February 27, 2003

We're in Sydney, waiting for a train to Blackheath in the Blue Mountains, so I've decided to start this update, which I'll finish after our Blue Mountains trip.

We arrived in Sydney at around 4:30pm on the 24th, and had one of the fastest customs/immigration/baggage collection experiences ever.  We then sought out the backpacker board to locate some accomodation for ourselves.  We choose the interestingly named George Street Private Hotel, which is a largish backpacker right in the city center.  It was $60/night for a double, which is pretty reasonable by Sydney standards (particularly in the city center).  We hopped the airport express bus ($7), which took us virtually right to our doorstep.  We checked in, checked the bathroom and kitchen facilities to see if we wanted to stay for more than one night (we did), and then set off on foot for a bit of a city tour.  We walked all the way up George Street to an area called The Rocks, which is one of the oldest parts of Sydney.  It's been made into a very clean tourist destination, with a number of interesting buildings.  It's also right on the water, so we got our first (well actually second, as we first saw them from the plane) views of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House.  We also walked along the waterfront for awhile, looking at the exorbitant prices on the restaurant menus.  The walk up George Street was interesting, giving us a taste of downtown Syndey.  It was quite weird to be in a big city again, after 15 months in New Zealand.  There were people everywhere!  It made us realize how uncrowded all of New Zealand (including Auckland) is.  It probably took around 45 minutes to get to The Rocks, we stopped for a beer at Syndey's oldest pub, and then we walked back down towards our "hotel".  We stopped in Little Spain, which is about 1 city block in size, and has some very good tapas for dinner, then we went to bed around 9:30 (which was actually 11:30 for us).

We woke up the next day around 5:45am, which was cool, as we wanted to head over to the Sydney Fish Market for the morning auction, which takes place every day, starting at 5:30am.  We walked from our hotel, through the Darling Harbour area, which is really magnificent.  There is a beautiful park, that was full of pretty and crazy looking birds, and the harbour area itself is also incredibly nice.  We got to the market around 7:30am, and caught the tail end of one of the auctions. It was very interesting - they use the Dutch Auction system, which involves setting a high price, and then the price keeps falling automatically until someone bids.  That person says how many crates of fish they wish to buy at the bid price, and then any remaining crates are put back on auction at a price a bit higher than the bid price, and it starts all over again.  We saw some pretty huge fish on the auction floor.  After that we walked through a number of seafood stores that are scattered around the market, looking at all of the varieties of fresh fish, and also at the (fairly) cheap prawns, and there things called bugs, which look to be a cross between prawns and crayfish.  From there we walked back through the city center over to the Royal Botanical Gardens, where we went on a free one hour guided tour conducted by a volunteer.  He pointed out all kinds of native flora, and explained some of the aboriginal uses of them.  Then we headed up to Circular Quay, where we took a 2 1/2 hour cruise of the Sydney Harbour.  It is also spectacular, and so huge.  Most of it is lined with very large, and evidently ridiculously expensive, houses.  Some of them are quite old, while others appear to be almost brand new.  All of the hills that rim the harbour (except for some park areas) are just covered with houses (and some highrise appartments) for as far as the eye can see.

March 4, 2003

Well, we had to catch a train, so my last part of this update was cut short.  We're now in a cyber cafe in Newcastle, and, once again, we're a bit behind, so there might be a bit less detail in the remainder of this update.

Back to day 2 in Sydney - after the cruise we walked back to our "hotel", stopping on the way at one of those half price tickets places, where we bought two tickets to a one-woman comedy show at the Opera House that evening.  After a shower we had dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant that was just a couple of doors down from our hotel.  It was cheap and delicious.  We then took the bus to the Opera House for the show.  The show was somewhat funny, but it contained numerous references to Australian pop culture which flew over our heads. The best was a reference to a Nigella recipe of watermellon and feta salad, which our freind Teresa had made us last week in Auckland.

The next day we took the ferry to the Sydney Zoo, which was a bit of a disappointment.  Although we did get to see lots of cool animals, including a platypus and some extremely cute koalas, the enclosures were a bit small for our liking, making it look like a not altogether wonderful place for the animals to live.  That evening we met up with a new friend of ours from New Zealand, Schalk, who is now living in Sydney.  We took a combination of train and bus to Bondi Beach, which was pretty cool.  It was just before sunset, so the beach was pretty deserted.  It looked like one of those beaches that you see in British movies - a huge curve of sand, with a big pavilion residing over it.  There are also lots of restaurants and cafes in the area, and we had a nice meal of beer, pizza and grilled octopus.

