Exploring Sydney and Cairns: Part 1

My trimester break was amazing! Vacations are all about making memories with family, and this will definitely be one I’ll never forget. Australia provides the unique opportunity to do things you’ll never be able to do anywhere else, and we took full advantage!

My trip started when I met up with my mom at the Sydney airport. I’m not usually a teary person, but I gotta admit, I got a little choked up for a minute when I saw her. When I landed it was later in the afternoon. We caught a shuttle to our hotel, the Holiday Inn in Potts Point and made a trip to Coles across the street for groceries. We saved a ton of money by making our own food! The only downside was that we didn’t have a microwave, so when we did make our own stuff we were pretty much restricted to a raw diet (and I am so excited for my cooked soup tonight!). It’s just hard to justify $15 for a veggie burger sometimes!

For our first full day in Sydney, we walked down to Cockle Bay Marina in Darling Harbour to go whale watching.

Cockle Bay Marina

Cockle Bay Marina

We were a bit early for our 2pm adventure, and one of the guys running the tour told us it was quite choppy out there, so “be prepared.” Whatever that means… Come to find out that earlier in the morning, the whale watching tour group ended up with everyone getting seasick and wanting to come back in. Mom and I had no idea what a rough ocean meant. The most we had done prior to this was go fishing on Lake Michigan. They said if they had enough people up for it, they’d still take us out to see the whales, so out we went.

The swells were massive! I’ve never seen anything like it! Later, we found out they were 6-8 meters (about 20-26 feet)! Our boat was sturdy, but small (it maybe fit 20 people). We were literally flying through the air over the swells and crashing back down on the water. It was fun at first, but after the 10th time of slamming down on the seat and metal arm rests, your body starts to get annoyed.

At one point, a wave actually washed over the front of the boat. Mom, my camera, and I were all soaked! I had my rain jacket on, but it was open. Lesson learned! I had a two second freak out moment that my nice DSLR camera was wet, but there was nothing I could really do but shove it under my layers of clothing and hope something would dry it out. Thank goodness no damage was done!

We made it out there though and managed to find three humpback whales and followed them. They didn’t breech or lift their tails for a really good view, but they were awesome nonetheless. They would surface for a while and then dive back down. We followed them by looking for the mist from their blow-spout when they surfaced.

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After about two hours, it was time to head back in. Those waves and the whales made for a pretty memorable experience.

Whale watching battle scars on my elbow (from the crashing down on the metal arm rests).

Whale watching battle scars on my elbow (from the crashing down on the metal arm rests).

The next day we walked to Circular Quay to catch the ferry to Manly Aquarium so I could do the Xtreme Shark Dive with the Grey Nurse Sharks. We got there early to wander around the aquarium for a bit.

Octopus

Octopus

Giant Cuttlefish

Giant Cuttlefish

Fairy Penguins

Fairy Penguins

When it was 1pm, we met my dive guide. Mom passed on this experience because she was worried she’d have more problems with her ear and equalizing. There were two other girls I dove with, both named Hannah. For one girl it was her 21st birthday surprise and the other was on a cruise with her family (She said that the day before, everything was rolling around the cruise ship with the crazy swells. Apparently dinnerware doesn’t like to stay still on a tippy ship.). They took us downstairs to the shark tank to walk us through what we would be doing with our families in tow. We were given a briefing (in the form of a video) and filled out some forms before suiting up for our dive. They gave us three layers of suit to wear: a shirt, cut-off wetsuit, and full wetsuit. The water was still freezing! It was 14-16˚C (or 57-60˚F).

When we got in a little holding tank in the back, we had to prove that we could empty our mask if it filled when we were underwater, remove and retrieve our regulator underwater, and equalize. Then they gave us gloves and we walked through a little doorway into the main tank.

getting into the tank

getting into the tank

Once we were all ready, we jumped over the tunnel and walked through a divider into the second half of the shark tank. It was divided in order to prevent related nurse sharks from mating during the breeding season. As we walked though the divider, we passed a sleeping Green Sea Turtle.

walking through the divider

walking through the divider

Once we reached our destination, we stood on the edge of the tunnel and watched the Grey Nurse Sharks swim all around us. It was pretty neat to see them swim overhead, right in front of us, and every now and then sneak up behind us.

