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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!

A Few Quick Trips: Blue Mountains, Sculptures and Hunter Valley

The Three Sisters and the Jamison Valley in HDR

Like most major urban areas, Sydney has plenty to do within the city limits, but there’s lots more to see if you’re willing to travel a couple hours away. Sydney has several popular day trip destinations, two of which we got to visit on consecutive weekends: the Blue Mountains, which I’ve already written about in a previous post; and the Hunter Valley, Sydney’s most prominent wine region.

This trip was Kristen’s second to the Blue Mountains, as she had visited when her parents were in town. I had never been though, and the opportunity to go with several of Kristen’s classmates came at the right time. Unlike the last trip, which was on a bus, for this trip we chose to take the train, which doesn’t take a whole lot more time and is a lot cheaper. We arrived Saturday morning and spent the afternoon touring via the hop-on-hop-off bus before meeting the rest of the cohort for dinner.

Boardwalk through the Jamison Valley rainforest

In addition to being rich in coal mining history, the Blue Mountains are also part of a large national park filled with hiking trails. We unfortunately arrived a bit late to join the rest of the class on a longer hike, but there are plenty of trails of varying lengths catering to all sorts of schedules. Given limited time, we chose one of the shorter hikes that took us along the boardwalks near the base of the mountains, where informational placards and prominent maps guide even the navigationally-challenged tourist from point A to point B past interesting sights.

A giant faucet, part of Sculpture by the Sea

After riding the Scenic Cableway back to the top of the ridge, we hopped back on the hop-on-hop-off bus and headed back to Katoomba, where we met the rest of the crew for an Italian dinner in the town before retiring to the Katoomba Town Centre Motel for the night and leaving the next afternoon.

The following weekend, the class planned a bus trip to the Hunter Valley, but before heading north to the vineyards, we stopped by Bondi Beach for a large outdoor art exhibit known as Sculpture by the Sea. Installed on the coastal walk between Bondi and a smaller beach called Tamarama, the exhibit included dozens of larger-than-life pieces of art, often constructed out of everyday things like tires and scrap metal. There were plenty of stunning pieces and even the occasional meta-art sculpture, but the most popular was easily the giant faucet. Seeming as though it might let loose and hose an unsuspecting child, the faucet sat prominently on a hill overlooking Bondi, encouraging visitors to engage in a hands-on experience despite frequent signage discouraging such things.

Lindeman's Wines in the Hunter Valley

After braving the crowds through the sculpture installation, we heeded an early wake-up call the next morning and caught a cab to UNSW to meet the bus that would take us to four vineyards and a spot for lunch. Though the bus driver didn’t seem to know where he was going and refused to go faster than 50mph on the freeway, we made it Ā to the Valley and started our tour of Sydney’s winemaking region. Though its primary export is coal, residents of the area began importing vines in the mid-1830s and was thriving soon after.

Our tour took us to four vineyards: Tulloch, Brokenwood, Lindeman’s, and, um, considering we tasted several wines at each vineyard, things were a bit foggy by the end of the day so I don’t remember the last one šŸ™‚ It was a great trip though, and a great chance to catch up with the classmates who would be leaving for exchange programs for the following term.

There are plenty more pictures from our trip on Flickr: Blue Mountains and Sculpture by the Sea.

Kristen and Ryan and Bondi Beach at night

Deaton Family Visit: Sydney and the Blue Mountains

Carol, Dave, and Kristen climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge

Returning to Sydney, the Deatons set off to further explore the city and the surrounding attractions, starting with a view of Sydney from atop the Harbour Bridge. Sydney’s BridgeClimb remains one of our top recommendations for visitors to Sydney; it’s an entertaining and unique way to see the city and learn about the engineering achievement that is the world’s tallest steel arch bridge. Ā Having now climbed the bridge twice, Kristen earned her “BridgeClimb Master” certificate of achievement.