The next day we caught a train to Blackheath in the Blue Mountains.  Our accomodation, The Gardner's Inn, was right across the street from the train station, which is great when you've got a heavy tramping pack and a heavy day pack strapped to your body.  It was a pretty run-down place.  The room was small, dirty and smelly, but there was really cheap beer in the pub, and I had the best hamburger I've had in 15 months in the restaurant for dinner.  Carol's curry was good too.  We spent the day, after checking in, walking in the Blue Mountains National Park.  The scenery was really cool, as it's different than anything we saw in New Zealand.  The mountains are all sandstone plateaux, so they're not pointy like NZ mountains.  They look like the kind of thing that I've seen in pictures, but never in real life.  Kind of like the grand canyon, but with trees.  We walked from the town to the park, then did a couple of tracks and ended up back in town.  All in all it was about 4 hours of walking.  The Gardner's Inn wanted $80 per night for the weekend (we arrived on a Thursday, so the first night was only $59), so we decided to check out and head to Katoomba, which is the largest town in the Blue Mountains. 

We hopped on the train to Katoomba on Friday morning, and tried to find some accomodation when we got there.  We didn't have any luck at any of the backpackers (they were inexplicably full).  Luckily the visitor accomodation centre managed to find us a double room with a shared bath in a nice B&B for $90.  A bit more than we wanted to spend, but it was a nice place, and included a cooked breakfast.  (Or, as a sign on a different inn on the main street advertised, a "fully cooked breakfast").  It was already afternoon by the time we had a place to stay, so we spent the rest of the day walking around town, taking in the main sights (the Three Sisters at Echo Point), and looking for an internet cafe (unsuccessfully).  The next day we did the tourist thing in Katoomba.  We bought a full day pass on the trolley car that goes around Katoomba and Leura, complete with commentary.  It was a nice way to see Leura (a smaller, and much nicer, town than Katoomba),and it also got us to and from Scenic World.  At Scenic World we look the Scenic Railway which runs to the bottom of the Jameson Valley (about 200 metres down, and ridiculously steep) where we walked on a boardwalk which taught us about coal mining and native trees, and then we took the Scenicsender (a cable car) back up to the top.  We also had lunch in Leura, which is, if I haven't already mentioned it, much nicer than Katoomba.

The next morning we took the train to Faulconbridge (another town in the Blue Mountains, but closer to Sydney) where we met Evan who was to be our guide for our "Blue Mountains Walkabout".  Evan is a member of the Darug clan, who lived in the area for 50 thousands of years.  We spent all day walking through the bush, learning about plants that were used for food, medicine and tools, and looking at sites that were meaningful to the darug people.  These sites included rock carvings which told stories and which pointed the direction to other sites, which we then visited.  We also got to stop and swim in two billabongs.  It was a great trip and we learned a great deal.  We took the train back to Sydney that night and spent the evening at "Wake Up", a horrible high-rise youth hostel.  If you're over 25 years of age I'd highly recommend that you avoid places like that like the plague.  It was expensive ($28 per person in a six-bed dorm), the people working there were full of attitude, and it was full of wee tots.  We only stayed there because it's the closest place to the train station -  we arrived in Sydney around 9:30pm, and were leaving the next morning for Newcastle (remember the heavy pack thing?).

The next morning we caught the train to Newcastle at 9:17am.  The ride was to take around 3 hours, so we knew that we needed to eat something, and to take something to eat on the train too.  Unfortunately, the only places to get food at the train station were a foo foo cafe whichsold simple bread sandwiches for $5.20, and Hungry Jack's.  Now Hungry Jack's is kind of an intersting thing.  We first noticed them on our first day in Sydney.  Their logo, and their colours are exactly like the old style Burger King logo and colours.  I peeked in at the menu and saw whoppers, etc.  So I figured, for some reason, in Australia, burger king is called Hungry Jack's.  Kinda funny, but OK.  Well, later that day, or maybe the next day, I saw a Burger King, with the new logo and colours.  So there are Hungry Jack's and Burger Kings here, both with the exact same menu.  We haven't quite figured this out yet, but I'm sure we will before the end of the trip.  So, needless to say, I had a whopper with cheese for breakfast (Carol had a muffin), and we also bought two grilled chicken sandwiches to have for lunch on the train (which were only $3.85 each, and much more substantial than the cafe's sandwiches).  We arrived in Newcastle around noon, and walked across the street to the Visitor Information Centre.  They helped us choose a backpacker to stay at, and arranged for Dean (from the backpacker) to pick us up with our bags in a couple of hours.  We left our bags there, and walked around Newcastle a bit.  We walked down the main shopping strip in the city, walked out to the foreshore (an area by the harbour that has been prettified), walked along the water for awhile, and returned to meet Dean.  We checked into the backpacker, which was pretty nice, put some laundry on (which was a requirement), and went shopping for food for dinner, breakfast and lunches.  Carol made some delicious spag bol for dinner, and we spent some time reading aloud from The Water Method Man (which we acquired from the backpacker's book exchange) before turning in.

Today we went on a wine tour of the Hunter Valley.  For $35 each we were picked up at out backpacker, shuttled to the Hunter Valley and 5 wineries, with a stop for lunch, and finished with a cheese and fudge tasting, before being shuttled back to our hostel.  We both liked the first winery the best.  Surprisingly, we both liked the whites more than the reds.  Maybe all of this white wine drinking we've been doing for the past 15 months has changed our taste buds.  Tomorrow we head up to Nambucca Heads.

That's all for now.

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