Friday, December 22, 2006

More shopping & tourist activities in NY

December 17th, 2006:

After recovering from the night before, I popped back into the city center to do some of the bigger tourist activities in the city.

First stop was the Empire State Building. I visited it seven years ago, so it wasn't high on the list of priorities. Just as well, as the queue was around the block and I didn't fancy waiting for hours in the freezing cold. It wasn't a waste of a trip though as something happened there which was straight out of a Hollywood movie: a convoy of Feds "took-down" a "perp"! There were five black Cadillac's, with discreet flashing lights on the dashboard, filled with guys in black suits and they pulled over a car from which they extracted a passenger and escorted him into one of their cars and sped off again. I started taking a picture, but one of the suits gave me a warning look so I thought it best to play it safe and put the camera away :(

After the Empire State Building, I wandered through Macys for ages (the "World's largest department store" is quite sizable alright) and then it was off to Battery Park to catch the ferry to the Statue of Liberty. This didn't quite work out as planned either: there were big signs up with symbols for things such as no guns, no knives and no explosives, but it was the first banned item in the list which caused a problem: no packages or backpacks... I looked doubtfully at my Macys bags and my backpack and wondered if they'd let me through anyways: however, none of the other tourists had any bags whatsoever (how did they know not to bring anything? I must have missed the memo...) and after asking a guard for advice I was politely turned away :( I didn't make it to the Statue of Liberty on my first trip here years ago either, but maybe next time...

After dropping the bags back to the hostel, I met up with someone from Texas and together we explored more of Central Park and even though she liked "power-walking" we still only got to see a small part of the place.

Last thing on my list of things to do in NY was to get a picture of the city lights at night time. The easiest way of doing this, I thought, would be to jump on the free Staten Island Ferry and get a picture of the city from Staten Island. Now, on the subway maps Staten Island looks like its a quick hop across the Hudson River: it is not all that quick(!) By the time the ferry arrived at its destination, the city looked very small on the horizon and taking a picture of that seemed pointless :( Still, the ferry ride at night time is worth doing: the city looks great when you are up close to it (though taking a picture at night time from a moving ferry makes the picture end up blurry) and the State of Liberty also looks impressive when its lit up, with the torch glowing golden orange at the top. Watching the twinkling lights of the city skyscrapers was a fitting ending to my NY trip and I can't wait to come back again.

Shopping in NY

December 16th, 2006:

Well, I'm back in New York after a seven year absence and all I'm wondering now is why I waited so long to come back! There was a little problem finding the address for my accommodation when I arrived at the airport but hooray for JFK(!): free wireless Internet access to deal such emergencies.

Despite it being nine days to Christmas, for the first year ever I did not have the slightest feeling of Christmas cheer this year. They just don't do Christmas down under in Oz and there are even people at my employment in Sydney who are (prepare yourself) working on Christmas day(!) (and no, they are not of a non-Christian upbringing: they just don't seem to want to lose a work day). I haven't heard much Christmas music, the shops in Sydney put up the bare minimum of decorations (no streamers, just the odd wreath here and there) and its far too hot: its just surreal seeing Santa with his big red coat while everyone else is in T-shirts and shorts!). All of northern Europeans agree on one thing: its too hot to be Christmas.

Within five minutes of getting into my shuttle bus from JFK though,I was "Ho-ho-ho"ing with the best of them. Its cold here (tick), has loud cheesy Christmas muzac (tick) and has the over-the-top decorations (tick tick tick!). I was hoping for snow but they have record-breaking warm weather at the moment :( Still, at least there is the crisp frosty-breath air which helps set the mood.

While in NY I'm staying next to Central Park in the Upper West-Side of Manhattan. I'm staying at the "Central Park Hostel" and so far its nice 'n warm and I have my own room with a TV with about 1,000 channels (naturally there's nothing much on). The hostel, at 103rd street, is conveniently located on the same block as a Subway station (called the 103rd street station, oddly enough) which makes getting to and from downtown easy enough. The last time I was here I staying in the Chelsea area (near 34th street) which is near the Empire State Building, and that was more convenient, but at least using the subway to get to the current hostel is cheap.

I have grown used to the modern-ness and cleanliness of the Sydney subway so New York's subway's well-used-throughout-the-ages look isn't as pleasing on the eye. Its also missing computer screens which give you updates on how long (to the minute) you need to wait for the next train and the seating inside the carriages runs along the walls rather than Sydney's bus-like rows, which gives NY's subway a lack of seating. Still, it must be said, NY's subway is fast: just make sure you hang on tight! Also, another big bonus in NY's favour is that you pay 2 USD for a single ticket and that is enough to get you anywhere the subway runs, even if you jump on the wrong train or change your mind and jump on another train to a different destination, that is no problem. With Sydney you pay for a single trip from source to destination with different amounts depending on where you are going and there's no room for error/change :(

So, after getting up on Saturday morning, it was time to do that which I usually successfully avoid: go shopping!
I made a quick stop over in Central Park to watch runner's racing through it, but then jumped on the subway to go to the city center. It was Broadway and 34th street where I jumped off and while I tried to "be cool" last time I was here years ago, this time I was the stereotypical tourist: camera in one hand, map in the other and mouth open as I stared/gawked up at the skyscrapers :)

First impressions were perfect weather, streets not too busy and finding where you wanted to go to was so easy with the grid layout of the streets. I also quickly became glad that it was not snowing as I had hoped before arrival: walking around with snow and ice might have proved challenging(!)

After haggling for ages with the street sellers on Broadway (and then buying nothing: how evil!) I found myself wandering through the law courts district, then past the Brooklyn Bridge and next found myself in the Financial District where things took a turn for the surreal. I wandered onto Wall street, expecting a sea of suits, but instead found myself being asked to remove myself from a movie set(!) I took up a position near some other tourists and we all had our cameras ready as the film crew started to film the next scene. Picture this: a car comes to a halt on the street, then a Justin Timberlake songs starts and the car gets surrounded by guys who start dancing provocatively to the sound of the music, rubbing against the outside of the car(!) Not too sure what it was all about, but we all found it very funny: hopefully that was the intention and we weren't laughing at something that the director was serious about :)

After Wall Street it was off to the World Trade Center site where people were signing the first metal pylon of the new building, the construction of which is starting shortly. Similar to Broadway, there are plenty of shops in the area so I braved the crowds and got stuck into the scrum in the shopping centers.

After spending the afternoon shopping, the light was starting to fade so it was off to Times Square which had enough bright lights of its own to make it appear like mid-afternoon again. It was so busy, though, that the crowds just stopped moving at times due to the squash of the multitudes of people ahead.

The day ended with a group of us from the hostel visiting a local bar to sample some of the local brews: it was a long day and an even longer night :)

On the way... to JFK!

December 15th, 2006:

After living in Sydney for nine months, I've come to the conclusion that I have become too much of a local(!) It's been ages since I organized any tourist activities and its been all parties and social events for the last couple of months. However, to rectify that I popping home for Christmas and am stopping off for a couple of days in the Big Apple: New York, USA.

There are no direct flights from Sydney to NY (apparently its too far), so a quick stop over in LA was required on the way. Or at least, it should have been a quick stop over...! The flight over the Pacific towards the US was as expected and I was surrounded by The Sick (sneezing, coughing, somebody with Whooping Cough, etc.) while we had The Screaming Baby (looked about a week old, but had a good pair of lungs) who kept us company throughout the night. However, as we arrived into LAX, things took an unexpected twist: LAX was closed due to fog(!) We had to divert to a nearby freight airport ("Ontario", not the Canadian version) and sat in the plane for about two hours while Qantas organized buying more fuel and a landing window at LAX for when the thick fog which blanketed the area disappeared. Its company policy not to serve refreshments while we sat on the runway(?) and also due to the engines being switched off, it did get quite warm but I chose to enjoy the tropical conditions as I figured that it would probably be the last time I would experience the like for a while(!)

So, while the first leg of the trip wasn't ideal, the second leg of the trip, from LAX to JFK is (as the locals say) awesome! I have my own row so I am currently lying out across the row, with a nice glass of wine watching movies on the TV panel at the back of the seat in front of me. The in-flight entertainment system works (its one of those "in-demand" systems which offers over 20 movies and allows you to pause, rewind, etc), the Sick are asleep and The Screaming Baby is absent.... Bliss!

Monday, August 07, 2006

Sky Diving over Cairns

August 5th, 2006:

For my last day in the Cairns area, I decided I'd try give myself a fall, a big fall, a fall from a plane thousands of feet above ground. Yes, it was time to try: Sky Diving!

The hostel had a variety of brochures for Sky Diving companies, but the one that stood out was "Xtreme Skydiving". Formally known as "Paul's Skydiving", this company has been in operation since 1989, is the original operator in the area and has a team of experts with over 95,000 jumps between them: as the brochure put it "there {was} no decision to make" and I phoned up to make a reservation.

As I was flying back to Sydney later on the day of the proposed jump, a critical factor for me was time: would I be able to complete the mission before time ran out? The receptionist promised me that if I went on the 8:30AM flight, I would be back to my hostel within 2 1/2 hours which fitted perfectly with the schedule and so with no more excuses I booked myself in.

There were four of us rookies taking our first jump today, and we all nervously met up at the "Xtreme Skydiving" office. With all of the tourist activities I have done over the last five months there were mostly groups of friends with only a few individuals, but it was interesting to see that there were no groups of friends in this case, only individuals: perhaps this is an activity where it is tough to find whole groups of friends willing to go, leaving it up to the (clearly crazy :) individuals...?

