Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Heating up even more

The Harbour Bridge, melting in the sun

'It's only spring' is a saying you hear quite a bit on Australian television where the weather's concerned - usually with regard to unseasonally high temperatures. Last night's forecast used the phrase several times, as today was predicted to be the hottest individual day for over twenty years. It was odd looking at a temperature map on a TV weather report covered with numbers above 40. Living in Scotland, if you get numbers higher than 20 you know you're in for a warm day - but 40? Had they put the map up in Farenheidt by mistake? The predicted temperature in Sydney today was 42C - that's 108F in old money. Hence the phrase '...and it's only spring'.

In truth I don't think it was near that hot - but being used to warm temperatures in the high teens, even warm temperatures in the low 30's are very hot. The wind too, as I said before, plays a part - it's odd to feel a hot wind. Where I'm from, wind is cold, biting, gusty. We have wind-chill, not wind-burn. The idea of wind making the temperature rise is a foreign concept to us Brits. Add that with the humidity, which apparently today was only 10%, and you have the same oven-like conditions mentioned below. Australians are of course familiar with this kind of weather - all the pavements have overhanging frontages from the shops that help shade pedestrians, and of course serve as free advertising boards. You become grateful for these, as just walking in the open sun in 40C weather takes it out of you - you can almost hear yourself dehydrating. In the UK you see people walking about everywhere with bottles of water, clutching them protectively. Over here you see the same, only over here - you really need it...

Sunday, November 28, 2004

A warm day at the golf

We've all been there...

Last Thursday I spent the day watching the opening round of the Australian Open Golf championship, which by a co-incidence was being held at a golf course just south of Paddington. As it was so close, and of course I had no other plans (the cancer institute has yet to get back to me), I went along. I've never been to a golf tournament before, so I wasn't sure what to do. Do you stand in a place and watch them all come past? Or do you pick a group and walk round with them? I decided if I did the former, all I'd see would be different golfers playing the same shot time after time - so I picked a group at random and followed them round.

They weren't very good - I should say here that the Australian Open isn't like the US Open or The Open. The most famous golfer playing was Peter Lonard, who's scarcely a household name. But it was great fun - apart from the first hole. After watching them tee off (and it's truly amazing how far they hit the ball with those drivers), I went half-way down the first fairway and stood just off the grass in the trees watching the second group tee off. The first player hit his drive, and I could see it coming towards me - but didn't think it would get near me. As it turned out it landed in the rough about ten feet in front of me. I thought that was as close as it would get - but the second player managed to hit the tree I was standing next to (about twenty feet up) and clatter behind me. I chose somewhere else to stand.

It was a good day out though - very hot. You think golf is just walking around taking the occasional swipe - but doing that for four hours in the sun must be exhausting. I was certainly knackered by the time they finished. The weather is starting to get hotter again now - it was 34C today. When it gets like that, any amount of wind seems to make it worse. If you're walking down a street, for example, and come to the edge of a large building - you turn the corner and the wind hits you like when you open an oven door. Today I was stuck on an underground train for ten minutes with no air conditioning, and it was like a sauna. Odd to think that back home it's probably dull, grey and wet. Not that I'm complaining...

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Cheap at twice the price

P3.36 well spent...

So what's it like to live in Sydney? In terms of prices, it can be pretty cheap for those of us over from the UK. At the current exchange rate of $1 = P2.37 (no poundsign on the keyboard) certain things are great value. Eating out, for one - thanks to the staggering proliferation of foodcourts, you can always get something cheap. Yesterday for example I had a sandwhich and Coke for $6 and later a Chinese special of fried rice, satay chicken and spicy beef for $5. So my entire food costs for yesterday amounted to a bank-breaking P4.63. Try and beat that in the UK.

In pubs, beer is often $4 a schooner (about half a pint), which is P1.68. In the off-licence (bottle shop) you can get a six-pack of generic Australian lager for P6.30. A return train ticket to the city costs about P1.20 - a single will set you back exactly 93p. Since I've been here, I've been to the cinema for P7, a ABL Pro basketball league game for P3.36 and as I wrote earlier a cricket match featuring the New Zealand international side for $10 (P4.20).

