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Well I've arrived in Thailand, and it is hot and humid. I need to buy an umbrella, but that shouldn't be difficult. But before I write anything about Bangkok I ought to finish off Australia.
I spent only a couple of nights in Brisbane, and I don't think I could have found a lot worth doing if I'd stayed much longer. It has a few nice old buildings but they won't excite anyone from outside the New World. I did like the ironic way that the government's former treasury building has been converted to a casino though. (The Australians do seem to like a flutter.) So I got on another train for the all-day trip down to Sydney.
Sydney - the Runcorn of the Southern Hemisphere! Apparently the advantage of that kind of bridge is that you can build it without getting in the way of the shipping passing underneath, which must have mattered for both Runcorn (on the Mersey) and Sydney Harbour. As for the harbour itself, well it's actually a long thin thing more like Salcombe Harbour than the lovely round-but-fractal-edged Poole Harbour (the world's second largest, if you didn't know that already).
I took a ferry across the harbour to the zoo, which is certainly a "Zoo with a View" as they say in their advertising; you can see out over the harbour to the bridge and the Opera House. It had the usual animals from around the world as well as interesting native fauna. The prize for the cutest creatures has to go to the Red Pandas, of which they had a family of four. Apparently they are one of only a few places that have managed to breed them in captivity. They look a bit like a fox:
Then over in the Australian section they had some Echidnas, the termite-eating spiney creatures that are the only other monotremes - egg-laying mammals - apart from platypuses. And they had a pair of platypuses in an aquarium! Actually it was more than just an aquarium as it had pipes and tunnels leading off to above-water burrows and other places for them to hide, but after just a short wait they both came out and demonstrated how they snuffle around in the gravel using their electro-sensitive bills. Fascinating.
Then I went out to the Blue Mountains for the day. It's an easy train ride from Sydney to Katoomba. The train climbs gently for a couple of hours and when you get out you probably don't realise that you're a thousand metres up. And you can't see big mountains around you. But after a ten minute walk down the road all is revealed. The Blue Mountains are actually a big plateaux with a steeply-incised edge, and Katoomba sits on the edge of the plateaux. It's almost like getting to the edge of the Grand Canyon - suddently the ground drops away in front of you and there's a huge view. Though unlike the Grand Canyon the Blue Mountains are wooded.
There is a path along the top of the cliff with great view points every couple of minutes; there are waterfalls (not very big at the moment), distant hills and forests, and of course rock formations to look at. Then for the adventurous there are a couple of places where precipitous steps find an improbable route down to the bottom of the vertical cliffs and traverse along in the forest. (For those who can't remember how to put one foot in front of the other, there are also a couple of cable cars. But they don't get in the way of most of the views.) It was a great day out, which you could make as energetic or not as you fancied, and I thoroughly recommend it. Though not if it's foggy! Here is a view of the Three Sisters, a group of rock pinacles that stick out from the cliff:
Architectural emblem for the city if not for the whole country, the Sydney Opera House is a must-see for anyone coming to the city. I went on a guided tour to find out something about the architecture and the music.
The story of the building is a strange, somewhat sad one. The building was designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzen and built in the 1950s and 60s. They started with the famous tiled roof/wall structures and took longer and cost more than expected - $AUS 30 million in total. At this point the government stepped in and sacked Utzen who left the country, taking his designs for the interiors with him and has never returned. In his place some Australian architects designed the actual theatres, costing an additional $AUS 70 million, giving a total cost of about a third of a billion pounds in today's money. At some point during this saga the specification changed; originally there were to be two multi-purpose theatres, one large and one small, each capable of staging opera, ballet, drama and concerts. What they ended up with was one small opera and ballet theatre and one large concert hall. And the opera / ballet theatre really is small, especially back stage, with just about no space in the wings and everything having to go up and down in a lift between the back of the stage and the scenery dock under the auditorium. Then some say that the concert hall is too large - definitely too large for anything less than a full symphony orchestra. So, according to our guide, a great place to look at but a terrible place to work in! (I've found this web page about it: http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/Sydney_Opera.html.)
It cost me $AUS 13.40 to go all the way to Katoomba and back, so how much do you think I had to pay to go to the airport, an eight-minute ride? $AUS 11.80!!!! Apparently about $AUS 7 of this is a toll that the airport charges. Of course they're not the only people to do this - look at the Heathrow Express, for example. But it's odd how people critisize places in the less-developed world for apparently ripping off visitors with exhorbitant prices for airport transport when exactly the same practise is alive and well in "western" countries like Australia. I wouldn't mind so much if we got a good airport for our money, but Sydney had the longest queues I've encountered so far.
Anyway, after two hours standing up in queues in the airport and another nine sitting down in a plane I finally got to Bangkok. It seems like a pleasant enough place - it is hot and damp (I haven't heard thunder like this for a while!) but the traffic isn't too bad, and based on what I've seen so far (less than a day) there is lots of great stuff to see. I'll keep you informed.
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