(...or "Sea to Sky, Sydney Edition")
04.06.2017 - 05.06.2017 19 °C
I wake up to this:
The enormous girth of this vessel should be impressive but I am, to put it bluntly, quite pissed off this monstrosity is blocking my view of part of the Rocks. I regard cruise ships as simply being gigantic, drawn-out and rigidly mandated tour groups. So this thing, no matter how grand and imposing, never stood a chance with me.
The previous day's trek of 10kms plus overhead has left my legs understandably taxed but otherwise usable - I think. Thankfully, because they are about to be put through the wringer.
On the suggestion of the cordial bartended at Rockpool I set my sights on Centennial Park, an extensive spread of protected wetlands that represent a fundamental natural water catchment for Botany Bay and the surrounding watershed. It waits a paltry 5.3Kms to the south-east of Circular Quay which should provide ample time to forget about the offensive suck-liner in my harbour.
Soundtrack: Warm by Claire Voyant
The brisk and refreshing morning is surpassingly more agreeable than yesterday, even from the onset. I hike lackadaisically down McQuarrie Street and through Hyde Park, very gently steering away from the downtown core. The imposing monoliths of the city concede to humble spans of civilization intended for a more modest suburban lifestyle; although still saturated with countless cafes, bars and other nooks ready to pour, the neighbourhood is also peppered with laundromats, grocers and second-hand clothing stores. There is also ample representation from the curio shop, used book store and tattoo parlour contingent. Every power pole and building wall lacking windows or an entrance is painted in swaths of often homemade posters slinging amateur live music. Very excellent, I thoroughly approve.
My journey takes me through the sprawling suburbs, past the city Cricket Oval and Fox Studios Australia, along wide tree-adorned pedestrian walkways and eventually foot first into a pile of horseshit. It seems I have found the Equestrian Centre on the edge of Centennial Park.
The park features lagoons decorated in reeds and various other water-born shrubbery; and islands teeming with birds of all shapes, sizes, colours and calls ranging from the charming to the obnoxious.
I stop for an Indian Spice Chai at a food stand called the Spruce Goose, modelled from an aluminum-sided trailer. Gazing through the crowds and over the fowl-infested waters I admire the entire set-piece with a deeply grounded serenity, save for the brief time I find myself biting my tongue to avoid lecturing some of the families that have brought with them entire loaves of cheap store-bought bread so that their children can feed the potentially aggressive black swans. My inkling to educate them on what a profoundly stupid idea this is - for both the bird and the kid - remains muffled, my sentiment best kept to myself.
I happen upon a thick copse of trees growing from a dense underbrush, the trail leading into the murk past a sign that proclaims this area to be a swamp of sorts - I didn't really read the sign but rather took a picture to look at later as I am apt to do with signboards. Navigating the moist boardwalks and muddy pathways, I can't help but admire the fact that one would have no idea they were in the heart of a major city, as no real evidence is apparent beyond the thick greenery in any given direction. The incessant bird noises and alien vegetation provide the sensation of being lost in the middle of some tropical rainforest, precluding the moment just before one is pounced on by hungry tiger or speared haplessly and cooked by the local natives. As I progress, I notice the smell...swamps are often pungent of course but this stench has more in common with that of a zoo than of a marsh.
I stop to take pictures and look up. High up at the top of the trees I observe what appear to be some kind of large blossoms or growths sprouting from the lofty branches. Curious, I look around on the ground trying to locate a previously fallen specimen so that I can get a better first-hand look. I see none - there is nothing on the ground other than mud and plant leaves. I look back up, and only when I see the unexpected movement do I clue in.
I drop my camera bag and quickly swap to a telephoto lens and aim it straight up to confirm my discovery.
Their wingspans, if what I see is to be taken as an accurate sample, probably average 3 to 4 feet across, on these massive bats I now take childish glee in having found. There are dozens, nay hundreds of these creatures dozing amongst the tree tops, and on occasion I am treated to one deciding it isn't comfortable enough and flying a few metres over to another tree. Simply spectacular! Only when I lift my camera bag off the ground do I realize that this explains the zooish funk, finding I had managed to place it directly in a fresh pile of guano.
