Thursday, June 30, 2005

Last word on the weather

Some typical weather this week in Sydney

I didn't need my alarm clock this morning, as I was already awake, lying there listening to the rain lash the windows of my room. At the risk of this blog becoming purely about the weather, over the last few days Sydney has been pounded by a succession of rainstorms. This is all good of course, as I was droning on about before - the catchment area was close to the emergency low levels.

This kind of weather reminds me of a typical British Autumn day - squally showers, strong gusty winds and outturned umbrellas. The trees down our road were given a fearful battering by the wind, sending the already excitable parakeet-things into even more frenzied squawking. In fact, it was so wet that today I actually wore my coat - for the first time since I arrived in Australia in October (not counting the drenchings I got in New Zealand). Mind you, that's nearly eight months, so it's not too bad when you think about it.

Anyway, that's it for talk about the weather - unless there's a freak tornado or we get three feet of snow or something - I think I've covered the topic enough. I know us Brits have that reputation of talking a lot about the weather, but I think even taking account for that I should move on. Tomorrow - tea and cricket!

Monday, June 27, 2005

Winter finally begins

A local happy with the recent weather

I wonder when my award ceremony is going to be? Only last week the city was in dire need of water, in a desperate situation according to the media. I write a short piece about it on here - and what happens? We get three days of rain. However, before I start hiring myself out to other parched communities - the rain here is still far from enough - "Over 10 millimetres of rain has fallen into the Warragamba catchment, but I don't expect that to have any impact unless there is a lot more rain." said a Sydney city water Spokeswoman. Well it had an impact on me as I was walking home on Friday night, I can tell you. Winter seems to have arrived at last, as the days are getting longer after the shortest day on June 21st. It's still comparable to a Scottish summer, but Sydneysiders are out in their coats and scarves, shivering in their offices. We even had the heater on in our flat last night. Still, at least the days are now getting longer, and we move towards the Spring warmth - and an end to these miserable low temperatures of 10C...

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Extracting the effluent

Tinder dry canefields in Northern Queensland

Sydney is very much the harbour city, surrounded on all sides by water. On any given weekend thousands of people are on the waterways, taking advantage of the city's greatest resource. At the risk of sounding dramatic, all this water hides a dark secret - which I didn't know about until I started living here. Sydney is almost dying of thirst. Everybody knows Australia is home to some of the largest desert regions in the world, but the sheer scale of the problem is frightening. The NSW State Government is understandably starting to worry about where the water for this growing city (100 new residents arrive each week) is going to come from.

The water supply for Sydney has never been lower - the reservoir levels are at 39.1% of what they should be (as of last week). 35% is considered the emergency level and would trigger the kind of contingency plans that experts keep suggesting, and keep being scoffed at. The current favourite appears to be desalination - the building of a $2bn plant near Bondi could serve the entire East of the city (including me) with drinkable seawater. By 2006 13bn litres of water could be found by drilling groundwater. These are the kinds of schemes that are suggested, but have not yet been implemented.

Despite all the panicking, life for us Sydneysiders isn't that difficult. There are bans on sprinklers and hoses - but nothing more than the equivalent bans during a hot UK summer. I'm not sure we even have a garden hose, to be honest. But it's always on the news, people are talking about the lack of water being the biggest problem Australia will face over the next hundred years - something I take for granted living in damp, predictable Scotland. But then Scotland isn't part of the driest vegetated continent on Earth. 75% of Australia is classified as permanently arid, which is amazing - 3/4 of this country is practically uninhabitable. Many rivers here flow away from the sea, ending in large, useless evaporating pans or stagnant billabongs visited only by jolly swagmen.

