Thursday, January 31, 2019

Australia and New Zealand – a look back at three months down under!

Back in Colorado for just two weeks, it’s proving hard to comprehend that we just spent three months down under. Australia holds a special place in both of our hearts, but this time, Margo and I found it tough handling Colorado’s wintery welcome after so much time under the blazing Aussie sun! As we flew out of Denver, all those months ago, the view from our plane was sunny and quite breathtaking despite what we knew were the conditions on the ground: Bring on the sunshine and warmth!

Then again, this trip to sunny down under was always going to be about optimizing our time and, faced with the potential of having to make three separate trips to Australia, it was enough reason to combine potentially many flights into a single trip. As for timing, knowing full well that we would be away over the Thanksgiving Weekend, Christmas and then New Year’s Eve, it only seemed fair to squeeze in time with my family while focused on business, for the most part.

However, to respond to numerous questions we have received upon our return to Colorado then no, we have no plans whatsoever in returning to Australia on a full time basis – we will do our best to visit as often as we can but with the passage of time, the flights between continents remain a daunting exercise. Furthermore, we have no intentions either in dabbling in Sydney’s real estate market. Purchase of a vacation condo makes little sense despite our fondness for travel, so any thoughts of going down that path have been irrevocably squashed. A future where we are retired will be most definitely anchored in the US remembering that we already have a vacation home albeit on wheels; yes our RV that will at some point revert to our ownership once we step back from full time work.

Friends! Yes, we took advantage of our time in Australia and New Zealand to catch up with family, friends and business acquaintances – good people with whom we just haven’t had time in the past to talk to at length and cover topics ranging from my early days in IT to where we did some crazy things like “slalom driving” around and between the cones on Sydney’s Harbor Bridge late one night.  

After five long years away from Sydney, there was no doubting how much we had missed the place and on arrival, my brother Greg picked us up at the airport and drove us to Manly Beach. We walked along the foreshore before enjoying lunch atop the harbor’s North Head.  The sights and sounds that greeted us open our minds to a flood of memories that once activated just kept on coming – how many times had we dined at Shelly Beach’s Le Kiosk? Well, no more unfortunately as what was a good place for fine dining has succumbed to the reality that fast-food sells a whole lot better.

It would be our plan to divide our time down under into five distinct periods – time with brother Greg as his guests in their suburban condo in Beecroft followed by an extended stay with my high school mate Dave at his amazing home atop Bilgola Plateau. Thanksgiving Week would see us board the Majestic Princess for a short trip down to Tasmania followed be an opportunistic schedule of the same ship that took us over a weekend to New Zealand and then back again just a weekend later and where we were able to catch up with colleagues and clients in both Auckland and Tauranga.

On our return, another stay with Greg meant we were with family for Christmas and the New Year before finally checking into the Westin on Martin Plaza for the first couple of weeks of January at which point, it was pretty much back to business before returning to Colorado. As for that travel day back to our Windsor home it just happened to be scheduled to coincide with our twentieth wedding anniversary so the day, courtesy of the International Date Line, lasted for thirty plus hours!

Perhaps to best answer the many questions directed our way is to provide a review of where we went, where we stayed, what we ate, drove and sailed and yes, and what we heard. When it came to air travel we really enjoyed the time spent on the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner that United uses for flights between continents.

Being in Economy Plus doesn’t mean a whole lot these days but the flight was quiet and the service rather good – have we already described the return flight where we were served champagne, in real glasses, along with cupcakes and other treats all “borrowed” from first class? A very nice touch that helped cement that this day was a major milestone for Margo and me. As for travel once we were down under then we pretty much sampled it all! From planes to trains to automobiles along with a variety of seagoing vessels, it was a very mixed lot with experiences to match.

When it came to boats then hands-down, the day on the harbor spent with our good friends Dieter and Chris aboard their Riviera 50’ motor yacht – along with champagne followed by chicken and chardonnay really spoilt is for all else that followed. We had our daughter Anna and son-in-law Erich along for the ride - priceless!

