Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Sailing around the city

The 26th Of January is Australia day, its the day in 1788 the first fleet of convicts and marines made it to Port Jackson, New South Wales now commonly referred to as Sydney. Over the next 80 years 160,000 men and women would be through Penal Transportation relocated to Australia to serve time for their crimes. Interestingly before criminals were shipped down to Australia this punishment was common in North American colonies. Pre-USA was faced with labor shortages and England burdened with over crowding in prisons so the exchange was considered a win-win. This however was short lived as the Revolution put the kibosh on that route sending it years later in a more southernly direction. Having no prior knowledge of immigration history to Australia besides knowing that a lot of the people shipped down were convicts, I always imagined they were hardened criminals of the worst sort sent of to do manual labor for life; this is not the case however many of the convicts were imprisoned for small crimes by today's punishment standards. Around 80% of men and women transported were guilty of petty larceny, sometimes with as little as one offense. Now I know punishment back in the day was more severe but imagine being shipped half way across the world for stealing a bit of food? I guess when you compare it to the other options of the day it doesn't seem all that terrible. Australians certainly don't seem proud of their convict history but they should take it a little to heart that quite a few of these people were probably sent here for being poor and desperate much like the migrations of countless free peoples before.

Work in the new Australian colonies was assigned based on education level, skills and gender. Educated men were put in more kush jobs such as office work where the uneducated were likely to find themselves as manual laborers. Women both convict and free found themselves in textile factories or married, if a female convict became a wife she was dismissed of her crimes. The work of manual labor convicts is visible all across Australia and the difficulties they faced are evident in every hand carved rock structure. Cockatoo Island as a prison specifically was quarried and built up by the prisoners themselves.

Cockatoo Island to the history buff is a spectacular place, old machinery scatters the Island cranes looming into the sky at enormous heights, it goes to show just how serious a business ship building is. Named a word heritage site in 2010 its open to the public to explore and offers entry into a good number of different warehouses and the former convict housing area. Camping is available to those willing to spend a small fortune, that's where I spent my Saturday night "Glamping" next to the water of the harbor under the shadows of cranes.

My normal camping is anything but glamorous. Over the summer before leaving the mainland my dog and I did two 20 mile hikes on the Appalachian trail staying overnight in my little 2 person tent. Being new to backpacking I did pretty well on packing for everything but we were far from comfortable. Comfort hiking is a lovely surprise and cannot be expected unless you plan on carrying your body weight on your back. The fact that its hard is what makes it exciting and the sight of the shelter after a 10 mile hike and that campfire sweater smell the next day is worth the torture you may endure.  I'm a minimalist by poor planning but its worked out pretty well so far. Glamping is the art of camping that requires zero effort, everything is already laid out for you upon arrival including an off ground pre-made hotel style cot. It was by far the most comfortable tent I've ever slept in but lacked any real camping vibe especially considering although my pillow was hairless, tick less and lacking the body heat of an exhausted German Shepard. Had I planned the experience myself I wouldn't have been able to glamp far too expensive but may have considered hiring a camping spot and setting up my own tent for a fraction of the price. To camp on the Sydney harbor side surrounded by masses of metal and worn buildings is quite a unique experience and a bit creepy in a good way. For the backpacker like me who may find glamping may be a bit out of reach financially there are camp sites for about 45-50 bucks a night if your willing to bring a tent, that's just a little more than a Sydney Hostel dorm and I promise you the dorm doesn't have the view. I am happy for the experience I otherwise would not have had and absolutely recommend it to anyone looking for a bit of history and decay but I cannot recommend it to the partiers looking for an Island rave. The camping on a Saturday night was packed with families, kids running wild all sporting glow sticks and screaming in the dark. It reminded me of my childhood except slightly less dirty and bonfire less which if you ask
me is unforgivable. Things wound down early I don't even remember hearing any music; by the time 10pm rolled around even I was nearly asleep and the area around quiet. There is a bar on the Island that closes at 9 pm and alcohol is not permitted in luggage (they check, hide well) you're looking at restaurant prices for bottled wine from the cafe and as for the bar well, if you've experienced Australian alcohol prices don't expect many cheap options. Maybe the backpackers stay the weekdays I wouldn't know personally but just in case consider your reasoning for going before dropping the deposit as not to be disappointed by the lack of night time thrills, however they do every now and again host festivals which I would attend without a second thought if given the opportunity. It costs around $10 for a round trip ferry pass and its well worth the trip whether to stay or just have a day visit.  Going for a day is almost as good as staying overnight since you can see mostly everything fairly quickly but the latter it is a pretty unique experience in Sydney, after all how many places can you camp on an old Shipyard?

