New South Wales


In June 2012 I took my long suffering Corsa to Phoenix Vauhall’s garage on Purley Way for the annual financial crippling the motor industry calls a service and MOT.  The year before this had cost £1,200. This was due to some plastic sheeting having fallen off the back of a lorry on the motorway and welding it’s self onto various parts of the undercarriage of the car – damaging the oxygen sensor on the exhaust and other moving parts … so I was not looking forward to taking it in again the next year… 

To “cheer me up” the showroom was ablaze with mighty posters proclaiming “Win a Dream Holiday” but all I could see were potential bills.  It was a scam – and who wins these things anyway?  I didn’t even give it a second thought.

Four months later I received a letter from Vauxhall (the UK division of General Motors) that said something about a holiday.  Then I received another letter which I disposed of with a thick pile of the marketing nonsense that flows through the letterbox.  Then I received another letter and this time I took it a bit more seriously.  But still I had sort of forgotten about it in the rush to work, do gigs, drive to gigs, run errands and fill my life with endless activity that didn’t achieve much. 

Eventually a lady rang me at home (I never answer my home phone … it’s a monument to British Telecom covered in cobwebs by which only my mum and a technologically backward south London promoter contact me) …but I didn’t pick up.  When that failed they started to ring the office and said “Do you want this holiday or not, because if you don’t accept within 24 hours we will have to offer it to someone else?”.  And so I said “yes”.

Still I didn’t believe it and had to get out a telephone directory to check that the number they were calling from was genuine.  But it matched the head office number so … I started to believe.  The “voucher” was for £4000 and this is the story of how we spent it for anyone who doesn’t already find me too smug or my prose style sickeningly self indulgent.  Please note - there were no publicity strings attached to the voucher.  They didn't ask me to write this I just am.  They didn't even want a photograph of me.  Then again, who would?

Immediately I’d read the word voucher my heart sank again.  Maybe I’ve just had too many disappointments in life to trust anyone but I didn’t want to get exited and then find out I couldn’t go after all or there was some massive flaw  …but it seemed on interrogation that the only “catch” was  we had to go through a travel agent appointed by Vauxhall and spend it within a year … so … we did.  The Voucher was to be spent through TMG Leisure

I asked them what we could and couldn’t spend it on.  “Anything” they said.  This wasn’t quite true – we had to go through a “Luxury Operator” … I said “Which one?” …they said “Any of the Luxury Operators” …so I asked them to give me a list – because there’s nothing worse than turning up at a luxury operator’s office, asking in detail about a dream holiday and then being told to go away because you don’t have any money.  Eventually after reading some brochures and some painful correspondence with the agents agent I decided we should go to Australia.  On the basis it’s as far as you can go pretty much and I guessed the air fares would eat up some of the budget if nothing else.

There’s a lot of stress going on a holiday that you didn’t book yourself.  Going on a normal holiday involves trusting a whole plethora of middle men, agents, websites and other such nonsense.  Going on a holiday somebody else booked for you through someone else requires trusting all those people and a load of other people as well and at the back of your mind you still expect someone to present you with a bill. 

For example when I checked the bookings in advance I discovered that they didn’t exist.  Well, actually they did exist but they were in my girlfriend’s name as they’d put the rooms under the first person on the list’s name in the alphabetical order of how they appeared on the email from the agent of the agent.  So when they put them in the computer … computer said “No”.  But it meant yes.  Thus it was only a few days before we were actually going that we knew that they were actually expecting us.  Which isn’t stressful at all.  Not exactly a big deal but … a worry.

There are also a whole load of logistical problems of collecting everything you think you’re going to need for the whole trip which I’m not even going to start to go into in case this turns into … well, the trouble with most travel writing is it leaves you feeling uninvolved.  So pretty much by the end of this article you’ll probably feel as  bored as if you’ve been sitting through long and tortuous presentation of Mrs Warboys slides (which these days would be videos). 

I think we can leave out the tedious logistics of packing suitcases, buying sun tan lotion, forcing NHS Doctors to write three week prescriptions, and visits to two independent dentists ; one who thought I needed three fillings but didn’t have the time to do it and another who thought I didn’t need any fillings at all but had just been biting my gum a bit.  Most probably the second was right giving that I haven’t had any fillings and my teeth don’t hurt and it was all just a manifestation of stress but it’s good to know that the dental section of the NHS has been privatised because it was very boring back in the 1980s when dentists could both fit you in and had a consensus of opinion and if they didn’t no one knew about it.

