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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Hyde Park Barracks

Saturday, 30 April
Partly cloudy, light showers

The course has gone pretty well so far.  It's rainy here, but the students are in pretty good spirits about it.

The cost of everything is a bit of a shock; for example, bananas are a whopping $13.99 AUD per kilo, about $7 USD per pound.  The flooding in January and the tropical cyclone in February ruined the current crop, but that does not explain the cost of other items.  Sydney usually is the most expensive place, and that there are no real kitchen facilities here at the Y Hotel does not help us hold down costs.

We always start by chucking our bags in a store room here and then getting out and walking right away.  Any kind of rest period just delays the inevitable acclimation.  So, we wandered around a bit by the Domain and the Botanical Gardens, and then went to the Hyde Park Barracks to begin our tour.

It is inevitable to compare the plane seats to the hammocks.  Here, Heather, Sabrina, Brittanie, Jennifer, and Mariah (left-to-right) enjoy the comfy beds that the lucky Convicts would have.

The hammocks were a small comfort in a life that was probably quite miserable.  Here is Daniel in leg irons:

Once Australia was no longer being used by the Brits as a Convict colony, the Barracks were used for other purposes, including a home for young Irish women who would come to Australia in hopes of a better life.  Here, Mariah and Brady model some of the typical clothing of the women.

The exhibits at the Barracks are very interactive.  This large space has numerous cutout figures of Convicts in various poses.

After we finished at the Barracks, we dispersed for awhile for lunch.  When Coleen and I caught back up with the group, they were being entertained by a bubble-maker.

We spent our afternoon at the Australian Museum, after which everyone went back to the hotel to rest up for the Aquarium and the Zoo.

Some observations

This is a free day for the students, which means we have no planned activities. That means I can sleep in, so of course I was wide awake at 3:00 a.m. It’s raining again; that might change the order in which Charlie and I do things. Right now, Charlie is Skyping with his dad. I wish I could find a way to Skype in Hyde Park. Everyone knows what a hotel room looks like, but you must see those fig trees!

I haven’t included all my observations in the earlier entries, so I will mention a few here:

1. Most toilets have two flush options.

2. Sydney Aquarium has the coolest sinks ever! From a distance, the sinks look like a table or a counter. Up close, I see the slight indentations under the faucets. The water drains through a slash in the back wall of the sink.

3. We had a two hour train ride to the Blue Mountains from Sydney. A large number of young school children ride the train in the morning. When we arrived at their school stop, I noticed two children in the same uniform already on the platform. Were they going to get on the train and play hooky? No, they were there waiting for their friends to arrive. That was sweet.

4. On the train back to Sydney, Charlie and I watched an elderly woman struggle with her cart on the stairs of a station. Two young men walked by her, and without a word, one of them picked up the cart and carried it up the stairs for her.

5. So, just an hour later when we were at our station, a woman was trying to bounce her luggage up the stairs. One of students grabbed a corner of the bag, Charlie grabbed another corner, and the three of them got the bag up the stairs.

6. As I mentioned in an earlier posting, the Blue Mountains were bathed in fog for most of our visit. At one of our overlooks, the fog lifted, the students’ cameras snapped away, and then the fog dropped again. Incredibly cool.

7. Throughout our walk in the mountains, I saw a plant with a flower that looked as if a cob of corn had exploded into whiskers instead of popcorn. I was at the front of the line near the guide for most of the walk (I am the quiz-master and so I need to hear the guide), but she waited until the last hour to answer my question. It is a bottle-brush banksia. Of course! Once she said that, my “corn cobs” did in fact look like brushes.

8. Due to the fog, we paid a lot of attention to the flora that was close. The native trees are not deciduous; none lose their leaves. However, some lose their bark. One of the trees close to me had peeled bark with an intricate design; I thought it had been carved. Charlie tells me the patterns are larva trails.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Blue Mountains

It wasn’t raining when we woke up this morning, but it started up before breakfast. It’s raining now, at the end of our day. In between, we had a treat – a foggy, muddy trek down the mountain that best affords the view of the Three Sisters and the Katoomba Falls.

