Sydney

October 23, 2013

After a 15-hour flight from Los Angeles, we arrived in Sydney at 7 am. Our packs took a while to arrive, which wasn’t surprising since there were over 400 passengers on our plane, but arrive they did. We went through immigration, then through the bio-security screening which was carried out by a Black Lab retriever and his handler. A lady down the line from us had brought some food in her bag, which was a no-no. We had been warned on the flight not to take any food with us, not even food from the plane.

We caught the rather expensive train into Sydney, getting off at the Wynyard station after a trip of about 25 minutes. From there we walked through the city towards the area known as The Rocks. Including waiting at every traffic light, it took us about 15 minutes to reach the Sydney Harbour youth hostel, our home for the next four days. As expected, our room wasn’t ready for us yet, since it was only just 9 am. So we stored our bags in a locker and paid $5 for four hours of time, then out we went to see the sights.

First we headed towards the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which wasn’t very far away. The location of the hostel was ideal, easy walking distance to most of Sydney’s sights. We walked under the bridge, which was being painted as we could tell from the noise and smell, to a park on Dawes Point which had old cannons on display. It was unseasonably hot, with a predicted high of 35 C, so we found a shady spot to sit for a while. From here we headed down the hill to the seawall, which continued along towards the Circular Quay. Docked at one of the many piers was an enormous cruise ship, the Celebrity Solstice. We weaved our way through hordes of passengers with their wheelie suitcases and carried on past the five wharves which were used by the Sydney harbour ferry system.

Beyond that the seawall went past a string of restaurants to the famous Sydney Opera House. As it happened, this week was the 40th anniversary of the opening of the opera house, and members of the Danish royal family were in town for the anniversary. (The architect of the opera house was Danish, and the Crown Princess of Denmark is actually from Australia!) However we would be missing all of their events.

Next to the opera house were the Royal Botanic Gardens, so we decided to wander around them for a while. The shade and breeze were quite welcome. There were quite a few birds there, including a lot of Australian White Ibis, a strange sort of bird for an urban park. We decided to have some lunch there, so we found the garden’s café and had peach iced tea and a sausage roll. By now it was 12:30 pm, so we decided to head back to the youth hostel. On our way out we just happened to notice a flying fox (a large sort of bat) roosting in a Schefflera tree by the path.

Back at the hostel we got our packs out of the locker before it could ding us for another $5. And luckily our room was actually ready, so we carried our packs up to the third floor (using the elevator!) The youth hostel had been built only a few years ago, having won a bid to put in the new building above an archeological site. The hostel incorporates the dig into its design, so from the central areas you can look down into the dig and see the foundations of a house that was built in the late 1800’s. We had a view room, and the view included the harbour bridge and the opera house. Except that for the moment the cruise ship was blocking our view of the opera house.

After having some tea we headed out again on another exploratory walk, this time to the Sydney Observatory which was located not far away. Admission was free so we went in to check out the displays about astronomy and its history in Sydney. Besides astronomy, the observatory had been built for time-keeping. In those days ships’ chronometers were new technology, so the observatory would provide accurate times so that the captains could set them. Today both of those functions are obsolete, so only the museum remains.

It was mid-afternoon, so we decided it was time for grocery shopping. The shop next to the hostel was pricey and not very well stocked, so we stopped at the tourist information centre and asked them where we could find a supermarket. As it turned out there was one at the Wynyard train station, but we hadn’t seen it when we were there earlier. It was a very well stocked shop, so we bought food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the next few days.

Back at the hostel we labelled our food and put it on the shelves and in the fridge. It was just about dinner time, so while drinking copious quantities of orange juice ($3.69 for a 3-litre jug) we made and ate our pasta and salad dinner.

We were thinking about taking a day trip to the Blue Mountains tomorrow, so we went and asked at the service desk about that idea. But unfortunately there was a very large bush fire in that area, and they were asking tourists to stay away. So that was too bad. We would have to think of something else. But after doing some research on the web we found out that all national parks in the Sydney area were closed because of the fire danger.

October 24, 2013

Today we had planned to take the train to Katoomba to visit the Blue Mountains, but because of the severe bush fires in that area our plans have been changed. Instead we decided to buy a daily transit pass and take the harbour ferries to some interesting destinations.

