Sydney, Surfing, and Sun

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Bondi Beach, an essential Sydney spot, on an unusually cloudy but still warm day

I’ve now been in Australia for nearly 2 weeks and said goodbye to my kitty cat Jasmine exactly a month ago today. But it feels like I’ve been here for much longer, because I’ve done so much and feel like a world away sometimes.

Last week, I spent most of the week with a group of Europeans doing activities in Sydney through a work and travel company.

Wednesday, I went to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which is fantastic (and free!) Then with the group went paddle boarding in a shallow bay, which was difficult since it was windy and the water had a bunch of waves that day, but I did manage to stand up once. But after a bit of paddling around, I found myself completely surrounded by jellyfish, assumed they would sting and possibly kill me, and COMPLETELY panicked and paddled quickly to shore. When I told the others what happened later, they thought it was funny, because those jellyfish were completely harmless. I’d never seen a jellyfish in the wild before – I didn’t even know there was a kind that didn’t sting! So now I know. Apparently, if there are stinging or deadly jellyfish in the water, they will put signs up and probably not direct tourists to those areas. Sydney doesn’t have stinging jellyfish or anything deadly in the water, except maybe some sharks (but people rarely get attacked by those).

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At the Art Gallery of New South Wales

Thursday, we went on a day trip to the Blue Mountains. They were beautiful, but of course this was the hottest day of the week (it got up to 40 C / 104 F), so we were roasting, hiking steep trails through the rainforest that is the Blue Mountains. But it was beautiful! We also stopped at a small zoo with local Australian animals, some of which looked sick, and the whole place just worried me and gave me a bad feeling, but it was included in the trip, so we went around and saw the cute koalas and other Aussie animals. That evening, I had dinner and caught up with my friend Alba, whom I met when I lived in London but is Australian and moved back to Sydney. We ate okonomiyaki and a Chinese noodle cabbage dish at a vegetarian restaurant – so delicious!

Hiking in the blue mountains today! #australia #travel

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Friday, we walked from the famous Bondi Beach to Coogee Beach, which was one of my favorite things of the week, with beautiful coastal views. It was also cloudy that day – warm, but not unbearably hot. I had bought a hat to avoid sunburn on this walk, but only wore it about half the time because it was so windy and seemed unnecessary. You can still definitely get sunburnt in cloudy weather, but I put lots of SPF 50 sunscreen on and managed not to get burned still. I keep thinking about leaving the hat, because it takes up a lot of luggage space I don’t have and I know I won’t wear it much.

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Karen, me, and Maja on the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk

Saturday was a relatively free day for the group, so my new Swedish friend Maja, Dutch friend Karen, and I went to the Wild Life Sydney Zoo. I like this zoo a lot better! All the animals seemed happy and active and seemed to be in environments closer to their wild ones. We even got to pet a python and a baby kangaroo, and the echidna became my newest favorite Australian animal! That night, we went back to Darling Harbour, watched fireworks, and participated in a Greek festival we came across with fried feta balls, a Greek DJ, and fun dancing.

 

Sunday we took a walk around the city. I thought it was strange that we did this on the last day of this week of activities, since we’d already walked around the city a lot! But we did see some new areas I hadn’t been to before. My favorite part was The Rocks, a cute neighborhood near the Opera House with shops and restaurants. I’d been there briefly a few days before, but this time they had the weekend arts and crafts market going on. There were some of these in London (this one reminded me of the Old Spitalfields Market) and they were my favorite kind of market. I loved it so much that I broke off from the city walk and spent a while exploring it. One woman was selling beautiful hand-illustrated playing cards, and being a collector of playing cards, I couldn’t help but buy a deck from her, taking up a bit more of my precious bag space! The seller and I talked about different card games she loved, and she recommended prediction whist. I played whist some in high school (heck yes, Jane Austen May Term class) but now I want to look up and try this version.

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The work and travel Sydney group on our city walk, at a sculpture in the Barangaroo area

On Monday, Maja and I parted from Karen and much of the rest of our group for the week and headed off to Surf Camp Australia in a big bus with a total of 100 people. This Surf Camp is about 2 hours south of Sydney next to the town of Gerroa at Seven Mile Beach. It’s a really beautiful beach and location in general! Most of the waves are manageable and relatively consistent, so I can see why it’s such a great “learn to surf” beach. And I did learn to surf at a beginner level, at least! With the help of a great instructor, I was able to stand up on my board briefly without help by the end of the second lesson, and with help, I could stand up for several seconds. There were moments when it was a lot of fun. At one point, the instructor told me to never look down, always look straight ahead, and that worked and I was able to stay on the board longer. And for a while after that, I stared at the waves, getting all philosophical about life: “Always look ahead, never look back…”

