When I arrived in Sydney I was immediately faced with a very different climate than the one I had grown accustomed to in Thailand. The weather was much cooler and I was welcomed by heavy autumn rain. I checked into the Perouse Lodge in Randwick, a residential suburb with some fine 19th-century gothic mansions, but more important for me was its proximity to the Coogee and Bondi beaches. When I walked into my room, I realised I had two unwanted room-mates - cockroaches - which I had to flush down the toilet. Perhaps a little part of Thailand had followed me all the way to Australia. My last visit to Sydney was five years ago during a tour of Australia's east coast. This time around I was coming to meet my friend Ben and to attend the wedding of his sister, Katie. It was shortly after noon when Ben arrived at the lodge.
He'd just returned from a stag party where the groom's posse had headed to a national park just outside Sydney for a wild weekend of kayaking, trekking and camping. The two of us hit the five-kilometre cliff-top trail from Coogee beach to Bondi beach, which so many of my Australian friends at university raved about. Ben is half Australian and half Welsh. He's always been a huge admirer of Sydney and he was determined to show me its most beautiful areas. I was impressed. From Coogee, we walked along some narrow paths with views of the waves crashing onto the rocks below. On the beaches, the main activity - as in Abu Dhabi - was just soaking up the sun and taking refreshing dips in the sea.
As we walked past the quieter, emptier Bronte beach, it started to rain again. When we finally arrived at Bondi beach - it derives its name from the aboriginal word for the sound of the surf - I realised why the place has made a name for itself, not least on wetsuits and surfing gear. The waves break far out to sea, allowing surfers to take a long, roaring ride into the shore. Even on a grey day, such as this one, it was busy; the nearby cafes and restaurants were filled with customers enjoying their drinks and meals. In good weather, I guess the picnic areas and promenades would be packed. Reluctantly, we returned to Randwick. That evening Ben's family invited me to Pizza E Birra, a restaurant located in Surry Hills, where I had one of the best seafood pizzas I have ever sampled. It was the usual: shrimp, mussel, clam and squid toppings, but what set this pizza apart from the rest was its thin, crispy crust. The next day, another wedding guest arrived. Ian is an Australian with whom I had become friends in London. An enthusiast about all things local whenever we'd walk around Sydney he'd point to the labourer cottages, which he said were one of the city's distinctive features. They are simple buildings that once provided cheap accommodation in the suburbs for workers. Now these areas have become popular and property values have increased accordingly.
The following day we all decided to concentrate on the harbour as we were to attend a pre-wedding celebration dinner there. We spent the majority of the afternoon walking along the water. Sydney's harbour reminded me slightly of Canary Wharf in London. The difference, however, is while Canary Wharf is nothing more than a commercial centre without a soul, Sydney's harbour is full of it. The number of people socialising at the many bars and restaurants was incredible. After sunset I decided to take some pictures of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The bridge itself is just as stunning as it was when I last visited. However, this time I was visiting it at night and the bridge's pylons were brightly lit, allowing its huge arch to be seen as a reflection in the water. I've seen several landmark bridges all over the world, including the famous Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, but it is the Sydney Harbour Bridge that remains my favourite. We also managed to see the Sydney Opera House further up the harbour, which had its shell-shaped roofs lit up, drawing the attention of passers-by My hop over to Sydney was not a typical backpacker-style experience because there were too many home comforts, but I enjoyed it just as much as the rest. Meeting up with my old friends was exactly what I needed before venturing out on my own to New Zealand. It was also great to share a room during my stay as I would soon be heading back to more rough-and-ready sleeping arrangements. Next week: Omar heads to the South Island of New Zealand and hikes up the Franz Josef glacier