I had always wanted to go to Australia. Ever since I could remember, when people asked me about the one place I wanted to visit, I would always say Australia. When Lord of the Rings came out, I added New Zealand to that answer. When the opportunity finally arrived, I carefully planned what would be the longest and most expensive trip of my life up to that point. I would be spending eight days in Australia and eight days in New Zealand, with a few extra days thrown in for travel time.
I initially wanted to visit the capital city of Canberra and acquire a tattoo there, in line with my goal to collect capital city tattoos, but my friend, Emma, whom I met on the Flogging Molly Cruise, advised me otherwise and I decided on a Melbourne tattoo instead. I also initially wanted to get a tarantula tattoo because of a certain musician whose name was similar to the name of that spider and who had family in Australia, but Emma again wisely advised me to get a more feminine, and deadlier spider, the female Australian Redback. Considering I wanted red and black arms, it was also an ideal design for my shoulder.
I knew it was going to be a long flight to Sydney and I would be losing an entire day, but I had no idea how to prepare for what was to come. Qantas, however, made even economy comfortable and turned the lights off and on in line with the time zone of our destination, so after a couple of movies, a couple of meals, a couple of beers, and a decent sleep, I arrived in Sydney without much of a struggle. At the airport, I needed to declare the Puerto Rican soil on my hiking boots that I was too lazy to wash off before I packed, so they put me in Quarantine to inspect my shoes. It was actually a very friendly experience and while my shoes were getting washed, I watched a man unpack several jars of various dried and fermented foods and discuss recipes with the airline employee who was inspecting them.
After figuring out the super convenient train system, I arrived at my hotel too early to check in, so I decided to walk to Sydney Harbour. It was a sunny day and the weather was perfect, if not a little too warm. I was staying near Hyde Park, so that is the first place I went to. I immediately saw a large bird with a long skinny beak and could not believe that I was seeing an ibis outside of a zoo. I followed it around taking photos until I saw several more walking around the park like pigeons. I later read that they were unaffectionately known as “bin chickens” and I even saw one swoop in and steal a sandwich off someone’s plate. I had seen seagulls act so boldly, but these birds were the size of geese and one almost knocked over a chair by trying to land on the its back.
After Hyde Park, which was large and full of statues and gardens and a photography exhibit, I ran into the Royal Botanic Gardens, which was even larger and more resplendent. I saw many more birds that I had only ever seen in zoos, including cockatoos, purple swamp hens, and masked lapwings. When I was almost through my tour of the gardens, I took a path along the ocean and as I rounded the corner, I saw the Sydney Opera House for the first time. I was filled with such emotion that I cried. The Opera House was such an iconic image of Australia and it made the fact that I was finally there very real to me. I had never felt luckier to be me and to have the ability to go on such an adventure. I could not stop smiling and as I had pink hair, I passed by many people who noticed me and my goofy grin and smiled back. It was lovely.
After taking numerous photos of the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which I would be climbing later in my trip, I walked back to my hotel to check in and get ready for a show at the Opera House. I had hoped to see an actual opera, but that weekend, the only option was Megan Washington and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. I had never heard of Megan Washington but I looked her up and thought she had a beautiful voice and a unique style and I would have been delighted to see anything in that gorgeous building.
After freshening up, I walked to The Rocks, which is a historic area containing some of Sydney’s oldest pubs. Walking through the city, I felt very conspicuous with my pink hair and tattoos, and thought that I was clearly on the wrong side of town. The oldest pub, Fortune of War, was busy and full of mostly men and I was not comfortable walking in alone. I continued on and heard some live music and saw an Irish flag and was immediately drawn in. It was an Irish pub with a musician playing on the patio and a sign claiming to have the best Guinness in town. I walked in and ordered a pint of Guinness and soon after I took a seat, two guys struck up a conversation with me. After some introductory chit chat, one asked me if I liked women or blokes or both because of the vote that was taking place in Australia regarding marriage equality. There was a huge Vote Yes Equality Campaign with rainbow flags and same sex relationship ads everywhere. After some debate, with the guys being on the conservative side, and a couple of pints, we parted ways as I had to get to my show that night.
