Hello for the second time from Sydney (for the first blog click the drop down box). My 6 day stay in this city is almost at an end. Tomorrow at the horrific time of 7.30am my Contiki tour departs from a nearby hotel, bound first for Port Stephens, 2.5 hours north. It will be strange to leave after nearly a week here, which is the longest I've spent anywhere in 3 months, but I'm definitely ready to meet my new tour group. Every single person who has stayed in my 4 bed hostel dorm has only stayed for 1 night so I've not got to know anybody here in Sydney. Although its nice to have a people break, I am looking forward to some company again so I'm not bored on an evening.
The last few days have seen beautiful weather in New South Wales. Its been sunny with highs of around 27C, though it feels hotter in the strong Australian sun. It was the perfect weather for exploring the Blue Mountains, which are 2 hours west of the city. For virtually the same price as a one way train ticket from the airport (a 10 minute journey), I got a return ticket to the town of Katoomba, which is crazy since both trains were ran by CityRail. Katoomba is the tourist centre of the Blue Mountains and is located right on the edge of them. It was a short walk from the train station to the most famous viewpoint in the area, Echo Point, which offered a beautiful vista right across the mountains and of the Three Sister's rock formations. The mountains are so called because they appear blue at a distance. I found out this is because the gum (eucalypts) trees which shroud the mountains discharge eucalypts oil when it gets hot, and this appears as a blue haze. In the heat on Wednesday it was pretty clear to see. I took a walk along the cliff tops past many incredible viewpoints and then descended past some pretty dry waterfalls into the valley. There was a short rainforest boardwalk at the bottom and some history on the mining there, but the main attraction was the Katoomna scenic railway (see pic). Originally built for the miners, it is now the steepest railway in the world at an angle of 52 degrees, and is now used to transport tourists. The Katoomba Scenic World who own the railway, also operate Australia's steepest cable car, as well as a seperate glass bottomed cable car. A rollercoaster is soon to be opened, so the business seems to be doing well. This must be down to the Japanese - I've never seen so many of them in my life, all taking millions of photos! I opted to ride the train up and it was pretty hairy. It actually felt even steeper than 52 degrees, but the ride only lasted a couple of minutes.
After lunch I walked back along the cliff walk and further beyond Echo Point in the opposite direction. I got my first glimpse of a huge and horrific Australian spider when checking one of the map billboards. Fortunately it was behind the board's plastic cladding, but it was massive! There was plenty of other wildlife to spot too. I saw quite a few parrotts, though they all evaded my camera. I was pretty exhausted after my walk in the heat, but I felt like I'd really arrived in Australia after doing a bit of bush walking and I thoroughly enjoyed the day. The only downside was the train ride back, which was spoilt because the carriage was freezing with the air con on, and there were also 6 of the most materialistic girls I've ever met sat near me, who could only communicate by shouting at each other. Topics discussed included breast enlargement and boyfriends. I think everyone on the carriage was pretty pissed off. They got off after an hour though, only to be replaced by a family who looked like they were off Shameless. I am really surprised that the stereotypical villainous characters you occassionally see on Neighbours actually do exist in Australia - I thought they were just a creation of the TV show!
Yesterday I took a bus out to Coogee Beach in Sydney's eastern suburbs. Getting the bus wasn't at all straightforward. I didn't realise until I got on that you had to pre-pay for bus tickets here, so I had to get back off and go to the local 7/11 to buy one. Naturally I didn't want to spend all day sat on a beach, so I took the Sydney eastern beaches walk along the coast up to Bondi, and then the eastern cliff walk from there to Gap Bluff at the end of Sydney Harbour. The beaches I passed were really nice and clean, and the waves were ideal for surfing. The Tasman Sea, like it was in New Zealand, was a beautiful clear blue and it looked very appealing. Bondi was the biggest and busiest beach, but if I was to sunbathe I'd probably opt for one of the smaller ones which were just as nice, if not nicer, as well as much quieter. There were also some seriously nice houses to admire in the suburbs by the beaches. Most had swimming pools, and some had views right over Sydney Harbour - they must cost a fortune. It is a very nice area to live in.
I wasn't quite sure where my walk would end so I didn't buy a return bus ticket back, thinking I'd be able to buy one wherever I finished. This was a big mistake. The busses from Watson's Bay back to the centre were still prepay, yet none of the shops in the area sold bus tickets and nobody, not even the bus driver, knew where I could get one! It was an absolute farce and I am now in total agreement with the Aussies I've met who have all slated Sydney's public transport. My only choice was to wait one hour and get the ferry back down the harbour to Circular Quay, and then the subway from there. It cost over twice the price and took a lot longer. I was not at all happy and to make matters worse my arms actually got a tiny bit sunburned while I was waiting for the ferry. The sun here is strong as I mentioned, and it actually causes a lot of locals to cover up. And you always see them whacking on loads of sun screen, meaning many of them are really white! The government's slip-slop-slap campaign (slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen, and slap on a hat) has worked really well in reducing skin cancer levels in a country where they are sky high.
Today I put on even more sunscreen and headed back out on the harbour ferry, this time across to the affluent and touristy suburb of Manly, which is near the northern entrance to Sydney Harbour. It was very busy with tourists and locals, but I took a walk away from the busiest areas up to a viewpoint 3 miles away in the bush. I always feel somewhat unnerved walking through Australian bush as you never know whats in the bushes. Three mid sized lizards on the path made me jump, but they were definitely more scared of me than I was of them. The views were beautiful and again I saw lots of nice houses. There really is a massive contrast between the gorgeous beach suburbs and the scruffy inland suburbs I've seen off the train.
Sadly I've caught a slight cold today. I blame the air-conditioning in the hostel, though it could also be related to the fact I've been eating from fast-food restaurants and Asian food courts for the last week. I shall now head off and visit my favourite Chinese for the last time. I won't be too sad to leave Sydney. Although its a beautiful city with a sumptuous beach and outdoor lifestyle, the actual city centre is congested and crowded. It lacks the culture of a European city, the history and variety of London, and the class and grandeur of a big American city, but I have still enjoyed my stay here. If you like beaches though, this is probably the city for you! I'm not the beach's biggest fan but I certainly wouldn't mind owning one of those huge houses near the beach, preferably one with a view of the stunning harbour and skyline! Need a few more bob yet though.