Sunday, 23 December 2012

I do love the Sydney buses. They're cheap, pretty good on time-keeping and the drivers who've ferried me around have surely been schooled to be ever-so-nice to idiotic tourists.

I fancied a swim yesterday, so I took the bus east from Circular Quay to Nielsen Park via interesting spots like Kings Cross & Rose Bay. All jolly and busy. As usual I wasn't too sure where I was heading, so I asked the driver to tell me when to get off, as it were. As the trip was taking quite a long time, I thought (half an hour - surely we're there by now?) I jumped the gun, deciding the next stop must be mine and rang the bell at the last minute, forcing the driver to slam on the brakes.

Not a sign of irritation from his side. Could have something to do with the fact it's customary to thank the driver when you get off in Oz. Works a charm, clearly.   

Back to Nielsen Park. It's worth a trip or two: netted swimming area; kiosk; very picnic-friendly and one of the best vantage points for the start of the Sydney-Hobart Yacht Race on Boxing Day.

Update: I saw the start - pretty spectacular. My boat won of course.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

The southern skies at night - what can I say? I've been getting neck-ache gazing up at the celestial show at every opportunity, but most of the time I'm not really sure what I'm looking at, exactly. A little instruction in the star-gazing department was definitely required. So last night I headed to the Sydney Observatory for a master-class on the Milky Way. And the universe never looked so lovely.

Seriously, if you can't make it into the Oz interior where the skies are likely to be clearer, the observatory is a good starting point. And even though the skies were cloudy last night, the moon peeked through the clouds and we had a grandstand view through one of the observatory's huge telescopes, in the 19th century copper-covered north dome.

Thanks to instruction from young Edward, who knows a bit about physics, astronomy and things that my little brain can barely compute, I learned a lot last night. Such as: when we look at space we're looking at what's already happened one heck of a long time ago. And if I ever get up early enough to watch the sunrise, I'll remember that what I'm looking at happened eight minutes' before.

And another fascinating tip-bit: Captain Cook originally planned to go to Tahiti to track the transit of Venus, but got diverted to Oz. And if he hadn't? Who knows how different Australia might be now.
In the planetarium, we had a talk on how to spot sparkling things in the sky, like Sirius, the brighest star, and the Southern Cross which of course I don't normally see at night in Blighty. And then onto the 3D cinema for an amazing romp through space exploration; the future of planetary life and how size does matter. A tricky business it seems. The moon and the sun look the same size to us here on the ground, but are they really?

Don't take my word for all this - grab a place on a night tour.


Monday, 17 December 2012

An art dealer has been explaining the essence of Aboriginal art to me. Roughly-speaking, it's to do with a certain amount of dreams that have been handed down and how they're expressed and interpreted through art.

I then got a guided tour of her gallery, which is stuffed to the gunwales with rather fine paintings; even if they all seem to be covered in dots. My eyes were going a bit funny with it all. "Yes there are a lot of dots which I think can be traced back to when the indigenous people used to draw in the sand. They'd take a bit of food, chew it into a ball, then 'dot' with it", she tried to explain. "If you stare at the paintings for too long, they can be almost hallucinogenic can't they?"  Too right.

Fired up, but without enough readies to buy one of her paintings, I searched out an Aborginial centre and bought a lovely writing pad with a stunning cover design (acrylic on linen) by Angelina Ngale from Ahalpere, Utopia Region in Northern Territory.  I had to have some of her work as, let's face it, there aren't too many utopias here on earth.

Sydney's got quite a lot of these beasties scurrying around I hear, and this morning I saw my first (and hopefully last) cockroach - in the loo. I was very brave. Actually that's a porkie: I asked the housekeeper of my hotel to kindly deal with it. It was her first one too, so we've both had a rite of passage, bugs-wise.  

Friday, 14 December 2012

I've just spent a few days in the glorious Blue Mountains. Absolutely, no question about it, the highlight of my trip so far.  I could even get carried away and call it my Aussie spiritual experience.  Forget Uluru, bring on the Three Sisters!

