Friday, March 27, 2009

A hotel you should visit

OK girls. Now this is practically a public service announcement, more or less a duty really .

I really need to tell you about two guys who have quite possibly given more pleasure to more women than Casanova ever did. Though maybe not so intense.. arguable though.

It is certainly true they have given me personally more pleasure than Casanova ever did, but then he is no longer around, so I guess that is not so difficult. ^_^

To name names they are Angus Thirlwell and Peter Harris..

How did they do it? Chocolate, it a word. Mmmmmmm but such chocs.

These guys are the co-founders of Hotel Chocolat.

I just had to post on this because their chocolate is absolutely yummy. To hold some in your mouth with your eyes closed... and let it melt on your tongue is something gloriously else.

Truly this is some of the best chocolate you are ever likely to find. Though I do remember a shop in San Francisco, but that's another story...

Now I have gotten to visit a Hotel Chocolat retail outlet, where in my case a young guy just walked up and shamelessly propositioned me... with a freebie, I was helpless to resist, I ended up slipping him some money in the end to repeat the experience. But you can buy on-line too, both in the US and the UK, though it will be your postman who may not be quite so cute.

Oh. Guys are unaccountably allowed to buy and maybe even eat this gorgeous stuff too, though why they would I don't know, surely they couldn't appreciate it really ^_^. I guess it must be so they can buy it for female acquaintances ^_^.

BTW I am, like JMB, away. For a week in my case. I am not sure if I can get to an internet connection so I apologise in advance if I am slow in replying to any comments...

Monday, March 23, 2009

Upcountry --- The Dark Ages --- Dial Up

It's not that Australia is so backward that broadband is not common for it surely is the norm in the city. But when you live in the country your only option is the relatively recent introduction of satellite broadband which my brother in law still regards with suspicion. Although I notice the local library, well I should say the nearest library which is a forty minute drive away, has broadband, however they did admit that it was sometimes a bit iffy. Consequently I have been neglecting my blog since I finished the cruise and have been visiting the relatives.

So here I am in the country, enjoying a very laid back visit on a horse farm. Well actually that is perhaps a bit grandiose since there are but six horses and it is only just under 40 acres in all.

My brother in law was a rather senior civil servant and took retirement at 55 as do many Australian civil servants. In fact my nephew has just retired from the income tax department and is planning his retirement which he says involved doing nothing. They do like to enjoy the good life, these Aussies. Anyway my BIL loves horses although he did not learn to ride until he was fifty but he has been a lifelong horse racing fan as are so many in Australia.

After a long search on the North Coast of New South Wales, he purchased 12 acres from a cattle farmer who was selling off some land to buy a new truck. In an ideal location, in the country but no more than forty five minutes from the coast and all those beautiful pristine sandy beaches, it is a very pretty property with its own small stand of gum trees in lovely rolling hill country and after he built a house and they moved here he began his new career as a racehorse breeder by buying a thoroughbred mare in foal and a riding horse who has a very fancy name which I cannot remember but has always been known as Nipper and for a very good reason.

Now Nipper cost $250 fifteen years ago and he was a former stock horse. As you can imagine for that price he was obviously not very successful in his career as a stock horse and he was passed from owner to owner as quite a few tried to whip him into shape and each decided he was not worth the time. My BIL became his new owner and attempted to turn him into his devoted horsey companion without much success as he was truly a biter and he also tried to unseat his rider as often as possible.

Like owning a sailboat or powerboat, owning racehorses is a sink hole into which you pour money but it has been a very happy retirement for my BIL as he has bred and raced a succession of racehorses from his original mare, albeit only in at the country race courses. But he has bred his last foal he says, as he surveys his little herd on his now almost forty acres and he expects this one to be his ticket to the big time. The next Phar Lap he tells me, although Phar Lap was a gelding and not a mare, but still the most famous horse in Australia. This one, the last of the line starting with Gildie the original mare, Blaze her daughter and Gilken her other daughter, followed by Tara who is Blaze's daughter and finally Tara's daughter who even though five months has yet to be named and is called simply the Foal. They all have fancy racing names but they have very simple names around here. Despite all being chestnuts the Foal is almost all black with a chestnut face and markings but it is too soon for her final colour to be known for sure. Her father is a very good horse and his foals are starting to win so my BIL is very hopeful that she will be a big winner and recoup all the money he has spent so lavishly on his little herd of mares and former riding horse, who have earned their retirement and lead the good life, eating their way through the paddocks which have been added to somewhat as he acquired more land and being fed hay and other exotic and expensive horsey treats. Nipper, at 28 and Gildie have to be fed a special senior horse diet and none were retrained to be ridden after their racing career was over. Occasionally Nipper, who is quite docile now in his old age, is ridden by a visiting grandchild or two but that is the extent of their usefulness, apart from this last mare producing the Foal.

