Travel Log: Australasia 2010

Welcome to my Australasia 2010 travel log, as I make my way across a small part of New Zealand and Australia between August 23rd and September 8th, 2010.

Pictures are available on the Australasia 2010 Travel Photos page.

A few details, assumptions and tips on reading this travel log

The trip: The World Science-Fiction convention (Worldcon) takes place in Melbourne, Australia this year, and no matter what you may think of SF conventions, they’re a really nice excuse to see new parts of the world.  I never had a better excuse to go spend some time down under, and things snowballed from there.  For one thing, my sister Karine insisted on coming along.  (In fact, she’s the one who really insisted on going.)  For another, the New Zealand national SF convention staked out the weekend before Worldcon for their event, giving us an excuse to go to yet another country while we’re in that part of the world.  Trying to triangulate between available vacation days, things to see, guided tours and travel-time realities gave us a seventeen-day itinerary that looks a lot like this:

  • August 23-25: Fly to Vancouver, then Sydney (AU), then Auckland (NZ)
  • August 26: Guided tour of Auckland
  • August 27: Travel to Wellington by train
  • August 28: Convention in Wellington
  • August 29: Fly to Sydney (AU)
  • August 30-31: Guided tour of Sydney and surroundings
  • September 1st: Fly to Melbourne
  • September 2nd: Guided tour of Melbourne
  • September 3-5: World SF Convention
  • September 6: Guided tour of Melbourne surroundings
  • September 7: Fly back to Sydney
  • September 8: Fly back to Vancouver, then Ottawa.

This is the most complex trip I have attempted so far, using pretty much everything I’ve learned in about five years of urban tourism. Naturally, I have a few apprehensions: The jet-lag factor may be a problem, as is my tendency to get debilitating headaches when my sleeping patterns are disrupted.  We’re also flying to the Southern sphere at the end of their winter, with all of the possible complications in terms of cool/cold weather and seasonal cold viruses.  Given the intricate schedule above, one stupid mistake or delay could have significant impact on the rest of the trip.

But, hey, that’s the fun and peril of traveling far away.

People who have read my travel logs before know what to expect, but for anyone new to the experience, here are a few guidelines…

…oops, my flight to Vancouver is boarding.  Further updates whenever I get access to the Internet again. (This would, actually, be my first guideline: I write offline and update whenever I can.)

OK, I’m back:

I started writing travel logs in 2005, and their goal is to record the trip in the kind of details that are too often forgotten twenty-four hours later.  They’re meant to complement my photos, and provide the first draft of the kind of travel reports I like to write after the trip is over.  They are not supposed to be an exercise in fine writing or even perfect grammar: Most of the time, they’re written once and posted online without review.  Straight first-draft stuff, lucky duckies: Typos are part of the charm.  Since Internet access isn’t universal yet, I tend to write the entries whenever I have a quiet moment (in the plane, on the tour bus, during convention panels, in my hotel room) and worry later on about posting them onto the web.  (I’m happy if I can post daily, so don’t bother refreshing more than every 24 hours)  Whenever I’m at convention, the travel log becomes a convention report –feel free to skip ahead if this isn’t the kind of stuff that interests you.  All times are local to me; When I travel, I nudge my camera and iPod to the local time, and keep my laptop on Ottawa time (since the laptop is what I use to telework whenever possible, it’s a good idea to know at a glance when people are at the office.)

In the interests of hilarious hindsight, I might as well write down what I expect of Australasia right now, while my stereotypes are still untouched by reality: I’m looking forward to a cultural mixture derived from England, with more Asian influences and fewer American ones.  Since I will be going from cities to cities, I’m not expecting to even see the outback, nor to get too far away from urban residents.  I’m a bit worried about not understanding the accent (and whether mine will be understood at all), but since I’m going to remain largely within a big tourist bubble, that shouldn’t be too problematic.  As an amateur naturalist, I’m really looking forward to the different ecosystem and will probably spend far too much time looking at plants and animals.  I’m curious about Australasian bookstores (I’m expecting the kind of parallel-universe experience of British bookstores, where the authors and titles are generally familiar, but the physical books and covers are entirely different), and my recent trip to London still has me traumatized about the whole “drive on the left side of the road” thing. (Fortunately, we’re not driving.  Unfortunately, we’re walking.)

Also in the interest of scene-setting and expectation management, I should probably point out that my mood is one of contemplation.  As I’m typing this, on the eve of the trip, I have inevitably begun mentally framing it in terms of walkabouts, those long journeys of personal discovery through the outback.  The last few weeks have been eventful professionally and personally, and two-and-a-half weeks on the other side of the world may very well be what I need to face down What Happens Next and what I need to do in order to move forward.

But enough throat-clearing.  Let the journey begin!

August 23rd – Day One, headed west!

15:45 – I’m in my sweet dull office, which has been freshly cleaned and now (at the exception of the calendar) looks as if no one actually works here.  This would be the time I usually head home, but there something different about today.  Could it be the unusually-full backpack, or the laptop travel bag that contains clothes rather than a computer?  Could it be the think plastic pouch containing over forty pages of information about planes, trains, hotels and guided tours?  Or could it be that once I walk to my usual bus stop, I let my usual 95-Trim bus drive past?  Why yes: Any knowledgeable stalker would be dumbfounded to see me jump into an ominous-sounding 97-Airport and ride OCTranspo all the way to the Ottawa International Airport.  On the way there, I finish my first ebook of the trip: Stephen King’s short novel The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, begun during my morning commute.

16:30 – Karine joins me minutes after I sit down to wait in front of the Air Canada check-in counters, but not before seeing an entire Phillipinese family make a production out of checking their luggage at the baggage scale.  We check-in using the automated booth: Since both of us travel light, we’re sticking to carry-on bags only.  (I hasten to add that contrary to gender expectations, I’m the one with three complete change of clothes in my bag, plus emergency underwear.)  The security checkpoint is smooth: No nonsense, no trouble, and as I have noticed lately at the Ottawa airport, we get to keep our shoes.  Since I haven’t eaten much more than a few home-grown vegetables for lunch (One of my biggest regrets in taking this trip is leaving just as my vegetable garden in crackling with produce) and Karine feels just as hungry as I do, we stop at Sbarro for a quick supper.  The service is indifferent, but I get a generous slice of meat-lover’s pizza and Karine gets a Chicken Stomboli plus a Coke. (Yes, we *will* detail every single one of our meals, not matter how inconsequential or ordinary.) A look through the airport bookstore produces no big revelation.

17:15 – Sitting at our gate and waiting for boarding.  Airport wifi is slow but free, so I get the chance to check my email and make use of the custom widgeting capability I built into my WordPress theme to activate the front-page link to this travel log. (Since I built this feature with this exact situation in mind, it’s a thrill to benefit from previous planning.)  Since my home Internet has been on the fritz for the past three days, I finally get a chance to write the travel log introduction I had been thinking about.

17:55 – Boarding begins, and moves pretty quickly.  In selecting our seats when purchasing our flight tickets, Karine and I selected aisle and windows seats in the same back row, hoping that we’d discourage anyone but the truly last people on a full flight from picking the middle seat.  Against reasonable hope, our plan is successful, no one sits next to us and we get a bit more space to stretch.  (But will we be able to repeat that trick on the fifteen-hour transpacific flight where that stuff matters a lot more?)  Take-off is smooth, although our flight path takes us immediately away from Ottawa without a downtown photo opportunity (although I get a nice shot of the Rideau raceway).  While traveling I always carry a thick paperback for reading during the no-electronic portion of the flights, and so I take advantage of this takeoff to read the first fifty pages of Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth: It’s surprisingly gripping.

18:30, no, wait, 15:30 Vancouver time – Poking around the monthly film selection on the Air Canada entertainment system, I discover at least two movies I really want to see (ie; missed in theater when they briefly played in the Ottawa area).  I decide on The Trotsky for this particular flight, and end up seeing a truly good and brainy Canadian comedy set in Montréal.  It’s not out on DVD yet, but it will be worth a look when available.  The two passengers behind us are tolerably annoying (one of them is kneeing my seat -which is in the upright position!- and has her earphones set up loud enough that we can hear it, while the other one laughs audibly at whatever she’s listening to) and the requisite screaming baby only makes a brief appearance.

17:30 – Movie over, I read a fourth of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, then write up the day’s adventures so far.  Then it’s back to the novel, where I reach the 60% mark by the time our descent begins and we’re told to shut down our electronics.

20:30 – The plane lands in Vancouver without trouble or delay.  Since we’re not going to the US, it’s no trouble at all to walk directly to our boarding gate (where they pre-check our Australian visa).  It’s a small and relatively dismal area, and the stores are closed.  A trip to the washroom leads me to a relatively upbeat mindset: It’s amazing what a simple hand-washing can do.  Karine gets an overpriced sandwich, but I decide to walk down the corridor to go take a walk and explore a bit.  The corridor turns, is followed by another corridor… and ends up revealing the entirety of Vancouver Airport’s International Departure lounge.  It’s big, it’s pretty, it’s got an Olympics store (with savings up to 50% off), and it’s got a food court where I find one of my favourite things in the world: A Subway sandwich shop.  I bring back an Italian BMT, plus cookies for my sister and a bottle of Iced Tea for the 15-hour trip ahead of us.

21:30 (That’s 00:30 Ottawa time) – Free wifi?  Whee!  I check my email, then my almost-obsolete other email (which has two good messages in-between the spam) and update the log so far.  Then it’s the Subway sandwich: yes, dear readers, you have priority over food.

23:15 – All aboard!  I’m done with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (an OK novel, nothing more) and have started working on Charles Darwin’s On the Origins of Species when they open up boarding for the back seats.  My dislike for Air Canada’s tiered-class system is magnified by the behavior of the boarding agents: There’s one line for those who have yet to validate their Australian visa, one regular line and one line for the express passengers (who, by the time we’re calles, have already boarded).  Occasionally, the express line person will deign take one of the plebians, but anyone daring to go there uninvited is told to get back in the regular line (which has moved on since they have left).  Additionally, the cud-chewing regular line attendant isn’t too clear on the whole “next person please”, which becomes an issue when the line hears the whole “get back in the regular line unless I tell you it’s OK to come here” from the priority lane.  Oh, Air Canada: I like you most of the time, but it’s stuff like that that makes me take Westjet whenever I possibly can.

23:45 – I shouldn’t complain too much anyway, given how Karine and I once again have an entire three-seat row to ourselves: It’s a huge, huge boon especially once (as we eventually discover) the hours pile up.

00:00 Vancouver time –that is, 18:00 Sydney Time: After takeoff, the first hour of the flight is spent getting everyone comfortable and feeding us one airline-grade hot meal.  Good thing I only ate half of my Subway sandwich earlier on.  I end up picking the “chicken” hot meal, and it’s fine.  Trying to read On the Origin of Species requires more mental concentration than I can muster at the moment.  As the cabin lights dim, I decide to make a good-faith effort at dozing.

