Saturday, December 30, 2006

Sydney to Hobart

Australians love sports of all sorts, and there is much anticipated sailing race that begins in Sydney and ends in Hobart (in Tasmania.) It begins on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, and takes the fastest yachts about two days to complete. The current record for the fastest time to the finish line is 1 day, 18 hours, 40 minutes and 10 seconds, set in 2005 by a yacht named Wild Oats XI. Thousands of Australians make a day of it, and go out to watch the start of the race. We met Andrea and her twin girls, and set out to see what all the excitement was about. We were not disappointed!

Sydney harbour from above

A satellite view of Sydney harbour.
The Yellow arrow points to our apartment in Rozelle.
The Orange arrow points to Circular Quay (pronounced "Key"), the ferry hub of Sydney.
The Red arrow points to South Head, from where we watched the beginning of the race.

We took a ferry from Circular Quay to Watson's Bay, and then walked up along the shore to South Head, where Sydney harbour opens up into the Tasman Sea. We got there early enough to find a great spot, and put down our blanket. Then we enjoyed a picnic lunch, watched small planes skywriting, and waited for the 1:00 pm start. We had a great view of North Head, and were only steps away from a great city skyline view as well. The weather was perfect, but our sunny spot required the application of sunscreen, and hats!

Waiting for the yachts

Some historic sailing ships started things off, sailing majestically down the harbour. Andrea's husband Steve volunteers for the Heritage fleet, and was lucky enough to earn a spot aboard the largest of them, the James Craig.

The James Craig

At 1:00 pm sharp we heard the cannon boom, and the race was on. All the picnickers got to their feet to watch!

And they're off!

Here you can see Wild Oats XI, last year's winner, leading the way out of the harbour, turning South on the treacherous voyage down to Tasmania - a trip that would take them over two days.

Into the Tasman Sea

There was a buzz of activity, with at least 7 helicopters flying around, and hundreds of private boats zooming all over. The racing yachts (78 in all) had a clear channel to sail in, but outside the channel was fair game.

On their way

We got our fill of the yachts, and then stayed and enjoyed the amazing scenery for a while before heading back for the day.

Shami at the yacht race

The Sydney to Hobart course is a difficult one. As it turns out, Wild Oats XI kept her lead, and won the race again, although dangerous seas claimed several boats, including one that had just overtaken her. There were some injuries, but luckily no loss of life. Wild Oats XI took 2 days and almost 9 hours to finish the race this time, and became the first back-to-back winner since 1964.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas Day

Despite the warm weather and summer sunshine, Christmas came to Australia. We missed the rest of the family, but we were so happy to have Jeanine and Sean here to share it with us. We all had a very nice day together.

Around the Christmas tree

We enjoyed a scrumptious breakfast of pikelet pancakes and fresh fruit, prepared by Jeanine.

Christmas breakfast

After breakfast we exchanged the assortment of gifts that had mysteriously accumulated under our tree. Shami gets a bilby mug!

Opening gifts

Jeanine and Sean show off opera tickets, a gift for all four of us from our parents. We'll be going to see The Marriage of Figaro on January 6, 2007!

Tickets to the Opera!

We had a lazy day for the most part, but the weather was so nice in the late afternoon that we all headed out for a game of frisbee at a nearby park. Afterwards Shami whipped up a delicious meal of curries and dal.

Cooking dinner

We put on our fancy table cloth, popped our Christmas "crackers", donned our crowns, and enjoyed a relaxed meal. It was so good that there was almost no room left for the apple/passion fruit crumble Meghan made for dessert, but we managed anyway.

Christmas dinner

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas from Down Under!

Merry Christmas everyone! Our warm wishes for a happy holiday season from Down Under...

Below, a couple of pictures of our "Christmas tree" decorated with our Australian critter ornaments, before and after Santa's visit. More about our Christmas later on.

Our Australian Christmas tree

After Santa's visit

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Jody the baby wombat

Up close
We think one of the cutest Australian animals is the wombat. So it was tremendously exciting when Jeanine told us that we could go into work with her at the zoo and meet a baby wombat!

Wombats are slow-moving, muscular marsupials. They are herbivores, spending many hours each night grazing on native grasses and roots. They live in burrows, digging extensive systems of tunnels with their powerful claws. Sadly, expanding human settlement is steadily encroaching on their habitat, making accidents with cars more and more common.

Jody is a seven month old baby wombat who was orphaned in one such accident. She is being raised by a colleague of Jeanine's at the zoo, in close contact with humans. When she is older she might participate in programs with kids. Wombats are usually laid back and slow creatures, and Jody spends most of her time napping in the office. When they are comfortable and relaxed, they like to sleep belly up!
Jody in her room
Jody takes a nap

Meghan picked her up, and was in wombat heaven straightaway, cooing over the furry little bundle of joy...

Meghan and Jody

Jody seemed to enjoy being cuddled, although it was hard to tell who was happier, the cuddler or the cuddlee. Even when she was on the ground, we found that she would happily roll over for attention, exposing her soft belly to be stroked. Here she is, being cuddled by Meghan, Shami, Jeanine, and Sean.
Wombat up close
Shami holding the wombat

Meghan and Shami with Jody

Jeanine, Sean, Jody

Just look at her grin!
Wombat grinning

Wombat snuggling Meghan really wanted to smuggle Jody out of the zoo in her bag, but sadly, it was nap time again, and we had to put the sleepy wombat back to bed. Good bye, Jody! Meghan is still bubbling over about the whole experience...