My sister in law is not quite so enamoured of these horses who, when she has to take care of them for any reason, for example when my BIL was thrown and broke his leg, tend to nip her and kick her if they get the chance. So she would be very happy to move to their other house at the beach but she knows that her husband loves these animals so much that it is not really an option any time soon.

We have very much enjoyed our time here as we travelled between the beach house and the horse farm, in between feeding times for the horses of course. I must say it has been very relaxing to watch the rural landscape dotted with horses and the neighbour's cattle and the weather has been gorgeous.

Tomorrow we leave for Sydney to visit one of my school friends and then we are off to Perth for four days where the temperature will reach 34 to 35 degrees Centigrade this weekend, despite the fact that is Autumn. I cannot truthfully say I am looking forward to the heat but it will be great to catch up with our Perth friends who spent last year on sabbatical in Vancouver.

I apologize that dial up does not allow photo uploading for this post but they will follow eventually I assure you.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Does it really need a big stick to make you moral?

Possibly a “Hard Hat” Post this.

The Arch Bishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, who is in practical terms probably now more respected than Canterbury, especially in the Anglican Church internationally, recently said he is worried that Christians are regarded as "mad" by the rest of British society.

He seems to figure people think this because he imagines they see Christians as motivated by charity and compassion instead of greed and money and that they think that's crazy.

Now this touched on a post I did before.

Quite honestly, I figure he may have spotted a trend, but got the reason completely round his neck.

I don’t know anybody who thinks compassion, or charity is mad. I have asked around, so I guess it is probably a small sample and anecdotal, but maybe not wrong for all that. The Millions raised in the UK by the recent 'Red Nose Day' charity drive is a pretty solid counter to his argument, especially in a recession with many people worried about their jobs.

I already said in my other post why I think the religious in general and especially the overtly religious are now being looked on as potentially mad, bad and dangerous to know. I have kept looking into it when the chance comes and have not changed my mind any, in fact I am more sure it is how it is than I was when I wrote the original post.

Basically I think it is because of the surge in what is seen as religiously inspired terrorism. We know that the Terrorism in Northern Ireland has not gone away either and that had revolted and angered normal decent people all over the UK and Ireland of all stripes.

But that is not my main point here. What I think is frankly wrong, and a sign of religious blindness and even prejudice is the underlying assumption that I have heard before:

It boils down to the religious making an assumption that people who are not religious somehow have no morals, or consideration… because God isn’t there to beat up on them for being mean or having no morals.

Now there probably are people who would be mean if they didn’t fear God’s punishment. I figure they would be found amongst believers, because they would not exist amongst sceptics. I guess the same as there are probably those who are good because they fear the law.

There are certainly hypocrites amongst the religious. There are people who can justify being cruel, or righteously uncaring about those they see as sinners. Who smugly look down on others.

We have seen at the extreme there are people who can justify killing the innocent on religious grounds.

My point is. Yes there are non-religious people who are mean, bad and such. But there are religious people who are too. Still all that proves are people are people and some are not so nice.

What I will say is I have met and admired sceptics, humanists and atheists who are very moral, thoughtful, kind considerate people, sometimes dignified, sometimes full of fun. Two of the best examples of decent moral human beings I ever met were both humanists.

They are like that because of their personality, or moral convictions, not because of fear of God's big stick. To them it does not exist. They often show the "Christian" moral virtues without so much of the humbug. Kindness, decency and moral behaviour are not dependent on religion and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

So though he appears to be a really nice man, I think the Arch Bishop is both wrong and a bit wrong headed if he believes people in general think Christians are “mad” for being charitable, or compassionate, because many sceptics are just as considerate, charitable and caring.

Like I said before if people do worry about that it is probably entirely for other reasons and Christians are not being singled out..

Monday, March 16, 2009

Random Thoughts on New Zealand

Typical New Zealand agricultural landscape

One of the downsides of visiting a country by means of a cruise ship is the superficial glimpse you get of that place, almost like a teaser so that if you find it really interesting you would want to come back again and explore it more thoroughly.

Somehow I thought that New Zealand would be different since it such a small country and one is never far from the sea, so even if you sail around it, as we have done, you would get to see a large part of it at the various ports of call.

But as we sail back to Sydney, having left New Zealand behind yesterday, while I have enjoyed it, I don't feel seriously tempted to come back again. Yes it is a wonderful landscape and the climate is pleasant enough. Like the Australians, the New Zealanders are very friendly and welcoming and we have enjoyed the visits we made to the various ports and surrounding areas. One of the things I have missed is a look at New Zealand's 150 plus mountains which are closer to the west coast and we have journeyed mostly up the east coast. Our visit to Fiordland, which is where the mountains of the South Island run into the sea was disappointing as the weather was bad and everything was socked in. We did go into several sounds including the Milford Sound, famous for one of the world's most spectacular hikes, the Milford Track but unfortunately we could not see very much due to the inclement weather. I am sure that we would have enjoyed visiting the Southern Alps which form the spine of the South Island as I saw some spectacular photos of them.