Carol and Dave on a Sydney jet boat

The next stop on the Sydney itinerary was a fast-paced jetboat tour of the harbour. Originally designed for the shallow rivers of New Zealand, jetboats have increased in popularity due to their maneuverability and operational versatility. After booking a tour with Harbour Jet, the Deatons set off on their journey past many of Sydney’s waterfront landmarks, including the bridge, Luna Park, Cockatoo Island, and, of course, the Opera House. Along the way, the driver did his best to spin and soak his passengers.

Cockatoos and the Three Sisters

The next day, Kristen and her parents set off to the west to see a couple more Sydney landmarks, starting with the Olympic Park. No longer covered with rides and farm animals, the Olympic Park is quiet on normal days, which makes it easier to explore and take in a bit of sporting history. After leaving the park, the Deatons continued west towards one of Sydney’s most famous natural attractions, the Blue Mountains. Named for the lingering blue haze caused by evaporated eucalyptus oil, the mountains host a variety of wildlife and several rock formations, including the Three Sisters.

Dave and Carol in the Blue Mountains

In addition to scenery and wildlife, the Blue Mountains are also rich in natural resources, the extraction of which constitutes much of the area’s recent history. Coal and shale mining began around 1865 and continued into the mid 20th century,Ā until it was no longer economically viable. Though there are many replica artifacts to illustrate the story of mining in the area, original machinery and hauling equipment, long since abandoned and rusted over, can be seen as part of the scenic walks in the valley.

After a quick stop at theĀ Featherdale Wildlife ParkĀ Ā on the way home, the Deatons continued their touring, getting to know more about our daily life and experiences in Sydney. In particular, Kristen took her parents on a tour of the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) on the UNSW campus, where she spends most of her days. About 20 minutes south-east of the CBD, UNSW is conveniently located close to Coogee Beach for those days when class lets out early.

The Deatons’ two weeks wrapped up with a Sydney Harbour dinner cruise and a few more pictures in front of the Opera House before boarding a flight back to the USA. It was great to show Kristen’s parents around, as exploring Sydney was (and remains) high on our todo list. While we do spend a fair amount of time traveling, it was nice to become more familiar with the city we currently call home.

Dave and Kristen at UNSW

Deaton Family Visit: Cairns and Uluru

Carol and Dave and an Indigenous Australian

The second of our family visits began at the end of August with the arrival of the Deaton family. Also in town for two weeks to coincide with Kristen’s break between terms, the Deatons had a full itinerary and wasted no time getting started.

Carol and Kristen snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef

After the usual Sydney orientation walks that all of our guests must endure, Kristen and her parents departed for Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef. After dropping off their stuff at the Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas, they boarded a Quicksilver tour at the Marina Mirage and headed out to the Agincourt Reef and Quicksilver’s floating platform. Complete with showers, a bar, and even a post office box, the Agincourt Reef platform offered everything a snorkeler or diver could want. There were even semi-submersibles docked at the platform for those wanting to see the reef without getting in the water.

A star of Hartley's Crocodile Adventures

Regaining their land legs, the Deatons then stopped by the Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyrail before taking a trip with Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures. On the forefront of the “immersion exhibit” movement, Hartley’s features a massive lagoon containing 19 crocodiles. Boat tours run 5 times per day to show visitors the crocodiles in their natural habitat. That is, laying around on the banks of the lagoon most of the time. But the tours also include “pole feedings”, where a dead chicken is attached to the edge of the pole and dangled above the water. As you can see on the right, this seems to get the crocodiles’ attention.

Ryan, Kristen, Carol, and Dave near Uluru

After visiting with the crocs, Kristen and her parents flew to Ayers Rock Airport, where I met them for a quick visit toĀ Uluį¹Ÿu-Kata Tjuį¹Æa National Park. Uluru / Ayers Rock is a giant rock formation in the southwest corner of Australia’s Northern Territory. A sacred Aboriginal site, the rock and the surrounding area have become a sizable tourist attraction, supporting several hotels and loads of tourist activities centered around this otherwise barren patch of outback.