These rock formations at Echo Point have a sheer beauty that just blows you away. Steady on there, I hear you say, but they're truly awesome. Legend has it they're named after 3 Aboriginal sibs who were turned into rocks, and then saved by the Lyre bird whose echoes reverberate across the valley.  Suspending disbelief, I tried to lose myself in the mystique of it all, but sadly a nearby ankle biter*,  practising his echoing skills, kinda killed the moment.   But I went back at sunset and became a believer. 

If you're into bush-walking - as I am now of course, practically an expert - this is the place for you. A friend warned me before I headed into the bush to make sure I had water, flares and a map incase, given my lack of directional skills, I got lost.  No worries..I just followed the people in front of me.

There are loads of walks to choose from, with pretty cascades/waterfalls along the way. And if you buy a hop on/hop off explorer (for that is what I've become) ticket, the bus drivers will point you in the right direction. Even, occasionally, jumping off the bus to plonk you (ok me) on the right path. They were a real laugh those drivers. One plays a ukelele in a local band and was busy telling me about the concerts happening across the mountains. So if you're looking for an alternative Blue Mountains' experience...


Saturday, 8 December 2012

I've been along to the Opera House, don't you know, to see Swan Lake.  This involved getting up super-early and queuing outside the box office for blooming ages - for just a standing ticket.  At one point it crossed my mind that perhaps making us queue this way was a ploy to separate those who'd be able to cut the mustard, standing-wise, and those who were likely to pass out during the actual performance -and therefore not worth wasting a ticket on. Anyway, I passed muster and later that day headed off for the ballet wearing my most sensible support shoes.      

Sadly, our happy band of standees had dwindled to 8 by the interval. One bloke decided he'd had enough and said to his girlfriend, who was standing next to me: 'Sorry love, but I'm falling asleep here...isn't really my thing. Why don't you girls (suddenly I was his get-out-of-jail card) stay, and I'll get a beer.'  I half expected him to add that he couldn't stand watching guys prancing around in tights anymore - but he didn't, even if he was thinking it. The girlfriend, fair dinkum, wasn't into being dumped, and followed him to the bar.

The second half of the performance was sublime, with just one little wobble from the prima ballerina.  (How she didn't go dizzy with all that spinning around I'll never know).  And we were allowed to sit in one of the no-show seats for the last bit, to rest our tired old pins. Ace! The music wasn't half-bad either.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

A friend (a sydney-sider, so he knows what's what in these parts) suggested I try Balmoral beach for a bit of a change. I gave his idea some consideration, and this morning headed off to new horizons.    

The only trying bit was having to take both a ferry and a bus to get there. But it was so worth it, as they say. No crowds (although the bay can get a bit busy on Sundays, apparently); the fish and chips were fab; the cute bathers' hut produced a mean flat white (like a latte) - and joy of joys, I swam around in the netted bit of the bay free from worries about dodgy marine life clinging onto me. 

Sheer bliss. Or it was, until a bunch of schoolboys spilled onto the beach. Where did they come from all of a sudden? And shouldn't they be in lessons, for heaven's sake? 

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

If you hang around the quayside long enough, something interesting always happens. I was just doing my version of jogging (it's like jogging central round these parts, particularly on the bit between the opera house and the botanic gardens), when I spied a throng at the entrance to the cinema.

It turns out, the masses were attending the world premiere (loose term) of a new film about popcorn. The guys at the front were recruiting 'extras' to hang around on the red carpet, looking suitably impressed. I can do that, I thought, even if I'm a tad under-dressed. It didn't seem to matter, even though some ladies had clearly been tipped off, and had made a supreme effort in the dress department: very Melbourne Cup. 

Well, this new blockbuster was called Choccorn on account of the fact it was, you guessed it, about chocolate-covered popcorn. The promotional video lasted no more than a few seconds, with a speech or two before and aft. So not exactly Oscar material. We did get some free samples though. They tasted rather good, incase you're wondering.      

