ydney Blog


January, 2007

We send out lots of email while we travel. In fact, of course, we send email much more often than we update the web. We can never quite remember who we told what to, so this page is meant as a sort of bulletin board for our most recent whereabouts, impressions, and comments while we work more slowly and deliberately on the permanent web pages.

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Tuesday, January 30 — Flight Over

Yesterday, after about an eighteen hour journey, including a thirteen hour flight from Sydney to Johannesburg, we said goodbye to Australia for about a year. Leaving Sydney was very easy in a mechanical sense but not an emotional one. We were very settled in and reluctant to give up what we were enjoying, especially our bicycles and the enhanced fitness they had brought us.

By the end of Saturday we had sold or given away everything that we could. The remaining things would be left for our very uncommunicative sub-lettor. Sunday was spent cleaning and packing, all in a relatively relaxed way for Gerry, since it didn't require anywhere near the whole day. For Jan, there was little that felt relaxing since she was already extremely tense about the upcoming trip to South Africa. Also, our packing was interrupted by a young woman who became the proud owner of Jan's lovely bike for a mere A$20. She was broke until payday and had to scrounge around to find that much cash, but she was our only buyer and so she lucked out.

Monday morning we did the last minute cleanup and packing and then took all of our stuff down to the street to trundle it the two blocks (fortunately steeply downhill) to our airport shuttle pickup. There we enjoyed the cool air of the early morning and said a last mental goodbye to our laundromat, our deli, and our frequent bike route. No more puffing up that hill. The drive to the airport was quite a change from the inverse one we'd made on November 6: we recognized so much.

At the airport our first task was shipping to England a package we'd prepared on Sunday: it contained several gifts and some stuff, such as backup DVDs, that we didn't want to carry around anymore. We'd wanted to ship it on Friday but that was Australia Day and all government offices were closed; on Saturday and Sunday post offices are never open. Fortunately there was a post office in the airport; otherwise we'd have been seriously overweight. Unfortunately the postal clerk told us the package was too big — its total girth couldn't be more than 140 cm. So out into the hall we went and cut down the box; there was plenty of vacant space inside. After that hectic work by Gerry he was again told it was too big — but the other way. This time he bought a post office box that was the right size, determined to send whatever would fit inside. Almost everything did and we were very relieved to have it off; now we are carrying around an Acer computer case that we wanted to ship.

Everything after that was easy, but with one hiccup. At check-in Gerry was told that he couldn't have anything explosive in checked luggage; did he have anything like a cigarette lighter? We were honest and took out of our case a gift that we got in Guangzhou in 2000, a combination cigarette lighter and tiny knife and scissors. It always brought to mind our being invited to participate in our hotel's celebration of Spring Festival, the associated Lion Dance, and how there was so much noise to chase the evil spirits out of the hotel. When we went through security Gerry, who had it in his pocket, was told he should have checked the knife (all of 1.5 cm long) and it was confiscated.

Even though the flight was 13 hours it went quickly. At the time we bought our tickets we'd been able to have seat assignment done and we had chosen seats far back, so that the wing would not block our view and — perhaps — we'd be in the emptier part of the plane. Our plan worked. We each had three seats to ourselves, so were able to sleep when we wanted, which Gerry did a lot.

Jan alternated between watching movies, and working on her Russian. Of the four movies she sampled, she watched only two completely, the others being too dark to be watchable on the tiny screen or with audio that was incomprehensible. It's too bad that in the days of MP3 airlines can't find a way to deliver better audio. Gerry watched one movie, "Borat" and found that it was far too scatological for his taste. The reviews didn't emphasize the right things; they gave a very misleading idea. As to the supposed anti-semitism, it seemed that Jews were among the least roasted.

Time passed quickly and between sleeping, eating when we weren't sleeping, and watching movies or listening to the opera it didn't seem too long until we were over South Africa. Our flight ended with some of the heaviest turbulence we have ever experienced. Of course we told ourselves that all would be alright but we secretly wondered.

