A Travellerspoint blog

Up Close and Personal with Sydney's Icons

Walking, Sailing, Climbing and Whining

sunny 24 °C

Our second and last full day here was inevitably packed as we tried to cram our senses with as much Sydney as we could possibly squeeze in with so little time. We’ve walked so much in the city that our feet are complaining but, once again, we started the morning with our now daily stroll through the Botanic Gardens. Even though it was our third time through, we still found fresh distractions in the park – and trust me I’m not normally that interested in birds and flowers, but they’re really a LOT more interesting here – so much so, in fact, that we missed our preferred tour time at the Opera House!

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I wish we’d been more organized and made time to see a concert in the Opera House (tickets are not as expensive as you think, and there's a variety of genres, from ballet and opera to rap and fringe drama), but we had to make-do with the ‘Essential Tour’ which offered a walk through some of the key venues in addition to a well done audio-visual presentation that charted the history of the Opera House. We learned that Jorn Utson’s winning design was initially discarded for flouting competition rules, but was retrieved by chance only to cause engineering firm Ove Arup so much difficulty that they finally quit the commission.

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Utson's original designs were "simple to the point of being diagrammatic" which perhaps inevitably caused tension between architect, engineers and the government. What was intended as a three year project ended up taking seventeen years, and designer Utson quit in 1966, seemingly unwilling to compromise in the face of challenges from the engineers and contractors.

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Close up of the panels that cover the roof of the Opera House

Happily, Utson reconciled with the project just before the Millennium and has been advising on refurbishments since.

During our Opera House tour, the low cloud cleared allowing us to see Sydney Harbour in sunny splendor for the first time. Learning from our Milford Sound experience, we immediately seized the opportunity and enjoyed a quick harbour cruise which took us out almost as far as Manly. We were surprised by the size of Sydney, which seems to extend on and on as far as the eye can see, encompassing every one of the bays that we sailed past. Heading back to Bennelong Precinct, we were able of course to enjoy a magnificent view of the Opera House and sailing under the Harbour Bridge gave us an interesting perspective as we contemplated walking over the span later the same day.

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Annoyingly, we had to take a chunk out of our day to check in online for our flight back to London. Online check in opens exactly 24 hours prior to scheduled departure time, and - for the longest flight of our lives - we wanted to have a decent selection of seats. We simply detest British Airways for not permitting seat selection at the time of booking unless you're prepared to pay $$$ more for the privilege. Our British Airways tickets alone for this trip are easily in excess of $10,000 but you'll be pleased to know that we still haven't managed to qualify for British Airways' loyalty scheme. But of course they don't tell you that your flights won't qualify for membership in their elite club until AFTER you've paid for them.

Bitter, moi?

But I digress. Having secured the best seats we could hope for in cattle class, we strolled around the Rocks area for a few hours and before delivering ourselves to the Sydney Harbour Bridge offices at about 6pm on Thursday. More of a walk than a ‘climb’, this attraction has been open since 1998 after many years of persistence by its visionary creator who had to convince the authorities that it was possible to take complete novices over the span of the bridge without harm to participants, bridge users or indeed the bridge itself. The result is an impressively well thought out system that ensures ‘climbers’ are securely attached to the bridge at all times.

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You can see some 'climbers' on the top of the span, on the left hand side

The preparation for the bridge ‘climb’ takes close to an hour. First, you predictably sign responsibility for your life away while simultaneously being breathalized to ensure sobriety. Once dressed in the official jumpsuit uniform, every participant is searched (with a metal detector) to ensure that no unauthorized items are taken onto the bridge. Then, every conceivable item you could possibly need during the ‘climb’ is issued and physically attached to your uniform jumpsuit. For example, attached to my devilishly stylish grey and blue jumpsuit was: hair bungy, baseball cap, fleece cap, glasses cable, hanky, and head lamp. We felt like we were preparing for a week-long mountaineering expedition!

