Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Day 228 - 230: Canberra

The capital city probably wouldn't have featured on our itinerary if Gilly hadn't had friends living there. Canberra is basically one huge government business park, but has the benefit of being surrounded by national parks, mountains and stunning views. We picked up our hire car from Hertz at Sydney Airport, and after the usual 10 minute scare tactics to try unsuccessfully to get us to buy liability insurance, we were on our way in an almost new Toyota Corolla. I'd never driven one before, but it was a dream, especially since it was an automatic. I just had to point it in the right direction, and not exceed the speed limit - something quite difficult to do when the engine is barely making a noise at 110km/hr.

We got to Catrin and Pete's at about 3pm. The weather was cold - a good 10 degrees chillier than Sydney, which we'd thought was getting on the frosty side. How quickly our bodies get used to warmth! Our hosts thought we'd soon warm up by climbing a mountain, so we took a drive out to Mount Taylor, and hiked the near 856 metres to the top. The path was steep but well-trodden, with kangaroos a-plenty on the way, and I was soon removing scarf and gloves, and wondering why I'd bothered to bring a fleece in addition to my huge warm hoodie.





As the sun was soon setting, we drove up to the Telstra Tower, a huge tower affording views of the entire area, which you can see on the mountain in the last photo.


We were just in time to catch the last glimpse of the sun before it disappeared behind the mountains.




The views were great - the Black Mountain, on which the tower sits, is one of the three points from which the people who planned Canberra stood looking down into the valley, working out where to stick the capital. The other two are Mount Ainslie and Red Hill.

Fun Fact: The tower is also home to Canberra's highest postbox. If I'd had anything to post, I'd have done it here. No idea what the collection times are like, though.


We had sublime fish and chips from a chip shop not far from the house, and Pete and I finished the last of my birthday Glenfiddich (strictly in the interests of keeping the weight down on our flight to Melbourne, you understand) whilst being introduced to the delights of Boston Legal.

The next day Catrin and Pete were both working so we had a free day to explore the city. I noticed two things: the city is incredibly quiet in the day time (it made Cairns look like Hanoi), and Canberra isn't really aimed at tourists. You would need a car to get anywhere; I'm not sure what routes the public transport takes, but I don't think I saw a single bus during the entire day. It's not a place I would ever want to live, but I can see the benefit for those who do stay here. It's not noisy or bustling, there are enough amenities to keep people happy, and it's got some great places to walk and jog. It's just not for me.

The first place we went to was the National Film and Sound Archive, a collection of galleries showing the development of Australia as a broadcaster over the last century. There was even an alcove playing an old episode of Neighbours, where Scott and Charlene (Jason and Kylie) got married. I was 6 when that was made, so probably 7 or 8 when it came to the UK and I remember watching it with my mother who was a huge fan. It's funny how many Neighbours stars have made it "big" in TV, music and film - Alan Dale (Jim Robinson) is now a guest star in practically every US television show running, as well as having 5 minutes next to Harrison Ford in the last Indiana Jones movie. Kylie Minogue (Charlene Ramsay) is a megastar pop singer. Guy Pearce (Mike the mechanic) has been in a series of excellent films including Memento, and the upcoming Prometheus. And Ed Maclachlan (Henry Ramsay) was in Bugs in the 1990s. Ah well, you can't win them all.

Moving on, we went to the National Museum which was huge and quite easy to get lost in. There were a lot of exhibitions about aboriginal rights and the removal thereof by colonials, and the country does seem to want to progress in this respect, but the populace as a whole is going to take a lot longer to stamp out the underlying racism and bitterness inherent amongst some of its citizens. Other exhibits charted Australia's growth and the development of its cities, which made a nice change from a lot of museums which focus on the same tired collection of fossils. There was a quite bizarre sculpture outside the front too.


We didn't visit Parliament House but we did drive past it a few times - you can't really miss it:


We had lunch at the excellent Lemon Grass Thai restaurant in the CBD, before going to the National Art Gallery to round off the day. There was an excellent series of photos from Scott's Antarctic expedition as well as others taken on the continent a century ago.

