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.