AUSTRALIA, JULY 2014
After our flight from Auckland (see What happened to Wednesday?) Chris and I landed at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport to stay with our daughter Eleanor, husband Mark and our one year old grandson Jacob. They lived in a house in Annandale which was about two miles west of the city centre. Two blocks away north was Jubilee Park, which was one of many neighbourhood parks around this part of Sydney. Along with plenty of green space, an AFL pitch and a playground, it also boasted a promenade walk round one of the inlets of the Parramatta River where you could count the millionaire yachts and cruisers moored around it. Demand was so great they were building a multi-storey indoor boat yard to house some of them.
Having been to Sydney three times before, the major sightseeing stops were not on the agenda. Instead we slotted into a Sydney groove and spent much more time at the places which we liked. Thus much time was spent at the Gallery of New South Wales. They were showing the finalists of the Archibald Prize, which is the equivalent of the BP Portrait Prize in the UK. It reminded me how ephemeral fame is. Out of the sixty odd portraits, the only two people I recognised were Cate Blanchett and Barry Humphries.
The five of us went for a long weekend to Tasmania. We landed at Hobart Airport, for which I think the term ‘aerodrome’ would be more apposite. We started at Port Arthur, which is the notorious penal colony at the tip of a long peninsula. The received wisdom is that it was a hell on Earth, to which people were transported from Britain for the most minor of crimes to rot and be forgotten.
In fact, as our guide explained, the truth was somewhat different. Generally, only multiple repeat offenders were sent there, and through a carrot and stick regime the aim was to convert recidivists into decent workers and labourers – of which there was an acute shortage in Australia.
On the face of it some of the crimes that got you sent to Port Arthur were pretty trivial though. For example, we heard of the case of a man being sent there for stealing a piece of rope. But the magistrate was kind, for if he had been found guilty of what he really did he would have hanged. At the other end of the piece of rope was a race horse!
We stayed in a suburb of Hobart in a 1920s bungalow with several bedrooms and one large living and kitchen area. Sydney in July was chilly but Hobart was cold, and the absence of any bedroom heating, double glazing or insulation felt like a journey back to the 1960s. However, woolly hats had been packed, and we set off to explore the city.
Despite having only 250,000 inhabitants Hobart boasts a huge Saturday morning street market in Salamanca Place. We were treated to a very serious cheese tasting at one stall and came away with some highly expensive but wonderfully tasty unpasteurised local fromage.
That afternoon Chris and I took the fast ferry to Tassie’s major cultural attraction – MONA. The power boat tore up the River Derwent to a jetty where you climb 99 steps. At the top I looked around and could not see the gallery. All there was was the entrance to Southdale shopping mall, and an employee car park. Two of the parking spots had signs saying ‘God’ and ‘God’s mistress’ so we thought we must be in the right place. Eventually we went into the shopping mall and discovered it was a little arty ruse (ha ha) and we were really in the gallery.
The place was paid for by David Walsh, a professional gambler who had become a multi-millionaire on the proceeds. You wonder how, when you hear of people being thrown out of casinos for blinking suspiciously, someone could take them for so much money without them noticing – clever fellow.
The Museum of Old and New Art is actually underground over three basements within a vast chasm hollowed out under a cliff. It’s more of an experience than an art gallery. One piece consists of a beam than releases combinations of water drops which create words as they drop 20 feet to the floor. This goes whoosh… whoosh… whoosh all the time and each whoosh is a word.
Another is a sort of Spirograph that does random drawings using a pen connected to a mechanism driven by the strength and direction of the wind outside.
The (rather smelly) highlight is a series of glass vessels and pipes that recreate the human digestive system. Periodically food is put into the first vessel and if you had eight hours to spare you could watch it be digested as it passes through successive jars until the end, where there is a small opening with a plate underneath containing… you guessed.
On our last day in Tassie we drove up the long and winding road to the top of Mount Wellington which is 4,000 feet high and is the backdrop to the city. The temperature was barely two degrees and there was snow on the ground.
