After we called our sunrise photography a wrap, we shuttled off to hike into Walpa Gorge while it was still quite cold, very windy and empty as well. Our small group (9 including the baby) hiked between two enormously steep mountains of red rock, which was conglomerate rock heavily laced with iron. The red color comes from oxidation of the iron. The path was very uneven, and we were warned to stop walking while we looked up or took photos, because otherwise we were likely to fall. Cheryl talked about the “opportunistic trees and small shrubs and grasses that grew in crevices of the rock.” There was a great sense of tranquility there. Burnt trees and the overwhelming scale of the natural scene generated images of death, regeneration of life and a feeling of respect for the ecosystem. Not even photos will communicate the humbling nature of the place. I recommend a personal visit!
Ready for pickup by 5:30am for our small group tour with SEIT guide Cheryl. Made it into the National Park and over to a lookout point where we could see both Uluru and the domes of Kata Tjuta while the brilliant sun rose between them. Took a 5-shot panorama series of RAW photos of Kata Tjuta and the empty outback landscape leading to it about three times as the sun rose and the light changed the color of the rock. Used that funny little tripod that wraps around the railing. Was able to swivel the camera in a way that appeared to be level. When the sun first popped over the horizon in brilliant yellow, I was poised with my funky tripod facing the sun and Uluru to the right. I took a series of 5 bracketed RAW photos which I plan to combine in HDR (Nik software) and hope for a good result when I get home. Erin snapped away with her new Canon underwater camera, which seemed to do a fantastic job on dry land. (We plan to take some underwater shots in the Great Barrier Reef in a few days.) Cheryl demonstrated her innate talent with the camera and took a great family photo of us with early morning Kata Tjuta behind us. Sun is a bit glarey on our faces, but that will be a sign of sunrise reality
The Aussies have got to be the friendliest people on Earth. We have also met more good natured people who have a great gift of humor. Random bus drivers, cooks, waiters and guides have had a relaxed and graceful way of weaving humor into their everyday speech. We find ourselves laughing so often. I really wish more Americans could experience this great gift and emulate it.
The Aussies have not always been known for racial integration; to the contrary, they only allowed whites, mainly northern Europeans into their country for many years. Now, however they are experiencing an Asian invasion. There is a very noticeable influx of people from China, Japan and Korea. They are here as tourists, students and workers in restaurants and I suppose all over. Yesterday, a kind Japanese girl gave me her hand to steady me as I tried to step down several steps in a narrow ledge at Kings Canyon. I was also amazed to meet a couple where the wife was from Malaysia (she also spoke Cantonese) and the husband from France, and their common language was English. They had their 9 month old baby in a backpack to hike around Uluru. In Sydney, we met a Dutch couple; the husband went to college and law school at the University of Toronto, studying in his second language. They were currently living in Curacao and traveling around Australia for seven weeks with their 5-year old boy, Max.
Mercifully, the Australians have built an airport to handle our Qantas 737 and a cluster of resorts (all price ranges) to house 5,000 tourists just minutes away from the fantastic national park that protects Uluru and the big red mountains of Kata Tjuta. Before this accommodation to tourism was developed in the 1980s, visitors would have to drive 5 hours one way from Alice Springs through completely uninhabited arid land to see the big red rocks. The great thing about staying right there by the national park, is that you can do several excursions and hikes to the rocks. The night we arrived we watched the sunset on Uluru and had an excellent buffet in the desert and chance to see the stars where there was no air pollution or light pollution. The Milky Way was magnificent. An astronomer pointed out the southern constellation, the southern cross as well as Orion, which can be seen from both hemispheres. From his telescope, I got to see the rings around Saturn and the gassy cloud near Orion’s belt where stars are being formed. The star gazing was exciting, because the night sky was truly spectacular from here. Brother Chuck, we wished you were here with us!
We dined with two Australian families, and enjoyed getting to know Susan, Burr and Julia from Melbourne, a photojournalist on assignment, an American lawyer and their daughter in 10th grade. As for photography, I took some HDR shots of the fading light on Uluru. The lightweight tripod I brought collapsed under the weight of my Nikon 70-200 f 2.8 lens, but I held the collapsing leg with my hand, to try to steady the camera. We will see about the results. I have been downloading and reviewing my photographs along the journey, and it looks like we have “heaps” of good ones, as the Aussies say.
Had a full day trip to the Blue Mountains with a small group of 11 (one child, age 5). It was too much driving, but our guide was very knowledgeable and taught us lots of facts about Australia and the ecology and economy of the region. We were impressed by the panoramic view of the Jameson valley, a vast eucalyptus forest with sandstone mountains and rock formations and a great diversity of plants and birds. Saw the lyre bird, the colorful Jemby-Rinjah and funny trees like the short, black trunk grass tree. There is coal mining in the region, and cute towns like Leura where some residents commute two hours to Sydney via train. We saw an area that suffered a massive forest fire, ignited by lightening in 2006, now in the natural process of regenerating. There were sandstone caves eroded in honeycomb fashion. Our guide Frank taught us lots of Aussie info, such as how to survive a snake bite, in case you encounter one of the 20 of the 25 deadliest snakes in the world found in Australia. Now we know.