??:?? – I am a man out of time, torn between meaningless hours that all blend together in the plastic cabin of a man-made time machine racing around a sphere at 550 mph.  Am I going or arriving?  Am I sleeping or awake?  The distinction between fantasy and reality blurs, except for one cold fact: I’m still not sure how people sleep on planes.

22:00 Sydney time – I must have dozed away two or three hours.  Coming back to firmer consciousness, I decide to watch Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs, the other film on the entertainment system that I had missed in theater during its too-brief Ottawa run.  Midway through, the cabin lights up temporarily and mini-sandwiches are distributed.  I’m a quasi-compulsive hand-washer, and one of the most disturbing things about going so long without washing hands is that the smell of the Subway sandwich I ate in Vancover is once again on my hands despite having washing them after eating.  I get up to go to the washroom once I’m sure that Karine is awake and I’m not disturbing her by making her get up.  I finish the movie (it’s OK-Jeunet, but not great-Jeunet) and write these entries so far.  By 1:05 (11:05 Ottawa Time), we’re halfway done: 3756 miles done, 3432 to go, altitude of 34000 feet, speed of 562 mph, -41.8F outside.  (I’d love to give you metric measurements, but the positioning system is not working, and the imperial summary is all we get.)

01:10 – The cabin lights being in night-cycle mode again and given that the prospect of trying to read Darwin’s heavy prose is temporarily defeating me (I’ve got the shadow of a headache and heavy eyelids), I decide to make another good-faith effort to go to sleep.

03:00 – I decide to re-activate myself after a good ninety minutes of low-power mode.  It’s hardly perfect in terms of rest, but it’s just about what I can get under the circumstances.  Karine and I exchange seats, and she gets to sleep a bit more comfortably in the window seat.  As for me, I decide that I should be reading something lighter than Darwin and knock down both Steven Gould’s Jumper 3: Griffin’s Story and John Grisham’s Playing for Pizza, which plays at my reduced mental capacity.  (I kid, John… but not too much.)  From time to time, I take the aisle seat opportunity to get up and stretch, taking advantage of my sleeping surroundings to bust out some Madd-Chadd-inspired slow-robot moves.  I get to the washroom, more to wash my hands than anything else.  I finish my Subway-bought Iced Tea.  I reflect on the meaning of limbo.

06:00 (for reference, 16:00 Ottawa time) – Our pilot speaks to us for the first time in more than ten hours, announcing that we’re still pretty much on schedule to land by 8:20, that there are a few forms to fill out for those who aren’t connecting to another destination (this probasbly includes us, but we’ll have to see how it works on the ground) and that a hot breakfast will be served within minutes.  Karine and I swap seats again, where I update this, recharge my electronic devices thanks to the plugs offered to us and try to get through the next two-and-a-half hours of captivity.  The trip so far has been long but not brutal (being able to benefit from an empty seat next to us helps a lot) but we still have a way to go until Sydney, and another four-hour flight after that.

06:30 – It’s an all right breakfast (they even offer me pancakes *in addition* to eggs) and it certainly helps in making us feel that it is morning in Australia.  I start reading Cory Doctorow’s For the Win while we approach Sydney.  They distribute Australian custom cards and show us a harsh video highlighting the foolish perils of trying to smuggle food in Australia; I tremble at the thought of the remaining half of my Subway sandwich lying dangerously in my bag.  Nonetheless, this doesn’t apply to us given how we’ll be staying inside the airport on our way to New Zealand.

08:00 – Outside the window, container ships get more plentiful as we approach the coast.  The weather is sunny, with a few clouds here and there.  Finally, our plane overflies the airport and makes a complete 180, giving plenty of opportunities to look around Sydney and spot landmarks such as the Opera House, Harbour Bridge and downtown towers.  (Those pictures don’t come out too well given how the downtown is backlit, but you can’t have everything and it’s the sight that counts.)  I notice that a passanger sitting across us is also reading Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth.  Our landing is smooth, but we’re to remain seated while they spray the inside of the aircraft with insecticide.  Sadly, none of the disguided humanoid insects among the passengers keel over.

8:45 – Sydney airport feels like a mess.  The international zone is practically impossible to figure out (two chunks of it are linked by a passage that goes through a store), a security checkpoint confiscates my unopened complimentary Air Canada water bottle, washrooms are (momentarily) closed for cleaning, the “free” wifi is definitely not free, instructions given to us about getting to the transfer office are half-wrong, and our attempt to get our boarding passes without having to clear customs takes forever as the hapless clerk scans our passports twice before re-entering the information manually.  We’re unable to get our seats bumped from the 11:30 flight to the 9:30 flight (you have to be two hours in advance to do that), but that’s not such a bad thing given the amount of air-time we’ve just completed.  Thanks to his distinctive SLR camera, I spot the guy who asked me, back in Vancouver, where I’d gotten a Subway sandwich –he followed my directions to the food court, but got some Pizza Hut instead.

10:00 – We’re sitting in the departure lounge, relatively ready to hop on to the last three-hour leg of our trip.  We both take successive opportunities to go explore the international departure zone.  Stuffed koalas and kangoroos everywhere, alongside vegemite (I’ll have some of that… later during the trip), boomerangs, digeroos and everything else.  A wired Internet kiosk allows me to check my email.  The bookstore feels a lot like an English one, down to specific UK editions.  I take the time to update the day’s (days’?) adventure so far, although posting it on the web will have to wait a bit longer.  I try to avoid thinking about how long it’s been since I’ve had a shower and changed my clothes.

11:30 or 13:30 in Auckland – Boarding the flight to Auckland is a bit late, but the flight leaves more or less on time.  I do like Air New Zealand a lot: Everything feels more modern than Air Canada, from the surprisingly good bean salad from the onboard meal (By now, Karine and I are thinking “Another onboard meal?  We just ate!”) to the humor-tinged security video to the top-notch entertainment system.  The flight is full and there are three people in our three-seat row.  Fortunately, the flight is “only” three hours.  I read more of Doctorow’s fairly lengthy For the Win.  As we get lower and closer to New Zealand, the weather turns wet and windy.  We land in pea-soup weather.  Karine calculates that we have spent 23:40 hours in a moving airplane in the past 30 hours.  We haven’t slept properly in about 40 hours.

16:30 – On the ground in Auckland, we experience the not-too-clear instructions to arriving passengers and are told twice that we should be somewhere else that what the signs suggested.  This may account for us missing the bus linking the airport to downtown by seconds.  We wait and eventually board the next one at 17:00, experiencing a gray rainy day all the while.  The trip to downtown takes an hour, and there isn’t as much to see as you may expect.  I note a stretch of a street with about five bookstores and somehow let my accumulated exhaustion keep me from running outside.  One stretch of the way shows us three overlapping highways.  As we get downtown, dusk has fallen.

18:00 – We make our way to our hotel on foot, experiencing wind, rain and the twisty streets of Auckland along the way.  It turns out that there are three Waldorf hotels in a three-hundred meter radius, and Google Maps is just as confused as we are.  When we do find the correct hotel, we’re sort-of-charmed by its industrio-Nazi chic.  But never mind, since the appartment suite we rented is exactly what we had hoped for: Separate rooms, kitchenette and a decent washroom.  We don’t celebrate too much, through: We want to perform some reconnaissance for the next two days, and stop at a nearby grocery store for food.

18:30 – Walking in downtown Auckland is miserable: It’s raining and windy (so much so that my cap is blown into a puddle, and even having a cap on doesn’t stop the rain from getting in my glasses), the traffic signals barely make sense and the streets just go everywhere.  Still, hey, we’re exploring a new city on the other side of the world!  We get money from an ATM, spot the train station where we’ll leave in two days, spot the guided tour offices and go shopping at the grocery store.  The selection of new food is fantastic, but we know that we won’t have enough time to cook properly.  We settle on samosas, antipasto, fruit salad and (for breakfast) croissants, bananas and orange juice.

19:30 – At the hotel room for eating, washing up and concluding the day.  We’re definitely groggy from exhaustion by now.  I quickly update the adventures so far, post them on the web and go to sleep.

August 26 – In Auckland

7:30 – My iPod does its job and boing-boings me to wakefulness.  I have slept like a brick for most of the night, falling asleep even before Karine closed the lights off.  I woke up at 3:00ish thanks to a full bladder, and can’t dawdle in bed at 7:30 for pretty much the same reason: clearly, my body is still reacting to the lengthy trip.  In any case, another shower and quick breakfast gets me back to full speed: I feel normally tired, but ready to face the day.  Karine and I get out of the hotel appartment on schedule.

8:45 – Auckland looks a lot better this morning, thanks to trifles such as the sun and a consequent lack of rain: the weather has cleared up, and the day hovers between sunny and slighly overcast.  Making use of our hard-gained street knowledge, we make our way to the tour offices, where we find out two slightly embarassing things: We completely walked past the bus driver who was picking us up at our hotel, and we two are the only passengers on the tour bus today.  Given my own preference to fade away in tour groups, it’s a change of pace to sit in front of the bus and make active conversation to the driver.

9:10 – The tour slightly ahead of schedule, and makes its way through the streets of the city.  Our first leg of the tour takes us through the marina district (now becoming a yuppie haven), then a quick trip on the Harbour Bridge and back, then south and up Mount Eden’s twisty hillside path.  There’s something very San Franciscan in Auckland’s geographical structure with the positioning of the city, the bridge and the northern suburbs, but closer to Auckland proper, I can’t help but think about Vancouver and the way both cities share a central north/south axis (Burrard/Queen), a marina to the north-west of the city, a commercial port to the north-east, a developped bayside, a tall tower offering a look at the rest of the city, and ferries leading to northern suburbs.  Eeerie.

9:45 – Our first stop of the day is on top of Mount Eden, a dormant volcano offering not only a vista over much of Southern Auckland, but also a magnificient caldera to remind you of the forces not too far underneath.  A handy brass plaque reminds us that Toronto is 13893kms thataway, and that I am 18339kms away from London –giving me a rough idea of how far I have traveled lately.  (Add another 3000kms to get to Sydney, plus another 1000 for Melbourne)

10:00 – Back on the road, our tour bus sneaks through a few upper-class neighborhoods before arriving at the Auckland War Museum, a general-purpose museum honoring the naturel, history and culture of New Zealand, with an extra emphasis on NZ’s military history.  (This is where the November 11th celebrations take place every year.)  We get an hour to go through the museum.

10:15 – We can do a lot in an hour, and so we get the chance to paced all three floors of the building, and take a few pictures along the way.  The first floor is cultural, the highlight being a large central hall where you can find a few traidtional Maori longhouses and boats.  I was more interested in the second floor, which covered New Zealand’s unique natural characteristics.  Dinosaur bones!  Stuffed kiwis!  Insects!  Fake glow-worms!  Live geckos!  Volcanoes!  This being said, the third floor also had its shares of welcome surprises in-between the historical exhibits: A Japanese Zero and British-built Spitfire, a German V1 rocket, a recreation of Auckland’s early city streets, memorabilita celebrating an uncomfortable series of military campaigns at the behest of NZ’s British masters and a sobering number of marble plaques listing the names of soldiers killed in combat.  (One perfectly blank marble slate has only “Let these panels never be filled” chiseled in it.)  We finish the museum tour more or less on time.

