Big Rock, Little Rock

Alice does the Uluru traffic report

Our final morning at Ayers Rock was a helicopter flight over same…quite a highlight, I must say, as these things frequently are.  (We have in the past taken helicopter flights over Kauai and over Victoria Falls, both memorable experiences.). We were aloft for a little over a half hour, making a big loop that encompassed both Uluru and Kata Tjuta.  The day was a bit hazy, and although rain had been predicted — and hoped for, though not by us — it had not arrived, and all the suspended dust in the air remained exactly that.  Nonetheless, the aerial views of both formations were spectacular.

The pilots are supposed to remain a certain distance from Uluru, and ours bent the rules a bit and came somewhat closer than allowed, affording us a detailed view of the surface. Although Uluru is a monolith, it nonetheless has its own surface features, notably some eroded scars and clusters of rounded crevasses that serve as both the result and the channels for waterfalls when it rains.

I was slightly surprised to see how broad and flat the top of Uluru was.  The rock has a sort of bent oval footprint on the ground as viewed from above, and the top is essentially a plateau.  It is not altogether mesa-like insofar as it has a slight domed shape, but it is clearly plenty broad and flat enough to hike around on if you actually succeeded in making it to the top.

View from the helicopter… lots easier than climbing

We got considerably closer after I took this shot, but this gives a nice sense of the shape of the feature.

Our flight to Sydney was a just a couple of hours later.  Certainly the logistics were easy enough: the helicopter plopped us down at the airport, so there we were.

The flight to Sydney was about three hours, and two things struck me as I watched the landscape from the window.  First, the view drove home the fact that the population of Australia is even more concentrated on the coast than I had appreciated: basically, we traversed nearly trackless Outback until perhaps the last 15 minutes of the flight.  It was like flying over a flattened version of the Grand Canyon for three hours.

The second thing that I realized — and we learned more about this from the news after we arrived — is that Australia has a big, fat wildfire problem.  I watched a number of them from the air, some pretty substantial in size; one column of smoke that I saw I estimated to be at least a half mile wide.  And as we approached Sydney we passed through an enormous line of fires that was miles in length, with smoke blowing towards the city.  More on this in a moment.

We passed over part of this large line of fires, about 20 minutes flying time from Sydney, and I saw that the heat from it was so intense that it was affecting the cloud formations above it (still well below our altitude).  We started to turn slowly; I saw the shadow of our tail march along the wing.  I figured we were in some kind of pattern as we approached the city, though we seemed a little far from it still.  We continued turning, slowly, and after two minutes or so I again noticed the same fire-perturbed cloud formation.  We were well ahead of schedule, so I nudged Alice and said “We just flew in a circle.  Since we’re early I’m guessing that they don’t have a gate for us at the airport yet.”

Correct observation, wrong cause.  Ten seconds later the flight crew informed us that there had been an “aircraft-related mishap” at Sydney, and that all runways were closed.  That sounded bad: “aircraft-related mishap” sounds an awful lot like a euphemism for “flaming wreckage”.  They then said that we would be delayed for about 40 minutes until they cleared the runway.  Needless to say, we wondered, “Cleared it of what?”  Forty minutes didn’t seem like a very long time, though, considering our dire mental images.

Turns out (we learned after landing) that the “mishap” was an American Airlines jet blowing a tire on takeoff.  Rather than complete the flight, they dumped their fuel and landed again; that was the source of the delay. (Which I confess puzzles me. Obviously they can land with one blown tire — since they did — so why not just complete the flight and have a new tire waiting at the destination airport? Maybe the debris from the tire in the wheel well presents some kind of flight hazard.  Anybody know?)

Be that as it may, other than some confusion in hooking up with our driver because of the flight delay, we arrived at our hotel without incident.  It’s a nice place, very well located in the heart of Sydney (e.g., within walking distance of the iconic Opera House), but we were a little weirded out when we checked in.  The doorman and the desk clerk were sporting Afros, ridiculously colored vests, and peace-sign medallions.  And the TV monitor above the front desk was playing an old episode of — I kid you not — Gilligan’s Island.  Er…. huh?

It was then that we noticed the sign hanging behind the desk: “50 Years!”  Turns out that the hotel is 50 years old this week and so the management is having the staff dress up in what they incorrectly think is 1963-style clothing.  (In fact, that quasi-hippie look is strictly late ’60s, early 70’s.  1963 would want short hair, poodle skirts, pegged chinos, and the like.) the staff seemed game, for which I give them credit.