We headed home to prepare for our flight the next day to Melbourne and the next day said goodbye to Catrin and Pete before driving to Sydney, dropping off the car, and jumping on the plane. Paul and Fi warned us that they got stung by Cheapa Campa (also owned by Apollo, who provided the Hippie Camper vans we took down the east coast) for $70 to pay for bedding for their campervan in Melbourne: the same van we have already booked and paid for. Call me crazy, but I would expect a van that you sleep in to come with all of the necessary bedding, without the need to pay extra for it - and their website certainly indicates that bedding is included. However, after 30 minutes of waiting on hold/being cut off, the sole operator (for there is only one person working after 5pm, bien sur) told me that we were unlikely to get anywhere with our complaint, even though the website is misleading. This is the kind of top notch service any customer would love to receive.

On a positive note, we were embarking on our second CouchSurf of the trip in Melbourne, staying with a motivational speaker named Mark who had kindly agreed to host us. We thought it would make for an interesting few days!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Day 223 - 227: Sydney

The bus to Sydney central took about an hour from Scott's, but it's regular and stops at a lot of major landmarks. We got off at St. Mary's Cathedral which is at the end of a large park that contains the Anzac War Memorial.


There is a plaza before the cathedral which has a fountain containing some impressive statues dedicated to Greek mythology, including Diane and Theseus. And what better way to highlight them than a rainbow?




A short walk into the centre, and we were at the Queen Victoria building feeling hungry. Sydney has a dazzling range of restaurants and eateries and we found a fantastic Malaysian place in the basement. Having not been particularly impressed with Malaysian food (other than roti...mmmm), we decided to take a gamble and it paid off. Laksa House is affordable, delicious and has huge portions.

We walked off our newly acquired food babies over the bridge to Darling Harbour. Aside from more restaurants and a maritime museum, the harbour hosts regular free events such as jazz music festivals, and every Saturday evening has fireworks in the evening for no particular reason.



We grabbed some gelato and did some people-watching. The area itself is lovely, with water features and buskers all over the place. One toddler was fascinated with a trio playing near a park.




After a good walk around the area to get our bearings, we were ready to head home.

The next day we met up with Paul and Fi at the dock, as we were catching a ferry over to Manly. Aside from being a nice destination for a day, the journey allows you to take umpteen photos of the two main architectural icons in Sydney: The Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.





Manly itself is small enough to walk around in a morning, and take in the beach and coastal area. We had a brief stop at Manly Art Gallery which mainly contained swimming costumes and art which really wasn't my kind of thing. We'd all brought lunch with us so sat at a park bench to admire the views. I made friends with a border collie puppy that I would quite happily have taken home if I'd been allowed.



We picked up a couple of second-hand reads at a bookshop, grabbed some ice creams, and then took the ferry back. Manly is a nice break from the usual city chaos, but there's far more to do in Sydney itself.

When we returned, we went to the Customs House which had an exhibition of brilliantly stylised photographs by Alexia Sinclair called Homage. You can see them here and here. The building itself is impressive itself:



A trip to the botanical gardens and Mrs. Macquarie's Chair were next on the cards, and whilst the sun wasn't in the right place to get decent colour shots across the bay, the black and white ones didn't work badly.



The botanical gardens are filled with parrots, and one lady had them swarming around her since she was feeding them bags of crackers.


More tourist landmarks were planned for the next day. We had a look around the poignant and tastefully constructed Anzac memorial, originally paying homage to the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who fought at Gallipoli, but now covering all those that gave their life for their countries during military conflicts.


Sydney offers a free walking tour which lasts roughly 3 hours, and takes you around a number of the main highlights of the city as well as giving you some history. Our guide was Justine, who was bubbly and had a surprisingly loud voice - necessary, as there were quite a few people on the tour, even if it was starting to rain. We were taken to the Queen Victoria Building, and introduced to Islay the Talking Dog; a bronze statue who sits outside and encourages people to throw money into a wishing well to help blind and deaf children.