On the way out of the swamp I take a closer look at the sign, and there it is, clear as day, on a diagram designed so that the most illiterate small toddler would understand - a section of the crude map featuring happy cartoonish bats, an area known as the "Bat Colony".
It takes a while to wipe the dried bat shit off my camera bag using cold water and my bare hands (I wonder later if I should worry about having contracted some exotic life-threatening, or at least trip-halting, disease) and as much as this should spoil my appetite for the foreseeable future I do notice the time and make the decision that I should move along to my next destination - lunch.
I turn predominantly west with just a smattering of north. The next part of my excursion takes me through Surry Hills, a suburb no less characteristic than many of the others but outwardly a bit worse for wear. The blocks of small and evidently quite old (though still likely prohibitively expensive) apartments are inhabited but showing their age, every one of them - regardless of how well the owners have maintained or upkept - appear ostensibly haunted. I want one.
I trudge along for kilometres more until I reach Spice Alley - an attraction (?) that has shown up on more than one "to-do-in-Sydney" list - which reveals itself to be little more than an eclectic outdoor Asian food-court. I'm not sure, given the descriptions I have read of the place, exactly what I expected. I resolve that I'm simply famished would not have been very much impressed if the place had been 100ft underground on a floating island in the centre of a subterranean lake lit up with Hydra-fire. The bothersome icing-on-the-cake, if you will, is that none of the food stands accept cash or traditional credit card, instead only allowing payment via a proprietary prepaid card that must be pre-purchased and preloaded. This means I have to visit each stand to peruse their selection (my already thoroughly defunct decision making now impeded by low blood sugar), eventually decide what I want, add up the cost for an exact total, go purchase one of these magic cards, and finally return to the vendor or vendors to order and wait for my selections - and hope that along the way I did not fuck up the math.
The Singapore chilli chicken is good, if not overpriced for a generous but ultimately food-court quality meal. And now I have an empty Spice Alley prepaid card as a sub-par bonus souvenir.
Some quick calculations and I find I've walked a measly 9Kms and although I had pondered earlier in the throws of self-induced starvation prior to lunch that I might catch a train from Central Station across the street back to Circular Quay, I instead develop some unexplained bravado and head up George Street on foot and walk back to the Pullman, adding another 3.3Kms to my tally.
In my hotel room, I spend as long as possible resting my feet before I have to leave again in order to reach my next stop before it closes for the evening.
I head for the Pylon Bridge Climb, a poor-man's (read: cheap) version of the full Harbour Bridge Climb, but at $15 is less than ten percent of the cost of it's grown-up sibling. I risk missing the 4:45pm final entry time by overshooting the staircase that climbs out of the Rocks onto the Harbour Bridge by a reasonable distance (only adding yet more unnecessary clicks on my day's odometer) and only just reach the entrance platform in time. After paying and climbing the further 200 stairs (this on top of the substantial flight leading from the streets below the bridge, or so it seemed in my current condition) I'm rewarded with a complete panorama of Sydney in all directions...
...except to the immediate west where the pillar on the opposite side of the road refuses to get out of the way...
...and that loathsome cruise ship soiling some of the view.
As the sun marches on towards the horizon I snap bunch of pictures, and then put the camera away and just stand there absorbing the entire experience.
I only get a few minutes to meditate before everyone is politely ejected for the evening. I head back down into the Rocks and weave through the maze of cobblestone roads, intentionally attempting to find routes I had not yet, to memory, taken. Along the way I smile to myself as I hear the loud blast signalling the departure of my nemesis from the harbour...thank god! My exploring pays out when I find the Argyle, a brick pub distinctively festooned with lofty paper lamps and parasols and a dazzling array of multi-coloured led lights; with a cavernous theme-park-esc ambience inside, and a rugby match on the 'tele' and some live reggae music outside.
I enjoy a glass or two of house red while absorbing the music and to a lesser extent the rugby (I cannot pretend to know who was playing or any of the rules with which the game is played, but to the outsider I reckon I appeared sufficiently engaged); and after a spell reluctantly return to my room to give my feet and legs some further respite. This go-around tossed a few more (3-ish)kms onto the pile, and this does not include all the stairs.
