The Dirties – Film Review

*****

Ripples of genuine laughter spread through the auditorium as we watch Matt (portrayed by director, producer and editor Matt Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams) indulging in their boyish enthusiasm for filmmaking. Movie geeks will love the littering of Tarantino quotes and a particularly entertaining reenactment of a ‘Being John Malkovich’ scene, but even the humour of the first 20 minutes is interspersed with an inkling that something darker is to come. As Matt’s intentions for the film start to seep into reality, our laughter becomes more uncertain and eventually is replaced by an unnerved silence and tension that you could cut with a knife.

‘The Dirties’ is a fake documentary (not to be confused with a ‘mockumentary’) inspired by the Columbine High School massacre of 1999. The distinction between the two aforementioned genres is subtle, but important; ‘The Dirties’ is so believable that you could accept it as genuine footage from the events leading up to such a tragedy. It’s not making fun of its subjects for the sake of entertainment, it’s representing them and all of their aspects to create a well rounded and realistic portrayal of their situation. This is a truly masterful example of the genre’s ability to pose important questions about the society in which we live.

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Matt and Owen are creating a film about taking bloody revenge on their high school bullies, dubbed ‘The Dirties’. They deal with the constant torment by laughing at their plight. As the frequency and intensity of the abuse increases, their humour becomes occasionally peppered with phrases of joking intent such as, “If we actually went and killed all the Dirties… Imagine if we showed that movie to class.” We, the audience, continue to chuckle, comforted by the fact that they are laughing themselves.

Whether or not the boys will actually carry out their plan is the question that makes this film so compelling. The performances are so believable that the two protagonists become recognisable as people that you went to school with; who you may have seen suffering and who you might not have helped.

Aside from its poignancy, the flick boasts a fantastic soundtrack (which the majority of the budget was spent on) and innovative cinematography that places you right in the middle of the action. Johnson’s masterpiece provides the perfect argument for why film festivals exist and are so highly valued in the film industry. Having been released by the Kevin Smith Movie Club in 2013, the film was only screened at one theatre in Toronto for a very limited run and, despite being available on Netflix USA, viewing it on the big screen and reacting as part of an audience takes the viewing to a whole new level. I feel so privileged to have had that opportunity at Melbourne International Film Festival and I urge you to take any opportunity to watch this with a room full of people. You probably won’t breathe for 83 minutes.

Christchurch to Kaikoura: A Reunion, Muscle Memory and the Calm Before the Storm

After a year’s worth of optimistic planning and tipsy conversation about our South Island road trip, it felt almost too good to be true as I finally boarded the first flight of my journey from Brisbane to Christchurch. The best way to ensure that you follow through on your seemingly fantastical plans is to commit yourself to them by paying for the flights or another large part of the trip so that you force yourself past the point of no return. Until you take that step, you will make excuses for yourself and pick holes in an idea until it doesn’t happen; you end up depriving yourself of what could have been an amazing experience in practice – what a travesty!

On New Year’s Eve 2013, my friend Angus and I promised each other that our trip would definitely happen; this wasn’t just fanciful planning. Sure enough, a month into my travels, we had a conversation via Facebook Chat which resulted in flights being purchased and the receipt of camper van rental confirmation. We’d hopped over that point of no return and we never looked back.

Fast forward to April 13th; I arrived, alone, in a very chilly Christchurch about an hour prior to Angus landing after his epic journey from London. I had found the tropical heat of Queensland a little too much to bear at times, so I actually welcomed the drizzle with open arms. I think the fact that England is almost constantly in a state of drizzle means that I was comforted by the element of familiarity in an otherwise unknown land. I should mention at this point that I was experiencing a few ripples of anxiety as I made my way to Apollo rentals, our camper van providers of choice. We had opted for the self-contained, 2-berth Cheapa Campa complete with toilet, shower, gas hob oven, sink, and queen-sized bed. My excitement about our road trip was infused with sprinklings of intense fear about being the sole driver of such a massive vehicle, over thousands of kilometres, when I hadn’t driven in over 3 years. Add to this the fact that the only car I’d ever driven up until this point was a tiny Nissan Micra and you might be able to understand why my tummy felt like it was full to the brim with butterflies.

