A Travellerspoint blog

Saturday 3rd July - The Northern Beaches

sunny 15 °C
View Fred & Ginger Go To The Land of Kangaroos... on fredginger's travel map.

Fred and I are up early again and yet again we heartily regret it as the temperature in the flat is a cosy 5 degrees Celsius as we drag ourselves out of bed and into the shower. We have another late morning and only leave the house after tea and toast to head upwards of Sydney to the Northern Beaches, which, paradoxically, are below the central coast. The region is mostly known for summer surfing and stretches all the way from Sydney's north shore up to Palm Beach, where Home & Away is filmed (if you're into that sort of thing - the opinion of soap operas in my house is akin to most people's opinion of coke and strippers). The weather is sunnier but no warmer and our 40km drive takes us through a cross-section of Sydney's districts, from affluent tropical beach neighbourhoods to graffitied, run down areas where businesses seem to be permanently closed.

First though, lunch - at Ripples restaurant in Whale Beach. Whale beach itself is quite long and runs all the way to where the inlet to Pittswater starts - despite the huge waves, surf club and natural beauty we are told it isn't overly crowded in the summer, especially when compared with Bondi and Manly. Many city socialites have weekend houses here, tree-shrouded getaways from the relative bustle of Sydney. The restaurant looks out over the beach and is an experiment as nobody has been here before, but it turns out to be a good gamble. What the menu lacks in choice and quantity it makes up for in taste, presentation and value for money. The indoor heaters are on full blast and soon we are all sweating profusely - Mairi asks for them to be turned down and the waiter obliges. "That's better," she says. An action-packed episode.

After lunch Fred and I take a walk down the beach but it doesn't last for too long. The sand is so deep it envelops every footstep and makes the whole process difficult so we are exhausted after about fifty metres, but at least it warms us up. We make for the car once again. The remainder of the day is spent driving back along, watching the clouds over the Pacific bloom, blur and fade and the interesting snippets of Aussie lifestyle and culture we pass. I spot a sign outside a church that reads "If you're waiting for a sign from God, this is it" and another by the beach that proclaims "Don't be a tosser!" in large letters, with a small picture of a man throwing litter into a bin beside it. Australia's brash attitude doesn't grate like that of the USA - much of it is done, I imagine, with a wink and a smile. We are even overtaken by a Subaru with the bumper sticker "Keep your distance: Mother-in-law in trunk."

Despite the lack of any coherent description, the northern beaches live fully up to their reputations as perfect summer destinations. Litter is practically non-existant, there is lush green bush everywhere and the ocean shines all shades of navy, turquoise and teal. Even the cliffs that slope jaggedly down into the sea are charmingly arranged by Nature herself to draw your eyes - there is so much to look at outside of the water that the few brave surfers in wetsuits go unnoticed for a few moments. The waves they ride are large and the crash rhythmically over the landscape, you can even hear them from the main road with the windows open. These are sights and sounds any visitor to Sydney can ill afford to miss - they make up the under and over sides of the place, all the way from bankers to surfers. An odd but uniquely natural complexion for a set of people living under the same stars.

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Posted by fredginger 19:52 Archived in Australia Comments (1)

1st - 2nd July - Supa Centre and the Blue Mountains

rain 15 °C
View Fred & Ginger Go To The Land of Kangaroos... on fredginger's travel map.

July has arrived, sunny and very, very cold. In fact, Australia has just experienced it's coldest midday temperature in seventy years - 13 degrees at midday. Many Australians walk around in down coats, duvets and some inside mattresses. Pets are being burnt as fuel. People are being advised to stay inside in the mornings - there have been reports of frost in some Western suburbs. Our British weather sensibilities still fully within their comfort zone, we set off for the Supa Centre to gather supplies such as a new amplifier, a fan heater and a phono cable. The Supa Centre is about 25km northwest of Sydney as is the best homewares destination for miles around. It stretches over two sides of a road and has stores specialising in garden decoration, pet supplies, interior ornaments and that bedrock of Australian society, the barbecue. In some places they even offer discount if you pay cash, which is certainly a boon. It takes us a full day to buy up everything and get it home to wire it together.

Friday has been booked up for a trip to see the Blue Mountains, reputedly one of the most beautiful natural destinations in South Australia. Fred and I pack ourselves excitedly into the car and set off for a 120km drive, to the northwest again, and today we have to pass through the tolls. New South Wales has a novel way of charging this - via a little cream-coloured plastic box called an e-tag. Available from the RTA to everyone including visitors to Australia, they are a necessity when travelling along the toll roads as many don't have cash booths - instead all you do is hold the tag up to the windscreen as you pass under the toll and it bleeps, removing however many dollars from your account. When your account gets down to $10 it is topped up with another ten automatically, it's rather clever. If you don't have a tag you have to call a premium rate phone number within 48 hours to pay, which is a royal pain in the backside.

