Having a car was great but the city of Sydney - particularly the area around Potts Point and Kings Cross where I was staying - is decidedly unfriendly to the motorist and, unless you want to spend big bucks to park in the private car park, you have no choice but to take your chances with the on-street parking lottery. This usually involves driving round and round in circles in the vain hope of finding a vacant space where you can park for a couple of hours before having to return to move it to a different zone. The process is time consuming, frustrating and, if you are hoping to spend your day exploring the city, a royal pain in the arse. I decided that, to save stress, the best thing would be to return the car early or make use of it by heading out of the city for the day so, early on a cold Tuesday morning; I set off across town to visit the nearby Royal National Park.
Established in 1879, Royal National Park was Australia's - indeed the world's (Yellowstone was originally a described as Yellowstone Recreation Area) - very first National Park and I figured it had to be worth the trip.
It may have been a cold and dark morning - very English, I thought - but I had convinced myself that the weather gods were gonna smile on me. As I emerged from the visitor centre, clutching my day permit, I realised they weren't smiling on me but having a laugh at my expense: by adding strong wind and heavy rain to the equation. Much to my annoyance it simply wasn't the weather that I had been banking on so I settled for exploring the park from the questionable comfort of my car. Whilst the secluded beaches, lush rainforest and waterfalls were undoubtedly a pretty and interesting place to spend a day I couldn't enjoy it in its weather-challenged state and I eventually gave up and continued south along the Lawrence Hargrave Drive to visit the dramatic Sea Cliff Bridge.
In August 2005 the existing road from Coalcliff to Clifton - part of the famed Grand Pacific Drive - was lost to the sea due to a huge embankment slip. It was a regular occurrence and they NSW Government had decided enough was enough and had closed the road indefinitely causing a fierce public outcry. They would eventually back down and invited tenders for a replacement. Just two years later the Sea Cliff Bridge was completed and, to much acclaim within the community, the Great Pacific Drive was once again complete. It was an amazing feat to design, finance and construct a project of that scale in that timescale - a process that, anywhere else in the world, would surely drag on for many years.
I had first seen the bridge on that classic Shell advert - the one where they race various Ferrari F1 cars through, around and past some of the world's most recognisable cities and landmarks - and I had been keen to visit and see this striking example of spectacular form meeting everyday function ever since.
The weather was still antisocial when I reached the bridge but the sight presented as you approach - much like the Millau Bridge in France - somehow manages to lift your spirit and take your breath away. I couldn't help but park my car and walk its length in an effort to get my head around its scale and to appreciate its beauty. Part-way across I met a couple from Tokyo who were also braving the elements. They had also seen that commercial and had decided that it might be nice to travel to each location and grab a photo of them standing there holding a large photo grab from the commercial. I wish I had their time and money and, even though they seemed excited enough to be there, I really wish that they'd had better weather for their photo.
I headed back to Sydney with no choice but to play the parking lottery game and was lucky to only have to move the car twice before the restrictions ended in the daily 10pm free-for-all. Later that evening Dan suggested that we head out for a few hours and we ended up visiting the Sydney Olympic Park on the outskirts of town. I have been lucky enough to have visited various other Olympic sites on my travels (including Montreal and Atlanta as well as the Winter Olympic sites at Lillehammer and Vancouver) but Sydney was in a league of its own. The entire site was very impressive and it had clearly been a lovingly maintained facility since the Olympians packed their bags and left town after one of the most successful games of all time. Given the propensity for each host city to try and outdo the last (Beijing was said to have offered facilities which were superior even to Sydney) I look forward to seeing what London can offer in 2012. I suspect that, once again, we'll see low goals set and have to sit and watch as we fail in our efforts to meet even them. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Wembley Stadium, the Millennium Dome, the... oh, you get the idea.
Early the next morning saw me taking another cross-city dash as I headed off to the airport for my flight to Ayers Rock where I would join a three-day tour of Uluru, Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) and Watarrka (Kings Canyon). Ayers Rock Airport is, like Gustavus in Alaska, one of those small airports where every landing turns into an emergency landing. Given the recent regularity at which Qantas has tried to kill it's passengers it was surprising that there was no real panic as we slammed into the tarmac and screeched to a rather exciting halt. Just three hours after leaving the cold and rain of Sydney I stepped out of the cabin and into 36 degrees of blistering heat. I could have kissed the tarmac!
