Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Sydney, Australia

Posted on December 1st, 2004

Before I start raving about how perfectly wonderful Sydney has been to me, I have to start at the very beginning. That being the journey here.

First, the back-story: After a visit home to Minneapolis to prove to my mother that I was still in possession of my health and all the extremities that she bestowed upon me 34 years ago, I hightailed it back to Straight Paris for a five day layover (oo la la?) and then on to the so-called Sunburned Country, Australia.

A two month conglomeration of insomnia, high speed travel (in six weeks I had toured or passed through via frenzied bus rides: Romania; Bulgaria; Istanbul, Turkey; Athens, Paros, Santorini and Naxos in Greece; Montreal/Quebec City, Canada; Minneapolis and finally Straight Paris), jetlag, culture shock (both reverse and the other kind) and the damage done by the usual self-inflicted social hysteria had put me in a state that I have just now dubbed Zombie Fatigue, at an intensity which I have rarely experienced. The mild sensory overload from TV commercials dogged me. Operating the locks on car doors befuddled me. Crossing streets that I had crossed hundreds of times over the course of my life intimidated me. Piloting a car terrified me. The ability to spontaneously compose a grammatically correct sentence in my own language eluded me, while providing no shortage of entertainment for the people in earshot.

In short, I need about 57 hours of uninterrupted sleep, a full-body fluid transfusion and a week in an institution for the Mentally Trashed. It was in this state of mind that I boarded a Singapore Airline flight in London’s Heathrow Airport (A.K.A. Las Heathvegas). The flight from London to Singapore was 13 hours, followed by a six hour layover in Singapore’s shockingly clean and well stocked Changi airport, before boarding a nine hour flight to Sydney. Despite having heard numerous anecdotes about Singapore Air’s service and superior entertainment options, I intended to pass the entire journey in various levels of R.E.M. bathed oblivion.

Being a hardened budget traveler, I haven’t had much exposure to air travel (or any travel, come to that) where the level of service exceeds, say, Moe’s Tavern from the Simpsons. So, you can imagine my delight at the marvel of service, freebies and uber-cute hostesses that is Singapore Airlines. I had heard several accounts about how each seat had it’s own little TV and I had just read a “Best of” airline article a few days earlier, where Singapore Air won something like “Greatest Service in the History of Air Travel” award. But nothing could have prepared me for the interactive, on-demand wonderland of movies, TV shows, documentaries and, mother of god, video games that were at my disposal! I had only slept three hours the previous night and had already suffered through a crack-of-dawn flight from Paris to London Luton, a bus ride to Las Heathvegas and then five hours of droopy-eyed idleness before getting on the plane. I thought I would be out cold as soon as I hit the seat, but screw that!, I had movies to watch!

I had had only sketchy exposure to popular culture over the previous 18 months, so there was much catching up to do. I viewed “Collateral” with Tom Cruise and Jamie Fox, “The Bourne Supremacy,” “Spiderman II,” “Anchorman” with Will Ferral (love him), and “Dodgeball” with Ben Stiller. And then, I laid down and slept! You see the London-Singapore flight was very unusual in that I had three seats all to myself. This never happens to me on flights that are longer than, say, 50 minutes in length. Indeed, any flight beyond three hours and I am consistently cursed with a chatty, morbidly obese person, a drunk, a dangerous eccentric, a “spastic sleeper,” or a potpourri of the bunch. So I pulled on my complimentary, purple plane-socks, brushed my teeth with my complimentary toothbrush and paste, collected my three pillows/blankets and sacked out for a fleeting nap before rising for breakfast and several rounds of Super Mario Brothers. Oh yeah, my slumber was aided by the pleasant buzz I had acquired after the five (yes, five) passes of the beverage cart with complimentary booze (a Bailey’s aperitif, two white wines with dinner, a screwdriver just for the hell of it and a follow-up, nightcap Bailey’s, respectively).

Oh yeah, did I mention the stewardesses? Well, this is a smidge sexist I suppose, but Singapore Air seems to have gone out of their way to hire the cutest, sweetest, most petite women in Malaysia. They were so wonderful that I felt like I had a personal relationship with all 10 of them and I think I may have fallen in love with at least five of them during the flight. They wear these colorful, adorable outfits (some French designer’s brainchild, reportedly) that show off how itty bitty they are, with overdone make-up, hair either bunned up or in a very short bob, and just achingly charming. There was never a moment when they weren’t as polite and gracious as humanly possible. My broken headset was replaced in exactly 12 seconds. My fifth cocktail request was served without a hint of concern as to my questionably high blood-alcohol level. They circulated through the plane seemingly every 20 minutes offering water or snacks - not bags of 11 peanuts either, actual sandwiches, fruit and candy bars - though upon reflection that might have been a subtle tactic to sober some of us up.