11:15 – Back on the road, this time to the eastern sections of the city, through older neighborhoods, nouveaux-rich developments and a drive along the beach.  Our driver knows his stuff and can adapt his usual shpiel to just the two of us.  We do get the feeling, however, that while Auckland has a lot going for it in terms of quality-of-living, there is a definite limit to the number of tourist-interesting things in the city.  The tour ends with a quick look at the main commercial artery of the city: Queen Street.

12:10 – The road-bound leg of our day-long guided tour is over, so it’s back at the tour office, where I make the social faux-pas to try to tip the driver and we both get instructions to be back at 13:15 for the cruise leg of our tour.  Lunch location is obvious, given the availability of a food court in the Westfield Mall just next door.  Karine has some Indian butter Chicken, while I go for Malaysian lamb curry because, really, when was the last time you saw Malaysian food at a food court?  Karine likes her meal, and so do I: The curry is surprisingly strong at first, but delicious throughout.  We’re done eating quickly and whittle the rest of the lunch hour by looking at the stores in the Westfield mall and briefly up Queen Street and back.

13:15 – Back at tour offices, we walk to the pier where our tour boat is waiting.  Fortunately, our days of being the only tourists around are over, as about fifteen other tourists board the boat.  The tour boat has both an upper open level and an enclosed lower one.  Karine and I sit on the open level for better views.  Cracking open my netbook, I briefly make notes about the day so far.  Our tour leaves at 13:30 and heads north-east of downtown to show us the commercial port installations and a now-automated lighthouse on an artificial island that looks as if it could become a cozy home in the middle of the bay for a hermit.  The open top of the boat offers superb sight-lines, but the patter coming from the driver of the boat is nearly unintelligible, and the weather is cool enough that the wind quickly becomes annoying as soon as the boat picks up some speed.

14:00 – Our only stop during this cruise tour is Rangitoto Island, a natural preserve that allows people to hike up a dormant volcano in about an hour.  We only have ten minutes, however, and that’s barely enough to take a look at the black barnacle-encrusted volcanic rock that makes up the shore of the area.  Too bad we can’t stay much longer!

14:15 – On water again, Krine and I decide to keep warm and head down briefly to the lower level of the boat to sit in the enclosed area.  Our way back takes us closer to the northern suburbs, and we eventually head back up once we get closer to the naval base.  Then it’s off to a quick peek at the Harbour Bridge from underneath, then a quick detour through the marina that has 2000 small private vessels moored in place.  The cruise is interesting in that it gives us a different look at a city that has a strong relationship to the sea; alas, much of the appeal is strictly visual rather than the kind of thing to write down in a travel log.  But do take heart, dear reader:  while contemplating Auckland’s cityscape in a gently bobbing boat, I do hatch a plan to allow me to publish pictures of the trip in a relatively sane fashion.  Execution to follow once I get some extra free time that isn’t consumed by longings for sleep.

15:10 – Back at the tour office for the last thrid of the day’s activities: A taxi ride and free entrance to Auckland’s Sky Tower, the “tallest structure in the Southern hemisphere” (or something like that; go check Wikipedia to confirm).  It’s… a tower.  With a great view on the rest of the city, even though the now-overcast day does make the pictures much flatter than they ought to be.  By 15:25, we’re atop the tower.  By 15:45, we’re pretty much done, although I have taken something like fifty picture in twenty minutes.

15:50 – Back on the streets of Auckland, we’re free from any further guided obligations.  This gives us a bit of a break that we use to walk down Queen Street, check out bookstores and electronic shops for what’s different from home (everything seems overpriced to me, and the bookstores are copies of the British ones), as well as get a few postcards and stamps.  Karine’s quest for a “Larry the Lamb” postcard proves to be fruitless, but it gives us a great excuse to criss-cross Auckland’s surprisingly small commercial downtown area.

17:30 – We’re feeling the weight of our accumulated exhaustion: We end up at the “Pizza Fresco” near our hotel for some Pizza (It’s Chicago-style for me, “Kiwi Barbecue Chicken” for Karine) that we end up taking out when it becomes clear. I review the day’s pictures and write the events of the day.

20:00 – I should be going to bed, but there’s one more thing I want to do, and that’s to go for a walk and take pictures.  Night photography is particularly fun on mild night like these, and that’s how I end up walking around downtown once more, taking pictures of the high-rises, the Britomart Train Station, the Sky Tower and Queen Street.  While walking, I try wrapping up my impressions of Auckland given how it’s my last chance to do so.  You can deduce a lot from simple architecture, and some of Auckland’s particularities say much about its climate: The frequent awnings betray quite a bit of rain, whereas the fondness for automated sliding glass doors testify to temperatures that don’t go much below freezing.  As a result, Auckland can feel cold and humid at this time of the year: Our hotel is a case in point, the open doors letting the humid temperatures dip under 20c, with the end result feeling dismal in the exposed concrete-and-steel motif they’ve selected for themselves.  As far as people-watching in concerned, Auckland is an intriguing mixture of Caucasian, Asian and Maori.  There doesn’t seem to be much of a homelessness problem in downtown Auckland than in comparable American cities; certainly no panhandling that I’ve seen, although I’m not sure whether this is due to good employment conditions, or agressive laws against it.  Auckland feels surprisingly small, although I’m not sure that, given the little time spent here, I can properly understand how the suburbs fit in that equation.  In any case, it also feels comfortable, and as I go back to the hotel (buying a few soft drinks in anticipation of our 12-hour train ride tomorrow) I can’t help but feel that I will miss it.

21:15 – Final writing-up of the day’s events, plus posting on-line.  Then; sleep.

August 27: From Auckland to Wellington in 12+ hours, by train.

6:00 – My alarm boings-boing me to wakefulness.  The night was more or less like the previous one: Near-immediate sleepiness, waking up at 3:00 and lighter slumber until the alarm says “enough!”   We have to be up early to catch our train to Wellington, and we’re out the door shortly before 7:00.  Alas, the hotel staff is less than fast in checking us out, and by the time we hit the streets of Auckland, we’re pushing a bit faster than usual.  This last walk in the city reminds me of the often-bizarre mixture of old and new in downtown Auckland.  Not in a good way, such as how London’s older building seem to mesh with recognizably newer ones, but in a careless, half-finished fashion, such as seeing the American Embassy two twos down from a strip-club.  Give it a few more years, and the new will displace the old.  In the meantime, the city often looks half-finished.  It’s raining slightly.

7:15 – We shouldn’t have worried about delays: The boarding process for the Wellington-bound train is a bit messy (and is held up for five minutes by a trio of confused teenage girls), but we’re not the last in line and we get all the time we need to board before the train starts moving.  We check our bags given the small space allowed for carry-on aboard the train: This isn’t VIA Rail!  We have a seat midway down the first car, near the front viewing area.  The train seems two-third-full in that people sitting together seem to want to sit together, but there aren’t many empty seats left.

7:45 – Urban Auckland is replaced by suburban Auckland, then by farmland as we get away from the city.  It takes 45 minutes to see our first sheep, after which it’s a parade of cows, sheep, goats and (says Karine twice) a lone peacock.  The scenery is generally flat and unimpressive at first, but grows steadily more hilly and interesting as we go farther inland.  The semi-rainy weather clouds everything in mysterious mist, giving an eerie air to the moss-infested trees, sheep-covered hills and quaint farms in the distance.  I have a semi-emergency when my camera starts screaming for power; I solve it by hanging between the rail cars and making unauthorized use of a power outlet (no power at the seats; this isn’t VIA Rail) until the battery is recharged to low but non-critical status.  Still, much of the visual appeal of the trip can’t be put in pictures for various reasons: The rain is streaking the windows, and the very reflective windows combined with the harsh indoor lighting makes it practically impossible to take a picture of anything without reflections.  Since the man sitting in front of us is wearing a very loud yellow AUSTRALIA sport jersey, well…

10:00 – Traveling by train is civilized in part because we can stop here and there, and so our first minor stop of the day takes us to Hamilton station, a very small hamlet where we nonetheless get the chance to spend up to ten minutes outside.  After that, it’s back in the coutry-side, where I take the chance to spend a few minutes on the observation platform, which is cold, loud and smells of oil, but lets me look at the farms with the nostalgic eye of an ex-farmboy.  The weather gradually clears up until the sun shines through fluffy clouds just as we hit some of the most picturesque terrain so far.

13:30 – We are, apparently, quite a bit late (that, and the crew considers this a “full train”, with consequences on the food supply), but we still get to stop 30 minutes at a national park for lunch.  If you’ve ever wondered where “middle of nowhere” is, then we’re close to it: We’re up a plateau, 807some meters above sea level, and there is nothing but plains and a few trees around the station.  One  road promise some more civilization a certain distance away.  The station itself seems woefully unable to cope with a train full of passengers: The line to the snack bar (whose food seems less appealing that the train’s own lunch counter) stretches to the outside, and its atmosphere could be called “quaint” by well-intentioned commentators.  It’s so frightfully dull that Karine and I are back in our seats twenty minutes later, even after taking advantage of the sun for a few minutes.

14:10 – We are, apparently, forty-five minutes late by this point.  (Other than this being the first of three weekly services during the off-season, I can’t figure out why we’re running so late.) Still, this leg of the trip proves to be the most picturesque so far: we’re deep into a natural preserve, and there are a few areas that prove spectacular.  By great good luck, I happen to be on the observation platform during the bridge crossing of a deep gorge, and I catch myself grinning “This is awesome”.  I manage to finish Doctorow’s For the Win (not always enjoyable, but often interesting) and wrap up Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating The Tipping Point (which makes a heck of an argument for planning as a way to strengthen one’s ethics) before the next stop.  Meanwhile, the wilder areas have given place to a mixture of sheep pastures and deep river gorges: It’s all very pretty to look at even though, for reasons described above, it’s virtually impossible to take good pictures.  My standard routine is to read on my iPod, look outside the window, and break up the cycle with a few well-timed games of Freecell.  At about 15:00, I make my way to the lunch counter and get both some Butter Chicken and L&P soft drink for me and a Chicken-and-almond sandwich for Karine.  The butter chicken really isn’t the best I’ve had, but it’s the best butter chicken I could have at this point of the trip; Karine feels similarly about her “crunchy at every bite” sandwich.  I make quick headway through Terry Pratchett’s first Discworld novel The Color of Magic, in large part due to how I’m not overly taken by the whole thing.  (Oh dear; now SF fandom will disown me for being less-than-entirely-enthusiastic about Pratchett.)

