After months (it felt like years) since my previous vacation, through the hard slog of a busy Shanghai visa summer, then into a strange low visa-demand month that was challenging nonetheless with the whole “half the staff is gone for 1-3 weeks in Hangzhou to support the G-20” thing, I was so ready for a vacation. I would especially need it as my trip was sandwiched between the summer/G-20 season and my first foray into mid-level bidding, which is State Department speak for “virtual cage fighting for your next job.”
So off to Oz we went with stops in Sydney and the Blue Mountains.
We flew Shanghai to Singapore and then overnight to Sydney. (I love that my four year old asks before we travel how many planes we will take.) My friend K and her family picked us up at the airport — K used to work at the US Consulate in Shanghai as a locally-employed staff (a local hire) but she relocated to Sydney with her husband’s job and now she works for the US Consulate in Sydney — and then whisked us off to Bondi Beach for the annual kite flying festival. It did not have nearly the number of kites we expected and K’s husband could not find a parking space so he just drove around and around the area until we had our fill of beach and kites, but to be honest I didn’t care because it was just great to catch up with K, and her son KZ and C, who are the exact same age, really bonded. After Bondi we headed for a quick lunch on our way to the wonderful Featherdale Wildlife Park in the northwest suburbs of Sydney. The wildlife center is all about native Australian birds and animals, so it is a great place to see cockatoos, kookaburas, emus, cassowaries, koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, dingoes, quokkas, echidnas, Tasmanian devils and the like. KZ and C pet a koala — one of the few places where you can do so complimentary with your entrance ticket — and some wallabies. We finished up with ice cream. Then we headed back to K’s house and while her husband prepared dinner K and I took a stroll in a nearby park while KZ and C zoomed around on a scooter and a bicycle. And while this might sound like your average day out with friends — meet up, have lunch, drive to a kid friendly place, dinner at home, and a walk in the park — I have not had a single day like that in Shanghai.
The following morning, a Monday, K headed out early to work and her husband drove C and I to the nearby Blacktown train station to catch the 7:57 am train to Katoomba. Initially my plan had been more complicated and involved renting a car. But the logistics and cost and dragging C’s car-to-booster-conversion seat for a short drive to and from Katoomba was outweighed by the simplicity of taking the train. Me–I was incredibly impressed with myself for packing one large backpack I could put on my back, a smaller backpack I could wear on my chest, thereby leaving my hands free to push C in the stroller. I felt I was almost, sort of, kinda, not really, really, but as close as I have been in awhile, close to my old backpacker self. C was less impressed. For some reason she found the idea of a relaxing 1 hour 22 minute ride on the train seemed incredibly boring. In true 4 year old style she asked at every station if that was our station. I only had to endure her asking 16 times before on it finally coming true. But she is 4 and she would have asked every five minutes if we were there yet had I been driving.
We arrived at 9:22 am and headed straight for our hotel, the historic Carrington located just half a block from the Katoomba train station. The restored historic hotel is the oldest hotel in town having opened in 1883. I opted for us to stay in the “traditional rooms,” which are billed as “budget” accommodation that channels the original rooms of the hotel, i.e. they share bathrooms down the hall as the hotel would have had prior to 1927. Again, to me it was a tip to my backpacking/hosteling days and I was curious as to how C would take to it. Her assessment at the end of our stay: “I liked the room, I liked the bed, I liked the TV, but I did not like the bathrooms outside.”
It was a gorgeous day. It was warm (in the upper 70s), the sky was a brilliant blue. There was no time to dawdle. We were at the hotel WAY too early to check in. I left our bags with the front desk and whisked C in the stroller off to see the sights. I decided to walk from the hotel to Echo Point, the location to see the Three Sisters, the three iconic pillar rock formations that are the most recognizable symbol of the Blue Mountains. I had hoped the walk to Echo Point would be interesting, but it was not. We simply walked down a sidewalk that started in the commercial center of Katoomba and passed through a nondescript residential neighborhood. There were no views until the end when suddenly you find yourself at Echo Point 30 minutes later. And here the Jamison Valley opens before you. It is the Grand Canyon of Australia and it is awesome. C agreed that it was worth the trip only because I gave her some ice cream. Whatever. (I want to be upfront about travel with a four year old; C is a very good traveler but she is four. Ice cream ranks higher than amazing natural wonders right now).
We were beat though. We had flown through the night to arrive in Australia. Been whisked around on a wonderful whirlwind first day right from the airport. Then we woke up very early for the train to the Blue Mountains. Despite the stunning views and great weather we needed lunch and a rest. We lunched at Echo Point watching a kookabura sitting in an old gum tree (get it?) and then road the hop on hop off bus back to the first stop, across from the hotel. We bought fruit and sandwich fixings from the local grocery store and were in for the night. (I want to be upfront about travel with a tired thirty, ok forty-something, mom with a young child. Sometimes a nap ranks higher than natural wonders.)
