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And I’m seeing the world One cat at a time

Reunited with Pixel: An extended house and cat sitting stay in Sydney

Reunited with Pixel: An extended house and cat sitting stay in Sydney

What’s a house and cat sitting trip without a COVID scare? It happens every time I’m about to travel interstate.

It wasn’t me who had COVID. And it wasn’t the Queensland Government threatening to lock out the other Australian states and territories. It was Pixel’s owners—the French couple I house and cat sat for in April 2021—who had the COVID scare. Someone in their building tested positive days before they were due to fly home to France. The couple wasted no time in making their way to the international airport’s testing clinic where they paid $79 AUD to get their results within 90 minutes. Both of them tested negative and were cleared to fly to France on Saturday morning.

On the Friday before they left, I went over to their Surry Hills apartment for dinner. It felt like I was catching up with old friends, not just another couple I was house and cat sitting for. They’d asked what I wanted for dinner and I told them I’d like the same eggplant dish we had last time. I learned it’s actually called Tian de légumes. Pixel attempted to join us for dinner, but was shooed off the table because he’s not allowed on it when they’re eating.

Pixel—for those of you who mightn’t remember him—reminds me of the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. I think it’s his expressive face and he has a bit of a smirk going on. He’s also got that larger build and has the British/Scottish Shorthair face to match. While I’m not sure he remembered me when I came over for dinner, he was quite interested in my suitcase when I arrived on Saturday morning. It’s possible he could smell himself on it from the last time I looked after him.

I ventured off to the French Christmas Market not long after dropping my stuff off at the apartment. This market is usually held in July to coincide with Bastille Day, but it was cancelled due to an increase in COVID cases across Sydney. Pixel’s owners joked I’d catch COVID at the markets, but I escaped the crowds by going first thing in the morning. I did, however, receive several notifications throughout my stay informing me I had been somewhere at the same time as a now COVID positive person.

Bus message reads 'FIGHT COVID-19 TOGETHER'

The state of New South Wales went from having about 1,000 positive cases each day to more than 6,000 in the week following the couple’s departure. It was averaging around 25,000/day by early January and got up to about 60,000/day in my final few days here. Testing clinics were turning people away and other clinics closed entirely. People were waiting in testing lines for hours and COVID home testing kits sold out everywhere. I even saw a 35-pack of N95 masks retail for $209 AUD. COVID panic had taken over. Again.

Like most cats, Pixel was oblivious to the COVID craziness going on outside his home. He would go about his days knocking the washing basket over to sleep in it, pulling the postcards off the fridge, attempting to open the bedside drawer to get more treats and napping next to the toilet. He also liked to rest on the exercise bike and would lovingly look up at the fridge when I opened it. One time I caught him engrossed in a David Attenborough ocean documentary. He started to move closer and closer to the TV in hope of catching the fish. The couple told me he loves nature documentaries, especially ones with wild cats as the subject. Pixel considers himself to be a bit of a lion. Another memorable Pixel moment is when I gave him catnip—a one-off treat to ring in the new year—and he became fixated on the portable air conditioning unit for the next hour.

Things to do

I forgot how great the couple’s Surry Hills location was. For both cafes and restaurants, and getting around Sydney. I managed to get to parts of the city I’d never been to before and only wish I’d checked them out sooner. While I was initially a little unsure of what I’d do for 29 days, I managed to find something interesting/worthwhile to occupy almost all of my time.

Royal National Park

Turns out Royal National Park is the second oldest national park in the world. I’d never heard of it until I started putting an itinerary together for this trip. I had originally wanted to see the Figure Eight Pools, but I was told it’s about a four hour hike. I decided to do the Bundeena to Wedding Cake Rock walk instead. Wedding Cake Rock is a sizeable white rock you stop at on the way to Marley Beach. I gave Marley Beach a miss because I wanted to return my hire car before the afternoon traffic. Sydney drivers are on par with those in Los Angeles.