Carol, Dave, Kristen, and Ryan on the Uluru Sunrise Camel Tour

Since there isn’t really much else to do other than look at the rock while engaging in the aforementioned tourist activities, our trip consisted ofĀ two tours andĀ one night in the Emu Walk Apartments. The first tour was the Sounds of Silence, which included an Australian BBQ and a narrated tour of the night sky by a “startalker” ā€”Ā a native storyteller + astronomer. Not that she had to say much… at over 200 miles southwest of the nearest large town (Alice Springs), a clear sky over Uluru doesn’t really need any narration.

The following morning, everyone woke up early for the next excursion, the Uluru Sunrise Camel Tour. No, camels aren’t native to Australia, but after their introduction the animals thrived in the environment; Australia contains the last wild dromedary population in the world. Arriving early in the morning, we saddled up and rode our camels into the desert, just in time to watch the sunrise over the outback. Not that we needed to see it from the back of a camel, but that made it all the more fun. We dropped off our camels at the camp before stopping by the hotel on the way to catch our flight to Sydney.

While I wouldn’t put it at the top of your list, if you have the time during your visit to Australia, Uluru is worth at least a day or two. It’s easy to spend months in Australia without ever seeing the terrain that makes up the vast majority of the continent, but it’s worth seeing just how barren the outback can be. Sure, Uluru is just a rock, and perhaps not as remarkable as the Opera House or the Great Barrier Reef, but it’s worth a visit if for no other reason than to see what the rest of Australia looks like.

Check out 10 more pictures on Flickr

Buterbaugh Family Visit: Cairns, Kuranda and the Great Barrier Reef

We found Nemo on the Great Barrier Reef

The arrival of the Buterbaugh family marked our second official group of visitors and the first of two family visits. Despite only staying for two weeks, my family had a bunch of planned activities and wasted no time getting started.

The day after landing, we headed to the airport to fly to Cairns, the main entry point to the Great Barrier Reef. After landing late Thursday night, we slept for a few hours before heeding an early wakeup call and boarding a shuttle to the docks to catch our dive boat, operated by Tusa Dive. After a 90 minute, sea-sickness inducing ride to the reef, Kristin, Ali, Dad and I donned our diving gear to explore the world’s largest reef system over a series of three dives. In addition to some of the more standard underwater inhabitants, we were lucky enough to see a few sharks swimming around a formation known as the Three Sisters in Milln Reef.

Riding the Kuranda Scenic Railway

After a welcome return to solid ground later in the afternoon, we boarded the tour bus back to the Angsana Resort and Spa located in a northern suburb of Cairns called Palm Cove. After an early dinner to replace the meals that we, er, shared with the fish, it was off to bed in preparation for the next day’s activities.

In addition to the world famous reef system, the Australian state of Queensland is also home to several rainforests. Known as the “Wet Tropics of Queensland” on theĀ UNESCO World Heritage list, the state holds the unique distinction of being the home of two adjacent World Heritage listed sites (the reef being the other one, of course).

Riding the Kuranda Skyrail Rainforest Cableway

Fortunately for us, the Kuranda State Forest was conveniently located a short drive away from the hotel. It was made accessible by two fantastic means of sightseeing transportation: the Kuranda Scenic Railway and the Kuranda Skyrail Rainforest Cableway.

Our itinerary started with boarding a morning train to take us by waterfalls and across bridges to the end of the line, deep in the forest. After disembarking, we found ourselves in the town of Kuranda, a small settlement that seemed to be purpose-built for tourists. Through the course of our exploring and souvenir shopping, we happened upon the Kuranda Koala Gardens.

Holding koalas: more fun for the holder

As you may know, holding wildlife is against the law in New South Wales and Victoria, but not so in Queensland. Therefore, since we were spending a weekend in Queensland, one of the goals was to find a place for the girls to hold koalas. Luckily for us, the Kuranda Koala Gardens fit the bill and even let us take as many of our own pictures as we wanted. If you find yourself in the area and want to hold one of Australia’s iconic furry marsupials, the Kuranda Koala Gardens is highly recommended.

Just a napping koala

We then headed back to the top station for the Kuranda Skyrail to make our return trip down to the bottom of the mountain. Suspended above the canopy of the forest, the Skyrail gives tourists a birds-eye view of the flora and occasional fauna below. There are a couple intermediate stations on the way down, giving passengers a chance to explore some of the forest from the ground as well as from the air.

