Monday, February 10, 2014

Homeward Bound

I landed into Heathrow on Thursday lunchtime, and have spent the last few days in a jet lagged heap on the sofa: it was a long flight, and it's been an exhausting month, getting to grips with city after city in the space of a few days. But I promised one last entry about my trip, so working on the premise of “better late than never”, here it is.

I decided to spend my last day in Australia doing something which is supposed to be pretty much compulsory if you ever visit Sydney: catching a ferry out of the harbour. So, having packed up all my stuff for the final time and checked out of the hostel, I headed down to Circular Quay, and boarded the Manly ferry.

Why is catching a ferry compulsory? Essentially because of the incredible views as you sail out of the harbour. As illustrated below:

Manly is a town about a 30-minute ferry ride from Sydney, with a wonderful surf beach amongst other things. I had a walk around, and went to sit on the surf beach for a while, appreciating that this would be my last taste of sunshine for a while. It was really lovely.

About 3pm, I caught the ferry back to the city, which turned out to be an adventure in itself: the water was very rough on the return crossing, a fact I failed to realise when I sat right at the front of the boat. A few minutes into the journey, several huge waves splashed all the way into the ferry and I got drenched. Nice!

Back in Circular Quay, I sent a final postcard, and finally got round to doing some serious souvenir shopping, including purchasing one of those cheesy T-shirts with a koala bear on the front, as well as a real-life functioning boomerang (well you've got to, haven't you?!) Then, after one last look at the bridge and the Opera House, I set off on the long journey home.

Initially, this meant catching the train to Sydney Airport, finally saying goodbye to my enormous rucksack at the check-in desk, eating waffle fries from Hungry Jack's (that's Burger King to you and me), sitting on a plane to Melbourne for an hour, and finding a remote corner of Melbourne Airport to spend my last hour in Australia drinking one last frozen coke (they are so good!) and, fittingly, watching a BBL match.

And then there was a 14-hour flight to Doha and an 8-hour flight to Heathrow, which meant three dinners, two breakfasts and two lunches in the space of 24 hours. Finally, at 12.30pm on Thursday, UK time, I was home.

As we touched down on the tarmac it was already peeing it down with rain. Welcome home, Raf, London seemed to be saying.

So here I am, back in the UK, and reflecting on my adventures. Already Australia feels like a long time ago. But, as well as leaving me with some lasting, wonderful memories, my month there has taught me a lot: about cricket journalism (I still think it's the best job in the world), about being on tour, and about myself. Mainly that I am quite capable of finding my way around a strange country and strange cities if I put my mind to it, and that I quite enjoy doing so. As someone who'd never even flown by herself before this trip, those are some pretty big revelations.

I want to end by thanking some people:
1. The folks at ESPNcricinfo and All Out Cricket, who made the trip possible in the first place.
2. Amy, who made Perth so much more enjoyable, who always calls it as she sees it, and who, along with Mel, risked getting locked in the WACA for me three nights in a row.
3. Brad and Matt, who generously showed me the best of Hobart and its surroundings, as well as what a real Aussie BBQ is like.
4. All the journalists I spent time with out there who treated the women's game with the respect it deserves, and the whole way along made being in the press box fun, especially Eliza and Jesse.
5. All the other lovely Australians I met, who even when they were making fun of the England men's cricket team did so with great affection, and who made me want to come back to their country as soon as I possibly can.
6. And last but not least, Mel, who showed me the best places to eat and the best beaches, who made me laugh on countless occasions, who made sure I was never lonely, and who remains my Favourite Australian.

I can't say that I'll miss sleeping in a dorm room, sharing a bathroom with a million other people, breaking my back and shoulders dragging my enormous rucksack around, or having to apply insect repellent every time I ventured outside for more than five minutes. But I had the best month of my life Down Under, and I've fallen in love with Australia. I will definitely be back, with any luck sooner rather than later.

For now, it's back to the PhD.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Hobart to Melbourne to Sydney

Sorry about the length of this post, but thee last few days of the tour have been a bit manic, as the schedule for the three T20s meant fly-match-fly-match-fly-match.

On Thursday afternoon I flew out of Hobart. Being at the airport was interesting. There are only two gates, and very few flights to Melbourne that day. So, after I'd been there about half an hour, in strolled the Australian and English men's cricket teams (the women had flown out a lot earlier in the morning). The airport, for an hour or so, felt like it was some sort of Ashes cricket village, with the teams, as well as lots of fans, the players' families, and a whole heap of cricket journalists.

