Saturday, December 27, 2008

Adventures in Oz I: Surprisingly Scenic Sydney

In part because we were "close by" in NZ, in part because it avoided visa issues in NZ to have two trips of under 3 months (no visa required), we decided to break up our trip to NZ with a 24-day visit to Australia. We've now explored Sydney for a week, plus taken a 3-day trip to the nearby
Blue Mountains and back, and have thoroughly enjoyed this place!

It's not actually all that close from NZ to here, unless you think New York City and Miami or Minneapolis are almost neighbors, that's how far it is for the shortest possbile hop and the one we took, from Auckland to Sydney -- over 1300 miles. The two places are actually two time zones different!

There are many more differences than that, but we'll save those comparisons until we've gained a bit more perspective on both countries. Suffice it to say that our expectations for Sydney were not overly high, apart from its must-see (and can't avoid seeing, frankly!)
Opera House. We've been mainly focused on NZ, and when friends have told us about Australia it's mainly been to tell us how much they've loved Melbourne. Even if we had come with higher expectations for this place, however, we'd be quick to say they've been amply exceeded.

The main reason for us is the harbor. If Pago Pago was the most spectacular small harbor we've ever seen, this is without doubt the best large one. Oh, New York and Boston have large and interesting ones, but neither is anywhere near as diverse in scenery. As usual, we'll let the scenery make the case for us. We picked up 1 week unlimited use ferry-and-train-and-bus passes for about $US30 each and headed to Circular Quay (pronounced 'key'), the downtown ferry dock not too far from this leafy street where our lodging was, the Victorian Court B&B.

Along the way we passed a forest full of these "flying foxes," actually bats with fox-like faces.
Nearby was Mrs. Macquaries Chair, cut into the rock for the eponymous wife of one of the first governors of Australia, and just beyond, a classic view to the Opera House and Harbor Bridge, Sydney's major icons.

Our first ferry ride however was up to Paramatta, a dozen miles inland from downtown (itself over 6 miles from the ocean), on this catamaran jet boat that slowed down to about canoe speed for the last few kilometers of mangrove-lined river.
A short walk further along the river, above navigation, exposed us to Aboriginal art and thought through a sort of walking mural, a series of paintings in the pathway with accompanying signs to explain the art and history of the Aboriginal people in this area.
As you might guess from the photo, this was where they caught a lot of eels, an important source of protein for the local tribe. Some other parts of the walk dealt with more difficult issues, such as the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families to "europeanize" them. A further walk through town brought us to
Old Government House, built in the 1790s as a summer place for the governor (the photo on the sign) and enlarged in the early 1800s for a subsequent governor (the building you see, unchanged since 1813). The annual pass we bought for the NZ Historic Trust was honored by the Australian Historic Trust that runs this place, and we had a delightful tour through yet more early Australian history.

Next we went for scenery with two ferry rides to the mouth of the harbor, first to Watson's Bay and South Head, the next day to Manly and North Head. On the walk from the Watson's Bay ferry to South Head was scenery of an unexpected sort along the way, but it was almost entirely male,
despite the name of the beach. As you can see in these two views from South Head to North Head, arriving in Sydney by sea is far more impressive than the way we did it this time, by air.

Next day it was on to Manly and North Head by one of these colorful ferry boats, with the cliffs of Dobroyd Head
along the way to warm us up for the main attraction. Manly is a busy little town with one leg on the harbor and one on the Tasman Sea.
It's now Christmas vacation week and the first week of summer, and the ocean beach was fairly busy, as you can see.
With terrific maps provided by a local walking group, we found great trails along the edge of the ocean, then through the center of the peninsula on unusual metal walking paths.
We crossed an area only recently converted from an artillery school to a city park, perhaps explaining the unusual sign.
There was a lot of Banksia here, a large bush/short tree found only in Australia with this most unusual bloom.
The blossom is actually a beauty and the beast sort of thing, as it dries into an almost perfect replica of a toilet cleaning brush. Sic transit gloria, eh?
We hiked back to Manly for supper at an Indian restaurant after first catching some great views (and wind) at North Head,
and ended the day by catching this nice sunset photo from our ferry boat on the ride back to Circular Quay.

Our next harbor exploration went for the human side, some of the high end (Kiwis and Aussies would say "flash") neighborhoods overlooking the harbor. House competed with house, garden with garden, view with view, such as this outlook enjoyed by the family car in the car park next to one mansion we walked past.
One neighborhood we visited is called Double Bay, though the nickname "Double Pay" is closer to the mark. If there was one challenge to all this walking,
it is the tendency of Sydney to be a bit steep near the water, as this staircase illustrates.

For a break from the city, we booked three nights in Katoomba, a town in the Blue Mountains 65 miles to the west.
A commuter train actually took us there, though at 2 hours we're not sure too many people make it a daily commute. The route is a famous one in Australian history, as it was the first way through the otherwise impenetrable cliffs of the Blue Mountains to the great Outback further west. From Katoomba a 2 km walk from the train station brought us to the edge
of the Jamison Valley and views that were like the Grand Canyon with adequate rain, albeit on a slightly less vertical scale.

