Leros – ‘Island of Outcasts’

By Georgi Fogarty (University of Queensland, Australia)

After 12 months on the other side of the world, a lot of people I had met on exchange were openly excited to get back to their own country, home and family. However, I was not ready to accept the fact that my year away might finally be over and decided to further postpone my trip back to the UK (much to my parent’s despair). I found myself splitting up the journey with a 7-week long stopover beginning in Athens, where I would catch an overnight ferry to a small Greek Island, Leros. Spending over a month here was to be a very interesting experience, partly due to the island’s incredibly speckled and prominent history.

Leros is not exactly renowned for being a tourist hotspot, despite being close to party islands Kos and Rhodes. The island is only around 30 square miles, which meant that the strangeness of the living history was condensed and intensified. Looking in any direction had the tendency to blow your mind. Going back around 100 years, Leros was occupied by Italians and was used primarily as an army base during the early 20th century, with many buildings constructed to house Italian soldiers. These are now mostly used as shelter for sheep, however the paintings done over 100 years ago by Italian artists remain in crumbling buildings up in the hills. These are easily accessible by a short hike and are completely riddled by bullet holes – mostly from the British. Additionally to the troops’ stations, an extremely grandiose mansion was built in preparation for a visit from Italian dictator Mussolini. Mussolini never visited the island, but the house is still intact (if not slightly worse for wear after 80 or so years’ neglect). Everywhere you look on the island there is unmoved debris from the second World War; my friends and I took a boat trip out to an even smaller nearby island and I dived from the boat into the clear blue water only to find myself face-to-face with a 4 foot wide rusted bomb shell sitting in the shallows. This was a fairly common occurrence.

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A faded painting inside the kitchen of an Italian army base.

The strangely prominent relics of Leros’ past don’t stop at bomb shells though; after the second World War, Athens’ mental asylums became incredibly overcrowded and patients were shipped over in their boatloads to Leros. Buildings that were formally used to house prisoners of war and were allegedly used as concentration camps were transformed into an asylum, which operated until the late 1990’s when a reporter shot an exposé of the conditions inside. The conditions were horrific, with over 3000 patients having died in the asylum. Mentally and physically disabled patients were often chained up and deprived of clothes; the staff were residents of the island with no medical training. The asylum and buildings surrounding it still stand (neighbouring Mussolini’s house) and are completely accessible.

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The front of the asylum.

I went to explore out of morbid curiosity and was met with what looked like a set from a horror film from the 60s. Empty bed frames, medical journals and medicine bottles lay amongst dead pigeons and peeled wallpaper – unsurprisingly, I didn’t stick around for long.

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What remains of one of the bedrooms in the asylum – I would love to know the context behind the painting.

What may be more haunting than the asylum itself though is what now lies in the old courtyard. As Leros is only a few kilometres away from Turkey, it’s a common first step towards gaining sanctuary in Europe for refugees. On such a small island, over 10% of the population is now refugees. Crowded boats arrive weekly having made the perilous journey from the shores of Turkey. The main camp for the refugees is now in the grounds of the abandoned asylum; a sprawling cluster of storage containers, each housing up to 10 people.

In the time I was on Leros, I had the pleasure of getting to know many of the refugees that were living on the island. For many of them, their stay there was just a waiting game; the average length of time that they wait on the island while the Greek government is processing their claim for asylum has increased from a matter of days, when the borders were open, to a year. During this period they legally cannot leave the island. I can’t say too much on the topic of Greek immigration laws, only what I have learnt from the people I have met, but it seems like an incredibly long process that can go one of a few different ways: acceptance (meaning that they are able to leave the island for Athens) or rejection. After one rejection, they are able to apply for asylum again, however after the second rejection they are usually put into jail and risk being deported. On top of this, there doesn’t seem to be much of a pattern for who gets rejected or accepted, which makes waiting for the answer even more painstaking. Witnessing professors, doctors, architects, students and people from many other walks of life waiting in limbo from a decision that could make or break their immediate future was a harsh reality check to say the least. This, altogether with the intense and brutal history of the island made my stay there an extremely strange and extremely eye-opening time. Having said that, I definitely plan to return – just one more year of university to get through before any more jetsetting, though!

