Apart from a morning's packing we are free to roam still and it isn't raining although it is a little cloudy. As I stand in the kitchen, a rainbow begins to form, right over Mosman Bay, so close I could touch it. As I watch, idly making tea, it gets brighter and brighter until the colours stand out from the sky as if painted by the Gods. I am rendered utterly speechless. Fred has a missed it and emerges from a bedroom with a toothbrush half out of his mouth and a quizzical expression. "Whashammatta?" he asks me but I can't explain. "Wadjawannadoo?" he enquires, retreating to finish his toothbrushing. Our last full day in Sydney, now where to spend it?
A place I have long neglected describing to you is Customs House. Coming o the wharves at Circular Quay is a looming sandstone structure sitting behind an open square and is unmissable if you spent any time at the transport hub of Sydney. It is also indispensable if you are a traveller, a reader or another person of inquisitive nature - the top two floors comprise a library and the ground floor holds the lovely but expensive Sydney Café along with several free delights such as wireless internet and computers, newspaper and magazine racks holding publications from all over Australia and occasional media and photography exhibits. It is a nice place to drop into and have a catch-up, check your emails or just have a relax for half an hour or so - free wireless is always a boon if you travel with technology - the signal is reliable and quick and it doesn't require constant signing in. Fred and I use it to research today and settle on two main activities - the Pylon Lookout and the Sydney Observatory.
The Pylon Lookout is a tiny museum set out in and atop one of the bridge pylons and before Bridge Climb got into business it was the only place to observe Sydney from such a height. The exhibits are not in-depth and mainly constructed to be child-friendly but they are engaging enough to while away the time you spend ascending the steel staircases inside to reach the platform on the top of the pylon. The walkway goes all the way around the it and provides some simply stunning views of not only the city and the Opera House but the bridge itself. An adult ticket costs only $11 and is a superb alternative if you can't afford to go up the arch - a bridge climb is upwards of $200 (though still worth doing if you're loaded).
After the Pylon Lookout we take a walk underneath the bridge and around some of the posher districts home to celebrities such as Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman. We don't see them but we do see beautiful apartments, all with yacht parking, swanky bars and restaurants and some very strange artwork - a giant spider plus web adorns a concreted-in staircase and proudly sat in the centre of a roundabout is a red car with a rock that has apparently been dropped on it. Someone with a sense of humour has also drawn a smiley face on the rock. We duly take photographs of these things, still perplexed as to the meaning of them but who isn't perplexed by most modern art? It seems to be predominately a pointless exercise in posturing. While on our magical mystery tour we also pass the Sydney Theatre and opposite the headquarters of the Sydney Theatre Company. Many famous names in acting have trod the board of the company, based on one of the wharves, and if you're looking for a budget alternative to the more touristy Opera House tour they run fascinating two-hour backstage tours the first Thursday of every month.
It is beginning to get dark. We have found a huge concrete wharf that looks as if it was once a landing strip, with the control tower still peering over it from the left side. There is nothing here now except us, a few skateboarders a few hundred metres away and a pastel-hued cloudy sunset. The water is quite, even the ferries that pass seem far away.
For the first time I feel a profound sense of sadness at having to leave this place. Fred taps my shoulder. "Hmm?"
"There's no stairs to get up to the observatory this way," he says, as obliviously pragmatic as ever.
It takes us over fifteen minutes to get off the wharf and find some steps to get us up to Observatory Hill. It is officially nighttime now and the view of the bridge all lit up from a bandstand in the observatory grounds is as spectacular as ever. Ever the types to take advantage of a cheap view, we snap away happily then make our way around to the Observatory entrance for our 6:15pm tour. We had forgotten that it was school holidays however and much as children can be sort-of cute, these ones were certainly not. They made enough noise to cause lights to come on in hotels some thousand or so metres away and periodically zoomed past us along the pathway at full speed, showering both of us with gravel and screeching nonsense words.
At 6pm the doors open and we are ushered inside and invited to look at the exhibits for twenty minutes. These included some of the Observatory's original equipment, interactive displays detailing how to identify what galaxies are made of, sundials and astrological clocks, historic photographs of the original setup and precisely geared rotating brass models of the solar system. Twenty minutes isn't really enough when there are so many people and we are called too soon back to the main foyer to be split into three groups to rotate three activities. Our first visit it to the North and South domes and the telescopes therein - ascending the narrow stairs up to the domes feels like going upstairs in an old house until you reach the top and the copper-plate dome sweeps up into darkness above your head.
Our guide opens the dome and the children are still shouting and running. They must have the reflexes of tigers to not brain themselves on the banister, the instruments or the archaic telescope. It sits on a sandstone pedestal that extends all the way through the building to the basement foundations and is counterweighted and entirely manual. It is a beautiful piece of kit totally wasted tonight as the sky has completely clouded over - we try the other dome and the modern electronic telescope, but no luck - not even the hyper-bright Venus is visible through the murk. Our guide points the telescope at the New South Wales flag on the bridge to appease the banshees - they are not appeased.
Next, we try 3D theatre. Fred and I opt for the stools at the back next to the speakers, leaving the little sods in the front row. The 3D models of the galaxy and the size comparisons of the moon, planets, stars and hyper giants is informative and very well-made and it even shuts the kids up for five minutes. There is an opportunity to ask questions of our guide, who is very knowledgable about planets if not about parenting. Finally she takes us through to our last room - the planetarium.
The planetarium is simple - a huge umbrella-like structure hung low down, a central projector throwing points of light onto the canvas and beanbags to lie on and watch the stars go by. Fred and I see identify Orion, who is upside down, and see a few we have never seen before in our lives. The Aborigines had their stories, the Greeks their own, and Egyptians more yet. We learn how the Southern Cross was used in navigation, and as it is so dark and peaceful by the end of the star cycle and talk, many of the kids have fallen asleep on their beanbags. As our guide switches the lights back on, mothers and fathers gingerly lift limp, sleeping, dribbling things. "Aren't they sweet?" one asks Fred with a beaming smile. "Gorgeous," he replies with a perfectly po face - I have to leave the room for fear of uncontrollable giggles.
As we walk back through the Rocks, the stars emerge from behind the clouds and on the ferry wharf we can see Venus and Scorpio shining steadily over the central business district.
"It's amazing that they all have stories. I wonder what that one means," Fred says softly, pointing to the international space station.
"That means a child has been born in Bethlehem."