Many thanks to Dieter and Chris for extending to us hospitality on a scale we weren’t really expecting. And it just so happened that we were on Sydney’s harbor as the big maxi yachts were preparing for the annual Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. What a spectacle! When it came time to leave the yacht we were somewhat reluctant to do so, but then again, that’s what makes time with friends and family out on the water so special – you have to enjoy it all in the moment as it happens!

So, in no particular order, but with some friendly clues already provided, here’s where we stood with respect to what we did and saw as we now look back at this sojourn down under.

Restaurants: (1) Bennelong (2) Fish on the Rocks (3) Tied with two Merival’s restaurants making the cut – Felix and Bert’s Bar and Restaurant. This last reference to Bert’s counts as it was the venue from which we watched the running of the Melbourne Cup with David and where, Margo’s horse naturally won! As for the Bennelong with Peter Gilmore as Executive Chef, we have to admit we were a little apprehensive as, back in 2013, we had dined at Gilmore’s other, perhaps even more famous restaurant, the Quay. On that occasion we were left somewhat disappointed (with the menu) but not this time! Gilmore excelled and the diner left us not wanting anything more and did we mention the martinis? Fabulous! As for the location, under the sails of the Sydney Opera House as the afternoon sun began to set, with views of the Harbor Bridge, what more can I say? Again, fabulous!

Vessels: (1) Dieter’s Riviera 50, (2) Majestic Princess, (3) Magistic Cruises dinner cruise on New Year’s Eve. A special mention goes out to the operators of Sydney’s Thunder Jet Boat that came as a surprise Christmas gift from brother Greg and sister-in-law, Robyn. To spend time on two vessels named Majestic - yes that is the little one passing bigger brother in the photo below - even if one of them has taken the liberty to spell Magistic, was a treat, but the Princess Cruise was a time to unwind at a time when each day was simply running into the next.

We also spent a lot of time on different vessels of the harbor ferry service including the Manly Ferry, the local Ferry cats as well as the Fast Ferry service and they took us practically everywhere we wanted to go inside the harbor. Then again, Sydney is all about its harbor so it’s no surprise then to read about just how many times we went on the water or about how many different vessels we chose to ride.

When it came to transportation then there may be a couple of surprises install: (1) Sydney Transportation (Opal Card), (2) Lap of Bathurst Mt Panorama race course in a street Lexus, (3) Run down the infamous Comenarra Parkway in a HSV prepped HSV GTO. Special mention needs to be made of Greg’s VW GTi as well as to David’s beautiful turned out Mercedes Benz A45 AMG (I think that was the AMG model with dive planes, spoiler and rear wing / diffuser). Then again, wasn't it our local Pizza Bar owner, Tony with his BMW X6M and Ferrari California T that took the cake, literally, when it comes to cars? Tony occupied a store practically underneath Greg's apartment. Did we say cake? Tony provided us with one of the best cheese cakes we have ever eaten ... anywhere! Thanks Tony! 

Have to mention in passing too that we were picked up at our hotel and then entertained for a day by our good friend Kevin who arrived at the Westin behind the wheel of a very serious off-road Mitsubishi the likes of which I just haven’t seen anywhere in the US. But if you want to spend time wandering around in the Simpson Desert or worse, then he has the transportation you must have before entertaining any such idea!

What was most unusual about this trip down under was that we went there with no intentions of renting a car and depended upon public transportation whenever we could and we really liked the integrated approach to ticketing – all you need is the Opal Card – and yes, the ease with which we could call up a Uber ride any time we needed a car ride. No discussion about cars would be complete without some references made to where we went. Greg drove us to a weekend retreat at Port Stevens and Newcastle, north of Sydney.