If you’re considering renting a camper, I highly recommend paying for a value pack. This will usually include insurance, the waiver of the excess on the insurance policy (should you be unlucky enough to crash or damage the vehicle) and the hire of bed linen, towels and a heater. This was definitely preferable to paying over 2000 NZD for the security deposit, which we would have had to do if we didn’t take the value pack option; furthermore, it gave me peace of mind whilst driving and the hired items were extremely useful during our trip. Whilst waiting for Angus to arrive, I filled out the final bits of paperwork and waited with baited breath as the Apollo employee went to fetch the camper.

I had expected it to be big… but not this big!

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I swallowed the lump in my throat and resolved that I was just going to have to bite the bullet and have confidence in my ability to adjust to the situation. First of all, I asked the staff member if she would mind sitting in the passenger seat as I drove around the car park for a few minutes so that I could adjust to the size and power of the vehicle. Although strange at first, it was actually far easier to manoeuvre than I had anticipated! I know it’s a cliché, but it really is like riding a bike; muscle memory kicks in and, after a few minutes, you get used to the feeling of being in control. I learned to drive in a manual car and the camper was automatic, but this wasn’t an obstacle at all to be honest; other than the fact that my redundant left foot would occasionally search for the non-existent clutch when we were slowing to a halt.

By the time Angus arrived, I was ready to take on the trip ahead! It was so lovely to see a good friend after we’d both been anticipating the adventure for so long; it was also extremely surreal finding each other on the other side of the world! After a hug and an explosion of excited squealing, we hit the road. It really was that simple.

Our first journey took just over 2 hours and, as far as settling back into driving, it certainly ensured that I became confident at the wheel again. Due to it being Autumn, we only had about 20 minutes of light before the sun began to set, thus the majority of our drive was in the dark. The misty drizzle metamorphosed into fat droplets of rain and, although the drive from Christchurch to Kaikoura is essentially one long road, it was still a real test getting used to foreign road signs, one lane tunnels and the impatience of other drives who found themselves driving behind a our large vehicle. My biggest tip for camper van novices? Go at your own pace and don’t bow to the pressure of tailgating idiots, especially if you find yourself driving in adverse weather conditions. You could be going 5km above the speed limit (which I wouldn’t recommend) and other drivers will still attempt to overtake you because they perceive themselves as being ‘stuck’ behind you. Just try not to let their impatience frustrate you and allow them to overtake, it’s better to let them get as far away from you as possible.

Pulling up outside Angus’ dad’s house after 2 hours of intense concentration provided a wonderful feeling of relief. We parked up and were greeted by the lovely John and Sandra who were kind enough to be putting us up for the subsequent few days. My nerves had totally subsided and, instead, I was filled with pure joy and excitement as we ate a delicious meal and talked about the days to come over a few glasses of wine. After a wonderfully restorative sleep, the next morning I awoke to this view:

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It’s hard to focus on bad weather when you’re surrounded by such incredible beauty. Bristling with anticipation, I let my parents know that I’d survived the first hurdle and received congratulations for completing such a difficult drive; little did we know that, for the next week, we’d be driving through a cyclone!

“You only need to put a couple of days aside for Brisbane.”

First and foremost, I have to apologise for the long silence; there are 3 excuses I’d like to throw your way.

1. I’ve been desperately looking for a job and vowed that I’d put all of my effort into that quest. Thankfully I have a trial tomorrow and it means that the pressure has somewhat subsided – thank goodness because my funds are running dangerously low and I need to save before going to New Zealand.

