Interview: After Nightfall

After Nightfall is a web series that has me hooked. It’s a refreshing new mystery surrounding the murder of gay teenager Troy McLeavey. It’s not set in the 1950s, doesn’t take place in the outback, has nothing to do with either world war, and thank heavens for that. In March and April this year, I reviewed the entire first season. And, full disclosure, in September I spent two days on set with the cast and crew filming a brief cameo for Episode 1 of Season 2. Everybody involved could not have been nicer, although part of me wondered if that was because I was known as ‘Superfan’ to most of them, having written such glowing reviews. I’m joking by the way. Wayne and his team of actors, camera crew, DOP etc are all professionals of the highest order.

With Season 2 due to be released in early 2019, I sat down with writer/director/star Wayne Tunks for a spoiler-free talk about the process behind filming such an ambitious project, and what we can expect in Season 2 and beyond.

For a writer, inspiration can come from anywhere. Where did the inspiration or spark first come for After Nightfall?

I was actually going for a walk late one Sunday night and the idea came to me. I walked for about an hour and the ideas kept rushing at me. By the time I got home to write everything down I had the basic premise, the name, many characters and the killer. I barely slept that night and the next day started writing. It was a story that needed to come out of me.

Did you map out every detail of the story before writing or did parts of the mystery happen organically?

A combination of both. To start I usually just write and let it flow out but then as the project continues I make a more detailed story map. The first 2 eps just came out organically and then the rest was planned. Having worked as a storyliner on Neighbours, our job was to plot story, so I still use a lot of what I learnt there.

What was the biggest challenge with shooting?

Independent filmmaking is an exercise in shooting on the smell of an oily rag. Shooting on a tiny budget is challenging but also rewarding. So as director I end up as production manager, set dresser and caterer as well as directing. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The entire world of After Nightfall is about the murder of a gay teenager. However, Troy himself remains shrouded in mystery. He’s mostly seen as a ghost and has had maybe five lines of dialogue so far. Was this a deliberate choice?

For Season one, definitely. It’s about the people left behind and how they react and which of them is the one that killed him. I like that Troy is a mystery, at first you’re even asking if his ghost is really there or if his Dad is going mad. In Season two we will see a lot more of Troy, including a flashback episode – so the mystery will slowly be revealed.

Troy is gay, and one of the things I personally love about After Nightfall is how this is portrayed as being completely normal. However, let’s be honest, the majority of LGBTQ characters in pop culture seem firmly rooted in stereotypes and coming-out stories. Why do you think this is the case?

For me all gay stories are important, whether it be a coming out story or others. For the 19 years I’ve been writing I have always tried to put gay characters in my work. When I am watching things now, especially TV, and there are no gay characters I get a little angry. Gay people are in every part of society and deserve to have our stories told. So whether it be coming out, a love story or just a gay cop, I’ll take any gay themed stories and characters.

After Nightfall has a large ensemble cast with many interesting characters. Do you have a favourite character to write for?

I love them all, my characters are like my children. But I have always enjoyed writing a good villain, living vicariously through them. So characters like Kobie, Oscar, Dave and Faye are fun. Plus, writing for myself is fun, guarantees I get some good lines!

My favourite character is Nathan Kelty. His harrowing storyline involves being trapped at a conversion camp. This is a reality for many LGBTQ people, but it’s very swept under the rug especially in media portrayals of the LGBTQ community. Were you at all apprehensive at tackling such a sensitive and rarely-seen issue?

It is our society’s big shame at the moment. I am constantly confused as to why certain religious people seem so obsessed with gay people. They are ruining the lives of young members of the LGBT community and governments let it happen. We like to believe it is just an American thing, but these horrendous places exist in Australia as well, so we need to talk about it. And we need to stop them hurting more innocent people.

What are the challenges of appearing in a project you wrote and directed?

I have been doing it in theatre for a long time but doing it in film is new. It is often intimidating but I was lucky to have an amazing crew around me to help out. But I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone, I’m just one of these control freaks who likes to have a finger in every pie.

Obviously, we don’t yet know who killed Troy McLeavey. How have you managed keep the secret with so many actors and crew involved? Was it difficult?

Season One it was just myself and the actor playing the killer who knew. So many people would ask but we were both good at keeping it a secret. I loved hearing the cast and crew’s theories. Now, naturally, after filming Season two, a lot more people know. It was a relief to reveal it and now hope they can keep the secret.

What has been your favourite day on set so far?

Day one for sure. It was all so new and was a big risk. It was an experiment, we would do one day and see if it worked. It was a great success and I felt such a sense of achievement. After one day we knew it was viable and we began planning the rest.

Season One was definitely a success. It’s been screened all over the world and has won a number of awards. Were you surprised at how well people responded?

It’s always the hope that whatever you create, is a success. But I don’t think you ever really believe it will happen. People have been great fans and I feel very humbled. And the awards were the biggest surprise. It feels even more special that other people seem to enjoy the project as much as we do.

To the eagle eyed viewer, it would seem there are clues peppered throughout season 1. Is the mystery solvable to someone who is really paying attention?

100% there are clues, but to be honest, they are subtle. To me they are obvious, but the clues are small and there a lot of red herrings, as you would expect from any murder mystery. I hope when people discover the killer that they look back and see that it makes sense.

What do you most want people to take away from this project?

First and foremost, I want people to enjoy watching it. Love when I hear people binge the series. And I love when I hear people talking about who killed Troy McLeavey. And if we can also talk about important issues while entertaining, even better.

Now that Season 2 filming is done, what’s next for the world of After Nightfall?

We have one more season to go. There will be a new mystery and a lot of storylines to clear up. So after Season two, you will get to see your favourite and not so favourite characters. So watch out for Season Three.

Click here to watch After Nightfall Season 1

Reviews here:

After Nightfall Episode 1 & 2
After Nightfall Episode 3
After Nightfall Episode 4
After Nightfall Episode 5
After Nightfall Episode 6

Wanderlust Part 11: The Final Chapter

This is it! The last part of the Wanderlust journey. Have you read them all yet?

