Australia journal - June 1999

The long trip home, part 2

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Sunday morning United Airlines told us a flight from Melbourne to LA had been canceled, leaving a large number of passengers to connect to the US via Sydney.  That meant zero chance for the Sunday flight and a possibility that the Monday flight would be tough, too.  So we packed up our stuff and moved over to the Cambridge Park Inn, feeling just a little like very well-heeled refugees.

By 10:00 we were enjoying breakfast at the Roobar, feeling very much at home.  And by 3:00, after consulting with United Airlines about the possibilities, we had decided to stay until Tuesday.

By now we were past our funk and ready to get the most out of our extended stay.  We didn't have the phone numbers of the two friends of Lara's we liked so much, so I sent email to Davo and we left a message on Andrew and Lara's machine asking for Roger's number.  It was a little too late to make any major plans, so after making a round of phone calls to inform family and colleagues of our plans, we walked over to the Roobar for a late lunch and then headed up Oxford Street to see Gods and Monsters - which we found charming and touching.

We came back to the hotel, stopping at a bottle shop for some wine (Elderton Barossa Valley Shiraz 1996).  We'd given all our tour guides and travel books to Donna, so we were without our usual resources.  While Rita hung out on the WELL, I ran down to the lobby and and collected some brochures so we could try to figure out what to do with our Monday in Sydney.  We decided to take a ferry tour of the Harbor.  And then Lara called and gave us Roger's and Davo's phone numbers; it was too late to call them, but we hoped to connect with either or both of them for dinner Monday night.

On Monday, we took advantage of the breakfast that was included in our deal at the Cambridge.  it was a typical hotel buffet breakfast, deadly dull.  We vowed to go back to the Roobar on Tuesday.  That was our real home base in Sydney.

After breakfast we took off walking, planning to visit the Royal Botanical Gardens on our way to the Circular Quay to catch our tour boat.  A few blocks from our hotel was the Italian district, on Stanley Street -which turned out to be one block lined on both sides with Italian restaurants, caffes, and a food shop.  We checked out the menus, enjoyed the bits of conversation in Italian that we overheard, and sat down at the busiest caffe for a cappuccino.

The Botanical Garden was a nice walk, not exactly my cup of tea but Rita was really into it.  I made some recordings of bird sounds and wandered patiently among the trees until ...

BATS!  We looked up at this tall, naked black walnut tree and beheld BATS!  Big fuckin' bats, all hanging like fruit from these naked branches.  They were restless, rearranging their wings, scratching themselves, and making interesting little chattering sounds, occasionally climbing up  down a  branch.  They looked like they were trying to sleep out there in the noonday sun, under that huge blue sky, and they just couldn't get comfortable.  My little mind was blown!

These were Flying Foxes - big guys, with really cute pointy faces and big brown eyes, and huge black leather wings.  I just stood and stared and ten or fifteen minutes, watching these weird little guys doing their thing.  At one point, something startled them or upset them, and the whole lot flew away - except for one, who dropped down onto another, lower tree right above my head and hung there, looking slightly discombobulated and tangled, looking down at me with what sure looked like curiosity.

It was just one of the most amazing things I have ever seen.  I was really unhappy that we had left our camera back in the room that day.  I did get some great audio!

According to a sign we found elsewhere in the Garden, "The Gray-headed flying fox, also known as the gray-headed fruit bat, is a native Australian bat. They feed on fruits of rainforest trees, especially figs, the nectar and pollen of eucalypts and melaleucas. The Gray-headed flying fox is particularly important because it is one of the few species that pollinates the flowers and spreads the seeds of these rainforest species.  Named because of its fox-like face, the Gray-headed flying fox is one of the largest species of bats in the world, weighing up to 1 kg and with a wingspan of up to 1.5 meters."  Another sign mentioned that these animals damage the rare plants here, so there is an effort being made to relocate them without harming them.

The rest of the Botanical Garden was pretty anti-climactic, though I did get a kick out of watching the Ibises eating French fries and other human food at the snack bar.  These guys have curved, eight-inch beaks; they'd hop right up on a table recently vacated by humans and snatch up any and all crumbs, uneaten chips, etc., grabbing objects with the tips of their beaks and then tossing heir heads back expertly so the food would go down their throats.  It was amusing to watch.

I collected a lot more bird sounds as we walked through the Garden toward the Circular Quay, past a stream and a couple of ponds.  I never did get the raucous sound of a whole tree full of cockatoos (as I had encountered without my tape recorder in hand in Katoomba and at Lara's wedding), but I did score a great stereo clip of one sulphur-crested cockatoo screaming as it flew right past me.

At two in the afternoon we boarded the Captain Cook Cruises boat for a 2 hour, 20-minute "coffee cruise" of Sydney Harbour.  It was a beautiful day, and we could see a couple of groups of tourists on top if the Sydney Harbour Bridge - and with the flags hanging and stirring only slightly in the breeze, it looked a lot more appealing on this day than it did a few weeks ago when the flags were standing out on full display in the stiff cold wind.

The narrator described historic sites, military bases, gun emplacements, spectacular homes - even Australia's first nude beach, complete with nude blokes - as we made out way out to the mouth of the Harbour and then back up into the Middle Harbour.  After the tea break, there were a few dozen of those white-headed gulls hanging around to pick up crumbs, and Rita and I got a real kick out of the opportunity to watch them flying.  As they cruised along at the same speed as the boat, they "floated" right over where we sat on the deck, and we saw how their feathers change for fight and landing, etc.  These gulls made some great sounds for my tape recorder, too.

We also saw a couple of pelicans cruising majestically right along the surface of the water and landing on top of pylons near the Spit Bridge.

The view from the boat was magnificent.  The geology of the region is fascinating, and from the water it was possible to see its sandstone foundations, and all the very cool houses that have been built on the hillsides that plunge right into the the water.

Also on board this cruise was the near-legendary, famous-for-being-famous Latin bombshell Charo, with a tall handsome gent in a warmup jacket with "The White House" and an eagle emblem on the breast, and a tall teenage boy who was obviously their son.  I didn't see anyone acknowledge her until the very end of the cruise, when Charo graciously allowed herself to be photographed with an Australian woman.  This was our second celebrity sighting of the tour, the first being David Ogden Stiers of "M*A*S*H" fame, who was out at Heron Island not getting much diving done.

We caught a bus at the Circular Quay.  The buses are downright civilized here.  Every bus has a sign stating how many seated and standing passengers are permitted.  Drivers are allowed to have radios for their own entertainment, and they are friendly and helpful to passengers.  And get this: A bus marked "Bondi Junction" stopped, and I asked the driver if it went down Oxford Street.  "Yes," he said, and we boarded.  I asked what the fare is and he replied, "It's a dollar twenty."  I fished all the coins out of my pocket and counted, coming up with two two-dollar coins, a 20-cent, a 10 and a 5.  I started to hand him two two-dollar coins and he said, "I don't have enough change - take back that two; the rest will do."  That's right: this driver accepted $2.35 in payment of a $2.40 fare (for two of us).

I tell you, this place is civilized - and civil, too.  There is an intimacy and friendliness that we found very attractive. Store clerks, waiters, bus drivers, random people in lifts - we hardly ever encountered an unpleasant or cranky person.  Taxi drivers rounded their fares down, too.

Our last dinner in Sydney was at Yipiyiyo, and it was an excellent meal.  When the proprietor told us he was coming to Northern California later this year, we touted our three favorite East Bay restaurants: Bay Wolf, Oliveto, and Mazzini.  After that great dinner, we were too stuffed to do much of anything else, so we eased ourselves down the hill to the Cambridge to get a good night's sleep before flying home.

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