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Wednesday 14th July - Last Legs

all seasons in one day 15 °C

It is now 1:30am GMT and we are flying over the edge of the Caspian Sea, close to Baghdad. Outside, impossibly, I can see the dawn that has stalked us all the way around the globe beginning to stripe the horizon with yellow and orange colours to welcome the sun. It's all very surreal as I look at my watch and read 2am. Fred is asleep still, as is everybody else and even the attendants seem scarce at this time. The uncomfortable nature of air travel is ever-present in these kinds of flights unless you have the money to fly first class but as I wander around the economy cabin I am amazed at the sheer variety of horrible positions in which human beings can force themselves to sleep. Arms and legs protrude over seats at strange angles and bare feet stick out into aisles where packaged blankets lay waiting for you to slip on them - it's like an obstacle course.

I reach the back of the aeroplane without tripping over anything or anybody and after a small personal celebration I watch the sun come up. First just orange and blue, then yellow, then finally the sun comes over the cloud bank underneath the wing and the sky is all a shades from tangerine to dark mauve. We are over the desert by the time it has fully risen at about 2:30am GMT and become dazzlingly white. We are also over clouds now - I am ever fascinated by the sky as viewed from an aeroplane so I content myself taking pictures from the windows until Fred wakes up about 3am and we play Worms HD (the wonders of modern technology). As we pass over northern Russia I can see a storm below us, whirling patches of stacked cloud nearly as high as our plane occasionally flickering with lightning.

It is about 4am now, and we have two and a half hours still to go to get to London, where Heathrow will doubtless be full of queues and guards with huge automatic weapons. Below us is the barren landscape of Minsk, featureless apart from the clouds. I find myself unable to pinpoint the end of our trip. Did it finish when ewe left the apartment with our bags? When we took off at Sydney? Is it even over yet? I doubt very much there will be a defining moment or final 'scene'; a 25 hour journey serves only to let the experiences and learnings dissolve into you slowly, like sugar into tea. It has all sunk in - I have organised my thoughts, I have absorbed my learnings, I have as much clarity as a red-eye flight halfway around the world will allow and I am truly, completely ready for a cup of tea.

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Posted by fredginger 13:20 Archived in Australia Comments (1)

Tuesday 13th July - Flying Home

rain 16 °C
View Fred & Ginger Go To The Land of Kangaroos... on fredginger's travel map.

Packing is a challenge in itself, but attempting to find all the crap you've strewn over someone else's house over the course of a month and a half is both challenging AND annoying. One gets to comfortable - stuff gets used, stuff goes everywhere and then stuff is impossible to locate forthwith. It is a royal pain in the bum, but somehow we manage to fit all we can find into our two suitcases and get out of the door in time for one last visit to Darling Harbour for a wander and lunch. "What shall we do?"
My father snaps his fingers. "I haven't showed you the Welcome Wall."

The Welcome Wall commemorates the names and some stories of known migrants and immigrants to Australia since the very first fleet set down in the Cove under the watchful eye of the Eora indigenous people. It spans seventy or eighty metres at the back of the National Maritime Museum and is made of plates of engraved brass and copper and isn't full despite the huge number of names already greening on the surface. Reading them gives you a sense of the minutiae coming together, a feeling that collectively, these people all had a direct and tangible hand in creating this place.

We walk back along the Pyrmont Bridge for lunch at Nick's Seafood and lo! Rapture! Giant Moreton Bay bugs are on the specials board! We chow down with great excitement and the huge portions of brilliantly cooked seafood don't disappoint. Cheaper than eating on the waterfront facing the Opera House, probably because of the "lack of view" over the pretty Darling Harbour and much better food than we had there. We watch the workmen dismantling the FiFA Fan Fest sets and manoeuvring the marinas that used to line Cockle Bay back into place with barges.

After goodbyes and promises of a fairly swift return (next time maybe in the summer) we are in another departure lounge awaiting another flight call for another long haul across three continents. The good thing about flying overnight is that the plane is quite empty and we have a row to ourselves - as I write the iPad is rested on Fred's outstretched legs in my lap as he sleeps, snoring happily and covering three seats. I envy him - it is still five hours to Bangkok and our only little break in the journey. Outside there are only the faintest glimmers of life from below and we are still over Australia. My eyes are bloodshot, dinner has been and gone and I would kill for some sleep. The trick to jet lag is to not aim for a long kip but to keep napping throughout the journey - hopefully I can drop off and get a little before we land in Thailand.

