Now I've seen everything! That was my thought as I watched four Vikings dressed only in headgear and boots riding atop a giant plastic penis.
The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade was in full swing and I stood in shocked delight. As float after outrageous float, representing homosexual communities all around the world, moved past the spot where I had arrived four hours before the parade to get a good view, I thrilled in the artistic and political statements being exclaimed upon Sydney. I also noticed, somewhat absentmindedly, that a great number of the floats had ABBA blaring from their speakers.
One of the first people I met when I landed in Australia six months ago was an American exchange student. Divining my woefully uninformed state, he graciously educated me about the country.
"Did you know," he began, "that Australia has the highest number of creatures that can kill you in the most horrible ways?" Charming, I thought.
Later I found he was right. In and around Australia, you will find the deadliest spider (funnel-web), jellyfish (box), octopus (blue-ringed), fish (stonefish) and six of the 10 most venomous snakes, including the taipan, the most poisonous.
If that wasn't enough to make me consider hopping on the first flight out, there are also the world's largest crocodiles, lethal seashells and some of the worst currents and sharks.
Although I stayed on, I was no longer surprised that this country started off as a prison.
Yet, in my four months there as an exchange student, I became first fascinated and then smitten by its beauty, exoticism (80 per cent of Australian flora and fauna doesn't exist anywhere else), the lifestyle and attitudes of its citizens, and its history.
I remembered the conversation with the American student two months later while snorkelling at the Great Barrier Reef. I noticed a pale jellyfish inconspicuously sneaking up on me. My subsequent bodily contortions, complete with flippers and snorkel, would have done a synchronised swimmer proud.
If you think that's extreme, then know this: after being stung by a box jellyfish, you would need morphine and would lose consciousness, but you would still be screaming! There are no box jellyfish at the Reef, but you can't blame me for being careful, can you?
But even jellyfish wouldn't have kept me away from the Reef. It is simply the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. To go there is akin to stepping onto another planet; its beauty and variety of fish and coral filled me with a surreal disbelief. Was this the same polluted world that I've been living in?
Spotting an octopus, chasing a giant turtle, and coming unexpectedly upon a huge, navy-blue starfish nestled in a bed of barren coral are memories that will stay with me for life. And yes, I saw a shark!
The Reef provided the icing on a sumptuous cake of two weeks of backpacking with my best friends. To afford our expeditions, we ate sparsely and slept in buses and airports.
Our first stop was Byron Bay, Australia's hippie Mecca, where I was greatly amused to witness a demonstration against a recent police decision to use dogs to sniff out drugs. With posters claiming 'Smoking marijuana is a human right', the citizens of Byron Bay protested, threatening to fast.
A few days later, we were up in the tropical Tablelands of Queensland and went night canoeing in the rainforests on a lovely starry night. We spotted several nocturnal creatures, but the best of them all was the extremely rare and elusive tree kangaroo, a gorgeous orange variety with a tail the length of its body that it uses to cling to trees. Spotting one is like seeing a tiger in the wild in India and we rowed back to our lodge feeling extremely privileged.
The next afternoon we went canoeing in a volcanic crater lake and, as our guide put it, "got a bit tribal". In an isolated spot, surrounded by tropical rainforests and miles from the nearest village, we soaked ochre stones in water, rubbed them on rock to make pastes of different colours, and painted each other's faces like Aboriginal tribesman, before carrying on a mock battle in our canoes. Definitely a high point in my time Down Under.
Face painting wasn't my only glimpse into Aboriginal culture. About a month earlier, I was down at the gorgeous south coast of New South Wales. After a day of watching dolphins and beach rugby, we enjoyed a dinner at our campsite that we shared with wild parrots and kangaroos.
Let me say this now: kangaroos are the cutest animals on the planet. Sitting outdoors and munching away, with a multi-coloured wild parrot on my head and kangaroos hopping around, I was ecstatic.
After dinner, we grabbed firewood and headed to the beach. There we met some Aborigines who were going to perform a corroborree, their tribal dance, for us.
I had grown very interested in Aboriginal culture and was saddened to hear that there are no Aborigines still living as they did for centuries: nomadic and wild, living off the land, yet deeply spiritual. Something not commonly known is that Aboriginal civilisation is the world's oldest unbroken civilisation; and how they got to Australia still remains a mystery to anthropologists.
That night, however, we were transported into a world that is practically extinct. Our friends played their didgeridoos, an instrument consisting solely of a hollowed log, and demonstrated their interpretive dances. They offered us the chance to take part and I was among the first to jump up.
So there we were, blanketed by the Milky Way in all its splendour, prancing around a campfire pretending to be kangaroos, emus and dingoes, and scavenging for local delicacies like bush-tuckers and lillypillies. It was a night I'll never forget.
I spent an unforgettable four months in Australia and I'd be the first to encourage any student who has the glimmer of an opportunity to seize it with both hands and study there.
All that I have written is little more than an appetiser. The main course could be watching shows in the Sydney Opera House, going hang-gliding, swimming with turtles on a unique sand island where rainforest and desert exist side by side, playing cricket for a Sri Lankan club, touring Australia's famous vineyards, and camping out in the freezing desert night near the magical Ayers Rock.
For dessert, I shook hands with a Nobel Peace Prizewinner and jumped the locked gate of the Australian Open's Court 1 to snap some crazy photographs.
And, oh yes, I attended a few classes too.
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