Preparation for the flight took place surprisingly quickly. Paperwork was filled (the usual dangerous activity disclaimers needed to be signed) and then we had a harness fitted around each of us. We were all doing tandem jumps (meaning that we were jumping while attached to a more experienced guide) and so we were introduced to our guides for the day. Mine was a British bloke from near Cambridge who had a dark sense of humor: while checking my harness he joked: "Hope I haven't missed anything... Well I guess we'll find out once we are up there!" :). Our guides also had us practicing the various moves we would have to make while in the air (such as practicing the classic sky diving position: flat on your tummy, arms stretched out to the sides and legs arched back upwards) and also the landing position we would have to take at the end. Within ten minutes of arriving we were all climbing into the van and heading off to the Cairns' airfield, all of us wondering what we had gotten ourselves in to...

On arrival at the airfield, we found the plane was already warming up. The plane seemed impossibly small, and resembled a slightly elongated two-seater which was supposed to fit all four of us newbees and each of our guides. Having seen plenty of WW2 movies where the parachuters are seating in their plane ready to be dropped into France, I was expecting sixty years of progress to provide a nice comfy plane: the reality was slightly different and if anything the WW2 paratroopers flew in luxury(!) (except for the conditions outside for them, needlesstosay) Seats? What are they?! We roughed it in our plane by cramming into the small interior which just about fitted us all in. The plane was only wide enough for one person so we sat in a line with each of us first-timers sitting between the outstretched legs of our guides.

I was last in and so was right next to the door of the plane. The door, from floor to ceiling was composed of see-through plastic and as the plane took off and started to climb, nothing of the view outside was left to the imagination. The first three thousand feet were the most nerve-racking with everything on the ground getting smaller and smaller very quickly. My guide and I were continuing our dark jokes which helped distract from what was about to happen and by the time we reached our jump height, everything below looked surreal-y small and looked more like a picture/painting.

With Sky Diving, there are four main heights you can do it from: 8,000ft, 10,000ft, 12,000ft and 14,000ft. It seems that above 14,000 the reduced oxygen can become a problem so 14,000ft is seen as the limit. I figured if you're going to do it, you might as well do it right and so went with the highest option.

Once we reached 14,000ft, the door opened and it was time to jump. I was by now securely attached to my guide and as I was right next to the door there wasn't far to move to get to the jump position. We slowly moved to the doorway, through which a gale was now blowing through. Then I sat on the ledge of the doorway which my legs dangling outside and my arms and face outside the plane being blown by the icy hurricane strength wind blowing along the length of the fuselage. My guide edged me a bit further out so that he could get into the right position and I found myself teetering on the edge of the door ledge fighting the suction of the wind blowing past and also fighting the instinct to move back from the big drop down to the ground far, far below...

"Go!" was the next thing I heard and we fell out. Before going up the guide had asked me if I wanted to do any aerial acrobatics and in a moment of bravado I had replied "why not!", so as soon as we left the plane we started doing frontal somersaults and while keeping my eyes open I could see the land below switch with the sky above. Again, and again we flipped over and and over and after half a dozen flips we flattened out in a freefall. We were both in the classic skydive position by now and the wind screamed past us as we plummeted for about a minute. Exhilarating is the word to describe the freefall: the wind is so strong that the skin on your face straight away gets pulled back, any other exposed skin gets instantly chilled and you find yourself suddenly aware of gravity's inexorable pull dragging you down while the wind screaming past leaves you in no doubt that you are falling quickly!

After about a minute, the guide tapped me on my shoulder and as I crossed my arms in front of my shoulders he released the parachute. I was expecting a painful sudden jerk, but instead it was more of a smooth stop as the canopy unfurled and then we just seemed to hang motionless in the air. We were both buzzed after the excitement of the freefall and even though everything on the ground far below still looked too small to be real, I'm sure the people in a nearby matchbox-sized farmstead heard us :) The jump site we had gone for was just outside of Cairns, and the crystal clear viewing in every direction displayed the green sugarcane farmlands and rainforests directly below with Cairns city further out next to the blue sea in the distance with small islands dotting the bay. The view was amazing. The gently parachuted fall lasted a couple of minutes and the guide gently tugged the left and right handles attached to the parachute to change our viewing angle while he described the local landmarks. After a bit he asked if I wanted to spin a bit and as soon as I uttered the word "sure!" he yanked on the right handle and we suddenly started spinning insanely quickly in circles to the right. He then yanked on the left handle and we quickly stopped, only to start spinning to the left: the spins were disorientating and if you go sky diving yourself in the future, and you have a weak tummy, you may want to skip this bit...

By now, the ground was getting closer and it no longer unreal: it just looked like everything was getting bigger very, very quickly. We made sure to avoid a high-tension power cable tower below (that provided lots of jokes for our continued black humor :) and once we cleared the tower it was time to adopt the landing position. If you are landing by yourself you can land standing upright, but when in tandem it is far, far safer to land in the seated position. So, with our legs up we glided over a sugarcane field which had recently been harvested and the discarded sugarcane stalks provided a soft landing for when we touched down.

The rest of the tandem groups landed shortly afterwards and even though one of the other first-timer's was South Korean with poor English and another was Japanese and had no English, it didn't matter: we all had no problem communicating our excitement(!) Even the guides who have jumped hundreds of times were all buzzed and were happy that each of us had given it 110% and that there had been no problems.

So, it seems that I have found another activity that I will have to try again. The only thing with these new activities (scuba diving & sky diving} is that they are somewhat expensive: today's experience, though it only lasted minutes cost 270AUD, so its unlikely that I will be trying it often. Nevertheless, even if I never get to do it again, I'll never forget my first sky dive.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Scuba Diving at the Great Barrier Reef

August 3rd 2006:

My first experience with the Great Barrier Reef (with snorkling) was ok but underwhelming due in part to the murky conditions on the day. So, for today's trip to the reef I asked the tour organisers at the hostel to recommend what they thought was the best operator to go with. Based on their recommendation, I went out today with Tusa Dive for a bit of scuba diving.

Tusa Dive, which is based on Cairns, picked me up from my hotel at at crack of dawn (well, 7:20AM) and dropped me off at the docks where I joined my fellow divers and snorklers. The Tusa boat was your average small-medium sized dive-ferry with a capacity of 28 customers.

After a quick intro to the boat from one of the crew, we were on our way and about an hour later arrived at our first dive location. One of the factors which attracted me to the company was that even they didn't know where they were going until we got closer to the reef: they have 21 possible dive sites in the area and based on sea conditions once they get near the reef, they choose the most suitable location.

The location-delaying approach really paid off: there were two dives today, in two different locations, and both locations had crystal clear visibility with no sign of murky water.

The crystal clear water helped show why the Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven wonders of the natural world. The reefs were much more developed that Koh Tao and the range of fish on show was nearly sensory-overloading(!) There was plenty of Nemo (Clown) fish to see, but also many larger fish which were not at Koh Tao: these larger fish were at least the length of my arm and half the length again in height. Sadly no sharks again, but there were sea turtles and also some sort of 8-foot long eel. The fish swam amongst many coral formations and it made for interesting diving, swimming close to the coral but not touching it. We, for example, swam through a narrow 40 meter coral chasm with 20 meter vertical walls: we could just fit through the narrow space without touching the walls, and had to swim up at an angle to climb over coral which blocked our route, and a short while later swim back down to avoid other formations blocking the way from above all while schools of tropical fish darted about. It was all great scuba skills experience as you don't use your arms when scuba-swimming: its all about adjusting your breathing to change your buoyancy.

I brought another archaic (film-based) camera down with me and this one is re-usable (as opposed to disposable) so I'm hoping the clear sea conditions combined with this camera's flash capability will produce good results.

I also noticed that whereas we all left the snorkling, a couple of days ago, early due to becoming cold, there was no problem with the temperature during the scuba-diving despite being at a greater depth in the water. Perhaps there were just warmer currents on the further out part of the reef, or maybe the view provided enough of a distraction to forget about the temperature. Whatever the cause, the cold was not a problem.

The icing on the cake came on the way back. I had been chatting the skipper and he allowed me to pilot the boat part of the way back to port :) I was sitting in the captains chair driving the boat from far out at sea, cresting the slightly rolling sea back to the shore. While the ship had GPS, we were navigating based on landmarks on the horizon and in reality all that was required was small course adjustments, but still it was a great experience.

It was a great day out and the scuba diving is well worth doing if you are in the area. The reef was definitely even more impressive than the Koh Tao reef and best of all, unlike Koh Tao, my air hose didn't explose which is always a plus!

Croc spotting and other sights around Cape Tribulation

August 1st 2006:

A couple of months ago I went with a company called "Rob's Tours" for doing a tour around the World Heritage Site "The Lammington National Park". Today I went with "Tony's Tours" for a guided tour around several areas around Port Douglas. I found the company on the web before leaving Sydney and all the reviews were very positive, so I thought I'd give it a go.

Tony collected myself and two Melbourne-ians from the resort at 8AM and after collecting three others (two Canadians and an Italian) from another resort we were on our way up the coast.

Our transport for the day was a Toyota Land Cruiser 4-wheel drive, or SUV as it is known down here, and Tony came across as informative, humorous and very knowledgeable about the area.

Our first stop, after a quick look at the local cane and banana fields, was the Mossman Gorge. This clear flowing river set amidst a rain forest gave us a quick introduction to the rainforest flora and fauna. "Quick" is the main word here. It only took about 10 minutes to see the gorge and I can't help but think back to a gorge I viewed in France which took a couple of hours to get around: would I have seen more if I wasn't part of an organized tour? On the other hand, having a guide pointing out the history and the contemporary things to see was definitely a positive.

