My first Mardi Gras

How an Australian adventure helped me get my groove back

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Sydney Opera House

To say I wasn’t looking forward to attending Mardi Gras was somewhat of an understatement.

It was meant to be the holiday of a lifetime; my fiancé and I had spent a year saving to visit Sydney, Adelaide, the Great Ocean Road and Melbourne. Everything was booked and paid for and then, just two days after Christmas last year, he told me he didn’t love me anymore – and that he’d cheated on me.

Understandably, I was crushed and my whole world crumbled around me, with a bright future suddenly seeming very bleak. We’d been together for five years, have a house – even a dog – together and with everything to sort out as a result, both physically and emotionally, a holiday Down Under was the last thing on my mind.

Taking flight

As our departure crept closer, he said that he had no interest in travelling with me under the circumstances, but not wanting to waste our investment and craving some sunshine, I decided to continue with the trip on my own. In preparation, I downloaded some apps to enable me to connect with locals and I was put in-touch with a gay expat through a colleague who kindly said he would show me around once I arrived.

As March dawned I dragged my sorry ass on to the aeroplane and, a few complimentary drinks later (I may have told the steward why there was an empty seat next to me and she replied; “he’s not worth it. Have another drink”) the stresses and strains of the break up started to fade. Less than a day later, I found myself on the other side of the world.

First date

Checking in to the plush Veriu Central which borders the gay-friendly neighbourhoods of Darlinghurst and Surry Hills, my apps lit up like a Christmas tree with friendly Aussies wanting to show me the sights of Sydney during Mardi Gras. Therefore, following a restless night – thank you jet lag – and an orientating free walking tour (I’m Free Tours) of Sydney, I met Martin underneath the iconic Harbour Bridge.

Sydney Harbour Bridge
Sydney Harbour Bridge

Raised in Sydney, IT manager Martin was the perfect guide and we swiftly meandered around The Rocks neighbourhood getting to know one another while exploring the area’s historic laneways where Australia’s European settlement began. We stopped for lunch at City Extra Restaurant in Circular Quay and casually flirted over seafood mornay crepes. The food was wholesome but pricey. However the view of the harbour sandwiched between the famous Bridge and Opera House was sensational – and he paid anyway.

Circular Quay
Circular Quay

Skirting Sydney Harbour and sucking on a Golden Gaytime – an Australian ice cream – we sauntered through the Royal Botanic Gardens to the lookout point at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, and the chemistry between us kept growing as the conversation flowed, veering from favourite Netflix shows to places we’d travelled to. I even got butterflies at one point; I hadn’t felt like this in years.

Then, while perusing the water from round the back of Sydney Opera House, we had a passionate kiss, which was even more incredible than the views all around us. If this was a film, a swirling orchestral movement would’ve come to a climax, but we had to make do with the dulcet tone of a passing tugboat. Irregardless, it was a very special moment.

Sydney Opera House
Sydney Opera House

Not only was he extremely cute, but he was a perfect gentleman and he took me back to my hotel in his brand new BMW. I tried not to look too impressed when I slid in, but it was a beautiful car and I relished speeding past Darling Harbour and through Chinatown with the window down so all could see that I was in this flash motor.

Perfume Genius

I could’ve stayed with Martin all day, but I had arranged to meet with Jason, the best friend of a work colleague who emigrated from the UK several years ago and now works for one of Australia’s top software houses. Joining his Aussie friend and a former workmate who was over from California for Mari Gras, we grabbed a bite to eat at Harpoon Harry, which was suitably decked out in rainbow flags for the upcoming festivities. With my belly full of a wagyu burger, we caught a taxi to the Factory Theatre in Marrickville to kick off the Mardi Gras weekend with a performance by pop-rock artist Perfume Genius (aka Mike Hadreas).

