Distance Travelled: 39,106km
Date: 23rd Jan – 5th Feb 2012
When I left off, I was down in Sydney- jobless, penniless and hungover. As it turned out, I would remain in that state for a few more weeks. Sydney is a great city to hang out in though. It seems to be a very divisive city, with many people hating it, but I wasn’t one of them.
With it’s many parks and beaches, Sydney is a very liveable city. The only beaches I really went to were those I mentioned last update; the long sandy Manly, with correspondingly long rolling breakers and the shorter bay of Bondi, with the strong rips and powerful waves. Manly is outstanding for body surfing, but although both looked great to surf, I didn’t get my hands on a board while I was out there.
Virtually all the beaches around Sydney are accessible by public transport, giving the mixed blessing of convenience and crowds. Manly is at the other end of a 45 minute ferry ride, which gives you great views of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, as well as the less famous but still pretty areas of the city and bay.
One of the nicer areas of the city is the Botanical Gardens, just next to the Opera House. This showcases lots of cool looking plants, most of which I had no idea what they were, and great views across the harbour to the Opera House, Harbour Bridge and the skyscrapers in the CBD. Particularly picturesque at sunset.
The botanical gardens are also home to hundreds of Flying Foxes- bats with a wingspan of a couple of feet which take to the skies at dusk. They are found all around Australia, and are always an impressive sight. In addition to the bats, the bird life of Australia is really cool. As well as the usual pests we have in cities back home like sparrows and pigeons, there are ibis, cockatoos, parakeets, and the colourful mynah birds.
These are all an improvement on what we usually find in cities, with the exception of cockatoos. They’re pretty, but make horrific screeching cries.
Don’t believe me? Press play.
The Australian Magpie on the other hand, has a beautiful warbling call. In one of the most famous lines of New Zealand poetry it is described as quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle. The full poem is here. It’s been bothering me for a while what the call reminds me of, and I think it’s a dinosaur call. As in, it was used as in a film/TV show as the call of some dinosaur. My attempts to find it online have failed, so have a listen and tell me if you can think what I mean. It’s going to bug me for weeks if I can’t place it.
I haven’t managed to spot the charismatic kookaburra yet, but I have heard its hauntingly human laughter, echoing through the forests near Ballarat.
While I was in Sydney, I mostly lived in hostels in the King’s Cross area. It’s funny how many parts of Sydney are named after parts of London – Paddington, Oxford Street, Hyde Park, Liverpool Street, to name but a fraction. Maybe we could reciprocate and christen somewhere in England the University of Wooloomaloo. King’s Cross lives up to it’s namesake by being the sleazy area of town, with strip clubs, kebab shops and bars. It also has lots of hostels, and some surprisingly up market bars and clubs.
I was lucky enough to be in Sydney while the Sydney Festival was going on. This is a three week arts festival spread across the city, with music, film and performing arts performances going on every day. Many are free, but I somehow managed to miss most of the things that looked good, mostly by a combination of spending my days at the beach, and my nights in King’s Cross.
I did however manage to get a ticket to go and see Joshua Redman and Brad Meldhau. This wasn’t a free event, but I justified it to myself because I had recently been given some money for Christmas (which I blew through in record time, largely thanks to justifications like this). Joshua Redman and Brad Meldhau are two of the best jazz virtuosos currently performing anywhere in the world, on saxophone and piano, respectively.
The evening was probably the best live jazz I’ve ever seen; playful, complex and subtle, electric and captivating. Joshua Redman kept switching between soprano and alto saxes, and they could both really make their instruments sing. I was disappointed when we only got a single encore.
Until recently (and by that I mean ten minutes ago when I googled it), I had no idea what Australia Day was supposed to celebrate or commemorate. All I could gather was it went something along the lines of ‘Australia is awesome, mate. Let’s all celebrate our country by getting drunk and watching fireworks!’. Sort of like an Antipodean Guy Fawkes’ Night, but without the historical significance, and celebrated by everyone, with an extra helping of patriotism.
What I found out is that Australia Day commemorates the landing of Captain Cook in 1788, and the claiming of the country as a British colony, wresting power from New Holland. It’s also an excuse to celebrate the country and, for some reason, riot. The latter is largely due to anti-colonial feelings, largely from the indigenous aborigines, and anti-anti-colonial feelings, largely from bogans. Alternative names for the day include Invasion Day and Survival Day.
Julia Gillard, the Australian prime minister had to evacuate from the hotel she was in at the time, as protesters surrounded and barricaded it. To be honest, I didn’t pay too much attention, but it was national news for weeks. Later it was revealed that a member of her staff had tipped off the protesters, and had to resign because of it. (Sidenote: why are these people always forced to resign rather than being fired? If I’d done something that put my boss in direct personal danger I would expect to be fired pretty swiftly.)