As the road starts to climb we realise that the name 'mountains' might be a little generous - the highest elevated point in the range is little over 900m. Fred dubs them 'Blue Rather-Big-Hills' instead as we climb past small hick towns with run-down shops and roadworks. The sky is clouding over and it begins to rain. Our first stop is Wentworth Falls to look out over a stark and lush landscape. As we look further out we can see where the name comes from - the range is suffused with a blue haze. World Heritage clearly choses it's sites well. The blue comes from the fat of Eucalyptus globulus, an indigenous tree, and when it evaporates and disperses in the air the visible blue spectrum of sunlight propagates more than other colors. It certainly makes for an otherworldly view.

After a brief look at Wentworth Falls which are little more than a stream and rather underwhelming, we continue on. The village of Leura is packed when we drive through - mostly by Korean tourists in raincoats, so we bypass the Federation houses and colonnaded shops for Katoomba, another bush town. It is much less busy for some reason so we stop at the Three Sisters for lunch and a look at the aforementioned rock formation. Rising red and angular above the deep Jamison Valley landscape draped in green, the Three Sisters are named Meehni (922 m), Wimlah (918 m), and Gunnedoo (906 m). The legend goes that three sisters fell in love with three men from a neighbouring tribe, but marriage was forbidden by tribal law. Battle ensued, and the sisters were turned to stone by an elder to protect them, but he was killed in the fighting and no one else could turn them back. One day they will erode away completely.

The weather doesn't clear so we take the long drive back to Sydney for dinner at Woolloomooloo Bay, preceded by cocktails at the Shangri-La hotel in the Rocks. The Blu Bar on the 36th floor has a stunning view almost right over the bridge and it looks gorgeous dotted with blinking lights of all colours and sizes. We enjoy swish drinks and low-lit, lounge musiced atmosphere before catching a cab over to the pretty but expensive Woolloomooloo Bay.

Our restaurant is named Kingsley's and it is mainly a steak place. It also has a very calming view of a boat-laden marina, then some attractive flats, then the Botanic Gardens' tree line and above that the skyscrapers of Sydney lit up in neon blue and red. Our waiter asks where we are from and when we tell him he looks shocked. "Cranbrook? I lived with a gappy at Cranbrook School." Is he joking? Fred played cricket with the aforementioned gap year student at Sissinghurst for a season - we are all flabbergasted. "I'll text him right now, he's like my best mate in the world... I can't believe that! Small globe, eh?" We agree heartily - 15,000 miles to the other side of the world and we meet a guy who knows where our old headmistress lives. We mull over the chances of such a person being in this restaurant, working this particular night on our particular table - our own serendipity is startling. Dinner is delicious and we talk over old Cranbrook between courses and bottles of wine. At the end of the night we bid him a fond farewell. "Don't be strangers!" he says to us with a grin. We will be back, I'm sure.

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Posted by fredginger 00:45 Archived in Australia Comments (1)

Wednesday 30th June - Bridge Climb

4 °C

Fred is nervously shaking me awake. "Wakey wakey..." he says gently, tsp ping my shoulder. Soon he realizes this doesn't work and yells "OI GET UP!", beating a hasty retreat as pillows and books fly at his head. "We are going to be late," he says, muffled, from inside the wardrobe. "But you can't shower."
"Why not?"
"No hot water, the tank is broken."
That explains why it is so frigid in the house - I shuffle to the bathroom still wrapped in the duvet, under which I am wearing tracksuit bottoms and a hoodie. Turning on the TV, we find that Sydney has had it's coldest spell for 50 years and the temperature is around 2 degrees.
"Wouldn't be so cold if they knew what a radiator was," Fred grumbles.

We are on an early ferry for our customary City Extra breakfast before setting of into the depths of the Rocks to find the Bridge Climb. Yes, folks: today a small ranga* and a large, vertigo-stricken sheep will ascend to the top of the arch on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, 156m about the water. On arrival we are escorted through a door ominously marked "gate 2" and kitted out fully for our climb - boiler suits, safety harnesses, radios, gloves, hats and lines to keep us attached to the bridge should we fall off the edge. The whole process takes about 30 minutes but finally we are stood on the threshold, looking out over hundreds of steel girders with our guide, Dee.

