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SYDNEY: 31st December 2006 to 4th January 2007

31st December

We arrived in Sydney around about 8am and were dropped off at the Central Station. The original plan was to meet up with Dave Clapp and Natalie Thomas who I used to work with at around 9.30am. We were a little bit early, but decided to head to Dave and Nat's hotel and wake them up. The walk to the hotel took about half an hour, and we sat and had a rest in a nearby park watching some asian guy running backwards for a while before heading into the hotel and dodging the receptionist.

An ibis in the park near the hotel that Dave and Nat were staying at. Curiously, Chantal had earlier told us she had a fear of Ibis and wanted to chop their beaks off!?!

After catching up with Dave and Nat and finding out what they'd been up to since their earlier visit to New Zealand (they had stayed a night with up in Wellington early in December) we went and had breakfast at another subtle-y named place – the Paki Cafe. The breakfast wasn't too bad and came with free internet use.

Anyway, we then decided to walk into the city and have a look around Darling Harbour. We decided over breakfast that we'd have a journey into the Blue Mountains in the next couple of days and so we tried to organise some car hire for a day.

After a few unsuccessful calls from a phone box, we stepped into the Visitor Information Centre and got them to do the work for us. The first lady religiously took down our details and wrote them on a post-it note. Clapp, D, aged 26 etc. She managed to find us a car available for the 2nd of January – no mean feat given the number of people in Sydney at this time of year. The problem occurred when her shift ended and had to swap with another member of staff. The new staff member tried to read the scrawl on the post-it note, failed to do so and reported Dave's name as Mr. Clappid and telling the car hire firm that the hire was in the family name Clappid. This led to a theme being drawn during our time with Dave and Nat being that we were the family Clappid.

Dave in the phone box on the line to some car rental company. Not too sure what the look was for, but I'd guess I was winding him up.

Once we'd sorted out this palaver, the next mission was for the four of us to meet up with some of my former colleagues who are now working in Sydney. Ali Allen, Rachael Hayman and Rob Ramsey all used to work with me at PwC Southampton and have transferred from there to PwC Sydney. Somehow, Dave had arranged to meet with them in the Botanical Gardens to ring in the New Year. On the grapevine, we'd heard that entry to Botanical Gardens closed at about five-ish, so we headed to the Gardens for about 2pm. The queue for entry was huge – in fact, we couldn't see the start of the queue from where the taxi dropped us off. We met up with Ali and Rachael in the queue and then queued for an hour or so – talking rubbish for the majority of the time. Dave and I particularly amused a guy queuing in front of us with a harebrained scheme to set up a professional queuing firm to prevent us ever being in such a tough queuing situation again.

The infamous Fire Tug. I'd been curious as to what a 'Fire Tug' was ever since reading about it in the morning paper. I was hoping for a tug boat on fire belting out fireworks. I was disappointed.

Eventually, we got in to the Gardens around 3pm. We sat around talking, drinking and eating for the rest of the evening – with several long stints of queuing for portable toilets. At 9pm, there was a firework display 'for the children'. This lasted about 10 minutes and was pretty spectacular. We pushed to near the front of the botanical gardens which butts up against the Sydney Harbour, where we were able to see the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge, Sydney Opera House and the fireworks. After this display, we sat back down again and waited for the ringing in of the New Year.

When midnight came, the display was a bit of a disappointment. This time, the fireworks were pretty much the same at the 9 o'clock display, but were accompanied by illuminations on the Harbour Bridge. As soon as the fireworks ended, the long trudge back to Dave and Nat's hotel room begun. It was slow progress pushing through the crowds and through the crowded City Centre. Thankfully, Dave and Nat's room had a spare bed (as Jen and I had been unable to find any accommodation in the City Centre for New Year's Eve). After the lack of sleep the night before, and a tiring day at the Botanical Gardens, we slept heavily.

Some pictures from the New Years' Eve celebrations in the Sydney Botanical Gardens. Clockwise from the top left:
(i) Sydney by night
(ii) Dave raises a glass to the new year
(iii) The 9pm fireworks
(iv) It all goes off on the Harbour Bridge at midnight
(v) Nat, Andy and Jen (and in the background Ali and Rachael give the 'thumbs up'
(vi) The emerald within the coat hanger... Not quite sure why this was done to the Harbour Bridge. Apparently, the Harbour Bridge is nicknamed 'The Coat Hanger' and the theme for the fireworks was 'Emerald City'. Sounds like a load of rusty rollocks to me
(vii) Rob and Dave engrossed in conversation
(viii) Some more fireworks

1st January

The next morning saw a slower start from us and a less active day. In fairness, we were all pretty knackered after the long day before and didn’t have too much inspiration for anything to do. Also, as it was a bank holiday, a lot of things were closed.

After wandering around the area for a while, we eventually found a café that was open. Unfortunately, it turned out to be very poorly run. The entire staff were of South East Asian extract and were lorded over by a beast of a woman who seemed intent on pulling and pushing her staff members about. To be fair to her, the staff seemed to be the most incompetent shower of waitressing staff I’ve ever had the bad luck to come across. Orders were not understood, meals for the wrong table came out to us, the serving took ages and a request for a second cup of coffee was ignored. When it came to payment, we obviously gave no tip (especially as they charged a 10% bank holiday surcharge) and when I sarcastically congratulated them on the quality of the service, they actually took it as a compliment and thanked me for my kind words!!