Manly Beach

Getting the ferry from Circular Quay to Manly is somewhat of an ‘iconic’ Sydney thing and it’s something most international tourists do when they’re in town. Manly has a totally different vibe to the beachy suburbs in Sydney’s east. It’s a lot more chilled and family friendly, but it’s still very, very popular. Things worth doing in the area:

  • Walk from Manly Wharf to Fairlight Beach
  • Walk back the other way to stop at Manly Beach and Shelly Beach
  • Shopping in the Corso area.

Mitchell Road Antique & Design Centre

I visited the Mitchell Road antique centre last trip and couldn’t wait to return. I spent a few hours here and went back one last time during my final week. It’s more of a warehouse, with about 50 or 60 different stalls. Their pricing is pretty reasonable, especially in contrast to what another nearby antique centre charges for its bric-a-brac and furniture.

Other walks worth doing

I did a loooot of walking in Sydney. Not because the public transport is terrible, but because there’s so many walks worth doing. My favourites were:

  • Wendy’s Secret Garden to Lady Gowrie Lookout. It’s along the harbour, and you’ll pass through Luna Park and the prime minister’s Sydney residence.
  • South Head Cemetery to The Gap Bluff. There’s a nice view of the Sydney skyline, too, in the opposite direction.
  • Bondi to Bronte Coastal Walk. I’d never ventured further than Bondi Icebergs previously, but it’s worth walking the bit extra to see Tamarama and Bronte beaches.
  • Anywhere from Rose Bay up to Watsons Bay.

Shopping at Chatswood

Chatswood is probably the closest thing I’ll get to Japan right now. My favourite ‘area’ was around the interchange. There’s lots of Asian supermarkets, Asian restaurants and cute stores selling super cute Asian things.

Next stop

After one month in Sydney—my longest house and cat sit to date—I’m heading home for a very short time. I’m grateful I no longer have to show a border pass or a negative rapid antigen test upon arrival at Brisbane Airport. It means I can get out quicker and get started on packing for my next trip. I’ll (hopefully (I need a negative PRC test first)) be flying out to the USA on Wednesday where I’ve organised several house and cat sits.

Another year spent house and cat sitting within Australia

Another year spent house and cat sitting within Australia

The past 12 months has seen me travel to places like Darwin and Sydney to house and cat sit, and I’m in Sydney again at the moment.

I also accepted a house and cat sit in Newcastle in lieu of being able to travel overseas, but that trip was cut short because of interstate lockdowns. You’d think an international travel ban would make for an excellent opportunity to see new places across Australia, but nope. Not the case. You might be able to fly interstate, but you mightn’t be let back in. State borders could close at at any time, with as little as a few hours notice. Even travelling one or two hours away from where you live isn’t easy when there’s a COVID-19 outbreak (an ‘outbreak’ in Australia has previously been as little one or two unlinked cases within a community).

When I came to Sydney earlier this year, I was almost turned away at Sydney Airport because Brisbane had a COVID outbreak. A government worker at the airport said something like: “People from Brisbane aren’t welcome in New South Wales right now.” A few questions and phone calls later, I was told I could stay. They reminded me I had to isolate for three days—and I knew this was going to happen—but I didn’t see it as a huge issue. I was just grateful to be spending the Easter break somewhere other than Brisbane.

Fast forward six months and the Sydney couple I sat for over Easter were the ones facing the COVID-related problems this time ’round. They messaged me to say there was a positive case in their building and, understandably, they were starting to freak out. It was possible they’d been exposed to the virus in the building’s elevator and now all of our plans were up in the air (no pun). The couple wanted to get tested ASAP—not just for peace of mind, but they needed a negative result to fly home to France. They both tested negative and left for Paris on 18 December.

I did contemplate spending December and January in the United States before agreeing to look after Pixel for a second time. I’d already accepted a sit in Baltimore and I was planning to organise more sits before I flew out. All the COVID uncertainty was starting to get to me so I thought it was best to cancel. And I didn’t want to leave the Baltimore couple without a sitter at the last minute. There was also a bit—or a lot—of pressure having to make my way from Brisbane all the way to Baltimore by 20 December. International flights were due to start up again only days earlier, but there was no guarantee they actually would. Flying in to Baltimore City was going to add an extra $2,000 AUD to my airfare which meant I was probably going to go via D.C. While this was the cheaper option, it meant I then had to get two trains before finally arriving in downtown Baltimore. Getting the additional modes of transport would be stressful at any time, but it would’ve just been too much after being in the air for 20-something hours.

