Sydney - out and about

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Flag of Australia  , New South Wales,
Thursday, April 24, 2008

As I mentioned in the previous post, rain made its presence felt for most of our visit to Australia - which we can't complain about as any rain is welcome in most parts down under. Fortunately for us the showers generally timed themselves pretty well for our outdoor activities, despite the heavy grey and scudding clouds that seemed constantly overhead. They put a little edge on the temperature but we managed to keep our days busy visiting friends and checking out some of the iconic sights in the further reaches of Sydney - places like Bondi, Manly, Palm Beach and the Blue Mountains - most of which I'll cover in this blog.

With limited time, we couldn't get to places like Queensland or Tasmania to see some of the really spectacular sights Australia has to offer, but the Blue Mountains 80km west of Sydney is a pretty good substitute. That is unless a thick mist has enveloped the whole mountain in an impenetrable fog making it impossible to view the various rock formations or walk the hiking trails Katoomba is famous for.

It was a couple of days and nights very well spent by this newly betrothed couple however. Lurline House was a great place to shack up against the elements and the food, local galleries, shops and chocolate museums kept us out of moisture's way, in between dashes down to Echo Point to see if the mist had lifted.

Most times it hadn't, but late on our last full day in Katoomba it seemed to get brighter as we sat on the B&B's verandah and finished eating some very tasty meat pies, with even some blue sky starting to peek through the cloudy murk. So I grabbed Karen by the hand and off we went to try the now-fabled scenery one last time.

As she put it, "it's like the Grand Canyon but with trees". I haven't actually been to the Grand Canyon, but I guess it is, because the sheer sandstone faces fall away hundreds of metres into the richly carpeted valley floors below, which makes it a pretty spectacular view all told. At least it was for the 10 minutes or so that the rain and mist held off anyway, because not long after these photos were taken than it started to rapidly close in again.

So at least 100 or so tourists got to see the Three Sisters and their surrounds that wet and woolly week, and fortunately that included us.

Although Bondi is on the wrong side of the river for north shore types, sitting just outside the southern 'head' of Sydney Harbour it's a must see with British tourists in tow - and one of the best places to do this is the Bondi Icebergs (swimming) Club. The ultra-chic restaurant on the top floor confuses things a little and hence I hadn't eaten in the establishment before, but I thought meeting old school mate Si in the downstairs bistro for a tidy brunch would kill a couple of birds with one stone.

The sun came out more than the photos suggest and Karen, Si and myself were impressed by the views, casual atmosphere and great nosh available to enjoy on the narrow balcony overlooking all those diehard icebergs (swimmers) in the arctically-hued pool and the dedicated surfers and bathers in the bracing waves beyond. We didn't quite make the sand of Bondi Beach after our meal due to one of those autumn showers, instead opting to keep the fleeces on and retreat to the car, but Karen seemed to get the picture - Bondi is pretty impressive on a good day. Next time we'll get on down when the sun is shining.

Manly is directly opposite Bondi on the northern side of the Harbour opening, another beach icon with an art deco style that was a must stop on a magical mystery tour of the Northern Beaches another day. To my mind the northern beaches are one of the best kept secrets of Sydney, with few visitors making it anywhere along this 30km stretch of gilded sand surf beaches. Finding a park in Manly is difficult whatever the weather but once that was achieved we checked out a few of the aboriginal art galleries along the Corso (some of the new artistic styles were quite fetching), then topped the visit off with a $4 gourmet ice-cream. In times gone by a visit to this end of town would have entailed about 10 beers and little else of cultural merit, which may be one more little piece of evidence of my changed ways.

Anyhoo, heading further north along the beaches found us checking out the sights and sounds of my formative years (well, til 16 or so when I discovered women and the pub). Expansive and generally uncrowded beaches like Narrabeen and Long Reef were where parents took carefree young nippers like my sister and I, and it was good to see that each one had little changed in the more than 20 years that had passed since those early memories of Aussie beach culture. As you can see it was a little rugged out in the water that day, with most beaches closed to bathing.

Our tour of the northern beaches ended at their furthest reaches with the deceptively named Palm Beach. There's plenty of high-spec housing and water views on each side of the Barrenjoey Peninsula but little in the way of palm trees, or evidence that the soap Home and Away is actually filmed here. Still, a nice stop for lunch amongst the super-rich holiday houses all the same.

A little west from Palm Beach and you can find the more aptly named West Head. It's quite a drive around from the sea front, through hamlets like Church Point that, apart from some new and very modern architecture that Karen was cooing at, gives a better idea of Australian coastal living than the mansions you see precariously perched along cliff-lines overlooking the Northern Beaches. It looks pretty relaxing up here, pootling around in your tinny (small boat with outboard) to pick up the milk and paper in the morning, even though it probably isn't quite that serene for residents up here now with the ever-encroaching rush of Sydney life.

West Head is part of the 154 square km Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park and Broken Bay, the lovely waterway on which Church Point sits and which is the other side of the Barrenjoey Peninsula from the ocean facing Palm Beach. It's quite elevated as evidenced by the sea plane cruising by at head height, and gives marvellous views of Lion Island in the Hawkesbury River estuary, some Central Coast beaches north up Brisbane Water, Barrenjoey Point (and lighthouse) and south down Pittwater. A lovely part of the world indeed - even the bandicoots think so - as long as a bushfire isn't blazing through it.

One of the major objectives of Karen's visit to Australia was to meet some wildlife - in particular kangaroos and koalas - so the trip wouldn't be complete without a visit to Koala Park at Pennant Hills.

I was pretty surprised at this place, as you're allowed to pet the koalas at no extra charge (unlike Taronga Zoo on the harbour) and they don't mind you wandering amongst and patting the male kangaroos in their enclosure. As an Aussie you generally grow up thinking that koalas are stinky and unpleasant creatures, prone to crabbiness if disturbed from what seems like 23 hours of sleep per day, whereas kangaroos are certainly not the type of animals you go up to an cuddle as they are more likely to disembowel you with a swift kick of their hind legs, or maniacally jump in front of your car as both of you travel at speed.

So being able to do both and see the fuzzier, furrier side of these wildlife icons - all the while meeting a large variety of other distinctly Australian critters including echidnas, wallabies, emus, wombats, fruit bats, parrots and cassowaries up close and personal - made it a great day. I think the inquisitive male wombat might have ended up the group favourite and Karen certainly enjoyed spending time with the cuddly and not too smelly koala.

All that in two jet-lagged weeks made for some pretty high impact travelling. Two months to actually get the blogs done is less impressive but it really is a lot harder than expected to write compellingly about somewhere you've lived all your life (even if it is somewhere special like Sydney). I'll have to get back to new destinations, so join me next time in Dublin.

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