Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Australia #9 On the way home - Hong Kong

I'm not sure about Hong Kong. It may be just that I'm not in the right mood for it. It may be that after the heat of Sydney it's just a bit cold. It may be that our hotel is a bit out of the way, so we're not really part of it. I don't know the reason, but somehow it's just not hitting the right spot for me.
It is different, I'll give it that. Surrounded by hills that look a bit murky in the haze; wide streets; clever planning that enables so many people to live and work in such a small space. And it has its idiosyncrasies: the ancient Star Ferry crosses from the main island to Kowloon for the princely sum of 2.5 dollars - about 20p, a price that hasn't changed for many, many years. It has shopping malls galore - there's even one on top of The Peak, the Island's highest point, reached either by a twisty-turny bus ride or by the old tram - a funicular railway that's been running for 150 years. And it has a passion for signs.  Signs telling you not to do things: no spitting; no cycling; no smoking; no climbing... In the town's charming Park I took photos of all the different signs I saw - there were 26 in all - and they were spaced every few yards!

It brings to mind a society that would run riot if not told not to. There'd be fish freed into lakes, people scrambling over rocks, eating wild mushrooms in the street, while flying kites and feeding the birds. Not to mention sneezing without using a hankie! Anarchy.

Actually, the park was lovely. It's quite unexpected. Having descended from The Peak in the tram we had a bit of time to kill, and there it was, just across the road. 
It has an aviary - a huge area, all enclosed, where if you stand still and quiet and wait you will see the most amazing birds, quite close to. 

In the background we could hear the traffic and the sound of building work, but enclosed in the aviary we were separate from it all.  A parakeet on the outside obviously felt the same - he perched himself on the supporting structure and called loudly to be let in. Given that we'd seen something far larger than buzzards enjoying the thermals below The Peak, I don't blame him.
Tomorrow, our last day before embarking on the thirteenish hour flight home, we are visiting Cheung Chau Island, which, according to the guidebook is a "tiny, charming island", which has a "sense of the older, traditional Hong Kong".  I hope I fall for it.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Australia #8 Blue Mountains

It's a two hour train trip from Central Station, Sydney, to Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains. At first sight the mountains look more like tree covered hills. Not mountainous at all. A bit like the Quantocks, perhaps. Lovely, but not unique. But get up into them and the scale hits you. These mountains go on for ever. A check on the map shows them covering an area that looks to be almost as big as Wales. Hill after hill after hill, all tree covered, all slightly blue in a haze.

The walk to the falls began through bush land - a single file path that crossed and recrossed a little stream. Finally we rounded a corner and came to the start of the falls. A Japanese couple, on looking at the ladder we had to descend, turned back and retraced their steps. What a shame, as round the next bend we came to Wentworth Falls themselves. Stepping stones take you across and the edge of the falls are always a way off - and there's a sturdy barrier to stop anyone getting too close to the edge. 

We crossed to the other side and walked around a bit. Now, as you know already I'm a wimp. Did I mention I am scared of heights? Just past a huge group of Americans, who filled the path, the view opened up below us, and I point blank refused to continue. In fact, I don't think I could have. My knees kept giving way!

I clung, rather desperately, to the rail while Andy and Cat continued down for a little way. Fortunately the trail we wanted to take was the other side of the falls, so, rather gingerly I let go and we continued. Would I have done so if I'd known what was in store? I'm not sure...
It was a long, again single track, walk, up and down hill, all along the edge of the hill, sometimes rather too close to the edge for me, but this time there was no going back. 

Where there were hand rails, I held them, when there weren't I studied the ground in front of me very, very hard.  It worked. We made it.
Tomorrow we leave Sydney, and Cat, and begin the journey home, via Hong Kong. I don't think I need to say how hard tomorrow will be, but Oz has been good to us. A wonderful place.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Australia #7 Observations and a Walk

Walking home from a largely inside day on Thursday - with the temperature soaring to 37 degrees it seemed expedient to try and stay as air conditioned as possible - we passed a house that we often pass. Its windows were open, as they usually are, and from them came the sound of music playing and adults and children laughing and talking together, and we realised, that this, too, was not unusual. And I was reminded of what Cat had told me, that here in Sydney she has never heard an adult raise their voice to a child.
It's not that children don't challenge - on the bus back from Bondi Beach on Monday, a hot and tired little boy, still in nappies, had a mini tantrum. And it was mini, because his mother calmly and dispassionately told him to use his words to say what he needed, then quietly turned her attention away until he did so. And it was resolved. Just like that. Amazing. 
That day it wasn't only the little boy who was hot and tired. We had walked from Cat's favourite beach, Coogee - a beautiful sweep of sand, with big (to me, but not by Aussie standards) waves - eight kilometres along the coastal path to Bondi. We skirted round Gordon's Bay, loved by snorkelers and scuba divers, and stopped at Clovelly. Andy and Cat swam - there's a sort of pool there where the sides of the bay have been enclosed in walls - the sea still comes in, but it's contained and calm. Then we made our way inland slightly for a bucket of prawns for lunch. Lovely.