Monday, 3 December 2012

Today's the official start of summer here in Sydney. Actually, I've just made that bit up, but with the temperature a lovely 28o, and mercifully with low humidity, it could be. So I'm off to Manly to throw my pale self into the greeny-blue briny. Just need to check there are no sharks, or jellyfish, around to spoil the party.

I spotted a friendly lifeguard, suitably creamed-up against the likely UV onslaught, and asked him if there are any nasties lurking in the water. "Nah, no sharks and the wind's in the wrong direction (i.e offshore/from the west) for the jellies to come over. The temp's perfect. Get in the water..snorkel, surf..enjoy yourself."  I nodded agreement, and then apologised for the daft question (the shark bit). ''No worries."

I was told later that someone thought they'd spotted a shark here last week, and screamed a bit. Not surprisingly, a mass exodus from the water followed. A false alarm as it turned out: a dolphin.

If it wasn't for endless ads on Aussie TV telling everyone who's still watching to slip/slap/slop (something to do with protecting yourself in the sun), I'd probably be in the water still, as I don't get that many chances to swim in the sea at home in December, funnily enough.

Monday, 26 November 2012

I'm now back in the big city and staying near the harbour - and what a truly gorgeous harbour it is. I took a walk from Circular Quay to The Rocks yesterday, crossing under the famous bridge. It's quite a sight just looking up at it, so there's no way, jose, I'm climbing up-and-over the curved bit (technical term escapes me at this point) as some daft souls are doing. And they pay to do that?

The bridge could do with a lick of paint, dare I venture. It's a bit of a boring, battleship-grey colour, so when it gets its telegraph from the Queen in 20 years' time, maybe it could be painted blue, red or even wattle-yellow?

The harbour's enchanting after sunset with all those lovely twinkling lights; add a lightning show to the mix (as there was last night) and it's scary too. The ferries just ply on regardless: to Manly, Darling Harbour, Balmain - wherever they're heading. I quite fancy going to and from work on the ferry,as lots do.         
Phew what a scorcher. It's sure hot in these parts; as in Ballina on the Richmond river, just on the edge of NSW before you jump over into Queensland. Even the pelicans have decided to take it nice and easy; just floating by, looking cool. I've been warming (figuratively-speaking) to the local jelly fish which are surprisingly pretty: all bluey-green. The sun must be playing tricks on me.

Ballina's an understated sort of place with a great community-art gallery serving one of the best lemon tarts I've had so far in Oz - and I've munched my way through quite a few.  But there's art too, not just munchies, so give the gallery a whirl.

It waas all pretty quiet on the riverbank; except for some Karawongs. These crow-like black and white birds have been hanging around in the trees being rather annoying - i.e very vocal - with a repertoire extending from birdie wolf-whistles, to wowwwwwwwwwwws. I wonder what's going through their little brains?  Stone the flippin' crows if I know the answer to that one.

I caught the bus to Byron Bay, the hippie capital of NSW - if not Australia. There's lots of arty, crafty, 'we're-ever-so-eco-friendly-here' stuff to browse around. On the beach, hordes of  schoolies were letting their hair, and pretty much everything else, down, now school's out. My timing could have been better, but I picked up some tips on the art of having fun while still sober-ish.  

If Byron's too full on, consider Lennox Head, roughtly halfway along the coast between Ballina and Byron. Or just buy a freedom pass ($12) and hop on and off the bus wherever you fancy.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

It's so easy to become spellbound by nature in Oz, and you don't have to head into the Outback to get a warm, nature-at-its-raw-best, feeling.

This morning I'm being chauffeured through one of the national parks in the southern reaches of Sydney. Gum trees and lots of Wattle (the bright-yellow national flower of Oz) are whizzing by;  and before long we're heading along the Pacific Highway which skirts around the park. The PH reminds me a little of Melbourne's Great Ocean Road. The GOR takes some beating though. It's not just an ok road; it's an awesome one. Which probably accounts for its name - at the risk of stating the obvious here.