But let me tell you something of what I have learned about New Zealand on this trip. Quite a lot of it was ascertained in the wonderful Te Papa Museum in Wellington where we spent more than four hours and could quite happily spent several days.

Like Australia and Antarctica, New Zealand formed as a result of the breakup of the great continent of Gondwana between 80 to 100 million years ago and the two main islands and the subsidiary islands of New Zealand are still being altered as to the landscape since they are subjected to the forces where the two tectonic plates, the Australia and the Pacific, come together. While they have rocks which are over 600 million years old they also have mountains which are a mere 3 million years. They are situated on the very edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire, the volatile fault lines which surround the Pacific Ocean making New Zealand a constantly changing land with active volcanoes and earthquakes, with the active volcanic region mostly in the North Island. Although the islands seem small in fact the actual land mass is about half the size of Australia.

With a very high rainfall there are many fast flowing rivers and inland lakes and you are never far from water even away from the coast and this provides a very lush natural landscape.

The plant and wildlife native to the region are unique, with the only two land mammals, both bats, although many flightless birds evolved, with the largest, the moa, which was the size of an ostrich now extinct, while the kiwi, the takahe and others still exist although endangered. However many birds like albatrosses, gannets, muttonbirds, godwits come to New Zealand to breed and the seas abound with seals, dolphins and whales and even some species of penguin make their home in New Zealand. With its separation from Gondwana, came the tuatara, the sole remaining species of an order of reptiles which evolved about 220 million years ago and is still in New Zealand, Several ancient species of parrots, the playful but extremely intelligent kea and the flightless nocturnal kokako, are still found in this country.

Originally 80% of New Zealand was covered in forest, but today only 25% remains and it is heavily protected. Most trees are evergreens, including the giant conifers: kauri, totara and rimu. The kauri was once a very important resource although it is no longer logged, however any that fall naturally can be used. It was exported both as timber and as kauri gum which was used in the USA to make varnish and linoleum. All over New Zealand it was used to build bridges, wharves, houses, furniture, roof shingles and even tramway rails. The deforestation of New Zealand in a relatively short time has converted 51% of the country to grasslands and more than half the exports are agricultural in nature and it is often referred to as the world's biggest farm. A thriving forestry industry still exists but a lot of it is the "farming" of non native trees, like pines and redwood sequoias which grow to a harvestable size much more quickly in New Zealand.

One of the results of this change in the landscape is the extinction of so many of the native species of animals as well as some, like the moa, being wiped out by hunting and the introduction of other non native species.

While we think of New Zealand as a wool producing country, a country with more sheep than people and this is certainly true with a sheep population of 40 million rising to 76 million at lambing time (compare that to just over 4 million people), in fact the percentage of wool of the total exports has fallen from 35% in 1870 to 2.65% in 2005. So most of the lambs are sold and exported for meat.

Of course the dairy industry too is a very big part of the economy, forming 18% of exports and New Zealand is well known abroad for its fine cheeses and butter.

I can't fail to mention New Zealand's extremely successful wine industry which in two decades has moved from producing quite ordinary wine into the big time with over 400 wineries making first class award winning vintages and the old scientist has been busy sampling them.

Then there is the kiwi fruit or Chinese gooseberry, so called after its country of origin. The growing of this fruit developed into a very big industry for the area of Te Puke in the North Island in the 1960's as the kiwi became the trendy fruit of the time. While it is still a solid export for New Zealand other places like California and Chili now produce kiwi fruit in large quantities.

I'll talk about the Maori settlers in a separate post but what I consider one of the rather sad things is that, as they did in other countries too, the early settlers tried to transform New Zealand into a Southern Hemisphere pastoral version of Great Britain. Captain Cook introduced goats, sheep and pigs but only the pigs survived and they became wild and known as Cook's pigs and even today they are hunted in some areas of New Zealand although with dogs and knives as one is not allowed to shoot them. Of course they introduced the rabbits and when they became a problem they brought in ferrets and stoats which in turn became a problem for the kiwis thus their numbers have been severely reduced and they are a threatened species today.

Deer were introduced and they too soon became a pest and today are hunted and the meat exported. Possums became a huge pest after introduction as they caused devastation in the natural forest. All in all I would say the settlers did a number on the ecology in New Zealand, even the Maori with their introduction of the Polynesian rat or kiore which they originally prized as food but is now considered another terrible pest.

Trout too were brought into New Zealand but while they have been quite successful and they are often raised in trout fisheries and released into the lakes and rivers there is no commercial trout fishing and the only trout you can eat is one you catch yourself, with a fishing licence of course. You will never see trout on a restaurant menu but they will cook one for you, if you front up with a trout and a valid licence.