We saw camels strolling along the dunes by the beach, a Santa Clause dressed in northern hemisphere’s winter attire walking (and sweltering) along the seashore and yes, we even paid a visit to the Air Force fighter museum. Sister Judy drove us down the south coast to see how Wollongong, the city where I first began work in IT, had faired in the intervening fifty-odd years but no, I didn’t recognize the place. It was Greg and Robyn who drove us out west to Robyn’s family farm at Forbes with side trips to Bathurst, Parkes and Cowra and that too was a revelation as we saw firsthand the impact this latest drought was having on the farming community.

Events: Topping the list it would have to be New Year’s Eve spent aboard the Magistic (for seven plus hours), tolerating the continuous pouring of reasonably drinkable Aussie “champagne” ducking, in and out of the viewing deck as thunderstorms wreaked havoc before the fireworks began, was a pretty good way to ring in the New Year. And then there were the fireworks themselves – amazing and living up to everything we had previously seen on television. However, in second place had to be the time spent on sister-in-law, Robyn’s family farm outside Forbes.

Witnessing a mob of sheep being driven down the driveway as we entered the homestead proper was a treat. Surprisingly, in third place had to be our very quiet almost private tour of both the state of New South Wales houses of parliament – what a surprise to be able to stand at the State Premier’s lectern and to sit upon the Speaker’s Chair.

As for the third event well, it had to be the tour my sister Judy provided us of Wollongong and it’s surrounds as it was where I first began my career in IT. Agghhhh - the memories – mostly of abject poverty as I first tried living on my own on a computing cadetship paying $40 per week and of riding my motorcycle up the Illawara Highway to Robertson on a Friday evening without a working headlamp!

As far as where we stayed during out time down under then it came down to making some tough decisions: (1) A tie between The Anchorage Hotel and Spa, Port Stevens, and The Westin, Sydney, (3) David’s Bilgola Plateau. We visited Dieter and Chris in their penthouse unit in Balmoral and we thought the place was fantastic!. However, it was the multiple occasions that we called Greg’s condo home and where we set up office during our extended time in Sydney, bringing with it memories of family times long ago that have been lost in time, that we treasure the most – I was reminded, more than once, that I hadn’t spent this much time with my brother… ever! Ouch … have to rectify that situation in the coming years!

And then again, perhaps its best left to reminiscing over time spent with daughter Lisa together with Greg and our whole family over Christmas lunch. Seated as we were on his deck, enjoying a very typical feast for that time of year complete with an Aussie Pavlova and yes, a jar of Vegemite, it was hard to think about our family and friends back in Colorado where the weather was the polar opposite. Can’t recall if we were given any news about Colorado enjoying a white Christmas or not – but then again, there would be little doubt that in a matter of a few short weeks, we would be back there, chilled and somewhat stirred (by our memories). Whatever happened to those three months? All we can say, thinking once more of the memories we made, priceless!

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Time back on The Mountain and checking out the Dish!

For anyone who has ever followed auto sports anywhere on the planet there is only one “The Great Race.” History will always hold a special place on the timeline of momentous occasions in car racing for that track outside Bathurst, New South Wales, known as Mount Panorama. From my earliest childhood recollections, the annual event at what was simple called The Mountain was a topic of discussion between my father and his friends. We purchased our first black and white television in 1960 and almost from the time it arrived, that long-weekend Sunday in October was always a time to watch The Great Race.

Fast forward to December, 2018, and here I am trackside. In a promotional video, voiced by Russell Crowe, that describes the track as a curiosity and the atmosphere and the tribal nature of those following the race teams, Crowe declares “you’re either red or blue; there is no beige on the mountain!” For many decades this auto race, the Bathurst 1,000 – a reference to the 1,000 kilometers, race distance – has been fought out among groups of GM Holdens and Fords. There was a time, long ago, when Mini Coopers and Ford Cortinas went on a winning streak (in the 1960s when the race was then known as the Bathurst 500, a reference to the distance being only 500 miles as it was in the days prior to metrification) but these were cars of another time. More than a decade later there were wins too by Nissan with its Skyline GT-R, a team of Jaguar XJ-S racecars, a team of Ford Sierra RS500s and yes, even a lowly BMW 320i (in 1997 – driven by brothers Geoff and David Brabham); otherwise, it has always been a battle between (Ford) Falcons and (GM) Holdens.