Fortunately, I didn’t see any of this at the time. I was up pretty late with a friend the night before, so I slept in for the morning, and then went out to the Australian Museum, because it was half price for the day. This museum is more or less the Australian equivalent of the Natural History Museum, but focussed on the peculiar history of their own continent. At this point I’ll mention that I forgot to take my camera out with me, so any photos I put up in this section will have been culled from the web. I did take a couple of photos on my phone, but they are terrible quality, and I have no idea how to get them on here.
In the museum, there were two particularly interesting areas, aside from the obligatory and always fascinating dinosaurs. These were the extinct marsupials and a section that I mentally categorised as ‘things that want to kill me’. In the former category were famous animals like the Tasmanian Tiger and others in the Thylacine family, as well as marsupial bears, lions, wolves, and the Giant Wombat – the huge two tonnne Diprotodont.
The marsupial lion (Thylacoleo carnifex) is especially cool. It was around the size of a large leopard, but much more squat. Pound for pound, it had the strongest bite of any mammal, living or dead, and had a retractable claw on its opposable thumbs.
There were also the fantastically named ‘Demon Duck of Doom’ and ‘Stirton’s Thunder Bird’. Those are their official names, not nicknames. The Demon Duck of Doom stood at 2.5m high and weighed in at 250kgs, while Stirton’s Thunder Bird was up to 3m, and a whopping 500kgs. Both were carnivorous, and blatant proof that birds were descended from dinosaurs.
The animals that want me dead were in a section called ‘Dangerous Australians’, and included 5-8m saltwater crocodiles, sharks, box jellyfish, funnel web spiders and black widows and 9 of the top 10 most venomous snakes in the world. Fortunately, I haven’t actually seen any of these animals, aside from a few funnel shaped webs, which I don’t think counts. The danger posed by these creatures is actually pretty low, especially with the excellent emergency services response in this country and the antivenins that have been developed. I was speaking to a local later on, who said that he was scared to go out to the wilderness in America. When challenged by his American friend, citing the dangerous things found out here, he replied “sure, we’ve got loads of venomous critters in Oz, but out here you’ve got bears, wolves and cougars. You can recover from a snake bite, but there’s not much a paramedic can do if a bear has taken your head off! I mean, if your legs are over here, and your arms are in a tree, you’re pretty screwed”. Still doesn’t really make me happy about the wildlife out here.
The other cool section of the Australian Museum was an exhibition of Aborigine art. This is almost exclusively drawn or painted from a birds-eye-view perspective and features bright colours and strong lines. I’m not sure about the aesthetics, but the aerial view is because of the orientation system used in many aboriginal languages. Instead of using words like ‘left’ and ‘right’, they use the points of the compass to orient themselves. This means that they will refer to something as being ‘south-west of that man’, ‘your northern hand’, or to watch out for ‘the snake to the east of your foot’. This means that everything gets internalised as points on a map, and people are more or less forced into thinking about things from an overhead perspective, which comes out in the art. It also means that aborigines are extraordinarily good at knowing where they are in relation to other things and therefore very rarely get lost – if they weren’t good at they literally couldn’t communicate. Even ‘hello’ translates to something like ‘which direction are you heading in?’.
Interestingly many Aborigine societies also think about time as travelling from east to west, as with the passage of the sun. When asked to order a series of photos into order of most to least recent, they lay them out going from east to west regardless of their orientation, so that they can end up running right to left, away from them or towards them, as opposed to the left to right orientation that virtually every westerner would do it. The way that language shapes the way we think is fascinating, and I could waffle on about it for pages and pages, but I think I’ll stop here as it’s getting ever more tangential. If you’re interested, ask in the comments or send me a message.
Anyway, getting back to Australia Day. I left the museum and wandered over towards the Rocks, one of the trendier parts of the city. On the way there, I passed along a couple of temporarily pedestrianised roads, flanked with hundreds of classic cars. They had all been restored and detailed beautifully, and were only slightly marred by a sudden shower of rain. No idea what they had to do with Australia Day – only a fraction were Australian made, but it was funny watching the owners trying to polish them up under a smattering of rain.
The Rocks is full of bars, bistros and picturesque alleys. Think Covent Garden crossed with Marlborough, and then stuck by the sea. It’s a great area, and all the more fun on Australia Day. The bars were overflowing, the street markets were selling delicious food and ice cream, and there was some great live music to see. One particularly good stage was right by the waters edge, and you could sit on a wooden jetty for a great view across the water to it. Great place to sit with a beer and soak up the sun. Just one beer though; they didn’t half jack up the prices.