Coming back into Melbourne was actually a lovely feeling. Strangely like coming home. I've spent the longest here out of anywhere on my trip, and I guess that feelings of massive affection for this city have crept up on me without me really noticing.

I spent Friday morning in Fitzroy Gardens, and also wandered into the Melbourne Museum and did a free guided tour, which I really enjoyed. The museum is a great mixture of natural history – a “forest room” with real life plants and trees growing around you; a million stuffed animals; and a blue whale skeleton – and exhibitions about Melbourne's history, including its Aboriginal past (and hopefully future).

Friday afternoon was the second T20, my last at the MCG. The one thing about double-headers is that they really highlight the disparities which still exist between men's and women's cricket. Doing that post-match press conference with Charlotte Edwards in the gym at Bellerive, for example, with people from the men's set-up continually walking in and out and interrupting, was very irritating. I guess she's used to it, but it makes my blood boil.

However, there are bonuses: the food is way better, and you occasionally find yourself in a lift with your childhood hero (Nasser Hussain in my case). It's hard, being a member of the press corps, because sometimes you aren't allowed to be as fan-girly as you really would like to no photos of me and Nasser, I'm afraid.

On Saturday, after one last look at Fed Square and one last tram ride, I flew to Sydney. Leaving Melbourne was pretty sad – but hopefully I will be back.

But arriving in Sydney was incredible. I caught the train from the airport, right into Circular Quay. As I emerged from the station, there, right in front of me, was the Harbour Bridge – and then, just a little way to the right across the water, the Opera House. I was rooted to the spot, not even feeling the weight of my now stupidly heavy rucksack on my back, staring. I've been to many amazing places on my trip, but being here in Sydney, suddenly, I really was actually in Australia.

In Sydney, I was staying in the YHA in The Rocks, which is right near the Harbour Bridge. This initially meant climbing up some very steep stairs with my bag, which was NOT fun. But there were also the most spectacular views of the city:

It's also an interesting place to stay for another reason: it's right on the top of an archaeological site known as The Big Dig, a recently excavated area of The Rocks. The Rocks district is the oldest part of Sydney, where the first settlers lived, and when they dug it all up about 20 years ago, they found a whole load of interesting stuff that is now on display in the building.

On Saturday night I was invited out by a girl in my dorm room, Sophie, to go for dinner with her a couple of the other girls who are staying here. We went for noodles, and then wandered into Chinatown, as it was Chinese New Year. On the way back, Sophie and I stopped for “scary jugs” in an infamous bar called the Scary Canary. It was, true to reputation, filled with backpackers out for a good time, so we drank our luminous blue cocktails, and left. The night ended with a whole group of us going for more drinks in the Australian, which is a “buzzy” (Aussie slang) pub right next to the hostel. By 1am I was exhausted, so crawled off to bed.

On Sunday morning I was up early enough to have a wander around The Rocks district and explore a bit. Apparently much of it was almost pulled down in the 1970s by the government, but local protests, including by the construction workers asked to do the job, eventually triumphed, and many of the gorgeous old buildings were saved. Thank goodness! I also went to see the famous Rocks markets, which were selling a ton of amazing hand-crafted goods, though sadly very few things that would survive a 10,000 mile flight home.

The final match of the series was being held about 30 minutes train ride out of the city centre, at the ANZ Stadium in the Olympic Park. I was amazed by the size of the Park, which is almost a city in itself, and had a wander around (and a sneaky ice-cream) before making my way up to the press box. I was excited to discover that this was the same stadium where Jonny Wilkinson kicked that famous drop goal in 2003, breaking a million Aussie hearts in the process! Unfortunately, the reverse occurred on Sunday, with both England men and women defeated in their matches. The post-mortem for the men's side really begins here, I guess, and out of sheer curiosity I went down to watch the men's presser this time, which happened to be the one in which Ashley Giles confirmed he is applying for the job of England coach. Exciting, and interesting to see how different (by which I mean way more journalists and way less honesty) these post-mortem conferences are to the women's ones.

As for the women's team, it wasn't a great way for them to end the series, and I was sad about that; and also sad about it ending, and my assignment as a journalist being, for now at least, officially over. But still: England have the Ashes, and I was here to see it happen. That's pretty amazing.