Enjoying the warm autumnal evening weather, we sipped on beers outside before the gig and met with some of Jason’s other friends who joined us. Mostly expats, they were all quick to share their experiences of leaving dreary lives behind in other countries and embracing the vitality and opportunities Australia offered. It was certainly making me question my own life back home.

Factory Theatre
Factory Theatre

The gig itself was nothing short of sensational, with Perfume Genius taking us all on a journey through his delicate mind through songs that spanned countless genres and influences, from Kate Bush to Bjork via Mick Jagger. Dressed in his signature high waisted trousers, Hadreas’ haunting vocals showcased his artistry yet, despite him bending his body into seemingly impossible positions, his lack of interaction with the crowd highlighted the fragility that his lyrics convey. At times I felt like if he was prodded, he would break into a million pieces of crystal, but the crowd remained respectful throughout and in between some of the songs, you couldn’t hear a pin drop.

Perfume Genius, Factory Theatre
Perfume Genius, Factory Theatre

While saying goodbye to my new friends after the gig, I received a text from Martin who wondered if I was free for a late night bite and a short while later, I was back in his beautiful car heading towards Woolloomooloo Bay.

Aussies love a pie and Martin told me that our destination – Harry’s Café de Wheels – is where Sydneyites come for the best ones. Tucking into the caravan café’s house special (a beef-filled Tiger Harry’s, named after the original owner and topped with mashed potato, mushy peas and gravy) while overlooking the longest timbered-piled wharf in the world and sat next to a beautiful man, it was crazy to think that I had only been in Sydney for just over 24 hours.

The Parade

I had a lazy Saturday morning that included a filling brunch at Basket Brothers before I headed to the Powerhouse Museum, a fantastic showcase of Australian applied arts and sciences. As well as being marvelled by Locomotive No. 1, which hauled the first passenger train in New South Wales back in 1855, I particularly enjoyed their display of Mardi Gras costumes by Brenton Heath-Kerr and Peter Tully, aptly titled ‘40 Years of Fabulousness’.

By the evening though, I was fully ready for the main event – the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade. Bypassing the crowds who had been gathering throughout the afternoon, complete with their milk crates to get a better view, I took my spot in the ticketed viewing area and, swiftly making friends with two middle aged women from Melbourne on a “weekend without the husbands”, I embraced the visual sights that passed by over the next four hours.

From the pomp of the Dykes on Bikes to the truly inspirational 78ers who began Mardi Gras 40 years ago against all the odds, the Parade was an incredible celebration of love, equality and hope. As well as it being the event’s 40th anniversary, same-sex marriage was made legal in Australia last December after an eventful postal survey, and this was referenced throughout the floats, with many newly-married couples taking centre stage amidst the cavalcade of colourful costumes and flawlessly choreographed dance routines. Seeing parents, children and relatives from rainbow families marching together was also another heart-warming sight.

Although a celebration of what has been achieved, the Parade highlighted that the fight is far from over and poignant representation from First Nations, trans and bisexual peoples for example, emphasised the inclusion, stigma and gender equality issues that still abound in Australia for the LGBTIQ community and, indeed, around the world.

Despite its serious undertones, including countless safe sex messaging, the Mardi Gras Parade was a hoot and, notwithstanding its long running time, I never wanted it to end as I enthusiastically high-fived as many marchers as I could, while gasping at the ambitious costumes and packed floats trundling in front of me. But, end it did, and I soon found myself walking back in to the city, covered in glitter and ticker tape from the countless canons that popped up during the spectacle.

The party

With me not being savvy enough to also book tickets for the official Mardi Gras Party – Cher was performing! – Jason had kindly invited me to a more intimate party at his flat, which has jaw-dropping views that take in Sydney Opera House and Oxford Street, one of the roads the Parade runs along. While walking to his flat amidst people shouting “happy gay Christmas!” to one another, every male homosexual couple seemed to be airing their dirty laundry in public and breaking up before our very eyes. Statements included “why did you text him then?” and “I said that this was the last time”, but the best thing I heard was “I can’t believe you made me wear those anal beads again.”

