“Do you have another passport?” are not really the words you want to hear when you’re about to board an international flight. I panicked, flapped around questioning myself and wondering how I had picked up my expired passport instead of my current one. Three hours to go, maybe just maybe there’s time to go back and get my passport. Is this really happening? Then in a very detached, unflappable tone, the women at checkin reassures me that that this is the correct passport, perfectly valid for the next 5 months and 26 days…but my destination country is one of many who’ll only grant a visa with 6 months validity. How could I have been so careless, why didn’t I count the days instead of just the months? While I’m banging myself on the head pleading with the Airline to let me catch my flight I’m thoroughly bewildered at this nonsense rule, if the expiry date on your passport isn’t the actual expiry then, well…
After an equally unhelpful supervisor proceeded to list all the risks of travelling “illegally” and not being granted entry (what, could I possibly be deported? Surely not!), they issued a boarding pass to my transit destination at least. Not my finest hour, I reflected. Not my finest 7 really, seven long drawn out hours spent wondering how I would explain this when I met the other half of two gals in Changi Airport. Fortunately she had arrived a few hours ahead of me and I knew would be welcomed by a deluge of messages apologising in advance for my great sense of travel know-how that might cost us the trip. As I stealthily got off the plane, trying not to make eye contact with the officials for fear they might accost me at the gate and turn me around, I started to think that they’d probably still let us meet up, have a shop around Changi Airport, grab a coffee, maybe even a foot massage and it could still feel like a sort of mini holiday. They let me get wi-fi, I was starting to have hope.
By this time we had just met, exchanged excitable hello’s and sympathies (this part is very important, always travel with someone who is calmer, more resourceful and cheekier than you) and proceeded to the transfer counter where my obvious ditziness was the reason I had no boarding pass to our next flight and “oops” I’d even forgotten to check in my luggage all the way. You see the thing about the other gal in our adventures is that she really makes for the ideal travel buddy and proves to me day after day, just how infectious and wonderful a positive attitude really is and just like that, the entire night of anxiety evaporated. With a current boarding pass and a connecting flight 18 hours away, it was like a ticket to freedom. Not real freedom where you’re actually allowed outside, but the keys to Changi City nevertheless. One night in Changi is still a pretty full night, accommodation is as good as any hotel, endless shopping (not really our thing but makes you feel like it’s Christmas), a multitude of bars and cafe’s and plenty of themed gardens. All the bright lights made us almost forget that I still needed a visa if I was ever going to leave.
The two hour flight to Cambodia was filled with crazy possibilities as to what we might do if I looked too suspect to let in. Being resourceful travellers, we had a list of other destinations ready, open and welcoming places that wouldn’t care about my tardiness or illegal status and so we consoled ourselves with laughter and the prospect of booking flights to Uzbekistan or Malta for the week. When we reached Siem Reap, with it’s elegant Siamese inspired airport, tropical warm air, lush banana groves and welcoming faces, I wondered if a slow walk across the tarmac constituted saying I’d been to Cambodia. The petit security guard smiled her warm generous smile and said, “Welcome’’ surely they couldn’t, wouldn’t turn me back after that show of support.
Inside the airport we were quickly assorted into groups needing visa’s or not and so we joined the throngs of sweaty excited tourists holding our passports open and scrambling for $USD30.00. We certainly looked the part. I remember scanning the line of immigration officers, hoping to read a face that looked kind and benevolent, someone who wouldn’t have the heart to turn away a stray kitten…seriously, had it come to this? How much of a risk was I, with my just-out-of-date-valid-but-not-valid passport? We are here, we are staying. And so with that, to the rhythmic stamping of hundreds of passports, my name was called and my visa to the Kingdom of Cambodia was granted, gateway to a wonderful story book of travels.
One of the first things you notice about Australia, anywhere you land, is the sheer vastness of it, especially the sky. Whether you arrive at night and see the inky stretch dotted with clusters of stars or the broad blue openness of the morning sky, you get the feeling right away that it’s a wide and open country. Well, to be fair, you work that out just by watching the Kris Flyer screen on Singapore Airlines and realise just how long it takes you to fly across. And because the land down under is a lengthy flight from almost anywhere, most people arrive a little bleary eyed. But not me, not us! Though of course I was already in Sydney, awaiting the arrival of the other gal from “two gals, one world, a million adventures” and was not only thrilled to have her in Sydney but pleasantly surprised that even with the late night arrival, her eyes were as sparkling and awake as a cute little furry nocturnal ring-tail possum. Most of Australia’s native animals come to life at night, unlike the city which seems to still be hanging on to its English heritage and closing up shop so early that after about 8.00pm, it’s hard to get a bite to eat. But hey, when you come to Australia you probably don’t come for the nightlife and it was the million and one outdoorsy, adventurous, sight-seeing wonders that I couldn’t wait to share.