But today, although too late for many species, there is a growing awareness of promoting the health of the land for the needs of future generations and there is a large part of the land held in parks and reserves as conservation is now a core purpose of the parks system. New Zealanders make good use of the opportunities for outdoor "adventures" and there is plenty of choice of activity to get out there and enjoy the natural beauties of this small but very beautiful country. So yes, go there and maybe hire a car and drive around it and go where you wish to go, not where some cruise ship takes you. Frankly I think that would be a much better option.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Christchurch and the International Anarctic Centre

Christchurch is a very charming attractive city which we noted as we drove from the port of Lyttleton where the ship docked into the centre of the city of 308,000.  It is very English in flavour, firstly named after the college at Oxford and the tiny shallow river Avon runs through it, where you can take a leisurely trip in a punt should you so desire.  The gardens are very English in style and the flowers were especially beautiful as the city prepared for its annual flower festival. 

Arriving at the town centre, instead of opting for the Museum or the Art Gallery  we bought tickets for the International Antarctic Centre which sounded very intriguing indeed.

Christchurch has long been associated with the Antarctic since the Scott and Shackleton expeditions sailed from here between 1900 and 1912.  But today all the New Zealand, USA and Italian groups leave by airplane from Christchurch to man their permanent year round stations on that continent.  The centre is situated near the airport in the middle of the expeditions operations and until two weeks ago when the summer season officially ended it was a hive of activity nearby as the personnel and provisions were airlifted to their bases.  We saw on the tarmac the US Hercules aircraft which remains ready in case of an emergency to go there, as with technical advances in flying the stations are no longer cut off for the six months of winter as they previously were.

Antarctica is the fifth largest continent and is twice as big as Australia.  Once it formed part of the large continent of Gondwana and it was warm and covered with trees and animals as has been ascertained by fossils found there.  Eventually it broke apart and ended up where it is today, the coldest place on earth and also the driest with very little precipitation.  The lowest temperature recorded there is minus 89.2 degrees Centigrade and winds have been recorded at 320 km per hour.  It is completely dark for six months and survival for the personnel living there is totally dependent on modern technology. 

At Scott Base, the New Zealand station  30 people live there all year round while at the US McMurdo Station there are 200 people all year round.  Scott Base was established in 1957 became permanent in 1961, while being completely remodelled in 2005/6.    The South Pole is situated on a thick slow moving sheet of ice and moves about 10 feet every year so it is constantly being surveyed and relocated. 

There are usually about 35 research projects each year, involving about 200 scientist around the globe.  Of course one of those is the study of the hole in the ozone layer situated over Antarctica.  When measured in 1998 it was larger than the whole of the North American continent and had been steadily growing since the early 80s.  With the banning of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) and halons growth has ceased and it is expected to begin to reduce in 2010 and be fully recovered by 2080.

Considered the last true wilderness  Antarctica is a very fragile environment.  While  many minerals have been discovered there there can be no mining for at least fifty years under the Protocol for Environmental Protection for the area, even if it were economically viable,  although it may never be so. 

Few plants grow there, just a few algae, lichen and mosses and one species of tussock grass.  However the region is home to many animals and birds, foremost of all the different species of penguin which I will leave for another post.   Of the 43 species of birds, all but 5 live mostly at sea.

However with a constant sea temperature of minus 1.9 degrees Centigrade there are many types of marine life which live there.  Ten different kinds of whale are found there while seals live there year round, but do holes which are kept open in the ice for them to surface in order to breathe.  There are 35 species of fish and over 1000 invertebrates in the region.  Some have antifreeze in their blood and one species, the ice fish, has no red blood cells at all.   All in all it is an area much richer in marine life than you might imagine.

After we completed our tour of the centre we were taken for a wild ride in a Swedish made Hagglund all-terrain vehicle, used by the personnel at the Antarctic bases.  Our driver took great delight in scaring the heck out of us as he put the vehicle through its paces on a special course designed to show its versatility on all types of land conditions and in the water for it is an amphibious vehicle.

I found this a most interesting place to visit and was glad we had opted to go there.

Afterwards we wandered through the lovely gardens in the city centre and by the river and we also toured the Cathedral which was decorated with flowers for the festival, including a carpet of flowers along the length of the main aisle which was truly beautiful.     

Photos will follow at a later date when internet access is not so poor.  It is unbelievably slow on the ship, much slower than it has ever been before so it is truly frustrating, even trying to keep up with my email.  I will never complain about my broadband service at home again. 

Monday, March 9, 2009

Red wine: Sunlight to a vampire, or the water of life?

OK I may be talking rubbish here. I would be real interested if someone who really knows could honestly say. This is a serious subject.

The BBC carried this story about alcohol and cancer in women.

Basically I think they are saying that Alcohol causes cancer.

Now that may be so, but as far as I can figure it there is no real direct evidence that it actually does. I figure it looks suspiciously like guesswork and assumptions to me, as far as I can discover.

Now I am not saying they are wrong, but I am not all that convinced they are right either and this sort of stuff has to be right.