I hope there aren't any bush-fires this summer. The fires do have a 'good' side it seems, nature-wise, allowing the trees to grow back bigger and better than ever, says one of the park wardens. Fair enough.
Just a bit of extra info on the koala front. Before I left the UK, my nieces gave me a koala trinket for my bracelet. Wasn't sure whether it was a Bruce or a Kim. Hello Banjo.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Crocs are never out of the news. Their shenanigans, whatever, in the Northern Territory provide endless material for the tabloids. So why the fascination with these creepy creatures? I asked the first Aussie I could find to throw some light on the subject. "Don't ask me - I don't give a rats about crocs."  Rats seem to figure quite a lot in Aussie sayings. The best one I've heard so far, para-phrasing a bit, is: 'God, he was so frantic: like a rat in a blender.' That's quite an image to conjure-up.

I've been hoping to get pretty up-close with wildlife (excepting spiders and snakes of course), so meeting cute Banjo the koala, chomping merrily on his eucalyptus leaf at a wildlife park south of Sydney yesterday, was bliss - for me anyway. Not sure what the little fella thought about being stroked, petted and generally swooned-over, but he behaved impeccably, with no scratching, biting or general misbehaving.

You're not allowed to hold koalas in NSW, although it's ok to in Queensland. Didn't get to the bottom of that one. Sadly the little fluffy guys (and gals) are endangered, so a koala hospital is offering softies the chance to adopt a koala for Xmas. Think I'll pass on that one. Not sure the little guy would be warm enough back home.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Ok, I'm now in Sydney. I was told to be prepared for a buzzy; hip-happening sort of place. While Melbourne's conservative (small c; maybe a big one too), arty and sporty, Sydney's 'out-there.' I grabbed the Aussie-English dictionary for an explanation of that one: it's A Good Thing.
I've had the best of all starts here. Wandering along the waterfront I saw some roadies busily setting-up for a performance near the Opera House - for Coldplay. I grabbed one of the guys in black who looked rather important and told him I'd love him forever if he could get me into see the band tomorrow; to end a run of bad luck as it were. "So you're a Brit, and you're telling me you haven't managed to get to one of their concerts yet...what's all that about? Struth. See what I can do." So helpful, these Aussie chaps.

Anyway, I was given the nod, and at 5am the next morning I clapped, sang along and looked suitably besotted through four great songs (broken-up by some nice audience-band interaction, and a bit of hanging around), at the free mini-concert live on Channel 7's Sunrise programme. Brill.

After all that excitement I was rather peckish, and caught-up with some friends in the Strand Arcade in the City's shopping centre for an Italian; at what turned out to be the noisiest watering-hole in town. So why so busy? I asked the manager. "Don't you know, Thursday's the new Friday." Ok, so what do I do tomorrow then?

Later on I met an interesting chap wandering around in the arcade wearing a fetching fedora. It turned out he was promoting his hat shop by offering passers-by free gin. Would I like to slug a tipple or two?  Worth a shot I thought...

Monday, 12 November 2012

My last day in Melbourne. So what do I think about the 'world's most liveable city'? Fair dinkum, it's a great place.

Federation Square?  The architecture seems to divide opinion. I thought it was a bit of a mess, to be honest. Anyway, the Visitor Centre next door can set you right on where to go in the city - for free. First off, take the circular tourist tram to get your bearings, suggested a friendly lady at the centre. So I did just that. Afterwards, I headed along the river bank and dozed under a tree, as the joggers worked themselves into a lather all around me. It was too flippin' hot to do anything else.

But I reckon the best bits of Melbourne are up into the hills, and on the coast. Head along the Mornington Peninsula, full of signs saying: 'slow down, koala crossing' - which, of course, could be a wind-up, but I think the fluffy marsups do hang around in these parts - for a nice day out. Flinders is good for grub; the pretty beach huts at Brighton probably cost a hell of a lot more than those in the UK, but are just as cute. The weather was horr-en-dous the day we drove wherever we fancied, but it is still, technically, spring so what do I expect?

