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April 2017

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Australia is a huge country and six months is not enough time to explore the whole continent. However, it is enough for a little adventure. Road trips are popular in Australia and hiring a van is a perfect option for someone who doesn’t want to stay in one place for too long. Also, it is a budget traveller’s pick. Transportation, accommodation and even catering are all condensed into one rattling van.

I hired a van from Wicked Campers with two of my friends and spend the mid-semester break driving around Gold coast, Brisbane and Noosa. Our van was old, noisy and slow, but it was a great van. There was room for our bags underneath the “bed” and a little kitchen with a camping stove in the back. We started the day with Nutella sandwiches and started driving. We didn’t have a set plan so we picked up recommendations online on the way. We walked up to Byron Bay lighthouse in a roasting sunshine and hid from the rain in the Burleigh Heads library. When the light started fading we headed to the campground and parked our van. In the dark, we cooked our dinner (pasta every day!) and then retired to the van and curled to our sleeping bags.

Now, there are two things I want to mention about a road trip. The first one being driving. Australia has left-hand side traffic, but it is nothing to be afraid of. Once you hop into a car and sit down on the “wrong” side, your brain adjusts to the situation. Even manual gear is not a problem after you have checked which position is what. Although, in our van, checking didn’t really help because the stick was cricket: we had to trust our instincts. This was my first time driving a van and I was a bit nervous beforehand and even more nervous after I saw the old pile of metal that we got. But driving was easy and the car didn’t betray us on shaky gravel roads and kept going on on highways despite all the whining.

Another thing to mention is campsites. You are not allowed to camp anywhere you want in Australia: you have to use designated campgrounds. The price for a night varies a lot so it is better to check the campsites, prices and facilities beforehand. We only used free campsites that operated on first come first serve basis. They had toilets, some even had showers, but nothing else. If you are willing to pay for the parking slot, you will probably have access to electricity and can charge your phone and camera etc. at the campsite, but if you prefer free camping you have to have another plan for charging your electronics. We exploited libraries, cafes and nature centres, but noticed that it was actually quite difficult to find places that had plug points or were willing to let us charge the phones.

Road trip doesn’t even have to last long. Within a few days, you can visit multiple places and drive through the countryside and little villages as well as big cities. But don’t be greedy, a loose schedule allows surprises and in the end, you'll realise that you have seen and done much more than you even planned. I didn’t plan to meet tree climbing kangaroos while bushwalking, nor did I expect to perform my first ever self-service car wash or get an invitation to have morning coffee with an old Australian camper who parked next to us. These things just happen.

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The feeling when you put your feet into the clear cold water after walking for kilometres. Such a small thing can be incredibly satisfying. Especially when your feet are demanding for a rest or the heat is making you sweat and you need to cool down. After a little while, you are refreshed and ready to tie your shoes again and get back to the track.

Little pleasures are the best things of bushwalking. Cool water feels soft and healing, birds in the trees share their vivid conversations and the fresh smell of vegetation fills the air.

I headed to the Royal National Park to go for a short bushwalk. It takes less than an hour to get to the park by train and there are plenty of tracks for bushwalkers. The track from Waterfall station to the Uloola falls takes off from the corner of the parking lot. It runs through bushes but reaches soon a grassy field. After that the track is wide and easy to walk on. The trees grow high providing shade but not blocking the blue sky. A bit over 5 kilometres later the path comes to the top of the Uloola Falls. You can walk right next to the drop and look at the water flowing over the edge and falling down. However, the best pictures are taken from a cliff a little before the waterfall.

From the Uloola Falls, I caught the Karloo walking track and continued towards the Karloo Pools. The path between the falls and the pools is narrow and uneven. This is more like an actual bushwalk; there are plenty of bushes on the way. Long grass brushes my legs and the branches of the bushes poke my hair. I wonder what sort of insects live on those plants. But I see nothing alarming so I keep on going. In fact, I don’t see many animals on my way. Some flies and huge ants, parrots, other birds and small lizards.