We had a dismal start. The guide sent us to three viewing spots, all of which should have been spectacular if Charlie is to be believed, but we saw a wall of white. That was eerie and impressive, but we didn’t travel for 3 hours to look at fog. For most of us, a trip to the Blue Mountains is a once-in-a-lifetime event and the inability to see the rock formation known as the Three Sisters was heartbreaking.

Still, there was plenty to see as we hiked down the mountain. The path was water-logged, the steps treacherous, but our guide was correct in that what was near us (gum trees, mountain ash, tea trees, mountain devil bushes) shown more brightly in the fog. We saw a few birds and some flowers. There were many overhangs in the rock face; not quite caves, but we had some respite from drips when walking under them. Towards the end of our walk, there was an overhang AND a flat rock formation beneath it, and we were all able to sit down and stay dry (well, keep from getting wetter) as our guide told us a few more facts and stories.

We walked for about two hours in the morning, broke for lunch, and walked for another two hours. As I said earlier, at the start we could only see what was right in front of us. 45 to 60 minutes later, we came to an outlook point and realized the fog had thinned a bit. In one direction we could see tree-covered mountains extending indefinitely. In another direction was a bare, sheer cliff face. Both views were stunning.

We worked our way to the bottom of Katoomba Falls. Due to all the recent rain, quite a bit of water was flowing down this cliff. We had perhaps 5 more views of the falls as we hiked a path that took us to the side of the mountain across from the falls.

We broke for lunch at one of the entry points for the hiking paths. There is a gift shop and eatery there. Over lunch I told Charlie I regretted my inability to share the experience of seeing the Three Sisters with him; this is one of his favorite places to in Australia. We walked out to the overlook after lunch and to our shock the fog had lifted enough so that the formation was visible. What a relief! And then what pleasure! The students had a chance to see the 3 rock towers a few minutes into our resumed walk, and again, and again. Most of our overlooks on the hike after lunch allowed us to see both the Katoomba Falls and the Three Sisters.

We wrapped up our visit by taking the rail car back to our lunch spot. That was a cramped and slightly scary ride up the side of the mountain. But I was so worn out by then, I appreciated not having to walk up.

Tomorrow is a free day for the students.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Aquarium and the Zoo

We awoke to the sound of pouring rain this morning. Charlie left right after breakfast to buy ferry/subway passes for everyone. We need to ride the ferry to the Taronga Zoo, but we could also use the passes to take the subway to the Sydney Aquarium. The rain was such that the group walking with Charlie decided we could make it to the aquarium on foot. I am the caboose on these walks, a term suggested by one of our students.

I know I will forget at least one of the exhibitions at the aquarium. This is what I can remember: platypus, Murray and Darling River aquatic life, the Coral Reef, small penguins. There were two circular tanks, one displaying sharks and the other containing the dugongs, rays, and reef fish. As we walked through, the creatures were on our right, on our left, and above us. An even more extensive display of the Coral Reef and its fish filled the center of maybe half a dozen rooms. Seats were provided in several of these rooms so that a person just could sit and watch.

We took a ferry from the aquarium to Circular Quay and then a ferry to the Taronga Zoo. The students were required to attend the kangaroo/wallaby exhibit and the bird show. A group of four students showed us wonderful photos of their interactions with the kangaroos. I hope they post them to the blog. Nearly all the kangaroos had their backs to us when Charlie and I walked through, as if they were annoyed with us. I did see one hop around a bit, but the kangaroo didn’t hop long enough for me to see how that works. I think the kangaroo placed its front legs onto the ground and pushed off the back legs. I should have more opportunities to watch a kangaroo in motion at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane.