Anyways, we pressed on and our next stop was the Daintree River. We hopped into a small boat and were soon sailing down the river viewing... Crocodiles(!). There were LOTS to see. The first one was a mere 3-footer, followed by a baby 1-footer, then came a 5-footer, but these were all entrees to the main course. A croc called "Scar-face", which was about 8-foot long was sunning itself on the shore and then came "Fat-Albert"(!) who was a gigantic 15-feet long and weighed an estimated 500Kgs: thankfully he was happy to stay on the shore also(!). We got quite close to some of the crocs, being about 2 arms length from some of them. We also passed close to a Python which was curled up in a tree, but it was only a minor distraction to the croc-spotting. This part of the tour took about an hour and was well worth doing.

Next stop was Cape Tribulation. Now, it seems that many of the landmarks around the area were named by Captain Cook back in the day, and when he got to this area of the world, he hit a reef which put a hole in his ship. It seemed to put him in a bad mood as some of the landmarks are now called "Despair", "Sorrow", "Misery" and the one we visited today was "Tribulation" (as in Trials and Tribulations). Despite the name, the Cape is worth visiting, with a rainforest situated next to a long, gray, quiet beach. It is, however, rather similar to the rest of the coastline in the area so don't feel too disappointed if you don't make it up there.

After a quick tea break with cakes and chocolate-chip cookies we moved onto Alexander Lookout for a view from near the top of a mountain over the the valleys and mountains back to Port Douglas. This was also a quick stop and we moved quickly onto Noah Valley where we had lunch and tried to goad each other to taking a swim in the nearby river (we were assured by Tony that there were no crocs in this river, but nobody was in a hurry to find out for sure(!))

After lunch we took a tour around part of the World Heritage Daintree Rainforest which had a phenomenal range of plants which had stopped evolving over 100 million years old and some of the ferns last changed nearly a quarter of a billion years ago(!). All of the old favorites were there (similar to Lamington National Park near Brisbane), with Strangler Figs and Gimpy/Stinger Trees in evidence. The guide also had us licking green ants (for a sherbet taste) and had us smelling a flower which had the guys in the group thinking that it smelled nice and the ladies thinking that it smelled like sweaty socks!). The addition of a guide to how Aboriginals used the rainforest resources to live was the icing on the cake.

Wrapping up the day was a Daintree Tea made from tea grown locally, and Daintree Ice-cream made from locally grown exotic ingredients. Tony even cleared up what that giant spider I spotted on my first day in the area was: its a "Golden Orb", it seems, and while it is poisonous to insects, it is sadly non-poisonous to humans due to it not being able to break through our skin. It is technically still poisonous though, so I'll be sure to play up that aspect of it when describing it in the future :)

Snorkling at the Great Barrier Reef (Low Isles)

30th July 2006:

Well, I somehow managed to survive the night without any unwanted visitors (although, I do have a mysterious bruise on my arm: I wonder will something hatch in a couple of weeks? Something to watch for I guess :)

Today's activity was to visit the Coral Sea, and in particular, the Great Barrier Reef.
I spent the morning at the nearby, nearly deserted Four Mile Beach with its flat, white, stoneless beach and waveless sea. It seems that during the summer months (November - February), swimming in the Coral Sea is a bit of a gamble with the sharks and stinging jellyfish. Apparently though, the risks are reduced at this time of the year, so with not a lifeguard or any fellow swimmer's anywhere in sight for four miles, I decided I'd go in for a quick swim... in what turned out to be the chilly, murky sea water. Still, the lack of waves made for a relaxed, albeit uneventful swim.

So, looking for a more interesting swim, I phoned up a local tour operator and booked a snorkeling trip for the afternoon. Most operator's claim that you need a day to get to the reef, do the swimming and get back, but this operator in Port Douglas claimed that two and a half hours was more than enough.

I had my doubts but this afternoon I made my way to the marina area and joined six others on the docks which was full of big yachts and ferries. And then their was our boat(!) If you've ever seen Baywatch, you would be familiar with the Scarab speedboats that they used on the show: I no longer wonder what it would be like to get a ride on one as within minutes of arriving we were sailing at a relaxed pace out of the harbor on a sleek white Scarab. The skipper (sadly not a Baywatch cast member(!)) told us that due to choppy sea conditions away from the shore he'd have to go slower than normal and restrict our speed to a mere 60kmph, but in reality that speed is still fast for a boat. Having been on boats before, I moved straight to the front as it is the best to experience the bow leaping high out of the water after cresting a wave, and then slamming back down again. Sure enough, as we quickly picked up speed we all had to hang on tight and as the boat jumped over the top of the rolling waves, there was a feeling of weightlessness before coming crashing back down to the water below.

Within 20 minutes we had arrived at the reef. We berthed off a vegetated coral cay (its coral which has grown out of the water to form an island and trees and other vegetation have grown on top) and once the gear was on we jumped in and started swimming around the coral below. The view was, unsurprisingly, unforgettable with shoals of exotic fish swimming amongst the colorful coral formations. All of the coral formations were there with Brain coral, Cabbage Coral and Mushroom Coral were easily visible with schools of Angel Fish darting about and I even swam for a bit with a sea-turtle(!).

I would advise that you do your homework before visiting a coral reef: it becomes even more enjoyable when you're down there and you spot a fish/coral that you had read about before (as opposed to "oh look, a colourful fish" and moments later "and another colourful fish", etc.) You can also purchase from dive shops a laminated colourful chart that you can bring down with you of all of the fish/coral that can be seen.

Swimming time allocated on our trip was 1 1/2 hours, but in reality we were all finished before the allocated time expired. During the summer months, the sea can reach an incredible 30C, but today the temperature was 22C which eventually sucked away all body warmth. Only other downer was that the sea wasn't as clear today as it had been at Koh Tao due to the choppy sea conditions. I had brought an underwater camera with me but I suspect the pics will turn out to be murky as the visibility down below was nowhere near as clear as the sheltered Koh Tao dive sites.

Speaking of underwater cameras, if you own a digital camera you can get an underwater enclosure for your camera so that it will work underwater. However, these enclosures cost a couple of hundred dollars and there is a minor risk of leaking... If you don't go swimming/snorkeling/scuba diving often, a much cheaper and risk free alternative is a disposable underwater camera and it seems that you can even get it developed straight to digital CD: sweet!

So, seeing the Great Barrier Reef is another box I can tick in the things-to-do list. So far, the Koh Tao reefs are winning due to the better visibility and warmer water, but I hope to go back to the Great Barrier Reef again for scuba diving in a couple of days for another great experience.

Arrival into Cairns and onto Port Douglas

29th July 2006:

I have traveled to quite a few airports around the world over the years but the approach into Cairns airport was one that I won't forget anytime soon. The airport is located next to the coast and as planes land they skim in over the blue water to touch down, usually without much drama. In our case, though, our skimming was suddenly aborted seconds before landing: the flight crew came on later to explain that the plane which had landed previous to ours had suffered from landing gear failure(eek!) and so we had to circle just over the water to give the airport emergency services time to respond. We weren't told about the other plane's problem as we were circling though, so in my blissful ignorance I found myself staring down at the water out my window at... hundreds of whales! Some were under the water, but many were blowing big spouts of water vertically, and others were creating big splashes with their back fin/tail: neat!

Once we did land we saw the stricken plane with the problem surrounded by airport fire brigade vehicles but whereas the flight crew on our plane had made the impression that the stricken plane was a big Boeing/Airbus, it was merely a small two seater... still, no doubt an exciting moment for the pilot who had a lucky escape.

It was hard to stay staring at the little plane too long, as the view in the background was also impressive. Much of the Cairns area is flat, but it is surrounded by high mountains, golden beaches, intense blue seas and the nearby fields are planted with tall sugar cane.

I'm staying for the first couple of days in the nearby town of Port Douglas. I'll be popping back to Cairns later in the week to stay up all night in the bars/clubs, but in the mean time I've rented a serviced villa at the "Rendezvous Resort" in Port Douglas for some R&R and the villa will be the base of operations from which I tour the area. The villa costs 79AUD a night and is vast. The resort also has three pools, and is a five minute walk from the "4 mile beach". Only minor downside is that its a 30 minute walk from the town center, but there is a regular bus service to and from the resort reception.

Before I left, one of my housemates warned me to watch out for the insects: Sarah, you weren't kidding! I had noticed before arriving at the villa that there weren't many flies about Cairns/Port Douglas, and then I found the cause: the spiders here are massive! Well, I've only seen the one, but it was at least the size of my hand (I didn't want to get too close to measure it...) and in addition to the insects, this thing could probably have taken on small birds. The main reason why I noticed it was because whereas the spiders back home tend to spin their webs into small corners, this thing's web was stretched between the ground, the first floor of a neighboring villa, acrossa scmall garden and was finally attached to the villa's carport. I've never noticed fangs on a spider before (they were always too small), but it was clear from the fangs on that spider that it meant business... The house that it was attached to was empty and I suspect it will be empty for a long time as I can't imagine anyone wanting to take that spider on!

Well, its getting late and nearly time to sleep. Even though its coming up on midnight, it is still hot outside. Despite the heat, though, I'll be sure to keep the windows closed in case I wake up in the middle of the night to find that spider crawling across the pillow...!

On the road again

29th July 2006:

Well, I'm on the road again. I'm writing this from a plane, flying somewhere north of Sydney on the way to Cairns which is near the top of the continent. The countryside far, far below is completely different from the countryside near Perth (on the other side of Australia): here it is all green hills and valleys with not a sign of the red dust that dominated the northern Perth landscape. However, similar to near Perth, there is no sign of civilization whatsoever, so if you ever think of hitch-hiking up the coast, you may need to prepare for a loooonnnnggg walk!