Inside the building itself there is a kitsch Royal Clock which, on the hour, trots out various scenes from royal history (including a beheading of Charles II!). Other highlights on the tour included a copy of "Il Porcellino" (the piglet) outside Sydney Hospital. The idea is to donate a coin and then rub the pig's snout for luck; the rubbing over the years has worn away the snout to a gleaming sheen. Australians obviously have a sense of humour, as there is also a similarly coloured part of the pig which they appear to enjoy rubbing...


Martin Place (the scene for many films, including The Matrix) and Cadmans Cottage (third oldest building in Sydney) were also on the agenda, and we ended the tour in The Rocks - a developing area in the city, which was previously home to prostitutes and down-and-outs but in recent times is being rejuvenated. Crime and poverty still occurs in the area, but the government is actively trying to clean the district up. It certainly has more character than many other areas in Sydney.

The tour was great: interesting and with plenty of sights included. Justine runs it on a donation basis, which is a good idea; she works hard - 7 days a week - and her small group of helpers run both a day and night tour. We didn't get the chance to do the night tour which takes place around The Rocks and provides some of the background to the crimes and unsavoury events that took place there, but I would definitely be interested in signing up if we returned to Sydney. After a great Turkish plate at a local restaurant, the four of us did the English thing afterwards and had tea and cake in a coffee shop. We were seduced by the cakes in the window, but sadly they looked amazing and tasted average.


A quite stupendous outdoor photo exhibition rounded off the afternoon, with pictures of thunderstorms, wildernesses and almost alien landscapes taken from around the globe.


There was just time in the evening for the four of us to share cocktails and beers in the über-cool dockside bar "The Loft". The highly-awaited piano man didn't materialise though, but we made do with the ambient music and tried not to stick out too much in our sodden backpacker clothing whilst surrounded by people in dinner suits. Scott and Hannah had handed in their projects and were very much in the mood for a celebratory meal, so they took us first to a great Mexican place (Beach Burrito Company) where I munched my way through a taco bowl, and then to a great dessert place (Mickey's) where I stuffed a huge chocolate raspberry fudge ice cream sundae thing down my neck. The names of both restaurants evade me, but I can safely say that we were about ready to burst once the night was over...




After awaking from a food coma the next day, we set off to the Museum of Contemporary Art to see an exhibition that had been bringing people in from all over the country: The Clock by Christian Marclay. The premise is simple in concept but staggering in execution. It is a 24 hour film which runs in real time and which is made up entirely from excerpts from cinematic history. Each excerpt has the current time somewhere in it, whether it is a clock in the background, someone looking at their watch, someone speaking on the telephone saying that they will meet the other person at a specific time, and so on. Since the film runs at real time, if it is 12:54pm when you're watching the film in the museum's screening room, you may get one, two, three or more clips showing 12:54pm on the screen. And since the excerpts are generally short and cover the entire gamut of film history from classics to modern cinema, you are guaranteed to see a film that you recognise. The whole idea is so utterly engaging that you could literally spend hours watching time pass.

Here's a short example:

The evening saw the start of the Vivid festival. This is a light and sound extravaganza which Sydney hosts each year, and sees the entire harbourside area turned into a showcase for exhibits ranging from mesmerising to slightly odd and everything in between. The main buildings all have projections beamed on to them and the level of detail and thought that has gone into them is truly a sight to behold. The highlight for me was Customs House, which was turned into a fully animated 12 minute show about the city. The photographs don't really do it justice, so behold the entire animation in full glory:

What is remarkable is how they used the various windows and pillars to model the skyscrapers, subway windows, and so on. As we went around the harbour, we got to see over 60 different exhibits, some of which were dazzling.



The festival organisers also beam projections onto the sails of the Opera House - this year, they changed them into actual "sails" which rippled. They also added footage of a girl clinging to the sails as if she was going to fall off; that effect didn't work quite so well.


And let's not forget the neon angler fish being driven around:


It was a chilly night; after a well-deserved glass of merlot (for the boys) and mulled wine (for the girls) at the Opera bar, Paul and Fi did what they do best and blazed a trail into the evening with some other friends whilst we called it a night.