I made it to Jason’s plush apartment complex and after being checked off the guest list by the bouncers at the door – de rigueur for residential properties likely to host Mardi Gras parties – I made my way up into its lofty heights. Jason greeted me at the door topless but for a leather chest harness.

“Where’s yours?” he asked.

“Err…” Behind him, there were two more men wearing similar outfits. I gulped.

Luckily, as the door opened wider, I could see there was a more diverse group of people socialising and wearing more clothes.

“I can’t believe I left mine at the hotel,” I quipped and scurried past the leather gathering. Inside, there was a mixture of Sydneyites and expats at various levels of intoxication and I quickly downed some beers to get up to speed. I met some great people including a couple called Kath and Kim. Their best friend was even called Sharon. There was also a guy from Birmingham in the UK where I live. I didn’t get much out of him though, he just pirouetted in and out of where I was chatting every now and again.

Oxford Street as seen from Jason's flat
Oxford Street as seen from Jason’s flat

I spent most of my time there talking to Daniel, a doctor from the Isle of Skye in Scotland. He was one of the most attractive people I have ever met and, once I’d plucked myself away from falling into his heavenly blue eyes, he told me about how he came to Australia to visit his best friend and never left. Transfixed by his chiselled features and muscular arms, I thought nothing when he suddenly said:

“Someone once told me that my kisses taste like truffles. What do you think?”

He then leaned in and kissed my passionately for a few seconds.

“Yes… I think you… err… do,” I said, while regaining my balance.

He gave me a wink and a cheeky smile and then he was gone. His parents were over from Scotland and he wanted to ensure that he wasn’t too hungover in the morning. I don’t know if someone had told him that I was recently single, but there’s no way someone like him would kiss someone like me under any normal circumstance. Maybe he likes bears. Regardless, it was another special moment and really sealed the wonderful evening I’d had at the Parade.

The scene

Nursing my hangover the next morning, I hauled myself on to the ferry and ventured out towards Cockatoo Island. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest island in Sydney Harbour, Cockatoo has had a fascinating history, which has seen it operate as a convict penal establishment, a school, a prison and, more recently, one of Australia’s largest shipyards. As a result, there is lots to see and do, and although only planning to be there for an hour or so, I was still exploring the ship design precinct and historical residences some four hours later.

Cockatoo Island
Cockatoo Island

As dusk fell, I jumped on to the next ferry back to Circular Quay and headed to meet Martin in World Square. Although not as majestic as the Queen Victoria Building (QVB) or the Strand Arcade, and noticeably smaller than Westfield Sydney, its colourful artworks and open plan design make it a pleasant experience for a stroll, shop or bite to eat – certainly the dumplings we had at Din Tai Fung were mouth-wateringly good. It’s brightly lit rainbow-coloured stairs were a nice touch for Mardi Gras too.

Rainbow steps, World Square
Rainbow steps, World Square

After dinner, Martin had promised me a night on the gay scene in Sydney, so we marched our way up Oxford Street to meet with three of his friends in The Oxford Hotel, a landmark art deco pub. En-route, I stopped to pose in front of one the gorgeous GAYTMs that bank ANZ had made fabulous for Mardi Gras. A long-time sponsor of Mardi Gras, ANZ decided in 2014 to transform some of their cash-dispensing machines into bold symbols of diversity, inclusion and equality, with messages on screen matching the dazzling makeovers of the hand-bejewelled ATMs themselves. The GATYM I experienced was all metal and ruffles, as if Lady Gaga had just popped out to withdraw $20 and left her latest performance piece behind.

GAYTM, Oxford Street
GAYTM, Oxford Street

After a bit of a dance in The Oxford Hotel we moved on to Palms on Oxford, which is best described as a guilty pleasure made real. Kylie seems to play every 10 minutes and the décor wouldn’t look out of place in your grandma’s living room, but everyone in the nightclub is having such a good time, you can forgive the L’Eau Bleue d’Issey Pour Homme stench when your favourite remix from yesteryear is being played… and it’s guaranteed to be the 12” version.

