Stunning Sydney

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Sydney Harbor Bridge with the Opera House in the distance.

Sydney Harbor without a doubt defines the city of Sydney, Australia.Distinguishing landmarks such as the Opera House and the Sydney Harbor Bridge simply help define this long, magnificent stretch of water. As symbolic as the Opera House is to the city, if it were not located on the harbor, much of its unique beauty would be diminished. Strong words, yes, but now having spent nearly 2 weeks in Sydney — much of it on or next to the harbor — I feel able to stake this opinion. Three factors brought me into the fold of devoted Sydney fans: the Opera House, the James Craig, an 1840 barque of the Sydney Heritage Fleet & the Maritime Museum, and the city’s harbor fleet.

Sydney operates a fleet of vessels from catamarans to refurbished tugs that are the harbor contingent of the city’s transportation system. The city is spread across the northern and southern shores for about 40 kilometers from the headlands on the Tasman Sea to where the Paramatta River empties into the harbor in the west, the ferry system is a complex web which is thoroughly enjoyable to travel upon. We spent many hours traversing the harbor on the ferry system, a very enjoyable and relaxing mode of transportation that shows off the harbor’s treasures.

 

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Sydney Opera House — simply none other like it.

View a picture of Jorn Utzon’s innovative Opera House and you immediately recognize the setting as Sydney, Australia.

The Sydney Opera House has become as iconic to Sydney as the Eiffel tower is to Paris. What most people do not realize, is that the Sydney Opera House came close to never being built.

For starters, Utzon’s simple schematic – he didn’t submit architectural drawings – initially didn’t come close to making the short list. When a fourth person, belatedly, was added to the original design committee, he insisted on reviewing all the submissions. Spotting Utzon’s design, he pulled it from the rejection pile and requested a second review.

And just like that, Utzon shot from obscurity as a minor Danish architect to front page news.

The road from acceptance of a basic line drawing to a finished, functioning arts venue was neither easy nor pleasant. While the construction followed Utzon’s original design, the interior was designed and made functional by other architects and engineers. “Professional disagreements,” or squabbles between design committee, architect(s), engineers, and others; massive cost overruns; hash-slinging in the media; led to withholding of funding and even project termination due to a change in government. The wrangling between Utzon, the engineers and other architects, and the project’s various powerful backers became so inflamed that Utzon left Australia in 1966, washing his hands of the entire process, never to return during his lifetime to see the completion of his greatest work

Photo of opera house with ferry

Nonetheless, the political issues, the architectural and engineering snafus and even the funding were smoothed out sufficiently for the Opera House to be completed and open its doors in 1973 – 14 years after construction began. The project at completion was also severely in the red. The solution? A national lottery. Over several years the special lottery raised over $105 million – debt paid. Even the feud between Utzon and Sydney was resolved 1999. Although invited back to Sydney to see “his” opera house, Utzon was unable to return to Australia due to fragile health in his declining years. However, his son, also an architect, has continued to work with the city — with Jorn’s participation before his death in 2008 – to lay out Design Principles to govern future  renovations or modifications to the facility.

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The exterior tiles of the Opera House are multi-layered ceramic of slightly different shades of both glossy and matte white, designed to radiantly reflect ambient light both day and night.

The third aspect that made Sydney special to us was the Australian National Maritime Museum and, specifically, our day cruise on the James Craig, a renovated 1840 square sailed merchant barque on loan to the museum. Rescued from a slow, rusting death in Tasmania, the ship was restored over a 20+ year period and is part of the Sydney Heritage Fleet. Usually a replica of Captain James Cook’s Endeavor occupies this berth at the museum, but she was on exhibit elsewhere in Australia at the time of our visit. The James Craig  is the only known 19th century merchant vessel still afloat, under sail, and taking on passengers on cruises. We were lucky enough to do so.

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The James Craig as seen from the Maritime Museum’s 1920 lighthouse relocated from Queensland, Australia.

We spent nearly 5 hours touring the historic lighthouse and several retired commercial and naval vessels. When we were informed that a special cruise on the  James Craig was scheduled for the next day, we signed on. Guests could participate as they wished in the manning of the ship, and many of us did, from hauling on lines to raise or lower sails, or determining speed the old fashioned way with a knotted rope and wood plank, and ringing the hours on the ship’s bell (my forte). With perfect weather, the day was exceptional.

