Arriving in Sydney Monday morning, we shared a shuttle with two local women. We were the last stop, so we got a scenic tour of the swanky northern suburbs (gorgeous, with a tropical, colonial vibe--I kept picturing verandahs in those lushly landscaped yards) as the driver navigated rush hour traffic. In our exhausted, disoriented state, we agreed on the spot that there would be no driving on the wrong side of the road for us.
After many tantalizing glimpses of the ocean, and apparently driving over the Sydney Harbour Bridge without recognizing it, we arrived in the beach village of Manly.
We spent our first day getting acquainted with our surroundings. We sat on the beach for awhile, watching people and the ubiquitous silver gulls until the blazing sun made us retreat. As we walked away we heard the lifeguards bellowing for people to stay between the flags or get out, and saying that box jellyfish had been sighted in the area. Lifeguards like to exercise their power the same way the world over--by instilling fear.We wandered the pedestrian mall called the Corso, which is totally geared to low-budget tourists like backpackers and students. The cheap clothing stores and restaurants are recognizable from any resort town.
That afternoon we followed the scenic walkway leading to Sydney Harbour National Park on the point just north of Manly. On the heavily used path past Fairy Bower and Shelly Beach, we realized we were walking on the wrong side--and then saw the signs instructing us to keep left.
We caught tantalizing glimpses of a bird that looked a lot like a starling or a mynah, which turned out to be the aptly named (and native) noisy miners. We also saw the first of many ENORMOUS spiders. I was pleased to hear frogs croaking.
The hike we took is described as being about 5 kilometers, and in our guidebooks it's a clear loop. On the ground, it's not clearly marked at all.
We were dripping sweat and walked partway on roads, not being sure we were walking on the correct shoulder. And Australians are assertive drivers, to say the least. They must gauge their margin of error to the split second because they don't appear to slow for pedestrians in the least.After a short while as pedestrians in Australia we became convinced that the biggest risk to our health was cars. I started saying "death comes from that way" as a reminder to look the right, then left for oncoming traffic (that's exactly the opposite of what we've done all our lives--you try acclimating quickly to that).
We went to get a local cell number, and the girl at the Vodafone shop asked me about three times whether my phone was unlocked. I assured her that I knew it was (what do I look like, a techno naif?). Then I humiliated myself by being unable to work my phone. Later, in the quiet of our hotel room I activated the phone so it was usable for calls. No dice on Web-browsing or e-mail, though. Shoot--that was going to be my main link to the outside world.
I ask at the hotel whether there's Wi-Fi I can use, and they say "Sure, for 55 cents a minute." I sniff. This is absurd, because even obnoxious hotels in the states don't charge more than $12 per day, and free Wi-Fi is my birthright.
All the restaurants reminded me of beachfront places in southern California. I had a delicious lamb-arugula salad with feta and garbanzo beans for dinner, which turned out to be one of the best meals of the whole trip. When we sat down at the beachfront place we picked at random, we asked what the racket from the trees was, and we were assured that they'd quiet down as soon as the the sun set. We weren't bothered (even though it was loud); we just wanted to know what exciting exotic bird it was. We couldn't see them, but we were told they were lorikeets, which turn out to be common as house sparrows throughout the country. We'd see them fly in and make their settling-in ruckus everywhere, almost every night. We managed to stay up until about 8 our first night and considered it a success.Tuesday morning I was awoken by the same screeching, so about 6:30 I went out with my binoculars. It was already getting warm, and people were exercising all along the boardwalk--it was really busy for that early in the morning, but it was probably the best time to exercise given the heat. I heard but couldn't spot the screeching birds. I wandered the boardwalk and side streets looking for a place to buy coffee. During my walk I heard a distinctively raucous call, looked up, and spotted my first pair of laughing kookaburras--Australia's iconic bird. I also saw squawking streaks of white that were too fast to get my binoculars on, and wondered if they were wild cockatoos. I hoped so and felt the thrill of really, truly not being at home.
I sat down at the end of the Corso and painfully pecked out my first message on the standard phone number pad--I am not a practiced texter, but I want to be. Dammit! I ordered this thing specifically because I wanted a QWERTY keyboard, but I can't find it in any menu, no matter what I try. I don't have the phone number I need--it's programmed into my old phone--so I decide to send the message as e-mail. That requires entering endless configuration data, all using the numeric keypad. And it doesn't work. Technology fail #2. I have my eyes peeled for "free Wi-Fi" signs. I see plenty of "Wi-Fi," but virtually no "free."