It was a seven year study of women, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, the author was Dr Naomi Allen.

They say a little short of 70,000 of the middle-aged women in the study developed cancer and “a pattern emerged with alcohol consumption”.

I guess they mean a correlation of some sort. Simply it is where two sets of measurements show a relationship. They either go up and down together, or do the opposite.

In this case levels of alcohol consumption and various cancers.

The thing is, just because you get a correlation it does not mean that one is caused by the other.

Take daisies. They open and close. Take a commuter rail service in the town where the daisies grow.

If you were to compare the daisies opening and closing with the railway timetable you would notice a correlation between the two. But the daisies don't cause the timetable to be the way it is. The trains don't make the daisies open and close.

If anyone thought that they could change the daisies opening and closing by running all the trains at night instead they would be making an expensive mistake. Both are really driven, when you get down to it, by the rotation of the earth.

Now my question is this. Do any of these researchers that are always playing with statistics...

(because that's what they are doing as far as I can see... and they do say. “Lies, damned lies and ..” well, Statistics) any of them check to see if there really is a cause and effect between the two things, or just a “relationship”?

For instance that there is not something to do with lifestyle, affluence, preservatives, the baby boom population hump that is getting, lets face it, middle aged, whatever... That ties say cancer and alcohol consumption in an English speaking western society together?

Oh and how come no one in France ever noticed this link? Given the amount of wine consumed there. Wasn't someone trying to claim how good for your health the odd glass of red wine was a while back based on a similar sort of statistical study there?

It's not just alcohol either. Someone seems to come out with stuff like this on a regular basis about all sorts of things.

If they are pushed can they honestly show you a real cause and effect link, or only point to similar pattern?

It is a worry...

Quick Visit to Tasmania

Tasmania, a large island south of mainland Australia and separated by the very rough Bass Strait, is so different from the rest of the country.  Not exactly mountainous but more like rolling hill country with lots of trees.  A very fertile landscape with  lovely reddish volcanic soil, it is good farming country.

After a very rough crossing, due to catching a storm, we landed at the small north coastal city of Burnie, with 20,000 of the friendliest people you have ever met.  The Mayor comes down to greet each cruise ship and the Town Council provides an all day bus service to take the passengers into their tiny town of which they are very proud.   Each passenger was given a Burnie pin as a momento and they could not have been better boosters for their small town.

Once a thriving industrial town with all the problems that entails the only industry left is a paper mill which employs a mere 250 today, instead of the 3000 it formerly did but it means that the pollution is gone and it is once again a pleasant place to live, according to all those we spoke with.  The wharf was covered with piles of wood chips and would you believe that the wood chips from Burnie are shipped to Japan and turned into pulp which is then shipped back and made into paper.   How daft is that but I suppose it must make economic sense to someone.

We spent the morning poking around the small town but in the afternoon we took a bus tour out to see some of the very unique Australian wildlife, in particular something I have never seen before even in a zoo, the Tasmanian Devil, which is the world's largest surviving carnivorous marsupial, with the sharp teeth to go with it.     

The Wing's Wildlife Park is run by the Wing family, a fourth generation farming family in the area who along the way started to look after injured animals and now have one of Tasmania's largest wildlife parks.  Their aim is rehabilitation and breeding with the aim of returning the animals back to nature if at all possible.

Apart from the Tasmanian devils of which they had half a dozen or more, they had an assortment of wombats, bandicoots, ring tailed possums,  kangaroos and wallabies and two very sleepy koala bears which are not native to Tasmania.  Although there are over 200 species of eucalyptus trees in Australia koalas are very  specific about which ones they will eat and it took the Wing family a while to discover those in Tasmania which suited. 

They also had a wonderful collection of birds, including a wedge-tailed eagle, the largest bird of prey in Australia with a wingspan of up to two metres, along with many of the other unique Australian birds, like pink and grey galahs,  kookaburras, sulphur crested white cockatoos and beautifully coloured parrots. 

Another animal new to me was a Tasmanian spotted-tail quoll or Tiger cat, a small partly arboreal carniverous marsupial closely related to the Tasmanian devil.  They are mostly active around dusk and dawn so all one could see was a bundle of spotted fur curled up inside a log.

However we enjoyed the our visit to see some animals and birds we knew very well from our youth along with some we had never had the good fortune to see before.

We returned to the ship after a pleasant drive through some of the lovely farming countryside of Tasmania.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Melbourne -- A Superficial Glimpse

Despite being Australia's second largest city, with 3.5 million inhabitants, it welcomes visitors with open arms. We were met at the dock by one of the free Melbourne City Tourist Shuttles which took us into the city centre and dropped us outside one of the National Gallery of Victoria's two buildings.

The very interesting modern building displayed a huge banner outside with promise of a Bugatti exhibition so in we popped. Occupying this new building since 2003, the gallery has a fine collection of art works but we had limited time so only took in three separate exhibits.