At this point a wizened man or woman would endorse the virtues of pizza delivery or perhaps justify the breaking of the bank on the laughably overpriced room-service. At the very least, give some leniency to the idea of waiting on a table at one of the crowded cafes within a few paces of my hotel door. Key word: wizened.
A couple hours later I've walked several more kilometres to Darling Harbour. It isn't much less busy here than at Circular Quay but there appears to be more choice, and besides I love it here and did not want to miss it. I'm saddened to find that the south end of the harbour has been walled off evidently in favour of some condo project or something, and this means several restaurants and the carousel now appear to be hopelessly lost to development. Some brainiac geo-engineering-drop-out decided to make up for this by plunking a tacky Ferris Wheel down on the west side of the harbour, partially blocking the view of the hourly light show from some of the water-side cafes. Grr.
So many eating choices, and it makes no difference, I don't even look. As the choreographed fountains weave their watery silver screens for the light projections (accompanied by hilariously bombastic classical music pumped through loudspeakers around the harbour - think Apocalypse Now with fountain spray instead of napalm) I head straight to Crinti's (for those who have not subjected themselves to my previous ramblings, Crinti's is a chain "Italian" restaurant on the second level of the building complex on the west side of the harbour. And, well...read on). With all the alluring morbidity of car wrecks or American news headlines, I find myself unable to resist returning here, this now part of my Sydney ritual (please don't ask why). It is of little surprise that the food is debatably acceptable but the service is appalling to the degree that it becomes something of legend. I am almost embarrassed for these servers to observe how under-trained they appear to be (ex. I am offered water, and on agreeing I am then further quizzed on exactly what kind of water: sparkling, spring, tap, etc. Whatever I decided doesn't matter, the water never arrives). The final kick to the nether-region, if you will, is that I have to pay an extra 10% for the privilege of having indulged in this catastrophe of modern dining, simply because it is Sunday (I learn later about Sunday Penalty rates, meaning businesses in Australia are forced to pay more to operate on Sunday, an arguably archaic and out-of-date hold-over of times long past in my opinion...and this modern-day tithe is payed forward to you, the consumer). In conclusion, if you're reading this Criniti's: don't change a thing, you are a wealth of writing material and a goldmine of amusement.
By the time I am hit bed, factoring in the additional 5kms to Darling and back, I gather I've seen about 21Kms of this city today on foot - I should have collected pledges and raised money for something more worthwhile than my own indulgent touristing. Thankfully all the deep-fried delicacies and red meat and mouth-watering artisan bread (oh yeah, and Aussie red) are preventing anything unexpected - like weight-loss, for example - from coming close to bothering my vacation.
My legs are still wobbling...and I'm laying down.
Another morning, another cruise ship, this one older, uglier and somehow more reprehensible than the one the day before.
It is early still, I intend on walking into the hotel restaurant as it opens. I have plans.
Ok, fine, I confess: if I run the numbers, I've been on, let's see...one...two...-zero- prearranged tours. None. So, I suppose I'm being a touch unfair in my discrimination of tour groups. The point is, one of the items on my to-do list whist in Sydney is to see the Blue Mountains - a massive and iconic national park about a hundred kilometres to the west of the city. You can take a dedicated train there, but as my travel agent pointed out once I reach the main village it could be challenging reaching all the various attractions and viewpoints. My agent recommended some reasonable and *almost* attractive selections of day tours from the city to the area.
To the point: I did not opt for the tour group, mainly because the Blue Mountains have a terrible habit at this time of year of developing an awful case of thicker-than-shit fog, the likes of which would reduce visibility to barely an arms length and render the entire trip a complete waste of time (unless you *love* fog)...and the tour fee is non-refundable in the case of "inclement weathah!"
What to do?
Soundtrack: Delay by Chiasm
Ok, I confess this was not completely impulsive (really, Steve?) - I had researched car hire companies in the area and the routes to take out of town, I just wanted to wait until I knew the weather would be good enough to risk the trip (if the weather turns out poor, at least I'm on an "adventah").