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There were also some sting rays.

There were also some sting rays.

After watching for about 30 minutes, it was time to hop out and warm up! As we walked out, our guide pointed out a shark attack survivor fish to me, and there was also a stingray trying to swim up the side of the tank to get a piece of lettuce he could see that he was about to be fed. Those stingrays are massive!

Time to go...

Time to go…

I couldn’t stop shivering when we got out of the water! It makes it difficult to get dressed when your hands are shaking all over the place, but I finally managed and we headed back to the hotel for a hot shower! The dive was a good refresher before we jumped in to see the reef in Cairns and it was a neat experience. Between the rain and the dive, I’m pretty sure I spent a good 70% of the day semi-wet!

The next day we had the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb at 3:50pm. It was still raining in the morning, so we just chilled at our hotel until about noon and headed out into the streets. Because we were so early, we sort of wandered around a bit on our walk to the Bridge Climb. I had found a coupon in a Sydney tourism book in our hotel room for a free gift. Apparently this opal store/museum would give you a souvenir of you brought you passport in to prove you were a traveler.

We found the opal store and checked out the museum. It was sort of neat to see the fossilized opals they had on display. We had some fun posing with the dinosaurs too. Once I get my mom’s pictures I’ll be able to post them. I didn’t realize opals could be colors other than white. I guess red is the rarest and most expensive color, blue and green are in the middle, and white is the most common.

opal fossil

opal fossil

Our free gift turned out to be a kangaroo pin with a small opal fragment. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s a neat Australian memento… plus, it was free!

In a part of Sydney near Circular Quay, there’s an area known as The Rocks. It’s popular for its shopping, and we happened to come across a weekend market that they had set up. There were some neat little homemade odds and ends that people were selling. This one lady used five photographs, cutting out portions from each photograph and staking them up to make a 3-D image of various landmarks. There were also homemade chocolates, wood carvings, etc.

The Bridge Climb building proved pretty difficult to find, especially in the rain. After several attempts to open a door near flags that said “Bridge Climb” we finally asked a bartender down the street. She said we were in the right place, so back we went. We had completely missed the large glass doors and had been trying to get in what seemed to be employee entrances… oops!

Sydney Harbour Bridge

Sydney Harbour Bridge

Once we went in the correct entrance we checked in and waited for our 3:50pm start time. They gave us tickets to check out the Pylon Tower for free sometime in the future. We were in a group with six other people. We signed some waivers and were given our outfits for the climb. There was a jumpsuit we had to wear over a layer of our own clothing. We were also given rain pants.

jumpsuit

jumpsuit

Once we were dressed, we met our climb guide and strapped ourselves into our safety belt. Mom and I were given glasses holders to keep our glasses attached to our jumpsuits in case they fell off in the breeze. Everything we wore somehow snapped/attached to our jumpsuit. We had so many clips! Once our safety belts were on, we were given a fleece and rain jacket that were in pouches on our hips. We also had a winter hat or cap to choose from, gloves, and radio so we could hear our guide. I felt like a pack mule.

Once we were all geared up, we walked up to the starting point for the tour and clipped our safety harness to the bridge wire. I get that it was for safety, but the harness wasn’t my favorite. Every now and then there would be a little wire guide for your harness, and its purpose was to support the wire all the way across the bridge, but my harness would always get stuck at these points. I got jerked backwards a few times before I learned to guide my harness with my hand. I wasn’t the only one either!