After that, we headed back down to Darling Harbour where we caught a ferry round to Circular Quay with the intention of getting a boat over to Taronga Zoo. The boat took a nice scenic route, and along the way we were provided with a running commentary by another passenger who had lived in Sydney for many years. Eventually, we arrived at Circular Quay, but decided that due to the Bank Holiday opening hours that we wouldn’t have enough time to catch the ferry to the zoo and look around. Instead, we opted to mooch around the Quay and drink a milkshake from Baskin Robbins (affectionately named Bobby Raskins by Dave as he’d forgotten the name of the place!)

famous views of Sydney. Firstly the Opera House and then Jen and I obscure a picture of the Harbour Bridge

By this time, the lack of sleep was beginning to catch up on Jen and I and we bade Dave and Nat a temporary farewell and headed to our chosen accommodation – a hotel way out in the Sydney suburbs on the Hume Highway near Liverpool. The train ride out to Liverpool took about an hour and there was a 10 minute taxi ride out to the hotel.

Once we got there, the 3 star Quality Hotel was unsurprisingly disappointing. The spa pool and sauna were out of order and the swimming pool was dirty and in need of repair, our room stank of stale cigarette smoke and we were welcomed by a particularly sullen receptionist. Thankfully, we were able to get our room changed to a non-smoking one to relieve some of the disappointment. That was pretty much it for the rest of the night due to the lack of things to do on the Hume Highway. We ordered room service, watched some TV and had an early night.

2nd January

We woke up early, refreshed from a long night’s sleep. We had a long day ahead of us as we planned to meet up with Dave and Nat to go out to the Blue Mountains. Meeting up with them was not an easy task as the Vodafone NZ network that my mobile phone relied on was still failing to connect with the Vodafone Aus network due to the heavy call volumes experienced over New Year. Call boxes were the order of the day to ensure that we managed to meet up with Dave and Nat as the Queensgate shopping centre in Parramatta.

It turned out that the Family Clappid had been provided with a rather large Mitsubishi car for the journey – which made the travel quite comfortable. Once we negotiated the Parramatta one-way systems and got out onto the main road, progress towards the Blue Mountains was swift. Once again, our lack of forward planning showed as we spent most of the journey discussing where we wanted to stop.

Our first stop was in the little town of Wentworth Falls. Here, we decided to take the short walk down a fairly steep path to see the eponymous waterfall. The drought had obviously had a knock on effect on the beauty of the falls as a very low volume of water tricked down the tall cliff and onto the rocks below. Fortunately, the views of the mountains from the lookout point were pretty spectacular and made the walk worthwhile.

Some views from Wentworth Falls. Firstly, the Blue Mountains - named for the blue haze that often surrounds them that is derived from evaporating Eucalyptus and secondly the pathetic flow of the falls themselves. The height of the waterfall was very large, but the flow was very low due to the drought.

Our next stop was the focal point of the Blue Mountains – the town of Katoomba and the Three Sisters. We drove into Katoomba and parked up alongside the road and took a short walk down to the Echo Point visitor centre. From here, you can see the Three Sisters which are effectively a piece of rock which has eroded into the shape of three spikes. The site is sacred to the indigenous Aboriginal people and as such has become a bit of a cultural as well as tourist attraction. Once again, from this spot the views over the hills and valleys of the Blue Mountains area provided a spectacular backdrop to the main attraction.

By this time, it was pushing on towards lunch. As such, we headed into Katoomba town to find something to eat. We chose a nice laid back café which served fantastic, and sizeable meals. I particularly enjoyed my meal of kangaroo!

The Three Sisters - a sacred site to the local Aborigine tribe. What you don't see is that directly behind us there was a huge visitor centre! The picture makes it look as if we were in the middle of nowhere, but civilisation was close at hand.

The next destination on our whistle-stop tour of the Blue Mountains was the nearby Scenic Railway where you can ride the steepest cable car in Australia. This was insanely steep – at least of a gradient of 1 in 1! The queue was quite long, but we timed it to perfection to get the front seats on our run. The view from the front was excellent as the front carriage steadily rolled over the edge of the precipice on the flat and started to rumble down the steep slope.

The scenic railway disappears into a black hole [left] but fortunately reappears further down the slope.

At the bottom, we disembarked and had a wander around the valley floor before ascending back to the top station via a more modern cable car service. The Railway had originally been built to carry coal from the valley floor to a service station at the top. As a result, a large amount of mining paraphernalia was still to be found on the valley floor during our walk.