The walk continued along the edge of the sea, past the enormous Waverley Cemetery (based on Pere Lachaise in Paris) which reaches out towards the edge of the cliffs, past Bronte beach with its large pools, past Tamarama Beach and its surfers, along the sandstone cliffs sculpted by the sea, until around the corner is the famous Bondi Beach - full of people sunbathing and surfers catching waves. It's one heck of a walk in the heat, and quite grumpy making, but worth it.

Another day, I can't remember which, we were walking back home up the hill from Central Station. We'd probably been to Circular Quay for a beer or two. It's one of the best places in the world to drink beer on a hot afternoon. Sitting on the pavement, his hat upturned before him for loose change, was an elderly Aboriginal man. As we neared him a young girl, perhaps in her twenties, gracefully folded herself down onto the pavement facing him and began a conversation.
I like this country. I like its friendliness, its clarity, its openness. It seems to me to be a country full of hope.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Australia #6 You wouldn't believe...

Saturday, and Amy's time here is nearly at an end. One thing we all wanted to do while in Australia is see kangaroos.  I mean, they are everywhere, aren't they? Hopping gaily across motorways, eating crops, generally being - well, everywhere. We were somewhat surprised that in her five months here, Cat hasn't seen a single kangaroo. So, having researched the all-knowing Internet, and, with rain forecast for Sydney, we decided today was the day to hire a car and head over Sydney Harbour Bridge and north on the Pacific Motorway up to Morisset, where we were reliably informed, at its picnic area, we could get up close and personal with real live wild kangaroos.
Did I tell you that the roads in Sydney were quiet? I lied. On a Saturday the world and his family head out of Sydney towards the north.  And those from out of Sydney, to the north, head south into the city. We crawled along the main road, Andy driving, with Cat as navigator and Amy and me as back seat drivers. Literally. Well, until Amy fell asleep... after all, she and Cat had been out on the town til gone two the night before. Then it was left to me to make sure that the driver and navigator were fulfilling their roles adequately.
We finally made it to the motorway, and the traffic thinned.  Unsurprisingly motorways in Australia are much like those in the UK - three lanes, one of which is mostly unused - the slow one that is. What is different is the view - acres and acres of deeply wooded hills, an occasional cleared area with low buildings and fences, and once an enormous inlet sliding along beneath us. Beautiful.

We finally made it to the little town of Morisset, a fast growing place which began life as a sawmill town when the railway was built. In the 1908 a psychiatric hospital was built there - in the 1960's it housed a staggering 1,600 patients.
Now, the place we were making for was a bit tricky to find. Oh, ok, it was nigh on impossible. The website had no directions, save a street name. There were no tourist signs to guide us. Frustrated, hungry and lost we found ourselves suddenly at the edge of a housing estate by the shore of Lake Macquarie - an enormous salt water lake - twice the size of Sydney Harbour. Here we took stock, and then set off again. 
Another drive around and eventually we decided that to get to Morisset picnic area we would have to go through the hospital grounds. And go through them we did. Twice. No kangaroos. No picnic area. A cricket match, a bowling green, loads of low brick buildings, and two signs warning of kangaroos, but no sign telling us where. 
This was beginning to feel like a huge hoax.
But we're nothing if not stubborn. And hungry. So we tried a track we'd missed before and suddenly were back by the lake again, and the place was the picnic area from the website! Yes! But... no kangaroos. We were so hungry we almost didn't care. We unpacked our picnic and admired the view of the lake as we devoured it. 
Picnic over we decided to explore a bit - and two kangaroos bounded across our path. We followed through a gap in the trees and there they were! Sitting in family groups of seven to ten. One or two on lookout, others sleeping, others scratching, their spindly front legs with delicate almost human hands. Every step we took revealed more groups. They were completely unfazed by us, and they were utterly fabulous. 

We stayed there for some time, wandering among them and watching them as they watched us. It was well worth the trek.
In the evening, while making supper, I opened a drawer to look for a colander. Seeing what was inside I squealed and rapidly closed it again. Both girls shrieked. I could only speak in monosyllables. "This big"  I said, showing the size with my hands. "Spider." "This big".  It was a huntsman - and not big for its type, apparently. It looked huge to me! 

