And now for something completely different

As January drew to a close, it was time to begin sorting out my stuff in Australia and getting ready to continue my adventure in the US of A.

I investigated which travel money card gave the best value. As it turned out, the Comm Bank card is incredibly competitive. I already banked with Comm Bank and getting the travel money card was so easy it made my head spin. I sat down with a nice chap at the branch and, 20 minutes later, left a happy girl. I’d been sorted out with the travel money card for just $15 which is the card purchase fee. Your initial money load onto the card is free of charge. Any additional money top ups have a fee equivalent to 1% of the load amount i.e. load $1000, pay $10 fee. I’d put everything in my savings and current accounts onto the travel money card as you can swipe it in shops just like a normal Mastercard without incurring a fee.

The exchange rate is set at the time you transfer money into that particular currency. If you put 100AUD into USD when the exchange rate is 1:1, your 100AUD becomes 100USD. However, if the next day the exchange rate for AUD:USD changes to 1:2, tough luck, your USD balance won’t increase to reflect the exchange rate. This is both good and bad. It’s good because there’s no unexplained changes to available funds but, it’s bad if you’re unlucky with the exchange rate. Try and choose your time to transfer between currencies wisely.

I’d set the currencies I wanted (USD and GBP for me) and allocated the funds accordingly. Easy as that. They even give you a spare card so, should you lose one, you have another one ready to go. Once you’ve got the cards, you can register for the online services with the cards. You can add currencies, load more money, move money between currencies, view transactions and see balances available for all currencies supported on the card. The online site really is very good and so easy to use. Overall, I’m very impressed.

Something else I needed to do was claim my tax back. As expected, the level of red tape and forms to complete is staggering. I went down to the taxation office branch in Melbourne to fill mine out and I’m pleased I did. I completed the form wrong multiple times but filling it out in branch meant that a member of staff was able to check it over for me. If you’re doing it at home and don’t realise you’ve missed a signature somewhere, it’s going to be a long process to correct the claim once you’re overseas.

You will need the ABN for your employer, amount earned and tax paid for each job you’ve had in Australia. These should all be available on your payslips. My payslips had ‘year to date’ totals on them so saved me some adding up which I appreciated.

Definitely make time to fill in the form in person at an office before you leave. You can do it at Melbourne Tullamarine but the queues at the desk are disgusting and if you need any extra information, it’s all been left a little late by that point.

They like to pay tax back into an Australian account so think about leaving an account open in Oz. I did and intend to load the refunded tax onto my travel money card before I close my final Comm bank account (the 1% load fee is cheaper than an international money transfer).

Another thing to consider is claiming back Superannuation that has been paid. I consolidated my super into a single fund before I left so that I only have one company to pester. However, you cannot claim your Superannuation back until your visa expires. This means I need to wait until August 2014 to put in my claim. I’ll have to report back on the bureaucracy associated with that.

So, I’d wrapped up the administration of leaving Australia. All that was left to do was get to the airport and fly away.

I took public transport to the airport as it’s much cheaper than the Skybus. It’ll only cost you about $7 on the train/bus but the Skybus is about $18. Just make sure you have enough money on your Myki. I got the train to Broadmeadows then took the 902 bus to the airport. It’s slower than the Skybus but I didn’t care. I had loads of time to spare so saved myself some money.

Once at the airport, I decided I didn’t want to go to the USA anymore and bought a ticket back to London Heathrow instead. That’s another story though……

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Australia – Immigration Issues

Having decided I loved Melbourne, and that it wouldn’t do if I didn’t live there for a bit, I began wanting to apply for my Australian working holiday visa. This visa is offered to British passport holders under the age of 30 as a way to travel around Australia without breaking the bank. The process can be completed entirely online with the only major catch being that you cannot apply whilst in Australia. As a result, quite a bit of my time in Auckland was dedicated to visa logistics.

Normally visa approval is incredibly fast owing to the online automated system used by Australian immigration. You fill in the form at http://www.immi.gov.au, pay the several hundred pounds fee (£227 for mine I think) and within a day have your visa authorised. Unfortunately, mine was not this hassle free.

