Australia

Sydney train

 

Travelling by steam train is like stepping back in time. Passengers scurry along the platform, checking numbers written in chalk on the side of carriages. A red carpet is laid out, and an attendant takes an older lady’s hand to assist her over the gap, while tickets are clipped by attendants in shiny black caps.

 

 

At the front of the train, a man in soot-covered denims shovels coal into the fire box while the driver, wearing a slouch hat, monitors a pressure gauge the size of a dinner plate. There is a massive sigh from the engine and steam engulfs the station. In the swirling fog, the pitch-black barrel of the engine is the only thing distinguishable. The conductor checks his silver fob watch, blows sharply on his whistle and cries, “All aboard!”

 

It could be a dream, but it’s real: We're travelling on the 3642, a green 160-ton steam locomotive restored painstakingly to its 1930s glory by a dedicated team of volunteers from the NSW Rail Transport Museum, based at Thirlmere, in the south of Sydney. It’s the biggest rail and transport museum in Australia, and well worth a visit on a weekend in Sydney, where train rides are offered on its diesel and steam fleets.

 

Amazingly, all the crew on the 3642 are volunteers. Most are train buffs, many are family and just as many have been involved from the beginning, when the train was a shell covered in graffiti. On just a handful of dates each year, the crew take the train out for special events- a trip to the Blue Mountains, a jog along the coast to Wollongong, a trip inland to the Southern Highlands. Often the destination isn’t the main drawcard for passengers, but simply the delight of the journey.

 

The grand days of rail travel are long gone, but little nostalgia and the romantic appeal of train travel go a long way: our train is packed, and as we gather steam and pass through Redfern, there is the faintest smell of fireworks in the carriage.

 

We stop just before the platform 45 minutes later at Penrith station.A workman with a wrench the size of my arm heads to a pump, while another positions a big metal pulley over the black tank in front of our carriage, to fill her up with more water.

 

We cross the Nepean River and the huffing of the locomotive becomes more pronounced as she pulls us up towards the Blue Mountains. While the 3642 does the hard work, I explore back through the train.

 

I’m a little affronted by the people dressed like mad scientists in clear plastic goggles and white lab coats but when I stick my head out the window I understand – I'm immediately covered in cinders and soot. Hanging out the side of the train as it chugs along is an unsafe but irresistible pleasure. My grin is so wide, I later find a bit of charcoal lodged between my front teeth. I watch the steam puff out of the engine like a perfect children's drawing and when I glance back, every window is occupied with grinning idiots, their hair flying madly.

 

Traffic banks up as trainspotters chase us up the mountain. There's one guy with a video camera set up on a tripod on the roof of his car, while another wearing headphones holds out a microphone to capture the sound of the steam whistle. People perch on top of chain-link fences and squeeze through locked railway maintenance gates to take photos. Parents stand on overpasses with their kids, engulfed in steam.

 

The appeal is understandable. It is a glimpse of the past, before terrorism and carbon offsetting and security checks– a nicer,more simple and innocent time for travel.

 

On arrival, the Blue Mountains are as stunning and cold as ever and the Winter Magic Festival as crowded and wacky as expected. But we're just anxious to get back on our train. It's easy to talk to the passengers beside us as we're warmed with wine and cheese, raffles and laughter on the return journey down the mountain.

 

It's dark when we reach Penrith but families bustle up to the platform for a closer look. A woman with a toddler approaches Michael.

 

“Is it Thomas?” the toddler asks.

 

“More like Henry,” he replies kindly.

 

It's a completely different language but one they both understand. The toddler smiles and walks up to the engine for a closer look.

  

Pasta class

 

 

David Whitley gets a nosebleed as he enters a kitchen and tries to cook pasta from scratch...

 

Toni, it would be fair to say, has her work cut out. She is faced with possibly the laziest, most hapless cook on the face of the planet. Her new protégé is someone who’d much sooner reach for the takeaway menu or eat out than bother to faff around in the kitchen. If I’ve no other option, then pasta will usually come straight out of a bag and be tipped into boiling water. If ‘cooking’ for myself, then prodding cellophane with a fork and waiting for the sound of the microwave ping always seems much more expedient.

 

 

It’s not that I don’t like good food – I just think the preparation time and clearing up time isn’t worth the end product. I’d sooner pay someone to do it for me, in the same way that I’d sooner pay someone to fit wardrobes or prune hedges. Leave it to those who know what they’re doing, I say. Toni Moran’s mission is to convert me. 