I walked the Sydney Harbour at night and marveled at the beauty of the lights reflected in the water. I entered the magnificent Opera House and had a beer while I people-watched before the show. The audience was filled with groups of women and older people, and I again felt out of place, but I was so happy to be there that I did not mind. The concert was breathtaking. Megan Washington’s voice was pure and haunting and was only enhanced by the support of a full orchestra. She also had a guitarist accompanying her. She sang a love song to Donald Trump and a song about a future with no No Voters, which was very timely after the conversation I had just had. She also told a story about a woman who visited a gorilla every day and fell in love with him and he in turn fell in love with her. One day, he escaped his enclosure and embraced her, crushing her to death. The actual story is slightly different, and scientists believe the gorilla thought that by smiling and baring her teeth, the woman was challenging him and he attacked and mauled her, but she survived and still adores him. Megan Washington wrote a love song inspired by this story about a love that consumes you to the point of crushing you to death.
That night as I walked home, I overheard an old man say to his old friend, “we are reaching the age where we should no longer be saving all our things.” Then some young people called out to a couple of older ladies on the sidewalk and asked them if they were voting yes to which they enthusiastically shouted back, “yes!” It was a beautiful ending to a wonderful day.
The next day I was to meet up with Emma, from the Flogging Molly Cruise, as well as two other Australians that I met through Emma on the boat, Mel and Geoff. Emma flew in from Melbourne on a break from Fiji, where she was working, and Mel and Geoff drove up from Wollongong so that the four of us could go to the Blue Mountains. It was so special that they made such an effort to hang out with me while I was in town and I could not have been more excited. I took the train to meet them in what appeared to be a part of town with Asian-owned business and I observed a man buying an “American loaf” from an Asian market, which looked to be a loaf of white bread.
The four of us found each other and loaded into the car to drive to the Blue Mountains, which are so named for the blue hue of the Eucalyptus tree-covered hills. I was confused that we were going on a “bushwalk” among trees, and I learned then that a walk in any natural area is called a bushwalk in Australia whereas in the United States we would refer to that as hiking. After my first taste of a “flat white,” steamed milk poured over espresso, and a view of a sandstone rock formation called “The Three Sisters,” we chose a short bushwalk taking us into the middle of the shady, fern-filled forest. It was beautiful and well-worth the hike and I saw more birds, including a lyrebird and a crimson rosella. We went into town to make a snack of some meat pies, which can be purchased in a bakery, and met a hungry cockatoo, who patiently sat by and posed for pictures while we ate. I ended up feeding him a bit of my crust which he elegantly held with his foot while nibbling at it.
We drove back into the city and freshened up for dinner and a show. That night, we were going to see some local bands, including The Bottlers, one of Emma’s favorites. The show was being held at what looked to be a veterans’ club so we were unsure walking in until we were directed upstairs where we found a room full of black t-shirt-wearing, tattooed individuals and knew we were in the right company. Because the venue looked like a country club, it very much reminded us of the cruise ship, and we were transported back to when we met for a fun and surreal experience. I was encouraged to try some Australian beers at dinner and at the venue, but I was especially thrilled when I found the venue served cans of Guinness, which was yet another throwback to the boat.
The next morning the four of us met up again to go to Bondi Beach. It was really interesting to see the Bondi Baths, which are public pools hammered out of rocks at the ocean’s edge and filled with ocean water. We had a nice walk along the cliff and watched some surfers and then had some milkshakes. Emma and I parted ways with Mel and Geoff who had to drive back home, and took a ferry across Sydney Harbour to Manly Beach and back to see Sydney and the Opera House from a different angle. That evening I was scheduled to do the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb and so I left Emma after making plans to meet up again later for dinner and drinks.
I checked in at the BridgeClimb reception desk and not knowing what to expect, I answered all the questions thoroughly, including the one about any kind of injuries or handicaps. Remembering the trouble I had at the mining adventure in Wales, I did not want to be stuck on top of a bridge and not be able to pull myself along. The safety supervisor came over to talk to me about my hand and ask whether I could climb a ladder. Thinking it was a regular ladder, I said that I could but that I would have to hook my hand on the rung rather than fully grasp it, so it might be a little awkward for me. She said they had a little training course before the actual climb and that I would be watched to see whether I was comfortable going through the motions. Before the training course, they took our group into a little room and gave us a breath test to make sure we were sober. We then were fitted up with coveralls, harnesses, safety equipment, and headphones, with everything connected to ensure nothing would fall off while we were on top of the bridge. The ladders they were concerned about were more like staircases and I did not have to pull myself up in any way, so I breezed through the training session and was given the go ahead to do the climb.