After finding our way back to the car park, we debated our next stop. We decided to take a risk and drive an additional hundred or so kilometres through the far side of the Blue Mountains and down to the Jenolan Caves. The road was winding and narrow towards the end and the last 20 or so kilometres were on a particularly narrow piece of road which only serviced the caves. We arrived at the caves at around 4 o’clock – worried that we may have missed our opportunity to get on a cave tour. Fortunately, we made it just in time and tagged on to the back of a tour of the Lewis Cave. The tour party was large, the main constituent of which was a tour bus of Japanese who chose to ignore what the guide had to say (especially the “Don’t touch” rule), speak over him at every available opportunity and take flash-photography pictures even when the lights were turned off to enable you to experience the caves in the dark. Despite this, we endeavoured to make the best of the situation and enjoy the experience as there was plenty of impressive geology to see.

Some pictures from the Jenolan Caves showing some of the impressive geology, stalactites and stalagmites that there are to see.

After leaving the caves, time was really pushing on and it we had to start heading back. Rather than taking the same route we’d used to get to the Caves, we took the scenic route back – taking the Northern Blue Mountains route past Lithgow rather than the main road. On our trip, we drove past the local water reservoir which sadly looked only about a quarter full when compared to the easily visible high water mark. The rest of the journey back was uneventful, passing only through villages and towns and past interesting signs declaring Goats for sale. We stopped in one little town for dinner at a Pizza Hut which was just about to close. Discounted, reheated pizzas were the order of the day along with garishly coloured fizzy drinks.

Two more pictures from our journey into the Blue Mountains. The left picture shows the reservoir near Lithgow looking tragically low and the door to the Pizza Hut restaurant that we went to showing its 'open' sign, despite their reluctance to sell us fresh pizzas.

Not long after, we were back in the Sydney suburbs, having to stop every 500 yards for another set of traffic lights before arriving back at the hotel.

3rd January

The next morning we met up with Dave and Nat at the central railway station before walking up to the SCG to see if we could get hold of some tickets to the day’s play. Once again, the tickets were either too expensive or simply not available and so we had to hatch another plan.

We jumped in a taxi and headed to one of Sydney’s most famous landmarks – Bondi Beach. As expected, the sands were golden, the sun was out and people of all ages, shapes and sizes hopped – or attempted to hop – onto surf boards to ride the breaking waves. Whilst Nat shopped for a new pair of flip-flops, Dave, Jen and I lazed on the beach in the hot sun and spent most of the morning kicking back and relaxing.

Dave and Nat wander along the hot, golden sands at Bondi. The flatness of the sea meant there were less surfers on show than normal.

After a good while spent on the beach, and attempting to brush the sand off of us, we had lunch at the nearby Bondi Hotel whilst watching the live coverage of the Ashes test. It didn’t make particularly happy viewing – much like most of the previous test coverage.

Following lunch, we headed back into the City and split up. Jen and I went to Darling Harbour to visit the indoor zoo that sits on the quay-front. It took a good while to walk around all of the exhibits, looking at all the dangerous spiders and snakes you could fall prey to in Australia, as well as spending some time looking at some of the other famous Australian animals such as wallabies and cassowaries.

A cassowary. A sign at the Indoor zoo warned us that the Cassowary is considered the most dangerous bird in the world due to its massive middle claw. Naturally they are scared humans, but they can kill if cornered.

By the time we left, it was surprisingly late considering how little we’d done during the day. We once again took the hour-long train ride back to our hotel and spent the rest of the evening watching edited highlights of the day’s cricket to prepare us for the live experience organised for the next day.

4th January

Morning arrived and it was a beautiful day that presented itself to us as we journeyed back into the City towards the Sydney Cricket Ground. We gained entry probably half an hour after the start of play to find out that a couple of wickets had already fallen. We quickly found our seats that were located once more right at the back of the top tier. Luckily, the SCG is a significantly smaller ground than the MCG so the temperature was neither too hot nor too cold where we were sat.

The day’s play followed a similar pattern to previous tests with the English surrendering any advantage that they may have had in the early afternoon – Warne scoring a decent 70-odd in his last international innings. When England came into bat in the final session of the day, wickets fell at regular intervals to either good bowling, silly shots or a combination of both. By the end of the day, any hope that England had of not losing the series 5 – 0 had pretty much evaporated.

Some views at the SCG. On the left, someone (again, I suspect it is Sajid Mahmood) comes into bowl. On the right, Glenn McGrath raises his bat to the pavillion after the end of his last ever test match innings; finishing not out.

The only other interesting event during the day’s play was the arrest of several drunk Australians sitting in the row in front of us as they’d illegally smuggled alcohol into the ground. As a couple of them were frog-marched off to the police station, their mates quickly disappeared and left them in the lurch – self-preservation instinct taking hold over the alcohol-fuelled stupor they’d previously exhibited.

After walking away from the stadium after the end of play, we waited to be met by another cricket forum member – Mike, a resident of Sydney. Whilst waiting, Matthew Hayden, the Australian opener, jumped out of a car, ran past us, had a chat with a policeman and then sprinted to get back in the car. I tried to get a photo of this, without any success.

We were then picked up by Mike who drove us down to Bondi Beach again where we had dinner. Unfortunately for Mike, his car wouldn’t start up again after we’d had dinner due to some kind of ignition problem. Instead, Mike generously paid for a taxi to get us back to the central station where we could meet a train back to Liverpool.

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