Scott's parents kindly drove us to Clovelly the next day, and we took a walk along the coast. First stop was Bronte where we ate at a lovely Mediterranean restaurant and took in the views.



When you think of Sydney beaches, the one that most likely comes to mind is Bondi. Since that was the next beach along, we took a walk to check it out. The area is super-wealthy, as can be expected, and the beach is nice but not a patch on Whitehaven.


A bus into town later and it was soon evening, so we had more time to explore the Vivid exhibits we didn't manage to see the night before. You have to watch out for burglars in the area, they can appear where you least expect them.

Police box

The Rocks had a evening street market on as part of the festival, so we grabbed a freshly cooked hot dog and burger before heading home. It was a great way to end our stay in Sydney; Scott was taking us to the airport the next day to pick up a rental car as we were visiting Australia's capital, Canberra.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Day 218 - 222: Coffs Harbour to Sydney

Coffs Harbour was a washout. It may be one of the more upmarket areas of Australia, but every town looks miserable in the rain. We took shelter in the library/art gallery and made use of the free wi-fi, before heading onward.

The next day the weather was much better. We'd ended up not far from Port Macquarie, the self-proclaimed "Bodyboarding capital of Australia", and took a walk along the coastal path there to take in the hundreds of decorated rocks that lined the promenade.



As well as bodyboarders, there were plenty of surfers too:


Moving on again, we arrived at Cundletown (Gilly was excited as she'd misread it as Cuddletown), and whilst there was no-one in the park we had lunch at to give us a cuddle, there was a very friendly cat who took a particular liking to our Pringles.


We ended up at Port Stephens, and took a stroll along One Mile Beach adjacent to the caravan park at sunset.



One retired chap we met there was taking a trip up the coast and was going to take a leisurely six months  to get from Brisbane to the north. We were taking 3.5 weeks to do the entire east coast; a slightly shorter itinerary! Australia is so big that it is perfectly feasible to spend that much time exploring every inhabited settlement down half the coast, but you definitely need to be retired to do so.

Following Scott and Hannah's advice, we decided to drive up to the Blue Mountains the next morning. We weren't sure what we were going to do or even where to stay, so I tracked down a free campsite for that night and a park for us to meet Paul and Fi at the following day, whilst Gilly looked into activities. The main attraction in the area is the Jenolan Caves, and by chance we happened to be heading there on the day that a famous cellist was going to be performing in the cathedral of one of the caves. We both enjoy classical music but have never really gone to any performances (something that we'll be doing more of when we get back), so the opportunity to see a solo cello performance in a cave with almost perfect acoustics was too good to miss.

The drive up to the caves was long and took all morning and most of the afternoon. The Blue Mountains are stunning but we couldn't stop for photos as we were racing against time to get to the performance in late afternoon, so resolved to snap some pics on the way back down.

The Jenolan Caves are 340 million years old and certainly look the part. They are split into a number of accessible caves which would take up a couple of days to explore, but we were only going to one - the Lucas Cave.




The cellist, Georg Mertens has performed over 150 solo shows for 15 years, which has made history by being the longest series of regularly scheduled cello concerts. He looked exactly as I'd expected a German classical performer to look, waistcoat, Mozart hair, the works. After a brief introduction, he launched straight into his first couple of pieces.



His program for our show was:

S. Rachmaninov - Vocalise
D. Popper - Fond Recollections / Hungarian Rhapsody
J.s. Bach - Suite No 2 in D minor

and he also performed 4 pieces he had either improvised, made variations to or created himself: Arabian Improvisation, Variations on "Sakura, Sakura", Variations on "Maytime", Didgeridoo (in which he actually made the cello sound like a didgeridoo...incredible) and finally Cathedral Ciaconna, which he wrote to make best use of the acoustics in the cave.

