Sydney, Australia, January 08
Australia (Part 3)
We arrived in Sydney to find that a large part of the state of New South Wales was battling raging bush fires. Walking around the streets the afternoon we arrived we could smell the smoke and the sky was slightly hazy. We stayed at the YWCA hostel near the Central Business District because the guidebook had described it as something Martha Stewart-like. It was very clean and the rooms were air conditioned, but we had to stay in separate dorms and the kitchen facilities were sorely lacking. We spent the late afternoon walking down to the Sydney Opera House and around the downtown area. We had some very average pizza in a cafe for dinner and then caught a movie.
We took a bus to the infamous Bondi Beach today. It wasn't really a good beach day as the bush fire smoke was making the sky very hazy and the sun had a deep red Apocalypse Now look to it. The beach was packed nonetheless, as it is prime holiday time. Instead of baking on the sand, we followed a walking path that lead south from Bondi along clifftops, other beach towns, and a big cemetary. We ended up at Coogee, where we caught a bus back to Sydney.
Today we decided to check out the other popular beach in the area, Manly Beach on the North Shore across Sydney Harbour. We took a ferry across the harbour, which was a great way to see the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Opera House, and the whole Sydney skyline. We found Manly to be not quite as cheezy as Bondi, but still crowded. In the little mall area adjacent to the beach we stopped for what looked like some good (finally) American style pizza. We should have known better since the name of the joint had the word 'kebabs' in it. The slices I ordered with what I thought were pepperoni turned out to be some kind of lamb mystery meat. Sue was very surprised as she heard me declare the pizza so absolutely awful that I had to throw it away. It was monumentally disappointing.
In the evening we met up with Iain Gentle, a friend of George Parker's. Iain took us to a great little Thai restaurant in the Kings Cross section of Sydney and Sue actually found something she liked - the curry chicken. (Look out Mike and Kim, Sue is now a Thai food monster...) After dinner, we met up with a friend of Iain's and had a couple of pints before heading back to our hostel.
After hearing from many people about the insanity that is New Year's Eve in Sydney, we decided to head for the mountains, the Blue Mountains that is. The only problem here being that the bush fires were burning over a large part of the mountains. I rang the hostel in the mountain town of Katoomba where we were planning to go and owner Adrian told me that as long as the train was getting through to come on up. He said the fires were a fair distance away and the skies had been clear. So we schlepped our packs down to Sydney's Central Station and about three hours later we were emerging from the train platform onto Gang Gang Street in Katoomba.
As we headed toward Lovel Street and our accomodation, the No. 14 hostel, we first encountered them. The perennial plague of the Blue Mountains and indeed, as we later found out, much of inland Australia. The flies. Not the tiny, biting variety like we experienced in New Zealand, no, these Australian flies have their own very special brand of annoyance. They prefer to drive their victims mad by swarming about the face and incessantly attempting to land where there is moisture, namely on your eyes and up your nose. And when they are feeling a bit worn out from all that excitement, they land on your back for a free ride. In defending our faces from the onslaught, we quickly became experts in what is known as the "Australian salute". I'm sure you can picture it.
The hostel turned out to be a really great little place. It was an old renovated mountain guesthouse. The owner Adrian and his family made us feel right at home. In fact, we planned to stay for two or three days and ended up staying a whole week! We could see the smoke from the bush fires on the horizon, some days it was worse than others. Sometimes the wind would shift and the sky would become hazy and we could smell the smoke, but it was mostly clear and beautiful. Adrian showed us the reservation book; full of cancellations by people thinking the whole area was in flames. All of the national parks in the area were closed because of fire danger, but as Adrian advised us it's more of a measure to prevent people from setting new fires than to avoid being trapped by an existing one. He, in not so many words, told us that as long as it wasn't too hot or too windy that it's quite safe to go hiking in the parks in the area. Just be careful, of course.
Over the next few days we explored Echo Point to view the Three Sisters rock formations (though it was a bit hazy from the smoke), Grand Canyon National Park (not quite the same as the one in Arizona, but a great hike all the same), and Wentworth Falls National Park. On New Years Eve, we followed Adrian's advice and hiked out of town to a hidden trail leading to a beautiful rock formation overlooking a huge valley. We took along a bottle of wine and watched an incredible sunset over the mountains. When we returned back to the hostel, Sue cooked up some serious grub. We spent the rest of the night peacefully alone in the hostel, playing Scrabble. (Yes, very exciting.) We were so beat from the hike that we almost slept right through the stroke of midnight!