17:40 – We are still running late by the time we stop on our third stop, a grim and run-down station where everything is closed down for the day.  I step outside just because it’s different than being on the train, but given the lack of things to do (I even take pictures of tiles) quickly realize that it’s better to go back in the train to wait with Karine.  Once we get back underway, the romance of the train ride quickly evaporates as dusk hammers down on the landscape in a matter of minutes (helped along by a fast-thickening cloud cover), and we realize that we still have two and a half hours to go.  Those hours crawl past slowly, as I finish Pratchett’s book (still not overwhelmed by this whole Discworld thing), get through the first quarter of Mark Bowden’s superb Black Hawk Down, play a few rounds of Freecell and make it back to the lunch counter for Mince Pie (for me) and Mozarella/Tomato Pasta for Karine.  (The Mince Pie is OK, Karine likes her pasta)  Karine’s Nintendo DS batteries die well before arrival.  By the time our train rolls in Wellington, we’re 40 minutes late, the delay gets blamed on a defective locomotive and the battery on my iPod is down to 20% which, given that it was fully charged that very morning, is kind of an achievement.  But then again we just spent twelve-and-half hours riding down, and the iPod is supposed to have a ten-to-eleven hours battery power.

20:15 – It’s a brand new city to explore, but we just want to crash.  The compromise is to walk from the train station to the hotel, which is sort-of-a-nice way to discover the city at night.  Wellington seems like the older, wiser sister of Auckland, although the hotel street (Cuba) is definitely the wild side of the city: There’s a sex shop two doors down, and enough counter-culture to plot a G20 riot.  Karine’s exasperation-meter threatens to peak; fortunately, we reach the hotel just in time.  Fortunately, our reservations are good, and our room is fairly nice as far as Twin-Queen-beds rooms go: we even have a kitchenette of sorts.  While Karine vocally announces her intention to not move for about 12 hours, I go downstairs to register for the Au Contraire! convention and get a second keycard for the room.  Moseying around the hotel to get a feel for the place, I run into my fan-godfather Murray Moore and his wife Mary-Anne (both from the Toronto area; Murray is the one who’s teaching me how it’s possible to be a fan who goes to convention around the world without lapsing in embarrassing fannish lack of manners).  I knew they would be at the convention, but it’s a nice surprise to see them right away.  Back at the hotel room, we have good and bad news: The Internet access works (but is limited) and the hotel offers self-operated laundry services, but Karine’s Nintendo DS charger doesn’t seem to work on the local electrical supply.  Attempts to use other kind of USB charging cables are defeated by Nintendo’s proprietary wiring.  This may mean a trip to a local electronic store if Karine is to use her DS at all over the next two weeks.  But that, as with so many other things, can wait until tomorrow.

Day four: Around Wellington

6:56 – I beat the alarm clock by a few minutes, in that “might as well get started” frame of mind; I take care not to disturb Karine, but she’s also awake.  Since the day is free-form, there’s no real reason to get up so early, but Karine has an entire day of walking ahead of her and I want to get a head-start on doing our laundry.  There is a convention going on in this hotel, after all, and my secret weapon against the rest of fandom is that I’m early to bed and early to rise –at least earlier than most other fans, a shocking proportion of whom party until too-late and complain that 10:00 panels are “too early”.  Alas, my plans for early-early laundry are dashed by the hotel policies: the laundry room won’t open until 8:00.

8:05 – Ah-ha!  The laundry room is open, so I start the wash and go back to my room, where I send a few long-awaited emails and put up pictures of the trip so far, in-between going back to the laundry room for transferring clothes from the washer to the dryer.  I finish the photo-reporting and head back to the laundry room to find out that 45 minutes of drying isn’t enough, and wait the rest of the hour in a nearby chair reading Black Hawk Down.  The laundry room is tiny and unusable, but I still manage to get everything folded in the right places.

10:00 – Housework being done, a look at the convention schedule tells me that the only panel that really interests me today is only taking place at 14:00.  Until then, I’m free to do whatever I want, and at this point that means exploring the city.  Well, that and take care of Karine’s Nintendo-DS recharging problem.  Visiting a city with a problem to solve isn’t unpleasant, but I usually have a hard time subordinating exploration to problem-solving, and that’s how even my walk down wonderfully-mercantile Cuba street soon finds me in a Dick Smith electronic store asking for DS chargers.  I’m refered to “[unintelligible] Electronics on high [unintelligible] street” and vaguely pointed in a direction that I might as well follow.  I err briefly until is start raining, first imperceptibly, then quite heavily.  Going from Awning from awning, I spot another bigger Dick Smith and try my luck there.  That’s how I end up with a pretty cool (and inexpensive) piece of technology that recharges DSes (and other popular electronic devices) from a USB port.  We already have power converters able to convert Australasian-standard electricity to USB ports, so the problem is as good as solved.  What hasn’t been solved, however, is the rain: As it goes from substantial to torrential, I start fully appreciating the awnings that dominate NZ downtowns: They don’t entirely protect people from rain, but they make it manageable to walk down popular streets.

11:00 – I decide that now would be a good time to have breakfast/lunch and wait out the rain, and that’s why I end up at a Subway sandwich shop to eat a bacon-and-chicken-ranch foot-long sub.  The rain outside temporarily gets to “biblical” status and then dials down slightly to “torrential”.  I’m briefly amazed at our wonderfully globalized world when I realize that I can order and eat a Subway sandwich without understanding even half the NZ accent, while hearing personal-favorite song “Loser” (by Beck) on the radio.  Outside, the rain is still going strong, which gives me a splendid excuse to go from awning to awning, and duck into CD, DVD and book stores whenever possible.  Exploring a city through its awnings, shopping complexes and other indoor oddities is a really strange way to explore a city, but it generally works: I end up on a few major shopping arteries, and if I don’t actually succumb to temptation and buy anything, I get a good look at the downtown Wellington area.  (For reference, I thought the best SF selection was at Union Books, where I was really tempted to buy Greg Egan’s latest before I remembered that I’m practically certain to see it again in Australia.)  It’s not quite aimless wandering, as I “mysteriously” find myself at the Beehive Parliamentary Buildings, then at the Public Library where (doing the usual “which ones of my friends has books here”) I find that Yves Meynard has two copies of The Book of Knights on the shelves.  The rain dials up and down constantly but never totally stops; I still make my way to the Civic Center and get a few pictures from the harbor.

13:15 – Back at the convention hotel to validate the USB/DS solution (it works), dry out slightly and actually spend some time at the convention.  I meet fellow French-Canadian traveler René Walling, where we exchange reviews of the previous weekend’s conventions (his; great.  Mine; not-so-great.), talk publishing and discuss Australasian travel plans.  His flights have been worse than ours so far.

14:00 – I only attend one panel at Au Contraire, and it’s a meditation on Genre Reading protocols called “How to Read SF”.  Much of this stuff is old hat to me, but the panelists (Cheryl Morgan, Jay Lake and Patrick Nielsen Hayden) are almost always interesting to listen to and this time is no exception.  Nonetheless, this is the level of this hardy local SF convention: basic-to-moderate stuff, and I’m not being grouchy (much) when I point out that this is hardly anything new for me.  If nothing else, this acte de présence makes me feel better about exploring the city rather than being bored inside the convention hotel.

15:00 – Back on the streets of Wellington, I explore the “top” of Cuba street, then go down to the harbor to take in the magnificent Te Papa museum.  It’s very well-designed, and much like the Auckland War Memorial Museum presents a mixture of natural and cultural history.  I’m not taken by the cultural exhibits, but the natural/scientific content is very well presented.  The highlights are a separate ecosystem exhibit called “Bush House” and a few Maori building hosted in a long hall.  I would have enjoyed myself a bit more without the teenage idiots literally running around and the fact that a lot of material repeated the content of the Auckland War Memorial museum, but it was an hour well-spent and it made me learn more than I would have had I stayed at the convention.

16:30 – Like an addict going back for a hit, I’m at the movies!  Earlier during the day, I noticed the big downtown cineplex (where, a few weeks ago, a man died while watching Twilight 3; Google “Twilight Courtenay Place”) and, in-between the big releases I had watched weeks ago in Ottawa, saw Piranha 3D playing at 16:45.  Impossible to resist!  Alas, this experience of going to see movies somewhere else to take in the local movie culture runs into a few snags: The staff seems amateur at best (they have no clue what to do with someone who shows up 15 minutes early and getting 3D glasses turns into a production complete with alarms blaring: NZ glasses are not disposable!) and the seats are assigned… which means that with 12 people in the theater, two loud seat-kicking post-teenage yahoos end up sitting right next to me in the prime top-middle position.  Since I’m working on tolerating fools gladly, I grin.  They eventually move… one seat away.  The movie itself is a mixture of over-the-top gore (most particularly one stomach-turning sequence of widespread carnage) that doesn’t quite mix well with the rest of this by-the-numbers creature feature.  The most amazing thing, though, is that for a good moment, I forget that I’m on the other side of the world and revert to my movie-critic mindset.

18:15 – It’s dark outside and my day is drawing to a close, so I return to the hotel where I talk to Murray Moore and René Walling, before meeting with my sister.  For supper, we stop at the nearby Fix convenience store and get a few things we can microwave in our kitchenette –I also get something for breakfast given how quickly we’re going to have to get out of here at an obscene time of the night.  Then it’s back to the hotel room for a mutual description of the day’s activities (Karine saw the Botanical Garden and experienced the cable-car, but also went to the Te Papa Museum, the downtown awnings and the beehive –she, on the other hand, suffered quite a bit more from the rain given how she was out of reach of awnings for a long while.  And her glow-worms were too frightened by loud schoolkids to be glowing.)  I write up the day’s adventures, post the photos and call it a day.  Tomorrow’s 04:00 wake-up time will be terrible… but it’s the only way to catch the 6:30 plane to Sydney.

Day Five – Sunday, August 29 – To Sydney!

4:00 – A jazzy little number gently wakes us up.  Gently?  Well, maybe not as bad as it could have been.  In any case, this is our last crazy-early wake-up for a while, and we’re up and out of the hotel room by 4:40.  I’ve had a basic breakfast of Orange/Banana/Muffin, purchased at the 24-hour Fix convenience store the evening before.  At the check-out counter, the easygoing night manager gives me the final total for the metered Internet bandwidth we used during our two days and it is… negligible.  I sure hope you enjoyed the pictures because each one of them cost –well, practically nothing.  Our taxi is there in moments, driving through the city is very quiet at this time of the day, and the ride to the airport takes only ten minutes.

5:00 – At the airport, use of the automated Air New Zealand check-in is denied to us given our status as international passengers.  At the counter, we make the delightful discovery that there’s both a custom card to fill out before leaving the country, and that they will charge us 25$ for the privilege of doing so.  It’s too early in the morning for such revenue-generating shenanigans, but what else can we do?  We line up for the tax-grab, we line up for customs, we line up for security.  An Asian couple ahead of us with problems understanding security measures (“Put your electronics here and go through the gate” “BEEP” “Take out your iPad, sir.”) provides entertainment.  We have to go through a duty-free store with no identifiable central path to get from customs to the departure lounge.  By 5:30, we’re comfortably installed in the small international departure area, and I’m back to reading Black Hawk Down.

