Posted by: Nick Ward | 22 August, 2012

Croatia, you really have arrived

Warning:Unashamed Travelogue Follows.

Zadar

I visited Croatia on my first ever overseas trip, 25 years ago. It was part of Yugoslavia then, before the country broke up into its constituent states, and then endured a bloody war. I recall it being the surprise of a nine-month European trip, an unexpected jewel.

Well, it’s been discovered now. Thoroughly. It’s no less a paradise, but don’t expect to share it only with the Croatians. I think I heard pretty much every European language echoing down the marble streets of the towns we visited, and more than a few Australian accents too.

This return trip took in Zadar, the Sibernik Archipeligo where I joined a group of friends doing a week-long ocean swimming trip, on to Split and then Hvar, before finishing up with Dubrovnik. It was, of course, too short – the sign of a fantastic holiday destination.

The towns are amazing. The people are, generally, very friendly. The waters are an amazing blue, just as I remember them to be. And, in this part of the world, life revolves around the sea.

The sea was the centerpiece for the reason for coming to Croatia, six days of swimming around the islands of Sibernik with Strel Swimming. It was just awesome.

The ocean was so clear you could see 50m or so underwater – perfect to allow some fantastic photography of people swimming or just playing around. It was just the right temperature, and thanks to the shelter from hundreds of islands, there was always somewhere perfectly calm to swim. Even my bitey-creature-phobic European & American friends were fine in the deeper parts in the knowledge that the scariest thing in this body of water were a few lame-arse jellyfish. Nice.

Our lunches generally included a wander around an island village or climbing some hill for a knockout view. The evenings were spent eating ravenously and exploring towns, villages and national parks in the region, generally with an ice cream in hand. Even our transport for our swims was what you would have hoped for: a selection of gorgeous local fishing boats which moonlight on such ventures during the summer months.

Honestly, this was one of the best things I have done in a long time.

Strel Swimming aside, this Croatian adventure also took in Zadar, Sibernik, Split, Dubrovnik, and the beautiful towns of Stari Grad and Hvar on the island named after the latter. I had visited Split & Dubrovnik on that long-ago Yugoslav visit, but the other towns were a first-visit.

Hvar in particular was quite eye-opening. I expected quiet sea-side fishing villages. I got the Riviera (although it must be said with a lot more charm).

Hvar Town

The beautiful people have arrived. There are fashionable seaside bars and all night beach parties. Rumors of visits from celebs included Beyonce and Prince Harry. The beautiful people clearly don’t arrive on the ferry however, as the waterfront in Hvar town was packed with massive motor cruisers.

Despite all this, the place isn’t spoilt at all. The old town of Hvar is still a labyrinth of pedestrian streets reaching up to the fortress. And if you walk a few hundred metres along the waterfront you’ll find relaxed bays and gorgeous swimming away from the summer crowds.

If, however, it’s still too Eurotrash for you in Hvar Town, it is only a short bus ride to explore Stari Grad on the other side of the island. This is a picture perfect little town with chilled out restaurants and bars, where Jazz is more the music style than Dance. There really is something for everyone on Hvar.

The thing I love about this country is the Old Towns. Each city has its own character, but they tend to have beautiful medieval stone buildings and marble streets in common. There are no blights on the streetscape – even those houses destroyed by war were painstakingly restored in their original style.

Dubrovnik

Let me mention the war.

I remember watching in horror back in 1992 when the television news broadcast images of the walls of Dubrovnik being pummeled with shells from Serbian gunboats. I was worried that these perfect streetscapes could not have survived intact. Well, of course, in the short term they hadn’t. There is a map just inside the main city gate in Dubrovnik showing which pavements were shattered by a direct hit, which buildings lost their roofs, and which were completely destroyed. There was a lot of damage. The great testament to the residents, however, was that they rebuilt every single building, every roof, replaced every stone. You struggle to spot what is original and what is post-war. How good is that.

The only problem, if you can call it that, faced by Croatia is cost. It plans to enter the EU next year, but most things are already being priced in Euro – and the numbers of Euro, in particular for hotels, are not small. Indeed, on Hvar I think our hotel had pretty much the most expensive room rates for its category that I’ve ever paid. If the country continues along this path the boom may be short lived. Let’s not forget the experience of the Greeks.

Hopefully, however, this won’t be the way Croatia heads. If supply of rooms can catch up with peak-season demand so that prices are pitched competitively then the county’s sheer beauty and charm will be what visitors talk about. If that’s the case, then watch this space. You’ve seen nothing yet. This place is going to be the place to go, possibly the place to be seen, but definitely the place everyone is talking about.

