Saturday, December 31

Farewell 2011

Garry and I have celebrated the end of another remarkable year by joining hundreds of thousands, if not a million or more, people to watch Sydney's New Years Eve fireworks.  We bought tickets to an evening of food and entertainment at the Opera Kitchen precident located in the shadows of Sydney's Opera House.  Throughout the evening we enjoyed sushi, sashimi, gourmet burgers, roasted salmon and other delights as live music, interactive drumming, fire performances, body painting, roving stilt walkers and a six piece soul/jazz band filled the hours before midnight.

The first ten minute firework extravaganza began at 9.00pm and included displays from the Sydney's highest buildings, the harbour bridge and a chain of barges moored mid-harbour. A parade of lighted boats then proceeded to tour the harbour before everyone settled in for a 12-minute pyrotechnic display at midnight. It didn't take long to see why Sydney's celebration is the envy of the world.  What a show it was! Fireworks began exploding from every direction, in all manner of colours, shapes and sizes, culminating in a display that saw the Harbour Bridge transformed into a waterfall of colour, as exploding stars and flares lit up the entire harbour.

I'll leave you with photos of the evening, including highlights from the A$6.5 million fireworks spectacular. You can also watch a video of the display here, which includes the official soundtrack broadcast on a local FM station, along with some dazzling aerial footage. Happy New Year everyone!

Wednesday, December 28

Wisemans Ferry

Wisemans Ferry is possibly the best known ferry crossing on the Hawkesbury River, 75kms north of central Sydney. It’s a picturesque location, steeped in early-European convict history. A ferry service was established here in 1827 to transport provisions to convicts building the Great North Road between Sydney and the Newcastle region. For many years the route served as one of the main roads north out of the Sydney basin. Vehicles would travel north to the river, cross to the opposite bank then continue up the scenic, verdant MacDonald River valley. The route declined in popularity once Peats Ferry Bridge at Brooklyn opened in 1945.

We took advantage of today’s sunny weather by driving along the Hawkesbury River from Brooklyn, via Monsoon Creek, to Wisemans Ferry. Our leisurely circular route covered more than 250kms, taking in the traffic-choked Pacific Highway, the sweeping freeway curving through Kuring-gai Chase National Park and the winding, empty roads of the Northern Hawkesbury River.

We initially joined the aptly named Wisemans Ferry Road, 13kms north of Peats Ridge where a tranquil country lane follows meandering tributaries towards Monsoon Creek.The creek itself is a broad sweeping river that ultimately joins the Hawkesbury River near the small village of Spencer. It was here that we stopped for lunch, enjoying a classic Australian hamburger at the local country store. The store sits opposite a short, wooden plank jetty where we watched boats regularly coming and going, often stopping to collect their own dose fast food, or the odd case of beer.

The road then turned west and wound its way along the northern bank of the broad and somewhat majestic Hawkesbury. As we soaked in the tree-clad water views, birds could be heard calling over sound of the Saab’s purring engine. By accident we found ourselves driving up the MacDonald valley as far as St Albans.

This quaint rural settlement is best known for its nineteenth century pioneer pub, built from local sandstone. The impressive structure was originally built as a stopover for Cobb and Co. stagecoaches traveling between Sydney and Newcastle. Today it’s a popular watering hole for tourists who gather on picnic tables under the shade of towering eucalyptus gum trees. Several miles down river we stumbled across the town's original graveyard located on a quiet bend in the road.

We retraced our route back down the valley towards the Webb Creek ferry, where a five-minute crossing saw us deposited safely on the Hawkesbury’s southern bank. From here the road climbs abruptly to a scenic outlook over the river valley. We stopped briefly to admire the lush green scene before continuing back to Sydney and the bustle of urban life.

Our day finished on another high note when I received a response to an ad I'd placed online this morning. Last week we ended up with a spare ticket to the New Years Eve fireworks at the Opera House. Our English friend Martin had planned to fly in from London to join us until his mother was unexpected hospitalized. However, we've been able to off-load our spare ticket at roughly half its face value. This was my first attempt at online selling so it was a pleasant surprise to discover how swiftly and effortlessly the transaction occurred.

Tuesday, December 27

Galston Gorge

The road through Galston Gorge is one of the most unusual roadways in the Sydney region. It takes cars from the wide streets of Hornsby down a narrow winding road punctuated by numerous tight hairpin turns deep into a narrow bush-clad gorge. At the base of the gorge an old one-way wooden bridge takes you across Tunks Creek, a tributary of Berowra Creek to a second concrete-arch bridge that crosses Berowra Creek itself. On a good day a journey through the gorge takes about 20 minutes.

