Sunday, January 12, 2020

Sydney - Part 2 (with a side of San Francisco)

[Kyle]After exploring various peripheral areas in the harbour (see Sydney - Part 1) it was time to get ashore in central Sydney to see the more traditional tourist sights.


Darling Harbour and the QVB (Queen Victoria Building)



St Mary's Cathedral & the Mint/Rum Hospital


Barracks Museum and Botanical Gardens

Maryanne had ignored my groans and booked us a night at the opera. Our show was not one particular opera, but a “best of” (Great Opera Hits) with arias from several different ones. I had expected to have to grit my teeth through it, but it was actually a nice show. The MC/pianist kept the tone light and informal and the singing really was amazing. Even I had to admit I was moved at times. The Opera House is also stunning and nowhere is more iconic, so it really was a special evening.




Sydney Opera House, where we enjoyed a waterfront meal before the opera and the 'Badu Gili' illumination show afterwards


Being out so late (for us) allowed us to enjoy the Christmas (and general nighttime) illuminations on the walk home to Begonia

We spent the next day meandering through all of the parks between the Opera House and Begonia’s anchorage at Blackwattle Bay. Sydney has lots of stunning public spaces. There is way more than we can ever see.



A beautiful day to enjoy the sights


ANZAC Memorial


Chinese Garden

At the end, we had to rush home, because we had been invited to dinner aboard Mahana, who we had last seen the night before we left Brisbane. We really like Nick and Caitlin and the time with them always goes by faster than it should.

We lingered long enough the next morning for Maryanne to make a provisioning run while I got Begonia ready for Amateur Day. Amateur day is a tradition in boating areas. There are several a year. In the U.S., the big one is July fourth. Here, it’s New Year’s Yeve.

We were leaving three days early to stake out our spot in Farm Cove, which has a view of the Opera house and the Harbour Bridge from even closer up than Athol Bay.

When we arrived, we were the second boat there. By nightfall, there were about fifteen. The next day, the number tripled, giving the bay the density of a packed mooring field.

Then, on the 31st, the real crowds arrived. Every new boat tried to wedge into increasingly smaller spaces using dodgier and dodgier methods. One boat that anchored right next to us was clearly being driven by first-time renters. They almost hit three boats, including Begonia, before a rental company launch came out and talked them through the anchoring process, including important advice like, “drop the anchor. You need to put out more rope than that. It’s not on the bottom yet.” And, “Go backwards to set it.” Oh, Dear Lord!

This year, as an extra complication, a strong cold front came through just before the sun went down. The wind got stronger and stronger. Most of the late arriving boats that were filling the spaces between us veterans started dragging and making a mess of finding equally unsuitable spots to re-anchor.

Then the show really started. The wind died for about a minute, then started blowing in lightly from the opposite direction. We slowly started to drift toward our anchor. There was another cruising boat there that was heavier and therefore taking longer for the wind to push out of the way.

One after the other, the three runabouts anchored between us hastily pulled up anchor as soon as they realized the space was disappearing. We were very glad for this as the runabouts were the last real obstacles into whom we were in danger of swinging.

Then the wind started gusting to thirty. Half of the boats in the anchorage started dragging. At first, it was only a few, but then they started trawling up the anchors of others on the way. We saw one drifting pair, linked by anchors that split on either side of a monohull that was holding fast. Quick reactions and the judicious use of power by the two skippers of the dragging boats managed to keep them from hitting the mono while someone at the bow of that boat tried to untie the knot connecting the three anchor rodes.

Begonia swung to a stop on the far side of her anchor. That was the good news. The bad news was that most of the boats that had anchored with shorter scope in that half of our circle were now much too close, most notably the beginner boat with the first-time renters. Everybody was swinging back and forth in the gusts and it was only a matter of time before we were going to get hit. We decided to get the hell out of there, even though it meant losing our right of way.


The anchorage begins to fill

Near to us was a poor boat from Rhode Island called Little Wing. The renters dragged into them, re-anchored in the same spot and did it again. Then they did it again. While Little Wing was desperately fending, they kept making the excuse that they couldn’t get hold of the guy in the rental company’s launch to tell them where else to go.

On the other side of Little Wing, a big cabin cruiser did the same thing as the renters, only he had more engine power at his disposal with which to make disastrous over-corrections. He narrowly avoided plowing into us a couple of times as we were both pulling up anchor. When we finally got it aboard, he raced ahead of us to the spot I had all picked out and dropped his anchor again. That left us no room, so we had to high-tail it to a different part of the cove. He dragged into Little Wing a couple more times, along with three other boats that raked their way by, threatening to bend their stanchions and snap their shrouds.