I find an open coffee shop, squint at the unfamiliar list of drinks, and order two long blacks, which I figure must be Americanos. The counter girl asks if I want large ones. I say yes. She asks if I want sugar, and I say no, but I do want cream. She looks at me a bit blankly as I wonder which will be more annoying: using a debit card or a $20 to pay for two coffees. My coffees are pulled and I look for some milk to add. I ask the counter girl and the barista, and they both give me the baffled look again, but I do get my milk. I learn later that you just order a coffee drink with milk in it. We will spend the rest of the trip trying to figure out if there really is any difference between a cappucino and a flat white. I grab a couple of super-greasy pastries from another shop and wander through the side streets before heading back to the hotel.
We head to the beach, and Jane stops to rent a surfboard from a sweet, adorable surf shop guy who tells her where the best breaks are.
After maybe an hour Jane gets out of the water. She says the surf was really rough and scary, and she was working hard. The waves break really quickly, so they do seem like they'd be hard to ride. We head for the ferry to spend the afternoon in Sydney proper.
Sydney's harbor is vast, and beautiful throughout. Everywhere green tumbles all the way down to the water. There must be industrial sections, and we see military ships and heavy equipment, but the natural beauty dominates. Parts of the ferry ride are rough, as the boat heads past open ocean. All the manmade wonders in Sydney Harbour seem to crowd right around the central business district: Circular Quay itself projects the grandeur of an old train station, but this place is still the nerve center of the city. And the Opera House, the bridge, and the botanical gardens are all right here, practically just an arm's length away from each other.The old-fashioned amusement park Luna Park is also right on the water, and provides a slightly eerie focal point to the night skyline.
Our first afternoon in Sydney's central business district we look at the Opera House, argue about whether to go into the botanical gardens, and wander through the Rocks, the original point of settlement. We see the usual quaint, touristy shops in shure 'nuff old buildings. Since Sydney was first settled in 1788, "old" is a relative term. We have lunch at a bakery in the Rocks and get our first good look at rainbow lorikeets, a pair of which are shamelessly begging from cafe patrons. We see a sacred ibis, which is acting disconcertingly tame. Then we decide to take the train to the Newtown neighborhood, which our guidebook tells us is where the girls are. We have to transfer trains to get there, and we're quite proud of our independent navigation skills.
At the Newtown station, we get out and start to walk. It's a pretty funky neighborhood, but we're happy to be away from the tourist district and where actual people live. As we wander we notice cheap Asian restaurants and clothing stores geared to college students: vintage and Indian. This place has a lot in common with San Francisco's Mission District; King Street looks sort of like Valencia Street, just really stretched out. We see a few members of our tribe, but we don't run across any lesbian bars, or even any comfortable cafes to stop in. We check a couple of used bookstores (they can still support independent bookstores? How quaint!) for a field guide to Australian birds. I don't find one, but I do find a newsstand that has free Wi-Fi, so I quickly check e-mail. We consider heading for the Glebe precinct, but it's too far away to reach on foot, it's getting late, and we're getting rather far away from the train station. And we don't feel comfortable just hopping on a bus. I don't want to miss the last ferry back to our hotel in Manly....
Our return train to Circular Quay is much less posh than the one out. We stop for a beer in a pub downtown (in the CBD, as Australians say) and watch some rugby on TV. We laugh at how impossible rugby is to understand. I allow as how these rugby players are kinda hot in a complete beefball sort of way. And I laugh (too loudly, Jane hints) at the fact that they seem to be grabbing at each others' shorts in the scrum. I text an acquaintance and see if he wants to try to meet up the next day.Safely settled on the ferry and waiting to leave at dusk, I start scanning the sky for birds, and I spot a wide-winged, heavy-bodied, flapping profile. I watch it for about 30 seconds and then gabble at Jane, "Bat bat bat bat bat!" We love bats. We don't see them hardly ever. We've just spotted our first grey-headed flying fox.
