as the train track and pedestrian paths, were packed. After a group photo and a long story about the famous people our guide had led, we crossed to the opposite arch to start our decent. The wind picked up as it got darker, just in time for our final individual shots in front of the brightly lit CBD.
The permanent fair (very small theme park) gave us the chance to act like children. Buying two-for-one tickets for a Friday night – AUD$48 (about £24) for unlimited rides – we caught a ferry over to the north side of the bridge and entered through the gate’s toothy grin. A bitterly cold night, it wasn’t busy and we didn’t have to wait long for any of the rides. We eased ourselves in slowly with a romantic ride on the Ferris wheel.
Next, was a ride on the dodgems and Tango Train, that ran at two speeds, mild and wild; Sam tried – and failed – to win me a prize from one of the game stalls; and we bought some candyfloss from a lady who was wearing more than she was selling. The most terrifying ride of all was Wild Mouse, a rollercoaster that had been running since 1963. Squeezed into a tiny cart together, our knees up by our ears, we squeaked and rattled around the little wooden track that took us out over the harbour. Just 400 meters of tight bends and sheer drops, 61 seconds has never made me fear for my life so much.
Finally, we entered Coney Island Funny Land, a great hall full of original rides, slides, a Mirror Maze, Barrels of Fun and more. We were led in through the Wonky Walk, with sliding and spinning floors, it was surprisingly difficult and made everyone look equally ridiculous. The tallest slide was Devil’s Drop, for which the roof was specially raised. It was actually pretty nerve wracking throwing ourselves over the sheer drop. However, the best ride had to be the Joy Wheel. Although simple, it brought out everyone’s competitive side. A turn table, slightly raised in the middle, was spun faster and faster until all but one person had succumbed to centrifugal force and fallen off, leaving one winner – me, of course.
Despite being in the middle of the city, it was easy to get to some stunning beaches. The ferry took us from The Rocks straight to Manly where there were natural pools and supposedly penguins. The streets were packed with market stalls and a music festival, but it was easy to find some peace and quiet by following the coastal path into the countryside.
And of course, we had to go to world-famous Bondi. The first time was during a wind festival. With hundreds of kites in the air, from children’s Disney toys to giant stingrays operated by professionals. All the walls were covered in graffiti, and there were barbecues and ice-creams everywhere.
The second time was after the Coogee to Bondi coastal walk, 6km of cliffs and glistening water. There were parks, private beaches, and whales. Outcrops of rock made scary photo oportunities as you could see sections that had previously broken off and fallen into the sea.
We arrived at Bondi, burned, tired and ready for a swim. Everyone crowded between the red swimming flags, but the water was strong and the waves were rough. Many swimmers got pulled off course and it was easy to understand why the lifeguards had such a busy job.
Our final weekend in Sydney, our hosts realised we’d still not been to Hunter Valley, and kindly offered to take us. We booked a couple of rooms for a night, and set off the next morning. About a 2 hour journey later, stopping off to buy picnic supplies along the way, we realised we were close when we started seeing signposts that simply read “wineries”. We went with the tourist information’s suggestion and headed straight to Audrey Wilkinson winery.
A large farmhouse set on top of a hill, it was surrounded by grassy lawns and baby vines. A helicopter landed and a horse and cart drew up with a couple for an engagement. Inside was busy and I was slightly awkward about the first wine tasting because all wine’s the same to me. We were given a menu with the correct drinking order; we started with the whites, and they all tasted the same, despite us being told that 2014 was a good year and should taste superior. Next, the reds, which I’ve never liked and still don’t. Finally, the sweet dessert wines. Why had I never drunk dessert wines before? They were brilliant – in small doses. We bought a bottle of rosé and had our picnic in the sun, overlooking the vineyards.
Unfortunately, we only had time for two more as the vineyards all closed way too early at 5PM. The second was empty and we had a private tasting with a very laid back guy, while the third was more stuffy and we had to pay for our tastings unless we bought a bottle. A little merry, we headed back to our rooms for the night, through the middle of a golf course, and finished off the bottle of complementary wine.
Piling on the Pounds
In the city of 24 hour pubs and endless restaurants, it was sometimes difficult to decide which one to go to. So we went to all of them – half-price tapas, all-you-can-eat pizza, award-winning desserts, all of them. Chocolate cafés became a daily thing, trying mint, caramel, or cookie hot chocolate; strawberry and chocolate shakes; and white chocolate chai lattes – literally Christmas in a cup. We even ate waffles at Guylian’s in the harbour with a view of the bridge.
We finally found the elusive Doughnut Time that filled their doughnuts to bursting with cookies and cream, sherbet lemon, or honeycomb custard. If that wasn’t enough they were topped with biscuits, gummy worms or Ferrero Rocher.
The best place we ate was Spice Alley, tiny but full of character. Lots of small Asian stalls with authentic food, vibrant street art, and bright lanterns. Houses on either side had been gutted to create a food court. It was also the site of a bakery run by a MasterChef judge. Multilayered cakes, covered in mirror glaze and gold leaf. I definitely left Sydney heavier than I’d arrived.