Wanderlust Part 1: Hong Kong and London
Wanderlust Part 2: Paris, Swiss Alps
Wanderlust Part 3: Florence and Rome
Wanderlust Part 4: Rome to Venice
Wanderlust Part 5: Salzburg and Vienna
Wanderlust Part 6: Budapest to Krakow
Wanderlust Part 7: Krakow, Auschwitz and Prague
Wanderlust Part 8: Berlin and Amsterdam
Wanderlust Part 9: Amsterdam to London
Wanderlust Part 10: London

Day 32: January 25th, London

Today I’m basically living out a dream I’ve had since 1999. I’m standing outside the Harry Potter Warner Bros Studio, about to go in and take the tour.
I am one of the original Potter generation. I was five when Philosopher’s Stone was released and have been a die-hard Potterhead from day one. My love for the Wizarding World has only grown as I grew up. I may be in my 20s, but anything Potter related (except the Cursed Child!) and I’m practically swooning. You have to get up pretty early to out-Potter me.
The exhibition is basically just props, costumes and behind-the-scenes of the films, but I don’t care. I’m like a kid in Honeydukes, running between sections, spotting the hidden Snitches, getting the chance to ride on a Nimbus 2000, learning wand choreography, and FINALLY tasting Butterbeer. 
I finish up in the gift shop, picking up a pair of Deathly Hallows earrings, and a tshirt so nobody can ever doubt that I am a Ravenclaw.

But even the Wizarding World can’t stop reality forever. I have hit the 36 hour countdown. Less than two days until I’m on the plane home. I spend the evening checking into my flights and working out how I’m getting to Heathrow Airport. I need to make the most of the time I have left.

Day 33: January 26th, London

My extended family take me down to the town of Bath, since Stonehenge isn’t going to be a possibility on this trip. Nor is Stratford-upon-Avon, the Globe Theatre, or Buckingham Palace. I didn’t get back to Paris either. But this just gives me more reason than ever to come back. 

Bath is a very pretty town, full of sandstone and the most English scenery imaginable. I get to visit the Roman Baths, full of history, and have lunch at an adorable cafe, while teaching the cousins some Australian slang. Personally, I find British slang/insults far more entertaining. Each to their own. 
I take the 3 hour train trip back to Paddington, then to Whitechapel and back to the hostel. I’ve got something booked for the evening, but with a couple of hours to kill, it’s really time that I start packing up everything since I have to check out at 10am tomorrow. 
It’s pretty tedious stuff. I reorganise my packing cubes, throw away empty bottles/unnecessary packaging, and pack my Disney tote with flight essentials. Finally I make sure my flight outfit is on top. A quick weight check, and I’m only a couple of kilos heavier than I was when I left. Yay for packing light and not buying useless souvenirs. 
I only have one night left, and I brave not only the cold, but a Jack The Ripper tour. You’d think it would be scary, but the tour guide was beyond hilarious. He’s written several books on the subject, so we learn all the gory details of each murder, possible related cases and the various (often crazy) theories as to who the Ripper was, but the mystery remains. Thanks RipperVision for a great night in a great city!

With a 24 hour flight home looming in the distance, I head back to the hostel. There’s an Australia Day party going on in the bar. I figure why not, and duck inside. It’s pretty easy to spot the Australians. They’re teaching the Americans our drinking games and generally being the life of the party. 

I have a number of free drink vouchers that I’m never going to use on my own, and I ask the group if they want any.

I’m an instant hero.

Day 34: January 27th, London. Last Day!

The next morning feels strange. I’ve been away from home for so long, and feel like I’ve grown so much older in these five weeks. I’m in a pattern of exploration now. I want to go home, but at the same time I don’t. It’s an odd sensation.
But I don’t have a lot of time to dwell on this. A final check of the room, and then I go downstairs to check out. I leave my bag in the holding room and head outside on a mission to visit a few last minute places. 
First stop: Madame Tussauds. The famous wax museum is very crowded. More crowded than almost anywhere else I’ve been on this trip. Honestly, I could take or leave this place. People aren’t exactly behaving well. Literally shoving to get a photo with a wax model. I get a decent shot with Benedict Cumberbatch, but I mainly came to express my distaste towards a certain orange President. I only last 30 minutes at Madame Tussauds before I can’t hack it anymore. 
Down the road I find the Sherlock Holmes statue and 221b Baker Street. When I walk into the bookshop, one of the workers sees how excited I look and sends me off to the ‘real’ 221b Baker Street where the actual series is filmed. It’s a ten minute walk away. There’s nobody there but me, and I have lunch in the cafe next door. It’s awesome.

I’m running out of time, so I hurry to the nearest Underground station and get the train to Kings Cross, for obvious reasons. Sadly, the line is far too long for me to justify waiting to take a picture at Platform 9 3/4. I have to satisfy myself with the Potter shop next to the trolley.
And finally, I race back to Westminster, walk over the bridge one last time and get on the London Eye. It finally re-opened yesterday, and I figure it’s a great final activity before I go to the airport. But the line is so long I’m seriously fearing whether I’ll be able to do it before I have to head back to the hostel to collect my bag. The London Eye is ok, I guess. But it’s just a giant Ferris Wheel, and I can’t say I’d be rushing to do it again. 

Now it’s time to go back to Whitechapel. I collect my suitcase and begin the trip to Heathrow Airport. I’m not going to have the disastrous experience I did when I arrived, because the Heathrow Express is running. 
I catch the train to Paddington station. I have a little more time than I thought since I’m early to a fault, so I go into the Paddington bear shop, and take a picture of the Paddington Statue with my beloved travelling bear Cecil.

The Heathrow Express is smooth and quick, and very quiet. Heathrow is crowded and bustling with movement. 
I don’t check in straight away. I’m still heavily layered up in thermals, about to go home to an Australian summer. I drag my suitcase into the largest vacant bathroom stall and change completely. My boots, down coat, thermals, turtleneck, scarf and gloves go into the bag. I won’t be needing them anymore. My flight outfit is waiting on top. A loose t-shirt, stretch hybrid pants, my blue sweater, and sneakers. Comfortable, warm enough for the arctic chill I’m about to face and presentable enough.