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Australian winter: tis the sea-sun

By Georgi Fogarty, University of Queensland

 

No matter where you are in the world, there will always be that short-lived sigh of relief between the last assignment and the start of exams. Fortunately for me, coming towards the end of my time in Australia motivated me to seize this fleeting moment devoid of academic stress and do something useful with it. So once my last few assignments were submitted and I had returned from Stradbroke island (which you can read about in another of my recent blog posts), I had decided that I am no longer a mainland person and started researching my next getaway. Having recently explored the second largest sand island in the world, I set my sights on the only thing better: the largest. Fraser island!

I quickly discovered that this wasn’t going to be the cheap and easy ride that Stradbroke was. The route to Fraser was much longer and far more expensive, involving 4 hours on trains up to the Sunshine coast, another hour and a half coach to a privately-owned ferry port and a ferry over to the island, which as it is privately owned costs $160 for one vehicle(!). The trip also includes other sky-high costs such as a national park fee, camping fee or accommodation costs and all the other necessary amenities like food, as supplies on the island are few and far between. Due to not having time to plan our trip too thoroughly, we decided to go with a tour group. These are extremely popular and there are several companies that promote similar routes; after a fairly short cost-benefit analysis we decided to stick to a 2 day 1 night whistle-stop tour.

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The beach adapted 4×4 hybrid coach picked us up from Noosa Heads on the Sunshine Coast at ridiculous o’clock in the morning on day 1 and took us further up the coast to the ferry port (a humble shack on the beach) where we crossed the surprisingly short distance to the island. Fraser island is what you’d expect from an island formed entirely from sand – almost nothing but beaches, trees and cliffs. Extremely natural and unspoilt, or so it felt in the dead of winter, anyway. Our tour guide later explained to us that during the summer periods when the island is at peak tourist season, each attraction you can stop at has between 500-600 people swarming around. We very luckily avoided this and had most attractions to ourselves within our tour group, which consisted of 11 people. Our tour guide was incredibly knowledgeable on the island’s history, geography and Aboriginal culture and told us extensively about each point we visited. When we first arrived, we were driven down 75 Mile Beach (yes, it’s huge!) to our first stop: Lake Birrabeen.

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The water was freezing but so blue, and we had a little splash about before being whisked off through the jungle to our second stop, an area in the woods called Central Station. It was named this during the height of the logging industry that operated on the island before it became a protected national park. Central Station now houses the remnants of this industry; all that’s left are some derelict houses and machinery amongst the redwoods. A little eerie, but still beautiful. Logging stopped on Fraser around 50 years ago and the recovery is slow but sure. As well as the hundreds of tree and plant species, it’s also home to native wildlife such as Dingoes and koalas. We unfortunately didn’t see any of these, however we did manage to catch a glimpse of sting rays, sharks, dolphins and whales from a lookout point called Indian Heads the next morning, which more than made up for it!

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Shark-watching from a (very) safe distance.

We spent the night at a relatively luscious resort somewhere along 75 Mile Beach, which was extensively fenced off to prevent any Dingoes wandering in and wreaking havoc. The stars were incredibly clear due to the complete lack of light pollution, which always makes a refreshing change after spending lots of time in a city. Our stops the next day included Indian Heads, a beautiful freshwater stream called Eli creek, and my personal favourite: a huge rusted shipwreck, which washed up on Fraser island in the 1960s. It was used as a hospital ship in WWI, and later for bombing practice by the Australian army after it was found beached on the island (uninhabited of course). By the afternoon of the second day we were absolutely not ready to say goodbye, but our time was up and we very unwillingly parted from Fraser and all its beauty and charm. I’m not prepared to accept that I’ll never visit Fraser Island again, and it’s given me even more motivation to revisit this area of the world again as soon as I can.

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Us with ‘The Maheno’

Student housing – the more the merrier?