Photo uploading is a problem while I am on the road but hopefully I will be able to show post some later, on my return, although flash was not allowed except outside in the sculpture garden. I'll see what I can salvage from them.

We all know that Bugatti made cars and indeed there were two beauties on display, a 1926 blue roadster designed by Ettore, who began the car design/manufacturing business and a gorgeous black and red coupe from 1938 and designed by Jean Bugatti, his son. But the exhibit brought together an eclectic mix of the furniture of Carlo, father to Ettore and Rembrandt, whose animal sculptures were also included. A truly creative family, albeit in different media and a delightful little exhibition.

We then wandered outside into the charming sculpture garden at the rear of the building and which was beautifully laid out and included the obligatory Henry Moore and even a Rodin.

On our return indoors we were advised to visit another temporary exhibit, The Cricket and the Dragon, which highlighted animals in Asian Art and covered a wide variety of animal and insect life portrayed in a variety of media: pottery, painting, sculpture, embroidery, ceramics, etc.

Melbourne is known as the cultural capital of Australia and this gallery sits in the centre of an area which also has The Arts Centre, a very interesting contemporary building which houses a theatre, a playhouse and a gallery. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra also has it home nearby in Hamer Hall.

Crossing the bridge over the Yarra River, we entered the downtown area which still has a tram service there and to more outlying areas. There are some truly remarkable and interesting buildings, from the old Flinders Station to the very modern buildings in Federation Square, a more recent development area with some great buildings. Photos will come later I promise.

Melbourne is a truly welcoming city, with its Melbourne ambassadors, dressed in red shirts and straw hats are on almost every corner, ready to answer questions and help in whatever way they can. We also found the new Visitor Information Centre at Federation Square a mine of information and filled with helpful people only too willing to make your stay as smooth as possible.

We then hopped on the free Melbourne City Shuttle and took that tour. It makes thirteen stops where you can get on and off as you please and we got an overall look at what the city has to offer the visitor and the locals.

Sports mad Melbournians love their cricket and the Melbourne Cricket Ground holds 108,000 spectators, one of the largest in the the world. The football stadium, where Australian Rules football, a type of football unique to Australia, is played, holds a possible 63,000 spectators.

Our tour took us through Melbourne's famous tree lined boulevards, where stately elms still line the roadways since they have escaped the ravages of Dutch Elm disease so prevalent elsewhere. Of course they are under stress from the twelve year drought in this country and many of the trees have been given individual barrels of water which feed directly to the root system, in an effort to keep them healthy. It is obvious that they are not doing as well as they should and the city's many parks also feature large expanses of brown grass. It is rather a sad sight and Australia is moving away from the type of garden it once favoured into those using drought resistant plantings which can do with much less water.

While Melbourne does not have the wonderful beaches nearby that Sydney has, its inhabitants make good use of the Port Phillip Bay and the Yarra River. A huge development of condominiums and shops and restaurants is being built on the banks of a widened part of the Yarra River at an area called Docklands.

Melbournians are very proud of their city and rightly so. It has often been called one of the most livable cities in the world and I do think one could find here lots of interesting places to explore for quite a few days.

It's fifty years or more since my last visit and I was quite impressed in many ways although I will always prefer Sydney and there has always been great rivalry between the two as each try to convince everyone that one is superior to the other. I'll leave it to you to decided which one is your favourite but you must be sure to visit both if you come to Australia.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Cadman's Cottage - One of the Oldest Buildings in Sydney

In Australia, being the young country that it is, settled only in 1788, one finds "history" and "historical" buildings quite young, relatively speaking. However we made a detour to visit one of these, Cadman's Cottage on our recent visit to Sydney.

One of Sydney's oldest surviving buildings is situated on the harbour front in The Rocks area and freely open to the public. Built it 1816, close to the water's edge, Cadman's Cottage formed part of the Government Dockyard and was meant to accommodate the Government Coxswain, the officer responsible for the government boats, their operations and crews. The changed foreshore of the harbour now finds the cottage more than 100 metres from the shoreline at Circular Quay.

Since there were few roads, Sydney's waterways provided the main means of transport for early settlers and a small fleet of 20 vessels linked the settlements and Cadman's Cottage was the hub of this activity.

John Cadman was the third and longest serving Government Coxswain and Superintendent of Boats. In keeping with the fact that Sydney began as a penal colony, where convicts were transported from England, John Cadman had been convicted of stealing a horse, but his death penalty was commuted to a 14 yr transportation sentence and he arrived in Sydney in 1798, when the colony was a mere 10 years old. Having worked on the boats in England he was eventually set to work in the government dockyards and received a conditional pardon in 1809.

In 1827 he became the Government Coxswain and moved into the cottage. With his wife, Elizabeth Mortimer, a seven year transportee for stealing some brushes and knives, he lived there until his retirement in 1845 and the position of coxswain was abolished since new roads were carrying goods and people.