The road’s bends are so tight and steep that the traffic over 7.5 metres in length is banned. However, at least three vehicles annually become stuck. So far this year, two such incidents have been reported. On February 8 the Gorge road was closed for more than four hours after a trailer carrying five horses became trapped. A month later a coach, well over the length restriction, also had to be rescued. Despite these hazards an average of 5,000 vehicles traverse the road each day.

I’m fascinated why a road through the middle of nowhere was ever constructed. The original wooden bridges were built in 1891, with the bridge crossing Tunks Creek still in use today. The bridges were built before the road was completed, by hauling each wooden beam through the bush with horse teams. The road itself was finally opened in 1893.

A little research reveals that the road was the championed by Matthew Charlton, a stone-cutter and boat-builder who lived on the banks of Berowra Creek. He was seeking a timelier route to the Hornsby railway station for his goods, as were a growing number of orchardists and farmers in the nearby Dural region. Prior to the opening of the road, most produce was transported to Sydney via Berowra Creek.

Water transport often began its journey from a tidal bay along the creek called Berowra Waters. A pioneering man by the name of Jack Smith established a boat shed here in 1898. The shed still stands today. In 1900, another road of tight hairpin turns was built down to boatshed from Berowra railway station. A hand-operated punt would then take vehicles across the water to a second road winding its way up an opposing valley to Galston.

A century later, the area’s commercial heritage has been superseded by more recreational pursuits. It’s now a popular boat launching spot, offering picturesque picnic locations and a popular fish cafe. However, the ferry service remains in operation, plying the creek 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Sunday, December 25

A picture perfect Christmas!

Christmas Day began with clear blue skies, plenty of sunshine and not a breath of wind. Above is the view that greeted me at 7:30am as I rose to check the weather.  What a perfect start to Christmas!  Merry Christmas everyone!

Saturday, December 24

Paid in full

I am debt-free! This week I repaid the remaining balance on my share of our apartment’s mortgage. The final payment was made just a month shy of the loan’s eighth anniversary. I never imagined I’d ever be able to clear my share of the debt so swiftly. In a roller-coaster year of emotions, both high and low, reaching this milestone has been an uplifting way to end 2011.

Technically the bank still considers me indebted as Garry has yet to pay down his remaining share of the mortgage. Encouragingly, a steady rise in Sydney house prices over the last eight years means that the outstanding balance is barely a quarter of the apartment’s current value. As negative economic headlines continue to dominate the news it’s encouraging to know that our financial future is increasingly secure.

Friday, December 23

Bananas for everyone

The Summer solstice has come and gone. The longest day of the year was marked by rain, and plenty of it. The regular bouts of wet weather have been a boon for our garden. Everything is looking lush, healthy and growing like crazy. I cannot recall a time when our balcony foliage looked better.

The wet weather has also had a surprising impact on the price of fresh fruit and vegetables. Prices for most produce is well below those reported for the same period last year. It seems that the cooler, damp conditions have reduced demand for many traditional Summer fruits and vegetables. As a result, supermarkets had been purchasing only half the quantity of product at the wholesale markets, leaving the rest to sell at heavily discounted prices. Bargains abound. For example, you can buy twice as many mangoes this year compared with last Summer.

The price of bananas has also plunged in recent weeks as new crops mature following the havoc wreaked by Cyclone Yasi in February. In the wake of this disaster, the price of bananas soared, peaking around $15.00 per kilo in June. This month prices have plunged below $2.00. Bananas are once again making a weekly appearance in our fridge.

Finally, as we finalise preparations for Christmas Day, the weather bureau has confirmed that weather on the day will be dry with regular bouts of sunshine.

Sunday, December 11

English weather Down Under

Tommorrow we celebrate the first anniversary of our departure from London.  I cannot believe it's been a year already.  I know everyone says that but honestly, it really does feel like only a few months have passed.

It seems Garry and I returned just as a La Nina weather cycle began sweeping across Australia. La Nina typically brings a greater chance of clouds, rain and humidity which has certainly been our experience. Since January we’ve seen Brisbane stuck by record floods and the nation's largest cyclone in memory strike Queensland.  Meanwhile, Sydney has been regularly doust by rain and cooler than average temperatures.

Last week Sydney recorded its coldest start to Summer in half a century. For the first seven days of December temperatures struggled to rise above 20°C. December 7 proved the warmest day when temperatures peaked at 22°C. The city's long-term average maximum for this time of year is 25°C. It was 1960 the last time Sydney was this cold.  It's hard not to compare this experience with London which recently enjoyed its warmest October on record.