6:30 or, rather, 4:30 Sydney time – We are aboard our plane headed to Sydney.  Despite the rigors of a full flight, I continue to be impressed by Air New Zealand in general: The rugby-themed pre-flight video is considerably funnier the second time, and the on-board entertainment has a bunch of movies (none of whom tempt me during a “brief” 3.5 hours flight) but, perhaps more entertainingly, a very impressive selection of music CDs from favorites such as The Prodigy, Pendulum, Dizzee Rascal, Hadouken! and The Chemical Brothers.  I’m sitting on the right side of the plane to enjoy a truly breathtaking view of Wellington as we rise away from it.  We also get to see the South Island of New Zealand as we fly above its northernmost region.  Due to the timing of our flight, we race the dawn as we fly toward Australia: The upshot are a few really striking views of the complex cloud formations outside our windows as they are half-illuminated by the rising sun.  The breakfast is good, there are no crying babies (although we recognize a couple of fans from the convention sitting on the other side of the aisle) and the flight is on time.

8:15 – On the ground at Sydney international, we once again reap the benefit of carry-on luggage and get to customs before the mad rush (well, that and our flight is apparently one of the few in the international terminal, and there are practically no non-Aus/NZ travelers on-board.)  Sydney Airport loses a few points for a confusing layout manned by don’t-care employees once you are past the baggage pickup area.  On the other hand, it gains those points back (and then some) with its superb Airlink rail line linking directly to downtown.  It’s easy to use, unbelievably fast (airport-to-downtown in less than fifteen minutes) and absolutely spotless.  It uses recently-built tracks and heavy-duty cars with two levels of passengers.  My inner public-transit nerd is ecstatic.  If this is what LRT transit can look like in Ottawa, then can someone make it happen before we get back home?

9:00 – Walking the streets of Midtown Sydney on our way to our hotel.  It’s far too early on a Sunday morning (Sunny-but-cool 10c as well) and the streets are deserted, giving a seedy run-down appearance to the neighborhood.  (There is, however, a Monorail! passing in front of the hotel)  At the hotel itself, we’re told expected bad news: No available rooms, please come back later. I was expecting this, but Karine is not pleased.  We check one bag each and think about how to occupy our time.  My first suggestion is to circle our block, so we can see if there’s anything interesting we may be able to use over the next few days.  The most interesting thing we find is a large cinema one street down from our hotel.  Since Karine is starting to get hungry (it’s almost noon-time in Wellington, and we got up early), I decide to head toward downtown by walking up main-line George Street, on the theory that there’s got to be something open at some point.  This, however, proves optimistic.  We spot the Sydney Apple store, but no inviting breakfast place.  Krispy Kreme offers breakfast, but not at 10:00.  Another restaurant hotel feels far too pretentious for us.  Karine’s reserves of patience are about to run out when we find Jacksons on George, where we settle down for a classic breakfast (the usual eggs/sausage/bacon for me, Eggs Benedict far Karine, Orange juice for the both of us) in a slightly upscale bistro setting.  (This is, if you’re counting, my third breakfast of the day, albeit spaced over seven hours.)

10:40 – The twenty-to-thirty minutes we spend at the bistro do us a world of good, and moments after getting out of the restaurant we discover that we are within a block of the waterfront where we can see (what else) the Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera.  Impossible to resist, of course, and so we end up walking down the length of the pier, taking many pictures (not all of them on our own cameras) along the way.  At the other end of the pier, there’s a demonstration about (from what I can gather) the freedom to take pictures.  By 11:00, though, we start heading back to our hotel, this time walking down Pitt Street for variety.

11:30 – In our hotel room, at last.  We’re pleasantly surprised to find a room that is almost just as good as our room in Wellington, kitchenette included (although without utensils) and with a more sensible bathroom.  We unpack, poke around the drawers and then leave, because our next stop is…

12:00 – …the movies!  OK, I will admit that our expectations regarding Vampires Suck were abysmal and that I’m not winning any distinguished cinephile points by racking in that movie the day after Piranha 3D… but it’s the experience of seeing it in another country that counts –and if you’re counting, I have now seen theatrical movies in five different countries this year.  Karine gets to experience assigned seating for the first time, mostly in realizing that since we purchased our tickets separately, we’re now assigned seats a theater apart.  No matter; the massive theater is empty anyway and so COMMIT A GRAVE AND MAJOR TRANSGRESSION by sitting next to my sister.  Assigned seating: Not just a bad idea, but an untenable one as well.  The movie is, well, another brick in the damning hideousness that is Friedberg/Seltzer’s career: Even after five abysmal spoof comedies, they still haven’t learned a thing about making a competent film.  The laughs are more like pity giggles, and even such an easy target as the Twilight series fails to earn much more than a few chuckles.

13:45 – Karine and I split up afterward.  (She will spend the afternoon at the Wildlife World/Aquarium.)  Meanwhile, I decide to figure out where to go for our Guided Tours over the next two days.  (I’m still smarting from my London/Paris near-misses)  This ends up being a pretty good excuse to visit the great Darling Harbour / Cockle Bay area of the city and even if my search for the Gray Lines offices is fruitless, at least I get a  good look at one of the city’s most pleasant spot.  Now that the afternoon has begun, the temperature is far more hospitable, and there are a lot of people out for a stroll.

15:00 – Still smarting from my failure to find the Gray Line offices, I decide to attack the city highlights by myself and head diagonally through downtown to the Botanic Garden (“Please Walk on the Grass”) , where I start walking alongside the shore.  This takes me near the Opera House, to tourist-trap Sydney Cove , under the Harbour Bridge and then (in a particularly dull stretch of walking) Hickson Road.  It’s a good way to see a lot of Sydney, however.  The Opera House is superb, the Harbour Bridge feels bigger than life and there is a constant amount of nautical activity in the water: If you can’t get a terrific shot of the Opera House or the Harbour Bridge with a boat in the foreground, just wait a few moments.

16:15 – I don’t give up easily, which explains how I find myself once again the the Darling Harbour area to look for the Gray Line offices.  They are, once you notice them, fairly obvious.  I arrange the details of the next two tours we’ll be taking with them.  Afterward, I’m pretty much done: I head back to the hotel (testing the route from our pickup point to the hotel), stopping for a few moments at a convenience store where I get a few things to eat or drink.  Fruit juice!  Fruit salad!  Cherry 7-Up (it’s delicious!)!  Vegemite (not so delicious, but obligatory; tastes harsher than Marmite, although moderation in spreading is key)!  Back at the hotel room, Karine comes back (Subway sandwich in hand0 about ten minutes after I do.  We debrief on the day so far.  She’s beat and unwilling to go outside the hotel room again for hours.

17:30 – BUT I’M NOT DONE YET.  I want to walk around the neighborhood and see what else I can discover.  It’s a fruitful quest: At this time of the day, the area around our hotel reveals its true colors as a shopping destination torn between mid-town seediness (three “adult bookstores” and a sexy lingerie shop within fifty meters of one another), hip appeal (two Gothic clothing stores on the same block) and Asian influences (the gates to Chinatown are just down the street)   More conventionally, I locate a massive shopping mall two blocks down with a good grocery store (Coles), an even better electronics store (JB Hi-Fi) and excitement outside its doors as someone just misses being hit by a car.  (The pedestrian, a stocky Asian guy fit to be cast as “the idiot” in any Hong Kong film, is clearly at fault and doesn’t seem to react even though escaping serious injury by less than 30 centimeters and the fast reflexes of a driver who will have nightmares about this for days.)  Not to far away, a theater is showing Wicked! and a Malaysian restaurant is so popular that a fifty-person line stretches out on the sidewalk.  We have, apparently, pickup up a pretty cool neighborhood.  I conclude this expedition with a trip to the grocery store where I pick up a few unusual items.  Shopping for food is turning out to be one of the underrated pleasures of traveling.  Even suburban Boston can reveal surprising differences in food culture between relatively close neighbors (the US has a serious advantage over Canada when it comes to stocking and selling high-quality ice tea, for instance); now imagine the differences between hemispheres.  What I particularly appreciate in Sydney is the availability of fruits that we would consider exotic.  Philippine-grown Carambola (Starfruit), which I love, is here at least 40% the price I would pay for far-less-fresh fruit in Canada.  Fresh figs are available.  There are three distinct varieties of Kiwi.  I even find and buy immature coconut, which is practically unheard-of in Canada.  I will be back here doing groceries a few more times.

18:30 – Back at the hotel room, I go through the grocery discoveries under Karine’s unsympathetic glare.  Vegemite is basically Marmite, with which I’m already familiar.  The Custard Apple is an inedible disaster, but I suspect that it has to soften before I can eat it, and we just don’t have that time.  The carambola, bananas and croissant aren’t special, but they’re for breakfast.  The Tim Tam are OK; the Profiteroles are merely fine as well.  But the highlight has to be trying to drink the juice from an immature coconut without the proper tools for the job.  Since I can be fairly creative when it comes to eating, here’s a tutorial on how to do it.  Bookmark it if you consider yourself susceptible to be stuck in a hotel room with an immature coconut to drink:

  • The Essential Knowledge is that immature coconuts have a fibrous exterior covering a hard(ish) shell, which wraps around a core of mostly-liquid coconut liquid.  The liquid hasn’t dried up to form the “meat” we can expect from mature coconuts yet.  Immature coconuts are meant to be drunk, not eaten.  They’re a popular roadside refreshment in developing countries.
  • So, if you find yourself in a hotel room without utensils other than a plastic spoon (thank you, security paranoia), you first step is to get ahold of your inner squirrel and gnaw at the fibrous exterior until you reveal the soft spots on the top of the shell.  You don’t need to gnaw off all of the fibrous exterior, but I have weird aesthetics when it comes to this kind of stuff.  (Also see two steps below)  There are highly compromising pictures of me doing this out there; for blackmail material, please send all inquiries c/o my sister.
  • Using the handle of your plastic spoon, punch a hole through the soft spot in the shell.  Widen the hole.
  • Either flip the hole over a glass and let the coconut juice flow into it, or drink it straight from the source.
  • Once the shell is empty, you can throw everything away without too much remorse: The next step is brutal, and yields little except the satisfaction of total domination over your poor immature coconut.
  • Still want to get inside the shell?  All right, but it won’t be dignified.  Wrap the shell in a medium-sized towel.  Put everything on the floor.  STOMP the shell until it cracks.  In your idealized perception, it feels a bit like Justin Timberlake SMASHING the disco ball on the cover of his Futuresex/Lovesounds album.  In reality, it’s a step best left undiscussed afterward.  Once the shell has broken enough to let you get to the good stuff inside, collect the pieces and wash the towel immediately to avoid unsightly stains.  Use your plastic spoon to scoop up the remaining “meat” stuck to the shell, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t taste all that much like a mature coconut.

