Australia 2007 part 1 - Sydney

Near Circular Quay

Shannon had a week off from school in October, so we figured that we should take advantage of it to take a trip. Our first thought was that we would go to China. We did some research. We had an itinerary all planned out and a vendor selected who offered the trip we wanted. Then we found out that it was Golden Week in China. Just about everyone in the entire country has off that week and goes on vacation. Why they do that in a country as crowded as China is beyond me (they do it in Japan as well). It would seem to make sense to spread out when people take their vacations. But that is the way they do it. Sort of like the Christmas Holidays in the US. We decided that it would not be a good time to go. So we put the China trip on hold, probably until spring break next year.

Australia was on our list too, and after some research we decided to go to New South Wales. We decided to divide our time between staying in Sydney and renting a car and touring along the coast and through the countryside.

It's actually quite a long way to Sydney. The flight takes almost eight hours - about the same as flying from Chicago to London. But compared to flying from the US, it's close. A direct flight from San Francisco to Sydney is almost sixteen hours. Everything is relative. I did get a strong impression of west-central Australia on the flight over. It is flat, empty, desolate and dry. When flying in the western US, sometimes over Nevada you might not be able to see a single road from 30,000 ft. On this flight, we flew for half an hour that I didn't see a single road! Lots of space, but with no water there is never going to be anyone living there. It clouded up by the time we got to Sydney so I didn't get any preview of the city from the air.

Sydney Harbor Bridge

We left Singapore Saturday morning and were in our hotel in Sydney that evening. Since we were right downtown and didn't know the area at all, we stayed in our hotel and just had room service that first night. But the next morning we were up early and started walking down to the waterfront. We were about a ten minute walk away from Circular Quay (uses the English pronunciation "key"). That is the transportation center for the whole city. All the ferries run from there (hence the name). The main train station is there. A major subway station is there. And lots of bus routes start there. So that seemed like the place to start. From our hotel it was two blocks to George Street, the main street for downtown Sydney and from there we walked to the waterfront.

Some explanation of the geography of Sydney is in order. Sydney is built on a huge sheltered inlet that is called Port Jackson. This can be confusing as Port Jackson is not a town, just the name for the body of water. Sydney is a city built on the south side of Port Jackson. But the metropolitan area extends all around the inlet and extends quite a distance beyond, especially to the south and west. The whole area is often referred to as Sydney in the same way we often use city names in the US to refer to both the municipality and the metropolitan area. Someone who lives in Sydney is known as a "Sidneysider", I suspect because they lived on that side of the water. The hybrid map and satellite photo from Yahoo might make it a little clearer.

Satellite photo of Port Jackson and Sydney

Circular Quay is at the back of a small bay called Sydney Cove, with the skyscrapers of the Central Business District as a backdrop. The Sydney Opera House is at the end of the east arm of the bay. The Harbor Bridge is at the end of the west arm. There is a walkway all the way around from one to the other, and there are a number of restaurants along one side. And lots of people. There are tourists, families, runners, walkers, shoppers, buskers (public performers), markets, bums, business people and just about every other kind of person you can imagine. It is a beautiful spot and quite popular.

Harbor Bridge dominates the whole area. I think that most bridges look functional at best and ugly at worst. But the Harbor Bridge is actually quite pretty (the Golden Gate Bridge was the only other bridge we could think of in that category). The water is quite deep so it is a single unsupported span. An impressive structure. Even more impressive was it's construction. It was built from the two sides and met in the middle. Arches are strong so I can see how the bridge stands up now, but I am not sure how they managed to have the two pieces stay up when they were almost but not quite meeting in the middle. At the time it was built, they were very worried about the tolerances too. The two pieces had to fit together just right or it would have been rather embarassing! Two half bridges that don'e connect are not very useful. Someone did some pretty good engineering. If you look closely at the bridge you might notice that the four stone towers at the corners of the bridge don't have anything to do with the load-bearing structure of the bridge. They are just for looks!

View of the Opera House from the Harbor Bridge

One of the big tourist things to do when you come to Sydney is to climb the Harbor Bridge. You climb a set of ladders to reach a walkway that climbs up the arch. Lots of people do it. Almost any time of the day you could look at the bridge and make out one or more parties of people silhouetted against the sky on the arch. It is run by a company that makes you wear a special jumpsuit and harness and has you clipped into a safety line. It is not really dangerous but probably feels quite exposed. We thought about doing it but it cost $140AU. Each. A little pricey! But it has been running for a decade and over two million people have done it. That adds up to quite a bit of money. My brother Mike and his wife Kathy did it when they visited a few years ago. You can read more about the Bridge climb here. But we settled for walking across the bridge at road level. The view from there was good and it was free. The bridge carries four lanes of traffic, a train track and a pedestrian walkway.

One of the world's most distinctive buildings

We also walked over to the Opera House. It is certainly an unusual and distinctive building. It looks quite impressive in the setting of the harbor. For a long time it's design was controversial, but now it is a symbol for Sydney and Australia known around the world. It took way longer than expected to build (from 1959 to 1973) and was 1400% over budget. Even the US government does better than that! Much of the delays and cost overruns were due to problems with constructing the shells. They are actually made of concrete covered with tiles and are supported by precast concrete ribs, not steel. It took many tries and even changes to the shape of the shells before a final solution was achieved. But it is a spectacular building. It was a finalist in the huge world-wide poll held on the web this year to name a new set of seven wonders of the world.

We ended up in an area just below the Harbor Bridge that is known as The Rocks. This is where the First Fleet landed in 1788 - the first Europeans to arrive in Australia. George Street was the first street in Australia. By the middle of the twentieth century The Rocks was an old and quite rundown and rough neighborhood. But rather than tear it all down, the old buildings were rennovated. Today the area is filled with shops, restaurants, clubs and hotels, all in beautiful old colonial buildings. On Saturday and Sunday there is a huge craft market there. And hey! Whaddya know. We were there on a Sunday! We spent most of the afternoon at the markets and found a lot of cool stuff. Don't be surprised if your Christmas present comes from there.

The weekend market at the Rocks

We were in Sydney for two full days. Most of the time we walked around. We did take a break on Monday in the middle of the day to watch the Packer game and the BSU game on the web. Kind of neat to do that, although the Packer game (lost to the Bears) was a real bummer.

Since it was springtime, the weather was cool, but that was a treat for us. It was a welcome change from every day of heat and humidity in Singapore. It actually doesn't ever get cold in Sydney. There were palm trees. The last time it snowed was in the 1830's. The all time record low is above freezing. A very moderate climate. We all liked Sydney. It has a very pretty setting. It seemed relatively safe. The people were friendly. There was lots to do (translation: shopping). Shannon got some clothes. Sandy found shoes she really liked (she has a hard time finding shoes in Singapore even with all the stores because of the predominance of tiny Asian sizes). She also spent a lot of time looking at opals, but more on that later. And I found some tshirts. But we also wanted to get out and see other parts of Australia. Just like you couldn't go to New York or Los Angeles and say you had seen all of the US, we wanted to get out of Sydney as well. So on Tuesday morning we got a rental car and took off across the Harbor Bridge. To be continued...

Additional pictures

Shopping in the market