 

She runs Flavours of the Valley in Kangaroo Valley, a gorgeous little spot that’s a couple of hours south of Sydney. It’s a two-sided business, as on some days she runs tours around the area’s food and wine producers. There’s a small, but growing band of olive growers, fudge artisans and winemakers to visit – and, more importantly, sample.

 

The rest of the time, however, she runs cookery classes. She has been training people in the hospitality industry for years, but it’s the Italian background that counts for most. Nonna knows far better than any superchef does. Her mission today is to show me how to make fresh pasta, and lots of it. There are four in our group and we’ve two hours to plough through what looks like a daunting menu. In front of me are a pile of flour and a bowl of eggs. 

 

The first step, it appears, is to make the flour into a mini volcano and pour two cracked eggs into the middle. Despite managing to spill considerable portions of said egg on the floor, the next bit goes OK. Whisk, work the flour in, chop it up so it looks like scrambled eggs, and then start the kneading. The secret is to put the whole body into it, apparently, but even then mine seems to take suspiciously longer than everyone else’s.

 

We later put it through the machine and make little parcels with pumpkin filling – quickly resorting to the cheat’s way that Nonna would never approve of. Instead of wrapping individually, we put big dollops of the pumpkin filling periodically along the rolled pasta, then just fold over and chop. It soon becomes a whirlwind. I’m brushing bread with garlicy oil, the lady opposite me is blending raspberries and ricotta cheese, then I’m left in charge of making the chocolate pasta that it will go into.

 

Yes. That’s right. Chocolate pasta. A bit of cocoa is added to the initial mix, and it’s served as a dessert. I think the idea is to prove pasta’s versatility, but I’m not overly convinced when tasting it. That may be due to the presence of ricotta cheese, however. We’re given recipe books, and upon reading through them at the end, it’s obvious how much has been pre-prepared and done while we’re busy with something else. I find this slightly disheartening. 

 

I’d much sooner do one or two dishes from start to finish and feel like I’ve properly learned how to do it. That said, at least I know the basics now. I’m still far more likely to buy a fresh bag of pasta from the supermarket rather than face the clean-up operation, but at least I know how to do it should I ever need to.

 

And you know what? It turns out I’m not too klutzy in the kitchen after all. The pumpkin torte in butter cream sauce tastes absolutely sensational...

 

Check with Flavours of the Valley (Flavoursofthevalley.com.au) for a schedule of Italian cooking classes.

  

Lord Howe

 

 


David Whitley finds himself gawping at near-extinct creatures on a tiny speck of land in the middle of the Tasman Sea.

 

 

Ambling along the wooden walkway from the room to the restaurant, a little brown thing scurries through the foliage. It’s a bird; more specifically, the Lord Howe Woodhen. It’s not the most spectacular creature we’ll ever see, but the fact that only around 250 of them exist in the world makes the spotting truly remarkable. It’s this sort of thing that people come to Lord Howe Island for. It’s a romantic getaway destination, with a population of around 350 people, a maximum of 400 visitors at any one time and no mobile phone coverage.

 

 

 

The air of solitude is inescapable – Lord Howe lies on its own in the Pacific Ocean, around 375 miles off the coast of New South Wales – but it’s not just that the couples come for. It’s a staggeringly beautiful island, almost encircled by a lagoon and boasting the world’s most southerly coral reef. The world’s most popular indoor palm trees – the Kentia palms – come from here, and the trek up through the forest to the top of Mount Gower is often regarded as Australia’s most exhilarating day walk. But it is the wildlife that is truly extraordinary. The island is only 11km long, and a maximum of 2km wide, yet 450 different species of fish have been recorded around the island. 40% of these are native only to the Tasman Sea. 

 

The numbers stack up elsewhere too. There are more seabird species, breeding in higher numbers, than anywhere else in Australia. There are also over 1,600 species of insect, around 60% of which can be found nowhere else, and 241 species of plant life. Of the latter, 47% are native only to Lord Howe Island. This remarkable array of unique fauna and flora means that Lord Howe is essentially in the same bracket as Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. Indeed, both gained World Heritage listing at the same time in 1982 in recognition of their unmatched biodiversity and beauty.