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Posted by: Nick Ward | 10 August, 2012

A Very Special Theory of Relativity

A month ago, as I was zipping through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City on the back of a motorbike, I noticed the transit habits of the locals.

There’s not many cars, it’s mainly motorbikes. That’s a transition in itself: when I first visited in 1990 it was mainly bicycles. You don’t see a heap of them now.

What interested me was the number of occupants per motorbike. Probably about half had just the one person, but a huge number had two or more. Several I saw (but wasn’t quick enough to photograph) had dad, mum, two kids and a dog. On a motorbike, that’s high occupancy.

To see that here the average occupancy of a motorbike outstripped the average occupancy of a car back in Australia got me thinking.

It’s not worth getting annoyed (again) at our tendency to unnecessarily pump our air with pollution so that we can jam our roads with single occupant cars, it’s better to spend my energy trying to understand why. Why, when in other countries people move about on a fraction of the fuel, without seeming to be any less happy than we are.

I figure it’s an issue of relativity.

Yes, I have some theories about this, and yes, as a long-retired rocket scientist, the pun is intended.

No doubt a big part of this is about economics. A litre of fuel in Vietnam is a vastly higher percentage of a local salary than in Australia. But it’s also about space. We make massive roads in Australia to make motorists feel more comfortable about driving something ten times their size. In Vietnam, a car looks big and cumbersome on those narrow streets. It’s all relative.

Obviously there is more risk throwing the family on the back of a motorbike, but acceptance of risk is relative too. These guys have had a massive war in their not-too-distant past. They crawled through tiny tunnels (and following my visit I can now personally attest to how scary that must have been) to get to the Saigon River, from where they would sneak into the city during the night to carry out raids on American soldiers. Those kinds of experiences must make the risk of four people on a motorbike seem positively piddly.

It has become apparent to me that I must be attracted to war zones, as I am now in Croatia, which itself was in a bloody war in 1992. And my relativity theory seems to hold here, too.

People are vastly more relaxed about risk than back in Aus. Seatbelts are little more than an option on the roads, people hop on and off boats by leaping across open water, kids play waterpolo unsupervised wherever there is a few metres of open coastline. I actually think it’s great.

It feels like people are forced to understand risk and take responsible decisions from a young age. They are being less influenced by a fear-loving media and more by intuiitive mathematics. For example, there is no such thing as a ‘drinking age’ and alcohol is available in supermarkets. Despite this freedom, or perhaps because of it, there is (with the exception of the drunk Santa we saw in Zadar) no visible alcoholism or homelessness.

Perhaps our seemingly advantageous position on the scale of relativity actually sees us worse off in a whole range of ways.

It is all the rage at the moment to talk about our ‘First World Problems’, you know, the gym closing an hour early or the supermarket running out of Your Brand of cranberry juice. What we are really saying is, jeez, isn’t it brilliant that our life is so good that this is the worst we have to worry about.

But you know what? In the ‘Other World’ I see people prepared to do more things in their lives. Kids play in the street, and people have festivals without taking out liability insurance. There is less TV and Xbox and more community. There is also less obesity and diseases of affluence. But overall, there is just more Life. And I absolutely love it.

Affluence. I think we need to be careful what we wish for. And as the world continues its unstoppable march ‘forward’, perhaps we can share some worldly advice with the countries where change is most rapid as they ‘catch up’.  Look before you leap, as it’s not necessarily better on the other side. You might get cable, but you might lose a whole lot more.

Posted by: Nick Ward | 30 May, 2012

Nick Abroad

‘Tis the season to be travelling.

Noumea

Fourteen countries over a five month period is what it’s shaping up as.  Pretty damned cool when you love travel, but that’s a lot of travel.  About thirty flights, by my reckoning.  And a lot of travel-size toiletries.

Not without its stresses either.

I headed west today, to Perth, here until Thursday night. Bit of an adventure this morning.

I was chatting to Christian in Germany on Skype in the cab, just pulling in to the airport. Reached into my pocket to grab my wallet… and it wasn’t there.

Gulp.

62 minutes to my flight departure, and counting.

I screamed at the driver to turn around and head back to the Élan, ringing flatmate Kevin on the way to get him to check that the wallet was indeed next to my bed (…it was… idiot! doh!) and asking him to run it down to Concierge.

Three car pileup on the freeway meaning a traffic jam back into town. Shit. Eventually get past the smashed up cars and speeding down the freeway, calmly chatting to Christian the whole way. Calm in the face of a crisis, that’s me.