The flight to Hong Kong is uneventful in the best way. The night has fallen and after dinner is over I recline my seat by a couple of centimetres. I’m rewarded with an swift and instant kick to the back of my chair. Not having any desire to become a viral sensation, I move back up without a word. 11 hours, 40 minutes and I do not sleep at all. 

The plane lands early evening in Hong Kong. I don’t need to worry about my luggage but I do need to go through customs. I’m hardly conscious at this point, but suddenly the security guard makes me snap awake.
“What’s that in your bag?” 
My mind is instantly in panic mode. What could I possibly have done? I double and triple checked my carry on. My liquids were all fine, or were they? I don’t use drugs….but what if….
He pulls out…my book.
“You read? Nice to see a young girl read,”
My knees are weak with relief. “Yes!” I stammer.
“Don’t see much of that now. You keep reading, ok?”

There will be no exploring the city today. My stopover is about 5 hours. There’s just time to eat, and get some rest in the relaxation lounge. Before I know it, it’s time to board the flight to Sydney. Another 9 hours til I’m home. 
As I take my seat, the little girl next to me is quietly sketching away. I don’t pay much attention to her until she slides me the paper. “It’s you. Because you are very beautiful,”
My heart melts. Her name is Angelina. She 12 and can sketch as well as any anime artist. She has some serious skills. She draws me another picture later in the flight. I’ll cherish them forever.

The plane is delayed for about an hour on the tarmac due to some technical/logistical error. And again, I can’t sleep. At around 3am the kids have fallen asleep so I decided to finally watch the movie IT. What I don’t realise is…the kids wake up. I found this out during the infamous jump scare. The less said the better. 

Morning comes, and the plane descends into Sydney. I see beaches, sparkling blue water, sunshine, Sydney Harbour. There’s nothing quite like it. Angelina gives me a hug. “I will miss you very much,” I’ll miss her too. The flight lands with a thud, later than scheduled but I’m not too bothered by this. I’m back.

I stagger off the aircraft and into the terminal. I get through immigration without a lick of trouble but have to wait an uncomfortably long time for my bag at the carousel. Customs merely glances at my landing card and sends me on my way. 

I walk down the hallway towards arrivals, dragging my blue suitcase behind me. A rush of emotions threatens to engulf me. 34 days, 18 cities, 13 countries, 13 hostels, 7 currencies, 5 weeks, 3 shows, 1 suitcase. 
Deciding to travel alone was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. But I did it. I’ve navigated public transport systems in foreign languages. I’ve walked through ancient structures. I’ve seen sights I’ve dreamed of for years. I’ve fallen in love with Europe and left pieces of myself everywhere I went.
But here I am after the fact. Holy hell, I actually did all those things. 

Just before I go through the final door, I catch a glimpse of my exhausted face reflected in the glass. I haven’t slept for more than a day. I’m starting to sweat in the heat. But as I step into the bright arrival hall and see the smiling face of my friend, I feel prouder than I’ve ever felt before.

I’m home!

Wanderlust Part 10: London

You’ve come this far, so don’t miss a moment of my Wanderlust recap!

Wanderlust Part 1: Hong Kong and London

Wanderlust Part 2: Paris, Swiss Alps

Wanderlust Part 3: Florence and Rome

Wanderlust Part 4: Rome to Venice

Wanderlust Part 5: Salzburg and Vienna

Wanderlust Part 6: Budapest to Krakow

Wanderlust Part 7: Krakow, Auschwitz and Prague

Wanderlust Part 8: Berlin and Amsterdam

Wanderlust Part 9: Amsterdam to London

Day 29: January 22nd, London

When I wake up, there’s borderline commotion in my dorm. The lights are still not working, despite multiple trips to reception. Nobody likes showering in the dark. Do not try it at home. So management moves everyone into different rooms, and I’m given a couple of breakfast vouchers and free drink vouchers for the bar.

My winter boots have been thoroughly soaked in the rain yesterday. I stuff them with paper towels and let them sit under the heater in the dorm. Today, I’m wearing my sneakers. Thankfully it’s about 14ºC outside, quite pleasant compared to the rest of the trip.

I’m well rested, and VERY eager to cram in as much of this city as I possibly can. Since it’s just me, I can do whatever I like, and stay however long or short I wish.

I make a plan of where I’m going to go today, and tonight I’ll see my first West End show.

First stop, Oxford Street, which of course has a very different reputation back home. I was thinking I may do some shopping here, but once I arrive I feel more like a hot chocolate. At the Starbucks, I experience the only time on my trip (and quite likely my entire life) that someone can’t understand my accent. I’m not kidding. In the heart of London of all places, the Starbucks employee can’t make out what I’m saying. I didn’t think my accent was that strong. I’m far from ‘ocker’. Quite the opposite; I’m continually being mistaken for British. Not just in Europe, but also when I visited the USA in 2016.

I wander along Oxford Street, but it’s not really for me. After a little while, I begin walking to Trafalgar Square, past a number of theatres including Her Majesty’s, where Phantom of the Opera has been playing since 1986. Trafalgar Square is somewhat crowded. I’m prepared to bet it’s far worse in summer. And frankly, thanks to Blackadder, I can’t take the Duke of Wellington seriously.

It’s time for a break. After learning that the legends of British fish and chips are true, I keep walking along to Westminster Abbey, and Big Ben which is also under renovations. The London Eye is too, but will be open the day before I go home.

There’s still more I want to see and do. Next on my list is the Imperial War Museum. I could easily take the Underground but I decide I’ll see more of the city if I walk. An hour later I seriously regret that. The museum is seriously worth it though. With each floor dedicated to a different conflict, my inner history geek is more than satisfied.