After watching the music, and chatting to some locals (who didn’t know what Australia Day was commemorating either), we wandered over to Darling Harbour for the main event. This consisted of a parade of boats coming through, culminating in a trio of tall ships. For those that aren’t aware, that’s a class of ship, not merely mentioning their height – basically those old wooden or ironclad sailing ships like the Victory or Beagle. In the midst of this appeared to be a police chase, where a couple of bogans broke through into the middle in a small steel-hulled boat, chased by a helicopter and a couple of police boats. After an extended chase, the men were apprehended (one from the shore, one who was trying to swim for it), and driven off in cuffs. Sadly, I later learnt that it was staged.
And then, the Fireworks. Oh, the Fireworks. It does deserve the capital letter. Apparently I never get tired of seeing colourful explosions in the night sky. There is a rotating foot and monorail bridge that cuts across the harbour that had been kept open for the tall ships, but this was closed for the fireworks. I managed to get onto the newly opened section, and got a front row view. Here’s a video.
Gone on the rising tide, for to face Van Dieman’s Land
That about wrapped it up for Sydney. I had been searching all over for jobs, and still had enough money that I was avoiding the near ubiquitous sales positions. However, I was really struggling to find anything decent. At about this time Will, who had gone up to Brisbane, sent me a facebook message that said in effect: “Want to go to Tasmania next week? I’ve heard there are plenty of fruit-picking jobs going down there, and it’s said to be really beautiful”. I said “sure”, and stopped looking for jobs in Sydney.
Because I wasn’t looking, I didn’t really see any either, until the day that I walked down to get a bus to the airport. I must have passed a good dozen that I otherwise would have applied for.
But by that point it was to late, and I was on my way to Van Dieman’s Land (the old name for Tasmania, from when it was a prison colony). The mythos and aura clinging to the old name is fascinating. It conjures up images of a great unknown and deeply unsettling land. A true terra australis incognita. Two interesting entries into popular culture are the old Irish protest song/folk song, as performed below by U2 (one of their few genuinely good songs). This is about Irish resistance to English rule, and the fear and dislocation from home/family of those condemned to the dreaded Van Deiman’s Land.
The other is the truly unsettling film ‘Van Deiman’s Land’, an Australian film from 2009. It’s about desperation, fear, the limits of endurance, madness and cannibalism, and features some phenomenal cinematography of the wilderness of the island. It’s somewhat brutal, but a very good film.
Fortunately, my experience was nothing like either of those takes on the island.
I flew into Launceston, the second largest city in Tasmania. This epithet is pretty misleading though, as the second largest city in Tassie would only roughly be the 80th largest in England – roughly the size of Exeter, although it felt about the same size as Devizes.
It was a small, sleepy city, and after about 10pm, everyone went to sleep. The night life was atrocious, and even getting dinner on my first night there turned out to be a bit of a mission. It ended up being a takeaway pizza on an embankment overlooking a dark river. Fortunately the company made up for it.
As for jobs, Launceston turned out not to be the promised land we were hoping for. When Will arrived a couple of days later, we started searching in earnest, and harassing all of the employment agencies in the city. The main issues were that a) it’s a small city, so the only jobs going were fruit picking, b) it was the wrong time of year (by about 3 weeks), c) we needed a car to get to most places, and didn’t have the cash to buy one, and d) we are terrible at planning ahead and just turned up hoping to find something.
After a week we gave up. I went straight to Melbourne, while Will took a detour to Hobart and Mt. Field before joining me there. I would’ve liked to do the more ‘touristy’ things, and actually see some interesting parts of Tasmania while I was there, but sadly by this point bankruptcy was looming, and frugality was biting.
Cataract Gorge was the one really cool part of Launceston. A short walk from the centre of town is the entrance to a winding (and steep) walk that follows along the edge of a river. It’s a beautiful area, and halfway along the path the river widens into an artificial lake. There’s a swimming pool and a large grassy area flanking the lake. I didn’t try the pool, preferring to swim in the lake, and make the most of a rocky outcrop that forms a nice diving platform.
The wildlife of the area is fairly cool, with tons of skinks basking on the rocks, amazingly vibrant beetles crawling all over the paths and wallabys hopping through the undergrowth, occasionally appearing in grassy areas to graze.
I’ve just noticed that this post is over 3000 words long, so I’m going to cut my ramblings short here. Next update I’ll tell you about the jobs I’ve managed to get (it will involve a room full of creepy dolls, and eating Ben & Jerry’s). It’s prewritten, and will be automatically uploaded on Thursday. After that I’ll go back to writing about China. Promise.