Australia 2016 Part 2:  A Day in Sydney

Monday, July 25, 2016

We were all pretty tuckered out and slept well last night.  I took an Ambien to help me adjust to the new time zone.  I never sleep well anyway, so those sleep aids come in pretty handy for me.  In my life at home, I ration the medicine very strictly.  On vacation, I try to use a few of them on the first nights to help ease the jet lag.  I slept from 10 PM to 4 AM, a really good night for me.  From 4 to 6 AM, I worked on the first blog, discovering to my dismay that my beloved Blogsy app was a deader.  I’m working through the WordPress app, and I’ve only accidentally published a draft twice now!  I’ll get it figured out.

Our schedule called for an all-day private tour of Sydney, so we needed a big country breakfast to kick off the day.  Our hotel–Pier One–is ideally situated on–you guessed it–the first pier in Sydney Harbour.  In its first life, the building was a warehouse but has been spectacularly converted.  It sits in the shadow of the Harbour Bridge with easy access to the trendy Rocks district.  We can watch the boats out our window.  I say all that to say, man, their breakfast is good.  We poked in the grub, gathered our gear and went downstairs.

Our guide Orm met us at just a couple of minutes past 9:00 AM.  He apologized for being tardy, but we were not worried.  Genene was happy to sit in the lobby and catch Pokemon.

First Orm took us to the Sydney Opera House, where we were to meet a private guide and get a tour of the Opera House interior.  Our guide was a middle-aged German lady who operated with stereotypical German efficiency.  Henceforth, she will be known only as the Opera House Nazi.   Apparently we were late, but we could not have been more than 5 minutes behind schedule.  She pounced upon us as soon as we walked up and whisked us away from Orm at lightning speed.  Since it was a private tour, I had hoped we would have more flexibility.  It was not to be.  She raced us through the interiors.  I was literally out of breath for much of the tour.  After each canned spiel, she would ask us if we had any questions and then cut us off in mid-question.  She asked us what we were seeing while we were in Australia and then interrupted Greg in mid-sentence, cut him off and told us it was time to keep moving.  I am not sure whose schedule she was on but it was not ours.    She was not my cup of tea.

The tour of the interior of the Opera House was interesting nonetheless.  We saw the bowels of the place and all the gear it takes to change stages and sets.  The amount of lights, stage equipment, props, etc was mind-boggling.  The only thing I can compare it to is the inside of a vast warehouse with people and equipment movers everywhere.  Photographs were not allowed in the stage areas or in the “working” areas of the Opera House, so you will have to settle for my description.  The stages were nothing extraordinary to my mind, though the organ in the big hall was a whopper, and I’ll bet my friend Gary Smith would love to play it.  The Opera House looks best from the outside.

Here’s the view of the Harbour Bridge from the Opera House.  Sydneysiders affectionately call it “The Coathanger.”

The inside of the Opera House has impressive views of the sky and harbour, though the purple carpet is a bit over the top!

The box office area looks pretty ordinary.

People inside the Opera House  must be accompanied at all times by a guide with a badge.  Our guide described an “incident” from a few years ago.  A deliveryman was leaving a package for the stage director.  His escort took a phone call and let the deliveryman proceed alone for a few minutes.  He took a wrong turn and ended up on stage in the middle of a Shakespeare play in front of a packed house.  Luckily the production was modernized so that the actors were in contemporary clothing.  The actors ad-libbed about the package delivery, got the guy off the stage, and the audience was none the wiser.

Let’s back up and talk about genesis of the Opera House.  In 1954, the government of Sydney selected a committee to advise them on the building of an opera house.  Sydney wanted to be considered a cosmopolitan world city, and they needed a signature showpiece building for performance art.  A competition was held.  233 submissions came in from the world over, and in 1956, the committee selected the design of a 36-year-old Dane named Joern Utzon.   His design was influenced by a ship’s billowing sails, palm fronds and Mayan ruins.  It was bold and unique.    Utzon’s design was purely architectural.  In other words, he did not consult with a structural engineer to see that it could actually be built.  Details.

Engineers struggled for years with various challenges that related to fabricating and supporting the sails.  Apparently the idea for the solution came to Utzon one day while peeling an orange.  The shells could be constructed from segments of a single sphere.  Thus the concrete ribs of the building could be prefabricated in a few molds, hoisted in position, and joined together.  Voila!  The project was originally projected to cost $7 million and take 4 years to construct.  In the end, it cost over $102 million and took 15 years to build.  Politicians solved the problem of financing by holding a lottery to raise funds.  Sadly, Utzon was so embittered by the fighting and ego trips associated with the construction that he quit the project, left the country and never saw his masterpiece in person.   A committee of architects did their best to finish the project and honor the design of Utzon.   Years later, Utzon was commissioned to complete an interior room, and he did this.  By this time, he was not in good health and could not return, but perhaps he managed to set some bitterness aside.  His building achieved World Heritage status while he was still living, so the story isn’t all sad.  He died in 2008 at age 90, and the prime minister of Australia ordered the flags on the Harbour Bridge to be flown at half-mast and the lights of the Opera House to be dimmed as a sign of respect.