But it was worth it for the stunning view of the city and the beautiful irregularity of the bays, headlands, inlets and peninsulas that stretched around the coast – and also for the uber-cool architect-designed toilets that were thoughtfully provided (Helvellyn take note).
Then it was back down the hill for coffee in the pretty harbour-side neighbourhood of Battery Point, which seemed very English apart from the corrugated iron roofs. Our last stop was Seven Mile Beach – a huge stretch of golden sand next to a sparkling bay. Here Mark and I enjoyed fresh oysters from the nearby waters, while Jacob got on with some serious digging.
We stole away from Sydney for a quick overnight trip to Canberra. The national capital sits about 200 miles south of Sydney and I rather fancied taking the train. The first-class fare was $111, about £65, for the round trip which I thought was reasonable and worth the 30% premium on the economy fare. After all, when I went First Class on Virgin a few months ago they plied me with so much free food and drink I could scarcely stand when I got to London.
Alas, no such luck here. Not only was there no free anything, but the first class and economy seats were exactly the same except for a bit more leg room – which was generous to start with. Yet despite this blatant rip-off first class was busier than economy. I was later told by a local friend that a lot of people preferred first-class because it was less noisy and boisterous than economy.
This was no express: the train meandered out of the city and eventually hit the open plains. If there was a hill ahead, the driver would speed us up to take a run at it, practically slowing to a halt at the crest and then coasting down the other side. At Goulburn the line split with a branch off to Canberra – the national capital, remember – that was a single track twisting and turning through gaps in the rocks until, four and a half hours after leaving Sydney, we arrived at the most modest of stations.
Canberra – as you probably know – was planned from scratch. An American called Walter Burley Griffin (helped considerably by his wife Marion) won a competition in 1911 for the grand plan, but it was not until the 1970s that the whole scheme came together with the completion of major national buildings and the lake that is the city’s centrepiece.
The basic concept of the heart of the place is a triangle with the lake in the middle. At one apex is the parliament and most of the cultural buildings, at another is the military element with the national war memorial and defence academy, and finally there is Civic which is where the shops, theatre and restaurants are and which is as dull as it sounds. Within this framework some of the key buildings are wonderful.
The National Gallery has a brilliant modern collection. The National Museum tells the story of Australia in many original ways. There is a great exhibition all about the story of Canberra itself.
We also went into the parliament building – a kind of gigantic grass covered igloo with a tiara on the top – where we got into the public gallery to hear MPs discussing aspects of a health bill. The four of us in the gallery outnumbered the members in the chamber as MPs spoke and then disappeared without hearing the response from the other side. It all seemed a bit tame compared with the stories of MPs trading insults and hurling vitriol at each other which we were led to believe was the warp and weft of Australian politics.
As a pedestrian the big problem is that Canberra is rather spread out. Getting from the Canberra exhibition to the National Museum and then to the National Library involved walking several miles even they are only hundreds of yards apart, thanks to the ins and outs of the lake shore. What they needed was some of those little ferries that worked so well in Vancouver.
As we waited for our bus to the station for the slow train back to Sydney there was just time to catch the experience of James Turrell’s Within Without at the National Gallery. Turrell has done a series of exterior works where you enter a chamber and can sit down to look up through an oculus at a tiny part of the sky.
Sometimes it was just blue, sometimes clouds moved over but by seeing only a fragment of them you were able to study and enjoy them properly. This reminded me of some of the astonishing skies we had seen already in Australia – especially towards sunset when the last light catches a glorious variety of shapes and makes the clouds almost pearlescent. This part of the world is a cloud watcher’s paradise.
Our last week in Sydney went much too fast, but we spent lots of time with Jacob in the parks, playgrounds, museums and beaches that make the city so special. Despite avoiding the tourist hot spots for three weeks I have to admit that on the last afternoon before we left I did do a quick dash round the Opera House, got a ferry over to Luna Park and then legged it back over the Harbour Bridge. Standing on the bridge looking at the ferries sailing in and out of Circular Quay past the Opera House has to be one of the great places to stop for five minutes and let the world swirl around you.
Next day we got on a big jet home and through a little window watched the clouds from above rather than below.
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