I woke up the next morning with a mind full of plans and made a hasty departure from my host family to finish exploring some warehouses I only had the opportunity to glance in the previous day. Unfortunately I was too early, at 10am and they were all still locked up. I peered through the bars looking at what I expect were sights similar to what I'd already experienced. I figured a glance was good enough, the one big warehouse I was really wanting to see contained a bar and restaurant modern additions I really could not give a shit about so I walked towards the wharf ready to start a new adventure.

I am now convinced that Sydney is one of the most beautiful and interesting cities I have ever visited. I realized this as I sat on the ferry traveling back to Circular Quay, the sights are spectacular almost everywhere I've been so far. Public transportation is even more enjoyable in Sydney, I'm sure for the casual visitor that's true more so than for the resident but there is something about having ferries as a option to get to so many places that give you a sense of the city being so much more diverse and enormous. There are also certain conveniences to Australian transportation that now seem to be such common sense such as double decker trains with movable seats. Imagine getting on the Metro North and having a whole nother level of seating on the packed morning commutes and being able to split up those annoying groups of six seats into a less awkward three.

I departed the ferry at Circular Quay and jumped on the next one 20 mins later to Manly Beach thinking that it might be hard to leave this city come October.

Manly Cove was named by Captain Arthur Philip after seeing the manliness and confidence of the Aborigines living in the area, why not? Bondi and Manly are the two main beaches you hear about when talking about Sydney the must visits according to other travelers, I'll add my stamp of approval onto Manly for sure. Getting on the street outside the wharf I immediately was taken with its surfer town vibe. Shoeless beach bums roamed the streets bobbing their head in that hey man attitude and tourists flocked in bunches towards the beach to watch the surfers catch the waves they wish they could ride. If you have any love for the ocean this beach will make you wish you could surf, swimming isn't quite good enough when you see those first few successful wave rides. I had to kill a lot time to catch a ferry after dark to see the Opera House lit up for Vivid, it was only 12:30. I sat on the beach scribbling in my diary and working
on a short story that may take my whole life to complete until my mind became numb, it didnt take long. Distracted by the waves I sat in the sand rising to catch a few pics of the surfers in the distance. A small beach off to the right of me caught my attention, it was a little cove tucked away behind a small hill. I had a heavy bag from camping and wasn't in the mood to walk far but decided to go for it for lack of anything better to do. The water was crystal clear patches of bright blue pools shimmered against the sandstone. I wished I'd brought a bathing suit and snorkeling gear but it was winter now and I figured it would be too cold to swim; NEVER assume this in Australia I'm convinced you'll find people in the water on the coldest of days which compared to North Eastern USA is a joke.

I looked at the picturesque spot thinking if I was ever filthy rich enough to live where ever I wanted it would be a water front home in Manly. I looked at a map of the area looking for things to do when I saw a large blotch of land sectioned off as Quarantine Station. Q Station was used in the 19th century for isolating migrants with suspected contagious disease before being allowed into Sydney Harbor. I had been wanting to visit for months, half due to historical interest and half because I'd seen they had ghost tours and was dying to go on one. I decided to find it after planning a walk up North Head to the fort, the Q station cemetery and whatever beautiful location I could stumble upon.

Never in my life have I gone the wrong direction so many times consecutively. Manly and the north head trails are not big so how I ended up getting so lost is beyond my comprehension, therefore, I blame the map. My last words may just someday be "I'm just going for a short walk."  The paths on the way to North Fort are incredible, just up the hill from the cove is a series of cliffs with small pathways you're at your own discretion to climb. There are no barriers as I found out emerging from the bushes to the edge of a sheer drop, there were signs I just didnt expect it to be quite so dramatic. I was roaming into Sydney Harbor National Park, a park that for its size contains many of the most unmissable views Sydney had to offer.

Along the way I walked by a nature sanctuary where I picked up said worst map in the world and proceeded to walk the opposite direction for what seemed like an eternity looking for any distinguishable signs or landmarks. Finally after what seemed like and had been hours I gave up or better yet decided "fuck it" and walked towards what I though at the time was the wrong direction. I wandered defeated looking for a main road to see if I cold catch any sort of bus back to Manly having zero idea where to go. I'd seen more of the Australian bush than I really cared to experience that day when suddenly I found a sign for Fairfax lookout, DAFUK? This spot was where I thought I was walking away from and a spot even further from where I needed to be. Kind of getting pissed I to fuck it level 2, which is denial and walked to see what all the fuss was about. 

Holy shit, Fairfax lookout is a Sydney highlight and not something you should never miss.