The climb itself was wet, but interesting. Our guide talked a bit about the history of the bridge and how it was built. By the time we reached to top, it was quite dark. The city lights were beautiful. Our walk took us up the lower arch of the bridge and then up some stairs to the bridge’s summit. We took a group photo and made our way back down the bridge.

other groups climbing the bridge... just to give you an idea of where you climb the bridge... we were on the lower arch though for most of our climb

other groups climbing the bridge… just to give you an idea of where you climb the bridge (see the little group of blue people halfway up the right side of the arch?)… we were on the lower arch though for most of our climb

It was a soggy and beautiful experience. The only thing I didn’t particularly like about the climb was that I felt extremely rushed getting ready for the climb and getting all the gear off at the end. I get that they have other groups too, but it was so much gear! I could have used a few seconds more to figure everything out, but oh well! Thank goodness mom and I had each other to figure everything out and aid in working the clips! I’d still be tangled in knots!

The next day we headed out into the rain for our tour of the Sydney Opera House.

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Our tour started at 1pm, so we had time to wander around before our tour. There were some events going on for young dance groups.

inside the opera house

inside the opera house

When our tour began, we were once again given radios to hear our guide. We couldn’t go in very many theaters or take pictures because of copyright laws with the different sets and stage productions, but it was still interesting.

Mom and I decked out in our radios.

Mom and I decked out in our radios.

To begin our tour, we watched a video about the construction. The design proved to be quite a challenge for the architects, but eventually they figured out how to use buttresses to make the odd shape work.

buttresses

buttresses

Our guide talked about several of the productions taking place in the various theaters we visited. She also talked about the technology of each room and how they are able to create the sets. For example, most of the rooms have an orchestra pit that can be raised or lowered and sections of the stage can be extended according to the productions needs. The one room we could take pictures of was the Utzon room, named after and designed by the architect who figured out how to build the opera house. Utzon designed this mural for the room which is supposed to represent what he sees when he listens to music with his eyes shut.

Utzon Room

Utzon Room

Apparently, the government switched during the building of the opera house, and they determined that it was costing too much money and taking too long to complete the project. Before the interior was completed, they told Utzon that he could either step down and become part of a team to help with the construction or resign. He ended up resigning and returning home to Denmark, never to see the opera house completed.

Our guide also talked about the panels covering the opera house. Apparently there are multiple shades of cream used. Cream is used instead of white to prevent the opera house from being too bright when in full sun.

panels

panels

After our tour, we decided to take advantage of our free tickets to climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge Pylon. It would have been an $11 climb, so I’m glad it was free. It was a nice view, but not worth $11 out-of-pocket.

view from the pylon

view from the pylon

They also had little captions throughout the tower explaining more about the history of the bridge and how it was built.

view of Circular Quay from the pylon (where we got on the ferry for Manly Aquarium and the Taronga Zoo)

view of Circular Quay from the pylon (where we got on the ferry for Manly Aquarium and the Taronga Zoo)

Our last full day in Sydney, we had a behind the scenes tour of the Taronga Zoo scheduled. We caught the ferry super early and arrived at 8:45am. The doors to the zoo didn’t open until 9:30am, so we tried to find the skyrail that was supposed to take us up to the zoo. At first, we wandered down this pathway that we thought led to the building… but it turned out to lead to a beach. After turning around, we found the stairs that led up to the building, but it was still closed. There was another pathway that branched off to the side, so we followed that instead. This path led to a door that said no entry, but it was open, so Mom poked her head in. We went through the door and found ourselves inside the zoo! We knew that wasn’t right either, so we were just going to walk up to the entrance and explain what happened, but technically the zoo wasn’t even supposed to be open yet! We didn’t know if they’d be able to let us out to actually get to the entrance, so we turned around instead. It was mass confusion.

We ended up walking back down the path and up the road, where we came across the back entrance of the zoo. No one was there, so we waited for a while. Mom thought she saw someone go in, so we opened the door to the gift shop and walked in. One of the employees told us that they weren’t open yet and they needed to count money, so we’d have to wait outside yet… I’m still not sure why the door was unlocked if guests weren’t allowed to come in yet. Eventually, however, the zoo did open and we were able to go through the appropriate entrance. We ended up walking into the zoo where we had accidentally entered earlier and down to the now unlocked skyrail building. What an adventure, and it wasn’t even lunch time yet!