The first walkway is nothing more than a grate with rails, suspended about 40m above the roads with what Fred identifies slightly hysterically as "string". It isn't string of course, it is high tension wire hung from the girders. Dee explains that the bridge is heritage lists and technically belongs to the Road Transport Authority, or RTA. "We aren't allowed to make any changes to the steel whatsoever - hence the wires." Bridge Climb lease the rights to take people up the bridge from the RTA for $200 million for twenty years. "We've paid off $20m so far, so there's a long way to go."

As we pass under the first sector, Dee tells us about what the Rocks used to be - "basically a sailor's paradise, brothels upstairs, opium dens in every house and pubs on every corner. It's changed a lot since then." A pause. "Well... No opium any more." She also tells the story of the time when the Black Death came to Sydney - the first place it hit was the rocks. The government acted quickly, buying up all the land underneath where the bridge now stands as quarantine and building a fence to separate the healthy and the sick. All the houses in the quarantine were burned - many with people still in them. Those that weren't burned were otherwise disposed of and parliament hailed as heroes - the plague had been eradicated. The government however had other plans for that land - for years they had need a site to build a bridge from the south shore to the north and now, they had it.

We climb four sets of steep ladders up between the lanes of traffic on the bridge and onto the bottom of the arch and begin to walk, Dee talking on our radios about construction. The bridge took eight years to build and was designed by a London firm - their name is still stamped on the steel in some places. Despite the time and all the risks the workers took, only 16 men died during construction. The sides were built first, then the arch was levered into place by gigantic barge cranes on the harbour, operated entirely by steam. To achieve this there would be men inside the barges, forty-degree Australian summers outside and furnaces inside, shovelling coal for twelve hours. If they wanted to eat, they fried eggs and bacon on their shovels. If they wanted to go to the toilet, they either had a whizz in the corner or did their business on the shovel again before tossing it overboard. Not the same shovels they used for cooking, I hope.

Dee describes how the rivets in the centre of the arch were placed - one man would heat up a rivet until it glowed red, while another walked out onto the sloping steel braces, nicknamed "Stairways to heaven" by the workers. No ropes, no nets, no nothing. He would also be carrying a bucket full of water and a pair of tongs and when the rivet was hot enough the first man would remove it from the oven and throw it out to the other who would catch it with the bucket and quickly remove it to hammer it into place. This had to be done while the rivet was still hot as when it cooled it expanded, becoming useless. After hammering it into the drilled holes, the whole process would be start again.

We also hear about the only man ever to survive a fall from the bridge - Vincent Kelly. No relation to Ned. He slipped and fell off while checking rivets - he survived by turning his body, covering his eyes and ears and forming a pin drop into the water. His boots practically disintegrated and when they pulled him from the harbour they had to cut off the leather from around his thighs where the force of the water had pushed it. He survived with only three broken ribs and lived to a great age, only expiring in 1990. By the time the bridge was finished in 1923 it weighed 53,000 tonnes - actually a lot less than the other famous Sydney landmark, the Opera House, which weighs in at 161,000 tonnes.

Asa we reach the summit, Dee tells us another famous story - the one of the bridge opening. The Premier of New South Wales, Jack Lang, was due to cut the ribbon after a short speech but something else came along first. This "something else" was a man named Francis De Groot, a dutch WWI veteran who was of the belief that only the Royal Family should be allowed to cut the ribbon. Dressed in his full uniform he rode through the crowd who parted with cheers, believing him to be part of the show, even past policemen who also cheered. He rode right up to the ribbon and the premier and drew his sword, and shouting "I declare this bridge open in the name of the people of New South Wales!" he sliced the ribbon in two with his sword. At Lang's swift and purple-faced insistence he was dragged off his horse, arrested and fined but many people didn't know he wasn't meant to be part of the proceedings until the newspapers landed on their doorstep the next day. Lang hade retied the ribbon and re-cut it, but to this day Francis is the person most known for opening the bridge.

As we make our way back down we are told about more modern aspects of Sydney - John Travolta's house in Lavender Bay is pointed out and it is easy to spot as he has turned the roof of the place underneath into his lawn. Across the water in very posh-looking wharf flats live Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. We hear a little more about the harbour itself and why there are so many diving boats - at a depth of 60m the harbour holds over 800 shipwrecks. As we descend the ladders once more we are windswept, cold and feeling very invigorated.

Another late lunch is spent in the Rocks at Vintage Cafe, whose food is as good as ever. We also stop off at Woolworths as I have the job of cooking tonight... It turns out alright, for once, and everyone goes to bed happy.

  • ranga - short for orang-utan, used extensively in Australia to refer to ginger people.

