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Sydney Reunion: Cohen, the Bergmans and New Zealand

The Bergmans, Adam and Ryan in Darling Harbour

It’s been almost a year since Kristen and I first set foot in Sydney, and what better way to round out 2011 in Australia than with a hometown reunion. The latest addition to our visitor log was Adam Cohen, a childhood friend of mine, who planned to spend a couple weeks with us over Thanksgiving. This happened to coincide with another childhood friend finishing a study abroad program in Melbourne, where his family met him to begin a trip through Australia before heading home. Due to a little luck in timing and scheduling, we all were able to meet in Sydney and get together on the other side of the world.

Adam and the Bergmans then flew to Cairns for some diving before the Bergmans returned to the U.S.A. and Adam came back to Sydney, at which point he and I boarded a plane and began our trip to New Zealand.

After doing a bit of research and reviewing options for a good road trip, we decided on a loop through the South Island, beginning and ending in Christchurch. Our original intention was to rent a campervan for the long weekend and stay out in the countryside, but the logistics didn’t work out for our itinerary, so we just planned to rent a car and make a few stops on the way.

The Fergburger logo in Queenstown

After a late arrival, we left the guest house and drove off into the New Zealand countryside. Departing from Christchurch, our route took us through a variety of different Regions before we reached Queenstown that evening. In addition to the fields and rivers of coastal New Zealand, we drove the winding mountain roads past spectacular lakes (Tekapo and Pukaki) before reaching the Hotel Mercure in the Fernhill region of Queenstown. We checked into the hotel then got some dinner at that most popular of Queenstown burger joints, Fergburger.

No trip to Queenstown would be complete without a little thrillseeking and an adrenaline rush, so after a visit to The Station, Queenstown’s hub of everything extreme, we decided on hang gliding and drove up to the base of the Remarkables to jump off a mountain with only a guide and a wing. After catching a few thermals, taking in some stunning views, and getting a chance to pilot the glider (under careful supervision), we reached solid ground and continued on our journey through the Southern Alps.

Franz Josef Glacier meltwater heading to the Tasman Sea

Though the coastal plains of the island are nice, the real attraction is the mountains, and the next two days would not leave us disappointed. Our journey out of Queenstown towards the west coast took us past a pair of stunning lakes: Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka. We then continued to drive through the first of a handful of national parks, stopping occasionally to check out waterfalls and other roadside attractions, before emerging from the Haast Pass and reaching the town of Haast on the coast. From here the road took us over and around the foothills on the coast before we reached the next of the South Island’s attractions.

An Otira Gorge Road Viaduct through Arthur's Pass

Descending from the mountains through temperate rainforests, the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers are among the most unique and accessible glaciers in the world. Visitors can drive to within a couple kilometers before completing the last part of the journey on foot, coming as close as 100 meters to the face of each glacier. While it’s possible to take guided tours onto the glaciers themselves, we contented ourselves with viewing them from the public hiking path before spending the night in the town of Franz Josef.

The final leg of our road trip took us back into the heart of the island, through yet another national park and an area known as Arthur’s Pass. Cutting across the middle of the South Island, the route is one of the few connections between the east and west coasts. As you might expect, building roads through the mountains can be challenging, but the Kiwis constructed an impressive set of viaducts to connect both sides of the island.

Devil's Punchbowl Falls waterfall in Arthur's Pass

We stopped again for a hike to a nearby waterfall before continuing back to Christchurch, where we stayed before our early morning flight the next day. We unfortunately were unable to explore much of the city, as the CBD is still closed off as a result of the recent earthquake. After an early wake-up call and a flight across the Tasman Sea, we returned to Sydney and began packing again, this time for the return trip to America for the Christmas holiday.

There are lots more pictures from the trip, check them out on Flickr!

Pictures from Australia: January to April 2011

As you might expect, especially if you’re familiar with my itchy trigger finger on the camera, we take far more pictures than you see on the blog. If you’d like to check them out, you can find them on my Flickr page. I’ve recently uploaded a bunch of sets for your viewing pleasure… the shots from the Power Plant Exhibit are particularly cool. Finally, if you use Flickr, you should definitely add me as a contact!