As Maryanne and I were weaving our way out of there, trying not to snag anyone’s rode, the rental skipper thought we had anchored too close to him and decided to give us a loud, drunken lecture on anchoring.

”Our anchor’s up, Moron. Look out behind you!” He was dragging into Little Wing again.

An older cabin cruiser that had anchored next to us had also decided to move. The boat appeared to be two brothers and their four granddaughters. When they first squeezed into the space next to us, I remember thinking that they seemed to be behaving more cautiously and responsibly than most. They seemed far more concerned about our proximity than the others who were even closer. They nervously watched the situation while the four girls sat on the flybridge wearing matching life jackets.

They had no windlass, so one man was up at the bow pulling up the anchor hand-over-hand. His brother was steering with his torso out of the side window, staring forward into the teeth of the wind, trying to take the load off of his brother.

As we were starting to motor away from our original spot, we heard screams coming from their boat. Unbeknownst to the two men, who were facing forward in clean air, their engine had caught fire. Everything behind them was obscured by black smoke. The girls were trapped on the flybridge half in and half out of the smoke. They were terrified and separated from any help.

The guy on the bow piled the rest of their rode on deck and started lowering the girls to him over the windshield. Then there was a terrible, metallic screech, followed by a loud clunk. It sounded like they had caught someone’s chain in their prop. Then there were more screams as they drifted helplessly into the boat behind them.

The occupants of that boat reacted quickly and managed to fend them off without too much damage to themselves. In the process, they were able to capture them and tie them up alongside, Then someone went aboard the disabled vessel and put out the fire. They stayed there until a police boat towed them away.

In our new neck of the woods, we got our anchor set, but we were REALLY close to the two boats behind us. We made sure were were dug in hard and then pulled in ten meters of chain to make a little room. Then a charter boat came in and anchored right in front of us. We were worried they would pull up our anchor when they left, so one or the other of us stayed in the helm seat at the ready. To their credit, so did the captain of the charter boat.

A boat near us dragged. The skipper decided to leave before his anchor was all of the way up and dragged his across another’s. Many of the people standing on deck fell over as their boat suddenly jerked to life. Then the connected pair started trying to weave their way out of the anchorage without really being able to steer either boat. I didn’t see what happened to them as I was distracted by a boat on the other side who had also dragged and was trying to leave. Somehow, their whole jib had unfurled, which is probably way more than they would use if they were trying to sail in this wind. They were going REALLY fast through the mass of other panicking boats as three people on the bow desperately tried to get the sail rolled up. They managed to get it done without hitting anyone. I have no idea how.

The two boats behind us kept coming really close as they swung on their anchors. The latest arrival was a family of Spaniards on what appeared to be a brand new cabin cruiser. It may have even been a Christmas present. The guy at the helm kept using lots of power and bow thruster to keep himself away from the monohull next to them, sometimes overdoing it the wrong way in a panic. It really wasn’t working for them. I couldn’t imagine his plan was to do this until the fireworks went off in six hours.

The guy in the mono came on deck during one particularly close pass and basically said, “Look, this isn’t working. You’re going to have to leave.”

The Spaniard reassured him that it was fine and to not worry. There was one more close approach that wasn’t too close. Everybody let their guard down and on the third, the two boats hit HARD.

The Spanish family accepted their fate, apologized profusely and made to leave. We had to start engines and move aside to let them lift their chain.

Then their windlass failed. It could lower chain, but not raise it. It seemed like the clutch was too loose. Other nearby boats started yelling at them. It was about 50% advice and 50% insults, neither of which were helping. I’m sure by now the guy accepted that he was a heel. He was embarrassed, he was trying to salvage his family’s night, he was still way too close to at least three boats AND he had a mechanical problem to deal with.

Maryanne really wanted to lower the dinghy and go over to help. I had no doubt she would be able to fix their problem, but I had to veto the idea on the basis that I needed us both aboard if we had to move again in a hurry and that trying to do so while towing the dinghy would only make things worse. We had to accept the idea that the only thing we could do was watch and hope.

They tried several things, including unwrapping a new and pathetically small manual reversion handle for their winch. Their anchor locker was arranged in such a way that the guy couldn’t even get any leverage. Eventually, a boat to one side of them managed to get a long line across. That kept them from yawing back and forth as much and was able to take some of the strain off of their rode. Then they were able to hand-over-hand it up with much difficulty and move to another spot. Those poor people. Their special night would be forever ruined.

The wind direction stabilized and the speed backed off a little. The dragging rate dropped and by midnight, all of the undamaged boats were more-or-less okay. We even risked stepping away from our helm seat to go on deck at the spot closest to the helm seat to watch the show.