Cadman's Cottage continued as headquarters for the Sydney Water Police for a time, then a Court of Petty Sessions, with the addition of cells to house prisoners. It then became a home of sailors in port under the Sydney Sailor's Home Trust and it continued its checkered career housing assorted sea personnel until the nineteen sixties when it had been left vacant and derelict.

In April 1972, with its historic significance recognized it was declared a historic site and restoration and conservation work was commenced under the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. Nowadays the lower half houses an historical exhibition highlighting the history of the cottage itself as well as life in early Sydney. The upper part is home to the Sydney Harbour National Park Information Centre.

A small taste of Sydney's past and we enjoyed our visit to this tiny cottage, nestled among the modern buildings of this bustling city.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Sydney --- Some Irritants and Some Downsides

Much as I love Sydney, one of the most beautiful and vibrant cities in the world, like Vancouver, it has its downsides. Some of them are just the Australian way and since I have lived so much of my life in North America, it takes some adjusting to certain things here.

Just take free Wifi access, for example. This is something we take for granted these days in North America. Every coffee shop has it, the airports provide it, hotels all seem to be equipped with it now and they don't even have to be top notch for it to be standard.

But here in Australia, even the better hotels seem to require you use some outside service which is not free, $20 per day or $7 an hour if you choose that route is the going rate at my hotel. Of course all the instructions were for a PC and since I took my courage in my hand and opted to bring the MacBook Pro I wondered if I would get connected but fortunately it went very smoothly. I bought a block of time and it lasts for a year and I can use it in other places where there are Azure hotspots, although they seem to be few on the whole, but fortunately the Menzies Hotel, where we will be staying when we return to Sydney before leaving for Vancouver uses this service also, so I will have to make sure to use all the remaining minutes of my block.

One really, really big downside to Sydney, and at the moment it is a very big issue, are the sharks. The day we arrived a young fifteen year old boy was attacked by what is thought to have been a great white shark while on his board, surfing with his father at a Sydney beach. His father's quick action brought him to shore where he was taken to hospital and his serious wounds operated on. This is the third attack in three weeks in Sydney, none fatal fortunately, but a Navy diver lost his hand and leg in the Sydney Harbour and another surfer had to have his hand reattached after being mauled by a shark at world famous Bondi Beach. This has resulted in the closure of quite a few local beaches for the moment but it won't be long before the intrepid Australians are back in the water and in fact they already are.

Sunday, over 900 swimmers took part in the annual Swim Classic from Fort Dennison, a small island in the harbour to the Sydney Opera House. The organizers went ahead with the race since no sharks were spotted by the lookouts and patrol boats, although a careful watch was held.

When I lived in Sydney, I was never interested in surfing since I was petrified of the idea of those sharks lurking beneath the waters. The father of a young school friend had died in a shark attack and believe me I never forgot that. Of course they travel up the rivers too so the local swimming area on the river near where I lived in my youth had a sharkproof net surrounding it.

I guess that puts some of my other beefs in perspective as they are not life threatening and only involve money. One of my big beefs is that concession or senior rates only apply to Australian residents, who are provided with a special card. That certainly does not happen in North America, senior rates apply to everyone. Yesterday, for example, when we took the Manly ferry, a seven mile journey across the harbour, it cost $25 for the return trip for the two of us, whereas a resident senior citizen could get an all day pass for use on the ferries for $2.50 per person.

I know the next practice happens in other countries too, but it is wasn't always so in Sydney and it still annoys me. It also doesn't seem to happen in the country areas either so I guess it must annoy other Australians too when they visit Sydney. When you eat at a restaurant vegetables are not included with the entree and must be ordered separately. Now the entree prices are already high in Sydney, certainly more than we are used to paying in Vancouver and the prices of the side dishes are quite high also. Desserts really take the cake, at around $15 and while I have not noticed it recently, last time we were here Bread Pudding was a very trendy dessert. $15 for Bread Pudding? I don't think so, no matter how gourmet the recipe, made with brioche and cream, etc.

Well enough of my curmudgeonly ranting for the moment. I do appreciate the fact that the final price is that stated and there are no added taxes and no tipping. However many of the hotels are now adding a 1.5% surcharge if you use a credit card and with prices at $300 plus a night who is going to pay cash and overseas visitors cannot do direct debit.

As always the Australians are very friendly and outgoing, happy to chat at the drop of a hat, which I am myself but they are very laid back and service and standards are not always quite up to expectations. Well maybe one last negative comment. When I was looking at reviews for hotels in Sydney, although I always intended to stay at this hotel where we have stayed before, I was quite shocked at the low ratings for service and cleanliness, even for the better hotels. At this hotel, with rates starting at $300 a night, room only, they do not normally provide room service on Sunday unless requested especially. That probably has to do with the fact that labour rates are double time for Sunday but still that is the cost of doing business here and is surely factored into the price. One of the two elevators was out of service for the whole weekend and so too is the hot tub and sauna. Mmm. Would I stay here again? Well you can't beat the location, although standards have definitely dropped since our last visit so I would have to say yes unless the rates become too outrageous, which happened at the other hotel where we used to stay.