After this excitement, I settle down for some serious travel-log writing.  I am amazed at the amount of stuff we’ve done today, starting with a “little” four-hour plane trip.  Add a movie and, oh, SEEING THE SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE and it’s a pretty full day for one that was left largely unscheduled.  Perhaps the realization that my “schedules” act as much as quotas than imposed events will make a few friends reconsider their previous opinion of my planning in(tense)sanity.

21:30 – OK, I’m done.  A look at my web server starts suggests that an average of 12 people read this travel log every day.  All right, then, faithful readers: More guided adventures tomorrow!

Day Six – Monday, August 30th – “Grand Sydney” Guided Tour.

6:30 – I’m already awake by the time my iPod tells us to get up, so I count this as a successful morning. Shower, then breakfast: Carambola, Banana and Chocolate Croissant from yesterday’s grocery expedition. Karine and I have our routine down pat (I shower, then she gets the bathroom to herself) and we’re out of the hotel room well on schedule. The weather outside is generally clear and slightly cool (15c) but not unpleasantly so… especially when we’re moving

7:40 – We’re waiting at the Crowne Plaza, since this is the neared pick-up point for Gray Lines Guided tours. The bus is ten minutes late, but it leads us into the dark bowels of the Star City casino where a Gray Line office is hidden. There is the usual shuffling of people in and out the various buses. Karine and I are taking the “Grand Sydney” day-long tour today, which is split in two distinct halves: The morning is about the city itself and immediate eastern suburbs, while the afternoon takes us north of Harbour Bridge to the northern suburbs –much like the San Francisco day-long tour. I finish Bowden’s really good Black Hawk Down, and start Clarke/Baxter’s Time’s Eye 1.

8:30 – We’re out in the streets of Sydney for the first leg of our trip. Ironically, this happens to be the dull stretch of Hickson Road I was complaining about yesterday. Fortunately, our tour guide knows his stuff and keeps up a patter throughout the day that weaves together the history, civics, economics and street knowledge of Sydney and Australia. We drive through The Rocks for a look at more historical buildings –complete with an evocative description of shanghaiing from our tour guide/driver.

8:50 – The first stop of the day (already) is at the base of the Harbour Bridge, where I at least get an opportunity to take a picture of it in sunlight rather than backlit. I get to manipulate a frightfully sophisticated SLR when a fellow tour-taker wants a few pictures of him with the Opera House in the background.

9:00 – Our tour takes us through the Circular Quay area, Macquire Street, then on to more eastern area of the city, including the “Red Light District” of Kings Cross (predictably tame at 9:30 in the morning…). Our second stop at 9:45 is a short photo-opportunity at Forsyth Park, which offers a long-shot view of downtown Sydney from the tower to the bridge. It’s almost as much fun to see that the spot is abruptly taken over by three busloads of tourists at the same time, and that a single look at the crowd takes on, at a glance, all the photo-pathologies of shutterbugs on holidays: The no-nonsense “take the shot” pragmatists (ie; me), the funny-face poseurs taking poses for their friends taking pictures, the hugging couples self-portraiters, the charmingly retro cranking-camera civilians, the point-and-shoot iPhone teenagers and, finally, those who don’t have a camera but still look around.

9:55 – Surprise! After only five more minutes on the road, we’re once again out of the bus, this time taking in the cliffs at South Head. I find it more interesting to poke at the local flora, which remains elusive inside the city. Still, this isn’t deep nature and we’re back on the bus ten minutes later.

10:10 – Nearly every tour has this “let’s show you expensive houses” segment, and the next quarter-hour is pretty much it. From DINKs (Double-Income-No-Kids) to SINS (Spectacular-Income-No-Savings), the eastern suburb of Sydney is for the well-heeled. I’m never too interested in specific houses, but discussions of local economic patterns fascinate me, so I don’t complain during that stretch of the tour.

10:25 – Forty minutes at Bondi Beach is far too much, but it allows Karine and I to look around a bit. Still, a beach is a beach, and if you don’t have any intention to go in the water –the appeal can be limited. After a few requisite pictures and the realization of how the inlet geography of the beach (which is much smaller than you usually imagine) compresses the waves to a stronger surf, Karine and I split up: She’s off to play on her DS near the bus, while I get to do something I’ve been planning for almost half a year. You see, one of my favourite artists is British Big Beat DJ Fatboy Slim. If you look at his discography, you will see that of his four “Live Albums”, one is associated with Brighton’s Big Beat Boutique, two to Brighton Beach and the fourth… to Bondi Beach. In a bizarre coincidence, I was in Brighton in March 2010. Now, to bookend my global Fatboy Slim pilgrimage, here I am. So I walk to the southern edge of the beach, take out my iPod, crank up the full version of “The Rockafeller Skank” (a perfect beach track if there’s one) and ROCK OUT ON BONDI BEACH. No other humans were traumatized during the process. There is, however, a fantastic Avatar-inspired public art/graffiti on the walls reserved for that purpose.

11:05 – Back on the roads, we gradually come back to downtown Sydney, where we loop in front of the Opera House before ending up back at Darling Harbour for lunch. Some people have a harbour lunch cruise. Meanwhile, Karine and I have other plans.

11:50 – We’ve got two hours before the afternoon half of the tour kicks in, so we split up: Karine goes to take a look at the Chinese Garden of Friendship, while I take her recommendation to go see the Aquarium and Wildlife World.

12:00 – I have an unaccountable fondness for Aquariums (Aquarii?); despite hailing from a city that couldn’t put together a one-display aquarium, I usually visit them whenever I’m in a city that has one. The Sydney one is better than most: Other than the usual small specialized displays, it has three passageways underneath specialized tanks (one big one for their dugongs, another big one for the sharks, and a third smaller one for the Barrier Reef ecosystem. The first two are as good an anchor for an aquarium as the pet-a-ray in San Diego or the massive central tank in Boston. There aren’t enough jellyfish (there are seldom enough jellyfish), but the rest is very satisfying. What I’m not so sure about is a linear path that lands you into the gift shop and out of the museum before you’re absolutely sure you’ve seen everything. (I’m also not too sure about the relevance of everything in the gift shop. Legos you can sort-of-quint-and-accept, but 2$ DVD B-movies such as “Reform School Girls”? Not sure.) But, hey, it’s a good aquarium. Other things seen: A platypus! (Cute but dangerous) A cuttlefish! (Not cute but dangerous) Snowflake jellyfish! A huge manatee! Baby sharks! Dozens of screaming schoolkids!

12:45 – The Wildlife World exhibits is right next to the Aquarium (they’re managed by the same people, so that you can buy an entrance to both exhibits at either one) and it starts with a bang with a look at fabulous, venomous or enormous insects. Even the ants are impossibly big. Snakes, lizards and crocodiles are cool, but they’re not nearly quite as striking as seeing a bunch of koalas dozing off in a rooftop environment. That’s right: I have stared into the cold and murderous eyes of a koala and seen that it could not only take me, but was hungering for any reason to do so. OK, so I kid: They’re just the cutest thing ever. You would think that anything after that would be an anticlimax, but the desert gerbils, wallabies, wombat and loungin’ kangaroos are all awesome in their own way… and unique to this place. Wildlife World is really well designed and has the advantage of a certain originality compared to the Aquarium. Either way, it ranks as a must-see exhibit, especially if you don’t have the time to go outside the city to see the wildlife closer to their environment.

13:30 – After going outside the tourist zone to buy a sandwich for lunch, I pass by the Gray Line offices and see Karine sitting there. We swap sandwich halves (I have an not-very good roastbeef/cheese/mustard sandwich; she has a much-better Pizza sub from Subway), compare notes (She liked the Chinese garden quite a bit) and wait for our meet-up time for the second half of the tour.

14:10 – Same driver, new companions for this afternoon’s guided tour half: A large and loud Indian family has boarded the bus and taken over the first half of the bus (driving three couples, including two pairs of New Zealander, to come sit at the back of the bus with us as the afternoon progresses. They argue, they shout, they cry (well, the younger ones anyway), they can never make up their mind at to whether they want to get out AT EVERY SINGLE STOP but I try to focus on the positive. In any case, it’s only a hop to our first stop of the afternoon, a lookout on the north side of the Harbour Bridge. Same landmarks, different angles and a favourable light on the Opera House and Downtown from the mid-day sun.

14:25 – Our path for the afternoon takes us high above the steeply-constructed houses of Sydney’s immediate northern suburb. It’s all very picturesque and pretty, but there’s clearly less to see here than during the morning. I’m used to that, and even embrace it (the point of Guided Tours is to get an overview and to experience places we normally wouldn’t think of visiting on our own; on that metric, the day proves to be a success), but Karine is a bit bored throughout the entire afternoon –there’s a limit to the time you can spend on beach when it’s cool like today, the Indian family is really annoying, and the succession of lookouts eventually start blurring together. There really isn’t any doubt, however, that the quality of life around Sydney is very, very high. At least in the part of it that we see.

14:50 – Five-minute stop high above an expensive neighborhood; some interesting things to see in how people cope with houses that have quite a view, but not much access.

15:05 – Arabanoo Lookout. Will you look at those beaches…

15:35 – Curl Curl lookout. At least I get to jump off (and back on) a few rocks in order to get the shots that I want.

15:50 – Out last stop of the day: A very lengthy stop at Manly Beach. It’s a much bigger beach than Bondi, but what it has in scope it lacks in intimacy. No matter; after the requisite shots of the beach and its surfers (which seem evenly gender-distributed, compared to the mostly-male presence at Bondi), Karine and I walk down The Corso, a pedestrian mall that links both Manley beaches (the place is a small neck leading to a much bigger peninsula, with -as a result- easy access to two beaches). Karine eventually decides, with half an hour to go, to go near the bus to play on her DS. I decide to investigate further. Of course, I have an objective: I want postcard stamps, so I want a post office, so I want to know where the post office is. The information center is helpful, and I manage to enter the post office ten minutes before I’m due back at the bus. I almost turn back and walk out of the post office when I see the lengthy line snaking almost all the way out of the store. But looking around at the variety of items being sold here, I notice that there are four open counters, and that the line is moving pretty quickly. I decide to get in line and seven minutes later, I’m rewarded with twenty-five international stamps (Not all of them for me.) I make it to the bus with a few minutes to spare.

16:35 – This is it for the tour, and our bus eventually makes its way back in the city, then to Darling Harbour. There isn’t much to see, but I still manage to fill the memory card I borrowed from Karine (forgot my usual 4GB card at the hotel; don’t ask) and ask her for another.