WOW!!! Sydney sets off their fireworks from four barges and the top and bottom levels of the bridge simultaneously. The whole sky was filled with big, bright, loud bursts of color, Cascades of sparks flowed like waterfalls, it was truly amazing. It was by far the best fireworks display I had ever seen. Sydney works hard to have the best display in the world on the big night and I have no doubt they did just that and by a mile. actually there are two firework displays, one at 9pm (for the kids) and one at midnight, so we had double the spectacle.

Maryanne even made the comment that it had been totally worth it. Well, maybe, but we are never doing that again.


New Year's Eve in Sydney Harbour

When the fireworks ended, the pandemonium started again. This time, it was everybody trying to leave in the dark. We turned on every exterior light we had to make us visible, which is the closest we could come to crawling into a fetal position for Begonia, and waited it out. By 1:30, all of the boats in our swinging circle had gone and we finally knew we could safely turn in for the night.

Most of the other boats left at first light, which happened well before a full night’s sleep had been achieved. We split the difference and emerged to find Farm Cove looked like any other medium density anchorage.

Maryanne’s tireless searching had finally produced a mooring that we could call home for the rest of our time in Sydney. After finding it and picking it up and going ashore to get the tour and settle the bill, we decided we were done for the day. It had been a stressful few days and we needed a rest.

After a failed attempt to reset our 90-day visa clock amongst the hordes of travelers, both for school holidays and returning from the big fireworks blast, we decided to collect Phil’s car. Begonia had been getting a little too light on the water, gently caressing it like a water skipper. It was time to go collect some heavy stuff and mash her back down where she belongs.

We definitely needed another rest day after that, but instead we decided to console ourselves with a road trip to somewhere scenic. After much research regarding the road closures and active fire zones we selected the open portion of the Blue Mountains to visit. We invited Nick and Caitlin along as well.




3 separate 'rides' (the skyway, railway and cableway) allow you to enjoy some stunning views and not have to climb up and down the cliff face

We started our day at Scenic World, a complex of attractions perched on the cliffs between the town of Katoomba and Blue Mountains National Park. The recent fires had been encroaching from both sides, but for the moment, a corridor of unscathed land ran along a wide swath centered on the Blue Mountain Highway and Scenic World was saying they were open. The smoke and ash had been a real problem up there, but we all agreed to give it a try and turn back if things looked bad.

It turned out to be a pretty good day, visibility-wise. Light rains had allowed the firefighters to win a round overnight against the flames. The winds were light and blowing the smoke the other way. We were all stunned to find clear, blue skies when we arrived.

Scenic World has lots of lovely trails, most of the longer of which were closed due to the fires. The real meat of the complex, though is their railway and their two areal trams, plus the requisite gift shop, cafe and ample parking for tour busses.

Their railway is claimed to be the steepest in the world, sloping at a fifty-two degree angle. What’s impressive about it is that that is just the average. When you board, leaned forward at twenty-five degrees, you think, “Wow, this is steep!”

Then the thing starts and the train pitches over like a roller coaster topping the big hill at the beginning. Even though the varnished wooden bench seats are steeply reclined, you still end up sliding off of the front and having to brace for support as it rolls down the slope.

To get back up, there is a nice connecting trail to a big cable tram that will haul you back to where you started. They also have the second tram, which crosses horizontally over to the cliff opposite, passing by Katoomba Falls. At this stage, the falls is but a mere trickle, but the cliffs were nice and we got a good view of the Three Sisters, the local beauty spot.

This would have all been great, except that it turned out poor Nick isn’t really a fan of long walks or steep drop offs. He was a good sport about it as he kept the seats in the cafe warm for Maryanne, Caitlin and my return.

We had made a point of arriving well before the tour bus mobs. They were here now, and it really changed the character of the place. Suddenly, we were having to wait in line just to walk and jostle our way to every view. We all decided we needed some breathing room.

To make it up to Nick for waiting around for us, we drove into the nearby Megalong Valley for lunch at Dryridge Estate, a pretty little vineyard tucked way in the back. It was so far out there that all of us were thinking we must have somehow missed the turnoff. As I was looking for a place to turn around on the narrow road, Maryanne spotted vines on a hill in the distance.


A more relaxing way to enjoy the scenery at Dryridge Estate Winery

We were their only customer. That didn’t surprise us at all, but the proprietress, Emma, said they were usually packed on holiday weekends. The fires were really keeping everyone away. We enjoyed having Emma all to ourselves, which gave us time to actually meet her instead of just being served by her.

It was crazy hot, at least 43C. A wind was blowing, but it had no cooling effect, like standing in front of an open oven. Stepping out from the shade instantly made it feel 10 degrees hotter. An afternoon lightning strike had started a new fire just over the ridge and the smoke plume was gradually filling the sky to the south. Emma assured us we were quite safe.