Darling Harbour – January 2011

Bondi Beach, Sydney Harbour, Manly – January 2011

Sydney Harbour, Coogee Beach, Chinatown – January 2011

Symphony in The Domain – January 2011

Lunch at the Scarborough Hotel – January 2011

Australia Day – January 2011

Sydney’s Hyde Park and Botanic Gardens – January 2011

Power Plant Exhibit – January 2011

Chinese New Year in Sydney – February 2011

Sydney Miscellaneous – February-April 2011

Sydney’s Royal Easter Show – April 2011

All around Sydney: Botanic Gardens, Tropfest, Mardi Gras and Surfing

Posts have been a bit sparse as of late, but with good reason: we’ve been busy with a lot of rather uninteresting stuff. I started on a telecom project in Melbourne in the beginning of February, so I’m traveling there every week. Kristen has been immersed in classes, team meetings and coursework, so she’s been busy as well. Nonetheless, we’ve still been able to fit a few things in here and there.

A leisurely day at the Royal Botanic Gardens

At the end of January we took a walk up to Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, starting at the north end of the Domain and going all the way up to the Opera House. The Botanic Gardens are host to a variety of native Australian plants and some wildlife as well (mostly birds and spiders). A great place for a picnic or just some general relaxation, the Botanic Gardens also hosts the St. George OpenAir Cinema, an outdoor theater with a spectacular backdrop.

Power Plant exhibit at the Chinese Garden of Friendship

Later that night, we stopped by Darling Harbour for the last weekend of the Power Plant exhibit at the Chinese Garden of Friendship. A combination of light, sound and pyrotechnics, we were able to see and hear parts of it from the corporate apartment, so we made sure to stop by and see it for ourselves. It ended up having a bit of a outdoor Haunted Mansion feel, with sections eerily lit by old floor lamps, lots of fire and a variety of odd sounds coming from all over the place. Unique though, and worth the visit. Keep an eye on my photo gallery… more pictures are on the way.

Representing Glass City Films at Tropfest

Tropfest, the world’s largest short film festival, is held in Australia every year. The main event takes place at the Domain in Sydney and is broadcast throughout the country. Coming from humble beginnings at the Tropicana Cafe in Darlinghurst, it is now quite a sizable event, with a record national audience of 1,000,000 people this year (of which 100,000 were on site at the Domain). Films must be less than 7 minutes long and must premiere at the festival, where the top 16 finalists are screened and a winner is chosen. We stopped by for some of the films and were lucky enough to catch the winner on the big screens. Of course, we also had to represent our favorite film studio, Glass City Films!

Mardi Gras in Surry Hills

Sydney also celebrates Mardi Gras, but perhaps not in the same way as other cities. In Sydney, Mardi Gras is also the Gay Pride Parade and is billed as one of the largest (if not the largest) in the world. Featuring close to 10,000 participants and upwards of 300,000 spectators, the parade and ensuing after party are often cited as a must-see event for the worldwide LGBT community. We didn’t make it to the after party, but after getting past the barricades, we found some prime undercover real estate on Oxford Street to watch the festivities and stay out of the rain.

Kristen and friends at the MBA Cup after-party

Every year the students from AGSM in Sydney and MBS in Melbourne meet up for a weekend of friendly competition. Alternating between Sydney and Melbourne each year, this year’s competition (in Sydney) includes a variety of academic and athletic events, from debates to rugby. I didn’t attend most of the events, but I did tag along for the volleyball game and was happy to participate when they needed a couple extra players. Sydney ended up winning the majority of the events over the weekend, so to celebrate the victory (and help the Melbournians drown their sorrows), the after party was held at the Beach Palace Hotel.

Hawaiian Night at the ThoughtWorks Team Hug

Twice each year, all of ThoughtWorks Australia gets together for a staff meeting, affectionately called a “Team Hug”. This year the meeting was held outside of Sydney at Ettalong Beach and included a variety of talks from ThoughtWorkers and a rousing Social Justice-focused keynote from Roy, the founder. There was also a Hawaiian themed party on Saturday night, so I made sure to acquire a classy Hawaiian shirt and a hula skirt to complete my outfit.

Our first surfing lesson!

If you were to ask me before our trip what sport I thought I would become good/better at when I came to Australia, I probably would have answered something like “surfing” or “volleyball”. Turns out the answer is actually “bowling” … I was on the team for a corporate challenge and a weekly bowling outing has persisted in Melbourne for the travelers. We’ve still had time to try out surfing though, and while our first attempt was thwarted by rough waters, our second attempt was successful and we were both able to get up for at least a couple seconds. It’s not easy, but it sure is a lot of fun. If you plan to learn to surf when you visit (and you should!), Maroubra Beach is an excellent place to start. It has a nice sandbar that makes it easy to get out to where the waves start to break and it’s a bit less crowded than some of the other beaches.