Something wasn’t quite right though and it was only an hour or so later that I realised that there were no women in the club, which is certainly very different to the mixed genders and sexualities of the UK scene I was more accustomed to.

“Women just don’t come here,” Martin said. Apparently, gay men and lesbians prefer the company of their own in Sydney and he went on to explain that the scene’s no-open-toed-shoes policy keeps groups of straight women away. Another thing that surprised me was that you couldn’t buy a shot in the club after 12. I was just getting going at that point, but central Sydney’s strict lockout laws – which also see bars and clubs close much earlier than what I am used to – were introduced in 2014 to cut down on alcohol-fuelled violence, which I was told has worked.

The other thing that struck me was the size of the gay scene along Oxford Street. Martin assured me we had passed most of it, but it didn’t seem much larger than the offerings of Hurst Street in Birmingham where I live, a city that has about one fifth of the amount of people Sydney boasts. However, Martin assured me that the scene has expanded out in to the suburbs, with more diverse venues catering for a wider array of LGBTQI tastes away from the city centre, perhaps as a result of the recent lockout laws coming into force.

Aching from all the dancing, I said goodbye to Martin’ friends and he walked me back to my hotel. It was here that was had somewhat of an emotional goodbye; we’d only known each other a few days, but there was a strong connection between us and it was just unfortunate that more than 10,000 miles separated us normally. We parted fondly, agreeing that we’d both found someone special and would keep in touch, as who knows what the future might bring.

Some readers might be thinking that he was just a convenient rebound, but I feel it was more than that. We had shared passions and interests, yet I felt we both learnt so much from each other. Personally, I was instilled with confidence in myself that I had lost when I split from my ex and meeting Martin over the Mardi Gras weekend made me excited for the future; who will I meet and where will I end up?

Beach bum

Bondi Beach selfie
Bondi Beach selfie

I had planned for my penultimate day in Sydney to be spent on the beach, but the autumnal weather had taken a turn for the worse and iconic Bondi felt more like Bognor Regis, with grey skies surrounding its bay and a cold temperature keeping the bronzed hunks away. Well, almost. As it would happen the Waverley Council professional lifeguards – made famous in the TV show ‘Bondi Rescue’ – were having a topless photoshoot in one of the beach’s saltwater sea baths, so I may have hung around to enjoy that.

Bondi Beach Sea Wall
Bondi Beach Sea Wall

Prior to this, I had lunch in a fantastic Jewish café, Lock Stock & Barrell, a few streets inland from the beach. I sat outside and overheard a conversation between two women that, while adding little to my story, was nothing short of incredible:

Woman 1: Punctuality is not your strong point, is it? 

Woman 2: Sorry. 

1: Well, I’ve got to leave shortly. 

2: Shall we sit inside? It’s noisy out here. 

1: I tried inside. Couldn’t hear myself think. 

2: They should do something about the noise around here. 

1: But what can they do? 

2: I’ve got another blood clot and have to go in for a procedure. 

1: Oh, I am sorry. 

2: It’s OK. I’m thinking of changing my doctor though. 

1: Isn’t he the best at what he does in Australia? 

2: Maybe, but he doesn’t like me. 

1: But surely whether or not you have a rapport or not doesn’t matter as long as he can get the job done? 

2: What kind of friend are you? Of course he should like me! 

1: [PULLS AN INQUISITIVE FACE] 

2: Wipe that look off your face. My doctor should like me! 

1: I must say, I’m really hungry. 

2: I want an almond latte. You know, you are the furthest thing from a friend to me. My chips are down and you’re just not being supportive. 

1: I have helped you. I set up those appointments for you. I don’t know what more I can do. 

2: What are those? 