The following day I was kicking myself. It was cooler. The fog was thick. Sigh. This is the day we would go to Scenic World, a privately run wonderland of activities in the Blue Mountains. The activities include riding the steepest incline railway in the world, riding the steepest aerial cable car in the Southern Hemisphere, ride the skyway tram that crosses a chasm 270 meters above the valley floor, and enjoying various walks on elevated boardwalks through the forest. I was not sure how great it would be in thick fog. It is called scenic world, but it might be a bit hard to see… At AUS$70 for the two of us it seemed to be a bit pricey to look at the inside of a cloud. The upside is the fog had no affect whatsoever on the thrilling ride on the scenic railway. You whizz down what seems a near vertical track, you pass through a tunnel, and then some trees. C and I screamed. Then C laughed while I continued to scream. At the bottom of the railway we enjoyed a 30 minute walk through the forest with stops to ride the bronze statue of a pony in front of an old mine, swung on a tree limb outside an old minters cabin, and just enjoyed the fresh air. With the fog we had almost no wait for the cable car back up. And while the Skyway is supposed to afford riders incredible views, the fog gave the ride an otherworldly feel.
We had spent several hours at Scenic World and then an hour in the town of Leura before once again calling it a day. With most sightseeing buses stopping at 5 and the sun beginning to set around 5:30 PM, this is not as crazy as it sounds.
The weather for Wednesday, our last day in the Blue Mountains, was supposed to be pretty bad — rainy all day. Imagine my surprise when we woke up to blue skies! I made the decision to head back to Scenic World. Imagine my surprise and sense of wonder when at the ticket counter the cashier let us in for free! He had asked, “Have you ever been to Scenic World before?” and I had answered “Yes! We were here yesterday but we could see very little with the fog so I thought we would come back. My daughter loved the railway and cannot stop talking about riding it again. Here is a picture I took of the fog around the Skyway. Isn’t it great?” He told me he would give me a discount, but when I handed him my credit card he declined it and told us to have a great time. Customer service is not dead.
We rode the railway twice more (once down and once up) at C’s request. Then I decided we would ride the Skyway one-way with the stroller and walk along the Prince Henry Cliff Walk to Echo Point. It was only 30 minutes and a woman in the Scenic World gift shop assured me it was stroller friendly. She must have never, ever, ever been anywhere near that cliff walk because it was not stroller friendly in any possible interpretation unless you mean carrying your stroller the entire time as you fumble along several hundred dirt steps while praying your adventurous preschooler does not walk off the edge of the trail. My favorite part was the 9 or 10 rung metal step ladder affixed to a rock in the middle of the trail. Super kid friendly (not). But we survived the walk and luckily arrived at Echo Point before the skies darkened and poured.
The following day we took the train from Katoomba back to Sydney. As C found the 1 hour and 22 minute ride up boring she was even less impressed with the 2 hour trip to Sydney Central. And even more disgruntled to learn that we would transfer trains to ride to Circular Quay where we would find our hotel. But once again I was massively astonished at my travel-with-small-child prowess. We checked into our hotel located in a historic building in “the Rocks,” the location of the oldest European settlement of Sydney and headed off to Darling Harbour. There we got more animal time in at both the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium and the Wild Life Sydney Zoo. At the latter C pet a snake, got up close and personal with a sugar glider, and rubbed the belly of a spotted quoll. All fine and well except she noted I had yet to produce a platypus.
What I did produce were partial views of the Sydney Opera House from our hotel room. This is what we were here in Sydney to see. The Opera House (which of course is featured in the Disney movie Finding Nemo), kangaroos, koalas, and the duck-billed platypus. I was beginning to fulfill my promises. Our second day in Sydney we rode the ferry across to the Taronga Zoo where I could at long last produce a platypus and make good on the promise to have C feed a carrot to a giraffe. It only cost me AUS$29.95 for the privilege though we got to take home one of the worst “professional” photos I have ever paid money for proving C and I were near a giraffe with vegetables. C loves it though and that is what matters. The highlight of the zoo though was the hour we spent on the kids playground adjacent the lemur enclosure where C made fast friends with Sarah, an equally adventurous and outgoing Australian-Korean girl.
We also made a trip to the Sydney Tower Eye for views of the city just before sunset. It sounded nice and I already had tickets given I bought a 4-sites-in-one ticket that included the tower, but the views, while nice, are not as great as one might suppose. The two most iconic structures — the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge — are obscured by large and unimpressive buildings. I also had to contend with C’s deep displeasure at visiting the tower. If I have not mentioned it before, she is not yet into taking in the views. Not even “look mommy has already taken you to four animal venues and now it is time for something mommy wants to see” swayed her. Luckily she fell asleep in the stroller and I enjoyed the views in peace. And the next day I took her to Manly Beach to our fifth and final animal adventure, the Manly Sea Life Sanctuary. There she had her face painted and balance was restored to her world.
Then of course on Sunday morning, if you have been following my adventures with any sort of regularity you may have guessed it — I participated in a run. Originally I had signed up for the Sydney Running Festival half marathon, but a last training run a week before departure made it very clear a half was probably a bad idea. Luckily there was still time to contact organizers and downgrade to the 9K Bridge Run. I just wanted to be able to run across the Sydney Harbour Bridge with a few thousand strangers. The “flat and fast” course was neither flat nor fast and seemed to me to be much longer than 9K, but I finished. And before the rain. Despite rain predicted for most days of our vacation, only the one day was blustery and rainy with both the wind and rain holding off til the end of the running events. We celebrated with lunch and a walk at Darling Harbour with K and her family.
The day after the run was another beautiful, glorious day. Unfortunately it was our last (half) day in Australia. We strolled along Circular Quay to the Opera House and through the beautiful Royal Botanical Gardens (it is a wonder that such prime Sydney real estate is set aside for a large, public park). I did not want to leave. Although I usually find 9 days away is very restorative, this time I still felt it was just too short. But it was time to return to Shanghai and get ready for bidding on my next assignment.