The recent job hunting has finished and I am now an employee of "Vero", which is part of "Proxima" which apparently is the third largest insurance related company in Australia. Vero is a large corporate so it will be a change from my previous jobs at small/medium companies. The contract lasts until December 31st which is convenient: the next leg of the round-the-world flights begins in January so I can decide then if I want to stay longer with Vero/Sydney and come home for Christmas for a short break, or if I want to continue the round the world trip until the following March.

I have a couple of weeks off before starting at Vero hence the escape from the Sydney winter to the seemingly eternally good weather in Northern Queensland (well, until the area gets devastated by hurricanes...)
I was expecting the preparation for this trip to be easy after taking care of the arrangements between Ireland -> Asia -> Oz. However, things rarely go smoothly(!) and there was a faulty Qantas website to deal with ("Invalid configuration: please contract your administrator" was the helpful message), an overloaded Jetstar system (Jetstar is another airline and they just launched their summer sale so the website was up and down while their phone system was engaged nearly all day, and on the way from home this morning to the airport, an entire section of the train system was closed which meant having to resort to the bus with the associated traffic delays.

So, there was a bit of a MacGuyver moment with a mad dash to get to the check-in desk in time and I only just got there as it was closing. Still, once I was randomly selected for a chemical/explosives test it was like old times and it was great to know that I was traveling somewhere again (the security officer even commented that it was a nice change to have someone happy to do the test :) Also on the upside, I was expecting a seat near the loo having checked-in so late, but it turns out that Jetstar does not have assigned seating so I just joined the throng at the boarding area and still managed to get a good seat. They even moved the ubiquitous nearby screaming baby to a different part of the plane so things are definitely looking up.

There is one bit of local Sydney news which may interest anybody reading this who knows Sydney: Hyde Park is being leveled... Hyde Park is the equivalent of Central Park for New York and unfortunately they have found that subway work going as far back as the 1920s has allowed a fungus to infect the roots of all of the mature trees in the park: the result is that the roots have rotted and city officials say that its only a matter of time before one of these giant trees topples over onto nearby people/buildings. Thus, the park has to be completely dug up, all top soil removed and new top soil added to remove the fungus. Sadly, they reckon that it will take another fifty years for the park to recover :( I'll be sure to take lots of photos when I come back from Cairns.

Finally, I've abandoned the stylus/pen approach of tapping in each letter to type this: I got a present of a bluetooth, near-full size keyboard which folds up into a small easily portable unit and which talks wirelessly to the PDA: compared with the tapping approach it is bliss!

Well, I think I'll go back to chatting to the two English women sitting next to me: their accents are straight out of Emerdale (I don't watch that UK soap, just to clarify: I have lived with girls which were fanatics though.. sigh...) and the accent sounds odd hearing it in real-life, but we’re all off to Port Douglas so we can share the travel cost of the transfer from Cairns airport to Port Douglas: handy, oh-aye!

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Job hunting: Round Two

27th July 2006:

The one downside with being a contractor is that once a project that you are hired for finishes, it is often the case that your employment contract finishes also :(
So, sadly, we all did too good a job on the last project(!) and it finished on time so I am back looking at the job market. Thankfully, all went well with Bullseye and as I'm leaving with a good reference from an Aussi company, it should should be easier to find the next job down under.

Despite only being two months since the last time that I went through this job hunting procedure, there is a noticeable difference in the job market. The one common phrase that I kept running into from recruiters and fellow contracting buddies regarding the companies looking for new employees was: "they just can't find anybody". It seems there is a major shortage of people with .Net skills in Sydney and I've been quoted between five and fifteen dollars more per hour now than compared with eight weeks ago. Its handy for contractors in the short term but I'd imagine that it will eventually start hurting the job market here if companies have to start offshoring projects to India or somewhere...

I have done eight interviews over the last couple of weeks and the vast majority were very positive with the both the business and technical parts of the interviews going aok. As with the last round two months ago, the technical part of the interviews tended to be VERY technical with real-nitty-gritty questions being posed. They varied from the "here's a pen a paper: implement x, y and z" to the more advanced on-line multiple choice series of questions which adapted itself to zone in on your weaker areas: yuck!

Still, no word yet on if/where I'll be working. So, in the mean time I think I'll embark on a mini-trip. Being winter in this part of the world, it makes sense to try to go skiing while there is snow in the mountains. Relatively close the Sydney are mountains which regularly get snow in winters (they're called the Snowy Mountains, oddly enough(!)): sadly it is just too wet this year and it seems the skiing isn't the best which many of the resorts resorting to artificial snow on otherwise rocky slopes.

With that in mind, I think I'll go for the sun instead. I had looked into going to some South Pacific island chain such as Tahiti, however there are limited flights and all are booked up for the coming couple of weeks :( Still, at the same latitude as Tahiti is the Aussi area of Cairns where the temperature never seems to drop below 25C all year: just what the doctor ordered after the last couple of months of wet Sydney weather.

So long Surry Hills

25 July 2006:

After three months in the hostel, the time finally came to move on. I realize that for most people, they would have moved on after less than a week, but why be normal?! Still, better late than ever, I have moved to the Bondi Junction suburb of Sydney and am now sharing a house with a Canadian, an Aussi, a dog (American Staff Terrier), a cat (does very little, just seems to purr on my lap all day) and a fish (Thai fighting fish, does even less and usually just likes playing dead at the bottom of the tank(!) Rent, the main reason why I moved out is nearly half of the 350 Aussi dollars it cost per week at the hostel (eek! so expensive!) so straight away I knew I was onto a winner with the new place.

So, why the Bondi Junction area? I'm five minutes from the shops, five minutes from the train into the city and the beach is down the road. Naturally, even though the continent was experiencing drought conditions for most of the last twelve months, its been raining nonstop since I moved two weeks ago with the weather forecasters saying that it it has been the wettest July in years: typical!

It is odd living somewhere where the kitchen has all of its walls (the hostel kitchen wasn't entirely enclosed which made cooking in the evenings a "fresh" experience) and having a room which is larger than a double bed is another bonus(!) Speaking of a double bed, IKEA is near Sydney and is the place to get cheap furniture. Only thing to note though is that unless you want to carry the bed back to your house yourself, you'll probably want to get the home delivery option: however, they don't explain until after you've bought the bed that the charge nearly 50% extra for delivery if the bed is larger than double size, and you didn't bring cash with you? That's another 2.x% charge for your credit card. Hmmmm...

Once the bed does arrive, you do get the pleasure (or pain) of assembling it yourself. I was quite proud of my effort: a mere 30+ pieces left over after I was finished! (their design was inefficient and I improved it: well, that's what I'm saying to myself anyway :)

Saturday, May 27, 2006

No hurry to find a place

Well, I appear to be tackling the accommodation-finding project with about as much enthusiasm as writing a program in assembly (sorry, a little computer "joke" there. That’s very little enthusiasm for the non-techies out there(!)).

The shared accommodation I had a look at recently required a longer commitment than I was willing to give. The single/studio "units" (apartments) I've looked at were spectacular (picture standing in your living room, looking out the floor-ceiling windows and seeing just the blue harbour with the bridge and the opera house behind) but after getting over the view, all that’s left at the end of the day is an empty apartment to come home to...

Which leaves the current place I'm living in (Alfred Park Hostel) and the real reason for my lethargic searching. Would I really want to leave the easy-to-make-new-friends environment, the regular "wine tasting" sessions with the buddies (it usually takes a couple of bottles for the taste to come through ;), the free wireless broadband internet, the private room with ensuite all of which gets cleaned by someone else (and yes, mum, I do keep my room clean also(!)), the great location near central train station, and so many other plusses?

The only minor downside is sharing the kitchen but even that can be interesting. There was somebody there this evening who had clearly never cooked for himself before: I no longer wonder what would happen if someone were to put a big sandwich role into the microwave and turn it on, without taking the tinfoil wrapping off first...!

So, ironically, I guess I'll be staying in the one place (a hostel) that I initially found myself trying to avoid(!)

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Job hunting is (currently) finished

Well, the job hunting is finished: I am now a productive, tax paying member of Australian society. I have taken on a contract with "Bullseye" ( to do an ASP.Net + SQL Server website. The contract is initially three months in duration but if things work out there is the possibility that it might be extended to six months, or even a more permanent position.

The job hunting took longer than expected. I had been advised before coming here that I should start applying for jobs on arrival into Sydney, or even before arriving: when the time came, though, I figured I'd just spend some time doing the tourist sights first and so it wasn't until two weeks after arriving into Sydney that I started looking. Even then, I only applied for one or two jobs and was in no particular hurry, which wasted another couple of weeks.

In the end, though, it all came together rather quickly: applied on Wednesday, phone interview Thursday, technical face-to-face interview Friday afternoon and the contracts were signed an hour later.

Naturally, within an hour of signing, the flood of available positions from other recruiters started pouring in and between Friday arvo (see: I'm starting to pick up the local lingo(!)) and on Monday I had to decline half-a-dozen promising positions. It may have been a coincidence, but on the other hand I had a week previously changed my CV to clarify my experience (for the techies: very few people had heard of Sharepoint or the Compact Framework, so a clarification of what they were (ASP.Net and Winforms) was put in).

With regards to the job websites, and were the most fruitful. I did get the impression that there were more jobs being advertised for than there actually were in reality: multiple recruiters were retained by companies to find candidates and so multiple-similar ads would appear. Also, on applying for a job that had been posted only hours previously, I would sometimes get an email back straight away saying that the position had been filled (already?!) but that they would keep my CV in case anything else came up (indicating that the ad was more of a CV-harvesting exercise).

Still, those harvesting recruiters were fortunately few and far between: the vast majority of the recruiters I dealt with were positive, helpful and enthusiastic.