It's obvious why performances here are so popular. The cathedral chamber bounces the sound off the complex limestone formations in a way that is near impossible to manufacture without spending stupid amounts of money. Amplification wasn't needed; the cello sang out so clearly that it was impossible not to hear every note. And Georg played it sublimely from beginning to end, giving us a little information about each piece but only enough to keep it interesting, rather than boring us with the detail. After the scheduled pieces were played, he did a couple more - The Swan from Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals, and my favourite cello piece: Suite 1 in G Major by Bach. This latter was the piece played by Yo Yo Ma in Noël, the tremendous season 2 episode of The West Wing; it's fairly recognisable, and I was overjoyed that we got to hear it played by a professional cellist.

After the show was over, our guide took us around the Lucas Cave for a tour which was unexpected but appreciated. The formations were interesting, and there was less of a touristy feel to the caves which you'd get elsewhere (in Ha Long Bay, for instance). There was even a formation called "The Bishop" that, unlike a lot of fantastically named showpieces, actually bore a slight resemblance to its name.





Afterwards, we had complimentary wine and cheese at Jenolan Caves House with Georg and his wife. It was really just a chance for her to sell some of his CDs, and the wine was pretty dire (although the hotel was flogging it to restaurant punters for $35 a bottle...this is why you never go for the cheap bottles when you eat out), but we were glad of the nibbles as we realised once we got outside that a) it was much too remote to find somewhere to eat that wouldn't bankrupt us and b) it was far, far too cold to contemplate cooking outside. Miraculously after heading back down the Blue Mountains we found what looked to be an abandoned car park and free-camped for the night, under a duvet and fully-clothed, and munching on a bag of crisps we'd thankfully stockpiled. The temperature had dropped so suddenly that we were completely unprepared. We only had a fleece each, and two thin pairs of trousers.

After surviving the night, we realised it was time to start investing in winter clothes. It was only going to get colder as we got further south, and we were definitely going to need them in New Zealand. Our next destination was a shopping mall - any shopping mall - but only after stopping to take in the scenery first.



We found a K-Mart in Katoomba and bought jeans, socks, and a hoodie, and said goodbye to the warm weather. Paul and Fi were en route after spending a couple of days in Sydney, and met us in Katoomba Caravan Park in the afternoon where we caught up over the obligatory bottle of wine or three and planned our next excursion for the following day: the Cascades and Three Sisters.

The park was in walking distance to viewpoints for both, so that's what we did after breakfast:




The Three Sisters are three pillars of rock jutting upward from the cliff edge, whilst the Cascades are...well, cascades of water. Not waterfalls though; the water just flows over the ground.




Not the most exciting diversion, but it killed an afternoon. After another night at the same park, it was time to head back to Sydney to drop off our vans. First though, Paul had been given a tip-off on their travels about the Scenic Railway nearby which was supposedly a) the steepest in the world and b) like a rollercoaster ride. Only one of these things is true. It was over in under two minutes, and they even had the cheek to put on the "Raiders' March" as the background music whilst we were in the carts. Temple of Doom this wasn't. In the end we decided to create our own excitement on one of the replica cars nearby, to feel like we'd got the most from it:


A short walk around the railway grounds followed, covering a bit of Katoomba's history (coal mines and such), and then the experience was all over. If you're really into railways it might be worth a punt, otherwise there's probably better things to spend your beer fund on.

We reached Sydney in mid-afternoon, and dropped off our vans at Apollo. Paul and Fi had unfortunately got a dent in theirs when they were parking up near our van (only a scuff on our bumper which Apollo weren't bothered about luckily), but Apollo immediately withheld all of their bond until the damage could be assessed. The dangers of using Apollo Motorhomes deserves a blog post all of its own, which I'll do on my return, but suffice to say that the case is still ongoing.

Scott picked us all up from the Apollo office and it was fantastic to see him again. We were staying at his parents' for the duration of our time in Sydney, and they immediately made us feel welcome, gave us a room and fed us chicken schnitzel. It was Hannah's 21st birthday, but she wasn't celebrating as both her and Scott had a paper due in three days later and it was causing them a little bit of stress. We were happy to explore Sydney ourselves and with our fellow Miltonians until it was all completed, and that's what we set out to do the next day.