Still Sydney is one of the most vibrant cities in the world and culturally there is always something of interest happening. After all this is a city which has an opera house with over 2500 performances each year on its various stages. These feature not only opera, but comedy, drama, ballet, pop concerts, recitals and symphony concerts. There is even an opera about the Sydney Opera House, called " The Eighth Wonder".

Don't let me put you off visiting Sydney. It is a wonderful city, has a delightful harbour with the most amazing variety of ships, boats, watercraft and ferries which always seem to be in motion. You can spend many hours sitting on the shore watching them and never be bored. The many outdoor cafes are pleasant for the Australians certainly know how to enjoy the great weather in this part of the world.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Moggs' Top 10

Music. Funny thing music, there is so much of it and so different, just about as varied as people I guess. Why did I think to Post about it? Well Crushed often puts a post up on Sunday about music.

So my musical tastes, or not ^_^ depending on your viewpoint? Mine are pretty wide.

I don't rule out anything absolutely because of genre, except maybe Gangsta Rap and maybe not even that. I do find a lot of Jazz a bit up itself (ducks and hides) and some opera a bit... bombastic. Prog Rock, hmmnnn... Not my favourite.

I can though think of examples of almost every genre that I do like and enjoy.

So what makes music or songs good? Probably different for different people.

For me, well it can be the sound of it. The tune, the way it is played/mixed, the instruments. They come together in a way that pleases me, or makes my spine tingle. Maybe just bits of it even, but there is enough.

Then there are the words. They may mean something, maybe resonate with how I feel, or felt at the time I first heard them. They might express something I feel some hope or yearning. Or maybe they are just sentimental. Again it might not be all the words, just some of them.

And to be truthful it is a balance. A mix n match, great tune, who cares so much about the words, fab words, maybe the tune does not need to be so hot.

In love? Break up? Just full of joy? Holidays, Sad story, something to wallow in and cry about? Just something that makes you feel good?

It's about moods and feelings and memories for me, a bit like smells. Evocative that's a good word. Evocative of feelings, times, places, people. Is it like that with everyone else? I didn't poll my friends about this subject.

So My Top Ten, and it's only for this week. Remember it is Pop Music really.

It was different last week and will be different next week. No hidden messages, no deep meanings. No I won't apologise for including Miley Cyrus ^_^

Love Story – Taylor Swift
Shine – Aly & AJ
Untouchable- Girls Aloud
Judy – The Pippettes
The Fear – Lily Allen
Someday – Miley Cyrus
T-Shirt – Shontelle
Someone's Watching Over Me – Hillary Duff
Your my Angel – N-Force vs Darren Styles
Love Kills – Little Boots
I kissed a girl – Katy Perry

Sydney, First Glimpse after Eight Years

Sydney Opera House taken from the Manly ferry and one of the most
recognizable buildings in the world

Sydney Harbour Bridge, the most famous landmark in Sydney

After the long flight from Vancouver to Sydney, on a plane that had every seat occupied, we arrived at 10 am and left our bags at our hotel. So too was the hotel full and thus we were unable to occupy our room until 2 pm so somewhat groggily we set off to explore the area of The Rocks.

Actually it is an area that we know quite well, having stayed here at least three times previously but it is a charming area with many interesting stores, galleries and restaurants with pleasant outdoor eating areas. Basically it is just a few streets on the east side of a small peninsula jutting out into the harbour so easily navigated. It is the original settlement area of Sydney and restoration of the area into its current form began in the nineteen seventies. It is an area not only catering to tourists but Sydneyites themselves enjoy the many activities which take place here throughout the year.

Every weekend The Rocks Market is held with extensive displays at the various stalls selling fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables, flowers, meats, cheeses and bread. In addition there are some very talented artists and designers who sell their wares and we enjoyed wandering through and inspecting some of the Australian made articles which varied from reasonable to quite expensive.

An interesting story is associated with the redevelopment of The Rocks, rather a typical one of Australians you might say. In 1973, when the NSW government first proposed its renewal plans, those families who had lived in the community for many years were to be relocated. A local resident action committee enlisted the help of the NSW Builders Labourers Federation, the construction workers union, who refused to work in The Rocks area, thus halting the demolition.

The Battle for the Rocks as it became known, came to a head when the developer hired non union workers. This resulted in all construction workers in Sydney, around 4000, walking off the job and converging in The Rocks area where confrontations between the union and non union workers led to numerous arrests but it also brought an end to the government's development plans.

However the following year, after consultation with the residents the ban was lifted and the redevelopment commenced and the area flourishes with its mix of historic buildings and newer development.

More of our adventures in Sydney over the past two days will follow soon and hopefully with more photos.