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Land Down Under Part 2 Rock. opera. FINALE.

So long Cairns, thx for all the rainfall

Leaving the lush tropical jungle behind, our next plane ride (the 11th of the trip so far) took us up to the Northern Teritory: A land of heat, deep red earth, dust and flies. Oh and a very bizarre 30 minute timezone offset.

Red earth approach

Uluru (Ayers Rock) was on Victoria’s top ten lifetime to-do’s but after our stay we both agreed it is a magical place. We were seduced by the red earth with views of the rock in the distance. It’s a very calm place; a sacred place for the Aborigines.

Red earth everywhere, and flies

We were lucky enough to stay at the Desert Gardens Hotel, part of the Ayers Rock Resort that have been set up as a “life support” base in an essentially uninhabitable place. Twice a week road trains are loaded up to make the 1,000 mile trip from Adelaide bringing food and materials to the resort, plus daily truckloads of necessities from Alice Springs 275 miles away - returning there with glass and paper products for recycling. These facilities in such close proximity to Uluru makes for a pretty incredible hotel room outlook for sure.

Not too bad view

Our first morning we hopped onto Harley Davidson’s (thanks Suzy for another great recommendation) to witness the sun coming up over Uluru. As is often the case, pre-dawn was more amazing than dawn itself, with the incredible indigo colors on the horizon, and as the Rock emerged from darkness.

Like the Phillip Island penguins and Glow worms in New Zealand, this experience was mind blowing in the flesh and impossible to capture in any meaningful way; it’s something that only memory can preserve with full fidelity. We managed some gratuitous pics of us in our leathers on the bikes, though!

Rock on

A common theme on our travels has been our embarrassment at the audacity of the first Western settlers believing that they had “discovered” distant lands when, in fact, there was already an indigenous population living there. Saying a prayer to Maori gods (before our white water rafting trip) in New Zealand, or thanking the Aborigines for Bennelong Point, (on a tour of the the Sydney Opera House) whilst being a fine way to show respect to the people, doesn’t really address the imbalance that has been imposed upon them.

Leon shows us how to kill kangaroos efficiently

We ultimately came away feeling that we don’t fully understand the dynamic at play here. On the one hand, there is a training program to enable local indiginous people to gain work and skills in the tourist industry; on another, Uluru is clearly a deeply sacred and important part of local culture that shouldn’t be desecrated by tourists. How can that circle ultimately be squared? This was a topic we debated and pondered at length and weren’t able to draw a finite conclusion.

Bruce Munro is an acclaimed British artist who has pioneered large-scale exterior lighting installations using fiber optics. On the second night, we got to experience his Field of Light art installation at Uluru and watch it come to life after sunset. [Ed.: all images I’ve made here are subject to Bruce’s copyright which states: Any commercial use, reproduction or sale, directly or online, is strictly prohibited and may expose violators to civil and criminal penalties. No license is granted, expressed or implied to make commercial use of images reproduced here.]

Sunset assembly
Dwain Phillis playing his Dij [Yidaki] mastifuly.

Anticipating sunset

Lighting up

Lights with fibres

Conversations amid an aura

Star trails

Field of lights

We had a magnificent view of the stars from our outdoor dinner table in the desert on our second night. Prior to this evening, our astrological knowledge was pretty much limited to locating the North Star (which isn’t much use on this side of the planet). Now we can use the Southern Cross to locate south, and spot the Milky Way!

Desert glow

Whilst at the resort we got to check out some of the touristy things around here along with the indigenous wildlife; we didn’t ride out to Uluru on a camel but you can. We had to go to said camel farm to see kangaroos (?). Apparently they’re hopping about all over Brisbane so next trip we’ll have to go there! The parrots pictured here were just hanging out at the resort. I spent at least 20 minutes trying to get a picture and failed to capture the moment when the feathers come up into the defensive pose.

Ghost gum trees are striking and indigenous to Central Australia. Apparently we can buy them at Lowes in the USA but we’re not sure how well they’ll cope with the Pacific Northwest climate....

Ghost Gum Trees

Uluru touched our heart and touched our spirit in an indescribable way. If you ever get the opportunity to visit you must. If you do, soak it in.

Uluru

And so to Sydney, our final destination for this trip of a lifetime. Victoria pulled a real blinder on the AirBnb for this place.. this is probably the most incredible view from an AirBnb ever. Even though the studio was tiny (the bathroom was accessed through the back of the wardrobe..?!) and badly furnished, we’d go back there in a heartbeat.

Best AirBnb view ever

Sydney is an iconic city for many reasons. There is an amazing bay, beaches, an opera house, a bridge. What we didn’t appreciate is the extent to which Sydney is a city that functions on its ferry system. You can go to work on a ferry. You can go to the zoo on a ferry. You can go to the beach on a ferry. You can even depart on a cruise from central Sydney on a (very very large) “ferry”.