I’m curious to see what Harrods is like, but I stupidly walk there too. And my feet are literally screaming in protest because my sneakers are nowhere near as supportive as my boots. When I arrive at Harrods, I want to leave immediately because it absolutely sucks. But my feet hurt too much and I have to sit down for a few minutes. No more walking. As soon as I’m capable of standing, I take the Tube back to Leicester Square, have dinner and make my way to St Martin’s Theatre for The Mousetrap. Running for 66 years and counting, I’m watching performance #27, 192. Yes, I’ve read the script. Yes, I already know the twist ending. No, none of that matters. It’s a wonderful production. Afterwards I’m the only one at the stage door and get the cast’s autographs.

Today’s been a good day.

Day 30: January 23rd, London

When I wake up the next morning, my legs and feet are incredibly sore. I’m also absolutely worn out. The past four and a half weeks of non-stop movement and adventures have finally caught up with me.

I ring home, and Mum suggests I have a more relaxing day. My boots are dry at last, so I won’t be punishing my limbs by walking too much today.

I catch the Underground to South Kensington and begin the five minute walk to the Natural History Museum. But literally next door, I spot the Science Museum. I’m reminded a little bit of Questacon back home. I have the whole day, and since museums in London are free, I see no reason not to go inside. So I do. It’s a fun place with a number of incredibly cool exhibits and free WiFi, but I have to admit it’s more geared towards children. Plus there’s no rollercoaster simulator, guillotine simulator, earthquake house, or free fall slide. I don’t spend as much time in there as I thought I would, but I don’t regret going either.

The Natural History Museum on the other hand, is absolutely magic. I almost lose track of the hours, walking through the massive and varied exhibitions. I recognise some from a charming video my brother and I adored when we were kids (Dinosaurs: Fun, Fact and Fantasy). The display of Australian animals makes me smile, especially seeing everyone else ooh and ahh over the kangaroo. If only people understood how aggressive they are.

You could spend days in the Natural History Museum, but I manage to get through the entire thing, satisfactorily, on my own in about three to four hours.

That evening, I take in my second West End show, The Play That Goes Wrong. It recently played in Sydney, and I missed it. I’m not missing it here. I have a good seat in the stalls, and in a happy coincidence, one of the boys from my Topdeck tour is seated right next to me.

I will not dare spoil the genius of The Play that Goes Wrong. I will say that I was honestly sobbing with laughter by intermission. But to reveal anything further would be a major disservice to the piece.

However, not all is well. My anxiety disorder is bubbling beneath the surface, and on my way back to Whitechapel I’m making a massive effort to keep it under control.

But it can’t last.

I’m standing at the entrance to Leicester Square station, figuring out which platform to go to, when I hear the word every female is all too familiar with…

“Smile!”

I ignore it.

“Hey honey, give me a smile!”

I ignore it again.

“Smile! Smile sweetie! Smile! SMILE!”

I’ve had enough and look around. There’s a young homeless man sitting by the entrance, though very obviously in his right mind. He and the man handing out the evening paper are smirking at me.

“Give us a smile!” Homeless Guy says again (he’s persistent, I’ll give him that).

“No,” I snap and turn back to the sign.

“Aw, come on!” he grins and spreads his arms wide.

Maybe it’s the panic attack threatening to emerge any second. Maybe it’s the memories of those revolting waiters in Venice, or the creep in Prague. Maybe I’m overtired, or I’ve just had enough at this point. Whatever the reason, my temper flares.

“WHY?!? WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT TO YOU THAT I SMILE, HUH?” I roar back in his stupid face. “WHAT DO YOU CARE SO MUCH?”

He considers for a moment. Clearly he hadn’t expected this kind of reaction. “Because…life is….great?”

“That’s not a good enough reason. Screw that!” I give him the most acid-filled look I can muster. Newspaper Man shoves a paper in my face. Big mistake.

“F*** off!” I storm down the stairs onto the platform. A second later my blood pressure drops and I realise. I just yelled at a catcaller. And I’m still alive.

It’s a miracle.

Day 31: January 24th, London

Today, I’ve got some exciting plans. First stop, the London Dungeon. This is one of my favourite activities on the whole trip. It’s an interactive theatrical show which takes you through 1000 years of British history. Yeah, Sweeney Todd didn’t really exist. But still. It’s great fun. Just the right amount of creepy and hilarious. The actors really embrace the gore of Britain’s often gruesome history, and you can’t help but enjoy every minute. Even though I scream a couple of times.

That night I have a lovely dinner with a dear friend from university, who I haven’t seen in 3 years. Bec and I studied musical theatre together and she moved to London in 2014. A few members of our class were also expats, but she’s the only one still there and doing quite well for herself. We have a lot to catch up on, and I’m amazed at her British/Australian hybrid accent. She’s coming back to visit Australia for Christmas in 2018, so it’s not a forever goodbye.

I quickly go back to the hostel and put a few things in my Disney tote bag I use on flights. My suitcase goes securely in my locker. I take the Underground to Paddington Station and then catch a connecting train to Swindon, where my extended family are.

Next time: Part 11/11 The Final Chapter

Wanderlust Part 9: Amsterdam to London

Don’t miss any part of my Wanderlust recap!
Wanderlust Part 1: Hong Kong and London
Wanderlust Part 2: Paris, Swiss Alps
Wanderlust Part 3: Florence and Rome
Wanderlust Part 4: Rome to Venice
Wanderlust Part 5: Salzburg and Vienna
Wanderlust Part 6: Budapest to Krakow
Wanderlust Part 7: Krakow, Auschwitz and Prague
Wanderlust Part 8: Berlin and Amsterdam

Day 26: January 19th, Amsterdam

Marijuana use is tolerated in Amsterdam. We were warned about the side effects and cautioned to be very careful, but in my mind there’s no point in going to any of the cafes, because you can practically get high by breathing in this place.
I have some special plans for today, which I worked out last night. I’m going to visit the Ten Boom Museum in Holland. It won’t be easy, but it seems doable, so I’m going to give it my best shot.
I catch the tram to Amsterdam Central, and get on a train down to Holland, about 45 minutes out of Amsterdam. The train is absolutely gorgeous, with WiFi and plush seats that wouldn’t be out of place in a movie theatre.
Once I’m in Holland, I stop into Starbucks for breakfast, and follow the excellent signage to the Ten Boom Museum. And I’m in time for the only English tour that day!
The Hiding Place is one of my favourite books, and to actually stand in the secret room where eight people hid from the Nazis (and were never found) is surreal. It was definitely worth the trip down here. I’ve lived a piece of history today.

