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We are absolutely, positively, 100% in Australia!

(In case you weren’t sure before!)

9:15 pm
Tuesday, 20 October 2009
Shangri-La Hotel
Sydney, Australia

Even accounting for the fact that we just had to switch hotel rooms due to a lack of air conditioning in our previous room, today was absolutely, positively, 100% AWESOME!!! There is simply no other way to describe it! We started off the day by driving to Koala Park, a koala sanctuary in the West Pennant Hills section of Sydney. In addition to koalas, they have a variety of Australian animals, including kangaraoos, wombats, wallaroos, cassowary birds, emus, dingoes, and even peacocks. We got a private introduction to the koalas, which are not technically bears. They are marsupials that eat mostly eucalyptus, or gum tree, leaves. Apparently they are quite finicky and will only eat eight or nine of the almost 1000 varieties that grow in Australia. They grow to about 12-14 kg, and because of the low caloric content of the eucalyptus leaves they eat, they will sleep up to 20 hours per day. Facts aside, I can report that they are incredibly soft because I GOT TO PET ONE! That’s right, I got to pet a koala and have my picture made with it! That is so going on my Christmas card, but it’s going to have to compete with the picture of me HAND-FEEDING A GREY KANGAROO!

The koala keeper, Linda, went into the koala enclosure, which was simply a pen with a waist-high Plexiglass barrier and pulled one of the koalas out of a eucalyptus tree and set her on the ledge. By bribing her with eucalyptus, she kept her on the ledge for quite a while, allowing everybody in the tour group to pet her back and have our pictures made with her. Her fur was incredibly soft and a little curly. She tolerated us exceptionally well--didn’t snap, bite, or scratch, which is amazing considering we woke her up from her nap! There was another koala across the way in a tree and I got several excellent pictures of him. I swear that koala knew what was going on because he posed for the money shot like you wouldn’t believe! He almost smiled at me!

I am always conflicted about experiences like this, because I love encountering the animals (in a controlled environment on my turf!), but at the same time I worry that we are exploiting them. I comfort myself by thinking that these animals have an extraordinarily cushy lifestyle with people taking care of their every want and need, much better than in the wild, and that they promote conservation for their free-roaming kindred.

From the koala exhibit, we headed to the wombat enclosure, but Mathilda wouldn’t come out of her den. Apparently she’s getting up in years and the keepers have decided that people encounters are too stressful for her. Plus, they are nocturnal, so we’d have had to wake her up. Here’s an interesting fact: wombats have an exceptionally strong spine and protect themselves from dingoes, their main predator, by crushing the dingoes’ skulls against the roof of the wombat’s burrow with their spines. Not elegant, but it works! The strength of their spine is also a probably because they can be a nuisance animal, not unlike a large possum, and if you hit one with your car, apparently your car comes out worse for the wear.

From the wombats, it was on to the second HUGE highlight of the day: the kangaroos! We got to go into the pen with several grey kangaroos and feed them! For the record, they eat Cheerios, and they ate them right out of my hand, just like a dog nibbling food! They were so sweet and friendly and just kept nuzzlign your hands looking for more Cheerios. We got to pet them, and they are quite soft too. One of the kangaroos even had a joey in her pouch who poked his head out from time to time! (Grey kangaroos are smaller and friendlier than reds, so they are perfect for this type of thing.)

After feeding the kangaroos, we wandered around the rest of the sanctuary. I saw a cassowary bird, which is uglier than homemade sin, emus, wallaroos (same idea as a kangaroo, only smaller), cockatiels, dingoes (they did not eat my baby!), and a tiny little penguin that wouldn’t come out of his house for anything. There were also peacocks wandering loose around the place, and one of the males put on a spectacular display for us, although he was a little far away. The one that walked right in front of me simply chose to ignore me, even after I implored him that all girls like a little tail!

After the sanctuary we drove around the city, doing a little R&L work. We stopped at Mrs. Macquarie’s chair, a lookout point with a spectacular view of the Opera House, the Bridge, and the Harbor. It is named after the wife of Governor Macquarie, one of the first governors of New South Wales. Apparently Mrs. Macquarie was homesick for jolly old England, and she would go to this headland every day to look out over the harbor. So the governor paid a bunch of convicts (in rum no less!) to carve out a stone bench on which for her to sit during her perambulations. Regardless of the story, the view from that spot is magnificent.