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Eight hours after we have left Sydney another snack is served and an hour later we are approaching a lit city. Bangkok shows far less neon and orange and instead is lined with streets lit in hazy jade green, an especially beautiful sight to welcome us to the Kingdom of Thailand, albeit briefly.
"Hopefully they won't shut down the airport in protest for 34 days while we are here." I still haven't slept.
Red-eyed and aching, we disembark in Bangkok International Airport. We only have thirty minutes here and no Baht so we just do the rounds right back to the gate we came out of, through security again and another passport control. The written language on the signs is curly and interesting and also fortunately translated - we pass smoking rooms, Muslim prayer rooms and many flower arrangements (these aren't translated).

Mainly the wait is boring, punctuated only by a man who vomits vociferously down the front of the attendants' desk. Boarding recommences at midnight through gate E2 where we are all dutifully waiting (there are no boarding announcements at Bangkok airport) and we have new blankets and pillows. It is now 3:20am Sydney time and 12:20am here in Bangkok - this equates to Tuesday evening, 6:20pm in London. Another twelve hours to England.

Posted by fredginger 13:15 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Monday 12th July - Pylons and Stars

19 °C
View Fred & Ginger Go To The Land of Kangaroos... on fredginger's travel map.

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.
"Quiet."
"Yeah."
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."

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Posted by fredginger 13:15 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Sunday 11th July - Aussie Rules

rain 16 °C
View Fred & Ginger Go To The Land of Kangaroos... on fredginger's travel map.

> Today we have tickets to see one of the weirdest spectacles of sport known in all the English-speaking world. It is called Australian Rules Football and is colloquially known as Footy, Aussie rules or AFL (to split hairs, that actually the name of the league). Originally invented as a winter sport to keep cricketers fit, I can't think of a single cricketer who would be fit enough for this. Played on a cricket pitch, there are four posts at the ends of the oval - two high ones in the centre like a rugby goal with no crossbar and two shorter ones either side of them. The objective is to kick the ball through the centre posts to score a six-point goal, or if you're desperate, knock it through the outside ones for one point.
>
> The rules are simple - tackle like rugby, drop the ball when you're tackled, no pushing in the back and no throwing of the ball - just kick it or execute a volleyball-like thump off the hand to a teammate. These are, in fact, the only rules. Most violence is fine apart from direct fighting, it is common to be shoulder-barged hard or stepped on. It is a curious game with even curiouser rituals - the umpires (of which there are eight in total) restart play by either lobbing the ball at the floor as hard as they can then scarpering, or by standing on the boundary with the back to the players (of which there are 18-a-side) and throwing it backwards. This manoeuvre, no matter how effective in terms of fairness and tradition, can only be described as "spastic".
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> We arrive at the Sydney Cricket Ground early and take our seats after stocking up on beer and potato wedges. The reserves match is on but trying to decipher the rules and fouls is nigh-impossible without commentary but it's a good romp. The players themselves are all tall and stacked - not as bulky as rugby players but with more muscle than footballers. At first glance the game seems to be a sort of rugby and cricket hybrid - they have umpires and a boundary but running is done ball-in-hand with tackles and what would be rucks in rugby, but here are just pile-ups. The reserves game finishes with ironic cheers from the sparse crowd and we are totally confused.
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> Aa with any sport, there are pre-game rituals that must be observed - no shaking hands with the opposing side but both teams run in sequence onto the pitch and burst through a banner bearing the sponsor's logo and a motivational message. They do this to the sound of their club song which is played as a recording over the speakers so the crowd can join in. It sounds as if it has been recorded by the Barmy Army, (presumably not to intimidate said crowd with decent singing) so nobody can make out the words but they shout along regardless, cheering the teams on as they spread themselves out over the huge cricket field.
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> Despite not knowing what the free kicks are for or why one player is allowed to batter the living daylights out of another (but not allowed to push him) we both thoroughly enjoy the spectacle - the North Melbourne Kangaroos versus the Sydney Swans. Each quarter is meant to be twenty minutes but due to the sheer size of the pitch the added time makes it more like thirty - I really don't know how they play such a physical game for two hours with only one significant break in the middle. The ground isn't full but the fans that are here rough the periodic pouring rain make a lot of racket and have a good sense of humour. There is a yell of "Go with the ball you peanut!" and the retort: "He's jogging as fast as he can!"
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> It's all terribly exotic and entertaining, even though at the end of the main match we understand little more than we did at the end of the first. Clearly the Aussies disagree - as the Swans seal victory by 30 points a Melbourne supporter bangs his head against the railing a few times and shouts "it's a simple game, lads!"
>