Emma gave us some suggestions for things to see on the trip back home. First was the Hydro Majestic Grand Hotel. We had passed it on the way up and had only not stopped because there hadn’t been enough time to safely hit the brakes by the time we realized we should have.


A stop for tea at the Hydro Majestic Grand

We were glad we had come back. The Hydro Majestic Grand is one of those 1920s era grand hotels with soaring ceilings covered with intricate plaster and wooden details. The floors creaked under giant, velvety rugs. We ordered tea and cakes in the lounge, where we sat on overstuffed sofas and admired the view out of giant picture windows framed by decades of paint layers, while perusing the day’s papers and lamenting the dreadful decline of the bowler hat industry. It was all very agreeable.

Afterwards, on Emma’s advice, we took a different route back into Sydney, that looped slightly to the north. We saw quaint little towns, most of which seemed to be in the roadside pie shop business. Further on, things started to change.

Traffic thinned out and then almost disappeared altogether. We topped a rise and saw a valley that had been scorched by the recent fires. Further on, we rounded a bend into another world.

For as far as we could see on both sides of the road, the land was covered with blackened trees. The scene wasn’t monochrome, though. Bare patches of red earth showed through and the tops of the hearty eucalyptus were already revealing blonde wood emerging from the outer layers of peeling black bark. Some were even starting to bud already. It was beautiful and humbling and mesmerizing all at the same time. We stopped at one spot where Nick found a smoking tire with a little shoot growing in the middle. Under one of the charred eucalyptus, someone had placed a bowl of water for any animals in need. The authorities have been encouraging people to leave water out for wild animals stressed by the heat wave. It was hard to imagine anyone surviving the blaze that had gone through, but we still scanned for the refugees the water was meant to save in the hope that something had made it.


We drove through miles of stunning scenery and witnessed plenty of the recent fire devistation

As we made our way back down from the mountains, we were all in awe as the burn area just kept going for miles and miles. Then, all at once, it stopped. We had reached the edge. We drove through a tidy little town filled with green, crested a rise and were back into the world after the apocalypse.

We realized then that the town had not been at the edge of the fire, but in the middle of it and had been saved by the 'Firies', as they call them down here. Piles of cut wood on the edges of hastily bulldozed fire breaks gave just a hint of the monumental drama that must have just taken place. The personnel were all gone now, off at the new front over the hills.

It had been quite a day of ups and downs. Maryanne and I decided we would finally designate the next day a “Feet Up Day”, as Nick referred to it. Good idea, Nick.

Next was a week of tying up loose ends. We started with returning Phil’s car and taking a route home that allowed us to tick walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge off of the list.



After dropping of the car we squeezed in some more sightseeing
Visiting Wendy Whiteley's Secret Garden, and took a walk across the Sydney Harbour bridge


We then spent three calendar days getting a deeeelicious lunch at my very favorite restaurant, Juan’s Place. It’s in Berkeley, California. Oh, that is some delicious food! We have met Juan before, but this time, we got to meet the guy who has been the chef there for forty-two years. I was hoping their recipes just had some basic quality that I have been missing, but no, they’re all in one genius’s head. I guess we have to just keep going to Berkeley.

The real reason we went to Juan’s was not because we wanted an amazing lunch, but because we were in the Bay Area anyway, and we wanted an amazing lunch.


A very distant side trip to get to Juan's Restaurant


An unexpected stop at the Takara Sake tasting and museum was a hit
Especially the tastings

We were in the Bay Area because our one-year visa requires us to stay no more than 90 days in Australia each time. There are closer places we could have gone, but not cheaper, so flying all of the way to San Francisco for a day was a bit of Immigration admin. {Maryanne: We read some outdated advice and picked out the wrong (but easy) visa before arriving in Australia with the impression we could easily change it once we arrived. This would save us having to 'waste' a day in New Caledonia seeking out necessary Chest X-rays. Rules change, and in hindsight we clearly should have spent that day in New Cal and saved the time and expense of clearing out of the country due to visa restrictions... we'll know for next time}

Next came the rest of the provisioning, hosing the ash off of the boat and filling our water tanks to get us through the next month.

The we checked out of our marina and headed to Manly for a reunion with the Muse family for a last dinner together before we set off. They had all arrived the same day as we had, only they came from the UK. Poor Hannah and Ollie were nodding off during the meal from jet lag. I’m glad we got to see them one last time. It would have felt wrong to be so close and to miss them.

{Maryanne: So we are all set to leave Sydney and head south, our last day at anchor was drizzly and overcast, even a little cold, so it was a great day to catch up on admin and computer chores. As a fun distraction, we were constantly on the lookout for penguins that nest along the coastline here, but had no luck spotting any. Regardless, it is time to say farewell to Sydney - what wonderful memories we will take with us}