As for the .Net (its a programming language, for the uninitiated) skill breakdown, the following is how the main skills are ranked in terms of popularity of available positions:
1) ASP.Net. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of positions were for ASP.Net, preferably with SQL Server or (less frequently) Oracle. Having these skills on the CV is a big plus and is one of the factors which attracted me to the Bullseye position.
2) Winforms & Sharepoint. In tied second place are Winforms and Sharepoint (separately). Both appeared with about the same frequency, but due to a shortage of Sharepoint developers, having Sharepoint skills is seen as being a major plus.
3) Compact Framework. Companies looking for this experience are rare but if you have the experience you could find yourself in demand due to a shortage of suitable developers. However, while I was job hunting I did not see any Compact Framework roles.

I did find the job hunting to have a steep learning curve on the regulatory side of things. So, here are the main points:

There are two types, "Holiday" (no work allowed) and "Working Holiday" visa (work allowed, but with restrictions). Could you get away with just a holiday visa and still pick up an IT job? I guess its possible, but the VAST majority of ads state that applicants must how a working related visa, so it would be tough starting with just the holiday visa.
The main restriction with the Working Holiday visa is that you are limited to three months with the same employer. However, if your employer has multiple offices you could work for the Sydney office for the first three months, the Melbourne office (but in the Sydney office) for the next three months, etc. The visa regulations are being changed to allow a straight six months with the same employer (in the same location), but those changes don't come into effect until July 2006 and apparently they are not retrospective so my visa will still be limited to three months.

So, you don't have a working visa, or you have a working visa but want to stay with the same employer for an extended period (upto four years)?, then you will want sponsorship from a company. This takes a couple of weeks to be processed, must be done by an employer and has the unfortunate side effect of canceling your previous visa, meaning that if you leave your sponsorship then you have 28 days to leave the country(!)... Still, its seen as being the way to go. I don't need it (yet) as I am doing a three month contract, which fits in with the standard Working Holiday Visa regulations, but if I want to stay on longer then I may need sponsorship.

Contracting v. Permanent
If you want a permanent job, then you will need to find a company which offers sponsorship and not all do...
The more flexible approach is to get a contracting role as this may allow you to retain your existing visa. So, one approach you could take for example, is that you could get a three month contract to get some money together and then spend the remaining nine months traveling around Oz. Alternatively, you could get rolling-contracts, one after the other.
Being a contractor, you will need to be contracted from some company. For the brave, you could set up your own company and contract yourself out from it, but keep in mind that you will need to arrange your own insurance and sort out the tax yourself. The easier approach is to go with a contract management company (such as Lesters Associates of Sydney) who takes care of everything for you (for a small monthly fee, naturally).
The usual path is to start out as a contractor and if things work out then you could become sponsored and permanent.

Money-wise, the salaries being quoted here are a lot higher than back home. You can also, generally, claim your tax & pension back though there are time-based restrictions (e.g. If you stay for a couple of years, you may not be able to claim back the tax for the initial year(s)).

So, there you have it: the job is sorted out. Next task, find suitable accomodation, which hopefully won't take as long to sort out...

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Powerhouse Museum (Sydney)

May 7th, 2006:

I had intended upon visiting Sydney's biggest museum yesterday, but felt too relaxed after the Chinese gardens to face walking around for half a day at least around a museum, but I came back to Darling Harbor refreshed for the trek today.

So, today's exploration was of the Powerhouse Museum. This museum has a mere 380,000 things to see and at any one time only a fraction of that is on display depending on what themed-exhibits they set up. Despite there being only a fraction available, I still spent over four hours there and at that I did not stop to read any of the descriptions next to each item: it was more of a frantic brisk walk around just to see what "little" they had on show that day.

So, on walking in, there was the "Design throughout the ages" exhibit which showed how design had evolved over the centuries with original furniture, dresses and jewelry. I did not spend much time here as (amazingly) jewelry and dresses do not interest me much(!)

However, something in the next section was facinating: they had the world's oldest existing steam engine. This engine was not a locomotive engine as it predated trains(!): it was used to extract things from coal mines and was the third wheel-turning engine ever created. Even more surprising was that it still works and there are regular demonstrations in the museum of the steam engine turning a big wheel attached to it.

Next to the Watt steam engine was another interesting item: a model of the cathedral clock in Strasborg. At regular intervals, based on the timing mechanisms in the clock, little characters would move around the clock structure.

Other sections in the museum were the Space exhibit(satellites, rocket parts, replicas of space ships, etc), the automotive items (old trains and old & new cars), the Cyber exhibit (everything from an early TV and original Enigma machine to modern robotics), the chemistry exhibit, and too many others to mention.

There was even a temporary Kylie Minogue exhibition which was arranged like a darkened art gallery. On show was the singer's photo shoots, the actual dresses from the videos (I nearly missed the "Spinning Around" dress, it was so compact!) and even had a row of her actual awards, including Grammys, EMIs, MTV awards, platinum disk awards, etc.

As you enter the museum you can get a yearly membership which costs 60 dollars (as opposed to the once off 10 dollars entrance fee) and I had wondered upon entering first if you would really come back multiple times to the place. Well, I don't wonder any more: as it was, I barely saw the current range of items on show: as the exhibits change every couple of weeks I may find myself coming back again, and again, and...

Chinese Garden of Friendship (Sydney)

May 6th, 2006:

I have a handy guide book of Sydney and it seems there are thirteen major things to do at Darling Harbor. I have only done three of them, so today I took a look at the fourth thing-to-do there: the Chinese Garden of Friendship.

Darling Harbor itself had a very Asian theme to it today as it was Budda's birthday and there were many celebrations taking place including a Buddhist wedding, all of which set the stage nicely for entering the Asian gardens.

The Gardens themselves were a gift from the Guandong Province of China and were created in 1988 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the European settlement of Australia. It is the largest garden of its type outside China and provides a soothing haven from the hustle and bustle of the nearby city.

Despite being relatively new, the gardens look timeless with mature weeping-willows hanging over tranquil lakes and the only sound being the gurgle of small waterfalls. The gardens and the architecture of the buildings look so authentic that its hard to believe that you have not traveled to China itself. The final addition to the convincing illusion is that you can put on traditional Chinese garments and it is mesmerizing to be standing in a traditional Chinese garden, looking at traditional Chinese buildings and then to see someone in traditional clothes emerge from the building.

The gardens cost six dollars to enter and are a pleasant, relaxing way to spend a couple of hours.

Back to Manly and panoramic photos

2nd May 2006:

Knowing that this nice weather won't last forever, today I took a ferry back to Manly Beach. I didn't bother bringing any beach related stuff as the plan was to lie-out on the grassy area next to the beach: imagine my surprise after traveling for nearly 3/4 hour to get there when it turned out that the grassy areas were closed to allow the grass to grow...

So, I went on a little walk and soon found myself at the improbably named "Cabbage Tree Bay", which sits alongside Manly Beach. This little cove is popular with snorkelers as it it is protected from the waves by a headland and the beach itself had nice, golden sand.

During the course of the afternoon I took a couple of photos of the bay but it became clear that the best way to capture the place was to get a panoramic photo. A normal shot only takes in so much of a scene: to get a panoramic photo, you just take multiple normal shots and join them up later on a computer to end up with a wider/taller photo. Most digital cameras have a panoramic or "stitch-assist" mode which helps you take photos which overlap slightly, enabling easier joining/blending later.

There have been many times since leaving Ireland where it would have been nice to have taken a panoramic photo (e.g. the beach+sea+mountains of Koh Tao and more recently the mountain range of the Blue Mountains), but doing so would require installing software on a computer to stitch the photos together, which is not possible in an Internet café... or would it?

So, that afternoon at Cabbage Tree Bay I took three shots for a panoramic photo and that evening I hunted around the Internet for suitable software which didn't have to be installed and which could run from a USB memory key. Eventually I came across the free "AutoStitch" software for combining individual photos into one panoramic and also found the "Portable Gimp" for image editing as I have been unable to do even the most basic editing (such as cropping) for the past couple of months. I could run both programs from my USB memory key.

The resulting panoramic photo is in the Manly section of my photo gallery. It turned out well enough, but there is a slight fish-bowl effect due to the curvature of sand-raking which had been done on the beach and is in the foreground of the photo. I had also taken panoramic-ready photos of the harbor, while at the Botanical gardens, and that photo (in the Sydney section of the photo gallery) came out better with no apparent distortion.

So, if you're looking to add an extra dimension to your photos, try Google "AutoStitch".

Botanical Gardens and more of Maritime Museum (Sydney)

31st April 2006:

Well, its been another week of doing the tourist sights around Sydney. Its still quite easy get around, weather-wise, as it is still mostly dry. There was a piece on a news channel on just how dry it was in April: usually there is 127mm of rainfall in April but this year there was a mere 7.9mm(!)

So, seeing as it is still warm with blue-skies, today's activity was a walk around the Royal Botanical Gardens. Despite giving the walk the better part of a day, I still only saw a fraction of the place as it is spread over 30 hectares. Established in 1816, it boasts over 7500 trees which even includes a rare tree from the Jurassic-era. One of the things I liked about the place was that the signs, instead of saying "Please keep off the grass", said "Please walk on the grass"(!). Admission is free and you'll also get great views of the harbor area and of the city skyline.

The following day I went back to the Maritime Museum to walk around the Naval Vessels berthed outside. While they do have a Vietnamese fishing boat(!), what I had actually come to see was the HMAS Navy Destroyer Vampire, the HMAS Submarine Onslow and a replica of Captain Cook's Endeavor. The "Big Ticket", at a cost of 30 dollars gives you access to everything at the Maritime Museum and is the most cost effective way of seeing the three vessels.