However, as one of the other campers said, a more accurate name for Surf Camp is Surf Boot Camp. By the end of the second day (which was 3 lessons, 2.5-3 hours each) I was completely exhausted, sore, sunburnt, and sometimes just bored. With a lot of applications of sunscreen, I had managed to not get sunburnt at all in the first 8 days I was in Australia, despite my incredibly fair complexion and being outside in the sun a lot. However, no matter how much SPF 50, ultra sport, waterproof sunscreen I put on 30 mins to an hour before getting in the water to surf, the waves were constant and I got burnt on my face and hands, where my wetsuit didn’t cover. So frustrating. The exhaustion and soreness came from all the time spent battling the waves and usually a side current to get out far enough to catch a good wave, which only comes once out of every maybe 5-10 waves and is really only a guess even for the best of surfers as to how good it will be. Then you ride the wave for a few seconds, if you’re successful enough to stand up (sometimes I could nearly stand but not quite have time before I hit the shore, or, often, I’d fall upon trying to stand). I felt like I’d tried the whole surfing thing, gotten the basics, and it seemed really pointless to continue to do this all day every day (we were in the water 5-6 hours a day, plus time pulling on/peeling off wetsuits (wetties in Aussie), walking to/from the beach, etc). I should’ve only signed up for the 3 day camp in the first place, which was my instinct, but the 5 day with room and board included seemed like the most cost efficient. I think I really would’ve enjoyed and had a positive view of the whole thing if I was only there for 2 or 3 days.

Another thing that was worrisome was the potential for injuries. I think it would surprise a lot of people (I know it did me) that surfing really is an extreme sport. Out of the 4 surfing groups they split the camp into, 2 girls broke their ankles on the second day, and they were both in my surf group. Out of commission for a while, so not fun! They were both doing great with the surfing, too, but it’s easy to land wrong on uneven sand. You can also get hit in the head or some other body part by a wave pushing the surfboard into you, or even have a finger pulled off if you accidentally put your finger in the loop that holds your leg leash to your board and a big wave comes by. Or whatever other number of injuries you can get with the combination of strong waves, surf boards, uneven ocean floor, and being surrounded by other surfers. Maja and I were both very thankful we came out relatively unscathed.

Plus, aside from the surfing, we weren’t a fan of how cramped the cabins were. They stuffed 7 people into each small room: no air conditioning, tripping over each other’s bags. Okay, I’d been to camps before, but we had more space than that, and we didn’t have to wash our own dishes and got better food. We were stuck with the people who ended up in our cabin in close quarters for the whole week.

So Maja and I discussed and decided to ask to leave with the handful of people in the 3 day camp. They let us do so with no problem, but didn’t refund the extra $100 for the last two days. We decided this was still worth it: we’d go back to Sydney which almost felt like home by now, and do something new and different, where we wouldn’t feel like we were fighting the waves, in pain, and being bothered by the socially inept guy in our room the last two days. Once we had this plan, we spent much of the rest of our time at the peaceful pool, with no waves. I went to the beach and just walked on it and really enjoyed it instead of surfing.

 

I don’t want to sound really negative, just say that basically, hindsight is 20/20. Don’t commit to something for an entire week unless you know you will LOVE IT and want to do it all day every day! I’ve had the experience, but I’m more of a pool swimmer and cyclist. I am good with spending a couple of hours at a beach and then going and doing something else. Paddle boarding would probably be fun with no wind. Kayaking is fun. Surfing just doesn’t seem worth the work. But I can cross “try surfing in Australia” off my bucket list!

So that brings me to today. I’m back in the hostel in Sydney that I like, and I’ve had a low key day, ate a gelato donut sandwich, and hung out with Maja and had some Malaysian food and Asian milk tea. My sunburn is healing (though my face and hands are disconcertingly darker than the rest of my body due to the wetsuit). I’m less sore than I was yesterday. My throat is super sore, but that may be because of the new found allergies I’ve been battling for the last couple of months. But I’m recovering, and tomorrow we’re planning on going to Manly, a nearby suburb that seems like a cool place. Saturday I’m flying to Melbourne to look for a place to live for a few months. I’m kind of nervous about that (and I will be poor due to the cost of living and high tax rate for non residents), but we’ll see how it goes!

I’ve started posting at least one photo each day on Instagram and am planning on keeping this up for as long as I’m in Australia. That may be a real challenge, since I will likely have a lot of days when I’m in Melbourne that I don’t do anything new and interesting! But you can follow me on Instagram @bsweetnsour if you want to see how my challenge is going and maybe see some cool photos from here.

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