Georgi Fogarty (University of Queensland, Australia)

 

Housing can be one of the biggest worries when moving abroad, especially when you don’t particularly know anyone that’s going out with you. As a bit of a social butterfly, I had my sights set on a living situation that would allow me to meet a lot of people -ideally university halls, or a share house if not. Unfortunately, university halls were extremely far out of my budget which initially worried me as that’s where I’d envisioned myself; halls seem perfect as everybody is in the same boat of not knowing anyone. So in a slightly less than ideal but fairly common situation, I found myself arriving in Australia in July and being welcomed with open arms by a hostel ( admittedly not the homeliest) while I searched for somewhere more permanent. I’ll admit it’s not the best situation to be in when you’re brand new to a country but the time flew by and after a week of manic house viewings, estate agent visits and sending messages on all sorts of housing advertisement sites, I found myself signing a contract into a student share house. It was pretty much exactly what I’d wanted – a house in one of the most sought-after suburbs in Brisbane filled with other brand new international students, all small fish in a big shiny new pond. The catch? The house had the capacity to accommodate 30 people. That’s 30 raucous students under one roof. It definitely set me up for an interesting year.

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All of these beautiful people under one roof?

 

 

THE LOGISTICS

  • The old part of the house is an ‘Old Queenslander’ style, the same as most residential houses around the East coast of Australia. This basically means it’s big, airy, wooden and set on stilts for ventilation. It’s then been extended backwards, forwards, sideways, below – most possible directions – to make room for the 29 bedrooms (one is designed for 2 people to share).
  • We have two kitchens (one upstairs, one downstairs), 5 bathrooms, 2 living areas and a very comfortably sized garden with a barbecue: great for if the kitchens get overcrowded at mealtimes.

THE DRAWBACKS

  • Without a doubt, the mess. Imagine this: everybody has a glass of water and completely unintentionally forgets to wash up the glass. That’s immediately 30 dirty glasses covering every surface, table, wall, floor, ceiling – you get the picture.
  • You’re never alone. This can be bittersweet when the time comes that you come home from a long day at uni and just want to make a cup of tea without having to make conversation with 16 different people in the kitchen.
  • There is a definite and prominent lack of resources. At 7pm when 17 people are battling for the dinner rush front line on the ONE oven in the upstairs kitchen, things can get a little hectic. The same happens when 6 people simultaneously run for a shower before uni. Chaos.
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Mid attempt to round up the troops in the garden

 

THE POSITIVES

  • First and foremost, the social aspect was amazing. With so many people, there will always be somebody that you get along with, and maybe one or two that you don’t – but honestly that was never an issue. Chances are, in a house full of 19-25 year olds that have all chosen to do a year or semester abroad in Brisbane, you’re going to have a lot in common with most of the people. Although despite the commonalities in mindset, it was such a great way to meet people from different social, educational and cultural backgrounds.
  • You’re never alone. I’m aware that this was also a negative, but for me the benefits of this point drastically outweighed the costs. With 30 restless students it’s extremely rare that nobody will be down for a weekend away, or even just a trip to the supermarket. One quick message in the group chat and within minutes you have a fully-fledged convoy, no matter where you’re off to.
  • Being around international students, everybody is in the same boat of coping with homesickness, university stress and all the drawbacks of a year away from all that you’re used to. This means that there was the most incredible unspoken support network. Everybody just gets it.
  • With 30 people, although house events are a mess to organize (I’d compare it to herding cats) when everybody pulls together it means you can get some seriously great games of rounders underway.
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The residents at Byron Bay, NSW.

 

30 people was an incredibly fun yet a little overwhelming experience when you’ve only ever lived in 6 or 8 people flats, but I’d do it again 10 times over. I was so full of apprehension arriving in that hostel alone last July knowing that the easy choice of university halls simply wasn’t an option, but looking back I’m incredibly glad I took the matter of housing into my own hands. Maybe it’s not for everyone, but from now on I’ll always vote for the more the merrier.

 

Island retreats

By Georgi Fogarty, University of Queensland

 

Arguably the most attractive part of moving from Manchester to Australia for a year is the great weather and beautiful beaches. So after being away for a grand total of ten months, in May I finally took a weekend off work and visited the largest beachy attraction closest to Brisbane that I knew of – Stradbroke Island. To be honest, it completely amazed me that it had taken me ten months to get here in the first place seeing as it’s around 3 hours door to door and it was one of the first things that inspired me to do a year abroad in the first place; an extremely fond memory of mine is first talking to an exchange student from the University of Queensland at the Manchester Go Abroad fair all those many moons ago in October 2016, and she told me that at the weekend she’d take a break from assignments and go to her closest island to sunbathe and watch dolphins swim. Who doesn’t want that? Me, apparently – after having my sights set on this magical mystical place for so long as a large part of my motivation to get to Brisbane, it had taken me a grand total of nearly a year to get there. Regardless, it finally happened!