Leapt in to Concierge, grabbed wallet, heading back out to the airport. Flight time minus 40 minutes.  Aaaarrrggghhhh! Why didn’t I stick with an overnight bag rather than packing everything including the kitchen sink into luggage to be checked in… it was three days for god’s sake!  That may well be my downfall think I.

Rang Virgin to explain what had happened and tell them it’s going to be a close call, but I’m on my way.  Think this was more to reassure me than them.

By this stage the morning traffic is nearing its peak, and to make matters worse, rubber-necking motorists had slowed the airport-bound traffic to a crawl so they could gawk at the pileup on the other side of the barrier. Double-grrrrrr! Finally get moving again, pull into the airport at flight-time minus 17 minutes. While the cabbie is running $110 onto my cab voucher I scream up to the counter, and… they grab my bag to run it down to the plane and hand me my boarding pass.

OMG. Haven’t cut it that fine before.   Nor, I’m sure, have I given Christian such an entertaining Skype conversation.

Nearly shattered my ‘no-flights-missed’ track record.

Qantas

Anyway, stresses aside, I’ve managed to adjust to the regimen of being on the road.

I carry with me running and gym gear, and of course togs and goggles.  Need to keep in shape and avoid the effects of hotel breakfasts.

I have power cords packed for my myriad of gadgets, and a protective sleeve so I can pack one laptop and carry another on the plane.  I am wired and connected.

My toiletry bag has moisturisers and hair product and eau-de-toilette, everything from cuff links to dental floss.

Yes, it could be a lot more out-of-comfort-zone.

Anyway, bring on June, and Samoa, Thailand and Vietnam.

Now, where’s my iPad.

Posted by: Nick Ward | 13 April, 2012

I’ve Been to Bali Too

Actually, I’ve been to Bali several times, but not in a while.  I should say, I guess, that I’ve been back to Bali too.

[Have to say, it scares me that this title may leave quite a few readers staring blankly at the words and not have any idea what I’m talking about – if that’s you, just Google it with ‘Redgum’ added to the search term and you will understand my reference.  This possibility raises a whole different set of issues, I’m sure I’ll explore those another day, unless ‘Talkin’ About My Generation’ beats me to it.]

It’s funny going back to a place after a break of six or seven years.  You really notice the differences, and of course you ask yourself the question: is it better or worse than it was?

Firstly, let me say that some places are as good or better than they were.  In particular, Ubud is still a wonderful town surrounded by rice paddies and mountains.  The development that’s happened there, extensive as it is, is well thought through and, for the most part, in keeping with the feeling of the place. Even the inhabitants of the Monkey Forest are better behaved than they used to be.

We stayed at a place called Waka di Ume, and this in particular was just brilliant.  Pretty much carved into the paddy fields, it has wonderful people running it who are very proud to be Balinese.  Taught us a bit of the language (well, taught us to say ‘thank you’ in Balinese, but it’s a start). They were also keen to share their traditional cooking techniques, as we learnt during our cooking lesson.  Awesome.

Where things were not as rosy was in Seminyak.  While, again, much of the development is well planned and, in some places, downright exciting, the beaches are absolutely appalling.  And, at the end of the day, it’s the surf and beaches that make Kuta/Legian/Seminyak special.

Let me explain, I’m not talking a bit of washed up rubbish here.  The sewerage outfall that washes back onto the beach is so bad that, I kid you not, the surf in many places is browner than chocolate.

The so-called creeks, which cross the beach every couple of hundred metres, absolutely stink.  And the beach itself is covered in washed up rubbish of all shapes and sizes, bottle tops to car tires, distributed across a surface of black or brown stained sand.

This, my friends, has to be fixed, and fast.

It can’t be too hard to trace the source of the pollution back upstream, assuming this is where the bulk of the problem is coming from, and address it.  It’s a lot harder if what needs addressing is a widespread culture of littering and pouring waste into creeks – hopefully this isn’t the situation.  Either way, if this problem isn’t turned around quickly Bali’s famous surf beaches will find themselves the pariah of the tourism industry, and as tourism is the lifeblood of Bali, this would have devastating effects.

What’s so disappointing is the pollution on the beaches detracts from the really exciting direction a lot of development is taking on the island.