1: Brussels sprouts. 

2: No, they’re not! 

1: Yes they are! I’ve been using a walking stick. 

2: Why? 

1: I fell over in South Africa. 

2: Oh.

Safe space

Martin and Jason were busy on my final evening, so I went for fish and chips – another Aussie staple – with Anik overlooking Manly Beach.

Manly Wharf
Manly Wharf

In meeting Anik, I felt like I was ‘cheating’ on Martin a bit, but I was now fully embracing my single status thanks to the confidence Sydney, Mardi and Martin himself had bestowed upon me, and I was keen to connect with more locals to learn about Aussie life.

Anik had been messaging me throughout my stay and, conscious I was on holiday and had lots of places I wanted to see, we never both seemed to be in the same area at the same time. Therefore, I did feel like I was messing him around a bit and, as he was very keen to meet, flattery got the best of me and we arranged to have drinks and dinner on my last evening.

Admittedly, Anik isn’t Australian; he’s a postgraduate business student from near Dhaka in Bangladesh and his perspective offered a unique insight into life in Oz for a gay man. He explained that he had to suppress his sexuality in Bangladesh and pretended to be something he wasn’t. He’d had a boyfriend whom he loved deeply, but his partner had been forced to conform and had married a woman. Since coming to Australia, he’d been able to live openly as a gay man for the first time and it was truly liberating for him; not only for the lifestyle that it offered, but knowing he was protected by some of the world’s best anti-discrimination legislation.

“I can’t go back to Bangladesh now. I want to fall in love – with a man – and raise my own family. I wouldn’t be able to do this in Bangladesh, and why should I deny myself these modest rights?”

I couldn’t have agreed more. If someone comes from a society that isn’t prepared to be more inclusive anytime soon, I think an individual has the right to reside in a country where they can be themselves and make a positive contribution. Anik has now started the legal process of seeking asylum, but he seemed more nervous about coming out to his mother, who was planning a trip over to Australia soon.

“I think she’ll be OK,” he said. “Ultimately, all parents just want their children to be happy and I am happy here.”

Despite the seriousness of what we were discussing, Anik took it all in his stride and was a very rounded and funny person, who was keen to see the positives in everything that he spoke of. He is also a very cute bear and his cheeky smile revealed some adorable dimples.

Sat in the dimly-lit In Situ and being serenaded by an acoustic performer we flirted over several beers before catching the ferry back to Circular Quay. We sat out on deck and when the sea breeze danced around us, we snuggled for warmth and then had a kiss as the skyscraper-packed centre of Sydney unfurled before us.

Moving on

The next day, I headed to Taronga Zoo to get up close and personal with Australian wildlife, from emus and cassowaries to koalas and platypuses. From one of the zoo’s vantage points, I looked out across Sydney Harbour and saw once again that awe-inspiring view of Sydney Opera House on one side, Sydney Harbour Bridge on the other and the concrete jungle of the city itself in between. Before I captured the moment with a selfie, I took time to appreciate that I was indeed on the other side of the world – furthest than I had ever been from home – and I had done it on my own. This wasn’t a feeling of anxiety or sadness either, but one of joy and exhilaration. I was in Australia by myself and I was OK.

I quickly took my selfie and then dashed to the airport for my flight to Adelaide and the anticipation of more adventures there, as well as along the Great Ocean Road and in Melbourne.

Sydney Harbour selfie as seen from Taronga Zoo
Sydney Harbour selfie as seen from Taronga Zoo

Now I’m back in the UK, I occasionally find bits of glitter where you would least expect them to be, but it keeps reminding me of the wonderful time I had in Sydney and how Mardi Gras was just the tonic I needed after splitting from my ex. I’ve still got a lot to deal with at home, but I proved to myself I can circumnavigate the world on my own and stand on my own two feet after the most earth-shattering of break ups.

Yes, Mardi Gras taught me that I am truly single and fabulous.

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