Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Three Days in Sydney

I believe this is the first three-day layover I've had in Sydney. I was scheduled for one last year, but some issue elsewhere made for a reaction chain that had my layover canceled and me operating after minimum rest up to Guangzhou and taking my layover there instead. This was fine by me, as I think China is the most fascinating place we visit. But I've still been regretting I did not have a little more time to explore Sydney, which seems like one of the world's amazing places.

So what to do with 73 hours? In the absence of any particular destination, my plan was to do my usual thing and walk through different parts of town and absorb what I can. Well, I did have a bit of a plan: Susan suggested that Sydney should surely have a world-class zoo and I could get a taste of the local fauna. An excellent idea, so on Day One after getting some sleep I took a ferry across from the nearby Circular Quay to the Taronga Zoo. My sleep schedule was predictably out of whack, so I was awake about 3:AM and had to wait half the day for the zoo to open at 9:AM.

(Pictures of the zoo visit here.)

But it's really a magnificent facility. Located on a zillion-dollar spit of land across from downtown Sydney, there are hundreds of animals in a variety of settings, and everything seemed clean and well-tended and the animals seemed happy and healthy and very well cared-for.  Australia is the land of the marsupial, a fact which has been most instructive to evolutionary biologists. Marsupials here have filled in many of the niches occupied elsewhere in the world by placental mammals, often crafting animals which look very like their non-marsupial counterparts: squirrels and dogs and deer and so on. And of course there are a bunch of unique marsupials as well.  I somehow thought I'd get a lesson this via my visit to the zoo, but in truth there was just so much to see that I was quite overwhelmed by the scope of things. The two things that were actually most striking to me were the sheer number and prevalence of reptiles in Australia--lizards and snakes, mostly--and the amazing variety of birds here. The birdsongs heard both in and out of the zoo were really something to behold. Several times I shot video with my phone trying to capture the sounds, but of course the birds were having none of this copyright violation.  Still, a brilliant day. A long walk back to the hotel from there, but all of it interesting (alas, no pedometer map).

The next day my plan was to take the ferry over to the fairly distant suburb of Manly (yes, it's called the "Manly ferry," a fact which my 10-year-old self cannot let pass without comment) and walk from there East and South out onto the spit of land that separates Sydney Harbor from the Tasman Sea. Turns out this is protected land, the Sydney Harbour National Park, and is shot through with walking trails.  As ever, I started out not really knowing where I was going and just felt my way along. The biggest thing on this walk is to realize how high up this plateau is off the water. As we fly into Sydney the coastline as far as one can see North and South is high and rocky and really stunning, but to be up close to the sheer drop-off is really profound. I'd guess the rock cliffs rise up a good 150-200 feet and one can hear the surf pounding below as you get close. The view out is of course knee-weakening: in one direction the vastness of the South Pacific, and in the other the vista of Sydney Harbor making its way inland with the city probably five to seven miles away. This is one of the world's profoundly beautiful places.

(Pictures of the Manly walk here. The Pedometer map is here.)

The other moving thing about the walk about the park was my stumbling upon the "Third Quarantine Cemetery," a burial place for some 241 people most of whom died of smallpox or plague (there are a small group of WWI vets there as well). The burial ground was intentionally remote in hopes of keeping the corpses from infecting anything else. And what remains a century later is desolate and haunting. The graves are well on their way to being unreadable and the plot itself to being reclaimed by nature. Still, the headstones give some inkling of the horror these folks went through. Many of them give the name and say "died in quarantine" and give an age when they died. A little boy, "our beloved son" died at 21 months. "Loved by all," the stone says. I cannot help thinking--forgive me for saying it--how terrible these diseases must have seemed in so recent a past when we did not understand shit about infectious diseases, and what an amazing triumph we've accomplished so very recently to have gotten them under control. And now there is a huge movement afoot to stop vaccinating against these things and we're already beginning to pay the penalties. In many cases it's not just a death here and there that could have been prevented: it's a threatened resurgence of epidemics which we had successfully controlled and are now retreating from. This cemetery is a frightening bit of our past which suddenly seems to be rushing back towards us.

Today was only a partial day. Again, up at 2:15 AM, I waited until about 6:AM to have a quick bite at McDonald's before just picking a street and heading South away from the hotel. I picked the major thoroughfare of George St. and walked until it curved into Broadway and eventually Parramatta Rd. I got to see a few areas of downtown I had not yet seen, and I passed the University of Sydney. I made slower progress today because of intermittent rain showers, but it was overall a great day for a walk.

(Today's walk pictures here. Pedometer map here. And back, of course.)

My chief find on today's walk was the Deus Ex Machina motorcycle company on Parramatta Rd. in the section of town called Camperdown. My eye was caught as I walked by a row of cafe-racer type bikes parked on a side street outside an old warehouse, one of which had "Deus" stenciled on the gas tank. It was clearly a modification of an existing bike--a Yamaha SR500, I believe--and it was parked with a bunch of other machines which had been similarly modified to varying degrees. As I looked around I saw that the bikes were the products of the commercial concern that occupied the warehouse, and that Deus had quite a large store space filled with bikes and apparel and with a large restaurant attached. It being only about 7:30 AM (and the shop not opening until 9:AM), I decided to keep walking but plan my return to catch the place open.  Shortly later it began to rain, and I didn't get very far, sitting inside a nearby McDonald's with a Diet Coke and free wifi while I waited the shower out.

They opened shortly after I got back, and I was kindly given a tour by one of the employees in response to my query, something along the lines of "What in the hell ARE you guys?" Turns out they are a shop that specializes in modifying existing machines according to a particular aesthetic, and the rest of it--the apparel, the pedal-bicycle business, the restaurant--are all add-ons to this core business. Their favorite core machine to modify is indeed that Yamaha SR500--a late '70s-80s single-cylinder standard bike which I nearly bought years ago--but they work on all things. It sounds like you bring your bike in and they'll "see what we can do with it." The business card says "Mikey McDonald, Bike Wrangler," and the guy showing me around stressed that all their design work for bikes and apparel and everything was done right there, right upstairs in the offices.

My only critiques involve 1) their not having fat-boy sizes in their apparel, and 2) my sneaking sense that they're OK with the bike having slightly hobbled functionality so long as it LOOKS cool. This latter sense, if it's even accurate, is hard for me to swallow. I'm very happy for the bike to look awesome, but the function should always come first. Indeed, the cool look should extend naturally from the function--form follows function: it should look cool exactly because it's been made to work so well. (This is exactly my chief critique of Harley-Davidson, that they've sacrificed so much function to aesthetic prerogatives.) In the end, the whole Deus concern was a bit younger / more pierced / more tattooed than seemed wholly appropriate for my rotund and superannuated self. But if this is what the kids are into, then I must applaud.  I asked him if they had ever worked on any Buells, and he said they just sold a really cool one they had modded. I'd have loved to see it.

Six hours later I'm back at the hotel and will try to get a nap in before blasting off for China.


payingattention said...

Very cool!

Jon said...

Sounds like a fun trip. I would have loved to visit the zoo also. I remember the San Diego zoo when we were there and it seems the bigger they are, the better they are. I still havent been to Sea World though. Thats for another trip I guess.