All in all, not a bad way to spend a couple of months. We’ve got a couple of exciting trips on the horizon though, so stay tuned :)

Australia Day: Celebrating the arrival of the First Fleet

Me and Kristen and an opera house

Australia has a number of national public holidays, some of which you may celebrate (New Years Day, Christmas Day) and some you may not (Anzac Day, Boxing Day). There are also state holidays that may happen at different times on the year (or not at all) depending on what state you happen to be in. One of the most popular holidays is Australia Day, held annually on January 26th to celebrate the arrival in Sydney Cove of the First Fleet. Sailing from Great Britain and containing close to 1,500 people (including 778 convicts), the 11 ships reached Botany Bay between January 18-20, 1788.

Teaching the Aussies American football

Of course, depending on your perspective, the landing of the First Fleet might not be something that merits celebrating. Due to the negative impact of this event on the indigenous Australians (Aborigines), the day has also been called Invasion Day and Survival Day, among others. This hasn’t really caught on (I suppose it would be a bit difficult to market), but protests and demonstrations occur most years.

Nonetheless, Australia Day is like Independence Day in the United States, a day of picnics, drinks, music, festivities and fireworks, all of which we planned to take part in. We started the day with a picnic in Rushcutters Bay Park, near the Potts Point neighborhood of Sydney. Assuming that they would be difficult to find in Australia, I packed a black and yellow American football alongside my Terrible Towels for occasions just like this.

Australia Day bands in The Rocks

After spending a few hours at Rushcutters trying to teach the Aussies how to throw a football, we worked our way over to The Rocks, one of the historic areas of Sydney, to meet up with Kristen’s classmates and see a couple of the bands. From there we walked to Darling Harbour and Cockle Bay for dinner and the fireworks. During dinner the bar was televising a cricket game between the UK and Australia, so with the help of one of Kristen’s classmates, I now understand the game (more or less).

Australia Day Fireworks at Darling Harbour

As in the States, the night ended with fireworks, always a crowd-pleaser here in Australia. I think there were a variety of fireworks shows all over the city, but we opted for the ones in Darling Harbour, which are nice and close to our apartment. And, as you might expect, they offered some nice opportunities for yours truly to work on his night photography skills. I unfortunately didn’t have a particularly ideal vantage point, but I think I was able to get a few decent shots… you be the judge.

With Kristen's classmates and one extra

We stopped for a group picture on the way out… see if you can figure out which one isn’t part of our group :)

Day 1 in Sydney: Unpacking and Darling Harbour

Picking up where we left off, we landed at around 6am and made it to the apartment by around 9ish. Sydney is on Australian Eastern Standard Time, which is GMT +10 hours during the winter and GMT +11 hours in the summer (October to April). So that means that I’m currently 17 hours ahead of Chicago, although the jet lag is only 7 hours. As a result, should you come visit us (and you should!), assume that it will take about about a week before you’re fully adjusted.

After spending a few hours orienting, organizing, calling people, etc, we were determined to get out of the apartment before we fell asleep. First stop: lunch and the grocery store. After getting a bite to eat and picking up the essentials, we decided to do a bit of exploring. Despite the strong urge to go see the Opera House, Harbour Bridge and all the iconic stuff on the first day, we weren’t really up for the walk, so we stayed a little closer to our neighborhood and walked to Darling Harbour instead.

$6 for one scoop is one thing, but $18 for a banana split?!

On the way, we started to notice one of the first things you’ll note about Australia: everything’s more expensive. This was all ok back when the Australian dollar was trading at around 70 US cents, but now that the AUD and the USD are about 1 to 1, your American dollar doesn’t quite go as far. I’m certainly looking forward to that first Australian dollar, cost-of-living-adjusted paycheck!

Darling Harbour and the Sydney Skyline

We spent the next couple hours wandering around Darling Harbour, checking out menus and watching the street performers. The harbour has a Navy Pier feel to it… lots of tourists, lots of restaurants, water, etc. We stopped by the Australian National Maritime Museum, though at this point it was nearing closing time, so we added it to our list of things to do.

After crossing the Pyrmont Bridge (which apparently swings to let ships through… totally missed that), we walked back up the other side, picked up some pamphlets at the information center, then stopped by the Chinese Garden of Friendship and adding it to the list as well.

Chinese Garden of Friendship

This was about enough for the day, so we walked back to the apartment and started debating where to find some dinner. At this point though, it was about 6pm and, running on only a few hours of airplane sleep and feeling like 2am, we opted to stay in before calling it an early night.

First impressions: Sydney is a fantastic place to live. It’s a clean and vibrant city with tons going on. Our apartment is on the edge of Chinatown, so everything is open late and people are out and about through most of the night. Sydney has a lot of things going for it: great weather, great location, tons of stores and restaurants, and, of course, there are awesome beaches. Stay tuned :)