Right, straight to the point today, as I want to cover at least another 10 days before leaving for Fiji:
Monday 12th March 2007
Another morning of internettery at the library, combined with strolling through the city (I manage to find different routes every time, which makes it more interesting). The weather was mostly overcast, with quite a cool breeze - a complete change from the heat of the day before.
In the afternoon I got the ferry to Paramatta, which is right at the end of the harbour (there is actually a concrete wall/weir-type thing at the end, separating the harbour from the Paramatta River). Nothing much to speak of in the town itself, but the ferry ride was nice. A couple of historical buildings are trumpeted in the literature, but in practice, as usual with "the new world", they didn't amount to much.
On the way back I went to have a look at the Olympic Stadium and surrounding complexes. Very interesting (and covering a huge area), but quite eerie without any people around. I was the only passenger on the bus between the ferry wharf and the Stadium, so I had a nice chat to the friendly driver. It was a little bit "say it again", but he more than made up in enthusiasm what he lacked in English pronunciation. The highlight of the buildings was probably the train station at the site. It reminded me of the Bilbao underground (one of the few Norman Foster designs I like), and was similarly simple, crisp and effective. No other people on the train mind. I wonder if they'll manage to make better use of the London Olympic facilities after the event?
Tuesday 13th March 2007
Last day in Sydney and the weather was cool and showery. I used the inclement weather as an excuse to get myself organised; updating my blog (the last proper one before yesterday!), e-mailing and researching the next leg of my trip.
The weather cleared up late in the afternoon, so I spent most of the evening sat on the roof of the hostel, chatting to my one remaining chum (Dutch Rob) and making the most of the splendid views and flying-fox-fly-by for one last time.
Wednesday 14th March 2007
Rob helped me carry my stuff to the station in the morning (another sad goodbye), from where I caught the train to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. The latter part of the two hour train ride (basically as soon as we cleared the suburbs) was really scenic, again revealing how spoilt Sydney is in terms of its location an immediate surroundings.
The first impressions of Katoomba were really good. The town is small and arty (without being too chic or pretentious), and the hostel was great. It is in a converted cabaret club and they have done a great job of retaining the art deco features whilst providing a clean and spacious hostel environment (I should write their marketing blurb!). And as with most of the hostels that manage to win me over, the free-food section was bounteous indeed!
Once I had dumped my stuff and had a bite to eat (I'm sure it involved some of the free food but I can't remember exactly what), I made my way down to Echo Point, which offers a great view over the Blue Mountains in general and the Three Sisters rock formation in particular. It really looked stunning in the late afternoon sunshine (it was back to warm and sunny after the anomaly of the day before) and I had a nice walk around the area before heading back for dinner.
The hostel was quite a contrast to the young and lively crowd in Sydney... perhaps a bit too far towards the mature end of the spectrum for my liking (i.e. really old!). I chatted to George, a retired policeman from Washington (the one near Newcastle, England, not Washington D.C.). He had left his wife at home (she didn't want to travel), and whilst he was nice enough company for an hour or so, I don't imagine we will be friends for life!
Thursday 15th March 2007
I ventured out on a mammoth walk in the morning, which involved a big climb down into the valley below Katoomba (the town basically sits on a plateau, from which a cliff plummets down on one side) and the obvious even bigger climb back up the cliff face further along (steps were provided, luckily - and so was a cable car for the heavy of leg and the heavy of wallet [i.e. Americans]). The forest was nice (interesting sounds - bird song, frogs and crickets), but it was the views from the cliff edge that made the walk truly spectacular. Once again the weather was awesome and the fading blues of the distant ranges a painterly delight.
After all that I needed a lie-down, so lounged in the garden of the hostel after a late lunch. I also managed to locate the local library and abuse its free internet for a while, which made me nearly has happy as finding a whole melon and two mangoes in the free food later that evening. I also had a wander around town, spotting various different parrots and noting the weird set-up of a cliff-top town on the edge of a vast area of wilderness (not something you find hidden down the lanes of Devon every day).
Friday 16th March 2007
I was felling pretty tired after my exploits of the day before (and the weather was a bit duff - cloudy and really windy), so decided against the full day walk I had originally planned. Instead I did a shorter loop in the morning, taking in Leura Falls and Gordon's Lookout, before coming back to the hostel for lunch and having an easy afternoon pottering around the hostel and town.
It was the first day of the Katoomba Folk Festival (mostly traditional folk, roots and blues, rather that the better contemporary stuff that I quite like) so the crusties had started arriving en masse. Not of patch on Sidmouth's throng of crusties, of course, but enough to make me glad to be leaving the following day. I also think I was probably coming down with a cold, which always tends to make me view things through anti-rose-coloured spectacles.
Still, I had a pleasant evening chatting to two Swedes who were staying in my dorm, which unfortunately was followed by the most awful night's sleep ever, as a result of the snorer from hell sleeping in the bunk beneath me and making the whole bed rattle with each eruption of noise (clearly my ear plugs offered no resistance at all to such violent tremors). The incipient cold virus probably didn't help much either.
Saturday 17th March 2007
I got the train back to Sydney in the morning, chatting to the same Swedish lads as the evening before. I then got the bus up the coast to Newcastle. It was a much more scenic drive than I imagined: lush, forested hills, broad estuaries and not too much in the way of development (once we got beyond Sydney's suburbs at least). It was sunny to begin with, but had clouded in by the time I reached Newcastle in the late afternoon. It was really humid... building up to thunderstorms later in the evening.
I was quite surprised to find myself in a 10-share dormitory upon arrival at the hostel - I had booked myself into a 4-share on the internet and paid accordingly. Luckily, when I mentioned it to the guy on reception he gave me back $10, which was more than the difference in room cost. Bonus.