As we were beginning our hike down into the Grand Canyon, Sue was berating me for moving so slowly. I was carefully checking the other side of logs and rocks before stepping over and whacking the ground periodically with a big stick. All of this of course in an effort to scare away any snakes that we might otherwise come across. My reasoning was that since the park was closed and people in general were not coming to the Blue Mountains because of the fear of bush fires, the hiking trails had little, if any, people traffic and snakes may be around. Sue correctly maintained that it is highly unlikely to encounter a snake in the bush anyway because they generally feel your vibrations and slither away long before you see them. Adopting a better safe than sorry motto, I continued my efforts. Not two minutes later, I rounded a bend in the trail and heard Sue calling from behind, "Your stick's not working, you walked right by him!" I quickly turned and saw Sue peering at something in the brush on the edge of the trail behind me, but in front of her. I peered closer but didn't see anything as Sue was retreating several feet back up the trail claiming there was a snake on the path. Finally I saw what she was talking about - a little lizard flitting about on the side of the trail! "Sue", I said, "It's just a little lizard! Would you come on!" As I tried to coax Sue back towards me, the little lizard happily scurried across the path in front of me into the brush on the other side. A split second later, it was sailing through the air at eye level back across again! Then I saw what Sue was *really* talking about... a four or five foot long black snake with a silvery underside, about the thickness of a paper towel roll. It was just turning back away from me into the brush, apparently not very happy that the little lizard it was pursuing had narrowly escaped. The snake did not even seem to notice us, and I was able to videotape it disappearing back into the brush. (I'm not sure if it was poisonous, as I couldn't accurately identify it from the snake poster in the hostel.)
We ended off our Grand Canyon hike by missing the return train back to Katoomba by three minutes and stranding ourselves in the dark two towns away. After some arguing back and forth about what to do, we happened upon a taxi! He had one fare to drop off and then came back to pick us up. As we were arriving into Katoomba fifteen minutes later, I realized that I had left my digital camera with all of the pictures for the website on the bus stop bench we had been waiting on! We dropped Sue off and the sympathetic driver raced back to the bus stop. The camera was still there, sitting peacefully. Whew! (On a related note, I had to bite my tongue when two days later Sue left my water bottle in a guy's car who had given us a ride back to Katoomba from a different hike.)
On Wednesday we decided to get some new scrapes and bruises by taking a one day mountaineering course with the Australian School of Mountaineering. This involved a half day of abseiling (rappelling) and a half day of canyoning. Canyoning is basically descending into and exploring the bottom of one of the many canyons that run throughout the Blue Mountains area. Our guide Keith drove us out to a popular abseiling and climbing area where we could practice on successively more difficult rocks. He took us through all of the necessary equipment and procedures and before long we were flinging ourselves over the edges of cliffs and abseiling 50 meters into the valley below. After lunch, Keith took us to Diamond Creek Canyon where we hiked down into the canyon and then donned wetsuits to explore the bottom. The canyon walls were fairly high and narrow and sometimes almost closed completely overhead.
This canyoning thing is not for the feint of heart: we were scrambling and climbing over large rocks and precarious fallen trees and splashing through yabbi (crawfish) inhabited pools. Since not much sunlight penetrated down into the canyon, the creek water is very cold. Some parts of the canyon bottom were covered with deep water, requiring us to swim. Brrrr!!!
On Saturday we returned to Sydney and checked into our accomodation at Eva's Backpackers in Kings Cross. Eva's had been recommended in a guest book at the hostel in Katoomba, and since we had already stayed in the central Sydney area, we figured it would be a good chance to see a different part of the city. Different, indeed. Kings Cross is kind of like a small Greenwich Village, but a little seedier. It has a healthy sprinkling of bars, strip clubs, junkies, transvestite prostitutes, Asian restaurants, and, of course, lots of backpackers. Eva's is a crowded, homey little place. The first night we stayed in a six person dorm and were assaulted by mosquitoes, gnats, and (I think) bedbugs all night. We promptly switched into a private double room with a fan.
We spent Sunday morning trekking across Sydney via foot and bus to attend the Hillsong Church. We then made our way back to central Sydney and wound up in an interesting conversation with a young Mormon missionary in a park. Our next activity was a wild goose chase through downtown looking for the duty-free store. When we finally found it and Sue was ready to make a purchase, we discovered that one must present their onward plane ticket as proof to be eligible for duty-free goods. Oh, no! All that walking for nothing. Suddenly, I remembered that I happened to have photocopies of our tickets in my daypack. Oh, yes!
"Luckily, I happen to have a photocopy of the ticket right here in my pack", I said to the saleswoman.
"Very good, sir, this will just be a moment."
I stood beaming at Sue and the sales staff, hoping they realized what a clever fellow I was for making those photocopies.
"Oh, very sorry, sir, the onward flight must commence within one month of the purchase... perhaps you can just wait until you get to the airport?"