As it turns out, this Christmas–New Year house and cat sit will be my longest one yet. Just short of 30 days. I’ve been using the extended stay to see different parts of Sydney and organise my 2022 trip to the USA. My plan is to fly out three days after returning home to Brisbane and I say ‘plan’ because who knows what COVID-19 has in store for us. My first potential roadblock: I must test negative in order to get home to Brisbane. The second obstacle I’ll face is returning a negative result a few days later to be able to board my flight to Los Angeles. Let’s hope I get my test results back in time (and that they’re negative).

Cat sitting in Australia’s best-known city over Easter

Cat sitting in Australia’s best-known city over Easter

After a crazy few days, including a snap lockdown back home, I was pretty keen to start my house and cat sit in Sydney.

I applied for the 10-day sit the same day I was knocked back for a sit in Launceston. This was back in early March when I was house and cat sitting for my mum’s friend, and thinking about where I’d like to go at Easter. While I would’ve loved to return to Launceston, it was kind of lucky I didn’t get that sit because Brisbane had a [small] COVID-19 outbreak days before the Easter long weekend.

Leaving Brisbane

Brisbane recorded 3 or 4 community acquired COVID cases within about 48 hours. Even though they were linked, every Australian state and territory except New South Wales closed their borders to Brisbane residents. This all happened within a few hours of the Queensland premier declaring Brisbane a hotspot and announcing the city would go into a snap lockdown. I started to freak out. I didn’t know if I’d be able to proceed with the interstate house sit and I didn’t want to leave the Sydney couple hanging.

I decided my best chance of making it to Sydney would be to fly out on Tuesday (i.e. the next day) morning. I couldn’t change my flight on the Virgin Australia website so I had to call up. It took several attempts before I could even get through, then I had a wait of about 45 minutes. My Thursday flight was finally re-booked for Tuesday and I was hopeful New South Wales wouldn’t shut Brisbane residents out before then.

Brisbane Airport was like a ghost town on Tuesday morning. More than half the flights were cancelled and I’m sure many more were cancelled later on in the day. A flight attendant announced he was expecting 32 passengers on the Sydney-bound flight, but it seemed like there was only 10 of us. We were told to fill in an entry declaration form and abide by Brisbane’s lockdown rules for the next 3 days. This message was repeated a few times throughout the short flight, but at no point did anyone—Brisbane Airport staff, Virgin flight crew or the state government—tell us we needed a legitimate reason to enter New South Wales. This turned out to be a bit of a drama when I got off the plane, but I was eventually granted entry. Another passenger wasn’t so lucky.

Meeting the owners

I’d been in regular communication with the couple since responding to their TrustedHousesitters listing so it felt like I kind of knew them when we met up. Julien and Ariane made a French eggplant dish for dinner and apple crumble for dessert, and I got to try their home-brewed ginger beer. They told me they started brewing their own beer during last year’s lockdown. We also talked about their previous house sitters and about some of the sits I’ve done. I learned they’ve been in Australia for 4 years since moving over from France in their mid/late 20s and travelled to more places within Australia than I have. We continued the conversation at a nearby gin bar before calling it a night.

Starting the sit

I spent a short amount of time with Julien and Ariane again on Friday morning before they left for Darwin. Pixel, their cat, a Scottish Shorthair, was quick to jump on my suitcase and inspect my backpack. It wasn’t long before I realised Pixel had to suss out everything I brought back to the apartment. This included sniffing, then lying on, brown paper bags and shoving his head in my takeaway dinners.

Not only is Pixel incredibly inquisitive, he’s a creature of habit. He would jump on the bed at the same time every morning demanding pets and attention in hope of being fed. He’d spend his evenings relaxing on his window bed, or what Julien calls the ‘recharge station’, before demanding dinner. I was told Pixel’s favourite thing is an afternoon birdwatching session on the balcony and he enjoys chasing flies, too. Pixel was always supervised outside, but even predictable Pixel has the potential to be unpredictable sometimes. Pixel actually reminds me of the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland and we all know what he was like.