 

Part of this range is due to its isolation. Lord Howe has never been part of a continent, and the species that have made it here have come from an awful long way away. The other reason is that it sits at an oceanic crossroads. Warm and cool oceanic currents meet; the East Australian current converges with the chillier ones from further south. This accounts for the coral and all the fish, and makes Lord Howe an extremely underrated diving destination. Nearby Ball’s Pyramid – essentially a big rock in the sea – is particularly good.

 

Another prime wildlife spot is North Bay. It’s a beach flanked by the ubiquitous Kentia palms and an outcrop of Norfolk Pines. The pines are an introduced species, brought over initially to provide a replacement in case a ship broke its mast or boom. They’re regarded as noxious weeds, but for now they’ll not be cut down – too many birds use them for nesting. On a warm day, North prime sunbathing territory, but the birds don’t come to soak up the sun. This is where they nurture their eggs, and bring up their young. There can be few places in the world where it is possible to get up so close to so many seabirds as they guard their eggs. Certainly towards the top end of the beach, every available branch seems to be taken up with a nest. The sooty terns, for example, take seagrass and guano and fashion it into something suitably comfortable. They only lay one egg, and need to protected well.

 

Through the trees and in the rookeries along the beach, there are thousands of birds. There are Black Noddy Terns, Bar Tailed Godwits and Red Tailed Tropic birds amongst others. Many of them are happy to just sit there posing for a photo, although there’s always the occasional crank. One of the more protective in the melee decides to hover above us, making menacing cawing sounds. He may as well be saying: “Get lost, paparazzi scum!”

 

You don’t need to go on a tour to take part in one of the island’s most memorable wildlife encounters, however. Ned’s Beach has been voted as Australia’s cleanest beach in the past and inside the little shack on the shore there is a poster of different varieties of fish that can be found in Lord Howe’s waters. On that poster is the king fish, and it’s a little smaller than the ones in the shallows. For these king fish, Ned’s Beach is a fine dining restaurant. They’re either extremely well fed by the tourists that keep coming down with bread, or they’re cross bred with sharks and leviathans. 

 

Step into the shallows, not even to waste deep and they swarm around you. The small ones get the rough end of the deal, fighting for the scraps. The big ones use brute force and the medium-sized ones are a little more agile – their reactions usually see them first to the party. They all have one thing in common, though. If you’re brave enough to keep steady, they will come up and take the tasty morsels right out of your hand. There are only ever two or three feeders in at a time, and this is an indication of how peaceful Lord Howe is. Anywhere else, this would be a complete circus, with busloads fighting over each other for the chance to feed the metre-long sea giants. Even so, it has now got to the stage where the fish are getting a little too fat – the islanders are now encouraging visitors to use special fish food pellets rather than bread. The pellets can be bought at the Thompson’s Store.

 

It’s lucky that the islanders appreciate what they have on their hands. Programmes are in place to help maintain and increase levels of native species, and in the past eradication schemes have been carried out to rid the island of interlopers.Native plants and animals have been damaged horrendously over the years by introduced species, often brought in by shipwrecks. Some creatures are either officially extinct or presumed to be so. But the eradication schemes have ridden the island of feral cats, pigs and goats, and discussions are underway about clearing out another major introduced pest: the rat. It’s not as easy as it sounds, of course, but the heart is in the right place. The limit on visitor numbers is just part of a broad plan to preserve a truly unique piece of that paradise.

 

More photos here

  

Coathanger

 

 

The Sydney Harbour Bridge climb must be the most successful tour operation of its kind anywhere in the world. It is a complete human conveyor belt – an entire factory dedicated to elevating whole groups of people spiritually and physically skyward. The Bridgeclimb complex is erected in a series of tunnels where, until a few years ago, they did nothing more adventurous than sell Porsches. At the height of the season Bridgeclimb is now processing groups of up to 10 tourists, 24 hours a day.

 

You are prepared, kitted out and trained in a super-efficient environment. You are shown how to attach your harnesses and are fitted with earphones that instead of going in your ear rest on your cheekbones and send vibrations that your brain deciphers as your guide’s voice. This way your ears are also open to eternal sound. The whole atmosphere feels strangely like it will on the fateful future day when some of us (or some of you) will be selected for transfer to a less exhausted planet. 