For the next couple of days we wandered around Sydney, at first together and then separately as we decided we needed a bit of a break from each other. We discovered that the Sydney Festival was on during the month of January so we planned to take in some of the events. These included a play performed in a theatre in the Opera House by a group of German and Australian teenagers called Kinderspiel and an acrobatic/musical/dance/theatrical performance on the outside steps of the Opera House called the Celestial Bells by the Transe Express company.
While staying at Eva's, we became friendly with a couple of guys living at the hostel, Anthony and Wade, both from Canada. They are both veterans of Sydney, having travelled here many times. After spending a day at Bondi Beach (actually on the beach this time) where I lost my cheap watch in the ocean, we planned to meet Wade and Anthony for the Celestial Bells performance. By the time we arrived at the Opera House, most of the outside steps were covered with people, so we decided to sit right down in front on the ground. Since the performance consisted of lifting a huge mobile (like those found in a baby's crib) carrying human performers into the air using a giant crane, being down in the front offered a unique viewpoint. We did have to lie down though to avoid neck damage from looking straight up. Using the walkie-talkie we had given them earlier, Anthony and Wade and some other people from the hostel found us in the crowd and we were able to watch the performance together. Afterward, we stuck around admiring the views of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge brightly illuminated under the clear night sky. Wade, Anthony, Sue, and I took a stroll around the Opera House along the water and as we were coming back along the other side, we noticed some folks standing around outside an open door, seemingly having a cigarette break. They also seemed to be having a good old time, so Wade and Sue ducked their heads in to see what was going on. From the looks of it, a reception of some sort as well-dressed people were walking around carrying small plates of food and glasses of wine and champagne. Anthony and I immediately recoiled, sensing our presence was at the very least uninvited. However, Wade and Sue were in the same moment weaving through the crowd as if they owned the place. Tony and I proceeded reluctantly and assumed the role of wallflowers expecting any moment to be spotted and thrown out. But several minutes passed, then a half hour, and wouldn't you know it we seemed to blend right in. Not quite as sharply dressed, but we figured everyone must have thought us "incongruous actor types" or something. The event turned out to be an after-play reception for some production in one of the Opera House's theatres. Before long we were all enjoying ourselves, assuming sophistictaed airs, and graciously accepting the hors d'oeurves which we being offered, all the while trying not to burst out laughing at the absurdity of our presence. Anthony went off mingling and returned a while later to announce he had just been engaged in conversation with the director's date, Julia. In the meantime, we had ascertained from posters on the wall that the play was called "The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin" and was a remake of an original 1976 production. I asked Anthony to go back and ask Julia who played the lead role (it was a one man show) in the original production. Anthony returned again a few minutes later and announced, "I asked Julia who played the lead in the original production of The *Electrocution* of Benjamin Franklin and she told me it was So-And-So." Of course, Wade, Sue and I could hardly contain ourselves as we explained that it was the *Elocution* not the *Electrocution* of Ben Franklin... Later on a man in a tuxedo called for everyone's attention over a microphone and we thought we were busted for sure. Instead it was the beginning of a stream of people expressing gratitude and thanks to various members of the drama community for making the production possible, etc. These even included Brett Sheey, the Sydney Festival director. We did our part by shaking our heads in agreement and clapping loudly for each one. We also wandered around inside the Opera House a bit, alleviating the need to take an offical tour the next day (when we would be returning to see Kinderspiel). And, of course, we were the last ones to leave the reception.
The first few pictures in this set are from New Year's Eve in Sydney; supplied by Wade Ireland; photographer unknown.
Notice the depiction of Uluru (Ayer's Rock) in the middle of the Harbour Bridge.
New Year's Eve, Sydney (2)
New Year's Eve, Sydney (3)
New Year's Eve, Sydney (4) Opera House
New Year's Eve, Sydney (5)
Sydney Harbour Bridge in bush fire haze
Coastal path overlooking Bondi
Sydney Opera House from the ferry
Sydney Opera House at sunset
Crimson Rosallas, Blue Mountains
The Three Sisters in bush fire smoke (Blue Mountains)
Crested Cockatoo, Blue Mountains
New Years Eve sunset, Blue Mountains
Bush fires in the distance, Blue Mountains
Grand Canyon National Park, Blue Mountains
Blue Mountains (bush fire smoke on horizon)
Old school kitchen, Wentworth Falls National Park
Top of Wentworth Falls
Wentworth Falls National Park
We have to go up there?
Yes, up here.
Top of Wentworth Falls
Top of Wentworth Falls
Wentworth Falls (self-timer test)
Wentworth Falls (self-timer test #2)
Eastern Mountain Dragon, Blue Mountains
Blue Mountain bush fires (view from No. 14 Hostel)
Updating the journal in No. 14 Hostel, Katoomba
The No. 14 Hostel, Katoomba
Dave, Wade, Sue, and Anthony outside Eva's, Kings Cross, Sydney