2. The heat in Queensland is on a totally different level and every time I sat down and attempted to write I would end up slipping into a sweaty coma. An attractive image isn’t it? You’re very welcome.

3. When I’ve not been panicking about unemployment or passed out on the sofa after brief exposure to the scorching sun, I’ve been having the best time in Brisbane. However, before I tell you about the last couple of weeks, I’m going to issue a warning.

I love meeting fellow travellers; you gather all kinds of stories, advice for when you arrive in a new place, recommendations for activities or hostels and, most of all, you build relationships with people that you’ll be able to enjoy for years to come. However, for all of the positives, there is one huge negative that I’ve thankfully become aware of very early on in my trip: people are far too eager to recommend that you skip places or limit your stay to only a couple of nights if they themselves haven’t been particularly impressed with that area.

I do understand the merit of being ruthless with your itinerary if you’ve only got a limited amount of time; it pays to be selective if you don’t have room for mistakes and disappointment. However, I’ve got a year in which to experience the country and I’m not just here for a “best-bits” tour. I like the fact that I’m not necessarily going to love every single place as much as the one before, I think that’s what differentiates the trip from merely being a holiday.

The other reason I dislike the dismissal of places as “not worth stopping for” is because, usually, the people making the recommendation have only known you for a couple of hours before they make the statement. Ultimately, they may have your best interests at heart, but they don’t actually know why you’re travelling or what your preferences are. I know for a fact that some of the places I love will not be for everyone, just as I can recognise that there are merits to those that I dislike. Add onto that the fact that you’ll be making friends in every place you go to – the area may be a bit of a dump but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the people you meet there will be rubbish. This last point, especially, means that it’s impossible to write off a location.

I’d like to take this opportunity to stand up for Brisbane. I was told, an astonishing number of times, that I shouldn’t stay for any longer than 2 nights because, in comparison to Sydney and Melbourne, it has far less to offer. I detected an air of indifference every time I asked about others’ experiences and it worried me slightly; I had always planned on staying for longer due to having family and friends in close proximity to the CBD as well as on the outskirts of the city. Thank goodness I stuck to my guns and left room for a longer stay because I love Brisbane; here are a few reasons why.

It’s beautiful. There are so many different examples of beauty in the city and its surroundings. The floral parklands of the South Bank with its Streets Beach are spitting distance from the pristine Queensland State Library which offers views of the river from a variety of serene reading rooms. To get to one from the other you can either walk along the river whilst looking across at the sparkling CBD or make your way through the tropical jungle walk which brings you out at the Wheel of Brisbane. The area reminds me of London’s South Bank in the sense that its wheel is situated right next to Brisbane’s answer to The National Theatre: The Queensland Performing Arts Centre. Albeit the palm trees, glorious sunshine and exotic birds remind you that you’re on the other side of the world, but the similarities are there. I could spend days wandering around popping into the museums, browsing the markets and taking in the views… well actually, I’ve done just that!

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If you venture to the outskirts of the city, you’ll find some of the most breathtaking tropical scenery and there’s so much of it to explore. I went on a motorbike ride with my uncle from his house, about an hour north of the CBD, to Mount Mee via Clear Mountain, Mount Glorious and Lake Somerset. We stopped off at some amazing lookouts along the way and the further we climbed, the tinier the city appeared in the distance, nestled amidst the incredible greenery. After experiencing the wind rushing past my ears and nothing but a helmet separating me from the vista I can totally understand why my uncle loves biking, especially now that he’s back in Australia. My parents would have a heart attack if I took it up as a hobby myself though so, just to reassure them, I can confirm that I haven’t splashed out on lessons just yet.

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It’s in a great location on the East Coast. Sitting just above the Gold Coast and at the base of the Sunshine Coast, Brisbane itself may not have direct access to the sea but if beaches are what you want, there are plenty nearby. Surfers Paradise (home to numerous theme parks and one of the longest beaches in Australia) is barely an hour South and places like Mooloolaba and Noosa are a similar distance in the other direction. Add to that the fact that Australia Zoo is just on the doorstep and you’re spoilt for choice in terms of possible activities and day trips.