I had no idea that Hong Kong was a high risk area for tuberculosis and, as I’d lived there for 8 months, I required a chest x-ray to go along with my application. The Australian immigration folks only have two approved centres in Auckland which are able complete this as part of the online system. Luckily one of the centres was in the CBD and therefore not too far away.

You can go to any centre you like but if they’re not on the immigration approved list, you have to courier the films to Tazmania in order for the officers at immigration to assess them. I didn’t fancy that so I registered for the online service and popped on down to the authorised centre in Auckland CBD.

The x-ray process itself was very simple. I handed in my form, passport, paid approximately $70 NZD and got x-ray’d. The results were registered online there and then by the radiologist and I left thinking “Fantastic! It’ll l probably be cleared tomorrow.” because the website had told me it takes 24 hours for online medical results to be processed.

The next day I was disappointed to see that my application status still listed me as requiring a chest x-ray. I wondered if someone hasn’t pushed the required button yet and decided not to panic.

After the weekend, I receivd an email notifying me I was required to get a chest x-ray to support my application. “Uh oh” was my initial reaction. I thought I’d probably confused the computers because I got the chest x-ray before receiving the relevant email (I’d taken my prompt from the application status checker on the immigration site). Bugger. Time to speak to a human.

After a decent amount of time spent on hold (about 25 minutes. It’s a good job Skype credit calls are so blooming cheap) I got through to a very lovely lady and explained the situation. She assured me it did not matter that I had completed the chest x-ray as they are valid for a year after you lodge your application. Phew. The kicker was that she advised it can take up to 2 weeks for medical information to be loaded into immigration systems. The 24 hour assessment period only applies once the info has been received. This wasn’t great news.

I’d planned to go back to Australia within a week of getting to New Zealand and to just see Auckland in that time. Instead, I was confronted with the prospect of 2 weeks and not much cash to play with.

I spent the rest of that day deciding how I would spend my time. I settled on a week in Auckland, diving at Tutukaka and then visiting relatives for a week in Wellington. I made all the necessary coach bookings and settled back resigned to the fact that I may as well enjoy myself and spend lots of non existent money.

I spent the rest of the day booking and paying for things to see and do in each place. At about 7pm New Zealand time I received an email from the Australian Immigration service. It advised my via had been granted. I was delighted and then I swore.

Australia – Superstar Sydney

In typical ‘me’ style, I managed to pack quite a lot into a week in Sydney.

I couch surfed for my first few nights in Sydney. I had a lovely host and stayed outside the city in Thornleigh. It was really good to see the suburbs and get a feel for life outside the main city drag.

Whilst in Thornleigh I visited the Koala Park Sanctuary in Pennant Hills. It’s not just a sanctuary for koalas though, there’s plenty of other animals to see.

I really enjoyed the birds which, considering birds normally freak me out, was a surprise. There are birds in enclosures and ones roaming around. I saw plenty of peacocks and bush turkeys wandering through the park.

These sulphur crested cockatoos made for interesting viewing and conversation, they say hello a lot.

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In the same enclosure was a pink cockatoo which seemed much quieter than the sulphur crested ones.

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There’s quite a collection of birds including kookaburras , frog mouthed tawny owls, rainbow lorikeets and tree foxes that look like bats. All sorts for all tastes. I will warn you that cockatoos are noisy so and so’s.

An animal in the park which surprised me were the Dingos. I didn’t expect them to be as majestic and good looking as they are.

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The koalas and kangaroos in the park have all been bred in captivity so they are used to humans and, as a result, very placid. They are not so relaxed in the wild. Koalas have a reputation for being quite fierce and can inflict pretty nasty injuries. With that in mind, here’s three of them all squeezed into one tree.

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Here’s me posing beside one.

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You’re not allowed to hold them in new South Wales but that was ok. You can stroke them and they’re really fuzzy.

You just saunter into the kangaroo enclosure and feed them with special food bought from the shop.  You can stroke them too but I wasn’t brave enough.