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Posted by fredginger 19:35 Archived in Australia Comments (2)

Tuesday 29th June - The Lions Parade

7 °C

Tuesday, we decide, is going to be a photo day as my camera is in dire need of some exercise. Film loaded and ready, we make for the Opera House to do a tour and take some photos but we are thwarted by what appears to be a parade. We run around like lunatics taking photos of everything until I finally stoop for long enough to ask someone what is going on. It turns out to be a Lions Club convention - a global volunteer organization who get together somewhere every few years for parading and merriment. There are contingents from every country I can think of and a few I can't - Switzerland, Zambia, Russia, Korea and every state of the US, all in traditional dress and making a lot of racket. Each country or state has it's own section of the parade in which to do something. The Chinese are dancing with a paper dragon, the Aussies have a horse-drawn restaurant and the Americans... Well, they walked with big banners with the name of the state on them, grinning at passers-by.

The parade takes about an hour and by that time we have elbowed, fought and apologised our way to the Opera House steps only to find that it is open to Lions delegates only for the next few days. A shame, but we snap off some pictures of the outside and head to the Opera Bar for lunch instead. It is a beautiful day, clear skies but freezing cold. It is three o'clock by the time we finish our lunch and the pint has cleared somewhat so we meander to the Opera House once more to photograph the outside of it. It is not, as it appears from the water, one big building but three big buildings, one of which has a restaurant in it. It will be interesting to tour when we get the chance. We head for home once more as the sun goes down behind the bridge.

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Posted by fredginger 19:30 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

27th - 28th June - Mid City

sunny 10 °C
View Fred & Ginger Go To The Land of Kangaroos... on fredginger's travel map.

Sunday passes uneventfully apart from an early morning, a lovely brunch at the crowded Dover Deli in Rose Bay and a lot of washing and unpacking - oh, the joys of returning from holiday. On our way to Rose Bay we also pass Cranbrook School, something Fred and I find very surreal. After a couple of late nights we are all crashed out even earlier than usual after another of Mairi's excellent dinners.

Monday rolls around, and I decide I haven't yet fully explored the mid city shopping, nor have I immersed myself in the Sydney music scene with any real vigour - this must be rectified. I drag Fred to the ferry by his hair. "No more bloody shopping!" he cries, and attempts to throw himself over the edge. He is subdued and consoled by a ferryman and a cup of tea. Our first port of call is Red Eye Records on King St. Normally CDs in Australia are even more expensive than in the UK, made worse by the terrible exchange rate (we're talking $20 - $30 for new releases) but there is a sale on and I pick up three local bands, one Perth and Syd Barrett for $10 each. This takes me an hour of sampling and perusing and Fred looks like he is about to kill something so I despatch him to the Apple store to find out if the new iPhone is here yet.

Meanwhile I retreat to the Queen Victoria Building, at a safe distance. Despite it's ornate railings, patterned tile floors, stained glass, rich carpet and lofty glass ceilings there are just a few hints it was redone in the 80's - next to the statue of the Queen at the entrance is Islay, the dog, who occasionally pipes up with a monologue in the voice of local radio announcer John Laws. I am rejoined by Fred as Islay asks me to make a donation - he has a face of thunder and attests that the iPhone has not arched Australia, and therefore he cannot play with it. I placate him further with tea and scones in QVB, discussing the intricacies of modern Japanese as we eat.
"So, 'kisama' means...?"
"Lord of the donkeys."
"It's awesome that they have a word for that."

We venture back down the Strand Arcade again to gaze into the windows of all the "gentleman's shops" - not purveyors of one-handed reading material but hip flasks, lighters, cigars, money clips and business card cases. Fred is confused by these things ("why do people cut off the ends of cigars?") so we move on to the chocolate shop instead and soon it is my turn to be dragged kicking and screaming from the premises. We meet the parents for dinner - curry. Despite the hoards of Chinese, Lebanese and Japanese who have emigrated to Sydney over the years there are almost no Indians so apparently good curry is scarce, but they know a place that turns out to be quite good.

As we return on the ferry we chat about the curry place we used to go in Marden, run by a little chap called Abras. Abras, who knew my whole family by first, last and middle name, we were in there so often, referred to my father as Lord Lambert, and my mother as Lady Lambert until both parents moved away. When my father moved back after a ten- year divorce-induced hiatus, the first thing he did was go back to the Tandoori to get a curry and Abras spotted him coming in the front door. "Bloody hell, Lord Lambert," he exclaimed. "I thought you were dead!" He still gives us a free bottle of wine with our takeaway.

Posted by fredginger 19:15 Archived in Australia Comments (2)

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