I started Monday by climbing the steps up onto the Harbour Bridge. Some mad people pay a huge amount and presumably scare themselves witless by doing the proper Bridge Climb, where you are strapped into a harness and climb up the outside, which takes about 3 hours. I decided to opt for the cheaper, safer(?) option of going up to the top of one of the pylons at the side. The views from there were good enough for me!

There was also a museum in there, detailing how the bridge was built. Opened in 1932, it was largely constructed during the Great Depression, and was known as the “iron lung” because it kept so many men in work while it was built. I hadn't thought before about what an amazing feat of engineering the construction process must have been: firstly putting in the foundations, to support the enormous weight of the arch; secondly, erecting cranes on either side of the harbour to lift the steel. And then, slowly but surely, the two halves were built out of steel, extending further and further out, until finally the arches were joined together, right at the end.

After that, as the weather was glorious, I caught the bus to the world-famous Bondi Beach. I thought I had seen some nice Australian beaches since I've been here, but Bondi really is everything you could wish a beach to be. Golden, soft, warm sand, stretching for miles; and a sparkling blue sea that, when I went to swim in it, sent wonderfully refreshing waves over my head. Another incredible thing is that, while you are sat on the beach, people come around to you selling drinks and ice-creams, meaning you don't even have to move when you get thirsty. Amazing!

I spent the afternoon doing the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk. It's just a tiny bit different to the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path! Stunning views, and a series of beautiful beaches all the way along, in particular Bronte, Clovelly and Coogee. To give some idea of how hot it was, I walked the whole way (a couple of hours altogether) in bikini top and shorts, which was a pretty novel experience! It was absolutely wonderful to stop on each beach and go for a cool swim.

I caught the bus back into the city as the sun was setting, and seeing the harbour all lit up for the first time was fantastic. I've seen some beautiful natural sights while in Australia, but there is something uniquely beautiful about a city like Sydney at night. Maybe there shouldn't be, but there is.

I ate dinner with the bridge in view; I ordered something called a “Journo burger” (highly appropriate) which is basically just a normal cheese burger, but bigger. Not sure what that says about journalists...

Yesterday, I walked down George Street (the main street) to the Town Hall, for the free city tour I had heard about. These run every day, and they operate on a “pay what you think it's worth” basis, which is a fantastic concept. Our tour guide, a native Sydneysider, was really excellent, with a great insight into the city that I never would have gotten otherwise. For starters, she took us into the network of underground tunnels underneath Sydney, which I didn't even realise were there. Many of them are now filled with shops, but there are apparently so many that no one quite knows how they all connect up. She was also pretty knowledgeable about the First Fleet, and told us all about how one of the most famous Governors of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie, rounded up all the convicts at Hyde Park Barracks one night, and locked them inside, to institute an element of control.

Governor Macquarie is everywhere in this city. And another thing I've noticed is that there are a ton of streets and places here which are named after things with which I'm very familiar back home: Liverpool Street; Oxford Street; and of course Hyde Park, which has its very own Speakers Corner. It's like being in a warped, more exciting version of London, which happens to have the Harbour Bridge and Opera House in it.

I also did an Opera House tour yesterday, which was the next best thing to actually seeing a performance (tickets for that are very expensive!) The tour was great: we got go right up inside the “sails” at the top, and saw inside three of the theatres, including some rehearsals.

We also heard the whole story behind its construction, which again I had no idea about beforehand, but is again absolutely fascinating. Basically, there was an international design competition in 1955, won by Danish architect Jorn Utzon. But, perhaps because of the novelty of his design, he had absolutely no blueprint for construction when he started leading the build. Eventually, after years of overspending and with the project nowhere near finished, he fell out with the Australian government, resigned his position, and went back to Denmark. The Opera House was, of course, later finished – but Utzon never came back to Australia, and he never saw his completed design come to fruition. Very sad really.

In the evening, I walked around the Botanic Gardens for a while, and then over to Darling Harbour (or, as it is surely inevitably known, Sydney's Other Harbour). This is on the east side of the city, a bit of a walk from Circular Quay, but it's a great place, with an adventure playground, an aquarium, fountains, and some lovely restaurants and bars. I ate dinner there, and was lucky enough to come out when it was dark: I feel like I've taken about a zillion photographs of Sydney at night since I've been here, but it is just so beautiful!

Today is my last day in Australia; I fly home tonight. I will write one last entry about my adventures when I get home, but for now, suffice it to say that I've loved my all-too-brief time in Sydney, which is clearly (sorry Melbourne and Canberra) the real capital of Australia.