Wednesday we meet Jane's family friend, Jessica, for a visit to Sydney's Taronga Zoo. Jessica is an American who moved to Sydney for a job recently, and we're the first visitors she's had from home. We're glad to hang out with her and get her perspective. I think it's kind of funny when she says she lives in the Glebe neighborhood, which was our "bridge too far" of last night. She says it's just a 15-minute bus ride from Circular Quay, which she shortens to "Circular." The zoo is cool, but we think the San Diego Zoo is better. I think I've snapped photos of every bird in the exotic bird aviary. We see reptiles, and a kajillion species of rat-size desert-dwelling marsupials. There are so many that they sort of run together. Echidnas are pretty cool--they're like porcupine-anteaters. We see tawny frogmouths, birds with giant mouths and huge eyes in owl-like faces. Lots of wallabies and kangaroos are in an open-air enclosure; they all look sleepy and/or depressed, which is rather depressing. All the koalas are behind a fence: You have to pay extra to get close to them and have your picture taken (you can't hold them, though). So there are a dozen koalas in individual cubicles--what a natural living environment... We missed seeing wombats and platypuses entirely, and the penguins and cetaceans were nothing to write home about, to be honest. The elephant show was benign but felt dated and quaint. We were done with the zoo in under 2 hours, I think. We took a ferry to and from the zoo to Circular Quay.
Back at Circular Quay, a permanent feature is the aboriginal street performers playing digeridoos, posing for photos and selling music discs. I really don't care for digeridoo, and I feel queasy about people exploiting their ancient and ostensibly sacred (and personal) culture to make a buck from tourists. (Although I suppose my feelings about it are irrelevant.) I make a crack about one of my enduring memories of Sydney being awful digeridoo music coupled with secondhand smoke--because both seem inescapable at Circular Quay. Jessica says, "Yeah, this techno-digeridoo bastardization is pretty awful, but you'd be surprised how beautiful authentic digeridoo music is." I'm not convinced.
Jessica has lunch with us at a pub in the Rocks, and I find my bird guide in a chain bookstore. I think Jessica surely must want to ditch us and get back to her real life already but she doesn't seem to be in a hurry to leave. We figure out our respective bus routes and wait together. Jane and I head for Darlinghurst because it's almost Mardi Gras and I'm still trying to connect with my friend. Jessica has given us the name of a bar that she thinks is fun, the Colombian. We wander for blocks, finally settling in a stuffy coffee shop for awhile and then having a beer at the Colombian before catching the bus back. We never connect with my friend. On Thursday, our last full day in Sydney, we start by going to Shelly Beach, a little bitty calm cove. It's like a swimming pool, and I go in for a wade. Jane swims some laps. Then we return a final time to Circular Quay.
We head straight for the Royal Botanic Gardens. It's not large, but it's stunning, and we get a great dose of birdwatching: masked lapwings, tons of sacred ibis, a dusky moorhen with chicks, magpies. And more wild cockatoos than you can shake a stick at. Amazingly, Jane spots a tawny frogmouth resting in a tree. She is a champion spotter. I'm just the ID'er. Then we encounter the park's resident flying foxes. Thousands of them, in their daytime roosts. They're resting, but lots of them are fussing and squeaking, scratching, squabbling, fanning their wings to keep cool. Some of them are have babies nestled in their armpits. We learn that the park does not love the bats, because their sheer numbers make them destructive to the plant life. But they sure are cute.
We decide we can fit in a trip to Bondi, so we take the bus along Oxford Street again.At Bondi Beach, Jane marvels at the beach's sheer size, and the size and energy of the waves. She insists that she doesn't want to find some gear and surf. I think there might be a thousand people on the beach. I'm amused by the workout area/playground, just like at Venice Beach in LA. The water is turquoise and the lifeguards are in charge.
We wander past the usual tourist shops and into a feminist bookstore/cafe that gives me a twinge of nostalgia. We find a cafe for dinner. In my seafood risotto I find a long, wormy-looking string that turns out to be a ring from a biggish squid. I cut that up and eat it, but I can't handle the huge green-lipped mussels. The squishy bits and parts are just too big for me to bite into.
We head the wrong way out of the restaurant and spend a long, tense hour wandering through residential Bondi before we return to the main drag and catch our bus back. We have to pack and catch a flight to Alice Springs the next morning.