Once I make my way back to Amsterdam, I can’t resist heading into a cheese store since we missed out yesterday. I end up choosing regular gouda and pesto gouda. They’re vacuum sealed so they’ll keep and I can get them through customs as well.

It’s the final night of the Winter Spirit tour, and it ends with another dinner cruise on the river. Afterwards we walk through the city as a group, snapping pictures and admiring the figure skaters. My phone falls into a puddle, but it’s miraculously undamaged.

Tomorrow, a lot of people won’t be joining us to head back to London. Some are staying in Amsterdam for a while, others are going to other countries, and some are simply going home. But not me. I’m seeing this trip through, right to the end.

Day 27: January 20th, Amsterdam to London

The morning comes, and there’s a lot of goodbyes in the dining room. The few of us who are going back to London climb onto the coach for the final time. We started with about fifty on December 28th. People have arrived and left, and now there’s about twenty. And I’m one of the only ones from the original group who did the entire trip. I don’t know if that’s actually an accomplishment, but still. One of the last few standing.

Everyone on the coach is tired. Not me so much, but I’m definitely ready to travel on my own. As we drive, Morgan gets everyone to come up to the microphone and share their favourite place from the trip. I also take the opportunity to use up the rest of my WiFi allowance, since I’ve used it very sparingly.
Before we get to the boat terminal as Calais, the coach is stopped and everyone is told if they have any marijuana from Amsterdam, get rid of it NOW before the sniffer dogs are brought on. A hilarious number of people sheepishly get off the coach and retrieve their bags from underneath.
Finally, we have to go through customs. One of the boys doesn’t have an arrival stamp from Heathrow (because customs somehow forgot) and he’s given the third degree. Some others are practically interrogated about their travel plans. I’m quaking in my boots but my border agent glances at my passport. “We’ve had a lot of Australians coming through here. Don’t melt when you get home to that heat,” And just like that, I’m through without a hitch.
We miss the ferry we were aiming for, so there’s a long wait before we get on the boat. A few hours on the water, watching the French coastline disappearing, and we’re back in Dover. It’s getting dark. A final video is made of everybody waving goodbye just before we get back to Wombats, where this all began. We gather our bags and exchange some last goodbyes. Many are going home tomorrow. Some leave for other hotels, some are leaving on other Topdeck or Contiki tours the next day. I seem to be the only one who plans to stay only in London for the next week before home. I check back into the hostel again, and plan to get some sleep. 24 days, so many adventures. And more on the way.

Topdeck is done, but I still have to tackle London before I go home.

Day 28: January 21st, London

I finally have the luxury of sleeping a bit later today. A whole week in this glorious city, and no early morning starts.
Unfortunately, there’s an issue in my female-only dorm. The lights aren’t working so I have to shower in the dark, which is an experience to say the least. I go down to do some laundry, then take care of the bird’s nest I call my hair, and at around 2pm my extended family show up. I haven’t seen them in a long time, and we go to the Tower of London, which is right near my hostel.
The tower is massive, and we walk around the entire thing. It’s here that I learn I am possibly the worst person to visit a historical site with because every five seconds it’s “Knew that…knew that….they missed that detail out….didn’t know that….knew that but here’s the entire story in minute detail….”

The day cuts short because Rachel and Chris have to get home, and in true London style, it starts to rain. Hard.

And the lights in the dorm still aren’t working.

NEXT TIME: Part 10/11 London

Wanderlust Part 8: Berlin and Amsterdam

Missed any part of my WANDERLUST series? Catch up here!
Wanderlust Part 1: Hong Kong and London
Wanderlust Part 2: Paris, Swiss Alps
Wanderlust Part 3: Florence and Rome
Wanderlust Part 4: Rome to Venice
Wanderlust Part 5: Salzburg and Vienna
Wanderlust Part 6: Budapest to Krakow
Wanderlust Part 7: Krakow, Auschwitz and Prague

Day 23: January 16th Prague to Berlin, Germany via Dresden

Some people joined in Budapest and left in Prague. Some have joined us for the final week. There are fewer than ever on the coach, and just two more destinations before the Winter Spirit trip ends.
We leave Prague early in the morning. After the usual morning stop at the service station for snacks, our lunch break will take place in the German town of Dresden. In WWII. 4000 tonnes of explosives were dropped on Dresden over two days, obliterating the city. But you’d never know, because it’s been rebuilt and is absolutely beautiful.
While walking around, I get to know Hannah, a 19 year old from Queensland who’s one of the most recent additions for this last week.We have a nice lunch at a fun little place. She’s studying occupational therapy and she’s never seen snow.

We arrive in Berlin that evening and get a driving tour of the city by a local guide. I sign up to do the Third Reich walking tour the next day, and as dinner is served that night, I have my first ever shot. For the record, it was a vodka sunshine, and it’s all captured on video.

Day 24: January 17th Berlin, Germany

When I booked my trip to Europe, one of the things I was most excited about was the amount of history on the continent. Especially war history, which is fascinating to me. I’m very keen to see how Germany handles WWII memorials, for obvious reasons.
Our guide is Spanish, and has lived in Germany for a few years. The tour starts at the Reichstag building, where we learn about Hitler’s rise to power, followed by the Brandenburg Gate. It starts snowing at this point, and you can definitely tell who the Australians are in this group because we all start squealing like kids in a candy store. And yes, there is still that one guy who ALWAYS wears shorts.
I take some hauntingly beautiful pictures of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in the snow, and then we’re invited to walk through the stone maze.
We stop at a cafe for a quick break, then it’s onto the site of Hitler’s bunker and we finish at what’s left of the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie where we hear about a few very creative escapes.

