Glorious Blue Mountains

Out the door by 6:30 this morning, headed to Central Station to board the train for a two hour ride to Katoomba, gateway to the amazing Blue Mountains outside of Sydney. Great views (including much-hyped Three Sisters) and cool animals made this a most wonderful day.

One of my first stops was Scenic World and its three rides, including a Skyway cable car that offers a glass section of floor as you glide way above the forest floor.

Note: some had warned me of the dangerous snakes and spiders of Australia. Today I found examples of both, though neither seemed particularly threatening. The spider was quite small indeed (and other than taking its picture, I left it unmolested); the snake was, well, placed along a trail to a viewpoint: still, steel, and quite passive.

Other animals I spotted included Lyrebirds scratching through the leaves and Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos flying in for a drink of water.

Tomorrow I’m off to Yackandandah and the first of my two volunteer projects in Australia. Internet access may be a bit iffy, but I will post whenever I can.

Touring Sydney

Enjoyed a hop-on hop-off bus tour of Sydney today. Saw Bondi Beach (which also had some cool murals), various buildings (including the underside of the Harbour Bridge), stopped at a Chinese Garden (and made a new friend), visited St. Mary’s Cathedral, and wandered through Hyde Park.

Then, on a friend’s recommendation, I had booked dinner at Bennelong, a very nice restaurant inside the Sydney Opera House. One of the options was a “bay bug.” It’s a kind of shellfish native to the area, like a mini-lobster. Anyway, the bug was delicious. After dinner, the opera: “The Marriage of Figaro.” I was excited to be here, but frankly a little too worn down after three full days of touring (not mention a full meal and a lovely glass of Sauvignon Blanc!), and I too soon found myself dozing. Yikes! I did stop short of actually snoring. I hope!

Great views, high & low

On Monday I went to the Harbour Bridge (see yesterday’s post for a photo). I had booked a BridgeClimb, a three-and-a-half hour experience unlike anything else I’ve experienced. It starts, of course, with getting to the gathering point, easier said than done. Especially when I get on a train — okay, it was the right train, I just boarded one headed the wrong direction. So glad I allowed some extra time to get there!

The preparation for the climb is quiet detailed, including a very flattering jump suit, harness, hat, lanyard for sunglasses, even a hankie. We were not permitted anything else: no camera, not even a watch! With all the cars and pedestrians below, I suppose that only makes sense. Fortunately, our excellent guide also took pictures. The climb ascends some 1,332 steps until we were nearly 440 feet high. As you would imagine, this offered a pretty spectacular view!

After a quick sandwich in a lovely neighborhood known as the Rocks I hopped on a ferry to Manly whose beach was recommended by many locals over the more well-known Bondi Beach. As you can tell from the photos, the beach, while scenic, was pretty empty. I’m pretty sure there were more seagulls than people!mThere were a few hardy souls in wetsuits doing a little surfing, but not a lot of folks. I didn’t stay long as I was pretty tired (can’t imagine why!). The last picture shows water for all: a drinking fountain, a refill spot for water bottles, and even a bowl of water for the pups. Cool!

Welcome to Sydney!

My 19-day cruise ended Sunday morning as we sailed into Sydney Harbour, gliding past the incomparable Sydney Opera House and the majestic Harbour Bridge. Getting over 4,000 passengers off a ship takes a while; it was the only time I really felt crowded. Even when I was off the ship I had to drag my luggage (well, at least this time I still have my luggage!) uphill a block because my Uber driver couldn’t get to the designated pickup point because of all the traffic. Yikes!

After that, I checked into my hotel, dropped off my bags, and set about exploring Sydney, Australia. As taxis and Ubers would be expense to use regularly, I bought an Opal card, used when taking local trains and busses. There’s a bus stop a short block from my hotel that takes me pretty much anywhere I’d like to go.

As recommended by a couple of new Australian friends, I headed for the Royal Botanic Garden. Wow! It’s huge and filled with plants, flowers, and lots of lawn where families and friends gathered on a glorious, sunny, warm Sunday afternoon. I also visited Government House, taking a tour of the home of the crown-appointed Governor of the state of New South Wales.

Later I took a guided tour of the Sydney Opera House. This place is amazing! I’ll be back here on Tuesday for a performance of “The Marriage of Figaro.” (Hey, what better way to experience the Opera House than to, you know, see an opera here!).

Got back to my apartment around sundown, after a long but quite wonderful day.

Of Sun and Steam

Thursday we stopped at Picton, on the South Island of New Zealand. I joined an excursion that started with a short ride on a train pulled by the “Passchendaele,” a steam locomotive built in 1915 and named in honor of New Zealanders who gave their lives in a World War I battle in 1917 at Passchendaele. We journeyed through Marlborough, New Zealand’s prime winery region known especially for Sauvignon Blanc.

Our one stop was in Blenheim, a lovely small town with shops, restaurants, a beautiful memorial square, and a river park. The day was bookended by a beautiful sunrise as we sailed into Picton and an even more glorious sunset as we began our final leg towards Sydney, Australia.

A Trip to Middle Earth

Wednesday I enjoyed a day in Wellington, New Zealand. Cool, cloudy, misty — but still a very enjoyable day. I had booked a tour called “In the Footsteps of the Lord of the Rings,” which promised a small-group visit to locations near Wellington where Peter Jackson filmed some of the sequences for the Lord of the Rings movies. Unlike most tours booked through the cruise line, there were only four of us on this journey to Middle Earth.