Then it was another HUGE highlight of the trip: a private tour of the Sydney Opera House. We drove to the Opera House and had a group photo made on the steps, then it was into the building for the tour. Our guide, Steven, handed out nifty little headsets that were tied into his microphone and the video systems in the building, so we could hear everything perfectly! There are actually two buildings side by side, the larger hall used for big concerts and the symphony and the smaller one that is used for the ballet and opera. Several interesting facts: to make the engineering of the famous roof work out, the shells are portions of a perfect sphere. The halls are actually two buildings: the concert hall inside the shell of the roof. The larger symphony hall is paneled in a soft tropical wood to give it a warm tone, while the smaller ballet hall is paneled in a hard wood so that sound reverberates more. The seats have the same absorbancy as human bodies, so rehearsals and concerts that are not completely sold out sound exactly the same regardless of the number of people (and more importantly, their acoustical absorbancy) in the theater. The building was originally projected to take 3 years and cost $7 million to finish, but in the end it took almost 20 years and cost over $100 million to construct (not unlike the Big Dig!) I could go on and on…I was fascinated!!

The Opera House tour was supposed to be the conclusion of our bus trip for the day, but Robert, our bonzer bloke of a coach driver, offered to take the group to Bondi Beach. He said he didn’t have anywhere to be with the coach until 4:00, and it was better to wait at Bondi Beach than the airport. (True!) This worked out great for David and me, because we’d planned to go to Bondi anyway, and this saved time and the figuring out of how to take the city bus there (you know how I feel about the bus. Mean little old women ride the bus.) Bondi was quite crowded, even on a Tuesday, and there was quite a bit of surf being kicked up in the water, which is the Tasman Sea. I hopped out and took several pictures of the beach, then walked up the beach a little way to look at the headquarters and first branch of the Surf Rescue Lifeguards (the guys on the Travel Channel)! By this time, it was after 2:00, and Bucky was off her feeding schedule, so I grabbed a yogurt and granola at a beachside stand, then it was back on the bus for the ride back to the hotel.

It was about fifteen minutes to three when we got back, and we had to meet again in the lobby at 4:10 to walk to the pickup point for our harbor cruise. We certainly put that little nugget of time to productive use: we grabbed a cab in front of the hotel and cabbed it to the Bourke Street Bakery, the bakery that produced the cookbook I found in Melbourne. We hustled inside and got a sausage roll (David) and a chocolate sour cherry cookie (me). Sadly, there were no chocolate tarts available. I also got their cookbook, and for buying it at the store, I got a very lovely logoed tote bag in which to carry my new treasure home. We shagged back up to Crown Street and hailed another cab, driven by a delightful native Sydneysider, and were back to the hotel by 3:40. Plenty of time to come up to the room and drop our stuff before our harbor cruise!

The cruise, aboard the Captain Cook II, departed from Circular Quay, right outside the restaurant where we had dinner last night. We were originally scheduled to depart at 4:30, and we left about 10 minutes late. However, we had to return to the dock to pick up three of our group members who were late because their cab driver got lost. You can imagine the hemorrhage I almost had! A very informative guide named David provided running commentary as we cruised around Sydney and Darling Harbors. The mouth of Sydney Harbor is only about ¾ of a mile wide, leading Captain Cook to refer to it as a small harbor of little significance. However, it opens up considerably once through the mouth of the harbor, with almost 180 miles of shoreline. We got great photos of the Opera House, the Bridge, and Luna Park, the amusement park near the other side of the bridge. We even got a fairly closeup view of people climbing the bridge, where we’ll be tomorrow morning at 9:40 am.

We docked promptly at 6:00 pm, then walked around the Rocks area, poking in a few little shops. And I say a few not offhandedly: pretty much all the retail shops in Australia close about 6:00 pm. Restaurants and bars are still open, and the everpresent 7-11s, but that’s pretty much it. We set off for Hyde Park (not the one in London) because the International Food Fair is going on there this week, and we thought that would be a fun place to have dinner. And it was, but it was jammed! There were lots of Thai vendors, several seafood vendors, a couple of places to get wine, gelato stands. There was even an Indian food stand, where we elected to eat. I had a vegetable aloo roti, while David got the butter chicken roti, and we split an order of samosas. It took a bit of doing, but we managed to landshark a table, so we did end up eating it, not wearing it. We made our way back through the scrum and got scoops of gelato (peanut butter for me, yeay!, and kaffir lime for David) to enjoy as we meandered back to the hotel. I must say, Sydney seems quite safe--I saw lots of women walking by themselves after dark with no apparent fear.

When we got back to our room, that’s when the trouble struck: it was not delightfully cool. Not one little bit. In fact, it was downright warm. And if I’m warm, you know something’s wrong! We called the front desk, who sent up the building engineer. After fiddling around with the unit in the ceiling, he pronounced the A/C kaput and called the desk back to get us moved. We have a new room on the 26th floor, and it is deliciously cool.

Tomorrow is our last day in Sydney, and brings with it my personal nemesis: the Bridge Climb. I am as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. We are also going out for a fancy dinner to a restaurant called Rockpool. It was reviewed by the New York Times as one of the best places to eat in Sydney. In between I shall extract my payment for the bridge climb: we’re going shopping!

Ta for now!

Posted by hidburch 12:20 Archived in Australia

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