People scatter after the tour, and again, I decide to go off on my own. I’m much happier this way. I wander into a nearby store and get a beautiful new pair of gloves to replace the ones I’m currently wearing. They’ve been saturated by the snowfall outside. I walk along the Berlin Wall to the war museum, entry is free, and spend some time looking around. But to be honest, a lot of the information is stuff I already know from a lifetime of loving history.
The snow is getting very heavy, and it’s soaking through my coat. I head into a giant shopping centre to dry off a bit. The fashions in Berlin are lovely, and I want to take this chance to revamp my wardrobe.
Because I have ten days til I head back to Australia, and the sweltering heat, I’m conscious of the fact that I haven’t got any summer clothing to change into on the flight home. There’s a sale on, and I get a new pair of denim shorts for 10 euros. And a new winter hat. I’m sure everyone in the store thought I was crazy getting shorts in the dead of winter. If only they knew.

Outside, it’s snowing harder than ever and I’m wet to the skin, boots and all. I hate to admit it, but it’s time to throw in the towel and head back to the hostel if I want to get dry. I decide to walk back and see as much of the city as I can. On the way I find an adorable cupcake shop, and get a couple to take with me.
Back at the hostel, I strip off all my wet clothes and hang them up to dry. The heating system will soon take care of that for me. My boots go under the heater on the wall, and I take a hot shower to defrost.

This is my first experience with real, heavy snowfall. And I’m quite happy to make it my last.

Day 25: January 18th Berlin to Amsterdam, Netherlands

It’s time for the last drive day, and onto our final destination. Amsterdam.

This is the only day where literally nothing eventful happens. It’s a 12 hour drive day, and bad weather (which even makes the news in Australia) means we have to miss the cheese and clogs factory demonstration we were meant to do today. It sucks. Guess that just goes to show, traffic and weather is a global issue. At least the coach is relatively comfortable and very well heated.

The only noteworthy experience is arriving in Amsterdam, and being warned in no uncertain terms to not step into the bike lanes. “You WILL get knocked over and they WILL yell at you,”
As soon as I have access to WiFi, I send a desperate message home. I fear I may not make it out alive after seeing these bike riders in action. If I don’t, avenge my death.

Next time: Part 9/11 Amsterdam, London

Wanderlust Part 7: Krakow, Auschwitz and Prague

Catch up on my Wanderlust journey! Wanderlust Part 1: Hong Kong and London Wanderlust Part 2: Paris, Swiss Alps Wanderlust Part 3: Florence and Rome Wanderlust Part 4: Rome to Venice Wanderlust Part 5: Salzburg and Vienna Wanderlust Part 6: Budapest to Krakow

Day 20: January 13th Krakow, Poland

Never in my life have I ever experienced cold like in Poland. From the moment I step outside the hostel door, the chill is unbelievable. Even layered up with thermals, merino wool, snow boots and my down coat, I’m highly aware of my exposed face. Tiny flakes of snow are falling from the sky during the short walk to the largest medieval square in Europe. The mercury is definitely below zero, but I don’t mind. There’s a small Christmas market still open, and I’m in time to hear St Mary’s Trumpet Call.

A number of people are going to explore the Jewish Quarter, and others are braving the terrors of Lost Souls Alley. I’d like to go to the Jewish Quarter, but Schindler’s Factory is number one on my list, and there’s something else very special I want to do as well. First, I need to eat. On a recommendation, I head to a nearby cafe for a hot chocolate and a croissant. With melted chocolate.

As lovely as the cafe is, I soon have to brave the chill and walk several metres to the nearby tourist information office. I book a tour, that afternoon, for the Wieliczka Salt mine. First though, I ask for directions to Schindler’s Factory so I can visit before the mines. This is where my saga begins. To be perfectly honest, Krakow doesn’t have the best signage and the map…could be better. It takes me a while to find the tram stop, since the factory is bit outside of the town. I get my ticket from a woman who can’t speak a real lot of English, but that isn’t a problem. She points me in the direction of the tram I’m meant to get. Or so I think.

After about ten minutes on the tram it dawns on me that I’m not going the right way. None of the signs are in English, so I get off the tram and catch one in the direction I came from, until I recognise the city. After managing to connect to WiFi at a Starbucks, working out the right tram from another tourist information centre, and a rather spectacular fall over my own feet, I’m on my way to Schindler’s Factory but I’m conscious of the time and seriously doubting whether I’ll make the Salt Mine tour at this point. I get off near some historical site where Jewish people were rounded up during the Holocaust. It’s an icy walk to the factory and my face is getting so numb from the cold that I’m wrapping my cashmere scarf around it. Schindler’s Factory is…not what I expect. I’m actually stunned at how it’s not about Schindler himself. It’s 99% about the Nazi ocuppation of Poland. Needless to say, I already know most of the history on display. Schindler is only featured in the very last room, and I whip through the entire factory in about an hour. I get the correct tram back to the main square and, big shock, I’m the first to arrive for the Salt Mine tour. Also the only Australian on board. The Wieliczka Salt Mine is absolutely glorious. Over 40 years it was dug out by hand in the 13th century.  The tour begins with 350 steps down into the Danilowicz Shaft, and we are actively encouraged to lick the walls (“1kg of salt is included in the ticket price!” jokes the guide). The mine is peppered with animatronics and statues showing what the workers looked like hundreds of years ago. We see lakes, the magnificent Chapel of St. King full of hand carved salt murals and salt chandeliers that’s booked for weddings (“It’s such a long way down ladies, plenty of time to change your mind!”), the Saltdiggers Horn, the treatment centre further down, and the gift shop halfway through where I get some salt scrub. Three hours of beauty and coloured salt that defies description. I’m in awe. And the tour ends with a ride back to the surface in a tiny mine elevator.

