Mel's Australia Travelogue
We arrived in Sydney on Friday, April 2. But we left DC on March 31! We missed April Fool's Day altogether. And yours truly was the April Fool - I had us checking into the first hotel on the 1st! At least I was able to send them an email from the AA Admiral's lounge in LAX (thank goodness for Business Class tickets!) and have them hold the rooms. My luck continued on arrival - my suitcase didn't make in our our flight from LA! Fortunately, there was another flight arriving within the hour, so chances were good that my bag would arrive shortly. It was delivered to the hotel later that day. (phew!)
We stayed at the Sheraton Four Points in Darling Harbour. It's a beautiful hotel, and our rooms were overlooking the harbor area, where there are multiple restaurants, bars and shops, along with a neat monorail! Sydney is very hilly, like Lisbon or San Francisco. We got very lucky and had beautiful weather for most of the trip.
The first thing we did was walk up to the Queen Victoria Building (QVB), since "Vicki" is one of Dad's favorite monarchs. :) The building boasts beautiful shops, amazing architecture (fully restored in 1984) and two very interesting (and entertaining) clocks -- one rings on the hour, and the other on the half hour.
We wandered around the business district (Dad stopped for badges and antiques) and had lunch at the CentrePoint mall, which is underneath the Sydney Tower. We decided not to go to the tower right away, but we knew we'd have to come back. There's also a restaurant at the top with a big buffet, so we might go back for that. Next, we walked up to Hyde Park to see the ANZAC memorial. It is an absolutely beautiful art deco building, and is actually scheduled to be refurbished very soon. We walked the whole length of Hyde Park, and then stumbled back to the hotel to take our afternoon naps. :)
Saturday started not too well - mom had a stomach bug, and both Bryan and I were feeling really 'weird.' But, we were scheduled to go on the bridge climb, so we had to go! We walked over to 'the Rocks' area, which is the oldest neighborhood in Sydney. The Harbour Bridge dominates much of the skyline in that area, and we were excited to get up there. (Ok, I was a little nervous, but really, how bad could it be?) After you sign the liability statement (and take a breathalyzer!), there's a 30 minute orientation and test- climb inside the building. Every climber gets a grey jumpsuit, but you're not allowed to carry anything with you - including a camera - that isn't strapped on to you somehow. So, I got a little string for my sunglasses and baseball cap, which attached to the back of the suit. Then, everybody gets a waist-belt with a safety harness that clips directly to a rail on the bridge itself, and a radio to hear what the guide has to say. It turns out that the ladders and platforms that the company has built are not a permanent fixture on the bridge, so they could be taken down at any time (without damaging the bridge) if the company closes, or the city decides not to permit the climbing any more. But judging from the awards they have received, that's not going to happen!
Needless to say, the view from the top of the bridge is UNBELIEVABLE. It was a little windy, but the sun was on us and it felt great. The top of the bridge is 17 stories above the road, which is another 5 stories above the water. The guide brings along a digital camera and takes pictures of the entire group at the top, as well as a few individual and small group photos. I'll have to scan those in so you can see them! This was also our first glimpse of the Opera House, and it was spectacular.
After the climb, we walked through the Rocks Market (every weekend, crafts, books, food, etc) and took the ferry back from Circular Quay to Darling Harbour. The ferry let us off right next to the Aquarium, which was right under our hotel. It was nap time again!
Before dinner, we went through the Sydney Aquarium, and saw our first live platypus! We were all enchanted with it - especially dad, who ended up buying stuffed platypuses (or is it platypi?) wherever we went!
Sunday was a rainy day. We took the monorail around to Chinatown to have dim sum. We actually arrived just as the restaurants were opening (11am), but were pleasantly surprised by the food - although it was a little heavy on the fried stuff. From there, we went to Paddy's Market - sort of like the Rastro open air markets in Spain, only indoors - to check out the souvenirs, t-shirts, and the amazing array of fresh produce. From there, we got back on the monorail and went to City Center. We walked down towards the Rocks and Circular Quay, but first, we stopped at an Internet cafe and spent some time catching up.
Of course, the Opera House dominates one side of the Quay. We walked around the whole building, and then took the guided tour at 3:30pm. The building is amazing, inside and out. We were privileged to hear a choir rehearsing for their evening performance, which really demonstrated the acoustics and incredible sound quality of the Concert Hall.
Dinner on Sunday was at Wolfie's, a restaurant that had been recommended to us by Norman, who really knows food! Well, he wasn't kidding - the food and wine were excellent.
Monday started out a little harried - it seems Qantas didn't tell the tour company to come pick us up at the Sheraton Four Points for the trip to Canberra, so we had to scramble into a cab and get over to the Star Casino area, where the bus was waiting for us. This probably would have worked better if the cab driver had known where he was going!! But, they held the bus for us, and we were only a few minutes late. Unfortunately, the trip to Canberra was a lot less heart-pounding than the rush to catch the bus!
Ok, Canberra is a nice city. The buildings are rather flat (not more than 3 or 4 stories) and the streets were pretty empty. We started at the Australia Museum, which has some very interesting architecture. We were led around by a strict German guide, who didn't take kindly to Dad's disappearing act. heh. Next, we visited the Parliament Building, which is very square and rather plain. We did get to go up on the roof, but it was cold and grey, so we didn't stay long. The best part of the tour was the hour at the Australia War Memorial and museum (which could easily have been much more). It is full of planes and artifacts from all of the conflicts that Australia and New Zealand have been involved in. The bus also took us on a tour of the various international Embassies. Each building is designed to evoke the architecture of the country that inhabits the space. The US embassy is by far the biggest, and is built to look like the stately homes in Virginia - red brick with white columns. Then we had to go back to Sydney to pack for the Outback trip!!