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Thursday, January 26 — Australia Day

January 26th is Australia's July 4th and an occasion on which Aussies enjoy the best entertainment the world can offer. Central Sydney is abuzz from early morning until late at night with games, food, and concerts on land, and ships and other aquatic events on water. This year, there might have been even more Aussie flags on display than usual because somebody had dared to suggest that waving the flag was not such a good idea. The organizers of a big Australia Day Eve concert publicly announced that national flags would be banned, fearing, it would appear, that too much patriotism might provoke riots. There had been some race-based riots the previous summer at one of Sydney's beaches, which the organizers cited as their rationale. Nobody listened to them. Flags abounded. And nothing happened.

We decided to split our loyalties and spend the beginning and end of the day in central Sydney and the middle of the day in Manly, across the harbor, northeast of the city. We had not intended to leave our first real cross-harbour visit until such a late date, but somehow either the weather didn't cooperate or we were just too busy doing something else to get there any earlier.

On the appointed day, we hurriedly gulped down some fruit and cereal for breakfast and ran out to ride our bikes downtown to catch the opening ceremony being held in the Botanical Gardens by a group of Aborigines. We missed the beginning but got our first glimpses of Aboriginal culture, with a set of dances and songs designed to bless the upcoming ceremonies in a location close to where their forebears saw the first fleet anchoring in the harbour, on this day in 1788. There are some people who object to the Australia Day celebration and organize competing events that commemorate what they call Invasion Day, but this group did not seem to be among them.

Before heading down to Circular Quay to catch our ferry to Manly, we spent half an hour riding around near Hyde Park, where quite an enormous collection of vintage cars was on display. Most of them were fifties and sixties Holdens (a General Motors subsidiary) but there were also one or two beautiful Cadillacs, a handful of British cars like Sunbeams and MGs and even a contingent of mini-Coopers. Jan's biggest surprise was to cach sight of a Morris 1100, the car that her friend Cheryl used to drive at university in Bradford.

We spent just a couple of hours in Manly, but as with Bondi Beach, we were more than impressed by this wonderful beach so close to such a big city. We found a picnic table in the shade and ate a sandwich and then spent an hour just enjoying the view of the beach and reading the paper. Then it was on our bikes to head up Sydney Road, and over the top of the hill and then down to the Split bridge, back at sea level, and then a final gruelling uphill that we had to walk two-thirds of before enjoying a leisurely ride mostly on the flat all the way to the Sydney Harbor Bridge.

When we got off the bridge and into the Rocks, we found that the crowds had exploded. Every street was closed and the crowds were tremendous. Most of them would be there until after dark when there was to be yet another fireworks extravaganza. We gave it a miss and rode back into Hyde Park to take another look at the vintage cars before continuing our ride back to Elizabeth Bay.

January 30, 2007

Thursday, January 18 — Royal National Park

From the first days of studying the guidebook we were determined to visit the Royal National Park. While small by Australian or American standards for a national park, it is large for a city park, being about 20 km north-to-south and 10 km east-to-west. We'd thought to follow one of the 10-15 km trails either on foot or preferably on bikes. We did it on the latter. The trip from Elizabeth Bay was easy: there is a direct line from Kings Cross Station to Waterfall Station, about 20 km south of the city center. For such a distance it is a bit of a surprise that it takes an hour, but that can be chalked up to the fact that it is a commutter line and that there are many stops.

Before departure we had very little idea of what sort of terrain we would be traversing. From the station we went about 0.5 km along a milding uphill grade to enter the park. And from there it was down, down, down hill. Jan couldn't enjoy this effortless cruise, with the wind blowing in her ears; she could only think of the effort it would take to get back up. We stopped several times as we headed towards the start of Lady Carringtons Drive, out designated route. The first was at ? Waterfall, a spot where water in the wet season would plunge 40 m; for us the top was dry but there was a small, still pool at the bottom. After 5 km we came to Lady Carringtons Drive and there left the paved road and started down a well maintained dirt carriage way — it was about 3 m wide at most places. Initially it too was steeply downhill but after a kilometer settled into alternating sequences of mildly uphill and downhill. This part took a pleasant hour.

Actually all too fast we were in the area of the visitors center and out little wilderness trip was over. This had been the first time we were in the Australian outdoors. Not litterally, but figuratively: here was the first time in the country where we were not amidst European trees, flowers, and lawns. Upclose we saw a forest made of the most interesting mixture of Eucalyptus and palm trees, with many other trees and ferns that we couldn't name. Supporting them, if that is the term, was a bed of soft sandstone, the same, we suppose, that we'd seen on our beach cliff walk going from Bondi Beach to Coogee, and the same that was used to make the first permanent building in Sydney shortly after its founding two centuries ago.