There are so many options for quality food and drink. The Bavarian Bier Café, on Eagle Street Pier, is a stand out choice for an evening meal and a few (or many) drinks with great service. Order a stick of shots if you want the unique experience of your drinks being delivered on a yard long plank whilst your waiter rings a hefty cow bell – who wouldn’t want that?
The Three Monkeys Coffee and Tea House in the West End (not a theatre district like London’s but home to many bars and restaurants) offers incredible cheesecake and gigantic bowls of chai latte. My lovely friend Maddi welcomed me to the city with a trip here and it was the perfect introduction to Brisbane’s quirky café scene. I must return soon to sample more of the menu… more of those cakes at the very least.

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I’ll be posting more about Brisbane over the next few weeks due to the fact that I’ll be staying here until April 13th, when I fly to New Zealand. If you take anything from this post I hope it’s this: don’t write off a destination before you’ve spent some time there. It doesn’t matter how adamantly your new friend, of 15 minutes, swears that you’ll hate it – they don’t know why you’re here, what you’re looking for or who you might be meeting along the way. The only exception to this rule should be on the grounds of your personal safety; if someone advises that you don’t go to North Korea, for instance, I’d probably take heed. Just make sure you have the trip that you want, because it’s better to regret going somewhere than always wondering what you would have thought of it.

Escaping to Byron Bay

Do you remember when I called Sydney laid back? Well, I feel as though I may need to introduce a spectrum of laid-back-osity because I’ve since experienced a whole new level of leniency and relaxation. If you’re travelling up the coast, from Sydney to Cairns as opposed to the other way around, you will find that you are quickly whisked away from city life ready to meander through your days in the beautiful Byron Bay: home to hippies, buskers, surfers and stoners.

My first tip is to buy an item of tie-dyed clothing and ditch your ‘thongs’ in favour of walking barefoot; abide by this simple advice and you’ll immediately fit in far better than I did with my backpack, denim mum-shorts (they’re extremely comfortable ok?) and brighter than white lace-up pumps.

It’s not just your attire that will set you apart from the locals, there’s something extremely ‘zen’ about the general demeanour of people who call Byron Bay home. This is largely due to the popularity of Eastern practices such as meditation and yoga, two activities that I am very keen to work into my daily routine after my guided meditation session at the Arts Factory backpackers resort. Arts Factory is simultaneously one of the most bizarre yet enjoyable hostels I have ever stayed at. If you’re in the area you really must check it out, even if it’s just for a few drinks in a hammock by the central swamp surrounded by musicians, lizards and turkeys.

Another, more chemical, explanation for the tranquility of the town can be found in its proximity to Nimbin which has been described as ‘the drug capital of Australia’. It’s a tiny place about an hour and a half long drive away (barely any distance by Australian standards) in which the authorities turn a blind eye to the thriving marijuana trade.

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The fact that the Grasshopper tour runs every day, facilitating the tourists’ highs and providing them with beautiful views and a barbecue in a meticulously planned day out, indicates how lax the laws are for this particular section of New South Wales. Writer Austin Pick sums up his impression of Nimbin thusly, “It is as if a smoky avenue of Amsterdam has been placed in the middle of the mountains behind frontier-style building facades… Nimbin is a strange place indeed.”

By far the strangest part of strange little Nimbin is its local museum. Littered with hand painted banners calling for the liberalisation of marijuana, hippie memorabilia and a large number of disturbingly mutilated dolls, the dimly lit, narrow corridors took on quite a nightmarish appearance. There couldn’t have been a better person to share this experience with than my friend Adam Carver; the further we walked, the more surreal things became, the louder we laughed.