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Michael and other volunteers readying to haul on a line to raise some sheets (sails).

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Square-rigged sails lowered by the volunteer crew as we sailed into harbor.

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Just a pretty shot I wanted to include.

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As we returned to Sydney from the headlands of the harbor, it seemed that every boat in the region was taking advantage of the perfect weather and wind conditions to have a sail.

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Crew hauling in the sails and rigging.

And end to a perfect day — perfect two weeks — in Sydney. The James Craig battened down for the night.

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The James Craig at dock for the night.

 

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The Best of New Zealand: Mt. Cook and Doubtful Sound

Mt. Cook, known also by its Maori name, Aoraki, is the tallest mountain in New Zealand at 3754 meters. The lake is formed from melted glacier ice which gives the water beautiful hues from turquoise to cobalt, depending on the depth and amount of sediment in the water.

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New Zealand is a small country yet chock-filled with natural beauty everywhere you look. It’s difficult to name any particular site as my favorite — and I certainly haven’t seen every square meter of NZ — but I’ve settled on two: Aoraki, also known as Mt. Cook, and Doubtful Sound, both on the South Island.

Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park

We spent three days in Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, hiking, sightseeing, and taking a thousand pictures. Aoraki absolutely captivated both of us. There are certain places in the world that capture the soul of everyone regardless of their background or beliefs. I believe Mt. Aoraki is one of them. The Maori name, Aoraki, means “cloud piercer,” and for centuries has been a sacred spot for Maoris. The great mountain certainly emits a form of raw splendor and an irresistible pull for people, regardless of whether they aim to climb it or simply bask in its beauty.

Aoraki is not a simple mountain to summit. Mountaineers deem it a highly technica, difficult climb. Sir Edmund Hillary first climbed Aoraki in January, 1948 and was part of the first team to scale the South Face of Aoraki a month later. Hillary prepared for the first succcesssful Everest ascent of 1953 by climbing Aoraki and other South Island Mountains.

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Statue of Sir Edmund Hillary as he was on the successful Everest ascent in 1953. It stands on the deck of the Hermitage Hotel in AorakiMt. Cook Village within the national park.

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Aoraki as seen from the foot of the Hillary statue. The weather often blows from the west and the Tasman Sea, often causing rapid and extreme weather conditions. Upwards of 70 climbers a year are rescued from the heights of Aoraki.

We hiked several trails (or parts thereof) in the park. One of the most popular is Hooker Valley Track, which winds past the Hooker Glacier and Lake Mueller in its initial stages.

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Hooker Glacier with Lake Mueller in the foreground.

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The left peak is Mt. Sefton; at far right is The Footstool.

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A huge moraine wall from the Mueller and Hooker glaciers. Mt. Aoraki stands in the background.

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Milky Tasman Lake at the foot of the Tasman Glacier, the longest in NZ. We tried for 3 days to go kayaking on this lake but the excursion was cancelled each day due to high winds.

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Aoraki as seen from Lake Tasman; this is the eastern face, from which it is easier to see the triple peaks of the mountain.

Aoraki is 3754 meters high, 10 meters shorter than it was 25 years ago. In 1991 a massive avalanche — a common occurrence on the mountain — shaved 10 meters off the mountain top and caused such a rumble that the slide caused a 3.9 earthquake.

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Our last look at Aoraki before heading to the Christchurch airport and Australia.

 

Doubtful Sound

Most tourists traveling to New Zealand’s Fjordland opt to take a 2-3 hour boat ride on Milford Sound, one of the dozens of fjords carved into the southwestern coast. We preferred to take an overnight cruise on a less-sailed fjord, Doubtful Sound. Deep Cove Charters, with whom we booked, carried no more than 12 passengers on its boat — a far cry from some of the fjord cruisers which have upwards of 100 people on their day trips. Our decision turned out to be a marvelous one. From the moment we departed the dock in Manapouri, we were on an adventure in a natural wonderland.

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Dusk on Lake Manapouri — easily one of my favorite lakes in New Zealand.

Getting to Doubtful Sound was a bit more complicated than hopping a tourist bus. We took a 1-hr. boat ride across Manapouri, then the boat captain picked us up and drove us to the far side of these mountains, where we picked up the boat on Doubtful Sound. The extra travel was well worth it.