Head north of Melbourne into the Yarra Valley if you want to taste some fashionably fab wines for nought, at the estates dotting the area. On the way, take in Stevenson Waterfall, where the surrounding trees bear the hallmarks of the terrible bushfires a few years' ago.

And what about the Great Ocean Road? Spare yourself the long drive to the Apostles at the end: Lorne & Mogg's Creek, sort of half-way along, will give you the drift. Airey's Inlet is a beaut: pretty cafe, blinding-white lighthouse and an Apostle-like rock jutting out of the water as if to say 'hi'.
I finally caught up with The Artist last night at a private screening in a lovely federation home in inner-Melbourne. I had one of the best seats in the house (squashy  sofa) and settled in to watch the movie with my cup of tea - and a tim-tams bisquit, an Aussie speciality, which doesn't look too disimilar to a Penguin bic.Good though. Had two; really wanted three.

And the film? It was a tad long, and I dozed off at some point. Perhaps I should have sat on a hard chair instead?

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Tasmania, or Tassie to you and me, is supposed to be a bit like the UK in the 50s. Well it rains a lot. I got soaked in Hobart's Salamanca Square trying to dodge the drizzle under a tree, while crowds lined the square hoping to shake Prince Charles' hand as he went walkabout.

I recommend Hobart's impressive museum and art gallery (TMAG) which won't cost you a cent to look around. The Southern Oceans/Antarctica exhibition explains why the roaring forties, furious fifties and screaming sixties' winds, make this ocean so tricky for sailors. The 'House of the Blizzard' 3D section transports you inside an antarctic hut - without your having to get your tootsies cold, or eat disgusting, dried food.

These days, doctors attached to South Pole expeditions are trained in dentisty as people's fillings, along with their teeth, have a habit of falling out. One doctor made a temporary tooth out of elephant tusk (which he just happend to have around, clearly) and it worked so well, the recipient was still wearing it three years' later. Clearly a case of obsessive compulsive attachment syndrome or OCAS; a condition I've just invented.

For a more edgy arty experience, head for MONA which is well worth a look around and is a nice trip on the ferry from the capital, Hobart.

If you haven't got long on Tassie it might be worth heading to Richmond, a 40 mins' bus ride north of Hobart, through the wineries. I was sitting in a cafe enjoying the local fish, luchet (a bit like cod), when the waitress warned us all to put our cars (didn't have one of course) inside as there was a storm coming 'the like of which we haven't seen for years'. The storm missed us by miles. 

Richmond prison is a good place to get some background on how the convicts were treated.You guessed it, rather badly. But they were given wine or beer - and then promptly punished for getting drunk.         
I saw a baby kookaburra on the banks of the Yarra last night. He was awesome, as they say here - a lot. I was rather hoping the little fella would 'laugh'. No joy. He didn't hang around long enough to do very much at all as it happens, other than blink a bit. He took off rapido, swooping so close to my head that I thought he might be taking me along for the ride. It turns out he'd spied a tasty morsel in the shape of a 6-foot snake in the neighbour's garden. Oh yuk. 

The Yarra (aboriginal for 'never dry up') might be muddy and uninviting in stretches, but the platyapus/pusses, who are said to love hanging around on the river banks, (although no-one actually remembers seeing one), like to call the area home.  Good for them.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Pommie wins the Melbourne Cup! Well not exactly. But I did back the horse, Green Moon, that ran a dream race. It was a bit of a stroke of luck as I hadn't a clue who/what to back; just waved my left hand around and plonked a finger randomly on the form guide. So scientific. So I'm around $50 dollars better off for a $4 stake. Beaut.

Monday, 10 September 2012

I'm off Down Under hoping to have fun and side-step snakes, spiders & crocs. I'll keep you posted, quite literally.