Well, the explorer sisters enjoyed a busy month together with some wonderful walks and some Sydney city time. Our first big walk was Bundeena to Marley Beach, this is one of my favourite walks and I never tire of the stunning views. The weather was perfect and Flora managed to step out of her comfort zone and negotiate the, sometimes tricky, terrain. She was rewarded for this with many excellent photographs, particularly of the Goanna that we surprised along one of the paths, and a picnic lunch by the sea.
We did the obligatory Hop-on, Hop off tour of Sydney, which really is fantastic value, and made a stop at Bondi Beach for an excellent pie at 'Harry's Cafe de Wheels'.
Our first weekend together was spent in the Blue Mountains, staying at Katoomba YHA (I love this place) and making the most of the Scenic World experience with it's cable cars, steepest railway in the world and rainforest boardwalk. We had intended to spend two nights in Katoomba but got so carried away by the awesome walking opportunities and the browsing potential offered by the antique galleries of Katoomba, Leura and Blackheath that we stayed for four. Leura Cascades are magical and the clifftop walk from there to the Gordon Falls Reserve and Leura itself was certainly worth the effort. Leura is such a pretty little town full of arts and crafts and independent shops and we enjoyed a well earned, massive and very tasty, burger and beer at the historic Alexandra Hotel before getting the train back to Katoomba.
The air in the Blue Mountains is so clean and filled with oxygen and eucalyptus oil and my sister, who suffers with Asthma, managed to hike out without any problems and said she felt as if she had an oxygen mask on her face!
As I have already experienced the fabulous Taronga Zoo, Liz spent a day by herself there and came back to Cronulla with her camera full of photographs and lots of anecdotes about her various animal encounters.
On her second weekend in the country T and B took us down to the Southern Highlands for an amazing walk through the Minamurra Falls Rainforest and then on to the Illawarra Fly Treetop Walk. I have been to the Treetop Walk with them before and this 500 metre long, 50 metre high steel walkway usually enables panoramic views over the rainforest canopy and out as far as the Pacific Ocean. On this occasion the weather had closed in so much that we couldn't even see from one end of the car park to the other so regretably we had to give that one a miss. That might have been just as well because it is now possible to experience the 'highest zip-line tour in Australia' from there and I'm not sure that I would have been able to resist it!
We drove on to the Budderoo National Park where a short walk from the car park took us to the lovely Carrington Falls.
Liz and I enjoyed a quite spectacular walk from Bondi Beach to Coogee Beach one afternoon and then a beer in the impressive Coogee Pavillion and on another outing we took the ferry from Circular Quay to Manly, apparently 'a must do experience'. The ferry ride out and the fast hovercraft ride back enabled some brilliant views and refreshing rides on the harbour on a hot day but, to be honest, I was not very impressed with Manly itself. It is full of shops selling tourist tat, although I did manage to buy a couple of lightweight and very comfortable tops from 'Braintree Hemp Clothing'. We did not have time to visit the historic Quarantine Hospital or to do one of the well marked bush walks around the headland and I think either one of those would have made a big difference to my enjoyment of the place. Oh well, it's good to leave something for the next time!
We spent a couple of hours one morning in the Chinese Garden of Friendship in the city and it was a remarkable experience to be surrounded by so much serenity in the heart of this busy city.During the afternoon Liz visited the famous Sea Life Sydney Aquarium while I took advantage of my Birthday gift from T and B and spent two hours on the harbour in an Americas Cup Yacht. The yacht was nine years old and had a maximum speed of 15 knots and we managed to get up to 13 knots in perfect weather conditions. It was an exciting experience and I was very grateful to receive such an inspired gift. Do my sons know me or what?
We spent one Sunday exploring Sydney's Paddy's Markets, again disappointingly full of tourist rubbish, although the fresh food section was amazing and then walked down through the city to The Rocks Market. The Rocks are Sydney's oldest area (a little like the Lanes in Brighton) and the market here is a real pleasure as almost all the stalls sell quality products made by local artisans.
On our last Saturday afternoon in Australia Tom took his paddle board to Gunnamatta Bay and gave us some instruction on stand up paddle boarding. I loved it and was sorry that I hadn't tried the experience earlier in my trip. It is definitely something I will do more of.
Arriving early in the city on Sunday we dropped our bag in the YHA Sydney Harbour, had a fish feast (literally) lunch at The Mercantile Hotel, Sydney's longest running Irish pub and then walked around Circular Harbour to the Opera House. After several 'hallmark moments' we made our way through the Botanic Gardens and managed to catch the last guided tour around Government House with it's beautifully furnished and decorated rooms and it's collection of portraits of every governor since the beginning of the colony. We had booked to stay for the night in the YHA, with it's rooftop terrace overlooking The Bridge and the Opera House and on our way back there for the night we stopped into a cinema to see 'The Dressmaker'.
Liz spent the next day with more time in the Botanic Gardens and visits to the NSW Art Gallery and Sydney Museum while I returned to Cronulla for a few hours on Gunnamatta Beach with my book.
We shared a very tasty last night dinner with T and B in their favourite Indian restaurant and then a delicious last lunch in 'Zimzala' on Cronulla Beach before heading off to the airport for our flight back to the UK.
Having changed my ticket to return on the same day as Liz it was disappointing not to be able to get seats together because hers was a direct flight to London and mine shared the same 'plane to Singapore and then changed to another. The upside for me was that I got upgraded to premium economy for the first leg (no idea why but very appreciative) and had an exit row seat for the second. Top tip here for long haul flights, I bought some pills called 'No jet-lag' when I was in Auckland airport, they are homeopathic and if you follow the directions properly (chew one every two hours throughout your flight) they really do seem to work.
So here I am back in the UK the last nine and a half months have been truly fantastic but I am pleased to be back in the UK. It is warmer than I expected it to be and it has been lovely to have time with mum and Jack and to catch up with other family and friends already. The Christmas to New Year week is looking greeat and there is the possibility of a new job in January. Life is pretty damn good!