Finally, we had brief training on use of the ball and chain that would ensure we were attached to the bridge at all times. It’s based on a system designed for a blind solo yachtsman and consists of a four inch diameter ball that slides onto a waist-height cable allowing movement in any direction (where there is a cable walkway). For the bridge ‘climb’, cables have been installed over the full length of the bridge route, so once you slide onto the cable at the very start, you are attached for every moment. I suspect the systems greatest advantage is the psychological security it gives to participants. And it does make you feel very comfortable. But I couldn’t help wondering (especially as we trekked over the walkway at the very top of the bridge that connects the two spans) if the system would indeed support the weight of ten adults if in some freak accident we were knocked out of the walkways.

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Finally, it was time to get going! Compared to bungy jumping and paragliding, we were expecting the Bridge ‘Climb’ to be a fairly relaxing experience, and for the most part this was true. Once you are actually on top of the span, you feel very safe: the walkway is right in the middle of the span roof which is about ten feet wide, so you can’t look over the edge with any ease. You do, however, have stunning views of the Opera House and Harbour, and indeed the city of Sydney in all directions. Having booked the twilight ‘climb’, we were soaked in the sun’s last golden rays on one side of the bridge, and slowly embraced in darkness as we came down the other side. Simply awesome!

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Obviously, it wasn't THAT bad! The Harbour Bridge Climb staff thought our picture would be a strong candidate for their 'Best Picture of the Year' competition...

The only moments of suspense were getting up on top of the bridge span, and then getting off it. That required walking on two-plank wide, narrow walkways where you had a very clear and immediate view of the distance between you and the ground below you. Even worse, we had to climb multiple sets of steep and narrow stairs originally designed only for maintenance crew to get up onto the span. So – interestingly – the time spent on top of the bridge was actually the most relaxing. The rest of the time I could move only by looking straight ahead and feeling out my next step with my toes. Lloyd, as always, did a great job of supporting me through my tall, mechanical object phobia, but was himself startled when – during the later stages of our ‘climb’ – a train passed beneath us, shaking the bridge enough to stop us both in our tracks.

Anyway, if you’re planning a visit to Sydney, you should plan on ‘climbing’ the bridge. It was a great experience, with fantastic views and just enough adrenaline-fueled moments to keep it lively. Don’t miss it.

Posted by jacquiedro 08:16 Archived in Australia Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

Surprising Sydney

Why didn't anyone tell us to stay longer?

overcast 24 °C

Travel tastes its best when expectations are exceeded, and nowhere on our trip has this been more the case than in Sydney. We planned a pitiful three nights in the city, really nothing more than a leisurely layover between New Zealand and London. Wow, did we ever regret that decision! Sydney, and indeed Australia, go to the top of our list of places to return to in – say – thirty years when we are able to enjoy extended travel once more ;o)

With so little time to spare, we headed out as soon as we arrived late on Tuesday afternoon to take in the iconic sights of the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. From our hotel in Potts Point (nice, but - with hindsight we'd have spent the money to stay in The Rocks!), it’s about a twenty minute walk through the Royal Botanic Gardens to the home of the Opera House on Bennelong Point, and I think we were in love with Sydney before we even got there.

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The sign says: "Please walk on the grass. We also invite you to smell the roses, hug the trees, talk to the birds and picnic on the lawns." Our kind of town!

The Botanic Gardens are right next to the central business district and offer a haven in the midst of the city. No one works through their lunch hour here, apparently, if the number of joggers in the park is anything to go by. Coming from a corporate culture where you need to get up at 5am to fit exercise in your day, I completely approve! I am a reluctant runner at best, but if you're going to do it, I'm not sure I can think of many more inspiring places than here, offering the beauty of the Gardens with a stunning Harbour vista.

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Waking to a fairly grey day on Wednesday, we strolled through Sydney’s clean streets towards Darling Harbour, home of a number of Sydney’s museums and tourist attractions. Full of tourist attractions and therefore tourists, yes, but touristy? No. At least not when compared to the likes of Fishermen’s Wharf in San Francisco, for example. For this area also houses conference venues and tons of bars and restaurants which means that tourists are diluted with local officer workers and visiting conference attendees. We just loved it!