The solution for Sydney may be close though. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the National Competition Council has ruled the city's sewers be opened to private companies who want to recycle effluent into useable water. Currently only 3.2% of Sydney's water is recycled - so with a bit of technology and some dirty manual work, the recycling option may be the one that makes Sydney sustainable again - time will tell.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Ku-ring-gai National Park

Cowan Creek - a tributary of the Hawkesbury River, in winter

One thing that I'm always conscious of is that I've not really gone to any bush yet. Proper Australian outback stuff just isn't within public transport range of Sydney. However, there are plenty of National Parks about an hour North of the city, so today I got the train to Berowra and walked through Ku-ring-Gai National Park. The name means 'belongs to the Aboriginies'- the Aboriginal people in SE Australia refer to themselves as 'kuri'. The National Park runs up to the edge of the Hawkesbury River, and the path I took wandered along the shoreline of the river.

The upper parts of the trail reminded me of a Scottish pine forest, but eventually things took on a more bush-like feel. On the way down I took a shortcut to miss out a long hairpin bend in the path, and met a group of elderly walkers coming up. One of them cheerfully admonished me for doing so - "These short cuts are for uptrackers, to make it easier for us" he said. So that was me told. After beating him to death, I carried on and eventually popped out of the bush at Waratah Bay, named after the official flower of NSW - not that I have any idea what it looks like. Here there was an estuary-style mudflat (always something that's been close to my heart) so I stopped for something to eat. After a minute or so, the mud started to come alive and dozens of small crabs appeared and began feeding. If you know me, you'll know I love that kind of thing, and I spent an enjoyable half-hour munching Doritos whilst watching the little guys at work.

The path followed the banks of the creek, in some places it actually was the bank. About three hours of pushing through ferns and bushes, and I found the small singpost that pointed out the track to Kuring Gai station. The day was another cracker - blue sky all the way, but in the forest it was dark and quiet. The odd passing speedboat and twittering birds made the only noise. I talked to a family of walkers who had seen a snake, but sadly I didn't spot one. The park is also home to Koalas and something called a Powerful Owl - but again I didn't see any (maybe just as well with the Owl). Mind you, it's not every day you get to have lunch with a colony of mudcrabs, is it?

Monday, June 13, 2005

At a loose end in Manly

I didn't see any bandicoots

This weekend Australians celebrate the Queen's birthday - and everyone is given a holiday on the Monday. Odd, considering as most younger Australians couldn't care less about the distant monarchy - and odder still because back home us Brits don't get a holiday for her birthday (loyal subjects indeed). As if the oddness couldn't get any higher, New Zealanders got their Queen's birthday holiday last week. Anyway, I toyed with the idea of going to work to make some sort of point about the old dear not giving days off to her immediate subjects, but I couldn't be bothered. Instead I had planned to go up North to Mount Kuring Gai and do a bit of bushwalking. You can imagine my consternation however when I arrived at Town Hall Station to find all trains going North cancelled because of track work, leaving me stuck in the city. The irony of a British bank holiday wasn't lost on me, I can tell you. At least it wasn't raining. So I decided right there on the spot to switch to my emergency Plan B - which in all contingencies is the same - go to Manly.

I love Manly - it's probably the only other part of the city I'd ever live in. I've been several times of course, so today I visited the only part I'd not yet explored - North Head. As you know if you read this blog often, the entrance to Sydney Harbour is guarded by two craggy lumps that curl into the Pacific like giant fists. Called North and South Head, they are both National Parks, and both give great views of the Ocean and back to the city (South Head was near where I was the other week in Vaucluse). So I had a walk around, looked back at the city for the umpteenth time - it was all very pleasant. I didn't see any bandicoots (I suppose they are nocturnal), but there were dozens of black and white birds flashing through the bushes - New Holland Honeyeaters according to the signs. It also said you could sometimes see migratory whales at this time of year - but once again my luck with whales was nil and I didn't see any. So I walked around in the winter sunshine before strolling back down to Manly wharf and the ferry to the city. Not a bad Plan B really - thanks Queeny!