Upon reaching the bottom, we continued on to our final stop of the tour, which was a few hours at the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park. There were a variety of sessions about Aboriginal life and culture, but the most fun activity by far was learning how to throw boomerangs. Just make sure to keep an eye on them when they’re on the way back!

The Kuranda excursion marked the end our trip to Cairns, so we checked out the following day and flew back to Sydney for a bit more sightseeing before the next set of excursions.

The Buterbaugh Family in Sydney

Vivid Sydney and our First Official Visitors

Customs House lit up for Vivid Sydney

Regular readers (who manage to keep up with my erratic posting schedule) know by now that Sydney is a city of many festivals. If you look hard enough, there’s something going on somewhere in the city almost every day of the year. That said, things to tend to calm down a bit in the “winter”, a term I use loosely coming from Chicago. Winter in Sydney is more of what I’d call a moderate autumn, but it still gets a bit chilly and tends to push people indoors. As a result, the beach and park festivals aren’t as prevalent, so the city puts on other events instead.

Sydney Skyline during Vivid Sydney

One of the most visually interesting events during this time was Vivid Sydney, a festival of “Light, Music & Ideas”. There were many displays all over the city but, as usual, the best ones out there were found in and around Sydney Harbour, the home of Sydney’s most famous landmarks. Hotels, office buildings, museums and other landmarks all came to life as giant projector screens, with animated light shows bringing new life to the facades. The Customs House, for example, filled up with water, flexed in and out, and broke to pieces before turning into a giant microprocessor (courtesy of Intel, the sponsor). Even the Circular Quay train station got in on the action!

Sydney Opera House during Vivid Sydney

As usual, theĀ centerpieceĀ of the display was the Opera House, which hosted a variety of different light shows. Some were more fanciful, showing sea creatures swimming around. The best displays, though, were the ones that highlighted the building’s structure itself. Light turned the famous sails into fans, glass mosaics and geodesic curves. I took plenty of pictures; prints are available if you’re interested! Look for an upcoming picture post to check out more shots.

A night out with Nicholas, Tarrah, Kristen and Tessa

A few weeks later, we welcomed our first official guests (a few friends had come through as part of separate trips). Tessa and Tarrah visited for a couple weeks and traveled to Brisbane and Cairns before returning to Sydney to tour the city and surrounding areas. While here, they held koalas, wentĀ snorkelingĀ on the Great Barrier Reef, and got to meet some of Kristen’s friends. They and Kristen also climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge, an extremely touristy and fun experience that we recommend to all incoming visitors. As is frequently the case, the two weeks flew by, but it was great to see familiar faces and share part of our life in Australia.

 

Tessa, Tarrah and Kristen climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge

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

The Royal Easter Show: Sydney’s County Fair

Like catching fish in a barrel

As part of our ongoing quest to attend a variety of Australian events and festivals, we somehow stumbled upon Sydney’s Royal Easter Show. The name is a bit ambiguous really… what exactly are they showing? Turns out the answer is: all sorts of stuff. The Royal Easter Show is a bazaar, carnival and county fair all rolled into one massive event. For 10 days leading up to Easter, it takes over the Olympic Park grounds outside of Sydney. Since we were planning to visit Melbourne for the Easter weekend, we decided to go early.

Land on a lily pad, win a Kermit!

As is often the case, transportation was a breeze. A train from Central Station took us straight to the Olympic Park in 20 minutes and dropped us off right at the entrance. Upon entering the show, we checked out a couple demonstrations, like this guy showing off some new fishing tackle. We then made our way to the carnival area, where Kristen skillfully launched enough frogs onto moving lily pads to earn herself a brand new Kermit the Frog plush.

A banana stand but no Bluths in sight

In addition to the carnival games, there were aisles upon aisles of Ā storefronts selling everything imaginable. Most of it you probably wouldn’t want to buy, but there were plenty of people happy to sell it to you. There were also some rather entertaining takes on American culture at the concession stands, but I,Ā an Arrested Development fan,Ā found this one to be particularly fun.