Around the Audrey visitor center all is tame and European again. We had a hint we were there when we saw through the trees some lawns. Quickly we saw that here and there a person was walking and then that many were picknicing. We soon joined them on the banks of the damned stream that we had followed through most of our ride. Just as the waterfall had been empty we'd noticed that the stream was very calm. During a heavy rainfall it must be impressive as the water level rises and the stream overflows its banks and changes character from its normal meekness to that of a ranging tyrant that allows no opposition.

Lunch over we visited the visitors center and found it to be mostly a commerical establishment, where books and souvenirs sold. Hardly a display of wildlife or a history of the park. Then we set off and faced that challenge Jan had been dreading and Gerry, more accepting, wondering about: Going up hill to our designated return station, Loftus. It was only three kilometers and we did it, but probably walked about two-thirds. Even without being tired from the day's exertions we couldn't have possibly make it non-stop uphill.

The end was sort of anti-climax. After making it to the top we headed for the Loftus station. Somehow we missed it, although the map clearly showed it on our route, just along the main highway. So we peddalled onwards to the Sutherland station where we paid $2.50 extra each to take our bikes back on the train during rush hours (15:30-17:30). A train showed up just as were going down the steps so we rushed on. We read and daydreamed on the hour journey back as our muscles relaxed a bit.

January 26, 2007

Wednesday, January 11 — Biking Barracks Busby Bore and More

We made a long awaited visit to Victoria Barracks and much enjoyed the droll guide, a former officer. We also got a lesson on Busby's Bore, which had been built in about 1835 to take water from some lakes (now the site of Centennial Park) to downtown Sydney. One of the reasons for locating the Barracks where they are was the possibility of tapping the bore for water. Here for the first time we got to see the famous Kookaburra, the noisy bird that epitomizes Australia.

When we came out we found that Gerry's rear tire had gone flat. What a predicament to be in, having no tools and no idea where to turn. Fortunately he suddenly remembered that the bike shop "Woolly's Wheels" was only a few blocks away. They didn't do repairs, but were able to sell him what he needed: a new tube (A$8) and a multi-wrench (A$10). Back we went to the wall of Victoria Barracks and there on the lawn he succeeded in replacing the tube.

After replacing the inner-tube we set off to find a place for lunch, which we had picked up at an Indian take-out place next to Woolly's Wheels, and then to see how far we'd get. We bicycled to Moore park and there found a bench in the shade, wishing that the nearby picnic table was not occupied by a drunk tramp. Then it was on to Centennial Park, which backs onto the Victoria barracks and seeing that we were almost there, to the Randwick Racetrack. Gerry became determined to visit it as a result of reading an episode in "Der Duft der Roten Erde" (original title "Heart of the Dreaming" by Di Morrissey) that takes place there. It was a non-racing day, so the place was pretty much open and we just walked in and gave ourselves a tour of the stands. It must be an unfair comparison, but the place wasn't as attractive as Gerry remembers Hollywood Park raceway (in Inglewood, California) from his visits when he was a teenager.

On the way back we passed the St Vincent's Hospital and went in to see when Gerry could get a chest x-ray. He'd been advised in June, while in Bangkok, to get a check-up to confirm that the spots on his x-ray were not TB. To our surprise he was told service was on a walk-in basis — no appointment needed. So in spite of being heavily covered with sweat he signed up. We waited together, Jan reading her Russian and Gerry watching some travelogs about Australia and then Greenland. As always he wanted to go to the places being pictured. Jan was amused by a little girl who was watching the same travelogs with her grandmother and insisted on repeating in a loud voice the name of everything shown. "Look, grandma, it's a dolphin, it's a whale." She'll doubtless grow up to be a zoologist. Perhaps more interesting was the fact that the grandmother was Greek-speaking as were her daughter and son-in-law and that they spoke Greek to one another but English to the little girl.

When Gerry had his x-ray done he asked if it was digital: that is, was the original image all inside a computer and would the standard black and white photograph that he expected be produced by digital techniques? As soon as he heard that it was, he asked if he could have the original digital file. The technician wasn't certain, but back at the reception he was told he could. So for A$25 Gerry now has a CD with a 35 MB file showing the inside of his chest.