This magnificent building is so exciting to see, from any angle, any time of day. It is positively uplifting. We saw the Australian Ballet perform Madame Butterfly on April 20, and this performance was one of the highlights (perhaps THE highlight) of our second visit to Sydney. Only difficulty was staying awake in the darkened theatre, as we were still fighting 14-hour time zone adjustment. The whole experience of getting to and from the theatre was so easy and stress free. It was a five-minute walk with one traffic light and no crowds or waiting from our hotel to the venue. Our tickets were waiting for us at will call; everything fell into place so amazingly well.
On our 31st wedding anniversary, we took Erin to a gourmet meal at the Café Sydney, on roof terrace of the Custom House in Circular Quay. Fantastic view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in night-time lights. Delicious meal, Veuve Clicquot. One of our most enjoyable meals, anywhere in the world, ever.
Our other favorite spot, recommended by Courtney Kelly, our other family Sydney expert, is the Australian Hotel in the Rocks, where we had a delicious kangaroo pizza for lunch, and a delicious kangaroo pizza and a duck pizza for dinner. Relaxed atmosphere, table on the sidewalk, Aussie beer, quiet neighborhood and easy walk from our Intercontinental Hotel.
Walk through lush, green and diverse gardens between our Intercontinental Hotel and the Gallery of New South Wales was full of interest and surprises. Most amazing were the flying foxes, giant bats, nesting in many trees and sadly de-foliating and killing them. Saw many palms, eucalyptus, native shrubs, cacti. Just before sunset we walked along the Wooloomoolu Harbor to the point, called Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair, for the governors wife who loved to sit at the point and take in the view. Brilliant blue skies, blue harbour and sun setting just behind the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge. Cockateels in trees, shrieking at us.
As fate would have it, the Gallery of Modern Art, right on Circular Quay, was running a portrait photography exhibit of American Annie Liebovitz. She had some fascinating portraits of famous Americans including George W. Bush and 4 top aides, Colin Powell, Hiliary Clinton, Leonardo diCaprio with a swan wrapped around his neck, Cindy Crawford nude with a snake around her neck, Julianne Moore (We know her, small world), Brad Pitt. These large prints were intermingled with many family shots including her three daughters, close friend Susan Sontag, her parents. Many times the setting (Ocean City, MD and Silver Spring, MD) reminded us of how small the world is!
Later that day (April 20) we wandered through the main art museum, the Gallery of New South Wales and through an exhibit of Australian landscape photographers. These two exhibits were made to order for my photography interests! Many of the works portray a sense of vast emptiness of the central Australian arid landscape. I found it interesting but not my taste. Afterwards, I said to Charlie, “Are you feeling better about my work?” I prefer my own style to what I was seeing here.
“It’s the first day of our vacation. Let’s forget about the problems with the airlines, and enjoy our day,” Charlie suggested, setting the tone for our day. We hired a taxi to deliver us to the gates of Chinatown, where we began our window shopping and a little bit of real shopping – looking at jade and silk and chatting with friendly shopkeepers from China and Vietnam. I pointed out the memorable coffee shop where Courtney and I had breakfast about 6 years ago (on a visit to University of San Francisco). We saw the famous Ten Ren tea shop, and had lunch in the same place where we took Courtney and Erin in July 2004. We walked up this little side street and picked a place on the right, attracted by the Peking ducks in the window. Once we were sitting down, we looked around and realized it had to be the same place. We can remember it because we took a bunch of photos there in 2004. Of course, we had some Peking duck and were surrounded by Chinese families enjoying their Sunday meal. “Need a fork?” the waitress asked me. “Oh no, of course not,” I replied, proud of my experience in China. Caitlin, Dad ordered a Tsingdao beer, and we thought of your stories in Tsingdao.
We continued our walking tour to Union Square, where SF’ers were enjoying their green space just like the Parisians enjoy Les Jardins de Luxembourg on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Then, we walked downhill on Market Street to the Ferry Building. No Farmers’ Market on Sunday, but the specialty shops inside were a feast for the eye (and nose) – selling bread in one shop, cheese in the next, wine, chocolate… Across the bay we could see Cal Berkeley and lots of sailboats and tourist boats in the bay. We picked our spot for 3 pm champagne at Pier 15 – J Cuvee from Sonoma. We walked past the cruise ship terminal and recalled the excitement of boarding the Silversea for Alaska there in 2004.