17:25 – Time for one last adventure: Riding the Monorail! (MONORAIL!) It’s not that much of an experience: The system feels slow and useless, looping around a small portion of downtown like that. It’s not even near the mean automated efficiency of Vancouver’s Skytrain. Then, to add complications, the windows are covered in film that makes it practically useless to take the Monorail as a photography platform. But it is getting late, the sun is setting down and both
Karine and I are now cranky. Time to head back to the hotel room, although first we must…

18:00 – …do groceries. Back to the Coles where I shopped yesterday, I get a bunch of thing interesting and new, plus another “drinking coconut”. Other highlights include a bottle of local Chinotto soda, fruit juice and “Moroccan Spiced Chicken & Lemon”. Readers impressed by this willingness to try out new things should know that we did drop by the next-door “Asian Market” and walked out empty-handed while muttering “too weird”… there are limits to the stuff I’m willing to try without access to a full kitchen. While I pay for the foodstuff, Karine gets a burger from a place across the shopping center.

18:45 – Back at the hotel room for the evening routine, spiced up by some local TV news. Not much to report, except maybe eating just a bit too much.

Day Seven – Tuesday, August 31 – West of Sydney

6:30 – I’m already wide awake by the time the alarm sounds, which probably has more to do with lingering time-zone adjustments than being truly well-rested. Karine’s throat seems to be OK, but she’s coughing a bit. In any case, our morning routine goes without a delay, and we’re out of the hotel room by 7:20. I take advantage of our earliness to find an ATM and get some cash. (Efficiently locating a bank-operated ATM in a downtown area is one of the most trivial superpowers possible, but it’s a handy one when you need it) It’s sunny and comfortably warm at slightly over 20c even at this time of the day. Our guided tour today is to take us west of Sydney, to the Blue Mountains wilderness and to cuddle koalas along the way. Karine is really looking forward to the koala-cuddling.

7:45 – We’re picked up at the Crowne Plaza, along with half a dozen other tourists. This is a different coach bus from yesterday: longer, comfier, clearly designed for longer hauls than the city tour bus. Within moments, we’re back in the dark underground of the Star City casino, where I read some more of Time’s Eye 1 while we’re waiting until we get our full complement of Blue Mountain-bound tourists. The bus ends up a third full, with a quiet assortment of mostly-Asian mostly-couples.

8:15 – On the road again, this time heading north over the Harbour Bridge, then west toward the suburbs of Sydney, and then beyond! There is a lot of traffic on the roads coming into Sydney. Our tour guide is typically engaging, explaining a number of issues regarding Sydney’s industrial development. This tour in the suburbs gives us a glimpse in the life of the average non-urban Sydneyan, and at times it looks almost identical to that of an average American suburbanite. (The stretch of road where we see, in succession, a Blockbuster, a Domino’s and a K-Mart sort of helps.) Still, there are differences: Australian homes don’t seem to use black asphalt shingles for roofing as much as red-tinged aluminum or terra-cotta ones.

9:15 – We are at our first destination of the day, the Featherdale Wildlife Park. This is a relatively compact property featuring a number of Australian wildlife in approximately-recreated open-air habitats. So, basically: a zoo. But an awesome one for non-Australians, as you can get really close to the animals (in fact, you’re encouraged to walk among kangaroos and other animals), and that there are a lot of them in a walkable area. I’m always torn about zoos: putting animals in cages goes against a number of my principles, but on the other hand it’s hard to overestimate the good that they do in sponsoring wildlife protection awareness. While the compactness of the space and the proximity to animals means that you have to face some amount of barnyard smells and careful stepping, the areas seemed big enough for the animals, to the point where some of them were able to hide successfully from the humans. This early in the morning, the animals also seemed relatively relaxed –for all I can guess. Karine did get to pet a koala (I took pictures), and we both saw so many of them that we temporarily felt satiated. Koalas, bilbies and wallabies are cute, but we both agree that wombats are underrated and deserve more attention. I was impressed by the owl display; the collection of bright colorful birds was also fascinating to North-Americans. This early in the morning, the sun was low enough to give a cool impression to the place, but also prevented any spectacular sunlit pictures. Still, we spend a solid hour in the Park, and we had to hurry by the end to make it to the exit in time –probably the only time an attraction has filled its allotted time during our various tours. Visiting this Park also seemed worthwhile even after the previous day’s ultra-slick Wildlife World exhibit.

10:15 – Back on the road, this time really eating up the 210 kilometers we’ll complete by the end of the day. We are headed away from the Sydney city limits, on to the Blue Mountain wilderness area. Our driver explains how the Blue of said Blue Mountains is a product of eucalyptus oil evaporating in the air and changing the refraction index of the area when seen from far away: Closer, the mountains look green. (This is an effect we’d see over and over again during our wide-depth landscape shots, although it does combine to a certain hazing atmospheric effect. I’m not proud to admit that I dozed off briefly during the hour-long trip out, during the silent period with no chatter from the driver; obviously, I’m not as well-rested as I think I am.

11:30 – After a brief look at the nearby small city, our second stop of the day (!), this time at the Echo Point lookout, which gives us a great view of the “Three Sisters” rocks, with stunning scenery in the background. Still, considering what else awaits us at the Scenic World Blue Mountains complex a few minutes later, it seems a bit like an unnecessary stop to stay there even ten minutes. A giant human-size koala stuffed bear awaits visitors at the second gift shop near the Lookout. It’s markedly cooler here than in Sydney: a five-degree difference that transforms the day from 20c warm to 15c cool.

12:00 – A skip and a hop later, we’re at the Skyway cable car station of the Scenic World complex, which is a fair attempt to transform a natural preserve into something like an amusement park. We’re following a script outlined for us by the tour driver: First, take the cable-car entrance to the complex, then down the mountain by train, a walk in the forest, a cable car back up, then a buffet lunch. All in two hours. The first leg of the trip, by Skyway, is admittedly impressive: The skyway takes us high above a natural chasm, with a center polarized glass section that depolarizes to reveal the forest far below (Plus cliff, waterfalls, stunning scenery, etc.). The views are superb, even though Karine and I may have made a mistake by hopping immediately on-board with the rest of our tour and a few others: it’s a big cable car, but it’s got about 25-30 people in it and it feels cramped. It’s pretty cool to see the tiny shadow of our car on the forest waaaaaaay down. On the other side, we head over to the railway.

12:25 – The concept is simple: a railway to go down the mountain to the forest walkway below. The crucial detail: A 57-degree drop. The solution figures in the Guinness Book of Records as the steepest incline railway in the world. It’s a lot of fun as we shift abruptly (to the Indiana Jones theme) from horizontal to near-vertical. Tall people take note: The cars are wrapped in chain-links fencing leaving very little space between you and the wilderness as the train drops. My photos don’t accurately represent the thrill.

12:31 – Now that we are at the base of the mountain, the thing to do is to walk one of the natural interpretation paths through the dense forest cover. There are about three or four hours of paths (more if you end up walking to the Three Sisters), but we only have limited time and so stick to the main path. It’s rich in information about the nature and history of the area but, alas, also in uniformed schoolboys running around.

12:45 – At the end of the path, a cable car awaits to bring us back to the main Scenic World center –and, more importantly, lunch! The ride up is comfortably thrilling, especially the top portion that wobbles a bit. It’s all quite a bit busy, but I’m impressed at how Scenic World adapted amusement-park techniques to natural preserve presentation.

13:00 – My resolutions to keep my weight down are tough to follow on holidays, and even tougher when a buffet is offered in the tour package. While the food doesn’t contradict Anthony Bourdin’s quip about buffet food (“Food no good enough to be sold on its own”, if I remember correctly), it’s plentiful, it’s available at exactly the right moment, and I go back at least one time too many. Much of the food is Asian-themed, which makes sense given the demographic makeup of the tourists around us. In any case, I go back for four plates: One basic sampler, one experimental serving of seafood, a bit of desert and one last plate of particularly good stuff. The experimental plate of seafood is a half-success: I gamely try to eat stuff I’ve never eaten before (including crab legs and mussels), but since I have to experience doing so… well, it gets messy and I start questioning why anyone would go through that trouble. In any case, Karine and I roll out of the buffet room (which is gorgeous, overlooking the landscape and featuring a rotating central section) more than we walk out of it. Protein acquired!

14:15 – We are, once again, on the road, this time going around the small city of Katoomba, looking at small-city historic architecture. Fifteen minutes later, however, we’re stopped again at even-smaller Leura, where we’re encouraged to go shop at the local candy shop and have a look at the “Treasured Teapot Museum”. Karine has other plans, and I race after her as she makes a trip to the Leura Post Office to get herself a supply of postcard stamps. We do stop at the candy shop on our way back (it is surprisingly impressive, with thousands of varieties of candy), but it’s the Teapot Museum / Bygone Beautys antique shop that’s a revelation: I haven’t seen such a visually-dense temple of kitsch since Brighton’s Royal Tea Room, and the sheer accumulation of vintage merchandise is like a shock to the brain’s cognitive center. Every single surface has something to see, and I am effectively shocked in taking far too many pictures and purchasing a few birthday cards as my de-facto entrance fee.

15:15 – Back on the road for the long drive to Sydney. The driver basically tells us that the next hour would be a good one for sleeping. There is a little bit of construction to keep us entertained. Still, I end up finishing Time’s Eye 1 (which gets much better as it goes on) and read enough of Metro 2033 to be disappointed. I notice that my digital camera’s viewfinder screen has a few dead pixels, which is almost to be expected given how hard I’ve been pushing it lately: By the end of the day, I end up taking my 14,580th picture with that particular camera.

16:30 – We make a rolling tour of the Sydney Olympic Park, where the 2000 Games took place. Since then, the area is being re-developped as a recreational area, with a mixture of hotels and business towers to integrate into this new neighborhood. There isn’t much spectacle to see, though, especially from within the bus.

16:45 – This is the end of the line for the coach bus: Our tour includes a return to downtown Sydney by ferry, so we’re at the Olympic Park ferry station for a 30-minutes wait until the next ferry.

17:15 – The way back is interesting in seeing the city from another angle, especially coming back into the city from underneath the Harbour Bridge. Trying to take pictures is frustrating in-between the fast-disappearing sunlight, bad angles, indoor lights and dirty window.

17:45 – Back at the Circular Quay in downtown Sydney, Karine and I briefly ponder our options (keeping in mind that we’ll be back in Sydney for half a day later on) and end up walking to the Sydney Tower, were we get to use the tickets we got when paying for the Aquarium/WildlifeWorld exhibits. Around us, the city is shutting down for the day, and shutting down fast: Walking up Pitt Street is being part of a steady stream of professionals going back home, and an attempt to get into Strand’s Arcade is rudely blocked by some guy extending his arms and shouting at us that the place is closing down.

18:15 – At the Sydney Tower, things are clearly in a state of upset: There’s construction everywhere, and the procedures to go through security (lax as it is) before taking the elevator aren’t as clear as they could be. Oh well; we’re at the top soon enough, and our patience in waiting for night to fall is rewarded by a spectacular view of the city at night. After some trial-and-error, taking great pictures is surprisingly easy: The lights of the observation dome are low, and you can block them with your body as you hold the camera against one of the many many support trusts for image stabilization. Karine gets a few cards from the gift shop, and we go down having fait le tour of the observation deck.

