15-18 June Shellharbour NSW
We spent a few days exploring the Illawarra Region, which encompasses Wollongong, Shellharbour, Kiama and a host of other smaller places. The area is dominated by Lake Illawarra with Wollongong situated n its northern shore and Shellharbour to the south. Everything seems to cling to a very narrow coastal plain, with spectacular views of the Great Divide from most places. Flat land is scarce and most towns and housing developments are perched on the slopes of the numerous coastal hills and peaks. We didn’t get the bikes out.
Shellharbour has two distinct faces. Shellharbour Village is the old town, with some quaint old buildings, an excellent Art Deco Hotel from 1929 and a wonderful cafe and restaurant strip on the main street. Food prices are excellent for a seaside village and the ocean provides plenty of first class views. Shellharbour City is the opposite. Glittering new shopping centres and fast food outlets abound and the ubiquitous Bunnings makes its presence felt. The Stockland Shellharbour shopping mall boasts over 220 shops but we might as well have been anywhere in Australia because it seems like almost everything is part of a chain or franchise these days making one shopping mall much like another. Our favourite place was the fish markets, certainly the best we ever encountered. The produce was cheap, fresh and well labelled. Unfortunately, we were on count-down to flying home so we didn’t need any seafood.
Kiama was a very picturesque town with a marvelous historical strip of police station, court house and hotel providing a wonderful streetscape. The coastal scenery was equally impressive and we admired the couple of active blow holes. The main one near the lighthouse was not nearly as active as “The Little Blowhole”, which shot several huge eruptions skywards.
Some Sunday Markets at Dapto lured us, promising a huge collection of stalls and “garage sales”. We love markets but this one disappointed, largely due to the cold and wet weather. Many stalls were abandoning their spot and packing up. The place was full of some very strange people who used some very colourful language. We bought some socks and some excellent olives before heading off to find the Air Museum at Albion Park Rail. Along the way we passed the storage place that we have planned to leave Sandpiper for our trip home so we dropped in to organise things. While chatting to the girl at the counter, we mentioned that we had been to the markets at Dapto and she stared at us in amazement. “What did you do that for?” she asked. We could see her point. The Air Museum was closed for renovations so we just went back to Sandpiper.
We used the local bus system to go into Wollongong for the day, partly to simply check it out and partly to ensure that we knew all about the buses and trains to access Sydney for an upcoming three day trip. Being a senior, I took advantage of the $2.50 all day pass, that will be even accepted for the train trip to Sydney, along with all trams and ferries in Sydney. Christine is a month and a half too young to have such bonuses.
Wollongong struck us as one of Australia’s ugly cities. There are parts that have redeeming features, such as the area down near the quaint little harbour and Flagstaff Hill, but elsewhere some really awful examples of 1960s and 1970s architecture clash with unkempt older buildings. Smother the whole lot in advertising signage and graffiti and you get the picture. The streets seem full of people who look as though they live there. Given the high cost of tattoos and piercings, one would think that everyone had jobs because we seemed to be the only unmarked or untagged people around. However, the Illawarra has the highest rate of unemployment in the country, currently running at a staggering 22%. We also noticed the prevalence of martial arts studios, along with a “free fight gym” and a “body building supplements warehouse”. Wollongong just did not grab us at all. Give us the outlying areas any day.
18 to 21 June – Sydney
We dropped the Land Cruiser off at Shellharbour Automotive for a few minor repairs and adjustments then caught the bus into Wollongong to catch the train to Sydney. We had planned carefully, giving ourselves just enough time to get off the bus and access the station. Trains run on the hour but we were anxious to avoid the long wait. After alighting from the bus and walking up hill for 10 minutes or so, we both had to admit that nothing looked familiar. A quick consult of Google Maps had us heading downhill again with Christine’s knee complaining and my ankle on a knife’s edge. Somehow, we managed to make the station with 5 minutes to spare and got on to the train. Christine, being a mere 59 years old, had to pay $13 for the privilege whereas I, as a senior with grey hair to prove it, got away with a $2.50 ticket that gives me a whole day’s travel on any form of transport between Newcastle and Wollongong. Christine can’t wait for her birthday.