 

And as you walk out beyond the giant support pylons you battle with what will presumably be the same feeling that there is a better than average chance that you might not return to earth in one piece. There is something bizarre in the human psyche that makes people pay a hefty fee for the privilege to climb to potentially fatal heights…the same heights that, on another day, they would demand a considerable premium to work at. 

 

In the end the trek to the 134-metre summit is much easier than most people imagine and, because of the sheer dimensions of what Sydney-siders call ‘the Big Coathanger,’ you never really feel like you are living on the edge at all. Even without the safety harnesses and the training you realise that it would be almost impossible to fall without putting some serious determination into it.


But the Bridgeclimb affords combines a feeling of adventure with the most spectacular views on the planet. You are standing on top of a 53,1440 tonne steel arch (pinned together with 6 million rivets – some of them up to 40cm long for any budding riveters out their) and you can take in a 360° view of what is very likely the most iconographic cityscapes in the world. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and it is easy to see why so many people line up everyday to be ‘elevated.’ But the following day I was once again back at sea level. My week in Fiji had passed in a blur of ‘office work’ – battling with an overflowing inbox and magazine deadlines – but Hawaii had seriously boosted my appetite for waves. So I abandoned downtown Sydney and headed for Bondi Beach.

 

I paddled out into the line-up at Bondi and dropped into a couple of sweetly peeling left-handers. I had already been in the water almost two hours when I noticed what could only be described as a blur of activity on the horizon. It came closer until eventually it was only about 200 metres away and I could clearly see a huge flock of gulls and frigate birds diving on an immense school of fish. There were easily a thousand birds and they were churning the water up in a frenzy. It was impossible to imagine that all that thrashing and blood was not going to be enough to attract at least a few submarine predators.


“Never seen a feeding-frenzy like that in twenty years,” marvelled one grizzled old surf dude. Aussies are notoriously proud of their man-eating wildlife. I caught a few more waves and then paddled back in. After all tomorrow morning I had an early flight to Perth and then I would be heading into the great ‘Red Centre.’ It seemed right that after all this I ought to save my sorry carcase for the creatures of the world’s most fatal desert.

Blue

 


 

David Whitley gets away from the tour buses to go canyoning in the Blue Mountains near Sydney.

 

Unless the inner child has been thoroughly buried, its very existence wiped out by a space age memory eraser, it’s very difficult not to sneakily enjoy water parks. You know the sort – those giant aquatic adventure playgrounds, infested with giant, curling slides that spit screaming kids out into pools of water every few seconds.

 

 

Unfortunately, there comes a certain age where it is officially no longer cool to be seen bombing along foaming torrents in a rubber ring, shouting “Wheeeeeeeeeeee!” before creating a giant splash as the big blue snake releases you. It’s somehow a little unbecoming for a sensible adult, even though we’d all probably leap at the chance to have a water park to ourselves for the day. Just as long as our friends didn’t find out, of course. Mercifully, there appears to be a more socially acceptable version. It’s not for kids, it’s done in hard-to-reach parts of the great outdoors, and is actually rather dangerous if not carried out with due care and attention. Perfect. It’s called canyoning, and there’s nowhere better to test it out than in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales.

 

Or rather, I think it’s in the Blue Mountains. Truth be told, we could be anywhere. After the early morning pick up in Katoomba, our small band of hardy adventurers are bundled into the back of the A-Team van and then driven out into the wilds. The roads are bumpy, the foliage thick, and civilisation appears to be a long way away. It is, in short, the sort of place in which you’d stumble upon a log cabin owned by someone with a penchant for collecting dead bodies. The Blair Witch Project effect, however, just adds to the tingle of excitement.

 

We’re actually in the Wollemi National Park, most of which is a true wilderness. Not many people make it into this neck of the woods, preferring to stay around Katoomba and the other charming towns of the Blue Mountains area. The Wollemi is slightly off the usual tourist route, and thus it’s all about dirt tracks through thick bush, and there’s not another vehicle in sight. For an indication of how well this area is charted, bear in mind that in 1994 humankind first discovered the Wollemi Pine. It is a genus that has been on the planet for over two million years, and had previously only been found as a fossil. It came as a surprise, therefore, when one of the National Park’s field officers just stumbled across it whilst out on an expedition through this untamed land.