The exterior of the Opera House is covered with 1,056,000 self-cleaning cream-colored Swiss tiles.  Some of them are matte and some are glossy.  This means that the Opera House will look different in different lighting situations.

Our tour called for us to see the Utzon room, and our guide talked about it but I guess she decided that we weren’t worthy.  She talked about it but never showed it to us.    (Opera House Nazi says, “No Utzon room for you!”)  When we reached the gift shop, we all bolted for the rest room.  There’s nothing like several cups of coffee followed by a run up and down 200 steps to get the system going.  Our guide wouldn’t even wait for us to come out of the bathroom and took her leave of us then and there.  It was only later that we realized that we missed the Utzon room.  Ah well.  Auf widersehen….NOT!

Orm was waiting patiently.  He told us there was no need to rush.  This was our day, our tour, and our pace.  Whew!  We liked him instantly.  He had an encyclopedic knowledge of Australian history, and he sprinkled bad jokes throughout his tour, earning him instant love from Greg and Genene.
He drove us around the city, stopping at various vantage points to show us the spectacular views of Sydney.

We learned a little about the history of the aboriginal people, whose sad legacy mirrors the American experience  with Native Americans.  Aboriginal people have the longest continuous human history and civilization.  Their heritage has existed uninterrupted for 50,000 years.  When white people (or as aboriginal people say, “whitefellas”) came to Australia, there were over 600 aboriginal “nations” with just as many dialects.  To me it sounds very similar to our Native Americans, who were not monolithic–Cherokee, Sioux, Kiowa, Blackfoot, Choctaw, and so on.  Another sad similarity is the devastation that European people wrought simply by arriving and bringing  their germs:  smallpox killed over 50% of Sydney’s aboriginal people almost immediately.  In 100 years, over 90% of the indigenous population was lost.  Drug and alcohol abuse were rampant with those who did survive.  It all sounds sadly familiar.

Everyone knows that Australia’s early heritage is tied to its inauspicious beginning as a penal colony.  England needed a place to send its petty thieves and since the US had declared its independence and was no longer taking, and Australia seemed a prime candidate.  Life was tough, and convicts were subject to very harsh treatment and punishments.  The worst offenders got sent to Fort Denison, a small island in the middle of Sydney Harbour.  They were sent there for a week without food or water.  Sharks fill the waters of the harbour, so escape by swimming was not an option.  The island was known as “Pinchgut”, for obvious reasons.  Convicts were also executed on the island and left hanging for YEARS as a warning to the new shiploads of arriving convicts.  The aborigines were shocked by this brutality.  They would have plenty of opportunity to be shocked about European conduct.

One of our favorite stops was Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair.  About every fifth thing in Sydney is named for Lachlan Macquarie, a governor of New South Wales who envisioned a role for the country that went beyond its convict heritage.  He governed from 1810 to 1821 and thought that convicts should be rehabilitated and hold a place in society.  This made him radical for his time.  He is often regarded as a father of Australia.  His wife Elizabeth pined for England, and so the governor ordered his people to  carve a “chair” for her out of  rock.   From her perch, she had a sweeping view of Sydney Harbour and would sit in her chair and wait for the ships to come in, bringing news of England.  It seemed a little sad to me that she would just sit watching for incoming boats in a place of such beauty.  But I do understand homesickness, and this was in the days before Facetime.

Orm told us to “look regal” (whatever that means) as we sat on Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair.  Greg struck his best Napoleon pose.

Orm says that the convict heritage is no longer an Australian family stain but is now a badge of honor.  He likened it to our Daughters of the American Revolution.

We took our lunch at the Sydney Yacht Club, home of the famous Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race.  I guess it’s famous.  My yacht is still at the yacht store so I don’t know much about the sport. The fish and chips were good, and Orm told us an excellent fishing story that involved him hauling a fish into the boat that chewed his leg up.  I need to go fishing sometime so I can bend a yarn like he did.

We drove all over the city after lunch. Orm pointed out the rich neighborhoods. We got to see Russell Crowe’s place, among others.  We saw Darling Harbour, Double Bay, Rose Bay,Vaucluse, Watson’s Bay–all of it.  Each vista was more stunning than the last.

A magpie in the tree.

Can you see the chain and posts in the next few beach photos?  That’s the shark net!  They haul it up during swimming season.  I am not sure I would trust that to hold back a great white. I’ve seen “Jaws.”  “You’re gonna need a bigger net.”