The train trip is one of the best we have had, rivaling the Hue to Danang leg in Vietnam. The track winds along the edge of the Great Divide, through beautiful eucalypt forests and patches of rainforest. There were wonderful displays of tree ferns and bird’s nest ferns and some amazing high crossings over deep river valleys. Coal mines, both abandoned and working, dotted the escarpments. It is a terrific train trip and probably taken for granted by the majority of commuters that travel the line.
Once in Sydney itself, we left the train at Central Station and transferred to a City Circle train to get to Wynard, giving us a short walk to our hotel, the City Hotel Enterprise in Clarence Street. This is a small boutique hotel in an excellent location, with easy walking access to Darling Harbour, Circular Quay and China Town. The room wasn’t ready for us so we left our backpacks and walked for a while to get our bearings before finding lunch. Our last visit to Sydney was in 1989 so we had a bit to catch up on.
Once settled in to our room, we relaxed for a while. A friend from Project Vietnam, Corrado, rang to say he was downstairs with his wife Han, a lovely girl from Ho Chi Minh City. We caught up with them and walked the short distance to Darling Harbour where we completed a circuit, stopping at two establishments to eat and have a few drinks. It was good to catch up with Corrado again and meet his wife, who is settling in to her new life in Australia very well.
An early rise was called for because we had booked a day tour with a company called Oz Trails, having seen a brochure in the hotel foyer. This tour proved an absolute winner. We were picked up in a minibus just around the corner from the hotel and joined an amazingly cohesive yet very cosmopolitan group of 24. There were several US citizens, including a very entertaining African American from LA, a lovely young girl from Antigua who is currently studying in Melbourne, a very nice family from India, a backpacker from Wales, a family from Singapore and a couple more that we think were from Hong Kong. Our driver/guide was a wonderfully knowledgeable and funny guy named Les. He clearly loves his job and he displayed an amazing knowledge of the history of Sydney and the Blue Mountains. He had been to the State of Origin Rugby the night before and was still sporting his blue and white fake dreadlocks as evidence.
The tour took us through Sydney’s Western suburbs (through some absolutely dreadful traffic) to the Blue Mountains. Having climbed the escarpment, Les took us to a lookout over the Jamieson Valley and we were completely blown away by the sight. A thick layer of cloud lay across the valley about 100 metres below us, creating a vision that rates number one in all time great natural wonders for us. One guy who had been to the Grand Canyon told us that this was better by several degrees but he may have been taken away by the moment. It was a staggering sight. Much to Christine’s horror, I crawled across to sit on the ledge, suspended over an awesome drop into the clouds below. It felt completely safe and secure, yet strangely, when I saw others do the same thing, I couldn’t bear to watch, especially the girl doing the one-legged yoga pose.
We tore ourselves away from the glory of the valley and Les drove us around to the opposite side, to Scenic World in Katoomba. We were last here in 1989 and things have changed considerably. There are now two cable cars, one crossing the gorge in front of Katoomba Falls and The Three Sisters and another bringing people back up from the valley below. The cable car had been upgraded to handle more passengers and now features a glass floor so you can have the thrill of looking past your feet to the tree tops far below. The cloud fill was still present but showing signs of lifting.
We took the cable railway down the cliff at a staggering 52 degree fall to the ledge that provided access to the myriad coal mines that honeycomb the cliffs. The last mine closed in the 1930s but the rail remains, giving tourists a thrill ride up and down the escarpment. At the bottom, Les took us on a very informative guided walk through the rainforest, stopping frequently to fill us in on history or items of natural wonder. We failed to see or hear any sign of a lyre bird so that Aussie icon remains un-ticked on our list. The walk is very well documented with signage and even a few sculptures depicting things from the coal mining days. A cable car took us up over the forest again back to the top. The great thing about Scenic World is that it is a one fee entry, giving unlimited access to the three rides. We took another ride up and down the cable railway, enjoying the feeling of being dropped over the edge of the cliff. The place is excellent value, given that there are literally kilometres of wonderful walk trails that we did not have time to explore.
