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.