We were connected to a rail that led all the way up and down both sides of the bridge so that we could not fall off. As it was a very windy day, I think we were all grateful for the extra safety measure. Because we were hooked in the entire time, we had to stay in the same order for three hours, but luckily, it was a fun group and I enjoyed sharing some funny comments with the people around me. After walking through the guts of the connecting structure, we got to the bridge and had to climb up four steep staircases to the beginning of the archway that we would be climbing. Being up so high on the top level of the bridge’s arch with water to the right of us and cars speeding below us was exhilarating. It was a very smooth and gradual ascent along the arch and we did not have to be very fit to get to the top. I opted for the Twilight time slot, so we climbed the bridge in the daylight, watched the sun set at the top and then climbed down the bridge in the dark. The most time spent was for all the photos the guide had to take of us, but as we were not allowed to bring our cameras and I prepaid for a photo package, I did not mind. The climb was not scary at all considering I love heights, nor was it difficult. It was a unique experience with glorious views of Sydney and totally worth it.
After the climb, I met up with Emma again and we headed to a more diverse part of Sydney called Newtown where I did not feel as conspicuous with my tattoos and hair. We shared a nice meal and a couple of drinks, but had to go home early as it was a Sunday and the bars closed at ten. The next morning I had a flight to Melbourne and a tattoo appointment soon after I was to land. Going through airport security was really fast as unlike domestic flights in the United States, they did not check my ID, there was no need to take off my shoes, and people were allowed to bring liquids. There was an issue at the airport, however, as the system had gone down so my flight was extremely delayed. Some flights were even canceled, but I luckily made it out and I was able to contact the shop to push back my appointment time without any consequences.
Once I arrived at the shop, Victims of Ink on Chapel Street, I met Beau Parkman who would be tattooing the redback spider on me that day. I chose him for his portfolio full of black and gray realistic style, and I wanted a realistic three-dimensional spider sitting on my shoulder. He had not yet drawn up the design, but traced it out quickly enough and was able to size it to my shoulder and get the legs to lay just right so that it would fill the space. He tattooed the spider carefully on me, rather slowly for the size, but precisely, placing the shadow just right so that it looked especially realistic.
Beau and I had a nice conversation throughout, about video games, dogs, and travel. Not only does Beau tattoo, he also plays music and makes films. What I found most interesting, however, was that he was the first tattooer that I had ever met that did not have any tattoos. He had only ever been tattooed for a couple minutes at a time with water to see how it felt, meaning he had no idea the pain his clients underwent in a really large piece. He explained that he does not know what he would get and would always rather tattoo a design he liked on someone else than have it on his own body. His work is amazing and my piece came out beautifully, but it made me wonder how people trusted him to tattoo them.
After the tattoo, I went to the Irish pub down the street for my habitual post-tattoo pint of Guinness and then went to my hotel to freshen up and meet Emma, who also flew back to Melbourne that day, for a walk around the city and a fancy dinner out. Emma and I chose a meat-heavy restaurant for some good steaks. The server did not get my order right, but lucky for me, the restaurant gave me the option of eating the wrong order for free rather than waiting more time for the right order and wasting a good cut of meat. After a lovely dinner, Emma showed me some amazing graffiti covering the Melbourne alleyways, and then we went to a swanky bar for a drink before we both called it a night.
The next day, I had an excursion to Phillip Island to see some little penguins in their natural habitat, but I first met up with Emma for a breakfast in a touristy, but delicious part of town on Degraves Street. Walking over to meet her, I saw many breakfast places and bakeries advertising donuts, and I thought I would try one, but Emma told me the best place for donuts in Melbourne was Krispy Kreme. I also ran into a couple of the guys from the Bridgeclimb, who were also touring around Australia. For breakfast, among other things, I tried fried haloumi, an unripened, brined cheese made from a mixture of goat and sheep milk, which I noticed was in a number of sandwiches and breakfasts in various menus. I liked it so much I found myself looking for it on sandwich menus elsewhere. After breakfast, we had an hour or so before I had to meet up with the tour bus, so Emma took me to Fitzroy and I saw some more amazing wall graffiti. We also popped into a thrift shop and I bought a jacket very similar to the one that I accidentally left behind when I was packing. I would definitely need it for the rest of the trip, which would not be as warm as Sydney and Melbourne had been.