UPDATE: December 23, 2011
The wet start to Summer has had a noticable impact on one iconic measure of tlocal weather conditions.  Today's news was filled with reports that water levels at Warragamba Dam, Sydney's primary water source, have exceeded 80 per cent for the first time since June 2002.  Dam levels fell as low as 33 per cent as recently as February 2007.  According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the last time dams in the Sydney region were technically full was 1998.

Sunday, December 4

'Tis the season

The festive season is upon us. Our Christmas tree went up today as we countdown the final three weeks to Christmas. Trimming the tree bought back plenty of memories. I discovered box after box of ornaments that I'd forgotten we'd bought while in the UK. The final results looks stunning.

We also have a friend visiting from London over the Christmas/New Year period.  Martin's been asking to see the city's famous New Year's Eve fireworks up close and personal. It's been some time since we last witness the annual spectacle up close so we're keen to grant to his wish.  However, almost a million people line the shores of the harbour every year making for an unpleasant crowd-crushing experience. 

Photo © Ilya Genkin

As a result, Garry and I have spent a week searching the web for less gruelling options. The fireworks watching events on offer are impressive; from private yacht in the harbour, a gala dinner at the Opera House (only $900 a head), an outdoor picnic in the grounds of the Botanic Gardens (much cheaper at $325) and a ten-course degustation menu in a five-star hotel (an eye-watering $1,000 per person).  After hours of searching we think we've found the perfect solution at a reasonable price.

With a little luck we'll be standing on the bridge-facing forecourt of the Opera House, with a spectacular ring-side view of the fireworks.  I called the venue last night and was told they still had tickets available, at a reasonable price.  Best of all, we'll have some shelter if the current bout of rain persists into the New Year.  Stay tuned for some spectacular photos!

UPDATE:  December 5
Hooray! Our tickets have been confirmed for the Opera House forecourt.

Saturday, December 3

The Glacier Express

The first anniversary of our departure from London is barely a week away. We cannot believe a year has passed. It feels like only yesterday that we were riding trains through the snow-clad Swiss Alps. As I look back through old blog posts I can see we never told you about our day trip on the stunning Glacier Express.

This is scenic tourist train that traverses the spine of Switzerland’s alpine region. It runs 291kms from the exclusive ski resort of St Moritz west towards Zermatt, nestled on the slopes of the Matterhorn. The route takes passengers through winding, picturesque river valleys, across plunging rocky gorges and over soaring, narrow mountain passes. The entire journey takes the better part of a day to complete.

Our itinerary didn’t allow for an end-to-end passage so we boarded the train at Chur, a town 65kms north of St Moritz, before leaving it at Brig, about 40km east of Zermatt. However, even this truncated four-hour route was worth every penny. The views were unbelievable and, as luck would have it, we travelled on a day filled with blue sky and sunshine for most our journey. In fact, the weather was nothing short of a miracle. At the time, Northern Europe was being smothered by the heaviest snowstorm in decades.

The train itself is designed to ensure the best possible view. Each carriage offer wide, panoramic windows that stretch the length of each carriage and up into the roof line. We booked seats that offered a hot lunch served in comfort at our table; a far cry from the arduous, bitterly cold trek endured by generations past. Our only tribulation was trying to take memorable photos without distracting glare and reflections.

From Chur we journeyed through the Rhine Gorge, where towering cliff faces follow the tracks for miles. The train then hooks on to a special cogwheel locomotive before making its way slowly up the Oberalppass. At 2033 metres, this is the highest point of the journey. Here the train glides past snow-capped mountains surrounded by undulating landscape of white in every direction. At times it was as if the train was travelling through the blank pages of an unfinished novel.

It then descends along a series of dramatic, twisting spirals and cliff-hugging ledges to the town of Andermatt, one the main north-south route across the Alps. The train then passes through the Furka Basis Tunnel for 15kms, a 20-minute journey in darkness before emerging in a completely different valley system; the Rhone, filled with tiny villages and rolling hills. Here the track also drops 150 metres down to the valley floor by lopping through a 270° spiral tunnel.

We left the train at Brig as our final destination was north to the city of Bern. However, we made the most of our Eurail ticket by catching the local train that deftly winds its way up the opposite side of the valley. Our train slowly wound its way ever higher through yet more stunning landscape and alpine vistas before plunging into the 14.5km long Lötschberg Tunnel. This was once the only way across the Alps in the immediate area until a new, even longer Lötschberg Base Tunnel was opened in 2007.

Garry and I were fascinated by the car shuttle service that takes accompanied vehicles through the tunnel. The main road literally ends in a rail siding where cars are driven onto open sided freight carriages and taken through the mountain. They then disembark 20 minutes later at the opposite end where the road begins again. At peak times, the car transport service operates every 7½ minutes in each direction. Gosh the Swiss are ingenious.