There is some fantastic dining available around Seminyak, as new restaurants like Sardine join the likes of La Lucciola as sensational places to eat.  There are also some brilliant new concept venues, such as Potato Head, which is a bar/restaurant built in a 1950s-esque style arcing around a couch-covered lawn and pool facing the ocean.  Wonderful idea, and it just simply works.  Meanwhile, accommodation options continue to expand with the recent addition of a ‘W’.  Building hasn’t slowed down, and there are very affordable mid range to top end hotels and resorts that exhibit great taste and style.  Yes, in places you realize you are in the Australian equivalent of Majorca when it comes to ugly package tourists, but you can avoid that.  Just avoid Kuta and you’ll miss the worst of it, pretty much.

Meanwhile, get out to other areas of Bali, like Ubud, and the rich Bali experience is alive and well.  The vistas are awesome, the people are still friendly, and of course the climate is sublime.  I believe other areas like Candi Dasar are also still wonderful too.  It is still full of culture, beauty and friendly Balinese.

Make no mistake, Bali is still a wonderful destination, the old island just needs a little TLC.

Posted by: Nick Ward | 3 April, 2012

Good Friends, New Beginnings

Well, hello.

It’s been a while.

You know the feeling when you wake up after a big night out, perhaps had a few more drinks than health authorities encourage, and a whole night seems to be compressed into a deck of cards, each with an image of something from your night.

Well, my last six months are something like that.

Joy.  Sadness.  Anticipation.  Disappointment.  Friends.  Partings.  New beginnings.  Places far, and places near.  All compressed into static images like flowers pressed between the pages of a scrapbook.

Well, I’m back, and I’ve been writing on a plane again, but not on work this time.  I’ve headed off for a holiday.  I’ve gone to Bali – not to Kuta, Dinkum Aussie Tucker and braided hair, but Seminyak and Ubud for some serious revival.  As it turns out, Seminyak is not what it once was, the Bintang singlet brigade have arrived and the beaches are, well, filthy, but Ubud is still wonderful.

I’ve joined my friend Christian for ten days break before he returns to life in Koln, after three years in Australia, and I return to life in Sydney.  At the moment I’m excited to be on holiday and for the fun of the week ahead.  Don’t want to think about how I’ll feel at the end of that time as he heads north and I head south.  Listening to 2raumwohnung on iTunes as I type, perhaps I should have chosen some music inspiring a little less melancholy.  Never mind.

So, catching up on other developments…

After life became unbearable in my room-under-the-stairs in Paddington, my friend Tristan became my flatmate Tristan and we moved out together into an apartment-with-a-view in Kings Cross.  Well, technically, it’s Darlinghurst, but only because boundaries were obviously manipulated long ago to preserve property values in the face of the seediness of The Cross.  From our balcony you can almost touch the Coke Sign, so I’d reckon it’s pretty much Kings Cross if you ask me.  Anyway, you’d think we’d lived together for years, got along famously.  All good, until he took off to Tenterfield last week to start the menial country work required for his working holiday visa.  Humph.  Guess it’s better than a detention centre in Nauru.  Jeez our government is screwed up when it comes to dealing with people from other countries who think our country is an alright place and want to stay more than a couple of weeks here.

Add in Christian’s partner Philipp, who’s already back in Koln, and we’ve had a formidable friendship group over these last months.  Dinners, parties, nights out, holidays together, lifesaving, swimming, Mardi Gras, it’s been awesome.  But that’s over now.

The only constant in life is change, I guess.  Don’t be sad it’s over, be happy it’s happened.  Seemed easier when I was saying that to other people.  When I get back from Bali it will be to an empty apartment and beginning of a Sydney winter.  Sound depressing?  You betcha.  I’ll be travelling a lot for work in April and May, that might make things a bit better.  Or not.

I sometimes wonder if I’m scared of being by myself, of spending time thinking about the life I’m in the middle of.  Don’t know.  Sometimes I like letting it all wash over me.  The happiness, and the sadness, can be blinding in their purity when there are no distractions.  I’m ok being by myself.  But I only feel joy when I’m with people, particularly with people I care deeply about.  My friends. The next few months are probably going to be a bit tough.

Anyway, reader, I’m back with you again.  I will try not to take as long a break from these pages again.

But if I do, it may because I’m with friends and life is just a bit too awesome to spend time writing about it.

Posted by: Nick Ward | 3 October, 2011

Stories from 26K: Ralph

In 1988 Colin and I moved to Brisbane, driven by my naive desire to become Buck Rogers.

I had been offered a place as a PhD student in the Space Engineering Group at The University of Queensland, and a mutual friend had nominated Ralph as the person to call on our arrival.

Ralph had put us up for a couple of days as we found our feet, but we also became the most brilliant of friends.