Our first stop was the Aquarium. Understand that we’re local to the Monterey area in California and big fans of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which on Tuesday night we’d have told you proudly was the best in the world. We might need to revisit that assessment. While the Monterey Aquarium will no doubt be a regular haunt once we return, the Sydney Aquarium was simply beyond words.

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Among even the first few exhibits, I simply adored the above-water-below-water displays, and spent a good half hour looking at the sea horses alone. And then we found ourselves following downward ramps into the ‘Oceanarium’ where a massive tank revealed itself. Two large windows at either end offered a superb view of the tank’s inhabitants, including a couple of sea turtles, one massive ray with a wing span of almost two metres, and numerous sharks. But best of all, walkway tunnels ran the full length of the tank on both sides, which allowed us to observe the sealife on three sides.

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We spent much longer at the Aquarium than we had planned, but late afternoon we couldn't resist popping next door to Sydney Wildlife World. Since we - stupidly - didn't allow ANY time to explore Australia, this was clearly, and sadly, as close as we would get to 'wild' life.

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After the Aquarium, we weren't surprised to discover that Wildlife World was another world class attraction. From butterflies and birds, to locusts and spiders, you can't help but be drawn in and - well - find stuff that has never been that interesting absolutely fascinating. And all that is before you even get to the koala bears!

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On the left: spot the wally. On the right: not quite Panda-cute, but pretty cute nonetheless.

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Let me out. Please?

Posted by jacquiedro 08:11 Archived in Australia Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

The Ice-ing on our New Zealand Cake

Hiking Franz Josef Glacier

overcast 10 °C

Who’d have thought a lump of ice could immediately launch itself into our Top Five Experiences of the entire trip, but our visit to Franz Josef Glacier on Monday easily qualified. We had arrived in the Park late on Saturday evening and – with the mountains completely socked in with low cloud – decided to postpone our hike onto the glacier pending better weather. It was a risky strategy: we had to leave no later than mid-afternoon on Monday to get back to Christchurch in time for our flight onto Australia. Would the notoriously unpredictable west coast weather – that already upset our Milford Sound visit – give us a break and allow us to walk on the glacier?

On Sunday, we killed the hours by catching up on blog entries, and then hiking for an hour or so from Franz Josef to the face of the glacier. It’s a busy trail that ultimately takes you down a kilometre long valley carved by the glacier in previous phases (as recently as 1867, the glacier filled much of the valley!). But the reason that Franz Josef and nearby Fox Glacier are special – in addition to their relative accessibility – is that they are two of only three glaciers in the world that descend into rainforest. Yup, I said rainforest.

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Franz Josef and nearby Fox Glaciers descent into dense, Indiana-Jones type rainforests!

The flat valley floor in front of the advancing glacier tricks the eye in terms of scale, and it’s not until you get to the other end of the valley that the height of the ice-mass becomes apparent. With ice and rock falls a real risk, visitors are discouraged from getting too close, with enter-at-your-own-peril type signs and rope barriers positioned several hundred metres from the front of the glacier. But – fearing the weather wouldn’t allow us an up-close-and-personal, we couldn’t resist venturing in as groups of guided hikers made their way down the melting ice-face using stairs custom-hacked by tanned, shorts-clad young men.

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Those coloured ants in the middle of the first picture are people!

Even from the floor of the valley, the glacier is an impressive beast. Rocks in the base of the glacier act as deadly teeth and, strengthened by the immense pressure of ice above, carve valleys, leaving striations in rocks and ripping trees from their roots. It’s a living, breathing machine that demands respect and I felt tiny in its massive presence. Getting onto the ice was a nice-to-do until we saw it up close. At that point, it became an essential experience, and we knew that we’d both be devastated if we didn’t get lucky on our final morning in town.