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Australia #4 And now for something completely different

You may not know this, but I'm a bit of a wimp. I'm scared of moths flapping around me. I won't eat crab because I once heard someone say they were allergic to it, and I didn't want to take the risk that I might be too. I'd never hang-glide, or do a parachute jump, even tandem, or anything like that. I'm scared of heights, crowds and, most important to this post - of being out of my depth, whether in a swimming pool, or the sea.
So you can imagine that a trip to the Great Barrier Reef, while it is something I really, really wanted to do, was not something I was feeling relaxed about.  The trip we went on promised a glass bottom boat  trip, as well as a guided snorkel around the inner reef, so I was somewhat more relaxed. I put on my stinger suit, just in case I fancied a paddle, tried on a mask and flippers (you have to show willing), and hopped on to the boat to transfer to the low isles.
The trip over the reef was fascinating - I saw turtles and giant clams and loads of fish. We came ashore with time to spare, so, with no pressure to keep up with the rest, or to go out of my comfort zone, I tried a bit of a snorkel, and, buoyed up by a bright yellow noodle, before I knew it I was over the reef, looking at schools of multicoloured fish, small clams and sea cucumbers galore. 

I'd like to say it was a fear overcome, but in normal circumstances I think I'll still keep in my depth.

One thing I'm not afraid of is bats, and just as well, given that Port Douglas is home to a huge colony of fruit bats. Every evening around sunset the lorikeets fly in to roost, and in so doing oust the bats from their perches in the trees. Initially the bats come in ones and twos, but before you know it they are filling the sky overhead, swooping and landing in the trees beside our little home. They are absolutely amazing creatures, so graceful and so huge!

And finally from Port Douglas, a few photos: a metre long crocodile seen from the paddle boat The Lady Douglas, and some views of the rainforest at Mossman Gorge.  Back to Sydney tomorrow...

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Australia #5 A Snapshot

I'm sitting writing this at ten a.m. in the sitting room of our Airbnb house - a little Victorian terrace, in the once notorious (but now up and coming) Surry Hills.

The girls left early this morning to do the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb. As I write I guess they are firmly attached to a rail and miles up in the air above the Parramatta River.  Outside the sun is shining, the washing is drying.  A bird is pecking up the crumbs I threw out from my breakfast toast - a moment ago he was squabbling with his friend on the flat roof of the kitchen extension, reminding me of the pigeons that scrabble around on the glass roof of my friend Doreen's conservatory in Halse.  In the park behind the yard, a mother is encouraging her small son as he learns to pedal his bicycle. Her shouts of praise end suddenly as there is is the inevitable bump of the bike hitting a bin, and the child's screams.  Like any mother anywhere she soothes him, and then tells him that the only thing to do is to get back on and keep trying.  That this is the only way to learn.
Sydney is, in so many ways, just like England.  Even the summer is like a lovely English summer, a cool breeze tempers the heat and it yesterday we woke to rain.
But it is also very, very different.  There is much more room here. In general the roads are wider, and the traffic less fast and furious. The trains are almost empty, as are the pavements. Here, if you go shopping, all the shop assistants want to talk to you, to know where you're from, how long you are staying - the purchase of clothing is secondary to getting to know you. There's no hustle and bustle. None of the desire to rush everywhere with your head down, tutting in annoyance when people cross your path. 
I find I am liking this place more and more. I like its 'can-do' attitude. I like the laid back style. I like the way families go to the beach after school. I like the way perfect strangers engage you in conversation and wish you a pleasant stay in their country. 

Last night we went to the opera - for only the second time in my life. The setting of Sydney Opera House is definitely posh, but the opera itself (The Barber of Seville) was hilarious, and brilliantly done. It was wonderful and we came out to the warmth of a Sydney summer evening feeling relaxed and happy - Australian even!

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Australia #3 Port Douglas - a history lesson

For over ten thousand years, before the first settlers arrived here in the mid 1800's, Port Douglas  was a place of supreme importance and reverence for the indigenous peoples of the area.  They called it Jabukanji. It was here they met for matters of law, diplomacy, religion and burial.  All the nations from the area would gather and camp while the business at hand was settled and then they would return to their own lands and continue their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, moving around from place to place as the changing seasons dictated.
All that came to an end when gold was discovered in the Hodgkinson River.  This discovery brought settlers, who then discovered minerals and tin in the area.   By the mid 1890's , a mere 20 odd years after the beginning of settlement, the original population of the area was decimated, and those who remained were rounded up, supposedly for their protection.
The European settlers built up a town which, at its peak, boasted 27 hotels, but increased communication meant that the population diminished, and a cyclone in 1911 pretty much destroyed the town. Tourism was the towns saviour, and resulted in its growth from a population of around 100 in 1960, to a place that now ranks high amongst the best towns in Austalia.

Mossman Gorge from an inlet at Port Douglas

Tomorrow we go to Mossman Gorge, where the indigenous peoples were settled in the 1930's. The website (www.yalanji.com.aus) says: "Bamanga Bubu Ngadimunku Inc. is the association that advocates and represents for the Mossman Gorge Community and seeks to gain a sustainable future for the community" 
There is no putting right the wrongs of the past. I hope that the future holds more understanding and tolerance.