When I arrive back in the main square, I take myself out to dinner and then return to the hostel. Some people – and I am not joking – bear minor injuries from Lost Souls Alley, others have been recovering from hangovers (!) but I’m the only one who experienced the glorious salt mines. And I’ll never forget it. But tomorrow, we head to the most harrowing historical site imaginable. Auschwitz.

Day 21: January 14th, Krakow to Prague via Auschwitz-Birkenau

Nothing can really prepare a decent human being for a visit to Auschwitz. And I mean nothing. It’s actually difficult to put the experience into words.

We go through a security check before being met by the guide at the gate, that awful sign looming above. Arbeit macht frei. Work will make you free. “The biggest lie of all,” says the guide. We’d been warned to layer up, but heavens alive, this is a new realm of freezing. It’s about -6°C. The guide tells us this is an unusually warm day. My eyes almost pop out of their sockets. But it’s true. In winter, it can get to -30°C. The wind is like a blunt knife sawing on my exposed skin (which is just my face). For the rest of the day, all anyone says is, “We’re layered up in down coats, thermals, hats, gloves, scarves. The people here just wore thin uniforms. How did ANYONE survive in this cold?” It seems even more shocking when we’re informed the prisoners were given 250-300 calories per day, doing back-breaking labour, and the minimum calories needed to survive is around 2,000. It’s just gut-wrenching. Photos are allowed at most places in Auschwitz. But I only take two. I don’t want to do any more than the barest minimum. Just the entrance is all I can bear. This place has the weight of death all over it. I can’t bring myself to take pictures. I can’t explain it. It just feels…wrong.

We go through many buildings. Some go over the locations of the death camps. Others contain Zyklon B canisters. Rooms full of statistics and photographs of the people who were killed. A building containing the items taken from the Jews before they were murdered in the gas chambers. Tonnes of shaved hair. Prayer shawls. Piles of glasses. Thousands of shoes. Suitcases labelled with names and addresses, promised to be returned. A mass of cooking equipment, face creams, brushes, combs, razors (the guide told us they had recently discovered gold jewellery hidden in a teapot’s secret compartment for 70 years). And most hauntingly (for me): crutches, wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs from the disabled victims. “These aren’t the things people bring when they think they’re going to die, are they?” says the guide. But very few of us can speak at this point. There’s photos lining the walls of haunted, tortured faces glaring down from beyond the grave. The execution wall where people were shot. Every step is like a punch of reality. Worst of all is visiting the torture block. There you’ll find sleep-deprivation cells, suffocation cells, starvation cells. Yes, those mean exactly what you think they do. We don’t get inside the building dedicated to the horrendous medical experiments, and I’m somewhat grateful for that.

Birkenau is the second half of the camp, and we have to get back on the coach to get there. Birkenau contains the only gas chamber still standing here. Originally there were five. But as the Allies closed in, the Nazis tried to destroy the evidence. So there’s just one that we walk through. And disgracefully, the walls are covered in tourist’s carvings. It’s sickening. The barracks where people slept have the same vandalism.

Three hours at Auschwitz that will stay with me forever. In the next 20 years, there will be no Holocaust survivors left. Everybody needs to come visit this place. Everyone.

For the rest of the day, no joke, I’m trying to warm up again and the vibe on the coach is very subdued. We arrive in Prague that night, where the temperature of  2°C feels absolutely pleasant. I’m way too tired to head on the walking tour, and ok, I have to do some laundry as well.

Day 22: January 15th, Prague

My day starts with an attempt to make myself look presentable for a Skype call with my Dad. He advises me to head to the Astronomy clock, and I add it to my list. With my down coat zipped, and my trusty cashmere scarf, I step out into the wind. The temperature is close to zero, but after the virtual blizzard in Auschwitz yesterday, I will never have the right to complain about cold weather ever again.

Prague is the only major city in Europe untouched by war, and that was on Hitler’s orders. There’s a large Jewish Quarter in the city, and Hitler had a sick plan to preserve it as a museum to the Jewish people. When I arrive in the main square, I’m disappointed that the Astronomy Clock, dating back to 1410, is covered in plywood and undergoing restoration! I shake off the momentary annoyance, and resolve to head to the Castle District. It takes me an embarrassingly long time to find the Charles Bridge, but in my defence the streets aren’t exactly in a grid. The bridge gives me some spectacular photo opportunities and I’m absolutely thrilled to see that the Castle District is practically deserted. I get to see the changing of the guard, and I have the run of the place to take all the photos my little heart desires. This place is straight out of a fairytale. It’s just stunning.

On my way back, I stop at a cafe for lunch, where the workers are kind of impressed of how happy I look, and also that I’m traipsing around by myself. Walking back across the Charles Bridge, I get myself another trdelnik. Without cinnamon. I learned my lesson in Budapest. In an upscale shop, I get myself a hand-painted Swedish-made crystal ornament for my room back home. I’m initially concerned about it breaking, but the women in the store have a special padded box to keep it safe. Many of the souvenirs I’ve seen on the trip have been easy to dismiss, but here I decide to indulge a little, like with my puzzle ring in Florence. I honestly haven’t bought much so I have quite a bit more money than I thought, and because I’m flying solo (so to speak), I’ve been able to avoid doing activities I don’t want to do. However, being on your own can have its disadvantages. Such as when I’m about to get a ticket to a museum I really want to visit and the Romeo next to the counter wants to know if I’m married. I say no, (you’d think the lack of a wedding ring would clue him in, but what do I know?) and he responds slyly “Guess I’m lucky then!” I roll my eyes and snap back “In your dreams!” and hightail out of there. No, it’s not nearly as bad as it was in Venice, but still.

Although any lingering irritation with that last encounter is swept away while I walk back to the hostel and witness the most magical sunset of my life with Prague’s castles in the distance. Another experience that’s all mine, and nobody can ever take away from me.

Next time: Part 8/10: Berlin and Amsterdam!