This left lots of time to worry about air travel.  From falling out the sky to deep vein thrombosis.  If you were booking a holiday directly you’d probably think about stopping over somewhere or the detailed logistics and I sort of did …but unfortunately somehow I hadn’t quite figured out that the flight was 22 hours… (which is stupid really because as a physicist I should know it’s limited by the speed of sound).   I noticed that the night time sections weren’t quite as packed as the daytime sections … when I could figure out what day or night was … I think.  That said the interminability of the journey would not be so irritating without that special ingredient that really makes all air travel hell – other people.

We flew with Etihad via Abu Dhabi.  In order to make the United Arab Emirates seem more democratic and modern the world's third wealthiest monarch Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan issued a Royal decree in 2003 that there should be a state airline for the United Arab Emirates and almost as fast as you can say “a federation of absolute hereditary monarchies” there was one.  And it is very cheap to fly on as well as value for money.  So that’s how we went – in what is rather quaintly called Coral Economy.  Actually it’s okay… not that I will ever know what it’s like to have the money to travel any other way than economy.

The stopover in Abu Dhabi was less than an hour during which time we went to buy some duty free to drink when we got to Australia.  A swarm of customer assistants could not wait to help is spend our money with an enthusiasm and politeness that verged on the slightly scary.  Whether the relative economic weakness of the UAE’s South Asian neighbours has led to a situation that can be characterised as bonded labour of migrant workers, a form of slavery as defined under international law …or these people just genuinely enjoyed their jobs I could not say.  But we’ll give Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan the benefit of the doubt

And maybe there’s something to say for slavery anyway.  After all democracy’s gone downhill since we no longer have slaves to make sure it works properly.  Whatever the morality and politics of the UAE the bottles of alcohol were decanted into plastic containers to be handed to us in the departure lounge and a long time and many lost games of chess against a computerised Gary Kasparov later we were in Australia.

Photo by GFHund

Of course after landing there is the slight chore of customs and immigration.  In Australia, as viewers of “Nothing to Declare” will be aware this means “No Food”.  Or a big fine.  Since we hadn’t brought our tickets through an agent of an agent and there’s no physical manifestation of it I began to worry that our electronic visas would be found to be some kind of chimera or something.  Then there was the worry of disposing of any food in the bins provided and finding that we had forgotten some … we started to feel very worried again when a sniffer dog started to search Ava’s handbag …he had scented the remaining smell of a vegetable sandwich…. However, since we had no real food except the word’s largest supply of mints they let us through.  Whether mints are actually banned in Australia I never did find out… but if they’re not I’m a first class mint smuggler.

After the chore of the airport, we crawled into a taxi and were driven to the apartments… On being deposited by the Taxi driver on the pavement we then had to find the key.  The Ultimate Apartments were stringently explicit in their propaganda that they were “Not a Hotel – There is no 24 hour service” (I dont like staying in hotels and requested they find us somewhere we could do our own cooking for most of the stay) and provided me instead with a comprehensive and complicated method of locating the key from a place I suppose I should keep secret for security reasons.  Suffice to say that having travelled 10553 miles the last thing I wanted to be doing at this point was either filling dead letterboxes, searching for door numbers or playing hunt the key.  Never-the-less we did find the key without too much in the way of panic and eventually made it to bed to fall asleep.

For the first two days pretty much all we did was sleep.  The place was nice in a functional way with a small pool in the middle of the car park and an area upstairs with a small pagoda where washing could be hung out.  It looked as though this area had once been a general use balcony and then some horrific social catastrophe had happened that had made this plan impossible.  I suppose you could sit by the pool if you wanted to but the instructions not to consume any food or drink there were quite explicit.  Not that being able to go swimming everyday isn't a huge luxuryin its self. 

I have to say of the Australian hotel and catering industry as a whole that there did seem to be a lot of printed and other instructions here and in many of the places we visited that seemed quite stern, draconian and/or threatening.  As time went on however, we began to realise that the reason for this was that some of the people who stay in such places seem to treat them and the people who work there with quite a high level of disrespect.  Resulting in a sort of ongoing cold war where more and more unenforced regulations were machinated for morons which they observed less and less – creating more and more regulation that was not enforced.  For example the apartments were no smoking but there was a smoking area consisting of a plastic chair near the driveway with a bin for cigarette buts.  How hard is it if you’re sitting in the chair to put the buts in the bin provided?  This seemed to be beyond many who would strew them about the chair …perhaps in sloth or even perhaps vanity.  Lots of people are scum.  It was a nice place.  Seriously there's nothing wrong with the Ultimate Apartments ... but I thought it would be fun as we go along to pay at hotel inspector...

For the first few days we simply slept.  Getting up only to walk down the road to get grocery supplies, go for a swim in the pool or drink whisky and go back to bed again. 