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Celebrating getting our act together

Getting to Stradbroke Island involved a free weekend, a bus to the centre of the city, a train to the coast and then a ferry over to the island. This is probably the same effort, distance and price as getting from Fallowfield to the Peak District, but with sun instead of sleet and koalas (cliché but true) instead of rabbits. When I initially formed an image in my mind of the second largest sand island in the world, I was drawn to images of beautiful but desolate open and untouched spaces surrounded by nothing but sea. This was all true, with the edition of a few sparsely dotted hostels, bottle shops, restaurants and a boules club. So after checking into a cosy youth hostel on the north coast, we settled in for a long, hard day of soaking up the toasty autumn sun on the beach, still going strong at 25 degrees. The hostel was a classic surfer’s hostel, with sand in every crevice and a few battered acoustic guitars that had probably seen a lifetime of being played ‘Wonderwall’ on around a campfire on the beach, which was a very handy 20 metres away.

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The long, long walk from hostel to beach.

The beach is an endless stretch of white sand bordered with palm trees and shrub on one side and an extremely blue ocean on the other, straight out of a travel brochure. The colour of the sea honestly looked artificial, but the temperature was perfect and we spent a long sunny afternoon splashing around in the surf and playing cricket on the beach. It was hell. At dusk, we headed a little further round the coast to Stradbroke’s main attraction, the north gorge walk. This is a long, wooden board walk that spans a stretch of the cliffs around the north coast, and is definitely the place to be for sun set. From our high vantage point on the cliffs, we were also given a front row seat to huge leatherback turtles, manta rays and dolphins below us which was spectacular.

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The view from the highest point of the gorge walk

The Australian nature cliché didn’t end there though as heading slightly back inland we passed a dozen kangaroos (including bonus point of a mother with a Joey in her pouch!), wild koalas and as it got slightly darker, hundreds of bats.

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Poor quality picture, high quality experience

The sunset was easily one of the best I’ve ever seen, and we headed back to the hostel with rose tinted goggles feeling drunk on the wholesomeness of the day we’d just experienced. It’s easy to forget that it is actually autumn now on this side of the hemisphere when the days are still so warm, so the 10 degree lows of the night came as a bit of a shock. We managed to overcome this fairly quickly though by hoarding blankets from our hostel and huddling together on the beach for a pretty remarkable astronomical display.

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The next day consisted of similarly wholesome activities; sunbathing, surfing (which I discovered I am terrible at) and very sadly saying goodbye to the island. However, not for long; I plan to return at least once before I leave to make up for 10 months of lost time! But for now it’s back to daydreaming about dolphins in between assignments.

Whistlestop tour of Wellington

Georgi Fogarty (University of Queensland, Australia)

After a whole month of not leaving Australia, my restless nature got the better of me and I decided to give myself a well-deserved holiday from the permanent warmth and sunshine of Brisbane. So after careful deliberation (about ten seconds of it), I booked myself onto a flight to Wellington for a few days. This was particularly exciting for me as not only was this a country I had never visited before, it was also a chance to see family members that I hadn’t seen in upwards of ten years; one of whom had graduated from the University of Manchester with a PhD back in the 1970s. So now that I was already approximately 11,600 miles closer to this branch of my family due to living in Australia, I seized the chance to visit with arms wide open. This made me particularly appreciate my choice of Brisbane for my year abroad as it dawned on me what an amazing platform Australia is to travel the Southern hemisphere, opening up opportunities that would have seemed like a distant pipedream had I still been living in England.

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Touching down in Oz: first things first

By Georgi Fogarty (University of Queensland, Australia)

It’s obvious that when you move to the other side of the world, there are going to be some big changes. Jetlag, time differences, climatic, academic and cultural disparities had all been weighing heavily on my mind in the last few weeks approaching my 25-hour flight from Manchester to Brisbane.  But strangely, what took me by surprise the most upon landing was the amount of time it took for me to adjust to the fact I was in Australia and no longer in England.

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Brisbane city center from the Kurilpa bridge

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