I bid farewell to Emma and then hopped on the tourbus for my excursion to Phillip Island. We first stopped at Maru Koala and Animal Park, where I gladly paid extra to pet a koala and feed some kangaroos. I do not normally like zoos, but being in a wildlife park to get up close and personal with the animals was at least a little more interesting and Australia has animals that exist nowhere else. The koala experience was fun, even though the koala was not very responsive. Koalas need more sleep than most animals because eucalyptus leaves contain toxins and are very low in nutrition and high in fibrous matter so they take a large amount of energy to digest. They do not get high from the leaves as it is commonly thought, but they certainly act like it. I was able to pet the koala’s back and was surprised how thick and coarse their fur was. It would make for a good rug, which is surprising for an animal living mostly in such a warm climate.
After walking around the rest of the park, I walked over to the kangaroo pen, full of smaller, gray kangaroos. The kangaroos were so full of food from all the visitors feeding them, that most were just laying around and did not want to eat anymore. Many of the females had little joeys, and it was cute to see their little heads peeping up and out of their pouches. I found a sleeping kangaroo in a neglected part of the pen who stood up when I came around and was actually willing to eat. I felt its teeth against my palm as it was scooping up the food I was giving him, and they were flat, and felt like human teeth. The fur was also thick and coarse and unexpected.
After the wildlife park, we traveled to the Phillip Island Nature Park for the penguin parade. The penguins stay in the water and hunt during the day, camouflaged from overhead predators by their blue backs. They return to their burrows at dusk to avoid land predators and that nightly homecoming makes for an attractive tourist destination. I paid extra for the ranger-guided tour where a small group of us would have exclusive access to a certain section of the beach, as well as a fully guided tour. Our location allowed us to be the first to see the penguins leave the water and have a chance to see them walk right by us on their way back to their burrows. I was hoping for some great nature photography, but cameras were not allowed. Too many visitors were using the flash on the cameras, which gave the penguins cataracts. Researchers realized that the penguins were starving to death because they use their sight to hunt for food and the cataracts were causing blindness.
We had some time before the rangers took us on our tour, so I walked around and saw a couple of penguins peeking out from under the deck of the visitor center, giving me an up close and daytime view of these darling birds. I also browsed the gift shop and saw stuffed little penguins wearing knitted sweaters. I remembered a sweater pattern being shared on Facebook to knit for penguins who were saved from oil spills and these were the overflow sweaters from that project. I could not take pictures of actual penguins, but I could have a toy one with a sweater knitted by a kind soul from somewhere in the world.
At the start of the tour, the ranger provided us with headphones so we could hear him narrating the experience and off we went. The tour was very informative, but I was annoyed with all the questions being asked by a member of our group who was trying to out-smart our guide. It was cold on the beach but the penguins soon started coming out of the water in little groups, scrambling over rocks and each other to climb up the shore. They were tiny and adorable and my favorite part was watching them waddle past us, especially when one would stop suddenly and the one following would run into him and fall over or push the leading one out of the way. They seemed to be watching us as much as we were watching them. There were not as many penguins as I expected, but it was not yet the peak time of year for them. I also did not observe any penguins find their burrows, as some had a long way to go with burrows all over the island. The Nature Park shut down the beach to visitors after about an hour to give the more timid penguins a chance to get back to their burrows without being bothered by humans. Seeing a phenomenon in person that I would normally only see on nature shows like Planet Earth was incredible.
I had a flight to Tasmania the next day and as I drifted off to sleep, I reflected on my first five days in Australia. They were exciting and emotional, full of wondrous sights and experiences in the city and among nature. I had an amazing time reuniting with old friends and I am so grateful they joined me and made my trip even more memorable. And I love my Melbourne tattoo, as the realistic three-dimensional redback spider on my shoulder is exactly what I requested and had envisioned.