There are quite a few people at the Karloo Pools when I arrive. I sink my feet to the river and take out my sandwich. Rocks alongside are excellent for sunbathing and shallow water above the pools good for a casual wade. Children are swimming in the cold water and trekkers enjoy their picnic lunches.
From there it only takes an hour to get to the Heathcote train station. The track is still narrow and rocky but less bushy. Because the walk is only 2.5 kilometres long there are more families on the move. They have decided to enjoy the lovely day in nature as well. I suppose the Karloo Pools is a good picnic destination on its own.

The walk is only 11 kilometers long and takes a few hours to complete. It is a nice walk if you wish to pay a quick visit to the park. Royal National Park can accommodate longer multi-day bushwalks as well; I encountered some trekkers with big backpacks and overnight camping gear on my way. There are many ways to enjoy bushwalking.

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The air in the room is thick but no-one cares. People are dancing. Really dancing. One pair breaks into a full out dance routine while others form a circle around them. After the song ends the dance floor fills again with quickly moving feet. It is an ordinary Tuesday night but the bar is packed: every corner is occupied. This is a salsa night in the heart of Sydney.

We are in Australia, but a variety of other cultures are represented here in Sydney. Latino nights are especially interesting aspects of Sydney’s nightlife. Popular bars have weekly nights dedicated to salsa, mambo and bachata. No flashing lights or electronic pop music. The atmosphere is relaxed and adults of all ages and nationalities enjoy the music. This is the night when you really get to dance your heart out.

Everyone is welcome. Proper salsa dancers do their own thing with all the tricks you see in films like Dirty Dancing. The others dance just the way they like to. No need to know any moves. Just follow the music, watch others and pick up the basics.

However, if you do want to learn to dance salsa, some of the bars offer free salsa classes at the beginning of the night. Also, the University of Sydney Movement and Dance Society has weekly salsa classes for students (in the picture). For a few dollars, you can practice turns and steps to prepare yourself for a night out. Maybe you will find a dance partner for the next night or gather a group to go out with. Sydney Salsa Scene website will help to find out what is on and where to go. It lists all the Latino events for each day. Pick one and go along.

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Over a month in Australia and I still feel like I don’t know that many people here. To fix the issue I decided to challenge myself. For the duration of seven days I had to talk to a new person every day. No matter where or when as long as the person was a stranger and the conversation was more than an exchange of greetings.

After the first rush of everything new and exciting that the move to a new country brings along we tend to fall into routines very quickly. Talking to strangers without any particular reason can feel a bit uncomfortable if you are shy like me, but it is such a good way to meet all sorts of interesting people.

My challenge ran from Saturday to Friday. The weekend was easy as I went to an overnight trip to the Blue Mountains with the Climbing Club. There is no way you can climb all day without talking to people and since I didn’t know most of the club members, I got to tick the “challenge completed” box several times. I was still able to find new faces on Sunday morning to have a chat with over the breakfast.

I do not usually socialise during the lectures or seminars. I go there on time and leave as soon as it is over. All these people in the same room and I talk to none of them! To fix that, I made an effort to have a conversation with a girl in my seminar group on Monday. We are supposed to do a presentation together later this semester so a question related to it was an easy way to start.

On Tuesday I was helping at the Sydney Abroad Fair where students came to learn about the university's exchange options. No need to say that I met a bunch of students with whom I talked a minute or two. However, there was also time to have more in-depth conversations with some of the volunteers. As a result, I ended up joining a new society: the Sydney University Global Exchange Society (SUGEX). The next day, SUGEX had a meeting where I encountered more new faces.

Sharing the pain and sweat is a pretty good way to connect with people. So I took part in a strength exercise class that Nike Training Club runs on campus on Thursdays. The group varies a little every week and this time my partner was a total stranger to me. A friendly chat among the exercises was motivating and made the training less serious. Finally, I completed the challenge in an elevator on Friday morning with my neighbour. 15 floors down is long enough to have a little morning chat.

It really is not hard to meet new people in Sydney. University clubs and societies are the easiest way to make new friends but you might find nice people from your neighbourhood just as well. I might not have made friends with all the people I talked to but at least I will say hi and smile if I happen to run into them. And who knows, I might learn to know some of them better. At least I am part of a new society now, which means more social events and new people.