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On returning to Byron Bay that night we headed to Cape Byron, walked along the beautiful beach and ate fish and chips whilst the sun set behind us. The curve of the beach with its golden sand against the azure blue of the sea and the backdrop of the mountains in the distance is one of the most fantastic views I’ve ever laid eyes on and I can definitely see why the area is so well loved by almost everyone who passes through it. Not only are the beaches wonderful to look at, they are some of the best for surfing; I had my second lesson with Mojo Surf at Lennox Head (half an hour from the high street) and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I actually found my first experience extremely difficult and the prospect of trying again was a little daunting but once I got used to the sting of salt water in my eyes and accepted the fact that getting water up my nose is just part of the package, I was able to throw myself in and managed to stand up a fair few times – the feeling is addictive and I can’t wait to improve further. If you take part in the sport, you really must try to get to Byron Bay at some point in your life, if only for the possibility of looking to your side and seeing dolphins swimming with you as you surf.

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So Long, Sydney

I’ve been in Australia for a month… A month! It doesn’t seem possible! When I moved to Earlwood three weeks ago, I have to admit to feeling a little apprehensive about staying in Sydney for such a long time before starting to travel up the coast. I feared that it was going to be too expensive, I wondered if I might run out of things to see and do and, as more and more of my friends from the first week started to flit off to different parts of the vast country, I could feel my feet beginning to itch.

It turns out that I needn’t have worried, Sydney has so much to offer and I feel as though I have managed to take full advantage of my time here. I’ve been lucky enough to see the city at the height of summer and experience the vibrant atmosphere of the Sydney Festival culminating in the celebration of Australia Day on January 26th. We spent the morning watching the ‘Ferrython’ from a lovely little park underneath the Harbour Bridge where there was a large enough crowd to provide a buzz of excited ceremony, whilst being small enough to avoid the provocation of claustrophobia.

After stuffing ourselves full of free hotdogs, we made our way to a friend’s flat. It’s in walking distance of Bondi beach with beautiful balcony views of the sea, a wonderful place to continue the celebrations with the musical accompaniment of Triple J’s Hottest 100 (the British equivalent would be the countdown to the Christmas number 1) and plenty of delicious Australian treats. What was loveliest about the party was the mix of people, amongst us ‘Pommies’ there were born and bred Australians, a smorgasbord of Europeans and a sprinkling of Americans; everyone sharing an interest in travel and intent on seeing as much of the world as possible. As well as hearing stories about places that I am excited to visit, it was gratifying being able to gush with pride about England and Yorkshire to people for whom England is a strange and far off land. Seeing the excitement that my stories of home aroused in others made me realise how lucky I am to have lived there.

The evening may have filled me with champagne fuelled joy and lightness but the morning after, suffering through a throbbing headache in the stifling heat, was far less enjoyable. If anything is going to put me off drinking whilst I’m out here, it’s the fact that I simply can’t function with a hangover in the heat. Add to that the information gained whilst attaining my Responsible Service of Alcohol certificate today (a mandatory process if you’re seeking bar work) and you’ll understand why I’ve vowed to drink plenty of water on my next night out. Nothing makes me feel like going teetotal more than hearing horror stories about alcohol related illness and incidents, I guess I’m a sucker for scary statistics. As well as the hangover, there have been other, inevitable low points; I’m talking, for the most part, about bearing witness to Australia thrashing England in the 20/20 cricket on Sunday whilst being surrounded by Aussies in the ANZ stadium. It was truly mortifying… but I’m sure that, in time, the embarrassment will subside.

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All things considered, I feel as though I’m leaving Sydney at the perfect time. Staying any longer than a month without working may have upset that perfect equilibrium of being sad to leave and happy to go at exactly the same time. As I depart Central Station, Woolgoolga bound, I can happily mull over the last month in my head knowing that those memories won’t have been sullied by overstaying my welcome, all the while bristling with excitement about what lies ahead.