I read some of the papers.  The Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard was it seemed staying in some kind of downmarket hotel – where everything’s Premier but the price? – in an attempt at solidarity with the ordinary Australian  …I didn’t quite understand why.  What I did understand what that there was quite a lot of hatred of her – particularly for her knifing of her predecessor Kevin Rudd.  Unlike in the UK no stalking horse is required to spark a leadership election – you can be Brutus and then Cesar.  However, taking John Major’s quote about “living in sin with the electorate” a little too literally Ms Gillard had decided not to move into “the Lodge” (their number 10) until after she had won the upcoming election – something nobody who wrote for the papers I was reading expected her to do and indeed she did not...

...but it was good to read about something other than Leveson and press reform in the papers.  It seems too that bikers are slightly more than fat middle aged men who like to dress in leather in Australia too.  When we'd finished drinking the duty free I discovered that...

One big problem which I didn’t expect given the Australian stereotypes sold to us by XXXX adverts was buying beer.  Buying beer isn’t easy in Australia.  Small shops are not allowed to sell it and neither are many supermarkets.  You have to go to an off licence.  Having found an off licence and the opening times of it I walked in enthusiastically to ask what beer they had.  A young man surrounded by every bottle of wine in Bondi replied slightly curtly “Sorry, we don’t have any”.  So for several days I had to survive on spirits alone till we found an off licence that did sell beer...  To be fair when we did find off licences they had quite a wide selection … on the whole.  But where’s the logic in allowing corner shops the right to sell cigarettes and not alcohol?  Weird.

As we were going to be going up the coast we needed a car, so via the travel agent to the travel agents I had arranged to hire one.  So after a few days I set off from Bondi (for we were there) into central Sydney in search of it.  The taxi dropped me at the nearest number to the address he could find.  Unfortunately due to the complexity of the junction it then took me 30 minutes to figure out where the offices of Eurocar were.  They were in the corner of the lobby of a concrete looking hotel.  A thin man with a functional voice asked me for my credit card.  Why? I said.  And he proceeded to explain to me that Australia has a toll charge system on a lot of roads – similar to the Congestion Charge except you don’t have to ring up every single time you want to drive into the centre of risk a fine. 

Which sort of shows you how useless Boris is – but then I guess the Zone wouldn’t make as much money if no one forgot to pay in advance.  I also had to pay local insurance which I wasn’t quite expecting because I hadn’t read the small print …but I felt I got my money’s worth later when I dented the car.  Also I realised when I got behind the wheel that the car was an automatic not a manual – despite the fact I’d told the agent of the agents that I required an automatic … so I had to get him to explain to me how the gears worked… Following this was the drama of the sat nav.  I had programmed my satnav with a man of Australia but having come half way around the word I wasn’t entirely use it would work.  If it didn’t work I had absolutely no chance of getting back to the apartments – and I couldn’t tell if it would work or not before I drove off because the concrete foyer of the hotel shielded the sat nav from satellite detection.  But eventually I managed to actually pull away and the satnav managed to actually find the satellites.  A more annoying problem was that I was not used to power assisted breaking.  So for the first half a week or so the car underwent some very sudden stops indeed – sometimes on motorways … which were quite scarey and a little annoying.

After I got the car back to the flat (amazingly in one piece) Ava and I went for a drive around Bondi… going vaguely North, then East, then South then West back home …with no particular plan just following the satnav.  We stopped and looked down on the town from the hills and we visited a service station … at several points we made very jerky sudden stops due to my not having quite grasped yet how the brakes worked.  After a while we went round the same circuit again – this time with slightly less sudden stops.

I had been in two minds about doing any gigs in Australia.  After all one feels one should just to see what it is like but at the same time it’s supposed to be a holiday and while three weeks sounds a lot it was limited time.  But I managed to get myself a gig at the Laugh Garage.  I think it was on the Tuesday.  As is often the case the journey to the gig was more stressful than the gig its self.  I thought I would try and park in town.  Difficult.  And expensive.  I didn’t get to the car park I intended to.  I think the buildings shield the Satnav from the satellites in the centre of Sydney as I repeatedly had this problem.  But I eventually found somewhere...

