Prior to arriving in Australia, I’d decided to splash out on my time in Sydney and get my own flat – having stayed in hotels and hostels since last April, I was missing the luxuries we often take for granted at home – like having a washing machine and a fridge.
After seeking advice from a fellow traveller – from Sydney obviously – I pulled together a list of desirable suburbs, hit the pages of Airbnb in earnest and found myself a lovely little studio flat in Lilyfield, within walking distance of ‘colourful and artistic’ Balmain. It was a delightful sun trap, with sliding glass doors and a cute tiny courtyard, tucked away behind a high wooden fence.
Which meant I could potter around naked for the first time since I sold my home, over a year ago. And it felt so good!
I consider myself lucky that I’ve always been pretty chilled out about wandering around without clothes – something I have my parents to thank for, as they deliberately made the effort to be naked in front of me when I was a young child, ensuring that it seemed perfectly normal – which of course it was.
Very modern Western society seems to have sexualised nudity to the extent parents can’t take photos of their children naked, for fear of investigation. It’s such a shame. Being a summer baby, some of my favourite photos of me as a child are outdoors shots, with only a very stylish turban atop my head.
That tiny taste of flat-based clothes shedding freedom had me hungry for more. So, when the opportunity to visit a couple of Sydney’s nudist beaches cropped up, I pushed aside those indelibly etched images of nudist sunbathers from TV in my childhood and thought how liberating it would feel to legally get my kit off in public.
But whilst we’re on that old TV documentary – seriously, what was with all the stretched out scrotums and bums that flapped half way down the back of their thighs? I can only imagine that naked sunbathing had dissolved their collagen and it was only a matter of time before they would start tripping themselves up, as melted body parts dragged on the floor.
I made sure I threw my factor 50 in my bag as I walked out the door.
Sensing it wasn’t the place to take a camera, I sadly don’t have any photos to show you just how beautiful the beaches were. I especially liked the off-the-beaten-track nature of Cobblers beach, reached by a short walk through light forest. For the exhibitionists amongst you, the predominantly gay nudist beach at Lady Jane Bay is the better choice, as you get to wave your bits at unsuspecting tourists on the footpath overlooking the bay.
Keen to revive my yoga practice, following a few weeks of my mat staying firmly rolled up in my backpack, I signed up at the local yoga studio. I hadn’t appreciated, until I found myself in downward dog, salty sweat stinging my eyes, that they heat the studio here to a ‘comfy’ 30 degrees.
Bikram and hot yoga generally always seemed a bit dangerous, at least for me. My Irish heritage has gifted me a constitution that really isn’t very chuffed at the heat of some of the places I’ve taken it this year. Something it chose to remind me of in that moment, as I aqua-planed in my own ‘glow’ along the mat.
But the teachers were lovely and inspiring and the studio itself gave me lots of ideas for when I eventually set up my own yoga space – wherever on the planet that might end up being!
In big cities, I’m used to exploring on my own, and so I’d imagined my time in Sydney as a solo adventure, interspersed with a few lovely cups of coffee and slices of cake with friends.
Fate had different ideas for me, ones that make me smile when I look back on them - including Christmas lunch with 15 other people, most of whom I’d never met before but who made me feel like part of the family. And in the end I didn’t get to strike out on my lonesome nearly as much as I’d anticipated.
Except I did make a trip on the ferry, from the centre of Sydney out to Manly – so-named by Englishman Captain (later Admiral) Arthur Phillip on account of the courageous and manly behaviour of the indigenous people (which included one of them lodging a spear in Arthur’s shoulder). I was intrigued by the potential of witnessing exemplar maleness. When I got there it was full of people like me – tourists heading for the beach.
Not so manly any more. But I did get a fabulous view of the Opera House.
Wandering along the sea path, towards the sheltered bay of Shelley Beach, I was reminded of my childhood friends Shelley and Joseph and their huge, chocolate black, Newfoundland dogs, which we would ride through the grounds of their Lake District hotel like characters from a C.S. Lewis story.
By a stroke of good timing, I was in town for the start of the Sydney to Hobart boat race, which we viewed from Middle Head. With hundreds of other people who had the same idea. So I mainly watched heads watching boats. But I did get the odd chance to witness the magnificent race craft, launching out of the bay in all their splendour.