Well, Ralph had less staying power for a life in Brisbane than I did, and within a couple of months he moved to London, driven by an EU passport and a desire to be a trolley dolly.

We stayed in touch, Ralphy came out pretty regularly to visit his folks and sister and the friends he’d left behind, and we always caught up when he did.

Flying didn’t work out, as it so happened, due to a height issue. Who knew you had to be able to evacuate a plane without knocking yourself out in the doorway in the process? Undeterred, Ralph built a new life in the UK, fell back on his occupational therapy training from Uni to pay the bills, and met a guy called David.

There soon started a migration from one city to another. David wasn’t a fan of the cold, which can be an issue in ol’ Blighty. First it was back to Brisbane, then after investigating Melbourne was a move to Sydney. Nothing quite met expectations, so they bought warmer gloves and headed back to London.

The boys had quite a few very happy years there, having a wonderful place in Stockwell, before the rat race became too much and they sold up and headed to Brighton, and it was there that they finally settled for good.

Those who have been to Brighton will understand their love affair with the place. Cosmopolitan, groovy, gay, but not crushingly big in the way London can be, it’s got a lot going for it.

No, Ralph never did become a trolley dolly, but his life remains inextricably intertwined with travel. He’s married to a Brit (yes, they took the plunge in a ‘Civil Partnership’ a couple of years ago, something we Aussies can’t do – yet) but his family is in Australia. And living in Brighton, the biggest international air hub in the world only a short train ride away, he and David can pack bags and head wherever pretty much whenever. And, they do.

Now, Brighton is a favourite, and regular, destination. In fact, I visited there with my friend Mel on this last trip, to find the temperature 10 degrees warmer than Sydney or Melbourne – and believe me, that’s a first. Ralph seems, and sounds, more English now than many who were born there, and a visit to the boys rounds out any trip to England. Brighton reminds me a lot of Melbourne… but that, dear reader, was another blog.

Posted by: Nick Ward | 21 September, 2011

Yves

I first left our sunny shores back in 1987 with my first boyfriend, Colin. We did our ‘Big Trip’ around Europe, a massive 9 months of traveling across most countries in Europe. Awesome.

In the south of England we met a Frenchman, Yves, in a youth hostel. About our age, he was doing a bit of a working holiday away from his native northern France, and from his girlfriend. A student teacher, and folk dancer in his spare time, I guess we were at the time, in truth, a little surprised to learn that he was straight, but not so surprised we doubted it. What was unquestioned was that he was genuine and interesting, and we travelled together for several days, as you do with likeminded travellers from time to time when backpacking.

On our return to Australia we kept in contact, and Yves managed to get a posting for his compulsory civil service (in place of military service) to the French Trade Office in Perth. Colin and I had moved to Brisbane after returning to Oz, and Yves visited us there.

A hit with our friends, there were many brunches, dinners and nights out. In the course of one of the dinners, Yves was, embarrassingly, questioned about his sexuality by a good friend of ours in front of all the dinner guests. “So, are you gay, Yves?” I jumped in to reassure that he was very much straight. That might have reassured some of our friends, but not, as it so happened, Yves. “I’m not sure” was his answer, and so, with that, it came to pass that our French Friend Yves became our French Gay Friend Yves.


Over the 24 years since we met, Yves and I have caught up regularly. We’ve outlasted each other’s relationships, we’ve each formed new ones, and we’ve outlasted the lives of parents. I have fantastic memories of driving with Yves and his partner Jérôme through the sunflower covered fields of the Loire Valley, their back yard, in a convertible Renault, flitting from chateau to chateau, cave to cave.

Three years ago, Yves finally became a father, adopting gorgeous little Anna from an orphanage in Haiti. Never a more loving family have you seen, balanced and fertile for a smart little girl to grow up into the best young woman she can become.

Before Anna’s arrival, in mid-2008, Dermuid and I spent a few days with Yves and Jérôme at a swim meet in Paris. It was, as always, wonderful. A chance to catch up on each other’s lives, share good food and good wine, and an opportunity for me to sharpen my French and Yves to sharpen his English.

Yves was a little cranky at times on this trip. He had a shoulder strain that just wouldn’t go away.

A couple of months later, we learned that the shoulder strain wasn’t a shoulder strain. It was lung cancer.

The shock and denial (he had never smoked in his life) gave way to an overwhelming desire to do what I could to help, but there’s not a whole heap you can do from Australia.

I visited Yves and Jérôme with my friend Mark last year, and he was stoic, but also perhaps disarmingly practical. He was willing to discuss the possibility of his death, his hopes for Jérôme and Anna.