But there are some things that are more expensive. Clothes in shops are more pricey than back home, as are CD's - basically anything that has to be imported. But the expensive things are in the minority, and until I start earning Australian money and the prices for things will come into line with my currency, I'm not complaining one bit. No whingeing from this pom...

Monday, November 22, 2004

When the worse things in life are free

Central Station, Sydney

Today was something of a momentous one for us humble Sydneysiders (as I can call myself thanks to having paid my first rent). We all know commuters like a moan about transport, and those here are no exception. The Sydney train system has been a bone of contention for many years - with the usual problems of late, cancelled and overcrowded trains. They are run by CityRail and funded by the NSW State Government, who are of course the prime targets for commuter's wrath. Things have been building up for a while, and the NSW Premier Bob Carr has realised the terrible train system might well cost him the next State election. With this in mind (I don't think it was an entirely selfless act), today was free travel day on Sydney trains. All the ticket barriers were left open for 24hrs, and everyone could go anywhere for nothing - at a cost to the Government of $2m. Premier Carr said it was a 'charitable' decision to apologise to Sydneysiders for the terrible service.

The result was the same crappy service, but this time for free. The other night I used the trains to get to a party and had to wait 45mins for a three-minute journey because of delays. Apparently this is regular. Of course the trains were extra busy today - I was going to go to the end of the line at Berowra and go for a walk, but the weather wasn't good - so I settled for a day around the city taking as many trains as I could. It was quite good fun walking on and off trains at every opportunity - at one stage I got the train instead of walking one block. So my good intentions for the day became a case of musical trains - but I think over the course of the last few years I've walked around enough to give myself at least one day off...

Friday, November 19, 2004

The Blue Mountains

The view from Echo Point lookout in the Blue Mountains

Yesterday I took a trip out to have a look at the Blue Mountains. There are all kinds of escorted day trips by coach, but I looked at the guidebooks and decided to do my own thing, and get a return train ticket to the main town in the mountains, Katoomba. Because Australian trains travel at about 10mph, it took a couple of hours to get there. The main tourist reason for stopping at Katoomba is the viewing platform at Echo Point, and the Three Sisters. Three large rock pinnacles, they perch on the edge of a huge tree-covered gorge. The view was incredible, despite the ever-present haze that hangs over the trees below. Sadly my colour-blindness prevented me from seeing just how blue they were (the trees looked a normal green to me), but it was an impressive view.

The next part of the day was to walk along the cliff-top path, and into the trees below. This was great, as the path was largely empty and wound through the forest along the ridge, and then down a very long flight of steps cut into the rock, to the valley floor. At the end of the path was a forest boardwalk, and a cable car or train back up to the cliff edge. The forest was very different down here - instead of the gum trees and flowering bushes of the cliff tops, down on the floor of the valley were huge tree ferns and Jurassic-type spiky bushes. It was much cooler, damper, and full of birdsong - in fact I realised later it was the first rainforest I'd ever visited, even if it was a temperate one, not a bona-fide tropical. I finished the walk (which was an hour of climbing down steps and pathways) with the rail trip back to the top - no way I was walking. The Katoomba Gorge railway was originally a mine cart, but has since been converted for tourists. At 52degrees, it's the steepest in the world, and whizzed up the cliff in 60 seconds. Much better than walking...

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

How to fry an octopus


The end is in sight for my stay at the hostel, as on Thursday (day after tomorrow) I pick up the keys to my Paddington flat. I'll probably move on Friday, not that it will take long. But like I said, I don't mind staying in the hostel - I'm certainly meeting plenty of people. From what I can gather, it's unusually quiet in the hostels for this time of year - but in dorm 11 of my hostel, we've certainly had plenty of people coming and going. It must be about 15 (all men) since I arrived, almost four weeks ago. At the moment there's just three of us (the dorm sleeps six, in three bunk beds). Rob from near Derby who's been there since September, and a Japanese lad called Kuni who arrived a few days ago. I was talking to him today, he's in the midst of a year touring Australia and is about to fly down to Tasmania to pick fruit for a while as he's run out of money.