So after breakfast we made our lunches and headed down to the Circular Quay. First up was Manly, a beach town about half an hour away by ferry. As we arrived at the Manly ferry dock, there was the boat about to leave. If we had had to stop and buy tickets we would have missed it, but with passes in hand we dashed aboard and away we went. Today’s weather was quite a bit cooler than yesterday’s, so it was a beautiful trip. Along the way we had good views of Sydney and the surrounding coastline.

Arriving in Manly, we stopped at the Tourist Information and picked up a map. There was a walk around a nearby headland, so we decided to do that. First we headed along the Corso, a long shopping street which took us through the town to Manly Beach. There were numerous people on surfboards, but the waves were not very good so nobody was actually standing on their boards.

The walk took us along the beach towards Shelly Beach, which was in a little cove. As we got closer to it we came across a sculpture exhibition. Several little sculptures were placed along the path, including a lovely one of a mother penguin and chick. Another sculpture was of a bandicoot, with a live lizard basking on the same rock.

We climbed up onto the headland, from where we had good views out onto the ocean. We could see two whale-watching boats far out at sea, and with the binoculars we could see whales spouting every so often. Following the cliff-side path we continued up a rocky trail which now went through the bush. But soon we came to some tape across the trail and a sign saying that the park trails were closed due to fire danger. This was a surprise, since the National Parks website had said that Sydney Harbour National Park would remain open. But apparently this was not the case.

So we retraced our steps to where we had left the road, then walked through the residential streets back to the harbour where the ferry dock was located. We found a picnic table there and ate our lunch before heading back on the ferry to Sydney.

Our next destination was to be Parramatta. The ferries which go up the Parramatta River are specially-built catamarans which can navigate the shallow tidal river, and they are all named after famous Aussie athletes like Dawn Fraser and Evonne Goolagong. The trip took us under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, where we could see several groups of people doing the bridge climb, through Darling Harbour, and then to Cockatoo Island. We had thought of staying there, because it’s possible to camp overnight. But the actual facilities are an array of canvas tents in what looks like a parking lot, and there isn’t much else. Certainly no cockatoos. We were glad we hadn’t done that.

Our ferry cruised on up the river, dropping off a few people at each stop. Eventually we reached Sydney Olympic Park, which was the end of the line for our boat. We checked the map and there wasn’t much to do near the ferry dock. So we walked along the riverside bike path for a while, but that wasn’t very interesting. Back at the ferry dock we found out that the rest of the route to Parramatta was only run once an hour. So it was decision time: back to Sydney or onwards to Parramatta? We opted for the latter and were glad we did.

The next part of the trip took us slowly up the river for half an hour, past mangrove swamps where we saw a variety of birds including an Australian Pelican. In Parramatta we walked up the path by the river to the park, and then had to head right back. An hour didn’t turn out to be much time there. On the trip back to Sydney the boat picked up quite a few people and it was fairly full by the time it dropped us off at Circular Quay. We headed back up to the hostel to cook up our dinner.

October 25, 2013

Today we had to move to a different room in the hostel, so the first thing we did was to pack up everything and take our packs downstairs. The staff stored them in a store-room for us and, after breakfast, out we went for a walk. The morning was cool in the shade and a pleasant temperature in the sun, although it was still early and the temperature would rise.

First of all we went looking for a post office, so we could buy a stamp and send a card to Paul’s Aunt Hilda. Her 89th birthday was coming up and she was unwell, so we thought she might like a card. With some help from a passer-by we found a post office and bought the stamp. Mission accomplished, and after posting the card we carried on down the street. There was a mixture of late 19th century sandstone buildings and late 20th century metal high-rise buildings. We ventured into the Strand Arcade, which is a well-preserved Victorian-era shopping emporium with rather high-end shops. The floor was made of tile in an intricate pattern and the shop doorways all had beautiful stained-glass windows.

Farther down the street we came to the Sydney Town Hall and St. Andrew’s Cathedral. Both were reminiscent of architecture we had often seen in England. From here it was only a short distance down the hill to the parks and exhibition centre at Darling Harbour. At the wildlife centre there was a koala outside in a little enclosure. Our first koala sighting! And yes, we checked carefully and it wasn’t stuffed, just sleeping. We looked around the harbour area for a while and then decided to walk back up to the Observatory.

There is a huge construction project on the waterfront, still in the early phases, and we walked past that for quite a while before climbing up the hill. Today the view from the Observatory wasn’t nearly as good as before, as there was a layer of smog all around the city. Or perhaps it was smoke from the bush fires which were burning in the mountains to the west.