I wasn’t prepared to hear it, of course. I just wanted to talk about life, really.

A few months ago I received a fantastic email from Yves to let me know that, somewhat miraculously, pretty much the last-ditch treatment had actually worked, and the tumors were receding.

But it didn’t last.

On 24 August, my wonderful friend Yves died.

Over the months before he died, Yves wrote the text for his service. He wrote in it about our friendship, beautiful words which I hope he knew I would have written regarding him if the roles were reversed. I just wish I had had the chance to say my words to him in person.

I am in a plane now, traveling to Europe. It was my hope that on this trip I would see Yves and Jérôme and Anna. I won’t. But I will travel to Paris to spend time with Jérôme and Anna, and Yves’ sister Martine. The tears are dampening my eyes as I write this, but I am happy. I am happy that I have been so so lucky to have had this wonderful friend in my life. My French Friend Yves.

“Il y a aussi mon ami australien, Nick, grâce à qui j’ai pu entamer la deuxième partie de ma vie de manière sereine. Grand, blond, les yeux clairs et un physique de nageur, il a surtout le bon gout d’aimer la France, nos vins et nos petits plats ! En fait, c’est lui qui a su me montrer comment être moi-même sans crainte des autres et sans perdre mon « âme » non plus. Par delà les océans, « good bye mate !»
Yves Paliern, 2011

Posted by: Nick Ward | 20 September, 2011

Stories from 26K

I travel for work. A lot.

I have direct reports in Melbourne, Perth, Sydney, Brisbane and Auckland in addition to my Sydney base, and we do business in cities and towns across Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific.

Additionally, our regional head office is in Bangkok, our main development centre is Nice, and our global headquarters is Madrid.

Sounds a bit boasty, I know, but its not meant to, it kinda just is.

As a result, I get around.

I like travel and traveling, always have. Waking up in a new city and heading off to a days work in somebody else’s office keeps things fresh and ensures I never get bored. I don’t ‘do’ bored particularly well. I love doing things for the first time.

A career in travel has ensured I see a lot of the world, I’m lucky enough to be able to list over fifty countries I’ve visited spread across all seven continents.

Like any addiction however, it can never be satisfied. Visit St Petersburg, and I crave to then visit Moscow. Visit Morocco, and I crave to visit Uzbekistan. Visit Antarctica, and I crave to visit Greenland. There’s always some incredible destination and people calling my name like sirens of the deep.

If ever you want a reason to live, let me take you somewhere far far away and show you something that will take your breath away.

Now, as incredible as the destinations are, and they ARE, the best thing about travel is the people. Sounds cliched? Absolutely. Many of the most fundamental truths do.

Let me share a few stories of some of the people who have passed me by in my travels. I’m going to start, shortly, with my beautiful friend Yves.

Posted by: Nick Ward | 13 April, 2011

A Year On: A Reflection on Two Cities

Holy hell, it’s a year ago today that I arrived in Sydney, bag in hand (actually, in truth it was two bags, but that was it) and half a dozen plane tickets pre-booked to get me back to Melbourne every second weekend.

A year on, what have I discovered?

Well, Sydney and Melbourne are very different cities. Yes, they speak the same language (in a manner of speaking), use the same currency and postage stamps. Not that I’ve seen a postage stamp in a while. But that’s where it ends.

MY BIG 12 DIFFERENCES BETWEEN SYDNEY AND MELBOURNE

1. Food & Drink & Coffee
Sydney has very good food and wine, if you’re prepared to find it. And to pay for it. In the budget and, particularly, the mid-range, Melbourne wins hands down. You can get an awesome $25 to $50 a head meal in almost any Melbourne precinct, but it’s like finding hen’s teeth in Sydney. Tough, dry, unimaginative food is, unfortunately, all too common. And coffee? Sydney is improving, but it has a way to go. All those Italians in Melbourne I guess.
Melbourne-1 / Sydney-0

2. Culture & Events
Saw an article recently which declared Sydney has been named the World’s Best Festival and Event City. “The title has been awarded at the 55th International Festivals and Events Association Convention, taking place in the United States.” For heavens sake, get a grip. Guess it was the United States. Sydney has two events: New Years Eve and the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras. What else? The Doomben Cup? Melbourne, by comparison, has the Melbourne Cup, the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, the Melbourne Fashion Festival, the Australian Grand Prix, the Australian Open Tennis, the Melbourne Comedy Festival, the Melbourne International Film Festival, the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, the Midsumma Festival, Melbourne Winter Masterpieces… and the list goes on. I mean, really.
Melbourne-2 / Sydney-0