I have never wanted so much to kiss every single stewardess (and even the one steward, though I was pretty ripped) out of sheer, bursting contentment and comfort. And the kicker was that I didn’t pay an inordinate sum for this flight. Indeed, Singapore Air’s price was a tie for the cheapest flight from London to Sydney of all my online searching. This stellar service and comfort was budget, economy all the way. I shudder to think what happens in First Class. Lap dances?

The flight from Singapore to Sydney was similarly entertaining. I ate two wonderful meals, continued my catch-up on popular culture with several episodes of “Friends,” “That 70s Show,” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” before another brief nap (done upright this time) before finally arriving in Sydney at 7:00AM, for all intents and purposes, in notably worse condition than when I left London, but undeniably thrilled.

I was picked up at the airport by friends and after some socializing, retired for an ill-advised, but desperately needed mid-day nap. Much later I was driven out of bed with a punishing jetlag hangover to embark on what would end up being a nine hour meandering tour of Balmain (a nearby suburb of Sydney, where I was comfortably holed up) by way of every pub and liquor store on the main drag of Darling Street.

During my lengthy travel through Europe in 2003, I met roughly 5,284,847 Australians. There were times during these numerous encounters when I seriously considered whether there might be more Australians backpacking Europe than were resident in Australia itself. But Australians are good-natured, smart and brilliant company, with fantastically advanced travel stamina, so nearly all of these acquaintances were satisfying. I managed to stay in touch with a handful of these wonderful people over the following year, including three of my hearty companions from my notorious stop at the Belle Meuniere Hotel in Nice, France, thus it had come to pass that I had a private and cozy room all to myself at the large and lovely Morrison home in Balmain. Though daughter Amber was my ‘in’ with the family, I was immediately and universally welcomed by the rest and made to feel as a full-fledged member of the household before the day was out. Due to my social requirements over the first few days and countless hours in bed to shake off exhaustion, jetlag and cider hangovers, I didn’t even see mom and dad Morrison until my third day in their home. In the interim, I had become vaguely acquainted with mom through a lively round of Refrigerator Messaging (messages exchanged on the refrigerator dry-erase board). I was looked after like a son, had my newly abbreviated wardrobe laundered, chauffeured to various tourist outings, graciously and excessively fed at a dinner in my honor, cut loose to work on their broadband Internet connection and was so swiftly absorbed into the family unit that, without prior notice, I was momentarily witness to mom’s resumption of her habit of showering with the bathroom door wide open. This, my friends, was hospitality.

After five nights of this priceless kindness, in the interest of departing without overstaying my welcome, I excused myself amid much protest and moved in with yet another friend in the distant, but pleasant suburb of Hornsby, where I was lavished with more of the same generosity. This uninterrupted comfort and Internet access allowed me to alternately tour Sydney and wrap up a few paying writing assignments with the ease, luxury and assistance that comes with being in the good graces of friendly locals.

One thing that becomes immediately clear about Australians, after their disarming friendliness and unusual good looks, is the unfortunate fact that their lifestyle and exposure the some of the harshest sun conditions on earth tends to encourage the onset of wrinkles at a frighteningly early age. Anywhere else in the world, people routinely guess my age (34) at being 25-28, but the with the crease riddled age foundation that Aussies use as a benchmark, my age was being low-balled like never before. At first, I took this as the usual fawning compliment, possibly preceding a solicitation for spare change, but after the tenth guess that put me at 22-23, looking around at people of my age, I realized that these summations were sincere. At about the same time, I made the observation that, despite the advanced wrinkles at such an early age, young Aussie women nevertheless frequently opt to date men 10 years their senior and more. Apparently young women in Australia have been turned on to the usually hard-won knowledge, at that age at any rate, that older men are infinitely more mature, witty, reliable and all-around less of a pain in the ass. Then I realized that my comparatively youthful mug would pigeonhole me as a typical, lower 20s fuckwit and that I’d be summarily ignored by the ladies, despite my blatantly superior allure. D’oh!