I had a wander around the town (or city as it would be known over here) before it got dark. Despite the black clouds and threat of rain, it seemed a pleasant sort of place to spend a few days: lovely beaches, some nice colonial buildings and an attractive waterfront. I got back just before the rain started, and was greeted by Mica and Jade with a glass of wine (nice one). They are a couple of very friendly Australians (whose respective partners I would meet later, after they finished work - the two blokes are brothers), who are travelling down the coast from their home on the Sunshine Coast, north of Brisbane. They are verging on the hippy (no, make that "they are hippies"), but I can't fault their generosity or kindness. It is always nice to be in a dorm where your feel welcome, rather than being treated like an intruder. I also meet Emile (a Dutch guy) who will re-emerge later down the track...
Sunday 18th March 2007
Woke up feeling really grotty - the cold had arrived! I wonder if the wine the night before had anything to do with it. Hmmm... Still, I managed to drag myself to the Art Gallery, which for a provincial city was rather fine. There was an especially lovely work by an artist whose name I can't remember, which featured pieces of wood, shaped to look like trees, set in a background of cream plaster. I'm not selling this, am I? Well, it was stunning. It really drew me in from across the room and was mesmerising to look at. There was also a lot of good aboriginal art and a great exhibition on how the Australian landscape has influenced art (which would have been a good case study for Roberto's PhD), including an interesting film exploring those kinds of issues.
The area around the Art Gallery is nice... an attractive park in the centre, surrounded by civic buildings both old and new (mostly incongruous, but in a strangely pleasing way).
Having met the two lovely Irish girls (Elisha and Clare) from my dorm earlier in the day (they were out celebrating St. Patrick's Day the night before), we decided to go together to the final of the surfing competition which had been taking place for most of the week. It was a shame that my sore throat made it difficult to talk as they were really easy to talk to and we got on really well from the outset. They drove their car as the action was taking place a few miles down the coast at Merriweather Beach. It was a fun afternoon, but the surfing itself was a bit of an anti-climax, as after a week of perfect waves, the wind had changed direction and the waves were rather blown out. There was also a wine festival on, as part of the proceedings, but given my cold (and the fact that payment was required for tastings) we made do with the free aniseed jellybeans instead.
The hostel was laying on a free pub meal in the evening, so not being one to look a gift-horse in the mouth, I made my way down there with the four Aussies and Elisha and Clare (along with several other hostelees). The fish and chips were pretty rank (and talk about small portions - I had to make myself a sandwich upon return), but when it costs nowt it's hard to complain. I guess they make their money from the drinks they hope to see, but, given my cold, alcohol was the last thing on my mind, and water did nicely, thank you very much.
It was Mothering Sunday on this day, so a big "hip hip hooray" to all the mothers (and mothers-to-be - anyone?) that are reading this. Hip hip...
Monday 19th March 2007
I don't think I can realistically blame the fish and chips, but I had a terrible night: feverish, achey, throat that felt like I was swallowing razor blades. You know the drill... it was full blown man-flu (i.e. a light cold). As a result of this I took to my bed for most of the day, drank lots of tea and honey (often necking the latter straight from the squeezy bottle), and in the moments when I felt strong enough to roll dice I played Yahtzee with the two Irish girls. They both have great senses of humour, so we all enjoyed my predicament (I could hardly speak... and when I did manage to utter a word it was like my voice was breaking all over again*). So, despite being at death's door, it was quite a fun day.
I even managed to drag myself to the pub in the evening, where another free meal awaited my efforts. This time it was chicken and chips (with a side helping of fish and chips, as they had got the orders wrong and brought out too many plates - I was only too happy to oblige and help the waiters avoid getting a beating). Both together they just about added up to a full meal. I was still on the water, so saving money like Norway. There was a pool competition after dinner (a small and cosy affair just featuring people from the hostel and not costing a cent). I paired my coughing and spluttering ineptitude with that of Elisha and we made a great team - losing every game!
Typically the sun was back out with a vengeance during the day, but the last thing I fancied was more sweats after the bed-full of perspiration I had produced during the night. So it was quite nice to have a day just "pottering around the house" for a change.
*or for the first time, if, like me, you think that my voice has yet to resolve itself fully.
Tuesday 20th March 2007
Feeling quite a bit better today, but sounding like Barry White with a bag of gravel in his mouth (not pretty and certainly nothing like a walrus of love).
Went to the library in the morning for assorted internettery (you're meant to pay for e-mail, but I surreptitiously avoided it by typing in Word and only opening gmail for the briefest of moments) and walked back via the water front (and up the very phallic viewing tower, which offers great views over the whole town and river - I must still have been ill, as the climb [100 or so steps] nearly killed me).
After a leisurely lunch and a few games of Yahtzee (the Irish girls and I are becoming addicted... and I keep getting Yahtzees [i.e. all dice with the same value for those not familiar with this particular game of chance], which is quite exciting in my cold-ridden delirious state), I headed out along Nobby's Beach to Nobby's Point. It was quite hazy, but warm enough in the gentle breeze and the beach was lovely.
In the evening, it was our third free meal in a row. I went for vegetable stew and rice, but ended up with both that and sausage and chips, so once again got a full meal for the price of an empty plate. It was also the pub quiz that evening. It was a bit long-winded, but our perseverance as rewarded when we came second (to an even bigger group of nerds), and walked off with a $25 bar tab, which was nice of them as I had put precisely nothing into their coffers over the previous 3 days.
Well, I'm about to leave Newcastle for Port Macquarie in this virtual world and Brisbane for Fiji in the real world, so it seems an appropriate place to stop (that and the library is about to close). I might manage the odd little update as I cross the Pacific, but if not, you can expect the full saga upon my return.