Our first stop was the Dry Creek Quarry in the Hutt Valley, used first as Helm’s Deep then later as Minas Tirith. Seeing the site it hardly seems possible that this humble location could be transformed so majestically, but such is the nature of movie magic. Next we travelled to nearby Harcourt Park used for various scenes at Isengard, home to fallen wizard Saruman.

A quick stop along the Hutt River brought us to the location for a scene in which hero Aragorn, having fallen from a cliff into a river, is aided by his faithful horse. The horse kneels by his master allowing an exhausted Aragorn to mount his steed and rejoin his comrades.

Finally we went to Kaitoke Park for a quick picnic lunch and a visit to rather small area that was used for filming scenes at the elven home of Rivendell. Each of these locations is very much smaller than I would have thought. The folks who bring us movies with stunning visuals are wizards indeed.

No Monday blues for Gary…

(…because there was no Monday at all this week!)

When I went to bed last night it was Sunday. When I woke this morning it was Tuesday. During the night we crossed the International Date Line. Normally when you change time zones you have to adjust your watch an hour forward or backward. At the Date Line, however, the adjustment is a full 24 hours — an entire day. So I’m writing this at 8 am on Tuesday at sea while it’s 2 pm on Monday in Dyersburg.

Anyway, I’ve not posted recently because I’m still in the middle of five days at sea. In a couple of days we’ll stop in Wellington, the first of our New Zealand ports, before a final two days at sea and arrival in Sydney on October 20 (which will still be the 19th for most of you reading this).

Yesterday being Sunday I attended Mass again led by Fr. Mark. I have also taken time every morning to read in the New Testament and for some journalling. The former is useful for what I hope are obvious reasons. The latter will be useful as a record of my journeys — quite helpful as I no longer remember things as easily or accurately as in the past.

Today the high is expected to be only 55° and it’s currently overcast with choppy seas. And life is very, very good, even with a day gone missing!

Seein’ the Sea Life

We arrived just after dawn into Papeete, Tahiti. In the morning, I wandered into the town to see what I could see, including a welcoming musical performance, street-side vendors, and colorful markets.

In the afternoon I joined what was billed as a Whale Watching Experience. Southern humpback whales are often seen in the waters near Papeete (which is pronounced something along the lines of “papa-ATE-tay”). If you can find whales in the open waters, sometimes they will come quite close to boats filled with tourists who may be able to actually snorkel close by. We didn’t. Our guide, May, and boat driver did find a couple of humpbacks but as they were in the relative shelter of the harbor we had to maintain a respectful distance.

During our afternoon on the water, however, we found numerous spinner dolphins. These small mammals apparently enjoy playing in the wake of boats. May (or maybe it was “Mae”?) was surprised to see dolphins at this time of day, but our little group of tourists certainly did not object.

Also pictured above is a view of the Ovation of the Seas, my home for 19 days and some sailboats we observed (with the island Moorea behind them). My final photo of the day was taken at the end of the day. Both first and last photos were taken from the balcony of my comfy cabin aboard the Ovation.

The evening’s entertainment included a performance by a Tahitian group of musicians and dancers. As energetic as it was, I still found myself dozing — at 7:30 at night! I turned in early, and tonight we set our clocks back one hour. Apparently I need that hour for more rest!

One of the truly enjoyable experiences has been meeting and visiting with a variety of passengers, crew, and entertainers including Fr. Mark, the Catholic priest who welcomed me to Mass on Sunday morning and with whom I had a very nice chat this morning at breakfast.

Bora Bora

(And certainly not boring boring!)

After six days at sea we finally reached land on Tuesday, arriving in Bora Bora in French Polynesia. I had booked an all-day “Lagoon Extravaganza” that delivered great sights and memorable experiences. First, there were only twelve in my group — a good, manageable, and (dare I say) even Biblical number. Our first stop was a place to snorkel and admire the many tropical fish. The day was cloudy, limiting the light under the water. At least that’s my excuse for my little waterproof camera not delivering better shots (note how I didn’t cite “photographer error” as the issue!).

Then we motored over to a sandbar with more fish — especially stingrays and black-tipped reef sharks. We were able to pet the stingrays. The sharks we admired but did not touch. Pretty amazing to be in the water with them. I can now say that I swam with sharks (and I’m not even talking about the days when I was a lawyer…).

The off to a quiet, shallow place for more swimming. A kind lady in my tour group offered to take my photo, resulting in what I’m dubbing my “burial at sea” picture. We then enjoyed a BBQ lunch on a private “motu,” one of the many small out islands surrounding Bora Bora. Even the airport is on a separate motu.

While it was lovely to walk on solid ground for the first time in nearly a week, I mistakenly assumed that the prevailing cloud cover meant I really didn’t need to apply the sunscreen I had brought with me for the day. I was wrong. Quite wrong. And this led me to meet my new best friend, Vera. As in aloe vera, which I have been applying liberally since Tuesday night.

Cruisin’ — on land and in the air

Today, Monday the 7th, is my sixth day at sea. We were supposed to have been in Papeete today but on our first day the ship returned to Honolulu so a passenger who (I am told) had suffered a heart attack could be taken for emergency care.

So what does one do with nearly a week at sea? For me, a lot of reading and resting accompanied by time at the pool, in the hot tub, on the lounger, eating, dozing, and chatting with fellow passengers. Oh, and yesterday I did the “Ripcord by iFly,” a skydiving simulator. This was quite the rush!

Tomorrow we arrive in Bora Bora, and I hope to have some more photos to share after that.