IMG_9627_First glimpse of Doubtful Sound. Waterfall is in background right of center.

First look at Doubtful Sound from the top of the mountains’ pass.

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Another boat on the Sound — just to give some perspective.

After getting settled, the first order of business was lunch, fresh-caught lobster (or crawfish, as the Kiwis call it). And then the adventure began. The variety of landscape and wildlife within the Sound was amazing: penguins, dolphins, fish (and sharks), fur seals, albatross and seagulls, and waterfalls cascading off the steep slopes everywhere you looked. It didn’t matter too much that our two days’ were cloudy and ended in a light drizzle — the fjord was delightful.

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Crested Fjordland penguins.

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This penguin steadfastly held his ground despite gawking kayakers and boaters.

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Most of the passengers went fishing off the stern. For the most part, we caught perch, sea bass, and a few blue cod. One guy reeled in this 4-ft. school shark. The captain earned a lot of gold stars from me for hauling it on board to remove the hook (despite some very sharp, triangular teeth) and returning it to the fjord.

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A Buller’s Albatross. Several of these birds as well as some Stewart Island albatrosses followed our boat. The captain used some of the smaller perch we caught to toss to the birds, so we had an ample entourage of seabirds.

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A Buller’s in flight.

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A sleek-winged Stewart Island albatross in flight.

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A squawking Buller’s comes in for landing and free fish.

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The captain and mate pulled some set lobster traps. In one trap, an octopus showed up with the lobsters. When tipped out of the trap it rapidly crawled across the deck to the nearest scupper and disappeared overboard. We dined that night on fresh-caught fish and had some of these lobsters the next day for lunch. Lobster twice in 24 hours!

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Three adolescent pups were part of a huge colony of New Zealand fur seals near the mouth of the Sound.

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And so we said goodbye to Doubtful Sound, just one of the incredible sights in New Zealand.

Off-Track in New Zealand

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Lighthouse on Taiaroa Head, Otago Peinsula, South Island, New Zealand. A Royal Albatross rides the thermals at center left. The Royal Albatross Colony protects the only “mainland” breeding colony for these magnificent birds in the world.

 

Traveling off the beaten path without an itinerary or reservations can lead to some unexpected pleasures and adventures. this devil-may-care approach can and has landed us in unnerving situations, but in Otago, South Island of New Zealand, we found ourselves happily diverted to unusual events and sights. At least one — a sheep shearing contest — certainly isn’t on your average tourist itinerary.

Sheep Shearing in Balclutha, Otago

Finding ourselves with some extra days, we decided to head to The Catlins in NZ’s southeastern corner to see or ourselves the magnificent terrain. Entering the town of Balclutha, I spied a sign advertising a sheep shearing competition. We decided we just had to go.

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The contestants line up: the men in black are Kiwis, the men in red are challengers from Wales, UK. 

The contest centered around an “international” competition highlighting the shearing prowess of native Kiwis against Wales’ best shearers. The competition was amazing. The entire process had hawk-eyed judges examining shearers’ technique (not good to nick the sheep too many times) and assure that no cheating occurred. (I wasn’t sure about the “no cheating” bit; is cheating leaving too much wool on the sheep or ripping it off the sheep with something other than the prescribed set of shears?)

Throughout the competition every clip and buzz of the shears was narrated by a man who sounded somewhere between a carnival barker and the guy who calls the Kentucky Derby. And wool was flying everywhere. It appeared that whoever sheared ten sheep first, won. The Kiwi who finished first sheared his ten in less than 20 minutes, which seemed pretty fast to me.

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The competition looked back-breaking for both shearers and sheep.

What was interesting was watching the wool-gatherers — almost all women and no slouches — as they scurried around gathering up the shorn wool, sorting it in a mad frenzy of whirling arms into different baskets, or swiftly sweeping up those pesky remnants of wool balls all over the floor. I later found out that the wool-gatherers are also judged as to how well they sort the wool. Apparently you have to put the belly wool in one basket, armpit wool in another, dirty, backside wool in yet another. (OK, I’m probably exaggerating a bit here, but not much. there really are standards and rules for wool sorting.) In fact, there are a whole host of shearing rules that must be adhered to; an infraction leads to added points, and, as in golf, the less points you accrue, the better you are.