We sat on a bench there and ate our lunch while waiting for the ball to drop. The ball is on a pole on top of the Observatory; at 12:55 pm it starts to rise up to the top of the pole and then at 1 pm precisely it drops to the bottom. In the old days mariners would have been watching that so that they could set their clocks, but not any more.

Back at the hostel we found that our new room was ready and waiting for us. So we got our packs out of the store-room and hauled them back up to the new room. The story behind the room change was this: when we made the bookings we couldn’t get four consecutive nights in one room, so we had to book two nights in one room and the other two nights in a different room. Our first room was a “view” room, meaning that it had a view of the Opera House. (Unless an enormous cruise ship was in the way!) Our new room was only three doors down the hall and it still had a view, just not of the Opera House, and so it was cheaper. We were just happy that it still had a harbour view and that it wasn’t on the other side of the building overlooking the freeway.

We spent the rest of the afternoon catching up on journal-writing and just loafing. About 4:30 we went back to the Coles supermarket to get a little more food, including a pain au chocolat each for dessert, a nice treat.

October 26, 2013

After a good night’s sleep, we headed out for a walk again. Like yesterday, we followed George Street down through the city, but today we turned left towards Hyde Park. At the far end of the park was a very large monument built to commemorate the ANZAC war veterans and their various battles. And beside it was a reflecting pool which was very neatly kept.

The park itself is long and rectangular with pathways along its length plus a few diagonal paths. There were various statues along the way, and also public water fountains. Rather a traditional urban park. There don’t seem to be many homeless people in Sydney, but we did find a few here. Across the road was St. Mary’s Cathedral, which was built in 1868 in the Gothic style. Its sandstone blocks were remarkably clean, so they must be scrubbed regularly.

From there we veered off towards the Botanical Garden. There was a sculpture exhibition going on, so we stopped at the “Friends of the Garden” information booth to look for a map showing us where the sculptures were. We had seen quite a few of them on our first day here, but we couldn’t find the white rhinoceros which was featured on the poster, so he was our objective today.

Just inside the garden we bumped into a group of birders from Houston who were trying to identify some parrots. They pointed out the difference between mynas and miners – originally Paul had seen the brown and black Common Myna (left) and then assumed that the grayish birds which looked and behaved very similarly were the same species. But they were actually Noisy Miners (right), not even in the same family as mynas. With that sorted out we carried on and it didn’t take long to find the rhinoceros statue, which turned out to be made of plastic panels.

By now the time was getting later so we decided to head out to Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair. This is a bench which was carved out of the sandstone by convicts, located at the end of a peninsula overlooking Sydney Harbour. Today it is a major tourist attraction, so it took a while to get a photo of it without a Chinese tourist sitting on it. We carried on through the gardens, but there were a lot of birds and sculptures to look at so it was slow going. There was a flock of Rainbow Lorikeets which were conveniently sitting in a tree close to the ground, so photographing them was quite easy. A bit farther on a flock of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos was on the ground digging up grubs.

Finally we got to the Opera House to pick up our tickets for South Pacific. There wasn’t a will-call line, only a general ticket lineup, so we had to wait quite a while for people in front of us to do their complicated ticket purchases. By the time we picked up our tickets it was too late to go back to the hostel for lunch, so we stopped at the Portobello Café for lunch instead. We both had prosciutto panini, Rosemary had a strawberry smoothie, and Paul had a San Pellegrino chinotto. After we finished that we headed over to the gelato stand and had a cone for dessert.

The matinee of South Pacific started at 1 pm, and what a treat that turned out to be! The production was based on the Broadway show and the singers and dancers were all good. The male lead was Teddy Tahu Rhodes, a New Zealand opera singer, and he and Lisa McCune made an awesome couple. The secondary parts were well-done as well, and the show was worth every dollar of the cost.

Back at the hostel we found that we had a lot of food left, having gone out to lunch. As this was our last night in Sydney we had a rather large dinner, eating up most of our remaining food. We left the remainder on the “free” shelf for other hostel residents to use up. We asked at the reception desk about getting to the airport, and they suggested we should check in two hours before flight time. Since our flight to Cairns was at 9:15 am, that meant we would have to get up very early.

Next: Cape Tribulation

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