Tuesday also started off harried (is there a theme here?), as we woke up to pea soup fog outside our windows. We went to the airport a little early, and the plane took off about 1/2 hour late. But once we got up to the Northern Territory, the red earth and hot sun were very apparent. It was HOT when we got off the plane! (~94 degrees) We went and checked in at the Ayers Rock Resort (we stayed at the mid-level place, Desert Gardens. The same company owns all of the hotels there. They also have a few restaurants, a supermarket, post office, souvenir shops, etc. -- it's the only "civilization" around!)
Our tour guide/driver, Steve, picked us up at 2:15pm, and we were off to see Uluru, the great big rock (above). It's stunning. (Wish we'd had charged-up batteries in the cameras! oops!) From there, we went to see Kata Tjuta (or 'the Olgas'), another nearby range of smaller rocks. It was here we discovered the main reason that man could never develop the Outback - THE FLIES!!! UGH. They were everywhere. It turns out the constant swatting of flies with one hand is known as the 'Aussie Salute'! They don't bite, they're just ... annoying! We went to the Olga Gorge, where Dad and Bryan hiked all the way to the end of the rocky path. Mom and I were far too annoyed by the flies, swarming horribly when the breeze died down.
We got back on the bus and went back to Uluru to watch the sunset. Unfortunately, there were some clouds hanging around towards the horizon, so we didn't get the amazing red-golden color changes that we'd heard about. (Steve had said there was a 50-50 chance - we just got the wrong 50!) Dinner was at the barbecue restaurant at the resort - it was do-it-yourself barbecue, and Mom had emu sausages! The rest of us were timid and had steaks and burgers. We also stopped at the supermarket and bought some snacks and fruit to keep in our hotel rooms, which came in handy for breakfast, because...
We got up on Wednesday morning at 5:15am to go back to Uluru to watch the sunrise. This time, it was a much more colorful, and I got some great pictures. We had dropped off Bryan and some other folks at the foot of Uluru at 6:15am, so they could climb the rock. After the sunrise, the rest of us went to the foot of the Rock, and got to tour the base of it, where there are many small caves, some Aboriginal wall paintings, and small waterholes. [NOTE: Most of the places we visited are sacred to the Aboriginal people, who only recently have retained land rights to the area. They would rather the tourists didn't climb up the rock, but people do it anyway. They say the next generation of Aboriginal leaders is going to close the climb.] Bryan really enjoyed it, at any rate, and got some great pictures. We caught up with him as he was coming down at 9am. Dad stayed at the hotel and slept. :)
From there, we went to the Cultural Center, which is sort of an Aboriginal museum about the land and their culture. We spent some money at the gift shop there, because the money was more likely to go directly to the people. Back to the hotel to retrieve the others on our tour (including Dad) and off to Kings Canyon (below), a 4 hour bus ride - everybody slept! On the way, Steve pointed out a "camel-proof" fence - the ranchers tied beer cans every 3 feet or so along the fence, which apparently kept the camels from going through the cables.
The "resort" when we got there was not great, and the flies were much worse - particularly in the 15 minutes I was at the swimming pool! Oh well. We played some pool at the bar and went to see the sunset. Unfortunately, the flies were terrible then too, so we took a few pictures and scurried back to the bar to get dinner. We ended up sitting outside with Steve (the flies go away after dark!) and talking politics, which was very interesting.
Another day in the Outback, another early morning. We boarded the bus at 6:30am, and were surprised to see that most of the group, including the older retired folks, were there for the climb. turns out Kings Canyon is like the Grand Canyon, only it's above ground level, so you have to climb up to the top to look down into it. The total hike was 6km, starting straight up the side of the canyon. Then, down some steep wooden steps to the center gorge area, where water pools in a swimming hole called the Garden of Eden. A large group of teenagers was already there, taking a dip, so we didn't stay long. The biggest difference between today and yesterday - I bought a fly net for my hat! YAY! It looks a little goofy in the pictures, but I didn't care!
When we came down off the canyon wall, Steve was just bringing the group from the later hike (including mom & dad) back to the bus. They seemed to have enjoyed that, but they didn't have a camera, so there are no pics. We went back to the hotel, showered and packed up, and set off for Alice Springs. We stopped after an hour at a cattle station to have lunch, and we treated ourselves to a local specialty - CAMELburgers! They were actually pretty good, although it was a little disheartening to look out the window and see the camels for sunset rides resting in the pen while we were busy eating their cousins! ICK! The trip to Alice was so long we had to stop again at another cattle station along the main North/South highway between Darwin and Adelaide.
We stayed at the Alice Springs Resort, which was very nice. After we unloaded and rested a bit, we walked over the bridge to the pedestrian mall, and had dinner at the Red Ochre Grill Cafe. It doesn't feel like we've been away for a week, but here we are!
The last moments in Alice Springs were a little frantic - Dad found the laundry building at the hotel and we did four rush loads (we needed it by this time!) before the taxi was coming to take us to the airport at 9:30am. We got to the airport very early, and it was empty. We used the time to change our plane tickets to shorten our time in Adelaide, as Dad had heard from multiple people that there wasn't much to see there (I just wanted to go to Barossa Valley for the WINE!)
Our Qantas Outback tour group included some interesting characters -- the tripod family, the California couple, the creepy thin man, the Canadian retirees, and a pair of British newlyweds who traded biz cards with mom so we can visit them when we go back to London. ;) I wonder what they thought of us, the loud Americans who always sat in the front of the bus?
MELBOURNE (page 2)