Wanderlust Part 6: Budapest to Krakow

Catch up on the journey so far!
Wanderlust Part 1: Hong Kong and London
Wanderlust Part 2: Paris, Swiss Alps
Wanderlust Part 3: Florence and Rome
Wanderlust Part 4: Rome to Venice
Wanderlust Part 5: Salzburg and Vienna

Day 17: January 10th, Vienna to Budapest, via Bratislava

Another travel day, another early start. In the hostel room, my roommates state how envious they are of my packing cubes. Tori, one of the girls, swears by her space-saver bags. But I respectfully disagree.
Topdeck has pretty strict luggage restrictions in theory. But as far as I can see, my bag is among the smallest and lightest of anybody’s (although there was a boy who managed to bring only 7kgs for around 8 weeks of travel. And he also wore shorts. In the snow. There’s always one). While planning my trip, I did extensive research on packing light and managed to get everything I needed into a medium-sized suitcase weighing 9kg. As much as I love the idea of travelling carry-on only, this trip was from Australia to Europe for five weeks in the dead of winter. It just wasn’t going to happen. I’ve packed conservatively, in terms of how much I’ve brought with me, and I’m immensely grateful for the laundry facilities in the hostels, the game changer for me is my packing cubes. They keep my reasonably sized suitcase organised, helped me pack only what I absolutely needed, and made repacking my bag a breeze every time we’ve gone somewhere new, which has been every couple of days. I am never travelling without them again.
After breakfast at the hostel we have to walk to the coach, and at this point in the trip I’m not only glad for packing light, I’m also glad for exercising restraint when it comes to buying pointless souvenirs because some people are getting seriously weighed down.

We leave Vienna and begin the trip to Budapest, Hungary. But first, we have a stop in Bratislava, Slovakia.
I’d like to say this day stop is eventful, but that would be a lie. Because it is pouring with rain. My down coat, for all the warmth it’s given me, is sadly lacking in the waterproof department. I’m getting soaked. My companions and I can’t figure out where to go for lunch with the limited time we have. Eventually, after going back and forth, we simply walk into a McDonalds and thankfully my coat dries with the heat.
As we’re descending into eastern Europe, I can see a distinct difference in architecture. And sadly, reminders of WWII. On the outskirts of Budapest, we drive to the top of the citadel and get an incredible view of the city we’re about to visit. The bridges we drive across were all destroyed in bombings, but rebuilt.
As we arrive in Budapest to the tune of the George Ezra song, we go on a driving tour but it’s obvious this is a very walkable city. Our accomodation is another Plus Hostel, a chain we’re all very fond of. The walls are painted with famous Hungarians. Even walking around is a lesson.
Nearly everyone goes out for a pub crawl. I stay in the hostel and respond to the mountain of acting-related emails I’ve gotten with the glorious access to WiFi.

Day 18: January 11th, Budapest

It’s a free day and I am keen for some exploring, despite the cold. Most people are heading to the Gellert Baths, Budapest’s famous thermal spa. I’m not planning to go because A) New Zealand’s thermal spas have set the standard I will live and die by B) I’d rather explore the city as much as I can and C) I didn’t bring my bikini and there’s a snowflake’s chance in hell I’d want to wear it in this weather anyway. I have an idea of what I want to do, but sadly, my plans have to change slightly. I was dying to visit the House of Terror Museum. Before anyone has a heart attack, the exhibitions deal with WWII, Communism, Fascism, the Iron Curtain etc.
Unfortunately for me the Museum is closed for renovations and the history geek in me is throwing the tantrum of the century. But before I can get too upset, I have to race back to the hostel and film a couple of self test audition videos. Actor life never ends.
Once that’s done, I head back out again. The best way I can describe the city is if New York was clean and not overcompensating for something. I wander around for a while, enjoying the old world charm of Budapest, and then I find myself at the Budapest Eye. There’s no line, and the ticket is 9 euro. I race straight to the front and get on immediately to a spectacular bird’s-eye view of the place.
For the next few hours, I take dozens of photos, indulge in a bit of retail therapy for pretty much the first time this trip and I learn the hard way that getting cinnamon filling in Trdelnik is a horrible idea.

That night, we do one of my favourite activities on the trip. A dinner cruise on the Danube River. If anyone is going to Budapest, this is a must.

Day 19: January 12th, Budapest to Krakow, Poland 

Disaster strikes the next morning. As soon as I’ve packed everything into my suitcase, I go to put one more thing in, only to realise the padlock is jammed. And because I’ve had it for a few years, I can’t exactly reset the code. Drat.
There’s no time to remedy the situation though. It’s another long long drive day ahead, this time to Krakow.
During a phone call to my Dad, I professed that Salzburg was my favourite country, and he responded “Wait til you see Krakow and Prague,” Let’s go for it then.

The trip on the coach is eventful to say the least. I decide to go for the front row seat this time, and a number of people, along with the usual daily hangovers, are getting sick, not unlike I did in Paris. I’m not going through that again, so I’m drenching my hands in santizer every five minutes. And during our first rest station stop, an adorable stray puppy starts chasing the coach. And yes, I get out and cuddle it.
Morgan gives her usual this-is-our-next-country introduction but the one for Poland is incredibly sad, to put it mildly. Poland was the country most affected by WWII. I know most of it already being a history nut, but some of the statistics of just how many Polish people died is horrifying.
Morgan then puts on Schindler’s List, and I watch it even though I’ve seen it several times before. But judging by the gasps and tears from behind, it’s clear a lot of my fellow travellers haven’t.

We’re in for a shock with Krakow during the walking tour. And by that I mean nobody is prepared for how cold it is. Even with the other countries we’ve been to, this is something else.

My night ends with a very funny experience. When I get up to the hostel room, the lock on my suitcase is still jammed. I’ve brought a spare one with me, so I head down to reception to see if they had WD-40 or something to just get the lock off.
“Do you mind if we break the lock?” the woman at reception asks.
“Nope, you can do what ever you need,” I say.
She disappears into the back and returns with a hacksaw. And the look on my roommates’ faces is priceless as she saws the lock off.

NEXT TIME: Part 7/11 – Krakow, Auschwitz and Prague!