The skyrail basically runs from the back of the zoo to the front, so you get a bird’s eye view of the place before you walk around. Once we checked in at the front, we met up with our tour group and keeper guide, Jenny, to check out the animals. Our first stop was the tree kangaroo. Apparently Jenny had been cleaning the cage earlier in the morning and bent over. The kangaroo mistook her for a stump, and pounced on her to get down from the tree. I guess Jenny and the kangaroo were both rather surprised that morning, Jenny with the bruises to prove it!

tree kangaroo

tree kangaroo

I was rather excited that we got to see the platypus. Jenny said it’s usually a rather reclusive creature, so she fed it in order to encourage it to swim into the viewing area. My picture isn’t very good, but it was rather dark in there and difficult to get a shot. I was just excited to see one. They’re much smaller than I imagined. Mom was surprised to learn that the males have venomous spurs.

platypus

platypus

Our next stop was inside the quokka and echidna enclosure. We each took a turn petting the echidna. They’re adorable little spiny creatures.

Quokka

Quokka

echidna

echidna

Afterwards was my favorite part of the tour, entering the koala enclosure for some pictures!

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They sleep 20 hours a day, and since the eucalyptus they eat is not very nutritional, they need every waking moment to feed. For that reason, we were not allowed to actually touch the koalas, but we were allowed to get pretty close for some nice shots.

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Two koalas meet on a branch... now what?

Two koalas meet on a branch… now what?

Our next stop was feeding the kangaroo and wallaby. Apparently the kangaroo love Sultanas (raisins) and the wallaby prefer peanuts. An emu came to check out what was going on too. Then we headed backstage at the zoo’s nocturnal exhibits. We got to peek inside the kitchen before heading off to feed an owl live mealworms.

nocturnal animal kitchen

nocturnal animal kitchen

The owl would make these noises of contentment that almost made it sound like it was growling. They’re gorgeous animals. Apparently this particular owl used to be in the bird show at the zoo. She tended to get picked on by the other birds, so they moved her to the nocturnal enclosure. One might think that she would be unhappy in a smaller, indoor area, but it turned out to be exactly the opposite. They know this because of the owl’s behavior. They used to think the owl was a boy, because it hadn’t laid an egg in the 7 years it was part of the bird show. When they separated it from the other birds, however, she started laying eggs (which is a sign of comfort and contentment… they only lay eggs when their nutritional needs are met an they feel safe enough to do so).

owl

owl

We also got to hold a feather glider, which was incredibly tiny and vibrated constantly because of its high metabolic rate, almost like a hummingbird. They’re named after their feather-like tails.

feather glider

feather glider

Our keeper guide also let out two of the bandicoots for us to see. She explained that they don’t run in a straight line, which is a natural, hereditary behavior used in order to evade predators. They’re also incredibly endangered creatures. Around Easter time here, they actually sell chocolate bandicoots (sort of like chocolate bunnies) to raise awareness for the species and help fund conservation efforts.

bandicoot

bandicoots

We also got to see the Tasmanian devil at its enclosure before our tour came to an end at a cafe. We were given a choice of free bakery items and beverage (Mom and I sampled the orange poppy seed muffins… I had never though of using orange in place of lemon, but it was tasty and seems to be quite popular around here!)

For the rest of the day mom and I wandered the zoo, checking out the animals until it closed at 4:30pm. We still didn’t get to see everything the zoo had to offer, but we managed to get to the things we really wanted to do. The sea-lion show and spider keeper chat were rather interesting. They brought out an Australian funnel-web spider, black widow spider (or red-backed spider), and huntsman. We also saw the binturong, which is a rather unusual prehensile creature. They’re also known as a bear cat.

binturong

binturong

I didn’t mention all of the animals that we saw, simply because there were quite a few! We spent quite a long time watching the elephants. They’re such fascinating creatures. We also checked out the reptile house. We literally stayed at the zoo until they announced it was time for people to clear out for closing. We headed back to the skyrail, onto the fairy, and back to the hotel. It was time to get ready for our flight to Cairns! Our 6:00am flight meant our alarm clocks would be going off at 3:30am… hurrah for early mornings! Stay tuned for Part 2 of our vacation…

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