And a bit of eaves-dropping meant I was able to regurgitate things like ‘he’s gone so far out he’s put his spinnaker up’ and look vaguely clued up on the whole thing. Obviously my ridiculous honesty then gave the game away, by compelling me to admit I was just parroting. Stupid yogic yamas.
A highlight of my Sydney sightseeing came from an afternoon at the Museum of Contemporary Art – which we spent playing with the pieces in Indian-born British sculptor Anish Kapoor’s exhibition.
The excitement of my early teenage summers, which were officially kicked off with a trip to Knutsford’s fun fair – and the accompanying ten minute crushes on unsuitable carnie types who spun us faster and faster on the rides – rushed back, as we ooh’d and aah’d at Anish’s optical illusions.
Imagine the visual freakiness of any House of Fun wall of mirrors, then magnify it a hundred times. I’ve never seen people so engaged with an art exhibition.
Then think of your worst blood related nightmare, possibly one inspired by a late night viewing of The Shining whilst eating cheese, and picture that someone has chucked a whole load of coagulation factor into the middle. And then stretch that imagination just a little further to envisage some should-be-hospitalised weirdo making the resultant lumpy mess into their personal, room-sized, floor clock that gradually shaves away at the giant blood pudding as the hands turn.
Does it look anything like this?
Blood coagulation factor random fact – my favourite is Factor IX – Christmas factor. I love Christmas. I also like my blood clotting when I cut myself. Double win.
Another piece of top interaction fun came from his huge rusted steel piece called Memory. The massive blimp filled one exhibit hall and seems to be a sealed unit, until you find the opening, in another room – where adults happily drop all their inhibitions to make echo sounds with the same abandon as socially unconstrained small children. Being competitive by nature, I was very pleased that my echo noises sounded better – in my opinion – than my friends’ attempts. Those few weeks round the national parks of South West America had served me well (BIP! is a good choice if you’re too busy to get some pre-match practice in).
The only thing he could have done to increase my enjoyment was to have made one room a giant bouncy castle (perhaps carrying the title Modern Economy). If you’re reading Anish, you can have that idea for free. You’re welcome.
If you are in Sydney I can’t recommend this exhibition enough – it’s on until the 1st April.
I remember the first time I went to Manhattan less and less clearly as the years go by (I really should have started writing stuff down a long time ago) but one memory, one that will alway stick with me, is sitting in the huge, all encompassing nature of the island’s famous Central Park and totally losing track of the fact that I was in the middle of one of the craziest places on Earth.
Ever since then I like to visit the parks of new cities, perhaps subconsciously seeking to recreate that moment of wonder.
Sydney’s Royal Botanical Gardens are unquestionably well designed and filled with interesting plants, especially in the herb garden. And they definitely provide a striking contrast to the overlooking city scape.
Best of all they have a magical tree, dripping in rainbow coloured lorikeets that mesmorise passersby with their squawky chatter. I spent a good five minutes staring upwards, hoping I remembered to keep my mouth shut.
Possibly the main reason I’d planned to be in city at the end of December was to experience at least one Sydney New Year’s Eve in my lifetime. And I was so very lucky that one of my new friends managed to score us some highly-sought-after tickets to Goat Island, a tiny little lump of grassy rock in the middle of the bay – with prime views over the Harbour Bridge.
Boarding the ferry, chilled wine and snacks to hand, it had the same lovely family and friends vibe that I used to see at the summer parties at Tatton Park back home. Once on the island, we found a little spot for our picnic blanket (a bit of fabric I’d bought from the Red Cross shop for $4) and settled down for the evening.
I settled down a little bit too much actually and ended up having a half-doze around 11pm – I’m far too zen these days. In my defence I knew I was heading on to an after party later that night, with a good chance I wouldn’t see bed until well into the New Year. It has absolutely nothing to do age. Whatsoever.
The fireworks were something else. Fabulous from start to finish. Another one well and truly ticked off that bucket list.
After a fairly uneventful trip back through the city, I popped home for a shower and costume change. Then it was on to a New Year’s Eve party with a difference. A big difference. One where paying attention as a boy scout when you were doing your knots badge would have paid dividends. I’ve never seen such nifty rope work.
Nor have I seen someone accessorise their outfit with a wooden prosthetic hand on their left shoulder before. But what a welcoming group of interesting people!
With a couple more firsts ticked off, we left well after sunrise, the party still in full swing as we headed expectantly down the stairs and out the door, into a brand new year.