Oh, what was the result? In spite of the fact that the package he was given said "To be opened only by the referring physician" Gerry immediately opened it. After all, he is a Doctor (Ph.D) and sort of referred himself. The result, according to the radiologis, and as expected, was that there was no sign of TB. [The next day, the real doctor, Dr. Townson, examined the x-ray and concurred with the radiologist.]

January 18, 2007

Wednesday, January 3 — Licensed!

We’re sort of dancing on air. And have been since about noon today. We got driver’s licenses! Yesterday (Tuesday) we got a credit card statement from Bank of America that we have been waiting for since mid-December. We were so chuffed that it finally arrived; we never execpted it would take nearly so long and had just about given up hope. The RTA (Road and Traffic Authority, the equivalent to DMV) would only accept as proof-of-address a lease agreement with our address or a bank/credit card statement. Our unhelpful sub-leasers wouldn’t answer our emailed request for an acceptable lease agreement so we were left waiting for the statement.

When it came yesterday we decided to go try our luck at a different RTA bureau than the central one we'd been to. And this time instead of asking any questions we just presented our papers, just hoping things would run smoothly. And wow — the guy at the window let us know that he’d give us licenses right away. We couldn’t believe it. He wasn’t going to ask Jan for a doctor’s certificate that a blind spot in one eye wouldn’t hinder her driving! He wasn’t going to say to Gerry that the two years on his license wasn’t long enough!

He started the paper work and was pretty far into it when he came to the point about two years vs four driving experience. Oh Oh! But rather than saying "I can't give you a license" he said "I can only give you a restricted license." Gerry took the clue and said to himself "I’ll take it. With or without chocolate." It was when Gerry asked what sort of restriction that Jan realized what was up. The clerk said Gerry would get a "Provisional" license which means that he must not exceed 100 kph. That is hardly a hardship, especially in city traffic, so it was easy to say we wanted it. And that is what Gerry got.

Jan didn’t even have that problem. We both had to take a simple eye test. She, without glasses, did slightly better than Gerry using his glasses. It was all over except the paperwork and paying the money. They took digital photos and made the licenses immediately. Jan’s is for five years. Incredible — good until 2012. Gerry's, being provisional, is good only 30 months, or until 2009.

We’re very happy. Now it means that we will be able to drive around Australia and New Zealand. We’re now going to start looking for a car. There was another bonus: because driver’s licenses serve as proof of identity and residence Gerry was able to go to the library and immediately get a library card.

January 11, 2007

Tuesday, December 26 — Sydney

We've been in Sydney six and a half weeks. Time really does fly. We've actually written and posted some non-blog web pages about Sydney instead of updating this blog. Our general policy has been to post here if photos aren't ready and to post by geography if they are. Our hope always is to convert these postings by adding photos.

After seeing that we had just over six weeks left in Sydney we speeded up our visiting of museums and its other sites. Here's a partial update about our last two weeks.

We started visiting old houses around Sydney about a week ago. We bought a ticket that gives us entry into about a dozen different places around town all built in the first 50 years or so of the colony, all managed by the Historic Houses Trust (www.hht.net.au; like English National Trust).

About a week ago we went to see Vaucluse House, the heart of the best preserved colonial estate around Sydney. Now it seems close in; at the time of its construction it was a two hour walk or horse ride from the center. The house is now very large, due to continual expansion over the years. It has a very higgly-piggly aspect, so from the outside isn't very much to write home about. Inside is another matter. The kitchen really does impress; it is huge and you can really imagine the kitchen staff running hither and thither baking puddings and pies! Upstairs the rooms go on and on; the bedrooms have a very romantic feel to them. Maybe 10 acres out of the 550 that originally belonged to the property remain; the garden in front is quite lovely with a decorative fountain and, views down to the beach and bay, which were once part of the estate.

We biked to Vaucluse and got ourselves really tired out. Going out we rode close to the water which meant climbing up and down hills about four times and getting off the bike at least twice to push! Coming back was a bit easier as we came back on an inland route that allowed us to spend a lot of time just coasting. Both ways there was plenty of traffic and only sometimes bicycle lanes. Gerry often chose the sidewalks while Jan preferred traffic danger to that of avoiding pedestrians and physical obstacles, including especially tree-root humps.