Walking: My New Favourite Pastime

I’ve been very lazy this Saturday. Usually I would feel guilty for staying in bed on such a beautiful day; England’s brief stint of summer weather makes you feel as though you should be making the most of every single sun-filled second because you never know when the next opportunity is going to rear its tentative head. However, now that I find myself in a country where hot weather isn’t such a novelty, I’m starting to learn how to ignore the restlessness and just enjoy a rare day of doing nothing. After a week of exploring the city almost entirely by foot I guess it’s only fair to give my legs a little rest!

My friend Grace and I have been settling into Sydney by walking all over it. When you’re new to a city, there’s a tendency to use public transport to get from place to place in order to avoid getting hopelessly lost in the less desirable nooks and crannies that every metropolis inevitably harbours. I understand, and have previously practised, giving into the temptation of hopping on a bus or train from here to there; it’s quick, feels safe and is often air-conditioned (phew). But seeing stop after stop flash past outside your window totally distorts your perception of a place. How can you start to build your memory of a city’s shape and size if you’re constantly being thrust into new areas via a linear route? It’s akin to being satisfied with only placing down the corners of a jigsaw puzzle and leaving the rest of the image incomplete.

London’s tube system is a good example of how public transport can prevent you from becoming familiar with a place. Travelling on the tube is like being blind-folded, spun around several times and then unleashed into a part of the city without any discernible idea of how on earth you’ve come to find yourself there. I’ll admit to the fact that, despite having been born and partially raised in London, it wasn’t until recent years that I started to actually walk from place to place and it’s amazing how much safer I feel in the city since making that decision. Anywhere is going to seem more threatening if it’s unfamiliar and confusing.

Nowadays, every time I find myself in a new setting, my favourite thing is to demystify it by walking and walking and walking. Paris, Manhattan and Amsterdam are tiny in comparison to London! You can walk from one end to the other in a matter of hours and it’s so satisfying being able to experience the change in ambience as you pass through different neighbourhoods – a transition that gets somewhat masked by the convenience of train travel.

Even though Sydney is technically larger in area than London, it has the feel of a much smaller city and the centre is extremely easy to navigate because of its grid system, similar to New York or Glasgow. This makes it difficult to get irreparably lost because you can very easily retrace your steps and you’re never too far away from George Street (the backbone of the city).

My first two weeks were spent pootling around Darling Harbour, Circular Quay, Chinatown and Hyde Park. What’s been good about living slightly further out (I’m currently in Earlwood which is southwest of the centre) is that, once I’ve got that initial train to Central Station, I’ve been forcing myself to spend as much time walking around as I possibly can before meeting people in the evening. It took a little time for me to relax into the concept of walking for the sake of walking. Whenever I’m in London I get caught up in the hustle and bustle of darting with determination to a certain destination with a strict ETA in mind and, even when I’m not in a hurry, the pace of the people around me makes me feel as though I should be rushing. Sydney is very different.

I first noticed this when my OzIntro group and I were walking to the bank in order to collect our debit cards. Bearing in mind that we were a group of roughly 14 people, we were able to stroll on down, starting and stopping at will, from our hostel near Town Hall to Martin Place without receiving a single sour look – there wasn’t a disgruntled huff to be heard! Compare this to London, a city in which I have knowingly continued walking in the wrong direction for a good 10 minutes due to being so caught up in the current of commuters and reluctant to face the inevitable disapproval of the irritable throng behind me that I’ve just accepted the fact that I’d have to duck out at the next alleyway in order to change course. Sure, you get the occasional person running for a bus or power walking to work in Sydney but, generally, the tempo of life here is much more of a saunter than a march.

So what have been the highlights? Here are a few suggestions for you if you’re wanting to tackle the city by foot.