A wood chopping competition

Next stop was one of the smaller arenas to observe the wood chopping competition. For those of you who have never attended a wood chopping competition, they, well, chop wood. Lots of it. Forklifts are required to cart giant logs into the arena and wood chips out. A job better left to the machines, you say? Not for these strapping lads, who managed to hack through a rather sizable stump in around a minute or so.

Moving on, we stopped by a fenced in area where several horses were running around getting some exercise. We would have moved on pretty quickly were it not for Frank the horse. Frank was hungry, but apparently he was supposed to be exercising. However, every time the supervising cowboy wasn’t looking (and sometimes when he was), Frank would attempt to steal a snack from a nearby bucket of food. Of course, the cowboy would catch poor old Frank and yell “FRANK!” I’ve never seen what I would call a guilty looking horse before, but they’re pretty easy to spot.

Caution: Cattle Crossing

As it turns out, the livestock on display was the, er, meat of the Royal Easter Show. There were warehouses and showrooms filled with cows, pigs, chickens and all sorts of other farm animals, often accompanied by displays and demonstrations educating the general public about various farmyard processes. Though most of the animals were confined to pens, they were occasionally moved around for various reasons, at which point you better stay out of their way!

Guess who's about to fall in?

One of the items on the afternoon agenda that caught our eye was the Husqvarna Lumberjack Show. We expected it to be something along the lines of a lumberjack skills demonstration. Turns out we were half right. While the lumberjacks in question were indeed skillful, they were also performers, so they had a whole Dumb and Dumber routine going on as well. Even so, it was still pretty entertaining.

The night concluded with a Australia vs. New Zealand rodeo competition (the Aussies won) and some automotive demonstrations (dirt bikes and utes) that unfortunately had to be toned down due to recent rainfall. A good show all around and felt just like home šŸ™‚

The Royal Easter Show Rodeo!

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 šŸ™‚

First-Hand Guide: Renting in Sydney, Australia

Our corporate apartment. Thanks ThoughtWorks!

One of our first priorities after arriving was finding a place to live. ThoughtWorks kindly subsidized a corporate apartment for our first month but, given the duration of our stay here, we needed to find a place of our own. We were warned prior to arriving that this would be a challenge, but we weren’t entirely prepared for what it actually entailed.

Sydney and its nearby suburbs have a notoriously low rental vacancy rate, currently 1.5%. By comparison, the rental vacancy rate in the U.S. is 6.2%, the lowest level since 2008. As you can imagine, it’s a landlord’s market here in Sydney, so trying to find a place takes a lot of work.

Houses by Coogee Beach

So what does this actually mean? Well, rental units are obviously still available and come on the market regularly, there’s just a lot more competition for the better places. This became apparent when we showed up for our first inspection and saw 10 other groups of people waiting to see the same place. Inspections are essentially open houses and are normally scheduled for a 15-30 minute period on Saturdays. Since most people will plan to visit as many units as possible, we often would see the same groups at 2 or 3 different places.

Many of the people who attend an inspection will submit an application, so visiting a variety of places and locations is a must. We originally considered living by the beach but ultimately decided to live in the city. Units in high-rises tended to have more predictable layouts and within walking distance to everything we need, including multiple modes of public transportation. Also, finding a house was primarily my job, so looking in the city was easier than trekking out to the beach šŸ™‚

Our new apartment!

As you might expect, renting a place quickly becomes a numbers game… the more applications you submit, the more likely it is that you’ll be the one picked by the landlord. However, we found that some real estate agents, usually the smaller ones, were willing to schedule private inspections during the week in addition to the public inspections on the weekend. This turned out to be very helpful, since, if you schedule an inspection early in the week and submit an application on the spot, it’s likely to be reviewed by the landlord before the public inspection hits. Assuming you look like a reasonable tenant, you have a much better chance of getting the place.

In the end, that’s what worked for us. We found a few places we liked via open inspections. We weren’t selected for one of the places we applied to and another was already taken between the time we saw the place (Saturday) and the time we turned in our application (Monday). However, one of the places we found through a small real estate agent and viewed on a Tuesday was ours a few days later.