In 2015, I spent almost five months in the Southern Hemisphere, studying in Sydney. Partially because I had relatively few interactions with the very dangerous species that populate the island, I had a wonderful time there. I lived in one of the suburbs of the city, close to my university. And while my time spent studying in Sweden involved quite a bit of travel around Europe, my time in Australia was mostly spent in and around Sydney. Because now feels like as good a time as any to reminisce, I thought I’d share some about what I enjoyed while living down under.
Because I lived outside Sydney, I spent the majority of my time in that area. I truly delved into the university experience with four Sociology courses while living in a dorm near campus. My dorm experience was unlike where I had lived in the U.S. The social life was vibrant to say the least and unlike college in the U.S., where drinking for the first few years happens almost exclusively behind closed doors and at frat houses, drinking in Australia was normalized (the drinking age is 18). Instead of hiding from the R.A., we drank with the R.A. It was a mental shift, for sure. Some of my favorite memories involved long conversations with friends late at night over a game of pool or after a big event. One of the best parts of studying abroad is the people you meet.
Now I spent a surprisingly little amount of time on beaches during my time in Australia, but there’s plenty of beautiful waterfront in Sydney. Though I stopped by Manly Beach and Bondi Beach with everyone and their mother, I also enjoyed the lesser known Palm Beach and the climb up to Barrenjoey Lighthouse. My personal favorite activity was the walk from Bondi Beach to Coogee Beach. The walk goes along the coast, giving you views of the ocean, smaller beaches, and occasionally some art to enjoy. I’ve done this walk with friends, as well as jetlagged parents. What’s nice about it is that at any point you can stop and find the closest bus or cafe to take a break. (The whole thing will take about 3 hours or so.)
Other highlights of the Sydney experience included the quirky, like Luna Park, an amusement park on the water, or Wendy’s Secret Garden, a garden built like an art piece. Taronga Zoo featured animals with breathtaking views of the Harbour, Darling Harbour featured cultural experiences and food every time we wandered through, and of course, Sydney featured the Opera House (which I never actually ventured inside) and the Harbour Bridge (which I never climbed).
But I didn’t only stay in Sydney. About halfway through my time in Australia, my parents came to visit. While jetlagged, I took them on the aforementioned Bondi to Coogee walk, but we also ventured outside New South Wales.
We took a plane to the middle of the country to visit the iconic Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. We stuck with your classic tourist adventures, but I’ll never forget a nighttime meal near Uluru with no lights and the Milky Way above my head. (Yes, I cried.) We also took a few hikes around Kata Tjuta and learned a little more about the relationship White Australia has with its Indigenous communities.
We also went South. After retraining our brains that “south” in the Southern Hemisphere meant colder, we made it to Melbourne. Five years later, my parents still reference the cute streets of Melbourne as one of the best places they’ve visited. We loved the graffiti art spread throughout the city and the alleyways turned into outdoor dining and the tram that allowed us to circle the city so easily. But we also wanted to see some of the wildlife – so we ventured down to Phillip Island for the Penguin Parade.
Despite mostly sticking to cities or tourist destinations, my parents got a trip worth the jetlag, but I wasn’t done yet. After powering through four classes’ worth of assignments, I had some free time during the exam period to explore Sydney before flying back home. With the knowledge that I might never get the chance to fly over 24 hours to Australia, I decided to hit up the ultimate bucket list item: The Great Barrier Reef.
Two friends and I travelled north to Cairns in Queensland. We had two goals – snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef and hold a koala. (There are restrictions in Australia about handling koalas, which meant that if we wanted to snuggle one, we’d have to find an appropriate place to get our cuddles.) It was relatively easy to check off our goal of visiting the Reef once we were in Cairns. We were able to not only snorkel on the Reef, but also scuba dive with guidance. I’d never snorkeled, much less scuba dived, but I have to say it was incredible. A full day was spent under the water watching fish and pointing out anemones.
In order to check off the second part of our trip’s to-do list, we traveled by bus to Palm Cove. We stopped at a wildlife zoo and saw all the animals we’d happily avoided for most of our time in Australia, we held koalas (mine was named Violet and she was a sweetheart), and then we grabbed a snack while we waited for the bus home. But we realized we had way too much time to kill, so we did the only logical thing: Paddle boarding. We found a shack along the water where a kind man helped up suit up to paddle board. In retrospect, the crocodile sighting sign just down the beach should have been a deterrent, as well as the man’s warning about “stinger season“. However, we went for it and had no animal encounters on the water.
Despite warnings about crocodiles and sharks and spiders and snakes and dingos and drop bears, I managed to survive down under with only a few sunburns and plenty of memories. Here’s to hoping I make it back down there soon!