As I'm going to Japan next year, I was asking him questions on where to go - and by a stroke of luck it turned out he works as a tour guide, working on buses covering the whole of Eastern Japan. He keeps apologising for his English, which is very good - although when I explained I was a 'statistical researcher ', that had him reaching for his dictionary. One thing we talked about was Japanese food - he seemed bemused that I like it. When I told him I was thinking of going to Osaka, he started talking about the local dish, Okonomiyaki. He tried to explain what it was - "You know octopus? Take that...with wheat flour. Put on hot plate, no water" One of his favourites, he was talking about Takoyaki. A quick Google later (Japan consumes 60% of the global octopus catch) I discovered it's essentially a savoury pancake with all kinds of fillings, octopus is just one variety. After seeing the little guys swimming about in the Aquarium the other day, I was pleased when Kuni told me that Okonomiyaki is also made with other meats, and vegetables...

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

From the Cross to Paddo

But what does it mean?

Not heard back from the cancer people yet, but they said it would be a few days. I have however found myself somewhere to live, and it was the best place I looked at. I saw it on the weekend, but after expressing an interest was told the day after it had gone. But I got another call afterwards saying that person had pulled out, and would I mind going round again? It turned out it was between me and another girl, and I came out on top (not literally). So I'll be moving in next week sometime - my stay in the Cross is numbered! Actually I don't mind living in the hostel, there's certainly always something going on.

Today I went to Bondi again, as there was a 'sculpture by the sea' exhibition along the coastal path from Bondi to Bronte beach. As ever, I took plenty of photos - so check out the photo site - and even entered one of them in the Sydney Morning Herald photography contest (it was free). Some of the sculptures were very good, some of them plain wierd, and some of them both good and wierd - like the life-sized elephant made out of televisions.

My friend Gillian from my Stirling days is over in Sydney at the moment, on a conference. Not a bad gig, I think you'll agree. I got sent on a conference once when I was in Edinburgh, and it was to Stirling. Talk about a busman's holiday. Anyway, we were sat on a bench by the harbour yesterday when a Chinese couple approached us. I thought at first they wanted me to take a picture of them - but it turned out they wanted a picture of them...and us. They never said why, I presume they'd seen Westerners before, I guess maybe we added some local character. Anyway, the woman came around behind the bench and put her arms around us, the man took the picture (after telling us to smile - which is hard when you're bemused and vaguely worried), and away they went. It seemed to make them happy, but when we left, we walked off in the other direction...

Saturday, November 06, 2004

When two days are better than one

NSW against New Zealand at an empty SCG

One of the good things about staying in a city when you have nothing planned for each day is the paper. I read the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) religiously, as it often helps decide what I do. Whether it be a gala dinner, night at the opera, or cricket match, I read about it in the trusty SMH and attend. Admittedly I only went to one of those things, and it wasn't the opera, but you get the idea. On Friday I went to the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) to watch the touring New Zealanders on a warm-up match against New South Wales. It was a great day, sitting up in the Grandstand, and then in the sun, drinking beer and reading the paper (when the Kiwis were batting) - and all for 4pounds. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I went back on Saturday and watched another day - these things can be done with my unhectic schedule.

I didn't go back for a third day however, as I was invited to a birthday Yum Cha brunch in North Sydney. One of Amy's old friends, Jean-Baptiste, was celebrating his anniversaire Chinese-style. If you've never had Yum Cha, it's basically a Chinese version of tapas served at lunchtime, with a lot of shouting. There were 16 of us, half of whom I recognised from my month (one down already) here. You're in a room and the waiters wheel trolleys of food past, shouting what they are through the open door. If you like the sound of what they have, you shout back and they come in and put the food on the table. So we had deep-fried squid, garlic prawns, pork buns, Chinese greens and several others - all at 11am. It was too early in the day for chicken feet, for me. It was great stuff, and the shouting gave it more of a fun atmosphere than normal lunches. Not quite as crazy as the Japanese teppanyaki where you have to catch your food as the chef throws it, but it was Sunday morning after all... .

