Thinking back to this time last year, one of my biggest worries about exchange was the social aspect. I was perfectly content with the friends I had and honestly felt like I’d forgotten how to make new ones. What if nobody liked me? What if I was never in the position to meet new people? How do you even make friends? Who was I going to spend my 21st with when I had no friends on the other side of the world?
Luckily, I made heaps of friends. There were plenty opportunities to meet new people (university organised events, halls, lectures, work) so if you’re reading this with the same social nerves as I had – do not panic. 10 months into exchange and I have just had the best birthday weekend I could have asked for spent with the most fantastic people. Having a birthday in May usually means I spend the day revising or doing exams but thanks to my new Aussie timetable, exams were at least another month away and so the stress of university was nowhere near my thoughts or plans.
I spent the morning having champagne for breakfast at the Opera Bar with my wonderful flatmates and wandering round the Rocks Markets afterwards – buying myself extra birthday presents… and getting a caricature (because why not?) I also embraced the fact I’m not legally allowed to drink in America with more alcohol and drinking games leading to a very memorable night. I also feel like my birthday was extra long because technically it started at Aussie midnight and ended at British midnight… lucky me! The beauty of facetime meant I was also able to speak to my family in the morning so it didn’t feel so bad celebrating a birthday without them (plus it just means I can have belated celebrations when I return home).
My birthday celebrations didn’t just last this extended day however; I got an extended birthday as I was taken away to the Hunter Valley the morning after for a few nights!! I am a big fan of wine, chocolate and cheese… as in an avid fan. Love the stuff, almost addicted… so for me, Hunter Valley is the place of dreams. To sum up: I would thoroughly recommend visiting while in Sydney, even just for a day, if you share any of these passions.
We stayed in a really cute estate in Pokolbin, which is right in the centre of the Lower Hunter Valley wine region. The area includes numerous wineries, ranging from large multi-national to small family run operations, which are a popular tourist destination. The reasonably well-known names like Drayton, Lindeman, Tulloch, Lake’s Folly and Tyrrell were within minutes drive from our apartment. As were wild kangaroos as we realised when we bumped into about 10 on a walk on our first night!
We went on a winery tour with a company called “Two Fat Blokes” which was so much fun and I’d really recommend. There was only 8 of us in total in the tour plus our guide so it was reasonably personal and we got plenty attention and personalised recommendations and information. The tour included VIP tastings at 3 of the top wineries in Pokolbin. My favourite was De Iuliis winery where we were given a cheese & wine experience where 9 different cheeses were matched with 9 different wines – we left significantly poorer after buying our favourite red wines and cheeses… speaks for itself as to how good it was!
We also went to The Hunter Valley Gardens, which are just the foot of the Brokenback Range, west of Cessnock. They span over 25 hectares (62 acres) of land and have around 12 different gardens inspired by various themes. We were so lucky with the weather as it was really sunny (it is coming into winter now!) and so easily spent a full afternoon wandering round them. Some of the best gardens were: The Sunken Garden, The Storybook Gardens, The Chinese Moongate Gardens and The Rose Garden.
Anyways, to sum up – don’t be nervous about meeting new people on your time abroad because it will naturally happen (easy to say now in hindsight but still), don’t stress about birthday plans, do go to the Hunter Valley if you get a chance and are going on exchange in Australia, and if you do definitely do a winery tour and go to the Gardens!
Also, it was exactly a year ago today that I booked my flights to Sydney and got a room confirmed in halls which is crazy because it feels like it was about a day ago and sad because it is a very big reminder that my year is almost over. Good luck to everyone in that position just now though – very jealous and a little warning that I may live vicariously through you for the next year. Keep mailing me questions if you have any and enjoy your year!!