We were ushered onto buses and ferried the short distance to our various hotels in the nearby Yulara Resort. I was staying in the Outback Pioneer Hotel which was very nice indeed but, given the cost of the tour that I'd signed up for, I would have expected no less. I figured that, having slummed it at Bathurst, I deserved a little bit of luxury and, much as it went against the grain, I decided to splash a little cash. Sometimes in this life you get what you pay for and this was definitely one of those times.
Despite the cost the entire tour was excellent and, after previous experiences, it was a real treat to be on a bus that didn't rain inside, which was immaculately maintained and driven by a competent driver who offered interesting and informative commentary whilst delivering us to some glorious locations. It was also a treat to spend each evening in quality accommodations rather than sleeping in the open in a swag.
Having had time to check in and grab lunch - a kangaroo wrap washed down with a pint of Guinness - the tour commenced with a drive out to Kata Tjuta. We stopped for photos at alookout before heading the short distance to Walpa Gorge. I had expected that the average age of passengers travelling with APT to be significantly higher than those who would travel with a company such as Western Xposure and had been concerned that the whole thing may be slowed down by a bunch of old women with pacemakers. Our next stop dispelled that preconception and, although the spread of ages and fitness levels was greater than I was used to, the level of personal determination was far higher. Everyone made it to the end of the Olga Gorge hike relatively quickly and without any heart attacks: a successful afternoon all-round then.
By the time that we headed to Uluru to watch the sunset the group had already started to gel but it really took off when, with typical APT style, the spectacular sunset was marked with a huge table full of snacks, nibbles and some very nice wine. It was very civilised indeed and pretty surreal to be standing in such beautiful surroundings, drinking wine and making new friends. I could get used to that life. There was certainly something to be said for spending that little extra money and, whilst I can't afford to do it very often, I was certainly gonna make the most of it whilst I was there.
The following morning - with a slight hangover from the wine; including an extra bottle of red that I had liberated from the table at the end of the previous evening - we had to pack our bags, check out of the hotel and meet the bus at the ungodly hour of 4am. We were then driven out to see the sun rising over Uluru (hot food and drinks provided, naturally) before we were led on the guided Mala Walk. The commentary was fascinating and, along with the stunning scenery, I don't think that there was one person on the tour who didn't leave with a love and respect for the place and the Anangu people.
After a couple of hours to be spent at our leisure, we hopped back onboard the coach and headed off on the 279 km drive to Wattarka National Park. Known to most people simply as Kings Canyon, Wattarka was declared a national park as late as 1983, the land being handed back to the local Luritja people at the same time. Today the Luritja are now heavily involved in the management of the spectacular sandstone gorge and the surrounding areas.
After 150km or so we stopped for a rest break at the Mount Conner Lookout which would normally present an excellent photo opportunity. Such a great photo opportunity, in fact, that it is said to be the outback's greatest red herring as, on first sighting, many mistake it for Uluru itself and start snapping away! Regardless, due to the huge dust storms blowing through the area on that day, we could see next to nothing of the 350m high mesa. In frustration I wandered across the Lasseter Highway where I clambered to the top of the huge sand dune and was surprised to discover that the vantage point presented a great view of the salt lake which was previously Lake Amadeus. Even our driver hadn't realised previously that it was there. In reality it wasn't much of a discovery but I was excited. You can only imagine what went through the mind of W.E Gosse when he ‘discovered' Uluru in 1873.
At the junction of the Luritja Road and Lasseter Highway we stopped again to rendezvous with another APT tour bus for a passenger transfer. We had a 10-15 minute wait which could have been frustrating but, 48 hours after being amongst the hubbub of Sydney, it was surreal to sit (literally) in the middle of the main north-south arterial road (it runs from Darwin to Adelaide - a distance of over 3,000km) and be passed by a single. Eventually the other bus pulled up and, with passengers and luggage cross-loaded, we turned off the main road and headed out through the spectacular George Gill Range towards Watarkka National Park.
There was yet another rest stop at the Kings Creek Station, where I sampled a camel burger for lunch, before we finally arrived in Watarkka. Our options for the following day were explained and we were offered the choice of two different hikes before we were driven out to inspect the route. The Kings Creek Walk was not only shorter and easier than the Kings Canyon Rim Walk - which was described as tough - but it also missed out on all the good stuff such as the Garden of Eden (a lush pocket of cycads around a natural pool), fossilised jellyfish in the rocks, ripple marks from an ancient sea which went out one day and never returned and, of course, those 100m sheer canyon walls. The climb certainly looked tough - it started with a steep climb up ‘Heart Attack Hill' - but I didn't see the point in coming all this way and not doing it.