Being one of three sisters, this just had to be the first stop to take her in the Blue Mountains about an hours drive west of Sydney. The Three Sisters are three upright jagged rock formations representing three sisters who according to Aboriginal legend, were turned to stone. Why this happened is part of an unrequited love story between the sisters of one tribe and three brothers of another who were forbidden to marry and so for their own protection, the local Witchdoctor cast them into beautiful eternity where they now attract significantly more attention that even the most doting of husbands could have given. Their basalt and sandstone edges stand flooded in fluid golden sunlight against the escarpment of the Jamieson Valley and they’re a picturesque start to a day’s drive around the mountains. On their lower side are the majestic Wentworth Falls and if you don’t think about the climb back up, the descent into the lower pools of the Waterfalls are a serene and peaceful way to drink in the bushland. We soon discovered it’s also an ideal location to leave your backpack and take photo’s of it; we were a little perplexed though amusingly reduced to fits of laughter watching a mum and her teenage daughters strategically move a bright purple backpack around the rocks surfacing from the water. After watching this for about 10 minutes we finally concluded it was for a school assignment and by then even the mum had to concede it must have looked comical.
With the Aussie bush behind us, and no sight of a brown snake or fat blue tongue lizard creeping up on us (oh wait, that happened in the garden at home), we dusted off our walking shoes and headed for the refined ambiance of the dazzling harbour at the Opera House Foreshore. It’s 5.00pm on a sparkling Sunday evening, the sun with full warmth in its summer glow presses into our backs as we sip bubbly and people-watch the parade of friends, lovers and tourists soaking up the ambling spirit of the city at its best. For the next couple of days we zig-zagged across the city by car and seaplane, enjoying the postcard landmarks of the sheer cliff-faces plunging into the ocean, the historic Rocks Village, the tall glass facades of the CBD and the chance to fight off flocks of seagulls all vying for our lunch while sitting on the grassy slopes of Bondi Beach. And then I got to see first hand just how much birds may, or may not, feature in our adventures. I knew that some past karma’s with greedy eagles stealing school lunches had meant that birds are absolutely no friend, but all of a sudden Sydney seemed to be full of them. Not only the seagulls pecking away at empty food boxes, but those ugly grey-white Ibis with their long bent beaks circling the edge of trash cans, pigeons scampering everywhere on the footpaths and squawking cockatoos screeching as they flew inches above our heads making her duck for cover. I shouldn’t laugh…but we did. One afternoon, still with an itch to discover Sydney by more than land, sea and air we looked up towards the Harbour Bridge with her silver arc beaming in the sun and said,“let’s do it!”. Having climbed the bridge before I knew what I was in for but that never detracts from that pinnacle moment when you stand victorious after combatting the 1,332 steps (some-how it’s just the last 2 that bring on a sweat and heavy breathing) and take in the crisp fresh air and the panoramic view of a vibrant city carved into a beautiful web of waterways, leading all the way out to the Sydney Headlands facing the Tasman Sea. It’s the first few days of autumn, midday on a clear sunny day and the view is simply sparkling. As it turns out, the most daunting thing about the whole climb is the pale grey onesie equipped with straps,hoists, chains, clips and a radio, not our best look but well worth the laughs and the experience.
As a Sydney must-see, Bondi Beach is iconic, with the Icebergs Pavilion at one end and the cliff-top coastal walk serenading you along the coast, its sea-water pool carved into the rock platform and sun-kissed bathers and joggers filling up the 1 km stretch of city beach. But it was the beaches up and down the coast that I wanted to show most of all; sprawling, wild, open and endless blue, so big that you hardly even notice the few tourists taking it in. So up to Port Stephens and down to the seaside village of Hyams Beach boasting the whitest sand in the world, both just 3 hours drive either side of Sydney. They’re a magnificent mix of national parks, bush walks, emerald tropical palms and mile after mile of sandy beaches and the open oceans, with waves and rips and sandbars so exposed you wouldn’t swim beyond the frothy crash of playful waves. The sand is so bright and the water so blue, illuminated and intensified by the clear lambent light, lustrous and radiant it makes you feel like a kid again, burying your feet, making sandcastles with water channels and moats and at night sitting beneath the star filled charcoal sky. I’m sure from Corlette Beach one night we even saw the Milky Way.
And really, this is the beauty of travel. Having lived here and overseas, I feel connected to more than one place and seeing them through new eyes, there’s clarity and beauty to the uniqueness that each place brings. This trip was just two weeks, but what with snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef, whale watching as the Humpbacks chart their northern migration along the coast, the barren outback of ochre coloured dust and mountains and the sprawling wetlands of Kakadu added to the list of adventures, we’re going to need more time…