Late in the day, we headed for a spectacular cliff area called The Gap.  Orm promised us that whales are often seen from the cliff top, and we were eager for a look.  He told us that the Gap also had an unfortunate reputation as a destination for suicides.  Despondent people often fling themselves from the cliff-side.  If the fall does not kill them, they are swept out into the Pacific, never to be seen again.  The city council has installed guard rails, video surveillance and phones that connect to a suicide hotline, all in the hopes of deterring those who would leap to their death in such a spectacular fashion.  Then Orm stopped the car and said, “Oh, look, I think we have arrived in time to see the 2:30 jumping.”  We had to laugh.
The view from the cliff top was glorious, though we saw only white horses.  No whales.

As we stood atop the cliff, Orm told us my favorite story of the day.  He pointed out an unassuming white house just across the road and told us that until just a few years ago, a man named Don Ritchey lived there.  He was a retired insurance salesman, and he often walked along the cliff top.  If he noticed anyone who looked despondent or troubled, he would approach them, palms up, and ask, “Is there anything I can do for you?”  He would talk to the suicidal person, often inviting them into his home for a cup of tea and a talk.  He is credited with saving over 146 lives over the years.  He had no formal training in suicide prevention.  When asked how he did it, he said, “I was a salesperson, and I was selling life.”  He received the Local Hero Award for Australia in 2011, and the National Australia Day Council said, “His kind words and invitations into his home in times of trouble have made an enormous difference…With such simple actions, Don has saved an extraordinary number of lives.” Don died at the age of 86.  He is known as “The Angel of the Gap.”  Isn’t that just marvelous?  I love hearing about ordinary heroes like this.  It restores my faith in humanity.  Who will take up his mantle on the Gap?  Will the suicide hotline phones they have installed up there be as effective as an old man offering a cup of tea?  Somehow I doubt it.

We stopped at world-famous Bondi Beach.  The surf here is notoriously dangerous.  The surf rescue movement began here, and I guess we have them to thank for that horrible TV series Baywatch.  According to Bill Bryson, in 1938, four large freak waves came in to Bondi beach, each of them more than 20 feet high.  Over 200 people were carried out to sea.  Fortunately there were 50 lifeguards on duty that day and all but six people were saved.  It’s a scary place.  There were very large waves, and brave people were surfing in wetsuits.  We contented ourselves with dipping our toes in the cold, turbulent water.


I took about 200 pictures of surfers to get one that I liked.

We drove around many of the old neighborhoods.  I learned a lot of interesting trivia from Orm.  Here’s a favorite:  many of the old buildings had beautiful ironwork railings.  Orm explained that early ships used pig iron bars for ballast.  They unloaded and left the iron and loaded their cargo.  The industrious new residents of Australia melted down the iron and made the railings:  balustrade.

We finished our tour in our neighborhood at the Rocks.  I am fascinated by the bridge because we are going to get to climb it.  I keep looking up to see the people.  In the next picture, you can just see them at the top on the left.  Orm explained that they are required to wear a particular colored jump suit so that they will blend into the iron color of the bridge and thus not distract drivers.

As you can already see, the different tiles do catch the light of the Opera House differently depending on the time of day or night.  The end-of-day light gives it a warm glow.

We took our leave of Orm, giving him a small tip.  Australians do not really have a tipping culture, but he told us that he appreciated it and would have a beer in our name.  We came home to Pier One exhausted and hungry.  I took a bath to try to revive myself, but jet lag is still an issue.  We were proud that we had stayed awake all day in the car with Orm.  A car ride usually puts Genene and Greg right to sleep.  It was a testament to Orm’s quick wit, informative tour and bad jokes that we stayed entertained throughout.  All day long, we kept using the word “awesome” to describe the various things we had seen, and Orm would correct us and say “Ormsome!”  Orm was Ormsome!

That evening, we had a simple request for our concierge:  we wanted good food with less than a five-minute walk.  He recommended Lotus Dumpling Bar, an Asian fusion spot, and we were not disappointed.  We had dumplings, duck pancakes, pepper beef, Kung Pao chicken, and a delicate fried eggplant that was absolutely delightful.  A side note about the Asian cuisine:  from the early 1900s until its final dismantling in the 1970’s, Australia had what has been often characterized as a “White Australia” immigration policy.  Their government declared quite baldly that they did not want any “foreigners” (non Europeans) to immigrate to their country and obtain citizenry.  In the end, Australia needed population and labor, and the policies changed.  There are now a large number of people of all ethnicities in the country, and the country has benefited from the new melting pot.  Their cuisine certainly has.  Sydney is now much like Houston, a place where you can find world cuisine.

We strolled home fat and happy.  It was a long first day of activities but a fun one!

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