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Wool-sorters picking feverishly through the wool. 

Needless to say, the Kiwis won. The two Men in Black will advance to the National Sheep Shearing Competition.

On to the Catlins

Having amused ourselves with the shearing competition, we set off again for The Catlins, a scenic stretch of southeastern NZ coastline with peaks and bays, blowholes and rocks waiting to cause a shipwreck. Absolutely breathtaking.

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Roaring Bay, south of Nugget Point.

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Sea grasses in the breeze at Nugget Point.

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Purukaunui Falls. Being summer, these tiered falls were a bit low on water, but still beautiful. 

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The walk to the falls led through some beautiful forest, lush at all levels.

Onward to Otago Peninsula

We spent three delightful days exploring the Otago Peninsula in the southeast of NZ’s South Island, east of the city of Dunedin. The scenery was stunning, which we eagerly explored, but the real draw for us was the wildlife.

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A Royal Albatross raises up to allow the nesting chick to cool off. The adult’s open mouth also indicates that she (or he, both parents take tuns on the nest) is also feeling the heat.

I mentioned in the beginning the Royal Albatross Colony on Taiaroa Head, at the tip of the Peninsula. We hiked to the top of the RAC’s land to observe nesting albatrosses. The staff at the center take seriously their mission to protect this magnificent birds and assist in their breeding. On hot days such as the day we visited, rangers turn on sprinklers planted at intervals among the nests to give the laying birds a cooling mist.

The Royal Albatross is second only to the Wandering Albatross in wingspan; the RA  runs an average of a 3 m. span (9.8+ ft.). They generally lay an egg every other year; the juvenile albatross leaves the home territory at about age 9-12 months, and stays aloft at sea for five years before returning to the natal home. The juniors usually are usually about 7+ years old before they find a mate and begin to reproduce. A combination of their late breeding and the devastation in numbers during the 19th-20th c. keep their numbers sufficiently low to be considered vulnerable.

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Little Blue Penguins coming ashore at night, Otago Peninsula.

My favorite of the wildlife we observed were the Blue Penguins, the smallest of the 17 penguin species. Previously we had seen up close a molting Blue in Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula, east of Christ Church, and, observed in Omaru the penguins’ ritual nighttime “parade” as they waddled ashore from a long day’s hunting out in the ocean. Otago is the only place in NZ where people are allowed to photograph these extremely shy birds, and only without use of flash.

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Blue penguins molt 1-2 times a year. During this phase, they are extremely vulnerable to introduced predators such as the Australian possum, stoats, weasels, feral cats, rats and even wild pigs. Many conservation groups as well as farmers are providing nesting boxes as safe havens for these threatened birds during their most vulnerable times: breeding and molting.

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The slopes of Taiaroa Head on Otago Peninsula are home to large colonies of Little Shags, as the Kiwis call this local cormorant.

IMG_9257_Yellow Eyed Penguin coming in to shore in late afternoon, Otago Peninsula

A Yellow-eyed Penguin — found only in NZ — waddles ashore late afternoon. They are among the rarest of penguin species and are considered highly vulnerable.

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A rare close-up of a yellow-eyed penguin. Each penguin marches off the beach and into the scrub to his/her territory for the night. Note the yellow device in the foreground. It is part of a trap to ensnare and kill stoats, one of several invasive species that have threatened most of NZ’s birds near to extinction if not a vulnerable status. The farmer who owns this land has partitioned off several expanses to be used for penguin and other species’ habitat. In addition to Blue & yellow-eyed penguin nesting boxes, he places traps every few meters in the conservation zones to help eliminate these predators.

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These sea lions couldn’t have cared less that we were taking their picture.

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Young NZ fur seal. Once nearly hunted to extinction, this species has rebounded quite well and is beginning to thrive.

 

One other form of critter caught our attention, but not out in the wild but at the Otago Museum’s Discovery World Tropical Forest, a multi-story tropical rain forest biosphere full of butterflies and moths from around the world. I became a bit attached to them myself.

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For some reason, these paper kites from SE Asia decided to light upon me — at one point there were 4 or 5.

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I’m not sure what species this is. My only complaint about the museum’s butterfly exhibit was the distinct lack of signage or photo identification of the butterflies.

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A last look at a Blue Penguin heading “home” for the night.