(Stock photo, honest...I would not operate my phone whilst driving!)
On this gorgeous morning, I pull away from the Avis in Pyrmont, a suburb just west of Darling Harbour, in a small black Corolla. I preordained this location to avoid having to drive through the downtown core proper and because it was one of the only companies in the downtown area that did not get an absurdly negative customer rating - in fact, the service was quite excellent.
That giddiness I always feel the first time (per trip, of course) I find myself driving on the left side of the road washes over me as the cool breeze carrying the sounds of traffic and the smells of oil-soaked city pavement flow through the open windows of the modest hatchback. This will never get old.
Soundtrack: One Little Victory by Rush (yes, my iPod *went* there)
Fats-forward a hundred or so kilometres west and up - to the small village of Wentworth Falls where I pause for a long black before steering towards my first view point. The moment I step onto the viewing platform into plain view of the heavens I know I made the right choice.
This is Wentworth Falls, the first of several viewpoints I plan on absorbing today.
I head back to the highway and proceed to Katoomba, the small (and fantastically named) main hub of the park. From there I proceed a few kms south to Echo Point.
And on foot down to the legendary Three Sisters rock formations.
By the way, if you are wondering as I was about the name "Blue Mountains", if you look at these pictures very carefully you will notice the distant forests are not actually engulfed in a haze, as it may appear at first, but rather radiate a natural silvery-blue hue on their own.
My first choice for lunch, a mysteriously named establishment called the Solitary Cafe resting on the scenic Blue Mountains drive, is today feeling much more solitary than usual...and is closed. Slightly discouraged, I head back to Katoomba for food and after enjoying an extremely messy Texan pulled pork sandwich I question the server on other viewpoints to take in around the area, emphasising the fact I was not looking for theme parks (yes there are some here) or blatantly obvious tourist stops (which is most of them).
The cook (not the server, as it turns out she was new to the area) points me out to a few places, one of which I choose because it is technically on my way back towards Sydney (despite my new-found ambition to "live it loose" I am not completely brain-dead and know that if I do not get the peppy little Corolla back by 6pm when the Avis depot closes, I am to put it bluntly "a bit fucked").
The suggestion pans out, the (and I still have no idea how this is actually pronounced) Leora Cascades a peaceful and Zen-filled canyon whose resident brook steps down a natural staircase of a creek bed to eventually cascade over a towering waterfall aptly - though not by any means originally - named Bridal Veil Falls. The land below disappears and I find myself following trails hugging the cliffs.
All worth every ounce of effort it took to get here.
There is not much else to tell, trying to do so would almost be a disservice. This place defies both description and photograph (unfortunately for you folks back home).
Soundtrack: Night Still Comes by Neko Case
Skip to a few hours later and I'm wandering back to the hotel, having made the drop-off time comfortably and with time to spare. The remainder of the evening is unremarkable despite being turned away from my first choice of dining options (the Sydney Cafe in the Customs Building claiming to be 'closed' at least 30 minutes before their advertised shut-down time) and ending up in the Meat and Wine Co. at the Intercontinental Hotel where, I later learned, was mostly enveloped by police barricades due to the presence of certain Trump administration - uh - guys (e.g. Rex Tillerson, for starters). What a downer.
I just finished a single scoop of delicious but disproportionately expensive green tea ice cream I paid $6.90 for at the Quay before retiring to my room for the last time. The second cruise ship has sailed, Vivid is continuing to pound away with spot lights and light projections, and I am thoroughly pooped.
This evening caps off the longest consecutive time I've spent in Sydney, and I feel like I know the city substantially more than ever, but still left lots on the table. Watson's Bay or Manly Beach - in the *sunshine* - for starters. I'd like to say I'm saving it all for next time, but I'm not going to fool myself - there very well may not be a next time. I breathe in, step off the balcony back into my room, and hesitantly close the door. It's time to let go.
Tomorrow I fly to Perth. And if I thought I've done and seen some incredible things, well...I haven't seen anything yet.