22 August 2009

Coming to you live (well ALIVE, anyway!) from HIGH above Sydney!

Monday, 17 August 2009

Even though we were up pretty early, by the time we finished our crumpets with golden syrup, looked through our photos from the weekend, and booked our bridge climb, it was after 10:30 before we left the house.  Shelley, Keith, Rex, and I walked down the sidewalks of Kensington to catch the bus downtown – Keith was going to work, but Shelley, Rex, and I were bound for Sydney Tower and points beyond.  It was another heavenly day – not quite the 30 degrees C (about 86 for you in the States) that is was yesterday, but still very warm (especially for winter) and under a brilliant blue sky.  We appreciate the fact that our weather order got filled!

Once downtown, Keith headed for his office and we walked down the city streets to Sydney Tower and a 360 degree view of Sydney from 260 meters above sea level.  While Shelley is not a big fan of heights, she was being a most excellent host and was game for the view.  Besides, we had just come from the 70th floor of the Meriton Apartments, so she was getting pretty used to it.  We couldn't quite convince her to join us on the Bridge Climb, but she's trusting us to report back with the scare factor.  The ride up to the top of Sydney Tower was quick, but in really small lifts (that would be elevators – I'm trying to learn the language here, although I'm not doing so well on pronunciations and am failing miserably at spelling!) so I was glad it went to the top straightaway.

Although the apartment had prepared me for the breadth of the view, from even higher, and from all the way around, it was breath-taking!  I felt like I could see almost to America!  I went around pretty quickly, as Rex and Shelley took their time, with Shelley telling Rex what everything was and getting him oriented to where we were.  All of the sudden, two army looking helicopters flew to a building right below where we were standing!  I can't begin to tell you how strange it is to have something flying BELOW you when you are in a building, and how disconcerting it was to have something official-looking going on from that vantage point.  Our friend Kerrianne was texting us that she was right below us, and she reported that everyone on the ground went completely silent and that it was quite frightening for them.  The copters continued to buzz the city for the remainder of the morning – I never did hear what was going on, but I'm here to tell about it.  When we had seen all of the city a couple of times, we decided to walk over to the Botanic Gardens and have some lunch.

Back on the ground, we passed a giant chess board in a park, then strolled past lots of the places we'd just been looking at – the Cathedral of St. Mary's with its two new spires, some fancy fountains, lots of statues, the Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney Hospital (which used to be called Rum Hospital and has a statue of a drooling boar in front of it) – and soon we were in front of the glass pyramid conservatory at the Botanic Gardens.  The helicopters continued to fly over the city, very low, but everyone seemed accustomed to it now.  Still a little disturbing!

As we entered the Botanic Gardens, Shelley noticed a big lot of bats hanging from a dead tree and a live one next to it.  We were fascinated by the bats and were snapping photo after photo when one flew right over us.  Do you see a pattern here?  As we walked on, we saw that almost every tree was full of bats.  They were BIG, with brown furry heads and black rubbery wings.  When one would fly to a tree, it would grab the limb with its claws, then immediately flip upside down and hang there.  We later learned that there are currently about 6100 (!) bats inhabiting the Gardens now, and that there have been as many as 21,000 living there at once.  Who has the job of bat counter is beyond me!!!

The Gardens are well laid out and were full of people, even on a Monday afternoon.  This unseasonably warm weather had workers out in droves, just soaking up a little sunshine.  Speaking of sunshine – the Australian government is big on the dangers of sunlight and melanoma; therefore, many people wear hats (and we had on our sunscreen).  The schoolchildren are most affected by this – all schools, public and private, have their students wear uniforms, all of which come with hats.  The rule is "No hat, no play" – kids who forget their hats cannot go outside for recess or for outings.  Anyone listening, America?  The uniforms were so cute – we saw lots of groups out and it was so easy to see who went with whom - what a great idea!

Despite our fascination with the bats, our stomachs were growling and we were on a timetable, so we found a table outdoors at a café in the Gardens.  As usual, lunch was delicious!  I had an entrée of kangaroo tail consommé with a Jerusalem artichoke ravioli, followed by a skirt steak with salsa and chips; Rex had some kind of fish (clearly, meals are not as memorable to him as they are to me…) and a cos (I think that means romaine) salad with bacon and Parmesan, and Shelley had an entrée of grilled octopus and prawns.  It was really warm – I was in the sun while Shelley and Rex were mostly in the shade, and by the time we finished I felt like I was sunburned! 

With more to explore before Bridge Climb time, we sauntered off down the garden walkways.  We were a little worried about the Sacred Lily pond, since all but a few of the lilies appeared to be dead, but the ducks were having a grand time anyway.  We had good views of the Sydney Tower, the Harbour Bridge, and the Opera House as we walked right along the shoreline.  We passed a spot where Queen Elizabeth II first landed on Australian soil (we later saw a tree that she planted!), lots of people fishing in the harbour, the navy shipyards (huge cranes!) and then we stopped at Mrs. MacQuarie's chair for a photo op.  Mr. MacQuarie was governor of Australia back in the early 1800's, and the 'chair' is a stone ledge that looks out over the harbour.  We took the long way around to get back to the gardens, passing some colorful lorikeets and sulphur-crested cockatoos along the way.  We saw the pool named for Andrew "Boy" Charlton (famous Aussie Olympian from long ago) and the expensive condos where people like Russell Crowe live.  A glance at our watches (or phone, in my case) showed we'd better get a move on if we were to keep our 3:45 appointment for the twilight bridge climb!