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Australian banks

I don't have a picture of a bank - but I do have one of a parakeet

I think I've already mentioned how badly you get treated by Australian banks. Well now I can give you an example. I opened my monthly statement this morning and was mildly surprised to see I'd been charged $78 for 'other transactions'. After further examination I realised I accrued these charges when in New Zealand - at $5 a pop every time I withdrew money from an ATM over there. Apparently the usual $1.50 'other ATM withdrawl fee' is bumped up to $5 when the other ATM is in another country. I had no idea of this of course, so managed to rack up almost $80 in fees in three weeks. That translates to GBP32, but it's more the principle than the actual money that annoys me.

Every bank statement comes with what they call a 'transaction summary', but what I call a 'charge sheet'. Every month I get 5 free ATM withdrawls, 2 free chances to use my debit card, and 2 free direct debits. Anything over that and I get charged 50c, 30c, and 30c respectively. Again, the fees aren't exactly epic in size, but when you consider I that I have a basic minimum of 6 direct debits every month (two rent deductions and four wages additions) essentially I get charged for getting paid. If you go to the counter in a bank for help, that's $2 - if you write someone a cheque, that's another $1. From the 1st of August the direct debit charge is increasing to 50c.

I know I'm ranting a bit here, but coming from the UK banks tend to leave you alone unless you go financially daft. Maybe in the rest of the world this is what banks are like. I've been in my branch enough times to have been ignored and even sneered at once by a Manager. But hey, I've got to keep my money somewhere - and if I store it inside my matress I'd probably lose my flat deposit (and then get charged by the bank)...

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Watson's Bay to Rose Bay

If I had to choose one photo to sum up Sydney - this would be it

If you're on the South side of the harbour, and go as North-East as you can, eventually you'll come to Watson's Bay. This is one of the top weekend day trips for us Sydney folk, and when I went on Sunday the ferry was packed. I've been a few times before - but this time I wanted to walk South along a coastal trail winding along the harbourfront. After passing the daytrippers eating their fish and chips I got to Parsley Bay, a narrow cove surrounded by fancy houses. The suburb round here is Vaucluse - home to the older, richer Sydneysider - and the homes reflect that. Bristling with high fences, gates, guard dog signs and cameras pointing accusingly at the street. Of course I had a look through as many gates as possible and waved at all the cameras as I went past, weaving my way through the Mercedes parked halfway up the pavement.

As with the Manly-Spit Bridge walk on the Northern side, this walk wound its way from a succession of small coves and beaches - from Vaucluse Bay onwards. At Shark Bay the netting to keep those creatures away had been removed for 'cleaning', leaving an impotent-looking rope and a few brave swimmers. There hasn't been a fatal shark attack in the harbour for almost 40 years, but it happened just up the coast from Shark Bay. Onwards the path went, eventually coming out at Rose Bay - another affluent suburb - where I got the bus back to the city. It was a great day - I think I needed that to remind me how great Sydney is after my epic trip to New Zealand. It's reaffirmed my belief that Sydney is more than where I work, it's where I live too...

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Working...part two

Your author hard at work in his office this morning

So this is me in my new office, hiring and firing. I've never had an office before, and it's quite exciting. I'm here replacing some unfortunate HR Manager who was recently diagnosed with cancer. There are three of us in the department, but only two rooms - so I've been put in the office of the sick bloke, and have it all to myself. The job consists of helping out the other HR Manager and the HR Assistant - so I'm essentially an Assistant HR Assistant. General phone stuff, sending out letters, that kind of thing. But all in the comfort of my own office (and a big one at that).

I was taken for a tour this morning - I'm working for a large pathology company, so there are all kinds of laboratories and white-coated boffins wandering around. Plastic bags of various fluids (and yes, solids too) arrive and are examined - thankfully not too close to where we are. It was impressive stuff though, lots of biochemical equipment and ranks of people staring down microscopes. Up in the HR department though it's just computers and phones. Still, it's a good place to work, the two others in HR are really nice. Bus journey's a long one though - no chance of me walking here, unfortunately...