Australian car parks are a form of mental torture.  Firstly, if you visit a British car park it will usually be of some reasonable size.  In the centre of Sydney any tiny underground space is transmogrified into an underground car park even if, and particularly if, they are ill suited to this function.  To add to the mental torture of steep ramps, poor lighting, confusing layouts and fees so punitive that in some cases it would be cheaper to rent a hotel room than park the car … spaces are sold that are in many cases actually impossible to park in.  Signs such as “small car only” attempt to excuse away the fact that all the actual usable places have been sold and not even a child’s pedal car could get in them.  Yet, the markings on the floor insist that there is a space there so foolishly one attempts to park in them despite the fact that even a “smart car” would struggle to negotiate the impossible turning circle.  Cars are stuffed in every single conceivable space and angle and indeed in some car parks cars are double parked two deep and you have to give your keys to a dodgy looking man who says he will “park it for you” and then plays complicated logistical games of chess with other people’s motors …but without being insured to drive them.  It’s as though Rod King’s 20 is Plenty movement had invented a special purgatory just to punish me personally. 
And whereas in the UK most car parks give you some sort of clue as to where the edges of ramps are by painting them a different colour …many Australian car parks seem to regard markings and indeed lights as an optional extra.

Actually this time it wasn’t so bad and later I discovered that you can cut the punitive parking charges a bit by taking advantage of the various “early bird before 9:30” offers.  Also “the Domain” car park was cheaper than the others being state funded or something …it turned out.  But anyway I got to the gig.  Unfortunately there was no one there.  Sorry to destroy the glamour of showbiz for you gentle reader but this happens… There were three acts each leafing through copious notes, there was a promoter …sweaty, uncomfortable and thinking about the money he was going to be losing and there was a woman behind the bar on which was perched a rather nice wooden statue of Oliver Hardy.   The rest of the cavernous room however, although set out for comedy, was empty of punters.  The promoter (Mr Darren Sanders) paced up and down, bantered with the acts and enquired of the bar lady if anything else was on.  She said there might be some football on.  To relieve the tension I decided to go to the toilet and the bar lady pointed me in the direction of a doorway to a stairwell to another door beyond which was a room in which I could urinate.  It was locked.  Obviously no one else needed to go.  And if they did they were not there.  No one was there.  Except the acts, me, the bar lady and the promoter.  I went back to the bar and the bar lady left it unattended in order to walk to the toilets with me and open the door.  I went in.  And I went.  I did need to go but I didn’t desperately need to go.  It was something to do.  When I came out again a couple of people had wondered in so I started to go through my notes again.  However, there were not enough to do the gig.  Not in a room that size. 

Mr Sanders gave a big sigh and I watched as sheepishly he dug in his wallet to pay the acts for not going on.  They took the money in an equally depressed yet grateful manner and the gig was officially pulled.  At this point I felt a perverse and selfish satisfaction that at least it wasn’t my money and then I felt guilty for enjoying someone else’s suffering – which I wasn’t really.  I was just glad it wasn’t me.  Mr Sanders was very charming about it and offered me a different date within my timeframe but I was already feeling as though coming to Australia to sit in a different underground bar to the one I usually sit in only up the other way was not really what I’d come half way round the world for.  So I politely declined, the acts and I politely commiserated with each other and I went up the stairs and out into the night.  I later learned that since these events the promoter has moved to another venue and considerably changed his business plans.  To be honest I only got the gig because Brian used to run a Sydney branch of Pear Shaped so who am I to moan.  It was still very good of them to put me on ...or try to ...and it was very nice of him to ask me back so quickly on not having seen me.  I am reliably informed that much genuine amusement takes place at Mr Sanders comedy venues when I'm not on the bill.

Outside a poster boasted that there would be a “Special Car Clearaway Event 9am-2pm 17th of March 2013”  So that was where all the punters had gone.  I cant expect to compete with a draw like that.

On the way back to the car park I passed one of Sydney’s monorail stations.  The Monorail runs 10ft up on girders or it did until it closed on the 30th of June 2013.  For although it looked suitably futuristic it seems it was such a fantastic white elephant that the government had nationalised it merely to remove it as part of a plan to redevelop the Darling Harbour Convention Centre and precinct.  Although aesthetically pleasing the uniquely strange nature of the monorail had made it very difficult to extend the circuit beyond a short 15 minute circular route.  One of the early disadvantages to early monorail systems is the difficulty of creating inexpensive points for track changes.  This means that most monorail systems like the Sydney one run in an uninterrupted circular route and difficult to expand.  As a result they are a technology that has never really taken off except in situations where sudden changes in direction or route are not an issue – for example if you are Ernst Stavro Blofeld trying to outrun Sean Connery’s James Bond.  It also couldn’t be integrated easily with the rail system or the light rail system so after 30 years no one could find any more spare parts …