Central Station to Darling Harbour
An easy peasy walk but worth doing if you want to start to get to grips with how the city’s structured. It’s barely a mile and you literally have to walk up George Street and then, after about 10 minutes, turn left at King Street. Walking around the harbour is a treat in itself; this is where you’ll find the aquarium, the IMAX, the Chinese Gardens of Friendship and many, many bars and restaurants.
Check out Cyren for its amazing seafood and wallet-friendly happy hour ($5 beers and a variety of house wines from Monday-Friday 3-6pm), Cargo for delicious $10 steaks (Monday-Wednesday) and have a milkshake the Guylian Belgian Chocolate Café around the corner at Darling Quarter.

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Coastal Walk from Bondi to Coogee
Not only that, but try walking from Bondi Junction to Bondi Beach first instead of taking the bus. If you go on a Thursday you’ll be lucky enough to catch the market at Bondi Junction. Pick up an iced tea and some scrumptious soda bread from the stalls and start walking; it takes roughly 30 minutes to get to the beach (I’m being generous with timings to allow for the inevitable coffee shop breaks) and the coastal walk will take roughly an hour if you’re walking at a leisurely pace. The fantastic thing about this walk is that, if you’re getting a bit toasty with the exercise, there’s ample opportunity to take a dip in the sea in order to cool off. If you’ve had your fill of sea salt but would still like to have a splash, many of the bays have clubs with swimming pools available for public access. Make sure you stop at the Wow Cow dessert bar at Bondi Beach for some incredible frozen yoghurt, it’s a chain and you’ll find them dotted all around Sydney. We were so bowled over that we walked for three miles the next day (Earlwood to Newtown) in order to reach the nearest one – WORTH IT.

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Redfern to Newtown to Town Hall
This is a long one; we spent the entire day popping in and out of shops and cafés.You’ll find Carriageworks Theatre by Redfern station; a huge converted carriage depot originally commissioned by the New South Wales Government Railways in 1888. It’s honestly one of the most exciting theatres I’ve ever been to and attached to it is Corner Stone, serving amazing bar food and drinks – well worth a look. Newtown is home to the University of Sydney which makes it an extremely lively area filled with good food, quirky shops and entertainment; no wonder it’s currently one of the most expensive areas to live in! As well as thumbing through books in one of the various exchanges, make sure you check out T2, a specialist tea shop which is sure to entrance many a travelling Brit. I have fallen in love with their unique blends and stylish design and the exciting news is that the chain will be making its way over to the UK eventually which I’m sure will be a huge success. On your way back to the centre, make sure you walk through Victoria Park and check out the pool, chill out under a tree with some Cockatoos and catch your breath before eventually reaching Town Hall where you can reward yourself with a coffee in one of the many cafés in the Queen Victoria Building.

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Coping with the Cost of Living

Currency conversion is a funny thing. For Brits, going abroad often means that your savings are multiplied because of a favourable exchange rate; it’s like placing a bet with the guarantee of an attractive return. The British Pound currently converts to approximately 1.8 Australian Dollars, so you can imagine the joy I felt when my tidy little stash nearly doubled after being transferred to my Australian bank account. But a strange, and dangerous, paradox exists whilst actually spending time at your destination and I’ve decided to call it ‘Convenient Conversion Syndrome‘.

So, how do you know that you’re a sufferer? Let’s take eating out as an example:
You arrive at a restaurant and eye up the pricey menu. The numbers listed next to the mains are often in the realms of 18-35 and, initially, this is daunting because you’re used to thinking in GBP. “£20 for a chicken Caesar salad?!” you think whilst feeling your wallet palpably shrink in your pocket. The feeling of panic intensifies as you realise that even the soft drinks will cost a minimum of £4 and god forbid you’d want to have a cocktail at £14. You resign yourself to the reality of drinking tap water for the foreseeable future and commit to a meal consisting solely of a small side salad and possibly a bowl of olives if you’re feeling ostentatious.

But then a wonderful thing happens: you realise that you’re in Australia and that your English money counts for double.