Manly Beach panorama

Whilst we didn’t make it to Bondi, we did visit Manly and Cronulla beaches the latter pictured above. It would be fascinating to compare the productivity levels in Sydney vs. other places. A good friend of mine once gave me the book “Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman” (by Yvon Chouinard) as a leaving gift; I wonder how having surfing built into the environment changes (for the better) peoples’ general happiness and productivity. At 5:30pm on a Monday afternoon at Manly Beach there were lots of people surfing, jogging, playing beach volleyball, walking - basically being active after a day at the office. I’m sure there have been many business theses written on this topic but color me curious.

Ferries and Bays

Circular Quay is the ferry hub for Sydney and we found found ourselves here on many occasions. This was a candid shot of a street performer sitting there (shout out to the man @goldenboyaustralia); how does he do this?

A great street artist who’s also a gifted welder?

When we arrived at our AirBnb we saw lots of “little ants” moving across the Coat hanger that is the Sydney Harbor Bridge. On the next evening we joined the lines of ants in our jumpsuits with numerous carabiner clips fixing everything about our person so that we wouldn’t drop anything onto the trains or cars below. It took so long to tog ourselves up and go through the training that Victoria was beginning to regret the whole thing, but in the event we both felt very secure and were able to enjoy the view of sunset over Sydney. Probably the most startling thing was a cruise ship sounding its horn as it reversed out of its berth.

Do you like our jumpsuits?

Two hours’ drive out of Sydney is the Hunter Valley, renowned for its Semillon and Shiraz. It seemed almost rude not to taste some of them: our favorite was probably the Iron Gate Estate sparkling Shiraz Rose named Georgia after Roger, the owner’s daughter. There was also time to visit the Smelly Cheese Shop where Sharon kept us laughing all the way through a goat’s cheese tasting.

Hunter Valley wine tasting tour: 31 wines (plus some Smelly Cheese) in 5 hours

Facts we didn’t know about the Sydney Opera House:

The Opera House taking steps not to get pinched on St Patrick’s Day
  • Jorn Utzon, the Danish architect who designed it, left Sydney before it was completed, never to return
  • The roof is covered in 1,056,006 tiles - not white but matt off-white and glossy cream
  • It should be called the Sydney Performing Arts Center as it houses a concert hall and drama theatre, as well as an opera house.
  • The purple carpet offends Italians as it’s a funeral color, so they’re taken to rooms upstairs which are carpeted in red.
  • Opera Australia permits admission of latecomers after the Overture.......
The iconic sails
Up close with some of the architectural details

It was a real treat for us, as keen opera goers, to attend La Traviata performed by Opera Australia. Sydney Opera House has just undertaken a program of refurbishment costing AU$70m which involved amplifying the orchestra (happily not the singers) and improving the stage production facilities. We found it to be quite an intimate theatre with a great view even from our seats “up in the gods”.

Really enjoyed the performance

We met Bernard and Ali and Jess, one of their daughters in Taveuni, Fiji; Bernard is a keen scuba diver and we bonded over our mutual experiences in the IT industry. When Victoria and I got to Sydney, they were kind enough to invite us to go sailing; turns out they are also a very keen sailing family with Jess having recently come second in the MG14 Australian nationals. It turned out to be a bit of a silly day for sailing with westerly winds gusting up to 30 knots but we persevered for a brief sail from the Cronulla Yaught Club.

Maker:0x4c,Date:2017-9-30,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-Y
More gusty than it looks

I was quite struck by Bernard’s story: not only is he an accomplished helmsman, he also has turned his hand to boat building. Both he and his family sail the MG14 class but when the local boat builder hung up his spurs, Bernard took up the challenge. He got CAD models made from his design and from those, wrote a custom computer program to calculate optimum slicing of the model into discreet wooden segments. From those, he commissioned CNC work to realize the slats into physical form and then spent 2000 hours assembling, gluing and sanding these into the perfect mould. After that he had to apply 4 coats of varnish; resanding between each coat. The accuracy of the wooden mould directly correlates to the resulting craft, hence the attention to detail and smoothness really matters. After several attempts, Bernard’s mould was able to yield the most accurate reproduction ever, realizing 4 boats for himself and his daughters. I find it completely mind-blowing that an IT practitioner by day can have the patience and tenacity to create such complex, subtle art. And then sail it!

Bernard, master boat builder and helmsman

We’re finishing up this post as we prepare for “re-entry” to real life. The trip has been mind-blowing: we have many new experiences, perspectives and intentions for the future and have met, befriended and been inspired by many folks along the way. We are so incredibly blessed and thankful for getting the chance to do this.

Crossing the bridge

Ending with this image of the mighty Sydney Harbour Bridge seems fitting as the symbol of a bridge is a great metaphor... There is no doubt that this is an inflection point for us that has been crossed on many levels. If you ever get the chance to take time out from life, please seize it and push the boat out.. you will not be disappointed.

Carpe diem. Love James and Victoria Xx

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James Clarke
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All photography and text by James E. Clarke and Victoria E. Clarke (C) 2018 All Rights Reserved Any commercial use, reproduction or sale, directly or online, is strictly prohibited and may expose violators to civil and criminal penalties. No license is granted, expressed or implied to make commercial use of images reproduced here.

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