The next day we went to Taronga Zoo.  The zoo is towards the north of Sydney and the area of the Sydney is in a sort of cluster of small islands-that-are-connected-to-the-mainland-by-bridges-and-tunnels.  Funny I wouldn’t really think of going to a zoo in the UK.  I went to Chessington when I was a child and saw some rather angry looking apes jumping up and down and banging on a piece of reinforced glass that looked as though it was going to smash and it almost put me off the places for life.  But Australia does have its own unique range of animals – the marsupials – so it seemed compulsory to try and see some of them … if not in the wild then … in the confines of a zoo… Marsupials reached Australia via Antarctica about 50 mya, shortly after Australia had split off.  With the result they went down a slightly different genetic pathway.  Pregnancies are significantly shorter as mothers do not have a complex placenta to protect the embryo from its mother's immune system.  The young are born in an almost fetal state.  Usually the blind, furless, miniature newborn “joey” then crawls across its mother's fur to make its way into a pouch, where it latches onto a teat for food. It will not re-emerge for several months, during which time it develops fully. After this period, the joey begins to spend increasing lengths of time out of the pouch, feeding and learning survival skills. However, it returns to the pouch to sleep, and if danger threatens, it will seek refuge in its mother's pouch for safety. I have to admit that while I knew this was true of Kangaroos …I didn’t realise it was also true of most marsupials generally.  Like Koalas.  Neither did I realise, though I knew that male Koalas had forked penises and forked shape vaginal entries that the female marsupials have two uteruses or is it uteri?  Three if you count the hole the young come out of.  How ignorant was I?

The zoo it’s self is highly commercialised with a huge gift shop that sells every conceivable piece of marsupial related merchandise… and is laid out in a series of windy paths that all seem to lead downhill.  Meaning that what starts as leisurely stroll seems like quite a hard long uphill walk when you want to walk uphill.  The upside of this is that there are some nice views over Sydney harbour. 

They supply you with a map in order to be able to navigate the maze of winding paths between attractions.  We started off wandering through a very modern looking aviary before moving off to see the Koalas and Kangaroos. 

The Koalas seemed to be stuck up a tree and gave us a curious looks (I believe you can get closer to them but I like my wild animals at arm’s length – even the cuddly looking ones) … while the Kangaroos moved in a strange and alien way and gave us hard menacing stares of the kind that horses do before they kick you. 

Fortunately they were on the whole a safe distance away – or behind railings.  There was an odd lizard type thing. 

And there was a darkened corridor in an underground cave where nocturnal and rodent marsupials could be observed scurrying about behind glass.  There was the normal range of animals you might expect in London Zoo too (not that I’ve ever been there but I’ve seen it on Dear John and Poirot) including large elephants and some grumpy looking apes.  Although they didn’t look as miserable as the caged ones I remember seeing back in the 70s.  There was a nice café too.  Well, the chips were nice.  The tables were a bit sticky.  And the man serving attempted to charge me extra for tomato ketchup.  50 cents or something.  I then couldn’t find the change and kept dropping it on the floor and mixing it up with UK currency.  So he said “don’t worry”.  Which made me feel even more guilty so I found him his change in the end.  But really, why?  What kind of man deceptive price structure is that …and what for …peanuts extra?  It was like something someone on the Apprentice would’ve thought up.  “We’ll sell them the chips cheap but then charge them extra for the ketchup” except that it wasn’t actually enough extra to be worth collecting and then he gave in.  Near us a father who’s day it was to have custody was letting his child touch the sticky table then put his fingers in his mouth.  And then I thought of Dear John and how while a lot of people seemed to be enjoying the zoo there was a minority of completely miserable people there too who went about as though the whole thing was some awful torture.  Ridiculous … it was an almost magical place.  And the chips were nice.  Weary we climbed the hill back to the hire car and drove back to the apartment through the intimidating multi-lane Sydney road network.  I, or the power braking system I hadn’t quite mastered did a couple of emergency stops along the way.  When we got home I found I’d picked up a leaflet for the zoo’s wildlife hospital advising what to do if we hit a Kangaroo or something.

The following day we braved the car parks of Sydney again to visit the largest of Sydney’s local tourist icons – the Sydney Tower.  Sydney Tower is Sydney's tallest free-standing structure, and the second tallest in Australia. The tower's overall height to 309 m (1,014 ft) and it was built as the centrepiece of an AMP (later Westfield) shopping centre.  Perhaps that’s what they plan to do with the Whitgift Centre?  The Tower is built on a suspension principle with a large water tank acting as a stabiliser.  In order to enter the tower one must watch what proudly announces its self to be a 4D viewing experience of some kind.  A short 3D film shows aerial views of Sydney harbour on which has been super-imposed a rather annoying and unconvincing 3D parrot.  This exhibit was opened in 2011 but was already dated by that time as following Avatar every cinema and their dog now has a 3D screen – sadly 3D isn’t special or magical anymore.  Okay, it still is but it isn’t special, magical rare… and I did feel the projection its self looked a bit washed out.  To add the “4th dimension” machines had been installed which wobbled the ground very slightly and appeared to blow some bubbles.   In short it was all a bit pathetic – but maybe this was because they had hard sold it.  Also the digital parrot needs to be a digital ex-parrot.