Next was a visit to Elizabeth Bay House which is literally just down the road from us. The house once had a huge estate around it that included the location of our block of flats. Sadly there's no garden left but the City of Sydney did buy the land in front of the house for a park, so the house still has a great unobstructed view of the bay. We really liked the house for two reasons: its proportions and its furnishings. Rooms were all big and nicely shaped so that you could do something nice with them and they are beautifully furnished.

At both houses we noticed that the beds were so high that a three-step ladder/stool was needed to get into them. We learned that the mattress was made of three layers: straw, horse hair, and feathers. We noticed that all had mosquito nets. After these visits we had the chance to ask somebody why the nets — we haven't seen any mosquitos. "Just you wait!" we were told. "You'll see lots of mosquitoes in January and February." In fact, our respondent said he grew up sleeping under a net. It's hard to believe given that no window we've seen so far has a screen.

Our third HHT house was the Government House. It was designed to look like a Scottish Castle by a Scot who never visited Australia and consequently did a poor job of fitting the house to its site, with a south-facing open entrance porch that caught the worst of Sydney's winds, rain, and heat. This Government House was the third in Sydney's history and opened in about 1850. It's the official home of the Governor, who for the state of NSW acts like the Queen in England,i.e. a ceremonial figurehead. The place is luxurious; curiously, it has some of the original furniture from Elizabeth Bay House; the original owners more or less went bankrupt and had to sell it.

There is now no place in the world that you miss Christmas, even in Muslim lands like Malaysia and Indonesia and Budhist lands like China and Hong Kong. So even though the weather didn't feel right all decorations and so forth were out and we couldn't have missed Christmas even if we had never heard of it. In the days before the big day we went to a lawn carolling concert on the big park called The Domain and sang along with an intimate crowd of perhaps 100,000. A week ago we went to St Mary's (Catholic) cathedral for a more restrained celebration of the event.

Our Christmas Day was very noisy. We walked over to a street party a couple of blocks from here where they were playing rock music at full volume. We met some interesting people and ate a very odd Christmas dinner and then walked back home. Perhaps we should have gone to Bondi Beach; the next day we learned the weather had been perfect and the beach very crowded. Although only 6 km from the center, Bondi, like other beaches, can have very different weather. We were mislead by rain all day before Chrismast day.

Boxing Day, as the day after Christmas is called by those of British stock who didn't fight for their independence, we again cycled in the direction of Vaucluse, this time stopping at Nielsen Park. We were headed out to see the start of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race. There was quite a crowd on the hill where we were and in the water where the boats were. The race started just about on time and we were impressed by how fast some of the bigger boats went. The weather was terriffic — if you like sun and a breeze for Christmas. After the start we walked over to a nearby beach and its adjoining park. The beach and water was filled with people; we're going to bike there again to swim. We hadn't come with swimsuits but did bring a picnic and enjoyed our sandwiches as we alternately watched a volley ball game and read our Sydney Morning Herald.

Our plans for New Year's sound a lot like a typical American July 4. We'll be watching the Sydney fireworks which are centered around the Sydney Harbour Bridge which is 75 years old in 2007 and so is celebrating its emerald jubilee. No prizes for guessing that lots of the fireworks will be GREEN! We will take our camp chairs and an all-day picnic and try and find a square meter of space in the big park on the harbour foreshore called the Domain or at Embarcation Park, a bit closer to us. With luck we'll get an unobstructed view of the bridge but since everyone will be looking for their own square meter, there are no guarantees.

Although our time in Elizabeth Bay seems like it is nearly up we are still not sure exactly how long we'll be in Australia. We can stay in the flat until the end of January and our current visa is valid until about February 4th but by paying some money and getting a chest x-ray we could extend that for maybe a year. We would like to do that but only if we can wangle an Australian drivers license so we can buy a car and travel around the country. We haven't managed to get one yet, but haven't given up trying, hence the uncertainty.

January 3, 2007

We arrived in Sydney on November 6, 2007. The tale of what we did in November and December is in our home pages for those months rather than in this part of our blog.

January 26, 2007