Everything is backwards in Australia. They drive on the left, the water drains counter-clockwise, they seem to thrive on, and even seek out, easily avoidable discomfort for bragging rights and finally they often invent new and exciting ways to enunciate common letter combinations. The Aussies have an irksome tendency to randomly dismiss English phonetic rules and assign unlikely pronunciations to words that, by appearance, would seemingly sound entirely different. Within days I learned that the word “quay” is pronounced like the word “key.” Additionally, I was schooled about the pronunciation of the cities of Mackay (“mah-ki”) and Cairns (“cans”). Similarly, another language aspect that will keep you on your toes is the partial vocabulary adjustment. Aussie’s not only have wholly new and perplexing words that exist only within their borders, but they also have a trying habit of taking standard words and abbreviating them to their spoken efficiency benefit. A few of the more common words that I learned this week include: “chuck” (throw, get rid of), “trolley” (cart or baby carriage), “concession” (discount), “bottle shop” (liquor store), “bathers” (swimsuit), “arvo” (afternoon), “rock up” (arrive), “crack the shits” (to get upset), “how ya goin’?” (how are you?), “lollies” (candy), “bastard” (good guy, said with an appropriate tone of admiration), “root” (to have sex), “whoop-whoop” (outback, far from civilization) and “rupa-dupie-doo” (toenail). Just kidding on that last one, but I wouldn’t be surprised… I could go on like this for pages, so I’ll just stop here and let you know that when you come to Australia be prepared to relearn a fair portion of English.

There is a type of black fly in Australia that demands attention here, because the only way to ignore them is to bash yourself in the head with a mid-sized car. I don’t know the true name of this type of fly, but “Fucking, Exasperating Pest” will do for now. These are the most persistent flies I have ever encountered. From what I have been able to personally ascertain, these flies have three committed duties in life; shitting on your lip, laying eggs in your nose and burrowing into your ear to die. They stubbornly pursue these goals in the face of any and all discouragement. Flailing at them does nothing. Flies in the U.S. will depart if you just wave a hand near them. Aussie flies do not budge unless you actually make contact with them, meaning you spend a great deal of your day smacking yourself in the face. And even when you connect, you can only count on about half a second of relief while the fly does a lap around your head only to land again on the exact same spot on your lip. Downtown Sydney is full of business people walking down the street operating a cell phone in one hand and swatting the air around their faces with the other. These flies also have a tendency to latch on to one victim and stay with them, no matter what, like a venereal disease. A single fly once followed me for about 12 city blocks, before I deftly buzzed closely past a heavily perfumed woman and succeeded in passing the fly off onto her. Sly maneuvers like this or suicide are pretty much your only options for ridding yourself of this annoyance.

One of my first forays into Sydney, accompanied by Amber and mom Morrison, was a visit to world famous and perennially fashionable Bondi Beach, where we walked right past the inviting sand in favor of the even more inviting annual seaside event entitled “Sculptures by the Sea.” For several weeks a year the coastline path leading away from the south end of Bondi is decorated by the sculpture works of an assembly of international artists. Among other enticements, the current lot included an elephant made out of old televisions, an army of giant, metal crabs invading from the sea, a 20 foot tall bottle decorated with flip-flop sandals - or “thongs” as the Aussies call them. Needless to say when someone blurted out “Oh look! A giant bottle made out of thongs!” my head whipped around so fast that I lost two fillings - and a pack of demons cruising downhill on bicycles. The work was inspired, fun and made for a very enjoyable afternoon diversion. Then mom Morrison took us on an unintentional and lengthy, but nevertheless lovely and scenic, tour of Sydney’s pricey Bellevue Hill neighborhood in her efforts to get us back out to Balmain.

I was cut loose the next day for an unsupervised ferry trip around Darling and Sydney Harbors and then out to Manly Beach to assess the bikini situation (Freudian slip intended). Sydney has a wonderfully robust public water transportation system. The bountiful ferries and the cute, toy-like harbor taxis crisscross the harbor areas, carving intersecting watery slashes as they convey locals and camera toting travel writers alike to their respective destinations. First, for the sake of orientation and a pleasurable ass rest, I took the round-trip journey from Balmain East dock, across Darling Harbor and back to Balmain again. The same ferry then continued on to Sydney Harbor, passing the Australian National Maritime Museum, stopping at Luna Amusement Park, chugging under the gigantic Sydney Harbor Bridge and then rolling into Circular Quay, the nexus of central Sydney. This is where you can transfer to just about any Sydney ferry available, but more importantly, as you slide in and out of the Quay, you have the opportunity to take a jillion pictures of the Sydney Opera House from dozens of fractionally different angles. The day’s various ferry trips took me past the Opera House four separate times, with the sun providing varying degrees of righteous lighting for each pass. Thus, I was left later that night to upload and process enough oversized digital pictures of the Opera House to take down a Yahoo server. I changed ferries at Circular Quay to continue on to Manly.

