The beach, mate, yeah.
Final week in Australia and we don't want to leave! This trip has been one of the most joyous in my life and I already miss the wildlife and the sound of "Hello mates!"
After climbing the infamous Sydney Harbor Bridge, taking in the happy sight of the ferries across the waters and admiring the petals of the stylish opera by the bank, we then wanted to see the beach, as the oh-so popular national pastime of surfing is equal here to a religion - and of course ogling the buff bodies of the semi-gods in action was part of the plan.
We drove to Bondi Beach, the official beach of Sydneyans (is there such a word?). I learned that it's pronounced Bond-eye, not Bondee, like I have been saying all along. Frankly, Australians must have thought we were weird, but never said a word about it.
The ride took about 20 minutes and the small community by the cove revealed itself extraordinary quiet and laid back, with a feel like California around Santa Cruz. The sun was bright, the sky was turquoise, the white waves were so high, it's no wonder all Australians are surfers, their oceans everywhere are always fuming with furious crests of meringue-like foam breaking into ride-able fun of absolute exhilaration.
The beach was packed with just what we wanted to see, aka beautiful people of all sizes and colors, but mostly trim and sun-kissed, with long hippie hair and permanent smiles on their faces. Told you, just like California. Although I believe the Australians were the original Californians, with their high spirits and unwavering sunny attitudes.
Sharks in The Pool
The bar to be in Bondi is the Icebergs perch, high above the rocking surf -- the place was packed for lunch. The view was to die for (a small reference to Nicole Kidman here), and the setting just exquisite. I know I am starting to sound like a travel guide, but what can I say? I have had only great experiences in this wild country.
The Icebergs has a pool overlooking the ocean, and customers can swim, in between their sandwiches and their coffee. Many people just hang around it and take in the sun. The rock swimming pool has a stylish restaurant and bar overlooking the entire beach. It's named after the brave swimmers who compete here in the winter months.
There is an entry fee. Stories abound about occasional sharks infiltrating the pool during high tides when gigantic waves throw them in and locked them inside with no way out, until the level of water was enough to ride out. Lucky for me, I did not swim in that pool. Phew!
The walk alongside the coastal rocky path at sunset was simply ravishing, and we turned in early to a Pakistanese-run hotel on the waterfront, just across the road from the sand, the Bondi Hotel, where gigantic rooms with terraces made us feel like maharajas of the colonial Indies. This place was just like a dream. Or maybe I was hallucinating, from joy and hyper relaxation. No, I was not drinking.
The community has a real feel of backpackers, with youth hostels, coffee shops, surf boutiques and semi-naked people walking barefoot everywhere. Australians of all kinds and ages have absolutely no body image trouble and are seen in every stage of undress with no shame, no hangs-up, and no judgment of any kind. It's very liberating. In Miami, it's hard to go to the beach with less than a perfect body, a skin shade not quite the right burn effect, or the latest fashion in bathing suit style.
Bondi is the new Malibu, Venice, Santa Monica, all rolled in one single cove, with more inviting waters than the California ones. A bit more sharks too though. Topless sunbathing is everywhere, and many a times, we were even wondering if there was a bottom part on some of those bodies.
The Mountains in The Azure Fog
After a couple of days living like the native naked people, we headed back to drive to the Blue Mountains and Katoomba, a two and a half-hour trip which becomes a little bit challenging at times, after you pass Sydney and start on a narrow and winding country road. This is not an interstate. You really feel leaving the city and entering the back country territory, a little less frequented than the way to the shore and the beach.
If a large tour bus comes your way, may I recommend that you park snuggly on the left side and let it go by; those drivers will eat the road from underneath you, a little scary at times. Katoomba is the historic center of the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. Two places are not-to-be-missed in a day trip, the Echo Point lookout, and the Three Sisters formation.
On the traditional land of the Gundungurra and Darug people, Echo Point has magnificent panoramic views of the southern Blue Mountains. In early dawn the valleys are filled with moist fog with the tall peaks peeking out, and the eucalyptus trees down under (ah) provide a blueish-greenish hue to the air.
A lone Aboriginal player of a giant didgeridoo was having a symphony performance for us alone; the wooden wind instrument was so long, it had to rest on the floor. The wolf-like sound coming out of it was reverberating against the walls of the mountains, even though they were quite far away, turning the terrifying noise into an incredibly loud and deep cry.
A World of Dreams
The Three Sisters rock formation nearby are accessed via a giant stone staircase. Their names are Meehni, Wimlah, and Gunnedoo. The soft sandstone eroded to form three finger-like peaks, a famous landmark for wedding pictures to many Australians. The lovely legend around the rocks is the stuff of dreams, aboriginal dreams that is -- although the story has been disclaimed by tribal members, so please take it with a grain of salt.
Once upon a time, there were three sisters who resided in the Jamison Valley, members of the Katoomba tribe. They each fell in love with three men from a different tribe - but intermarriage was forbidden. So the determined three brothers, not willing to accept the rule, decided to capture the sisters; starting a tribal war, the end result was nasty: a tribe elder turned the three sisters to stone, instead of letting love have its way. After he was himself killed in the fighting, no one else was able to reverse his curse and turn the sisters back into humans.
The Ancestors Culture
The Gandangara tribe have a different version of the story, but won't share. They believe in animal-people who live in dreams, clouds, mountains, shrubs, trees and water holes. Some wise men of the Gandangara were known to change the shape of their body, disappear and change the landscape.
They also had magical weapons and were helped by magical dogs. These Australian aboriginal mythical explanations sound a lot like some of the African ancestors' stories I have heard in my travels. Maybe they date back to when there was only one continent on our planet -- but then again, in those ancient times, there was no human life on earth, or was there?
In the historic Katoomba village, the majestic Carrington Hotel -- formerly known as the Titanic Hotel -- looks like the real thing, with promenade balconies and the stack chimneys of the original ship. After a night in yet another B&B, we stopped at the Megalong Tea Rooms, where we had a real British breakfast for lunch, with eggs and grilled tomatoes, scones with homemade grape jelly, and a chai tea that reminded me more of India than England. There was a fire in the chimney and kangaroos in the bush yard, menacingly waiting for some crumbs.
As much as I like the tiny wallabies, the real size kangaroos are a little frightening to me. They always seem to be on the verge of attacking, and really do look like gigantic rodents. Mice I like -- rats I do not.
Do take the Mountain Devil funicular to go down the valley at Echo Point. This will be the ride of your life -- forget any roller coaster you have ever taken, this is the scariest natural ride to have. In the outback of the Blue Mountains, we also visited the enchanted Bridal Veil Falls, a cliff-hugging waterfall that was especially abundant after heavy rains for the first time in decades.
The incredible fact when you're in Sydney is that, you are not only in a city that looks like no other, with the cosmopolitan feel of New York, London and Paris all in one place, plus the sophistication of any large urban metropolis, but you are also constantly near the water, and a short drive to the best surf. In the winter, the ski and snow are at your doorstep with the Blue Mountains. The farm food scene and market-to-table availability is sincerely organic and endorsed everywhere. Sydney is now fast becoming my favorite city in the entire world.
So intense, so soulful, so easy-going, this trip was made of all the right stuff.
Adieu mates, we'll be back for sure!