On the plus side the view from the observation tower is worth every penny.  After ascending in triangular shaped lifts inside which a small television screen shows you what is happening in the next lift… a joke that was probably much funnier in 1981 before everywhere was a screen … the visitor gets to wander a circular gallery.  There is not time limit either so we sat up there for a very long time drinking crushed ice Fanta which also transported me back to the 1980s and Slush Puppies.  Everything about the Tower is slightly 1980s … just as everything about the Post Office tower is slightly 1960s.  And everything about the Monument is slightly 1660s.  For an extra fee you can engage in something called a “skywalk” which involves putting on a boilersuit and a hard hat and standing on a glass platform on the exterior of the building through which you can see directly down … I decided not to do this on the basis that I wasn’t insured for such things.  Although if one actually fell off I imagine insurance would be something of a formality as statistically very few people survive hitting the pavement at 162 miles per hour.  I’m not sure exactly how a blue boiler suit is supposed to prevent this from happening but fortunately no one’s fallen off so far.  Maybe they should issue them to diners at Coq d'Argent.

With the ticket to the tower we also bought at reduced price in some kind of two-in-one deal tickets for the Sea Life aquarium.  Mainly because Ava said she’d never been to an aquarium.  I’ve been to a few over the years.  I remember being taken to one in Brittany when I was a child.  The tanks seemed to hold various fish and crabs and other sorts of sea life that you would expect in such a place and I was wandering about uneventfully till I happened upon a large glass window beyond which was a sort of muddly green liquid in who’s opacity I could apparently see nothing.  As I pushed my face to the glass another face suddenly sped towards me out of the gloom.  You’d expect it to drift off to one side but it didn’t – it headed straight towards me faster than I could react.  It was an eel.  It smashed its face and then it’s whole body on the glass with an unpleasant, hard and scarey thud … then slithered away.  I have to say that experience kind of put me off aquariums … but luckily … when we finally got there after walking through the heat of midday Sydney …it wasn’t like that.

The trouble with describing fish is that one tends to not know what they are.  Fish are fish.  Although there were many shapes.  There was also a platypus though we only saw it fleetingly.  There were corals and crabs of all sizes too.  Fortunately the staff were actually quite helpful and, indeed, seemed to like being helpful …and volunteering information but not in a hectoring way.  This was quite refreshing when compared to some places we’d visited of varying descriptions over the years in the UK where you feel it’s all the staff can do to not assassinate you. 

Towards the end of the museum which is laid out along a long twisting pathway like the inside of IKEA were the larger specimens.  Including a rather impressive sea cow.  And some obligatory sharks.  You could also see these pools from above.  And there was a sort of comedy “snack bar” that only seemed to serve lettuce for the sea cow.  Or something. 

Somewhere there way a big crab.

By this point we were both getting very tired and dehydrated.  The biggest problem of being a tourist was exhaustion in the heat.  The walk back to the car was particularly unpleasant.  The next day we were very tired.

I think it was the day after that that we first went to the Blue Mountains (now on fire).  Various coach excursions were offered to the main tourist location (Katoomba Scenic World) but since we had the car we got up early and drove.  It was nice to get out of Sydney.  The motorways seemed very wide and clean and driving on them was quite pleasant despite views being blocked off – presumably to stop drivers getting distracted by scenery.   We got there very early - the hoards of coach visitors had not arrived yet – and waited for the place to open.  A rather ugly sculpture depicting Three Sisters (more about later) sits outside the main entrance.   We sat in the sun waiting until the doors opened when we were first in (almost) and qualified for an “early bird” discount rate of some kind.  They’re very keen on getting up early in Australia.

The Katoomba Scenic World offers offers 4 attractions the purpose of which are to allow vistors the best views of the valley – these include the Skyway (a horizontal cable car - see above), the Cableway (a cable car that descends from the summit into the valley), a scenic railway that also descends into the valley (and claims to be the steepest railway in the world) and a raised wooden walkway around the valley floor with some exhibits and things.  Unfortunately on our visit the railway was not working as it was being repaired (more of that later).