3. The Beaches
Melbourne has beaches, they are just 100km away and have icy cold water. Unless you count St Kilda and the other bay beaches and, really, you wouldn’t. Sydney is a city who’s inner eastern suburbs are bounded by some of the best beaches in the world. Broad sand beaches or secluded coves, the sand, water temperature, waves and lifestyle are second to none. This is what the good life in Sydney is all about.
Melbourne-2 / Sydney-1

4. Swimming Pools
Peculiarly, Sydney is understocked in swimming pools. Is it complacency, a belief that why do you need a public pool when you have those beaches, which often have ocean baths at one end anyway? Possibly. Melbourne on the other hand has at least half a dozen 50m Olympic Pools within 5km of the city centre, and countless 25m pools. You can find a pool for laps, waterpolo, or just playing around within any suburb. Sydney, on the other hand, sends you out to North Ryde or Parramatta. Weird.
Melbourne-3 / Sydney-1

5. Location location location
It was quipped to me recently that “Melbourne has a crap location but did a lot with it, while Sydney has an amazing location but did crap with it”. Harsh, but an interesting observation. Sydney Harbour is, arguably, the most stunningly beautiful in the world. The ocean beaches, with their cliffs and golden beaches liberally sprinkled with sun bakers and lifesavers are magnificent. That so much of it is private property, or at the other extreme the victim of rampant ugly, often tacky, commercial development, is a disgrace. Melbourne, on the other hand, is flat as a tack, wrapped around a river most other cities would call a large creek, but has developed a skyline and streetscapes which are quite striking. Location though? Sydney is the clear winner.
Melbourne-3 / Sydney-2

6. The Weather
Hmmmm, that’s a tough one. “Really?”, I hear you say. “Melbourne with it’s four-seasons-in-one-day? Days in the middle of summer so cold you need a jacket? Surely there is no contest!”. Well, in fact there is. Melbourne, bordered to the south by the icy Southern Ocean and to the north by Australia’s arid interior, may have weather that can change 20 degrees in as many minutes, but it doesn’t have rain like Sydney. In Sydney, it always rains. Melbourne is, in fact, a very dry city. And it gets a whole heap hotter than Sydney – remember that tragic 46 degree day in 2009 that saw the Yarra Valley explode into flames? Nevertheless, I do love tropical climes, and whatever Melbourne is, it really isn’t that. I’m giving this one to Sydney, but by a short-half-head.
Melbourne-3 / Sydney-3

7. Pubs
Both cities have pubs, and they couldn’t be more different. Sydney’s pubs tend to be glitzy affairs with massive injections of cash from investors. The Beresford, The Tilbury and The Bank are good examples. Lots of chrome and glass, decks and beer gardens a focus. Not universal, but you do see this a lot. Melbourne has less money injected into pubs, as a rule, and more into clubs. And the money tends to be spent within the walls rather than on beer gardens (although this changed substantially when smoking indoors was banned). Melbourne pubs have more character, but the focus is more on bars (which Sydney can only aspire to) and coffee shops.
Melbourne-3 / Sydney-4

8. Friends & Friendliness
Ok, those who know me know I have views on this. What I don’t have is answers. Why is it so hard to make deep, intimate friendships in Sydney? Why do Sydney people hardly ever have dinner parties? Why do they virtually never call to arrange casual social things? Why when you text do they take hours to reply? I’ve heard theories: People pass through Sydney and don’t stay so nobody makes the effort to form new friendships; Sydney is such an outdoor city people focus more on the beach. It’s all crap. Make an effort people. You’d be surprised the joy that new people in your life can bring.
Melbourne-4 / Sydney-4

9. Attitude & sexiness
Ok, I admit this is closely linked to 8 above. Sydney has been the #1 city in this country since the 1890s, and it has weather, location, a Harbour Bridge and Opera House. It is the first stop for most visitors to this country (despite the efforts of my ex-colleagues at Tourism Victoria). With it has come complacency and ‘tude’. Well, this has cost ya, my Sydney friends. Neglect has seen tourism, population growth, and general livability go backward, while your southern sister has moved forward. Attitude comes through in general demeanor and is decidedly un-sexy. Loosen up people, have a laugh, wear what you want to, and smile at strangers. You might even get laid. Then we could all get some sleep.
Melbourne-5 / Sydney-4