We arrived on Christmas Eve and joked about our "White-Out Christmas," as the fog was so thick you could barely see across the street. The next two days were clear and comfortable, mid-20s C/mid70s F, and we made the most of it. We found the most gradual way down, which still involved a lot of steps,
into the lush forest below where we seemed to be surrounded by the sound of bells. Later we found out that the forest is indeed home to something called Bell Birds!
Never could see them, but boy were they something to hear! And the trees, all sorts of interesting ones, like these "Blue Mountain ash," actually one of the many types of eucalyptus trees native to Australia.

After a few miles of tramping up and down in the lower valley we came to the site of a coal mine that was active from the late 1800's until the 1930's, and this statue to the old coal miners.
Nearby the miners constructed a rail line to lift the coal up to the rim of the valley, later converted into what they call a "Scenic Railroad" to carry tourists up and down. It's actually the steepest railroad in the world, with a gradient over 45 degrees. It was exciting going up (backwards, facing the valley), and must be doubly so going down into the valley, but at $10 per person one-way (about $US 7), we chose to forego the adventure of going back down. We returned the next day for an extensive walk along the rim, getting excited as children at every new lookout -- Wow, look at this view! Look at the people
waaaaay down there near the bottom of that waterfall! The folks who run the Scenic Railroad have also installed two cable cars, one that runs more or less level between two headlands that jut into the valley,
another that descends to a spot a few hundred meters from where the Scenic Railroad lands, but the views from the walking track was stunning enough, and at a much more affordable price, free.
In case you're wondering, those three distinctive rock piles seen first from the valley below and then from the cliff walk have a name, the Three Sisters,
and of course an Aboriginal tale involving illicit love for boys from the wrong side of the valley to explain them.

We returned to Sydney for three more nights, and did two more expeditions. The first crossed the Harbor Bridge to yet more flash homes with killer views,

and a harborside park where we looked up at the bridge with our binoculars and spotted three groups of climbers hiking up the topmost girders of the bridge. Plunk down over $US 100 and you too can experience a walker's high to beat all.
Click on the photo and look for three groups of ants on the top of the bridge, and a few thousand dollars going kaching into some enterprising Aussies' pockets.

Our final exploration focused on the city itself. Greater Sydney has a population of about 4 million and the excitement of a great metropolis. We went into one downtown department store the Sunday before Christmas, and it had all the electricity of Macy's in Herald Square or Nordstom's flagship store in Seattle, although the bubble burst at 6 pm when they closed the doors! The Aussies have acquired more than a few American habits, but loss of perspective is perhaps not one of them.

Nearby was the Queen Victoria Building, or QVB, amazing both outside and in. It has a quality feel and a timeless look, so it was surprising to discover that it only prospered for about a dozen years after it opened in 1898.
A new market opened elsewhere, the best tenants left, and it drifted slowly into disuse. It was rescued in 1986, and now hosts some of the most elegant stores and cafes in town. Among its other delights were these
stunning stained glass windows over one of the entrances, and two unusual clocks suspended in air. The one pictured here had intricate dioramas depicting vignettes of Australian history,
including this verismo scene of the landing of the second fleet of ships to reach Australia, two years after the first convicts and soldiers landed in 1788.

The center of the city is steeped in history as well, especially the area known as the Rocks, where we saw this deep rock cut made by convict labor 200 years ago, later bridged by the approach to the Harbor Bridge;
visited the oldest house in Sydney, dating to 1813; and saw the
oldest hotel in an area just blocks away from glass and metal skyscrapers,
but set in a neighborhood of 19th century charm (aside from the looming 1932 Harbor Bridge and the late 20th century towers of North Sydney, that is).

And what would a trip to Sydney be without a visit to its illustrious Opera House? Alas, it's not opera season, but we were able to get tickets to a pops concert by the Sydney Philharmonic, a very good concert as it turned out, and at intermission
we stepped out onto the balcony overlooking the harbor for yet another view of the Harbor Bridge. Can you think of a concert hall or opera house with a view to top that?

As noted earlier, last week saw both Summer and Christmas arrive, a hard concept for us northern hemisphere chauvinists to deal with. We passed this scene of Santa's sled led by kangaroos, a fellow dressed up as Rudolph walking through a park past
sunbathers, and numerous depictions of Santa hanging ten on a surfboard.

It's a good thing the Santa story involves airborne and not seaborne transportation. In yesterday's paper -- one day's worth of news -- there was a story of a dad and his adult son snorkeling near Perth, when there was a brief yelp, blood in the water, and no trace of dad except for some chewed up pieces of his wet suit. Next story involved two kayakers near North Head who saw a shark, so what does one kayaker do, he panics and dumps his boat. OK, now he's swimming with the shark, until a nearby fishing boat plucks him up. Third story involves a famous sailboat race from Sydney to Tasmania, and the boat in the number 2 spot hits a 2-meter shark (for comparison purposes, Jeff is 1.93 meters...) with its rudder. This one has a happy ending. They reverse direction to stop and check for damage, there is none but there is a piece of rope they snagged and didn't know about, they get rid of it, speed up, and win the race. Finally, there's the woman swimmer near Brisbane who gets a stingray barb in her leg. Gist of that story is she's lucky to be alive. All in all, Santa, stay off the surfboard. It's crazy down here!