Manly is a tourist infested neighborhood featuring a collection of tacky gift shops, food stalls selling the worst, overpriced food in Sydney, as well as being the staging area for several scenic walks and boasting a comely beach with disappointingly few topless women. Though if you hang around the adjacent Shelly Beach area long enough you will eventually be rewarded with the sight of a German tourist brazenly stripping to her bare ass while changing out of her wetsuit, as I was later on. While one can reach Manly by roundabout bridges and overland means, the lazy ferry ride from Circular Quay takes a mere 30 minutes. I took some time to case the wharf area in Manly and ventured a small distance into the 10 kilometer Manly Scenic Walkway, before backtracking and cutting through the wall-to-wall retail pedestrian streets to Manly Beach. Having only just re-read Bill Bryson’s Australia travelogue “Down Under,” and vividly recalling his close encounter at Manly with “blueys” (bluebottle jellyfish, A.K.A Portuguese man-of-war), I chose to tour the beach from the safety of the walkway behind the beach. Additionally, although I had a hat, I had not brought along sun screen and with Australia’s ozone layer-free sun beating down on my Norwegian skin, exposure was starting to become an immediate concern. After admiring the alfresco German woman, I continued beyond Shelly Beach, through a tuft of “bush” (by Aussie definition, anything that’s off paved road and surrounded by trees and scrub would be “bush.”) and out onto a panoramic, rocky lookout perched over the Pacific Ocean. This provided a good 90 second distraction, before I headed back down to the Shelly Beach to see if any more German women were wrapping up their day in the surf.

The Australians have an affinity for ocean-side, salt water pools. Bondi has one. Manly has two, both of which look as though the water is in desperate need of recycling. I puzzled over this potential attraction for a moment before resolving to make the courageous trek up the length of Manly Beach in ankle deep, possibly bluey infested water. Aside from testing my icy nerves of steel, I had an ulterior motive for this hike. By this point I knew that some color had gotten on my neck and shoulders, offset by the two white strips covered by my tank-top. In my usual ill-conceived approach, I thought that a leisurely walk in the sun, minus the tank, might even out my burgeoning tan. Of course it only succeeded in making the colored parts full-on red and seemingly doing nothing for the skim milk white parts. Once my feet had acclimated to the surprisingly cold water, the walk was a pleasant and relaxing way to end the day. I gorged on an extravagant, but sadly wanting sushi meal and headed back to Balmain.

After a day to let my mild burns fade, I again ventured into the city, this time for a tour on foot. Starting at Circular Quay, I made my way around to the Opera House, though I quickly realized that the photo opportunities from the rear were scarce. As I approached the Opera House, I experienced a common phenomenon with large attractions, being that they have a visual appreciation sweet spot that usually zeros out while you are still a fair distance from the structure and as you close in from this point, the attraction starts to lose its appeal. The Opera House suffers from this effect. When this became clear to me I veered off suddenly and plunged into the neighboring Botanical Gardens which are attached to The Domain and Hyde parks. These were pleasing green and quiet getaways within the city, but I had barely been in the city long enough to want to get away from anything. I swung out and delved into the neighborhood of Woolloomooloo (say that three times fast). I actually had an appointment here. After getting thoroughly lost twice, I reeled up to my appointment 20 minutes late to meet a fellow traveler that I had meet in an online travel discussion forum.

I wanted to write a traveler profile on Shira the moment that I became familiar with her situation. With the U.S. media making a habit out of regularly scaring the bejesus out of anyone with the inclination to leave the safe confines of our country, particularly women, I felt that an encouraging article was in order. Women are forever joining this travel discussion group and starting their posting legacy with questions like “Is it safe for a solo female to travel in ‘X?’” The ‘Xs’ in these queries have run the table from Thailand to, of all places, England. Knowing this, I wanted to write a piece that would put some of these aspiring female travelers at ease. Shira, a New Yorker, was not only special in that she was a well-traveled, lone female, but she also had the added disadvantage of being deaf. And barely four feet tall. This woman’s determination and fearlessness captivated me immediately. I made contact and by some miracle it turned out that we would be in Sydney at the same time. We arranged to meet and here I was, breathless, bathed in sweat and unforgivably late. Shira was perched at the top of what seemed to be a towering bar stool and digging into a sandwich when I staggered up. I had never had more than a few moments of interaction with a deaf person before and quite frankly, I was a bit nervous about how the conversation was going to progress, but being a grizzled veteran with these situations, Shira broke the barrier in seconds. Initially we interacted partly through lip-reading/pantomime and hand written notes in her notebook, but after the sandwich we went walking and animated lip-reading was all we needed. It was surprisingly easy. As we parted, I wanted more than ever to write a profile on her, but my current workload of both paying and non-paying projects forced me to shelve the idea.