Exploring a little...but not a lot

The La Perouse museum

Friday was dull, grey and wet - weather I'm of course used to. As it was a day to do things indoors, I took a bus out of the city to the South and visited the small town of La Perouse - which these days has become part of Greater Sydney. Situated on Botany Bay, it is named after a French explorer.

Botany Bay is nothing like you expect - most people think it's the bay Sydney is located in, but that's Port Jackson Bay, about 10 miles North. Botany Bay is where Captain Cook landed and staked the claim for Britain to get another overseas territory. Today Botany Bay is about as un-botanical as a bay can get, as it hosts the airport and a massive expanse of petrochemical works, refineries and docks.

The reason I went all that way was to look in a museum dedicated to the French explorer who came here just after Cook. Jean-Francois la Compte de LaPerouse sailed from France to the Pacific via the Southern tip of Chile, then across to Easter Island and Russia, across to Alaska and down to present-day San Francisco, then across to Korea and up to Japan and Russia (again), then down through the Pacific to Australia via Hawaii. He did all this and arrived in Botany Bay six days after James Cook had claimed it for the British. Six days. However, being a French nobleman, he doffed his cap to Cook and turned around and sailed back into the Pacific. His ships were never seen again.

The museum charted the history of LaPerouse's staggering voyage, and what happened to him. Nobody knew, of course, for a long time. A rescue expidition sent by Louis XVI was destroyed by disease en-route and never made it. Louis himself apparently asked for news of LaPerouse as he was walking up the steps to the guillotine. But decades later a trader in the Solomon Islands saw a native with a silver sword handle and decided to ask where it had come from. It was from the wreck of two old French ships that had hit a reef on the island of Vanikoro and sunk. In the 1960's a French navy expidition finally pulled up the bell of the Astolabe, LaPerouse's ship, and the mystery was solved

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Trip to the zoo

Feeding time for the lions

It was a very warm and sunny day today, so I made the most of it with a trip to Taronga Zoo. Check out the photos on my photobucket website. I saw all kinds of animals, from rats to elephants (not in the same enclosure). Also took in a couple of shows - a seal show which was pretty good, and a bird show which was great. Birds of prey, parrots, owls, all kinds of them. They came on in turn to the expert doing the talk, flying in from all directions to land on her arm. The wedge-tailed eagle flew off and was gone for a few minutes in the trees, investigating the nesting crows. It came back, eventually.

Oh, and Makybe Diva did win the Melbourne Cup...

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

The problem with flats

Time for a flutter?

Flat hunting is quite tricky in Sydney. For a start, the vast majority of the rooms are unfurnished. The rest of the flat/house has furniture, but the room you'll be looking at won't. I'm not sure why this is, but there must be a lot of wealthy removals men in Australia. So it quickly dawned on me that I'll have to buy a bed. But over here you can pick up a cheap double bed for about A$300, so it won't break the bank. The rest of the room might have to be a bit minimalist though.

I've looked round a couple of places, but not found anything decent yet. I still need to get into some other areas of the city, so I can widen my search a bit instead of concentrating on a couple of neighbourhoods. But I'll be doing that this week. I've also got to phone the cancer people and arrange my interview with them. Then there's the reading I need to do for that, as I've forgotten most of the figures from the Edinburgh cancer lot. Oh - and look out for a photo update soon - I have been taking them, but needed to enlarge my online host album.

Today is Melbourne Cup day in Australia - their equivalent of the Grand National. At 3:10pm the country stops, apparently, and everyone tunes in to the three-minute race. Everyone apart from me, that is. I've never really had any interest in racing - and seeing as I don't watch the Grand National, I'm not going to watch a shorter race without jumps. But they take it very seriously here - there are large screens set up in the city, and millions of dollars already laid down. You want my tip? Makybe Diva....