We went on the first Skyway journey of the day … It travels across the gorge above the Katoomba Falls, 200 metres above the valley floor. As with the view from Sydney Tower it's not really possible to give a true repesentation of the scale of the panoramas except by stitching photographs together... The Skyway cabin’s walls are sections of liquid crystal glass and there is a raised transparent section of the floor through which you can look vertically down – although this had seen better days and less feet. We disembarked on the opposite cliff-face and walked to the lookout post …

...from where you can walk round the cliff towards “Echo Point” from where the “Three Sisters” rocks are visible – they’re also visible from the Skyway.  The operator of the Skyway appeared to be some young student type who was refreshingly enthusiastic about his job and offered to show the children how to press the buttons on the return journey. 

After a stop for a drink we embarked on the Cableway down to the valley floor and the walkway… by this time it was getting hot and the carriage was very full. 

On the way down the guide/operator (another student type) enthusiastically told us about the bits of the nearby sandstone cliff that had recently fallen off.  It seems the regular landslides were the reason the cliff railway was shut.  Good enough for me – I’ve been on the Lynton to Lynmouth Cliff railway I don’t feel I need to compete with myself for ever greater experiences with ever more dangerous cliff railways.

As we queued to go back up a lot of people pushed past us but they seemed to not have noticed that the carriage has two sets of doors.  One at the top and one at the bottom.  We were stood near the one near the bottom – which, of course, going up has the best view… but instinctively the pushy had pushed ahead up the steps to the back door and this greatly amused me.  I have over the years developed my avoiding herding types skills to great advantage … I flatter myself … and can often manipulate such situations by appearing to be sheepish when what I’m actually doing is a form of misdirection.  At least that’s what I tell myself when people walk all over me.  For example I’m always last to get on a plane … why does anyone rush to take their seat?  Instinct over common sense.  You’re going to be stuck in it for 7 hours – if you rush to get stuck in it you’ll only be there for longer.  Too stupid.

On the way back up the guide/operator told us that Scenic World had also tried to build a rollercoaster but the government wouldn’t let them open it or something as it was too dangerous.  I’m glad he hadn’t told us that on the way down.  As we left through the gift shop it was getting very busy and loads of Japanese children pushed past us all the time with much rude aggression.  In this article a man called John attempts to explain the Japanese Mask fetish.  And now you know pretty much all the reasons why you might see someone in Japan wearing a surgical mask. It’s not a weird or strange thing to do and most often they’re just looking out for the well being of others or trying to protect themselves from a seasonal illness or pollen invasion.  They’re not just pushy and rude – that’s just the ones that bumped into me.
In March 2011, News Post Seven surveyed 100 people wearing surgical masks in Shibuya, Tokyo’s most popular fashion district, and found that roughly 30% of them were wearing them for reasons unrelated to sickness or allergies.  ZIP! also surveyed the reasons why people who aren’t sick or have allergies wear masks. The results, beginning with the most popular answer, are as follows:
  1. They’re not wearing any makeup and want to hide their face
  2. To keep their face warm
  3. To make their face look small
  4. It comforts them
  5. To keep their throat from drying while sleeping
“I don’t want to show others my true self,” “Since my face is covered, people don’t know how I’m really feeling. It’s comforting,” and “I don’t like having to create facial expressions for people” are some of the reasons given by Japanese high school students who mask up regardless of the season.However, I’d better stop there before I go all Jack Straw and start an illegal war.  Still it’s better to jaw jaw than Jack Straw.  And maybe first capital connect could benefit from some…  If people want to conceal their identity in public why cant they just buy a snorkel parka and be normal?  No wonder that according to the local Croydon source of information that is Chris Wilcox there's a lack of young people having sex in Japan.  Anyway apart from the pushy Japanese (I’m sure there are non-pushy Japanese) it was a nice day.  If anyone thinks this section is racist I'm playing my BME-girlfriend card.  Allow it.

Of course, as Alexei Sayle would say, a holiday isn’t a holiday without a bus journey.  So the next day we went on a great bus journey… The Sydney Hop-on Hop-off Tour.  There’s one round Bondi as well but as we were staying in Bondi doing a bus tour round it as well would have felt a bit overkill.  The bus tour was reasonably priced and runs all the time so you can hop on and off if you want... We parked the car in the Domain car park which seemed to be one of the cheapest.  The Domain is a sort of park area and the car park is underneath and run by the government.  I think this was a Sunday so the car park was very cheap indeed.  Which was a new and exiting experience in its self.

The bus tour commentary was recorded in many languages but seemed to be peppered with the odd joke or attempts at jokes that were not too risqué.  For example while passing through the red light district I clocked some kind of comment about the interesting and lively nightlife.  There were various stories about where people had been killed and various political scandals but I have unfortunately forgotten most of them now.  There was something about a piece of art. 