No worries about any extra calories today – we walked briskly through the Gardens and up and down city streets as we wound our way through town to the Bridge Climb reception area on Cumberland Street.  On Shelley's recommendation, we had chosen to do the Discovery Bridge Climb, which allows you to climb up the lower arch of the bridge, coming out right in the middle of traffic lanes (but not actually where you'd get hit!) and continuing on up to the top.  This is a fairly new climb, as most climbers just climb up the main arch to the top.  A couple of differences – the Discovery Climb allows you to see many different perspectives of the bridge and the streets and waters below, and there are no ladders to climb – it was stairs all the way!  Some of the grates are open, which undoes some people, but is right up my alley!  The guides on the Discovery Climb give a lot more information about the architecture of the bridge, and doing the Climb at twilight with the promised of a colorful sunset was so exciting!

We arrived at reception only a few minutes late, so we were quickly processed (passed my breathalyzer, even after beer at lunch, thanks to our 'walk'!) and sent to the dressing rooms.  All climbers wear lovely gray jumpsuits so as not to distract motorists as they clamber around, and then we added our accessories – a figure-flattering belt, which held our sliders (the things that attach us to the bridge cables, but probably would not be much help if one were to tumble over, which you would have to work HARD to do), our radios (one-way, so we can hear our guide), and our fleece jackets (provided, thankfully).  One of the main stipulations of those climbing the bridge is that NOTHING can be taken up on the bridge (cameras, cell phones, etc.) and absolutely nothing LOOSE goes up there.  So we stopped at a station to put on sunscreen and pick up hankies that attached to our wrists, toboggans (I think they called them beanies) and ball caps that attached to our jumpsuits, lanyards for our sunnies (sunglasses) that attached to our jumpsuits, and headphones for our radios and headlamps, both of which were attached, too.  The headphones were ingenious – they conducted sound through our bones, so instead of going in our ears, they were on our temples, just in front of our ears.  Worked pretty well, thanks to the US Navy!  Along the way, we tested our sliders on a simulation cable and pretty soon (only about 50 minutes later) we were ready to climb.

We got so lucky – we had a fabulous guide named Sophie, who was a darling young nanotechnology student, and there were only six of us in the group – a man from Sydney, who was doing his fourth climb, a female colleague of his from St. Louis, and a couple with a long-distance commute – he's a physician in Tuscon and she's an actress in LA.  So off we went!  I don't have the words to tell you how incredibly fantastic this experience was!!!  Never scary for a second, and not even difficult, ever.  Most of the stairways were wide and had handrails on both sides, in addition to the slider cables, and the grades were only steep just at the top of the bridge.   There are a few places that we had to bend over (at least some of us did) and were a little close, and we had to go through a few security gates, and there were some spots with open grating (meaning we could see either land, water, or cars below us – if you looked, which of course, I did!) but it was MUCH easier and less frightening than many hikes I've been on!  And the payoff – WOW!!!  I've seen some terrific sunsets on my travels, but none from 135 meters above a harbour!  Our timing could not have been more perfect!  It was still light as we came up through the rush hour traffic (now that was really cool!) and the sun was coloring the sky as we proceeded up the arch and ended up on top of the bridge.  The flags were flapping so loudly and were straight out – it was SO WINDY!!! – that it was hard to hear up top.  Sophie took several photos of us (if they don't get you on the price of the climb, they'll make sure they get you on the price of the only photos you could have!) and some of the whole group at several different points along the way.

By the time we reached the apex of the bridge, it was not only windy, it was chilly!  So I pulled on my fleece and tried to stay upright against the wind.  Darkness was falling and the city lights were replacing the sunset at the show of the moment.  Truly, I can't stress enough – do not leave Sydney without doing this climb!!!  Remember, it's not the things in life that you DO that you regret the most, it's the ones you DON'T do!!  On our way back down, we had to take a little detour around a construction zone tarp that had gotten torn in the wind and was flapping wildly, so we got another lucky break.  We got to go through a pylon that most people don't get to see, so that was cool, and it got us out of the cold wind!  Maybe added a few steps, but it was neat to see the inner workings of the bridge, too.  Once back inside, we unstrapped our gear (they have this part down to a science) and changed back into our street clothes.  No amount of combing could make our hair behave, so off we went in search of dinner looking like we'd been standing in a wind tunnel.

Shelley and Keith had mentioned the Park Hyatt as a dinner possibility, and since it was at the base of the bridge, and since we knew we could get a taxi home from there, off we went.  Decidedly underdressed, we were nonetheless greeted warmly by the dining room host, who subtly (really, I'm being serious) directed us to the "Little Kitchen", where we partook of a very tasty meal.  I had a most delicious wild boar ragout (cooked for two days) with a homemade flat pasta that was called something like striatta, along with a rocket, pear, and parmesan salad.  Rex had a good-looking strip steak and a huge bowl of chips (fries, but I figure you know that!) and two teeny containers of 'tomahto', which are a weak facsimile of ketchup.  The Hyatt's chips are not fat fries like most places – these were way more like McDonald's fries.  Oh well.  We shared a dessert of a fudge brownie (try three!) and homemade vanilla gelato.  Oy.  Oh, and I had had a delightful Hepburn martini, made with Campari, pomegranate vodka, red grapefruit, and passionfruit.  YUM!  I think Rex had wine – regardless, the bottom line is that I was so exhausted and relaxed that I was sure I would fall asleep in the taxi and wake up in Canberra or someplace.

We found our way back to the Alexander's, even though again, the cabbie asked me how to get there…  Shelley and Keith had been to a marriage enrichment course at their church, and we got home before they did.  I know I was SOUND ASLEEP before ten PM, and you know that NEVER happens!  It had been the most marvelous day!

High on life,


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