First stop was the Destroyer, "The Vampire". Now, while you do get a free audio guide to describe the various ship systems, the much better route is to go with the free guided tour which departs every hour or so. I initially went with the audio-guide but found it to be confusing and based on its lack of use by the other tourists, I probably wasn't alone in that confusion I therefore joined an already-in-progress tour being given by an ex-naval officer and found his information and anecdotes much easier to follow. The ship is in a good state of repair and the highlights were sitting in the captain's chair, watching and listening to a radio operator communicating in Morse code, marveling at the guns, and exploring the rooms and corridors below the main deck. Sadly the engine room was closed, but otherwise just about everywhere was accessible.

Berthed alongside the Destroyer (what a great name!) was the submarine, "The Onslow". Unlike the ship, every area of the sub was accessible (although I admit I didn't try climb into a torpedo tube). A certain amount of physical dexterity is required to enter the sub as you have to clamber up down four narrow ladders, set at a 45 degree angle, and going through the bulkhead hatches requires you to bend over double while stepping over a small metal lip.

When you descend the first set of stairs, you find yourself in the torpedo room. There are no electronic audio guides for the sub: instead volunteers located at strategic points in the vessel helpfully describe to you what happened in the sub and what it was like the crew it. So, a retired officer in the torpedo room showed us the torpedoes, the launch tubes and described how the technology changed over the years. For example, he was saying that modern torpedoes don't do what they typically do in the movies: instead of hitting a target directly, they go under the target ship/sub and explode there: its the resulting vacuum from the explosion which causes most of the damage.

Next to the torpedo room was the main crew sleeping area, with bunks lining the wall. Space was at a premium so there wasn't much space available to a bunk and it was easy to imagine that there was probably a few bumped heads climbing in and out of them.

Past the main sleeping area was a hallway with more bunks on one side and various rooms on the other, including a microscopic galley and rooms for the officers. Along the hallway, as with everywhere else on the sub, were exposed pipes, wiring, valves and other mechanical bits and pieces: functionality, rather than comfort, appeared to have been the primary goal in the design process.

Next stop was the bridge which was smaller than what I was expecting: there was barely enough room for two people to stand side by side in places. Equipment ruled here also with the equipment for navigation and weapons being the most easily recognizable. Also easy to spot was the periscope and a small desk for plotting routes on maps: I seem to recall that my desk at work was bigger(!)

After the bridge was the engine room with its two rows of diesel engines, followed by a storage room and the stairs out.

I found the sub to be an interesting example of how much stuff you can cram into a small area. One bit of advice though: don't do as I did and visit it at the weekend. The battleship was large enough such that I was able to avoid the crowds of excited 5-year olds running about: on the sub, however, there was no escape...

After the (slightly old) technological tour de force of the sub, it was time to jump back in time and explore Captain Cook's Endeavor. When I first saw it I thought it looked in remarkably good condition for a 200+ year old ship: sadly its just a replica rather than the real thing(!) Even as a replica, though, it is in spotless condition: it looks like it was made yesterday and looks like it could sail around the world at a moments notice.

Similar to the sub, you made your own way around and at key points there was somebody there to help you out. For me, the level below the main deck was the most interesting: there were hammocks for the crew on the port side and a dining area on the starboard side. We were shown a cat-of-nine-tails whip (which, it seems, is related to the true origin of the expression "not big enough to swing a cat"). There was a very low ceiling between the crew's area and the officer's quarters: it was a security measure for the officers and if crew members tried to storm the officers area, they'd have to move, hunched over at the waist, through that area which gave the officers standing at the other side the advantage. The officer's area itself was similarly well appointed with the captain's room being substantially bigger than the equivalent room on the newer vessels.

Overall, you'd be hard pressed to do everything at the maritime museum in a day: the ships & sub took me about four hours to do and by the end of them I would not have been able to do the museum also (thankfully I had done the half-day museum tour previously). I found it to be a well presented exhibition and definitely worth making the trip to see it.

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Blue Mountains

April 23rd, 2006:

Two hours outside Sydney are the Blue Mountains. I lot has impressed me since arriving in Sydney but I think today was my first major "wow" moment since seeing the bridge and Opera House. I had thought that I had reached my limit of being bowled over after seeing those two traditional stereotypical Sydney landmarks, but the Blue Mountains: wow!

A return train ticket with free all-day bus transfers in the mountains was available at Central Train station in Sydney so this morning I jumped on board. Now, you can get a tour through a tour operator, but they cost 80-100 AUD: the train cost 32.50 AUD and even though that excludes the cable car and vertical train, it is still cheaper paying for them separately.

The town of Katoomba was where I jumped off the train. This traditional looking town with its quaint Aussi shop fronts was quiet and everything was nice and cheap compared with Sydney.

At Katoomba you get a map of the area with a guide to the bus service that you can use for free. The bus operates hourly, but as I saw it I wasn't there to experience the inside of a bus so I set off walking to the first major point in the area, the Cable Car.

Once I arrived at the Cable Car, though, I straight away forgot about it (!) as the Blue Mountains themselves became visible. I haven't been to the Grand Cannon in the US yet but I'd imagine that if you took the Grand Cannon and covered it in a forest, you'd come close to the view available here. Golden cliffs towered over valleys blanketed by unbroken expanses of trees and this vista continued as far as the eye could see. I took lots of pictures but they won't do the place justice as they won't adequately convey the scale of the place.

Once I saw the view, there was no way I was going to shortcut the experience by taking the easy cable car option (for traveling between two points at the top of a u-shaped mountain): instead I took the longer cliff walk around and continued oohh-ing and ahh-ing at the view below. The Blue Mountains, incidentely, is so named due to a blue-hued mist from the eucalyptus trees which hangs over the valley on calm days (it was a bit breezy today so no mist today sadly).

A branch appeared in the path and I took the turn for the "Furbur Stairs" which passed many waterfalls and rocky overhangs Shortly after this I joined up with a group of Parisians (i.e. from France): its handy how easy it is to meet new people when ye have a common thing to grumble about(!), in this case the seemingly never-ending steps down towards the valley. About a million steps later, just as we were wondering how we were going to survive the trek back up, we arrived at the "Vertical Railway" which went up and down the cliff face, vertically.

While we were waiting for the train I took a quick look at the tracks and, sure enough, they went nearly vertically up the cliff face. Having worked before around rollercoasters which went vertically I know that the trick is to have a chain between the standard two train tracks and to have a set of teeth in the train which attaches to the chain. Still, I was a bit perplexed when it became apparent that this train did not use such a system... Once the train did come hurtling down the track it became clear that it was being lowered by a strong cable, but it still wasn't clear what the backup was if the cable failed... Still, the apparent design oversight wasn't enough to get me to walk back up those million steps, so we clambered in and due to the lack of straps, hung on for dear life... And hung onto bags, cameras and sunglasses, all of which would easily have taken a quick route back down if we didn't hang onto them tightly as the train really did travel nearly vertically up the cliff...

After the railway, the French headed back to their hostel, but I pressed on to the most popular view in the mountain range, the view of "The Three Sisters". The Three Sisters are three towering pillars of rock at the end of a cliff and the vista from "Echo Point" reveals that these golden pillars stand tall over the green valley far below. Dusk was approaching by now and the glowing red sun made the golden pillars appear even more vibrant.

After The Three Sisters, I continued along the "Prince Henry Cliff Walk" (the walk is surrounded by trees), past the "Honeymoon Lookout" (disturbingly deserted: nobody's getting married anymore it seems(!)) and onto the "Leura Cascades". Sadly it was nearly dark by now, so there wasn't much to see at the Cascades.

I have noticed that you can do an Aboriginal inspired Walkabout of the Blue Mountains which is a guided hike where you can see the "real" Blue Mountains. It is something I might do as, due to the scale of the place, it seems that this is yet another place I'll have to go back to!

The SkyTower (Sydney)

April 22nd, 2006:

The Sydney SkyTower, also known informally as the AMP tower, is the second tallest tower in the southern hemisphere and is located near the Town Hall in the Sydney CBD. Its 305 meters high and being so high, I figured it would be a great place to get some pics.

Now, I've been up Europe's second tallest tower and took some pictures from the roof during daylight: the pictures turned out somewhat dull due to everything looking flat (except for the Eiffel Tower, naturally!).
However, when I went up what was, at the time, New York's tallest tower (the World Trade Center) and took pictures from the roof at night time, the pictures came out much better due to the dramatic city lighting.

So, with that in mind I went up the Sydney SkyTower at night time. The tower has three double-decker elevators going up and down so there wasn't much of a wait for going up. The lift brings you to the Observation Deck in which you can walk around the circumference of the circular tower to see all of Sydney. The view was great with the multicolored Harbor Bridge, the unmistakable Opera House and Hyde Park looking particularly impressive. Sadly, when I tried to go upstairs to the outdoors, I found out that it wasn't allowed :( They have an optional attraction whereby you pay about 100 AUD to go out outside, but even then cameras are not allowed (for safety reasons): it sounds like something I might due in the future but it didn't help with the picture taking. I had to resort to taking pictures through the glass of the observation deck, which never works out great. Still, not a bad view.

When you buy a ticket to go up, you must also get a ticket for "Oztrek" which is an introduction to Australia. Its a pity they are bundled together as all I was looking for was the observation deck but ended up having to pay for both activities. It didn't bother me much but an Adelaide woman I was chatting to wasn't impressed...

Oztrek started with an introduction to Australian culture and this holographic display was shown in four different settings (e.g. city life, country life, etc) with the cinema rotating from one setting to the next (similar to the cinema in the movie Jurassic Park). After the culture intro we moved into a different cinema for an introduction into things to do and places to see down-under. This introduction was shown in a pneumatically controlled cinema with the seats shaking and banking based on what was being shown on screen. So, for example as we flew over the Harbor Bridge, our seats tilted to match the tilting/banking of the camera. I found the OzTrek experience to be technically well presented but I can see why a native Aussi might prefer to give it a skip.