Saturday, December 23, 2006

At the Zoo

At the Zoo
The Taronga Zoo, where my sister-in-law Jeanine is working as the pathologist, sits across the harbour from downtown Sydney. It is a pleasant 15 minute ferry ride away, and yesterday, Shami, Sean and I went to visit.
At the Zoo

It was rather interesting to see some of the back-workings of the zoo, including some of the hospital facilities. Jeanine took some time off to walk around with us, and then we stayed on a while longer to see more of the zoo, which was very fun.

Giraffe and Opera House

The Taronga Zoo has all the typical zoo animals - gorillas, giraffes, zebras, and the newly arrived elephants, which are all the buzz in Sydney. But to us the real stars were the Australian animals. We got to see many of our favorites - the wombat, the bilby, the quoll, the platypus, the potoroo, the wallaby, and many more.

Spot the emu:
Spot the emu

Echidnas, which look a bit like porcupines with a snout, are actually related to the platypus: these are the only mammals that lay eggs. Shami says, "How mind-bogglingly bizarre is that? Warm-blooded mammals that lay eggs??!" I wanted to give them a pat, despite their prickly coat.

The zoo is home to several peacocks, free to roam the grounds.
Peacock on the loose

Sean and Shami photographing a stunning red parrot:
Photographing the parrot

The Tasmanian Devil is a fascinating creature. It is the largest surviving marsupial carnivore in the world, found only in Tasmania. A very recent and puzzling epidemic has tragically put it at risk of extinction.
Tasmanian Devil (behind glass)

We have yet to see a kangaroo in the wild, but we took a photo-op with this lazy red kangaroo in the zoo.
With the kangaroo

Awww.... a sleepy koala up a tree.
Koala up a tree

But what really stole the show for us was the wombat ... More on this to come soon!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Pardon the mess

Regular readers will notice some changes in our look and feel as we move from the old version of Blogger to Google's new, improved version (no longer in beta). Please pardon the mess, and do let us know if you notice any problems...

More from Melbourne

At the University of Melbourne
As promised, here are a few more pictures and a handful of random notes from Melbourne. Shami spent most of his time at the University of Melbourne, where he was attending the Texas Symposium on Relativistic Astrophysics. The University has several classic buildings, with a familiar campus feel.

Enjoying Melbourne's cafe culture
Meanwhile, Meghan enjoyed a bit of the city, which has a very compact downtown area full of cafes, shops, galleries, and energy.

Kookaburra and bush fire haze
We did enjoy an afternoon together at the Botanic gardens, which are suppoosed to be second only to Kew Gardens in England. The bush fire haze made for some interesting views of the city skyline, dim and ghostly.
Melbourne's Botanic Gardens

At Federation Square
We also enjoyed Federation Square, full of tourists and locals listening to live Christmas carol performances, strolling through the exhibitions, and enjoying the feel of the place.

All in all, Melbourne felt like a very nice, friendly city, and one we'd love to go back to and explore further.

Flinders Street Station

Friday, December 15, 2006

Hook turns and bush fires

Greetings from Melbourne, famous for "four seasons in one day". They aren't kidding: when Meghan and I arrived, it was 42C (a blazing hot 107F) and the smoke from the surrounding bush fires was thick enough to sting the eyes. The same afternoon, the temperature plunged to 22C (72F) as a cold front moved in over the next hour. Everyone we talked to thought that was only to be expected - four seasons in one day, don't you know?

More Melbourne stories and pics will come later - for now, I'm at the Texas symposium on Relativistic Astrophysics, which is keeping me on my toes - but I just have to mention the "hook turn". Melbourne has trams running on city streets, and when cars turn right at some intersections (they drive on the left, remember), they are required to queue on the left side to wait for the signal so that they don't block the tram lines. Hence the "hook turn"... notice the sign hanging above the classic tram below. I've never seen that before.

Hook turn

Friday, December 08, 2006

Sean and Jeanine arrive in Sydney

United 863 arrives at Sydney At 7:30 am today, we heard the distant rumble of United flight 863, with Sean and Jeanine on board, passing overhead on its way in to Sydney airport. Meghan managed to snap this image through the morning fog.
Sean and Jeanine arrive A couple of hours later, a cab pulled up at our doorstep, and there they were: Meghan's brother Sean and sister-in-law Jeanine had arrived in Sydney, all the way from Ithaca. Jeanine is starting a five month position as the pathologist at the Taronga zoo, and it is a strange (and very welcome!) twist of fate that brings them to Sydney at the same time as us.

As their hosts, we along with our astronomer friend Fernando (also visiting Sydney) took our responsibility seriously, cracking the whip to keep Sean and Jeanine awake as long as possible. Well, we didn't actually use a whip - rather, we took them out downtown, showing them the Opera house, the Harbour bridge, and the botanic gardens.
Sean, Jeanine, Meghan, Shami, Opera House

Fernando, Jeanine, Sean, Meghan, and the Bridge
Resting at the Botanic Gardens

Finally, after as much sun as we could squeeze in, we came home, savored some wine, made some Indian food for dinner, and settled in for a relaxed evening on our deck. Welcome, Jeanine and Sean! Cheers!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Sydney skyline

Just a couple of images of the Sydney skyline, taken from the Manly ferry...

Sydney skyline

Sunset over Sydney