The suspense was so great that I actually had trouble sleeping on Sunday night. Only Lloyd can tell you how grumpy I was when daylight revealed another dark day, with low cloud once again graying out the valleys. We were becoming expert as reading the conditions appropriate for a helicopter landing on the ice, and our fears were confirmed when we learned that the first helicopter trips of the day had been cancelled.

We reported for the noon flight nonetheless. And were thrilled when staff started to ready us for the hike. It looked like we’d get up on the glacier after all! Booted up, we awaited our final briefing just a few metres from the helipad, with the choppers’ blades screaming. The sky was still white with dense cloud, but – wait – was that a sliver of blue I just saw? I put it down to wishful thinking. Strapped into the helicopter, cars and trees shrunk until they looked like mere toys as we were whisked the few miles towards the glacier.

And then it happened.

Before our eyes, the sky was clearing. Not just slivers of blue, but vast, lush, delicious waves of the richest blue imaginable. My eyes could scarcely comprehend the beauty around me. You could have offered me a million dollars to stop smiling and I wouldn’t have been able to stop. I even forgot to get motion-sick on the helicopter!

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Below us, the glacier paraded its white-blue ruffles; a giant waterfall of cracked ice. We would not land on the very top where the ice is moving the most quickly at up to 6 metres per day. As the ice reaches the ridge and starts its journey down into the valley, it is clearly at its most unstable and that is strictly the domain of experienced ice climbers. And so our helicopter followed the glacier’s journey down towards the valley, and prepared to land. Below us, a seemingly fly-sized helicopter paused on the ice to drop the other half of our group, allowing a humbling scale perspective of the monster looming beneath.

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Spot the landing helicopter....

The clear day was transformed into a mild snow storm as the helicopter left us on the ice. Above us, clear blue sky. Behind us, thick grey clouds disguised the valley below. Though relatively low in terms of elevation, it felt like we were on top of the world! Once fitted with crampons, the ice was remarkably easy to walk on and – under the watchful eye of our guide – we were allowed to clamber about, posing with our ice picks and pretending we were real ice mountaineers.

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Lloyd and I simply couldn’t believe our luck. Not only had we managed to get on the ice, but for the first time in days the sky had cleared as if on cue for our arrival. For just over an hour, we explored our tiny piece of Franz Josef, from small ice caves and crevasses to crystal clear glacial ponds and streams formed by the melting beast. Towards the floor of the valley, it’s actually pretty warm – certainly well above freezing – so the advancing ice needs to outpace the inevitable melting at the front end. It’s a battle the glacier is winning right now, and Franz Josef has been advancing for the last decade or so.

Click above for our Glacier Video Diary!

As we climbed up the glacier, it was clear that the break in the weather was going to be little more than temporary. Thick cloud was closing in around us, and – after about an hour and a half - our hike was abruptly cancelled for safety reasons: if the cloud closed in the helicopter landing area then we could very well be stranded on the ice. Our guide skillfully rushed us back to the makeshift helipad formed by a stone circle on the ice, and we returned without incident to Franz Josef Village.

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"Did anyone see where our blue sky went?"

We both longed to stay on the glacier, but we couldn’t be disappointed with the experience at all. For me at least, it was one of the most poignant moments of the entire trip, overwhelmed as I was by the glacier’s beauty, power and longevity. Landscapes are shaped by so many different forces, but here was one that I could touch and really feel. I was truly humbled.

Now, it was my first glacier and I am sure there are many at least as impressive as Franz Josef out there (and you can bet Alaska will make a strong appearance in my next ‘Places to Visit’ list), but if you have the opportunity to experience Franz Josef the way we did – by helicopter and a walk on the ice (aka ‘Heli-Hike) – then just do it. It’s pricey, so be prepared for that. But don’t even contemplate missing it.

We left Franz Josef just elated from our Heli-Hike which was probably a good thing as we (well, technically, Lloyd) had another long drive ahead of us. We were about six hours from Christchurch, and we wanted to get at least halfway there before finding a place to overnight.

Posted by jacquiedro 05:38 Archived in New Zealand Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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