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Wallabies are similar looking to kangaroos except they’re smaller and cuter. This swap wallaby wanted to say hello from inside the enclosure.

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There’s possums and wombats at the park too but I only saw their bums. It was cold and rainy so they were sleeping.  They’re nocturnal anyway but they wouldn’t rouse even for food. Oh well.

There’s a sheep shearing and boomerang throwing show twice a day which is fun to go to. Here’s the sheep losing it’s fleece.

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I really enjoyed the park and would recommend it as the $26 enhance fee is worth it.

After my few nights in the suburbs, I stayed in the city at The Palms Backpackers in Potts Point. I really liked the hostel. It was clean, friendly and did exactly what it said on the tin. It’d stay again.

Once I was in the city, I started exploring it.

The Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney are beautiful. The free guided walk was great and there’s 2 daily. Our guide was a volunteer called Phillip and he was full of facts. We were escorted around some key areas and told about native species of plants/trees and the history of the gardens.

I personally thought this flower was gorgeous.

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Towards the end of the walk, we happened upon some owls sleeping in a tree.

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You can walk right through the gardens to get to the opera house.  The best views of the opera house are from Circular Quay’s side of the harbour in my opinion. The opera house is still impressive from the gardens side but you don’t see the iconic shape everyone associates with it from the garden side.

There’s a big, gothic style, building in the gardens called Government House but you can only go inside on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday so I didn’t get to see it. Here’s a picture of the house in the grounds. It’s fairly imposing.

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Just around the corner from the botanic gardens is Hyde park barracks. This is where convicts were housed when they got off the boats in Sydney.

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It was built by convicts and has a varied and interesting history. It’s now a museum which covers topics such as how the convicts lived, what they’d done wrong, how they’d ended up in Australia, what work they did and how Sydney evolved.

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The museum also has a lot of information on the building itself. It’s served many purposes since it was built. It was a convict barracks, then it was an orphanage for girls left parentless during the Irish potato blight. After that it was an asylum for elderly and infirm women who couldn’t work and didn’t have a home (no welfare back then). It was finally government offices before being made into a museum. Very interesting stuff.

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The free introduction tour was good and the audio guide you receive included with the entrance fee was superbly informative. Entrance for adults is $10 and entirely worth.

Another heritage building in Sydney is the Royal Mint. Entrance is free, which is good, because there’s not a lot to see. It was built as a hospital before being turned into the mint and now the only real part of the main mint building left is the safe. The building is used as offices and meeting rooms now so there’s not a lot you can walk round and see. However, there are still people on the door who will walk you around and tell you the limited facts they know for free.

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Apparently the coin minting building is important as only two remain in the world and the Sydney one is in the best condition. Something new every day!

Very close to both the barracks and the mint is St. Marys Cathedral. I didn’t go inside but it’s a very red, very large thing.

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Another major landmark of Sydney is the Harbour Bridge.

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I don’t really know what to say other than it’s big and made of metal. I walked over it.

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The view back across the harbour is awesome once you’re on the bridge.

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The harbour is just generally beautiful. It really is. I could picture myself enjoying dinner and drinks there. The area was where initial settlers made their homes and original buildings have been preserved and converted well.

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It you want to forget you’re in a big city for a while, you should do the Coogee to Bondi beach walk. It’s around 6km long and all of it stunning. Here’s Coogee beach where we started (we took a bus from the city of to Coogee) but you can start at Bondi.

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You really do just walk up the coast. It’s well signposted and you can’t get lost if you keep following the coastline. There’s heaps of cute coves to stop at with quiet beaches so it’s a very leisurely activity.

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When you get to Bondi, you realise just how busy it is compared to Coogee and why.

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I managed to squeeze in a quick trip to Manly but really didn’t have enough time to draw conclusions so I won’t. I will say that the views of the harbour from the ferry alone is worth the return fare of $14.40.

Sydney is amazing. I think I’m in big trouble as I could definitely see myself living and working there.