10. Public Transport
Not much to say here. Melbourne has trams, metcards and myki, cheap regular travel. Sydney has polluting buses stuck in stationary traffic on narrow streets, un-integrated (and overpriced) ticketing, and, as a result, snarled traffic. All I can say in Sydney’s favor is, at least there is a train to the airport. Shame it costs more than a cab.
Melbourne-6 / Sydney-4

11. Cycling Facilities
Melbourne is flat, Sydney is hilly. Is this the reason the only people who ride bicycles in Sydney are crazy or drunk? No. It’s because, until Saint Clover recently started putting state-of-the-art bike paths into inner city Sydney, riding a bike in Sydney came with a guaranteed ticket to the morgue. Narrow roads choked with angry drivers. Melbourne isn’t nirvana, but boy it beats the hell out of Sydney when you have two wheels under you.
Melbourne-7 / Sydney-4

12. A Room with a View
Know what you’re thinking: Sydney, right? Wrong. Unless you have a spare five mill to spend on something overlooking the harbour or beaches, and who does. Sydney has scarce few apartments with a view, Melbourne has stacks, with views to kill. I admit, a killer outlook makes my heart start beating. Its my weakness. Well, one of them.
Melbourne-8 / Sydney-4

So, a year on, Melbourne seems to still hold my heart. I guess it does. In particular, the people do. But connecting with a new community takes time. I’m determined to give Sydney it’s chance. I was living away from Melbourne for the last five months of my mum’s life, I owe it to her now to give it a proper chance. I’m a glass-half-full kinda guy, after all. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to rock the boat and make demands of my new home and it’s occupants. Sydney, take a look at yourself. Then, let’s talk.

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Posted by: Nick Ward | 2 February, 2011

Sharks

Back on Australia Day I went for a swim in Sydney Harbour.

Those who know me will won’t be surprised to learn that it wasn’t simply a dip in the pond, but a 2.5km swim around Farm Cove with 700 other swimmers. If you’re gunna get wet, make it count.

I did pretty well, completing the event in some 32 minutes and coming in 6th in my age group. Not only joining me on the swim was my friend Felicity (she’s a lifesaver), but also Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. Tony is not only a lousy politician, he’s also a very average swimmer, but as with politics, he keeps doing it long after he should have given up. Least swimming will keep him fit.

Now, all that is well and good, but have you spotted something odd about this story?

Let me point you in the right direction.

Early in the new year I did the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb with my friend James, and the guide gave us a liberal sprinkling of interesting facts about Sydney as we ventured across the imposing span. One of these was the story of Pinchgut, the tiny prison island in The Harbour not far from Farm Cove.

“Not a single prisoner escaped from Pinchgut in the time it operated as a colonial prison”, our guide explained, “despite the island only being a couple of hundred metres from the Harbour shore”. The reason? “The Harbour was infested with Bull Sharks”.

Sooooooooo….

….how exactly is it that 200 years later a veritable moving feast thrashed it’s way around that very same stretch of water with not as much as a taster chomped out of a single straggling swimmer?

That the straggling swimmer would possibly have been the most conservative politician in Australian politics is an interesting aside, but what I’d really like to know is: who nicked the sharks?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not unhappy that there were no sharks there during my swim. On the contrary, I’m rather relieved. Tony Abbott or no Tony Abbott.

What concerns me is what on earth happened to our fishy friends?

I find it hard to believe that they’ve just swum away. No, there can only be a small number of possible explanations:
1. We ate them
2. We starved them
3. We made mincemeat out of them
4. We trashed their joint

Now, I don’t think it’s that we ate them. While we do like our flake, I don’t recall ever seeing bull shark listed on the board at Doyles.

We could have starved them, and we could have chopped them up into mincemeat in the propellors of those mighty Sydney ferries, but really both of these fit under Explanation 4: chances are, we’ve made an almighty mess of their home and pretty much wiped them out.

I know a number of my friends (particularly the German ones) aren’t that fond of sharks, but doesn’t it worry us that we’ve apparently wiped out the best part of a whole ecosystem?

And what’s crazier, nobody appears to have noticed?

Deserts look clean, but don’t have a whole heap of life. Have we created a desert of the most stunningly beautiful harbour in the country, possibly the world?

Last weekend I enjoyed my first Mardi Gras Harbour Party, as did a few thousand others at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, and also a handful of party boys and drag queens diving off yachts into the waters of Farm Cove.

The near disappearance of Sydney Harbour’s sharks is something we should be asking questions about. And that’s irrespective of the fact that I’m pretty happy I didn’t have to witness the premiere of ‘Jaws vs Priscilla’ while dancing to the strains of Lady Gaga at my first Harbour Party.

Where have the sharks gone.

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