Australian families made car purchases of one marque or the other and rarely switched brands over their lifetime of buying cars. As for my brother and me, we grew up in a household where Holdens were the car of choice of our father and that’s the only vehicle we ever wanted to see win the great race. We were firmly in the red camp. But now, trackside for a morning run across the mountain, our vehicle of choice was going to be one that was rarely seen on the mountain – a Lexus. But what could I say other than thanks to my brother, whose generosity in letting me sit behind the wheel of a car his wife had only just purchased a matter of a few weeks ago was much appreciated.

My last and only outing on the mountain was behind the wheel of a bright yellow Holden Torana SLR5000 – a lightweight touring sedan with a thumping big block of iron up front. As on that prior occasion, all we were allowed to do was a parade lap, but even so, it remains an eye opening experience and leaves you in awe of the racers that throw their race cars up a hill and into corners at close on 150mph when at a mere 40mph it was pretty frightening.

In many ways the track is a tease, but not for no reason at all did one German racer, Maro Engel, name it the Blue Hell, a reference in passing to Germany’s famous Green Hell – the Nurburgring North Loop. Nowhere near as long as that German track, but all the same, Australian Blue Hell has elevation changes that simply take your breath away. Brock’s Skyline ( a reference to Peter Perfect, otherwise known as Holden’s all time race win record holder, Peter Brock) on down through the Esses can only be driven by the very best and brave of racers as you enter it “blind” to what follows and as much as it looks like the famous corkscrew at Laguna Seca, it continues on in a far more dramatic fashion than that Californian circuit’s most famous element. 

Fortunately, my brother had driven an opening lap to give me a better update on what the track now looks like, following numerous changes since the mid-1970s when I did my last (and only) previous lap of the mountain. All the same, having rounded Hell Corner and begun powering up Mountain Straight, I dropped two wheels off the track and into the grass. Nothing major and I was still coming to terms with driving on the left in a right-hand drive Lexus, with traffic coming towards us – yes, when not in use as a race track it is a tourist road open to traffic in both directions – but it drew a sharp breath intake by my brother all the same. No worries, Greg; trust me, driving around race tracks is my hobby!

What is surprising though is how cars have evolved in the decades since I last drove a lap of this track. Back in 1974 my “hot” Torana SLR5000 still had drum brakes on the rear wheels. It wasn’t until the more tightly focused track version of the SLR5000 appeared as the SLR5000 L34 was the vehicle given a set of disk brakes for all four wheels. And before I forget, for a production car even with an obvious track focus, the SLR5000 L34 came with a gorgeous set of headers that were the first I had ever seen on a car most drivers would use as a daily drive. Sitting behind the wheel of a Lexus IS 250 four door sedan, while for my tastes the steering was a tad vague, in all other respects the car performed very well and at no times communicated anything troubling back to the driver, even when the road disappeared and rapid changes in direction were required.

There is a well-stocked museum at the track and it houses examples of almost all the vehicles that have won events on the mountain. Of course, I quickly gravitated to the SLR 5000 L34 similar to the one I had owned all those years ago – even if it included a dash of white paint – and as for the promotional advertising, Ron Hodgson Motors almost won my business for my very first Torana; a previous generation Torana GTR in metallic lime green no less. My business transfer to the company’s head office in London meant that I had to part with the SLR 5000 before I had wanted to do so, but then again, that job transfer was the beginning of massive redirection of my career that ultimately led to my current, multiple decade, domicile in North America.