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Posted by fredginger 20:00 Archived in Australia Comments (1)

Friday 9th & Saturday 10th July - Rabbitohs and Rocks Market

sunny 17 °C
View Fred & Ginger Go To The Land of Kangaroos... on fredginger's travel map.

Friday is mostly an administrative day, and I won't bore you with the details of that, but Fred did manage to procure a ticket to see some more rugby - the Sydney Roosters versus the South Sydney Rabbitohs at the SCG. The Rabbitohs are something of a story down here, having been snatched from the jaws of bankruptcy by none other than Russell Crowe who has consequently become a local hero. He still watches many of their games but he wasn't there tonight, still, Fred had a good time yelling abuse at the touch judge and drinking copious amounts of beer. He staggers through the front door at midnight.

The Rocks market takes place every weekend and is popular with locals and tourists alike, and when we arrive on Saturday morning it is packed. In true Sydney fashion however it isn't a manic, crazy place of shouting merchants and women with sharp elbows but a pleasant wander around the winding streets between open and canopy-shaded stalls. There are some of the usual market fare - local designers selling their jewellery, clothes and crafts but there are also weirder things such as live spray-painted art, prosthetic horror masks and miniature vintage pocket watches. There is no tat here and I think all stallholders must be vetted beforehand which makes it a little artificial but nevertheless the colourful Australiana and handmade goods can't help but entice. 

The market's trump card is it's smallest area, that true market winner - food. Cooked before your eyes in huge flat paella pans, all manner of tastes available and cheap to boot, it is definitely worth visiting just to grab a foam palette of curry, a Mediterranean vegetable kebab or some handmade candy. As it's wintertime you can choose from hot honey and lemon, tea, coffee or beer at one of the Bavarian cafés lining the street or stop for a croissant at a French patisserie to people-watch and listen to the buskers playing soft guitar music. It has a merry, cosy atmosphere, unlike the business-like bustle of the Chinese wet markets. If it weren't for it being July, the cold and the comfort food would make it seem a lot like Christmas.

We seek a few of the more interesting stalls for further inspection. There is one lady selling carved goods including 3D puzzles, kangaroo toys and pop-out "castles" cut from a single lump of wood. She has been making and selling her wares at the Rocks every weekend for over twenty years and wistfully recounts the time she started. "We had just started to make the puzzles, and we thought it was a totally new thing and the first day a lady came up to us and said that used to have one - it had belonged to her grandmother over a hundred years ago!" She also tells us how the children are always the ones to surprise her most - "Most of them can make the tables and chairs but we have had ice or six year olds come up with totally new arrangements like Santa's sleigh, a train, a high chair... It's always the children that think of these things."

Another couple make tiny clay sceptres of animals and plants to collect - the things are so minuscule they fit into bottles an inch high and about half an inch across. They can't even remember how they got started making them. An elderly gentleman sells collectable coins and stamps and chests amicably to a Chinese girl next door who sells screen-printed aprons and tea towels. There is such a variety of things to look at that it would take hours to describe them all, and some stuff needs to be seen to be believed. On our way out Fred lets out a great honk of fear and steps back - there is a stall educated solely to pinned, stuffed and preserved insects and reptiles. Scorpions, red-backs and huge bird-eating spiders are displayed proudly in wooden box frames and small children dare each other to touch the glass, squealing in fear as they brush their fingers close. Fd takes a picture from a distance, managing not to squeal in fear, and we skidaddle.

Posted by fredginger 19:43 Archived in Australia Comments (2)

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