Decisions made, we were driven to our hotel in the nearby Kings Canyon Resort, where we had the remainder of the afternoon to do as we pleased. Time was getting on and - with some choosing to go to the bar and others choosing to go for a meal - I decided to sit on my balcony and enjoy the baking sun until it finally disappeared into the horizon amidst a spectacular display of colour. There may not have been the wine or company of the previous evening but it was every bit as spectacular as the Uluru sunset.
The good news, as our guide had put it, was that we weren't meeting at 4am on the final day of the tour. No, we had a lie-in... Until 6am. There were no plans for watching the sunrise today - we were up early to avoid the heat of the day as we set off on our walk and, as we headed off up Heart Attack Hill, I was certainly pleased that we'd sacrificed a little of our precious sleep. Our driver was leading the group doing the Kings Creek Walk so those of us who were man enough (!) to tackle the Kings Canyon Rim Walk were with a ranger by the name of Helen.
Now, don't get me wrong, Australia is huge. Vast. If you're not sure how huge, it is comparable in size to the entire continent of Europe or the ‘Lower 48'. So you can imagine my amazement when Ranger Helen turned out to be none other than the Helen who I'd spent some time chatting with when we met a month previously in faraway El Questro. Let's think about that for a moment: it's about as likely as me meeting someone in a bar in Prague and then, one month later, opening my front door to find them stood there trying to sell me double glazing. (If you're reading this - which you obviously are - and you're in the double glazing business - which hopefully you're not - don't even think about it: I've already got nice shiny new windows thanks.
It turned out to be one of those mornings as one of the couples on the walk with us turned out to be from a small town in Nova Scotia named Mahone Bay. The very same Mahone Bay where I'd stayed back in May. They lived about five houses along from the Bed and Breakfast where I stayed and know the owners - who in turn emigrated from my home town - quite well. Bizarre... truly bizarre.
The walk wasn't that tough even though, once again, it forced me to confront just how unfit I had become recently, and was definitely well worth the effort. The views were to die for but, sadly, the end of the walk also signalled the end of the tour. All that was left was the long drive up to Alice Springs where I would catch my flight back to Sydney. The company on the tour had been excellent, the operators were thoroughly professional and it had been thoroughly enjoyable. I would definitely recommend travelling with APT and hope that I can travel with them again in the future. On the route into Alice we stopped at a roadhouse where we shared the forecourt with a tour bus full of backpackers. After the luxury of the past few days it looked horrendous. I knew there and then that I was getting very old.
Back in Sydney I was surprised to be greeted at the airport by Dan who took me back to his apartment to freshen up before we headed out to Penrith to meet up with a friend of his for a meal. It wasn't much of a meal - we went for the easy option of a McDonalds in the end - but afterwards we had a grand old time doing our best to destroy the local bowling alley. I can't believe that we didn't get thrown out for holding an impromptu ‘let's see how far we can throw the ball down the alley' competition but somehow they let it slide. A couple of games later, the sound of that ‘thud' as the ball would hit the floor firmly etched on my mind for eternity, we went our own separate ways. After a tiring few days I sure slept very well that evening.
One of the problems with having used Sydney as a hub was that, with just one full day left before I was due to collect a camper van and head up the east coast, I suddenly realised just how little I'd actually seen of it. I figured there are times to do your own thing and times to play the tourist and, with time running out, this was most definitely tourist time. I took myself off to the nearby bus stop and, having handed over forty bucks, I got to ride the ‘Sydney Explorer' - a hop on-hop off service which takes you to all the highlights - for the remainder of the day. It was surprisingly good but, having ‘hopped off' at half the stops I then ran out of time and had no choice but to ‘hop on' the final bus of the day having seen just a fraction of what was available. The entire city of Sydney is majestic but, even though I managed a bite to eat at the institution that is Harry's Cafe de Wheels - as well as having shopped at Paddy's Market, explored Chinatown, eaten at the Fish Market, sat in Mrs Macquaries Chair and enjoyed a couple of pints on the banks of Darling Harbour - I can't believe that I didn't get to visit the Opera House, The Rocks, Circular Quay or the Maritime Museum. Not to mention the lack of a tick in the ‘climbed Sydney Harbour Bridge' box. If I needed one, I think I just discovered an excuse to come back again soon!
Originally published on - and Copyright retained by - Boogity, Boogity, Boogity
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