From Katoomba, we headed to the small village of Leura, developed towards the end of the Nineteenth Century as a weekend getaway for the well to do Sydney siders. It is filled with lovely old houses and streetscapes lined with beautiful deciduous trees. I am sure that autumn is something special. We found a bite to eat at one of the many cafes, perused a few antique shops and wandered through the sweet shop, surely one of the best anywhere. Once back on the bus, it was clear that the sweet shop was a hit with a lot of the group, with exclamations of, “I never thought I’d find THESE in Australia.” There were musk sticks, Jaffas, Hershey Bars and Starburst Gummy Bears and all sorts of things being passed around the bus.
The next stop was the beautiful Wentworth Falls, which require a 250 step downward march to see from a lookout. The base of the falls is another 1200 steps down but we didn’t have time for that thank God. We spent a bit of time admiring the falls and photographing young people doing Toyota jumps before trudging back up the steps. We took in an aboriginal petroglyph of a kangaroo prior to driving down out of the mountains again to the plains below.
We were to complete the tour on a ferry leaving from the Olympic Ferry Landing at Homebush so Les gave us a driving tour of the Olympic facilities. It is good to see that the whole complex is being used well and that there is no sign of the big white elephant. The ferry ride was a bit of a disappointment because the sun was setting rapidly and it was almost too cold to sit outside. The final part of the trip, into Darling Harbour, gave us some spectacular views of the Harbour Bridge and the CBD skyline. We were able to get off the ferry and complete an easy walk to our hotel in Clarence St, with only a brief stop along the way for a beer. It was a long but excellent day. The whole tour was only $79 each with another $35 for the Scenic World rides. It is so good to find some tourist attractions in Australia that are realistically priced.
We had a day in Sydney chasing up some items needing repair for Sandpiper. Our autopilot has ceased to function so we had to find a way out to an address in French’s Forest to drop it in to the Raymarine service centre. This took us across the harbor to Manly via the ferry, always a terrific ride. The weather was perfect and the seas flat, giving us some terrific views of the harbour. The bridge appeared smaller than I remembered it, possibly because I have seen so many big structures since 1989 and one’s perspective changes. Never the less, it is an amazing thing and deserving of the hype. Some iconic sights are better “in the flesh” than in photographs (eg Uluru) but the Opera House isn’t one of them. These iconic clam shells are beautiful in photographs but small and a bit pathetic in the flesh. The Opera House contributes to the whole harbour effect, working in conjunction with the bridge, Circular Quay, the Sydney Tower and the buildings of the CBD. Sydney wouldn’t be Sydney without it but by itself, the Opera House struggles.
Another excursion required us to find a Whitworths Marine store in Drummoyne, which had imported into its stock some much needed parts for our Power Winch. A bus trip took us out past the huge Sydney Fish Markets and across the beautiful Anzac Bridge. It is actually quite a lot of fun to pick a place in a strange city and do the research of how to access it via public transport then navigate around. It was a challenge. We were sorry that time did not permit a tour of the fish markets, a sojourn we always appreciate.
We also enjoyed the delights of Paddy’s Market and the nearby China Town. Sydney’s China Town is very extensive and boasts of being the largest in Australia. Friday night is wonderful, with the Dixon St mall providing an endless selection of great street foods and small market stalls. The numerous Asian restaurants in the area all competed to provide an array of well priced menus. We grabbed a stomach filling supply of delicious snacks and headed back to the comfort and warmth of the hotel room. We gorged on deep fried crab things, prawns on sticks, an amazing noodle dish and other assorted things that we had already forgotten the name of. This is fine dining at its best.
Sydney represents somewhat of an enigma to us. It is always being compared and contrasted to Melbourne. We can only judge them each from a tourist perspective. Sydney wins hands down in the visual department, although Melbourne can counter with an amazing number of spectacular photographic vistas. The problem we have found with Sydney is that if you step away from the harbor, the city is so closed in as to be claustrophobic, whereas Melbourne is so wonderfully open. Its wide streets and long square grid plan makes moving around the CBD a dream whereas movement in Sydney largely consists of waiting at traffic lights. The labyrinth of narrow roads is choked with buses and cars all wishing to be somewhere else in a hurry. Sydney also seems to have been far less protective of its heritage architecture over the years and sports some serious faux pas in terms of the old and the new. On balance, Melbourne is the winner for us.
From here, it is back to Shellharbour to bed Sandpiper down for a month’s rest so we can head home to Perth to see our darling grandchildren. On our return, the weather will drive us north to warmer climes, but that is a story in the making.