The SkyTower observation deck and Oztrek ticket cost 32 AUD and tickets are available in the tower itself.

Cronulla Beach

April 22nd, 2006:

The subway/train-system in Sydney, as with most cities, is the most efficient way of getting around. The city has easily accessible subway stations within walking distance of each other and the train also services the nearby suburbs enabling easy access to today's destination, Cronulla Beach.

The trains in use on the system are a mixture of old and new. The older carriages lack electronic displays telling you what the upcoming stations are and some of them should earn a well deserved place in a modern art museum with the quantity of graffiti on the floors and walls(!). Thankfully, it was a modern train which was used to get to Cronulla, and the modern trains are clean, quiet, comfortable and have informative electronic displays. Its also positive to see that (Dr. Evil's (Austin Powers) little-finger-to-side-of-mouth time) 1 Billion dollars is being invested in the system in the coming years.

Incidentally, the Sydney rail system isn't as idiot proof as other systems I've been on: the ticket machines were easy to understand but the ticket that gets printed does not tell you which platform(s) you can go-to which causes confusion in some stations which have over a dozen possibilities... In this scenario, you'll have to hunt for your destination on big wall-mounted posters which can be time consuming or try to find a railway worker to ask. Nevertheless, the rail system here rules, when compared to buses, and the frequent (every couple of minutes in the city loop) trains have so far always been on time.

The trains are also great value here, compared with back home. The only train I'd used at home was the Cork-Dublin train which cost about 60 Euro return for the three hour trip, or 20 Euro return for each hour. The trip to Cronulla from Sydney took nearly an hour but cost the equivalent of a mere 3.29 Euro return! Based on that comparison, trains are about 6 times cheaper here(!)

So, onto Cronulla itself. This seaside town/suburb-of-Sydney became world famous/infamous last year due to a rioting problem. There was, however, no sign of a problem today and indeed the area looked quite picturesque. The countryside approaching Cronulla is all low-density housing situated amongst woods/forests composed of dense, tall trees. You'd wonder how things grow there given the dearth of rain we've had but the trees were all lush green. Cronulla itself was mostly modern low-height unit/apartment blocks, with each building finished to a different style (as opposed to the mono-style white blocks you'd find in parts of, for example, Spain). The area was clean and had a well developed, well maintained appearance to it. Its shopping district resembled Manly's variety of mini shops and was situated in a pedestrianised zone.

The beach itself was clean and was being well used by one or more surf schools. Lifeguard teams were in operation and to keep themselves amused, the lifeguards drove their motorized dinghies into the waves to see who could jump the highest(!) (or maybe they were just doing life-saving practicing, but it looked like great fun!).
Tidal pools were also available and these walled off areas in the sea enabled you to swim in the sea without getting bashed by the waves (though, isn't getting bashed by the waves half the point?!).
The beach didn't strike me as very substantial in depth between the shore line and the back of the beach, but maybe the tide was in. Lengthwise, however, it was clearly the longest beach when compared with the other beaches I've been to around Sydney.

So, overall, I found Cronulla easy to get to, had good facilities and provided a clean, sandy beach. I can easily see myself going back again (though, I might wait until after "winter").

Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Holding Pattern

April 21st, 2006:

Well, I've been in a holding pattern for just over a week now. I'm applying for IT jobs at the moment and looking at the various job websites indicates that there are plenty of suitable jobs in all of the many cities in Oz. The job hunt is having an unforeseen side-effect though: everything else is being put on hold. I'm reluctant to book tours as tour companies generally like a days notice of cancellation of going on a tour after a booking has been made, but I also want to be available for interviews at short notice, so no tours. Also, I want to rent cheaper accommodation in a "unit" (the local term for an "apartment") but can't until I know if/where I'll be working. Lastly I find myself shying away from making new friendships at the moment as I don't even know if I'll still be in Sydney after the coming days.
Hopefully this holding-pattern situation will be resolved next week.

I did goto Manly Beach last week as that is just a short Ferry trip from the main recreation boat port in Sydney: Circular Quay. Manly beach was great: it was so good that I'm currently looking into living there on a short term basis. The sea seemed to be clean and the beach, consisting of soft golden sand, was bordered by a treelined walkway. Behind the walkway was the town itself which was composed of lots of little shops. The ferry to and from Manly departs frequently and took about 30 minutes.

The extra time on my hands is, however, giving me plenty of time to study that great time waster: the TV. TV scheduling in Oz, as it turns out, is remarkably like home: lots of American imports interspersed with local cheap-to-make game shows, current affair programs and soaps. I have, so far, not sunk to watching "Dr. Phil" but did (only once I swear!) take a peek at the rather ludicrous "Days of Our Lives", both of which are on during afternoon scheduling. Evening TV is dominated by American programs such as "CSI", "Lost" and "Without a Trace", to name a few. The only downside to TV here is that they love their ad breaks. Nothing is sacred, with ads being shown during sporting events such as football or rugby matches. Also, whereas ads at home are generally shown in three blocks for hour long shows (at the hour mark, after twenty minutes and after forty minutes), here there are usually five blocks (at the five minute mark, after fifteen minutes, then thirty minutes, then forty-five and finally fifty-five minutes): you wouldn't want to intensely dislike ad breaks here as the sheer number of them would do your head in!

Winter is approaching this part of the world: it was on the news today that it snowed in Victoria (below Sydney), but due to the size of Oz it would be like getting news in Ireland of it snowing in a mountain in Russia(!). Still, apparently its a good portent for a long ski season this year. It also rained once last week, which was only the second patch of rain i've experienced since leaving Ireland, which is a situation I could get used to ;)

I do have a list of things to do around Sydney and despite the waiting game on the job front, hopefully i'll have more blog/photo updates next week.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The Rocks (Sydney)

April 7th, 2006:

Having done plenty of historical tours back home, doing another historical tour of an area wasn't high on the list of things to do. However, an opportunity arose to do a different type of historical tour of "The Rocks" area of Sydney: a Ghost Tour!

The Rocks is next to the harbor edge and today is one of the oldest areas of the city. most of the buildings in this area are listed and cannot be altered so that the area retains it old-style charm.

The Ghost Tour started at 7:30PM and I was accompanied by "Janet" from Rugby, England. There was about fifteen of us in the tour group and our middle-aged guide was dressed like an old-fashioned undertaker: all black clothes with a flowing black cloak and a wide black hat.

During the course of the tour we were told about many, many ghoulish characters and the misdeeds each had performed. To make the tour more interesting, we each were assigned the role of one of these characters and as we walked around the city each of us was called on to act out the role of our character, depending on which building or room we were currently in. So, I played the part of a local thug who attacked people with socks full of sand(!) (the idea being that he/I could dump out the sand and wear the sock if the police came by and so deny everything). My character ended up killing a boy and as we stood in the remains of his house we were told that his mother now haunts the area that we were standing in...

As the tour progressed it became more and more clear that a lot of people in Sydney had encountered untimely deaths. We started off at the old city morgue and walked around from building to building and were told how the modern day locals deal with their spiritual lodgers and were shown buildings which remain unletted due to previous tenants being scared away by strange noises and unexplained events.

The highlight, though, came at the very end. We descended about two stories down below a modern apartment building and found ourselves in what looked like an architectural dig. The air down here was warm and due to it being an enclosed environment there was no breeze. There were a number of ghosts haunting this area and the tour guide told us to start taking pictures to see what happens. I was kicking myself at this stage for not bringing my camera, but I could clearly see the results on other people's cameras: strange spheres of light appeared at random on each picture taken(!) The spheres were not visible by anybody as we looked around, but they did appear in the pictures... The guide described them as being the essence of ghosts...

I found the tour to be well worth doing: its a good story and was well told. Its also relatively good value and you even get a free drink in a bar at the end... to steady the nerves...!

Bondi Beach

April 6th, 2006:

Every day in Sydney has been warm, dry and sunny and I haven't seen rain since that one day on Fraser Island, so with that in mind I figured it was time I started checking out the local beaches and first on the list was Australia's most famous beach, Bondi Beach.

Now, a British girl in the hostel went there yesterday and she described seeing two guys being very, er, "amorous" together in the shallow water while a family stared on in horror... Hmmmm...

Still, due to it being an easy trip on the train, I decided I'd risk it. However, while waiting on the train platform I was chatting with a railway worker and he described Bondi as "Australia's WORST beach"! Hmmmm again...

I pressed on and arrived at the beach about a half an hour later. Was it a mind blowing experience? Well, considering that I had heard of Bondi back home on the other side of the planet, and they have a TV series here set on the beach ("Bondi Rescue"), I was expecting great things: however, its somewhat anticlimactic in real-life. Scarborough Beach near Perth was long enough so that it seemed to extend out to the horizon. Bondi, on the other hand, resembled a large cove. I didn't spot any "alternative" couples, nor were there any families but there were lots of surfers and also people whom, it appeared, were permanent fixtures on the beach, moving just enough so that they always faced the sun so as to enrich their already impossibly-dark tans.