After breakfast we struck out on a dual mission: buy an opal for Alice, and tour the Opera House.  But the first thing that we noticed as we stepped outside the hotel was that the city had a particular fragrance. Alice noticed it first: “I like how this city smells.”  I then noticed it too: a pleasant, homey smell. And I remarked that this was odd, since generally speaking big cities (Sydney has a population of 4.5 million) do not, in general, smell much better than car exhaust.  But this one did.

About 4 blocks later as we approached the harbor we were shocked that there was so much haze we could barely see the famous Sydney Harbor Bridge. And suddenly the mystery was solved: remember all those wildfires I mentioned?  The city is blanketed in smoke from them, and it smells, well, like a fireplace or a campfire, which is a very pleasant smell.  But it is also bad news for the local environment, and fire crews are working overtime.  It made it very difficult as well to take any decent photos, though the haze lifted somewhat later in the day. In any case, it did not deter us from our gem quest.

Opals are pretty much the national mineral of Australia, as you know, and our travel agent had recommended a particular jeweler whom he knew. One needs to be suspicious of that sort of thing but it turned out to be a wise move.  It was a family business and we dealt directly with the manager, who is the daughter of the owner, and the store had many very beautiful pieces.  And so we of course ended up spending a very large amount of money on a very small geological formation for Alice’s finger.  The iPad’s photographic capabilities are very limited, but here you go:

Little rock, and I do not mean Arkansas

It is a solid stone, not the “doublet” or “triplet” opals that are what you usually see in opal jewelry; those are opal slices with onyx backings.  So this is the real deal, or at least my credit card thinks so.

One of the things that this particular jewelry story prides itself on is that they happen to own the largest opal in the world, a 17,700 carat behemoth (over 7 1/2 lbs) that they keep in a vault but will show you if you ask.  Since our travel agent knew the owner, we asked.  And so here is Alice’s ring in the company of the stone that she really wanted.

Let’s keep things in perspective, shall we?

Having successfully executed this transaction without having my card declined, we moved on to the Opera House, where Alice is currently performing in Carmen:

“Toreador, please use the cuspidor…”

We took the tour of the interior, which was spectacular.  The two main performing halls in particular were the two most beautiful concert spaces I have ever seen.  (Alas, one cannot take photos of them, so Google them at your leisure.) the floors are all polished boxerwood, which is a native (Tasmanian) wood.  And so it goes: all native materials and architectural motifs, quite stunning.

The building itself, though now a World Heritage site, was more than a little controversial during its construction.  Originally estimated to be built over three years at a cost of $7M, it took 15 years and cost $102M.  For those of you keeping score, that’s a factor of 5 in schedule and 15 in cost, a pair of overruns that even NASA at its most feverishly optimistic cannot match.  (The Pentagon, maybe, but it’d be way on the high end even for them.) The architect ended up being forced out by the government and replaced by a committee who somewhat surprisingly successfully completed the job.  The architect retired in pique to his native Denmark and has not returned to Australia in the 40 years since, thus never having personally laid eyes on his own greatest creation.  (They eventually named the bar after him, though.)

After leaving the Opera House we boarded a “hop-on hop-off” ferry that allowed us to cruise around the harbor and visit some of the better known locations.  We spent the most item at — I’m almost ashamed to admit it — the Taronga zoo since, as I mentioned in a previous post, other than a few wallabies, a herd of camels, and some parrots, we have not actually seen a whole lot of Australia’s famed wildlife.  But they have a wonderful zoo here, with a large section devoted specifically to  native fauna, and I am happy to say that we have now seen koalas, a wombat, a platypus, kangaroos, and an assortment of spectacular birds, even if under, um, captured circumstances.

Still, we are satisfied.  We will go back to the harbor area for dinner tonight (a jazzy Inner Harbor-like neighborhood called The Rocks) and tomorrow we take an early flight to Queenstown, New Zealand, thus ending the Australia part of our sojourn. So I will close our visit to Australia with this important advisory couplet from 1940’s humorous poet Ogden Nash, on the topic of Australian wildlife safety:

…But I would not engage the wombat
In any form of mortal combat.

Sound advice. Next post will be from New Zealand!

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