“Fantastic!” you think as you immediately halve the prices in your head, “£10 for a Caesar salad?! How reasonable!” As your wallet starts to swell you allow yourself to consider purchasing not one, but two cocktails! They are only £7 after all. The dessert menu suddenly seems incredibly appealing and you even toy with the idea of a post-meal macchiato. Why not? It’s only £2 and you’re practically a millionaire over here with your fancy pounds.

This is Convenient Conversion Syndrome lulling you into a false sense of security. To cope with the overwhelming prices, you start to convince yourself that it’s really not as expensive as it seems because your lovely British money is worth more Down Under. The delusion lets you enjoy your princely meal without guilt and, when your fork prongs pierce that trembling poached egg, your worries stream away as the beautiful yolk trickles through those valuable cos lettuce leaves.

This is where it starts to get upsetting.

A couple of days later, after a night out and a few more ‘modest snacks’ on the beach (all purchased whilst in your ‘I’m a British monarch’ mindset), you check your balance. Oh dear. It’s not exactly healthy. Your pulse starts to quicken as your brain attempts to calculate how the hell you’re going to survive on so little for such a long time. A premonition of your future in a cardboard box on George Street makes you feel a little bit sick and, as you sit your destitute bum on the nearest bench, you tell yourself that 1 meal a day is really all you need – you want to lose a bit of weight anyway.

Enter C.C.S.

You’re in Australia, you plonker! Everything’s fine, your money counts for more over here. And so, just as quickly as you halved everything on that menu, you double that measly balance figure and pull yourself together – it’s lunch time after all.

This fluctuation occurs as a coping mechanism but it doesn’t really help you in the long run, as you can imagine. It’s best to snap out of it as soon as possible and disregard the conversion rate altogether because, ultimately, it’s far better to be frugal as a backpacker. If your natural reaction to the expensive prices is to recoil in horror, try not to ease the fear by thinking in pounds – it’s a slippery slope.

The best way to combat the cost of living is to make use of hostel kitchens and cook together. Woolworths (still thriving over here) is the Aussie equivalent of Tesco and food is priced very reasonably; you can really get your money’s worth if you shop wisely and make use of the multibuy offers. I’m loving the 4 for $12 offer on delicious soups at the moment – healthy, filling, cheap and very tasty.

Invest in a water bottle. There are loads of drinking fountains/potable water taps; you might as well refill a bottle rather than shelling out $4 every time you want a fresh one.

Do all of your greater city travel in a week. You can buy a multiway ticket (covering all zones and all modes of transport) at only $63 for the whole week. For Sydney, this covers travel to as far out as Newcastle which is just over 100 miles from the city centre; you could make this journey every day for 7 days if you wanted to at no cost outside of that initial purchase. It covers all ferries as well so you’d be able to fully explore all of the beaches/attractions on the outskirts of the city and make the most of your money. If you take your trusty Woolworths packed lunch with you, you’re in for a few very cheap days out!

Get a job. If you’re planning on staying in Sydney for an extended period of time, it would be sensible to have some sort of income so that you’re not bleeding yourself dry before you’ve explored the rest of Australia. Charities are keen to employ fundraisers and, although it may not sound too appealing, it usually pays extremely well and you can be outside talking to people all day long as opposed to being stuck in an office or call centre. The other bonus is that they don’t mind taking people on, on a temporary basis; you wouldn’t need to worry about letting employers down if you plan on moving to your next destination in a couple of weeks.

So, in conclusion, don’t fall into the trap of Convenient Conversion Syndrome! If you’re scared by prices, that’s a very good thing. It shows that you understand the value of money and it’s likely to be an extremely useful trait during your travels. You can have a fancy meal or get wasted on a night out anywhere; why spend money on something so common when holding back could eventually pay off by affording you a trip to one of these amazing places:

20140119-164802.jpg – The Great Ocean Road
20140119-164816.jpg – Whitsunday Islands
20140119-164824.jpg – The Great Barrier Reef
20140119-164832.jpg – Fraser Island