The nearby town was clean and had a modern multi-story shopping mall. Despite having never been a major shopping fan, I decided I'd give it another try to see if its something I could get used to. I aimed for a shop which appears to be the most prolific TV advertiser among shops, "Target". Target is predominantly a clothes shop and is housed in a big, well-appointed premises. It got off to a poor start, though, when there was no indication of where the Men's department was: the Women's department was clearly visible, but the Men's required a mini-trek to find. Once I had selected an item, the next problem raised its head: there appeared to be no Men's fitting room... after another trek which turned out to be fruitless, I had to resort to asking for directions (in a shop!) After looking at me like I had two heads, the shop assistant told me that to get to the Men's fitting rooms I had to go through the Women's lingerie department (obviously). Having survived all that, it was time to pay at the till, where the last bonus awaited: I had to let store staff open and examine my back pack to make sure I wasn't stealing anything(!). I didn't think it possible, but shopping as an activity has managed to become even more irritating and alienating!

So, Bondi was anticlimactic. However, Manly beach, also nearby, is definitely worth the trip, so I hear, with many tourists here in the hostel going back to Manly beach repeatedly. As long as I stay away from "Target" stores there, it should be vastly better than the Bondi experience.

Harbor Bridge Pylon (Sydney)

April 4th, 2006:

Today I popped back to Harbor Bridge, or "the old coat-hanger" as it was affectionately known as it was being built.

When you pay the exhorborant $164 AUD for walking up the bridge, they give you a voucher for walking up one of the bridge's "pylons" at any time up to a month later, so that was today's project.

The Harbor bridge has four pylons and they are the granite towers at each side of the bridge. These towers are purely aesthetic and the bridge would work just as well without them, but the bridge designers felt that they were vital and so the city paid what ended up being a quarter of the total cost of the bridge for them.

One of the reasons for spending the extra money was for the jobs that were provided. When the bridge was being built in the 1930s, Australia was caught in a deep depression. The Harbor Bridge, or the "Iron Lung" as it was also known, breathed life into the economy in a similar manner to a similar depression-era project in America, the Hoover Dam.

Today, there is a mini museum in the Pylon nearest the Opera House. This museum houses various artifacts from the bridge's construction, along with descriptions of the construction process and photos showing how it progressed.

Once you reach the top of the pylon you can walk outside and take panoramic photos of the Sydney Harbor.

That evening I went to the cinema. Now, usually I don't bother describing where I went on a night out as it is so transitive: a pub/club might be popular this month, but next month it might be dead, whereas the main attractions in an area (e.g. The Sydney Opera House) are more long-term. However, this evening I went to the five-screen "Reading" multiplex in the city center to see the "Inside Man" (its worth watching by the way) and... I was the only one watching it (!) I had the entire Screen 2 of the cinema to myself, so having chosen the center seats I proceeded to fold up the retractable arm rests on the nearby seats and proceeded to lie-out across the seats :) The last movie I had seen was "Date Movie" back in Ireland, and after seeing that I wasn't sure if I'd ever go the cinema again (it really was that bad!), but after effectively getting a private screening of a movie, I could easily see myself going back to the cinema again. Hopefully Reading Cineplex won't close due to lack of sales in the meantime!

Darling Harbor (Sydney)

April 2nd, 2006:

Today I went to a place where many Sydney dwellers and visitors alike hangout: Darling Harbor. This is located near the center of the city and is within walking distance of the bridge and the Opera House.

This 'U' shaped harbor is home to many attractions, coffee shops, ice-cream bars, restaurants and is a dock for boats which bring tourists around Port Jackson (i.e. the bridge and Opera House).

I was joined on the trip by a German dude from the hostel and our first stop was the IMAX movie theater. I had never been to an IMAX theater before and if you haven't heard of it, think of a really BIG cinema screen: its 100ft in height and 80ft in width, if I recall correctly, and its height is equivalent to five double-decker buses stacked on top of each other(!).

"Timo", the German, had determined the best showing to go to, from a local, and so we went to "Wild Safari 3D" which was a 3D enhanced safari trek around Africa, complete with polarized 3D glasses and it lasted about 42 minutes.

Afterwards I was in two minds about the whole experience: on the one hand the combination of the gigantic screen and the 3D glasses made it very immersive, but on the other hand its somewhat expensive ($18 AUD) for 42 minutes for what is just a big screen.

There are a half a dozen other films to see at the IMAX but I think I'll wait a couple of months before going again.

Next up at Darling Harbor was another of Sydney's bigger attractions, the "Maritime Museum". Housed in a well laid out hanger-sized building, this FREE(!) museum had many different exhibitions ranging from the Vikings to the Gulf War. There is also a Navy destroyer permanently docked outside, alongside a Navy submarine, but there is a cover charge for entering these last two exhibits.

Overall, the Maritime Museum is well recommended, especially for those on a tight budget.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Sydney, First Day

March 30th, 2006:

What a day. Today is one of those days I can look back on and think "Yep, that was a good day". I think it was due to me planning to do nothing at all, but then while out walking it just kept getting better and better and here I am now, in the early evening thinking "Wow!".

I'm staying/slumming in the infamous/sometimes-seedy Kings Cross area of Sydney. I arrived yesterday and took a quick walk around yesterday evening and was nearly dazzled by the gaudy flashing neon signs for premises which you would be unlikely to find near a church (if you follow my drift...)

So, for a change of scenery today I went for a walk and ended up in this vast, well maintained park, "Hyde Park" (I'm guessing there were a few Londoners who settled here initially). There is a dramatic fountain in this park, which sits alongside the even more dramatic St. Mary's Cathedral whose gothic architecture surpasses most similar buildings in Europe.

After taking a walk around the park I followed the signs for the Hyde Park Barracks where, in the olden days, convicts were held. Today, the buildings are in immaculate condition and its free to walk around the courtyards and part of the interior.

Continuing down this road revealed the Sydney Hospital with its Florence Nightingale wing, the state's parliament buildings and the state's library all of which were in original but well maintained buildings from the 1800's.

Across the road from the state library was a garden, which turned out to be the start of the Royal Botanical Gardens. These gardens contained many statues, observatories and even flocks of exotic white birds. They also, unexpectedly bordered sparkling blue water which turned out to be the Sydney Harbor.

So, as I was strolling through the garden, taking in the sights, smelling the freshly cut grass, listening to the song of those exotic white birds I suddenly came to a halt: in the distance was my first glimpse of part of the Sydney Opera House. Now, having seen the Opera House repeatedly since I was young in books and on TV, I had assumed that seeing it in real life would be anticlimactic: it was the complete opposite. Even glimpsing part of it was a stop-everything / jaw-dropping / goose-bumps-all-over experience. I also, unexpectedly, finally realized that I was really on the other side of the world(!): I had always known (naturally) that I was a long way from home but seeing even part of Sydney Opera House really drove it home.

So, walking slightly quicker, I followed the shore line of the Botanical Gardens and rounded a corner... and there it was. The pictures / TV programs don't do it justice: it is unlike anything I had ever seen before. Walking slowly towards it, not taking my eyes off it, I made my way towards it and soon found myself beneath "the nun's scrum" (as it is also known) and joined the many other tourists with camera in hand, walking around zombie-like, staring-up mouth-open at the structure.

After a while I looked at Sydney's other architectural highlight: the Sydney Harbor Bridge, which is just across the bay. I figured I might as well continue following the shoreline and walk over towards it, so off I went. The journey there took me through "The Rocks" which seems to be the antique/original part of the city with its many old-style buildings and its historic tours. While wandering through this area, near the bridge itself, I came across the entrance to the Bridge Climb company who can guide you on a walk over the bridge. Now, I had read in the guide books that you had to book this in advance, so I just thought I'd pop inside to get some details. However, after chatting with the receptionist, it turned out that I could join a group doing the walk in half an hour. Now, its 164 AUD, but I figured that this fell into the once-in-a-lifetime, the-reason-why-you-go-to-work category and so jumped at the opportunity.

The tour took three and a half hours and there were twelve of us partaking in it. It started off with us exchanging our clothes for jumpsuits (i.e. a one piece, body length, outer garment) and putting our belongings in individual lockers. The only thing I was allowed to bring was my sunglasses which had to be attached to the suit: everything else had to be left behind including the camera, unfortunately, as they didn't want things we brought with us falling down onto the cars/trains/people below.

After we were suited up, we attached a cable guiding system to our waists. A cable runs the entire length of the walk over the bridge and using our waist attachment we were able to safety stay attached to the bridge at all times. The attachment itself was ingenious, considering that the cable, on the walk, is attached to metal supports, goes around corners, up and down stairs, and the attachment can easily navigate past all of the obstacles. The cable attachment training session took about ten minutes and had us going through a mini-obstacle course to get us comfortable with it.

After we were happy with the cabling system, we were each fitted with two-way radios and headsets so that we could listen to the tour guide.

After one last check we were off on our walk over the Sydney Harbor Bridge. I won't go into detail of what its like in case you haven't done it yet: suffice to say, the height wasn't a problem, the view was spectacular and afterwards we gave our guide a well-deserved round of applause for the most memorable three hours we've had in quite a while.

Despite not being allowed bring our cameras up with us, the tour guide did bring one up and took many individual and group photos. Once the tour was over, we got a group photo as a physical printout. We were also able to get the individual photos and the other group shots either printed out or digitally on a CD. However, I thought they were pushing their luck with the prices of these photos: for a digital camera to take a photo it costs next to nothing, and then to put the photos onto a CD should cost less than fifty cent, so we'll say they could charge one to five dollars after a markup. They, however, charge 64.99 AUD (40.53 Euro) for four images on a CD(!). I could see why, even with my strap, they didn't want me taking up my camera(!). One photo on a CD cost 24.99 AUD (groan) so I got that for posterity.

After the bridge I took a walk around the central business district (CBD) of Sydney and had a look at the towering skyscrapers and some of the many shops in the area.

Its now early evening and I'm left thinking that this was one great day. Still, its not over yet: I'm off to the hotel bar to chat with the locals. The seems to be loads of things to do in the area, so I'll update ye as events unfold.