 

There will be no such discoveries on our little adventure, but there is still a pioneer spirit amongst the group. None of us have tried canyoning before, and frankly, we don’t even know what it entails. As the van is parked up in a clearing, therefore, it is time for a brief lowdown. Canyoning, it is explained, is basically a more hardcore version of going for a quiet stroll by the river. The idea is to follow the flowing waters downstream, surmounting any obstacles that may get in the way. When there are no handy towpaths around, this means scrambling over rocks, shimmying across cavern walls and occasionally taking the odd leap of faith from the top of a waterfall.

 

Naturally, some stretches of river are tougher propositions than others. At the top end, the activity involves abseiling into dark holes, proper ropework and rock climbing skills. At the introductory level things are a little less intense, but extreme care is still required. It only takes one slip or misjudged leap to land in an awful lot of silly bother. Oh yes, and even when doing the baby steps, you are still required to wear the most ridiculous get-up ever devised. Struggling to think of anything that looks more humiliating and less dignified than a skin-tight wetsuit with trainers? Well try adding a bright, bulky helmet to that ensemble and you’ll soon be hiding behind shrubs the moment a camera is wielded.

 

Once we all look suitably gormless, it’s time for the first leg of the day’s expedition: The Sheep Dip. There are many canyons in the region, but this one is generally regarded as the fun one. It’s not particularly taxing when you compare it to some of the more scary efforts, and has plenty of dips, slides and drops. In essence, it’s a glorious pure pop song amongst a playlist of wilfully difficult avant-garde guitar instrumentals.

 

After a thorough safety briefing, we’re alongside the river and ready to go. For the next couple of hours, it’s a case of moving along any which way, and a proper test of ingenuity. If there’s nothing to grab onto, then the only option is swimming. It’s only short stretches at a time, but you can tell why people don’t really attempt this in winter. Even with the wetsuits, if the water is mostly starved of sunlight it can be frighteningly cold in places. You can also realise why you’re told to bring along an old pair of trainers that you don’t mind being ruined – there is absolutely no chance of keeping your feet dry.

 

On other occasions, it’s more like those family woodland adventures that we all remember with rose-tinted glasses, gingerly padding across stepping stones before scrabbling over rocky rubble. It becomes a test of ingenuity at times, having to get from A to B, but with no obvious route for doing so. This is where seemingly insignificant overhangs and boulders come in handy – any port in a storm – but sometimes there’s simply no option but to swim for it. The water depths vary alarmingly – you can never be quite certain of being able to stand up, meaning that every canyoner is probably going to have to break out the front crawl at some point.

 

Swimming is all well and good, of course, when you’re heading in a straight line, but it doesn’t quite cut the mustard when the water suddenly disappears from underneath you, cascading down a rock face. And this, naturally, is where the real fun comes in. Never is the water park analogy more apt than when you’re sat on the edge of a greasy, slippery stone, ready to push yourself off into the murky pool below. The hardest part is resisting the urge to shout “wheeeeeeee” as you plunge – to do so would hardly be treating the situation with the seriousness it deserves. Ahem.

 

Some drops don’t have convenient boulders to slide from, however, and that’s when brave leaps of faith from tree trunks come into play. It’s a tremendously satisfying splash when you land though, sinking deep under the surface before emerging like a shaggy dog shaking itself dry. The Sheep Dip is supposed to be part one of a double canyon day out, but as we make our way out of it for the lunch stop, the dangers of the activity begin to become clear. Over the last few days it has rained heavily, and the waters are flowing rapidly. And, judging by the decided grey look of the skies, there’s only going to be more water added soon.

 

The Sheep Dip is largely all about getting a quick fix of entertainment, while Rocky Creek is a little tougher – more of a challenge for the beginner. And our guide is looking a little apprehensive as we sit down for our lunch on the riverbank. “Hmm,” he murmurs as hot soup is gleefully gulped down. “Not good.”

 

At the entrance to Rocky Creek, the waters are swirling, raging and foaming down into the darkness, but gung-ho heroics have long since set in. The group, to a man, are guilty of not quite taking things seriously enough. Make no mistake about it, people have died canyoning before, and when the rivers get angry, the dangers multiply. Despite the uncertainties, we’re all willing to take it on, emboldened by the morning’s adventure.

 

It takes a crack of thunder from above to settle matters. It’s decided that Rocky Creek as a torrent during a storm is too much of a risk, and the day is cut short. But it’s not too much of a disappointment – the spirit of the water park has been brought back for six people who had long since surrendered to maturity.

 

 

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