Pixel was relatively easy to care for. All he wanted was food, some attention and/or to be let out on the balcony. He’d meow occasionally and it was usually for one of those things. He tried to escape out the front door a few times, but he didn’t go far. Just a few metres down the hall.

Getting around

The couple’s Surry Hills apartment was the perfect base for exploring the city. Buses come every couple of minutes along Oxford and Crown streets, or I could walk a bit further to get the light rail or train. Oxford Street, to one side of the apartment, is known for its gay and lesbian community. Crown Street, to the other side of the apartment, is all cafes, bars and restaurants in both directions. Deciding what to eat—and from where—with so many choices wasn’t easy.

Speaking of food, there was one thing that took some getting used to. The New South Wales COVID check in app. I had to check in *and* out of each place I dined in at as well as having to check in/out at the supermarket and on the bus. Some retail stores even wanted you to check in. Checking out of a store is something I would always forget to do.

Things to do

There’s no shortage of things to see and do in Sydney. I could’ve easily spent another week exploring.

Australian National Maritime Museum

I went to the Australian National Maritime Museum with the sole intention of seeing Wildlife Photographer of the Year, but another exhibition intrigued me just as much. Everything featured in Beach Couture: A Haute Mess was found on the beach or floating in the ocean. One outfit had been made from underwear left behind at Coogee Beach and Gordons Bay.

Markets

There’s no shortage of markets in Sydney. I went to the Surry Hills one (first Saturday of the month), Glebe Markets (every Saturday), Paddington Markets (every Saturday) and Bondi Markets (every Sunday). There’s also Paddy’s Markets in the CBD. Paddy’s is open all day every day, and is very big on Australian souvenirs. I don’t think you’ll find anything handmade here, but it’s still worth a look.

Watsons Bay and South Head Heritage trail

I decided to get a ferry one afternoon and randomly went with the one going to Watsons Bay. Watsons Bay is the second—and last—stop on the route before the ferry goes back to the CBD. There’s a few smaller beaches in Watsons Bay and the South Head Heritage trail up to Hornby Lighthouse offers a scenic, relatively easy walk. I didn’t know about this trail prior to getting the ferry, but random adventures are usually the best ones.

Bondi Beach

Easter Sunday was spent at Bondi Beach. It was my first time checking out the Bondi Markets and attempting the Bondi to Bronte walk. The couple warned me these beach walks would be very popular over the break and they were right. It seemed like half of Sydney was at Bondi on Easter Sunday. I had lunch at a vegan Lebanese restaurant across from the beach and tried their vegan gelato. Their website says it’s ‘cashew nut based … refined sugar free, gluten free’. It’s pretty good considering it’s vegan.

Blue Mountains

The Blue Mountains are beautiful. I visited Katoomba and Leura, and went to Echo Point and Elysian Rock lookouts. You have to pay for parking at Echo Point ($4.40/hour (a bit of a rip-off considering you’re ~100km out of the city)), but it has the best view of the Three Sisters. I had hoped to stop in at Blackheath while I was out there, but there’s no way I would’ve had the hire car back by 6pm. It took almost 2.5 hours to get back to Sydney despite heading off at 3.30pm.

Newtown

Newtown is in Sydney’s inner west which is somewhere I haven’t ventured ’til now. People’s houses and the streets are decorated with murals, and there’s lots of interesting shops. It’s a very diverse part of the city.

Waverley Cemetery

Cemeteries aren’t for everyone, but the Waverley Cemetery is definitely worth a look. It sits atop cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and is situated between Bronte and Clovelly beaches. There’s always people passing through—making it seem a bit less morbid and depressing—as it’s on the Bondi to Coogee walk. This walk is another thing worth doing.

Next stop

My next stop is home. Brisbane’s snap lockdown is over, but I believe we still have to wear masks for another week. I don’t have any upcoming house and cat sits planned, but I’ve updated my destinations list to include Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. A winter sit out that way would be amazing.