And the usual stuff about how long the Sydney Harbour bridge was and how long it took to construct and how the Sydney Opera House was constructed.  But most of the time we just spent just looking at the town that wasn’t Croydon and marvelling that it wasn’t Croydon and wasn’t made entirely of concrete and wasn’t terminally being rained on.  We saw parts of the harbour, we saw bits of the monorail, we saw the Natural History Museum, we say the Olympic Swimming Pool … and then we got off the bus.

Near where we got off the bus as we sat down on a bench to have a drink of water in the shade we found a monument to the Irish Famine

The monument was inspired by the arrival in Australia of over 4,000 single young women, most of whom were teenaged orphans. They arrived under a special emigration scheme designed to resettle destitute girls from the workhouses of Ireland during the Great Famine.  As a matter of complete disinterest one of my ancesters Elizabeth Studham was once sent to the colonies for burning down a workhouse.  Next to a long list of names on the wall an inscription reads "Hyde Park Barracks, built in 1817-189 to house male convicts, was adapted in 1848 as an Immigration Depot for unaccompanied female miagrants.  Many of these women and girls were refugees from the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1848.  This monument is a memorial to the Famine and a celebration of the Irish Contribution to Australia".

After our trip on the bus we visited the Art Gallery of New South Wales.  This contained art.  Some old and some modern.  There were some Chinese students playing a grand piano in one of the galleries …presumably part of some recital or competition.  Unfortunately they were …erm … out of tune …or at least playing all the right notes but with the precision and timing of Eric Morecambe.   Ava said that she did not like one of the pictures.   It was of some greek looking women.  She asked me if I knew why.  I thought she was going to say something about how the women were portrayed but it was actually that they had a black servant who was subserviently waiting on them – so much so that I had not even noticed her in the frame.  There were some nice abstracts and some exhibits that were so boring we got told off for mistaking them as benches.  I read later that a large number of pieces of Erotic Art were donated to the gallery in 2003 by Lord McAlpine of Twitter fame.

By this point we were too tired to concentrate on much more.  We had a drink in the café on the terrace …which would have been nicer if the pigeons had not decided to use the place to do a lot of poo.  Eventually we made our way back to the Domain...

, to the car and home.  After some minor detours due to the sat nav finding it difficult to navigate in Sydney …I think it’s something to do with the tall buildings or something.

The next day we ventured out into the Blue Mountains again to the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, Mount Tomah.  When we arrived early in the morning we were surprised that pretty much we were the only people there.  Okay it was early and a weekday but still… there was a spectacular view over Wollemi and Yengo National Parks and a panoramic sign explaining that that’s what we were looking at. 

"Please don’t feed the birds – they bite"! Said a sign.  So we didn’t.  Mind you we didn’t need to be told but I’m sure some idiots do. 

There were twisted vines of some kind around the veranda of the visitor centre and some nice benches.  The gardens were well laid out and extended down the hill.  There was lichen on the stones and some of the benches. 

And there were lots of little lizards. 

Someone had forgotten to take a single Christmas tree borble off one of the trees. 

There were ponds with lots of fish in and a metallic book about sphagnum moss.  One sign told us about water plants.  Another read “The Japanese Koi Carp in these ponds were donated to the Mount Tomah Garden by the Australian Koi Association 28th February 1988”. 

We sat on a bench and stared down the hill.  Somewhere there was a model of a prehistoric Australian equivalent of the pterodactyl.  It explained what it was but I forgot.

On the way back we stopped off and looked at the view from Govett’s Leap. 

Named after William Romaine Govett who first “came upon the spot” in June 1831. 

There were paths down the mountainside but they …erm …didn’t look very safe.  There was also a placard on local geology.  Didn't read it though ... supposed to be on holiday

So eventually it was time to leave Bondi and Sydney.

In order to not get to our next destination too early we stopped off at the Domain car park again on the way and visited the Australian Museum.  It was hot as we walked there and there was a dead bird of some kind in one of the water features. 

The Museum contained lots of fossils and rocks and information on geology and a room full of rocks  ....

...which was like not something I want to see on holiday ...
and a room full of skeletons of various animals.  Including a man sat in a chair with a dog and a bird … and a skeleton connected to an exercise bike that would mirror the movements of the living person who peddled it.

There was a very well realised dinosaur exhibition too showing how the marsupial dinosaurs were different from those found in other places.

In the gentlemen’s toilets someone had scrawled on a poster of a dinosaur “For Mark [REDACTED].   Dinosaurs are Retarded.  Please pass this onto the management.  I only come here on the off chance Mark would be here.  Where’s Mark?  If you guarantee his presence in the future I will come again. 
PS I could be a girl using the male loo.”  We returned to the car park under the Domain.  The dead bird had been washed further down the water feature.  There was a tent in the park for some reason.