The bird show was too short! Charlie was buzzed by an owl, and at the end of the show I “fed” a coin to a bird that promptly dropped it into a donation box. There was some tension when a wedge-tailed eagle took its time returning to the trainer. The show was opened by a bird who unfurled the banner by plucking a string; it was incredibly charming. For the second day in a row, our “guide” was American.

Charlie and I visited the exhibit featuring the nocturnal animals. The lighting is dim, and so the animals are more or less visible as they forage and frolic. The lighting will gradually get brighter after the zoo closes, and so the animals, thinking it is day, will go off and sleep.

Last year Charlie saw a cassowary in the wild. We saw two at the zoo. If cassowaries go extinct, there are plants and trees that will also cease to exist as the germination of their seeds can’t happen until the seeds pass through the digestive system of a cassowary.

The cost of eating is much higher than I expected. Charlie took me to two grocery stores last night, and I was stunned by the milk and fresh fruit prices. Tonight we returned and purchased bread, peanut butter, and jelly along with some items for tonight’s and tomorrow’s dinners. At least half of our students are doing the same. The hotel has a small kitchen with a microwave, and so we have some options beyond eating out each night. Our continental breakfast at the hotel is free.

Tomorrow we leave early for the Blue Mountains.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

We're in Australia!

After a fairly uneventful 14-hour flight from LA, we arrived in Sydney. We hit the ground running; we disembarked around 7:00 a.m. and Charlie had us walking to the ANZAC memorial in Hyde Park by 9:00.

The walk through Hyde Park and The Domain (which adjoins the Royal Botanic Gardens) took us past fig trees with amazingly huge trunks. Some of the walkways had thick canopies of tree branches. In fact, it was raining off and on this morning, and even when it poured, we were protected from the rain when under the canopy.

At 10:30, we started our tour of the Barracks Museum. The first white settlements in Australia consisted of convicts and their guards. The barracks were built to house the male convicts in the Sydney settlement. The third floor of the museum replicates the sleeping quarters, complete with dozens of hammocks. With one exception, we all climbed into hammocks and rested there as the guide described the living conditions and daily schedule of these men. Charlie did not rest, but moved down the row of hammocks, accepting cameras from the students, and snapping their pictures.

Thanks to detailed records of punishments inflicted on the convicts, and the multitude of rats that used cloth and small items for nest-building, much has been determined about the way of life for the men and women housed here in the 19th century. When Great Britain stopped shipping convicts to Australia, female immigrants lived in the barracks until they found work in the community.

In some of the rooms, boxes of typical clothing were available. A couple of our students obliged and modeled these for us, including a standard long skirt, blouse, and bonnet for the female and the jester-like apparel forced upon the male convict who continued in his wicked, wicked ways.

We separated for lunch. There were a few street performers out and about, the most notable one blowing huge bubbles for our students to photograph.

In the afternoon we had a guided tour of the Australian indigenous peoples exhibit at the Australian Museum. The guide was quite passionate and knowledgeable – and American! He paralleled the treatment of the first inhabitants of Australia by the white government to the treatment of the Native Americans by white America.

The museum has many other exhibits, and I’m thinking of returning on a day when I’m not so tired. The guided tours and the other wings of the Australian Museum will help our students choose the topic of their reports- - well, that’s the plan.

Monday, April 25, 2011

One day, that is all that is left in the count down. Today, I have been out and about enjoying sunny California. I've been here in California for a day and a half now visting a friend from high school. I really like it out here, much different from where I live in upstate New York. I'm so excited to get on our way tomorrow, as I have been planning and waiting for this trip for years now.


I'm looking out the window of our hotel near LAX. It is so overcast, the ever-changing colorful pillars that dot the ramp seem to be holding up the sky. I haven't discerned the pattern yet, but at one point the pillars in my view were all violet.

I have adjusted to the new time zone. But this is a baby step. The course is designed so that once we hit the ground in Sydney, we will be occupied for nearly 10 hours. If Charlie's stories of past trips are true for us, the excitement will pull us through the jet lag.

Time to repack and search the hotel stores for something I forgot.