I spent the next three days cooped up in my friend Deb’s apartment in Hornsby, completing two articles for an “executive traveler” magazine and trying in vain to pitch an article on the Indian Pacific trans continental railroad, hoping someone would leap at the chance to send me on the three day, Sydney to Perth journey, preferably in a posh, double cabin. This flopped, but I bagged the two articles, reliving my conscious about leaving Sydney with unfinished work.

Albino Kangaroo



I had planned to head into the Blue Mountains for a two day cycling foray, guided by Debs. Sadly, Sydney was hit with four consecutive days of very unsummer-like, cool and rainy weather and the plan was scrapped in favor of a well-deserved listless day followed by a spontaneous trip out to the Featherdale Wildlife Park, featuring 2,200 native Australian animals. I fed, petted and played with kangaroos, wallabies, koala bears, parrots and wombats, while observing crocodiles and Tasmanian Devils from a safe distance. There were emus, lizards, echidnas, cassowaries, some of the world’s deadliest spiders and snakes and a who’s-who of the brightly colored, unlikely shaped and “fowl tempered” birds of Australiana. We were even treated to a small but impressive stampede in one of the petting courtyards that appeared to have been sparked off by a bored, ornery wallaby. I was like a kid, surrounded by these new and strange animals. Well, they were new and strange to me anyway.

Tasmanian Devil


While the wildlife park was a huge bonus, I often found myself slowing and starring at free-roaming urban animals in a similar state of awe. On a whole Australia is very much like being in the States, or more appropriately, England, but there are small things that confront you each day that jar you out of a general sense of normalcy. The birds for example. There are birds at large in Sydney, just every day birds on any street, that are of the kind that people pay a thousand dollars for as pets anywhere else. Exotic birds with stupefying deep and stark colors just hang out, like pigeons, tormenting the neighborhood with their shrill screams that can liquefy your brain stem. Other birds, emit noises that you have never heard in your life. Loud, whooping, whistling and screaming noises, that sound like someone is being murdered, sometimes directly outside your bedroom window, which is not a pleasant way to wake up at 6:30AM. Then there’s the spiders. While there are a few poisonous spiders to look out for in urban areas, the disquieting and astonishing size of some of the every-day spiders is what will invariably seize and paralyze you. While most of the big guys can’t kill you through any venom mechanism, their ability to jump great distances and indiscriminately go for you if they have the notion could easily result in spontaneous cardiac arrest. Ultimately, just walking down the street surrounded by strange, unfamiliar noises and occasionally sighting something like a lizard or a spider the size of your hand is an irregular reminder that you are indeed on the other side of the planet and despite general appearances, it is a genuinely different place, which brings us to the state of Sydney tourism.

Sydney is overrun with tourists. Mostly Asian, but the Canadians and Germans are well represented with only the occasional American (apparently the bulk of my countrymen and women are still cowering within their borders, under the onslaught of the newly elected Bush Administration’s vague, random, yet ominous warnings about our safety abroad). There were times in central Sydney when I was the only Caucasian in sight. I didn’t mind this so much, in fact, I considered it a warm-up for my foray into Southeast Asia in the coming months, but the effect of being on a busy street in an English speaking country, without a single soul in earshot actually speaking English at any given moment didn’t help my ongoing culture shocking issues.

After absorbing the wisdom of one Mr. Bryson’s thoughts and observations on Australia for the second time (my first read-through last year was the kicker that got me to buy the plane ticket to Australia in the first place), I picked up a copy of “Kite Strings of the Southern Cross” by Laurie Gough, lauded all over my travel discussion group as being the best travel writing tome available at the moment. Laurie certainly has a way with words, though her poetic ruminations started to wear me down after a while. I’m only half way through the book and admittedly the action has started to pick up a bit, but the first 80 pages or so were exploding with romanticized, metaphoric introspection that had me reduced to skimming at times, desperately looking for actual story development. She’s just taken a dive into Sylvester Stallone’s Hawaiian pool, though so perhaps the wild, unhinged travelogue I was promised will heat up soon. I certainly hope so.

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©Leif Pettersen 2012