Walking around the circular track admiring the sights I saw an obelisk shape above the trees, I looked at it a bit dumbfounded. Here I was going what I thought was the complete wrong way but ended up being the oh so right one? How many obelisks could possibly be that had to be the cemetery. A wall separated two sides of the bush, I could no longer see the point of the structure, I felt it was to the right and true to form went left. Luckily the was a break in the wall by the water that I climbed over to get to the right side. The cemetery is not looked after whatsoever, it was overgrown the obelisk the only marker of its existence. I half expected bones to be emerging in the roots of plants somewhere. I fought through the bush to search around but gave up after a few minutes it was hopeless and I am always wary walking off the beaten path in Australia due to my foreigner fear of creatures. I figured the cemetery was a good indicator for Q Station being nearby, it was pushing 4:00 and got concerned it was closed. I walked slightly faster down the road I had been looking for only an hour ago jealous of the bikes that zipped by at a lazy but quicker pace. My bag was starting to hurt my shoulders and back but I ignored the pain the best I could until I saw that glorious Q Station sign ahead and people walking past the open gates, .

Sunset was about an hour off I walked down the hill towards the wharf where the visitors center was expecting it to be closed. A sign approached, two choices wharf district and hospital district. Obviously I chose hospital this place is apparently haunted I wanted to see some creepy shit. Q Station alas was not what I expected. My disappointment began when I walked by the first building, the morgue. Nothing was open for exploration and I don't think you are permitted to go in without a guide so I stuck my face to the glass peering in at the room. A plastic severed hand sat in a bowl by the window, I briefly thought that's a load of bull shit but ignored the one set up item as someones bad idea for a creepy addition to the tour. I walked over to the hospital quarters peering through the locked doors noticing a number of hand prints on the windows, they were very staged looking and on the inside, my expectations dropped another level. I wandered into an old bathroom probably the creepiest thing so far and as I turned to leave got startled by a nurses uniform propped up against the window of the infirmary. It seems a few of the buildings at Q Station burned down in the early 2000s and were rebuilt I found this out by the signs proclaiming, "This building has an interesting history." More like this spot really. I had enough of the hospital section it was getting dark and I wanted to watch the sunset by the water.

As the sky darkened I began to think of leaving, I figured the less I saw the better maybe I could make a trip back for a better experience when it was open. The only problem with this plan was I had no idea how to get back to Manly. I went into a bar opposite the visitors center and asked the bartender if there was any ferries coming to pick up passengers that night. He was supremely useless in giving me any information but very nice and probably new to the job, he had that fresh I have no idea what the hell I'm talking about vibe. From what I could decipher from his almost equally unhelpful boss there was a shuttle I could take to the top of the hill followed by a bus running maybe every hour to Manly. I waited for the shuttle for a few minutes before deciding it was a waste of time and started walking. It was getting darker and the street lights were minimal it was also really really empty. I began to suspect I wasn't suppose to be there but since they often have overnight stayers and I had a bag I probably looked like a guest so I took my time. I noticed a sign for the 3rd class precinct, I had no idea how to get back anyways and really no time constraints so I traveled down a dark lightless road, the scariest thing Q Station has to offer. One of the buildings in this precinct had burned down like the area of the hospital and as I walked past the "This building has an interesting history" sign over the overly creaky planks I got the impression they had been purposely built that way for the sake of spookiness. I left after that not sure if this was a historical site, "paranormal attraction" or event venue. Suffice to say I will not be dropping 50-70 bucks on the ghost tour however I may make an attempt to go back at some point during operating hours for a shot at historical redemption.

I finished my walk at reception to find I'd missed the bus by over an hour, of course.  The walk back to the beach took a surprisingly quick 30 mins I had honestly expected at least an hour the way y day had gone. I took the first opportunity to stop in a 7-11 for some frozen slushy comfort before racing to the Wharf to jump on the first boat I saw. Circular Quay, it was boarding just as I arrived. I tucked myself between the bars of the stairs and the side of the boat good picture location for the Harbor and excellent spot to watch the seagulls flying alongside the boat swooping for a group of German tourist's food.

Upon arriving the harbor looked dark, the bridge was lit up on the opposite side and only very slight color changes were noticeable almost mistakable for the normal lights. For a moment I thought I'd gotten it wrong that Vivid was on for three weeks straight. As we bobbed around the front of the Opera House it was beautifully apparent that Vivid was very much in full swing, the entire wharf and surrounding buildings glowed with lights. Vivid is a 3 week festival of light where all over the city amazing shows are put on by artists on the Opera house, Harbor Bridge, in Darling Harbor, the Aquarium roof and countless others. This weekend I will make an effort to get video of the event as its deserving of its own post.