18:45 – Our last stop before the hotel room is Woolsworths grocery store, where we buy a few new and good things for supper –whatever supper we can tolerate while our buffet is still powering us. I’m starting to feel tired and not in a good way; I suspect impending caffeine crash after foolishly drinking two glasses of Coke during buffet. The variety of fresh “exotic” produce continues to amaze me: I’m particularly taken by the most lemoniest lemons I have ever seen: They’re scrumptious!

19:00 – Back at the hotel room (after nearly 12 hours) to eat (I’m particularly happy with the Chokoe, which looks like a gnarly green bell pepper, but tastes like a cucumber), unwind, unload the pictures, recharge electronic devices and write up the day’s adventures in various ways. In the background, Sky News is giving us everything we need to know about Paul Hogan’s Tax Problems and the latest in the fascinating political manoeuvrings to decide who’s going to lead Australia after a tight election. I don’t pack up, since there will be enough time tomorrow to do so –our plane to Melbourne leaves at noon.

Day Eight – Wednesday, September 1st – To Melbourne!

7:45 – I’ve set the alarm for 8:00, but I’ve been dozing/awake for an hour by the time I decide to get up. I’m felling generally OK, but Karine has had a bad night and is coughing as much as yesterday: no doubt about it; she’s got a cold. Good thing that after today, we’re staying in a place for a luxurious six consecutive days. I shower and breakfast, that last one with a bizarre quality as we’re trying to eat as much of the remain groceries as we can –there’s no sense in lugging around this stuff to the airport. A visit to the room’s patio tells me that the weather is cloudy but warm. I pack up my stuff for our Sydney-to-Melbourne flight.

8:25 – I’m off in the streets of Sydney for one last mission that is either stupid or genius. See if you can keep up with the following chain of logic:

  • Active Noise cancellation headphones use powered electronics to analyze ambient noise and generate opposite sound-waves that cancel out the sound around you –and particularly the low-end rumble that we take for granted. Most high-end headphones that do this have filters that do not cancel out human voices, as so to allow you to hear people talking to you, sometimes better than through unfiltered background noise.
  • It’s not a new technology, but noise-canceling headphones are ridiculously expensive and I had always considered them toys for audiophiles at a level that would be wasted on me. But fifteen-hour plane flights have irreversible impacts, and the prospect of *another* one can does much to hasten my “ridiculous birthday gift” allowance.
  • The best-known noise-canceling headphones are by Bose. Letting slide any questions of whether their reputation is better than their products, they’re a solid and well-known brand with good Amazon ratings. A look at their web site reveals a curious discrepancy:
    • Downtown Sydney stores carrying Bose products: 4
    • Downtown Melbourne stores carrying Bose products: 0
  • At least one person reading this will be overly amused to find out that the nearest, earliest-to-open store carrying Bose product in Sydney is… the Apple Store.
  • To summarize: I walked to the Apple Store (missing the right cross-street twice), grabbed a ridiculously-expensive Bose QuietComfort 15 (rather than the insanely-expensive QuietComfort 3, partly because I preferred the around-the-ear model to the over-the-ear model), suffered through my karmic retribution for bad-mouthing Apple and its stores (in the form of a lengthy wait as the lone clerk at the only checkout station was busy refinancing one woman’s iPhone 4 mortgage) and walked back to the hotel. Seen along the way: $32 parking day rates, a walk through The Strand Arcade (very impressive) and “Scary Canary” restaurant.

    9:20 – Back at the hotel room, Karine is not convinced about the earphones. Neither am I, for that matter, until I actually switch them on. The difference, even/especially in a quiet hotel room, is dramatic: The background hissing falls away, and I can still hear Karine talk clearly. I have never owned a top-notch pair of around-the-ear earphones yet, and this one already just feels wonderful. I check my work email, try to eat the rest of our food, check for any remaining things left lying around… and we go.

    10:10 – Our check-out is quick, and so is our walk to Museum Metro Station. Alas, that’s where we discover that our “return” ticket is only valid on the day of its purchase… grmbl. We have to wait almost ten minutes for the next train out, but the metro line to the airport is as fast as ever: We’re at the domestic terminal and through security before we even realize that we’re done.

    10:45 – At the airport, waiting for our flight to board. I walk around the airport, spot a post office and take the opportunity to mail two cards back to Canada. In the departure lounge for the Melbourne flight, I spot a familiar face: Toronto SF author and longtime-acquaintance Peter Watts, clearly heading to the same place as we are. We talk for a few moments, and then it’s time to board.

    11:40 – The flight is full. I was expecting something like that given that our 11:30 flight was canceled and presumably merged into the 12:00 one: This is one of Quantas’ milk runs, and at a duration of 1:05, it’s probably used as a commuter flight for a number of people. In any case, Karine and I share our row with a perfect stranger, who gets the window seat while I’m squeezed in the middle seat. Not that he gets much to see outside as we fly from overcast Sydney to rainy Melbourne. (It’s really cool to see contrails being formed meters behind the aileron, though) We’re served a warm pocket-sized calzone midway through the flight. I get to read a bit more of Follett’s _The Pillars of the Earth_ (which really gets better as it goes on) and more unusually get to try out my noise-canceling headphones (the results aren’t perfect in eliminating the rumble, but you only have to try removing them to realize the dramatic difference they make). I’m not cruel: I let Karine try them out for the last half of the trip. (We’ll probably end up sharing them during the flight back as well, depending on who wants to sleep.) She spots an ad for that exact headphone model in this month’s Quantas magazine.

    13:50 – It doesn’t take a long time to get out of Melbourne’s Airport and step into the kind of slightly-rainy cool (10c) day that dominates the local weather forecasts for the next week. The airport shuttle is well-indicated, and I make sure to check that our return tickets are good for three months. This boarding-an-airport-shutle-bus-while-it’s-raining experience is reminiscent of Auckland. We get to see a little bit of Melbourne on our way to downtown: some unusual public art and a skyline heavy on modern glass-covered high-rises.

    14:20 – There’s only one stop for our airport shuttle, and it’s at the Southern Cross train station bordering downtown. It’s not raining heavily as we walk down Spencer Street and then along the river boardwalk to our hotel. It’s pretty much where we expect it to be, which is good given how Karine just wants to rest for a while.

    14:45 – Our first few experiences with the hotel aren’t overwhelmingly positive. Traveloge hotels are a notch under the ones we’ve been staying at so far, and the difference shows as soon as we enter our room (which takes longer than you’d expect given how our first set of keycards doesn’t work): it looks like a minified version of our three hotel rooms so far, with single beds, rougher bathroom amenities and a visibly cheaper decor. Still, it will do for a few days (I’m paying 50-60% what the officially-sanctioned convention hotels are charging, and I don’t mind the extra walk) and even with this simpler set of amenities, we still have access to a kitchenette with fridge, microwave, sink and utensils. North American hotels should take note…

    15:15 – Readers of this travel log so far should realize by now that I get into a dangerous hyper-manic frenzy whenever there’s a new city just waiting to be discovered on foot, and so it is that I leave Karine behind to rest while I attack Melbourne’s downtown. My first stop is at the Gray Lines office to confirm our tour the next day: My reservation is confirmed, but Karine isn’t (due, I suspect, to a different tour). After that, I visit most of the core by zig-zagging though the main streets, from the pedestrian mall at Bourke Street to the more staid government offices north/west of the core. My big discovery is Wunderkammer, a small store specializing in “scientific oddities” such as brass-plated telescopes, stuffed animals and… mounted skeletons. So far, Melbourne feels much more accessible than Sydney: more Ottawa-sized than Toronto-sized. Fashion trends are the same as I’ve noticed in Australasia so far (themselves very similar to the ones I saw in Brighton/London earlier this year). The difference in architecture seems to be a higher proportion of older sandstone building with oft-daring design elements.

    16:30 – Worldcon doesn’t start until tomorrow, but there’s often a pre-registration desk set up at the convention hall or main hotel. In any case, it’s a good excuse to go and check the site of the convention. The Melbourne Exhibition Center is large and almost impossibly looong. (I’m reminded of Denver’s Colorado Convention Center, and not in a good way) Signs suggest that Worldcon/Aussiecon4 is at the far end of the Center, but that proves to be premature, as the only convention in the building (aside from, ironically, an “ebook information afternoon” held by HarperCollins) is a United Nation health conference big enough to warrant magnetometer security checks at its entrance. I try the upscale wooden-Asian-decor hotel next door, but there’s nothing there either. (Later, I discover that pre-registration is set up in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza across the river, the convention’s main hotel.)

    16:45 – My walk eventually takes me past the hotel, where there’s a gigantic Discount Factory Outlet mall. It’s a remarkable retail complex: At first glance, it’s nothing more than a few big box retailers squooshed together. Upon investigation, however, there’s an entire inner corridor, and then another second floor of smaller stores, and then an entire lower subterranean level dedicated to clothing stores. The crown jewel of the complex, as far as I’m concerned, is a large Borders bookstore. Still, traveling with only carry-on luggage does wonder in focusing the mind whenever shopping is concerned (they don’t even have the latest Egan book). My total spending for the day is already sky-high…

    17:30 – I’m starting to feel the cumulative effects of more than two hours of uninterrupted walking, but there’s one last thing to do before heading back to the hotel and that’s try to find a grocery store. There’s an IGA-Xpress next to the convention center (where I’m able to buy the next day’s breakfast), but otherwise I wander around our hotel’s neighborhood without success in trying to find a bigger grocery store. I keep seeing ads for new and existing apartments; where are those people going for their food? At some point, I even start looking at people with plastic grocery bags and try to guess where they came from (without success, as finding an Asian mini-grocery doesn’t count). It starts raining substantially while I get closer to the hotel, up to a point where I call it quits before being fully happy with my results.

    18:00 – Finally back to the hotel, I enter the room to find both Karine and my clothes gone. One explains the other: she’s off to do laundry for both of us. I also discover that she has found a grocery store of her own, and even bought a few of the same things I have. I settle down to write up the day’s events, taking the occasion to listen to my iPod using my new headphones. I know that this will read as if I’m desperately trying to justify my morning splurging, but it’s like hearing some of those songs for the first time. Karine comes back at 19:30 just as I’m finishing up the day’s log; due to cash-flow concerns, everything has been washed but not everything has been fully dried.

    19:30 – It’s not over yet. I still haven’t had dinner, and I’m still smarting from my failure to find a grocery store. A quick Google Maps trawl revealed a downtown Coles just on the other side of the river: could this be the answer? The walk allows me to take a few nighttime pictures of downtown Melbourne, and finally find the Coles right outside the pedestrian bridge closest to our hotel. I get a few more things, and stop at the neighboring Subway for my dinner sandwich. Missions: completed.

    20:30 – Last lap around the travel log, plus pictures downloaded, selected, uploaded and published.

    (This log is getting too large for a single page. Please read the rest of our adventures in Part 2.)

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *