Wednesday, May 10, 2006

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.