The trip Margo and I undertook at the very height of summer with my brother and his wife Robyn even as it did include a brief interlude on the mountain was just a brief couple of days excursion into the farming districts that lie to the west of the Blue Mountains. Robyn’s family resides in a farming district just outside the city of Forbes and while I had visited the place decades ago – was it really 1984? – Margo had never been out into “the bush.” It was hot to say the least, with temperatures climbing into the low 40C degrees. The traditional swarm of flies were ever present and yes, we “brought the Aeroguard!” which helped considerably. With 4,500+ acres of good farming land, we were enthralled by a tour provided by Robyn’s brother, Mal. There was a mob of sheep and a number of fields where a mixture of different crops could be seen – some in the process of being harvested.

There were two attractions we wanted to see during our time out west with the priority being a trip north into the city of Parkes to see the huge radio telescope that dominates the landscape. It’s hard to describe just how big the dish really is, but suffice to say, you could play a cricket test match on the surface of the dish and being 200+ feet across, the batsman would still have a difficulty hitting any ball the faced for six runs.

This radio telescope was the centerpiece of a 2000 movie simply called The Dish and “the giant dish stands impressively over surrounding farmlands - a sophisticated piece of scientific equipment ironically in the middle of sheep paddocks!” It’s actually a good movie as it recalls the time when man first walked on the moon and those very first transmissions from the moon’s surface were received by this dish and then relayed to the rest of the world.

Perhaps it was another discovery that caught my attention given how the dish is just to the east of a major interior road, the Newell Highway. Running across New South Wales it is a major truck route taking goods between Melbourne, Victoria, all the way up into the state of Queensland terminating west of Brisbane, but also running back to the coast near to the city of Rockhampton, Queensland. I know I just have to return to Australia someday to travel that route and am adding it to my bucket list that also includes travelling across the width of Australia on the Indian Pacific train (along with the tip up north on the equally as famous, ‘Ghan train), as well as a cruise through the Kimberleys to the far north west of Australia. Is it me or is the
True North vessel the nicest way to see that part of Australia you have ever come across?

Outside of the city of Cowra, New South Wales lay the remnants of the Japanese Prisoner of War Camp along with the Japanese War Cemetery and Garden. A unique combination of gardens and ponds spread over many acres, it is truly outstanding to know that such a place even exists in Australia. And yet, with help from Japanese donors (and even visits by Japanese school children to help with the planting) together with funding from the Australian government, it is the only such place of remembrance outside of Japan. 

My brother Greg and I spent an hour or so walking the grounds astounded at times as we came across something exceptionally beautiful, be it the placement of the ponds or a live “arrangement” of flora. Driving as we did in the time we had out west and between country towns like Bathurst, Parkes, Cowra, Forbes, Eugowra and the like, proved to be the highlight of our time down under. Surprising as this may seem, but it was so different from anything that we had previously experienced during our trips to Australia that at times, it was almost magical as we encountered something different around every bend in the road.

As for the abundant bird life well then, it too was amazing. Even as the districts surrounding Forbes are clearly in the midst of a major drought, there was no escaping the inherent beauty of the Aussie Bush! As we began the trip we lamented how little time we would be spending in the Blue Mountains as we had wanted to get to Bathurst early in the morning for breakfast but after seeing as much as we did in such a short period of time, there were no complaints to be heard from Margo and me about the quick drive through the mountains along the continental divide. 

This long weekend that fell between Christmas and the New Year gave us the chance to go driving and for that, it will always be remembered. Being on track at Mount Panorama, was only the second time I have driven any car the whole time we have been in Australia. But the memory of that one lap will stay with me for many years to come. It would be remiss of me as well to not thank Greg and Robyn for putting together this road trip and for showing us the country life that their family has enjoyed for generations – many thanks to you both!

It proved to be a nostalgic time too for Margo as she reflected on her own family and of it owning farm land back in Poland, near the town of Pniewo (some 70 miles from Warsaw) in the years before the outbreak of WWII. Her grandfather would go hunting and her mother, together with her uncle, often spent their summer vacations with the grandparents watching farm life, up close. After the war the communist regime distributed the land owned by the nobility including that farm land belonging to her grandparents to the peasants working the farms and so Margo never did get to experience life on the farm. And yet, in the short time she spent in and around Forbes, it was hard to shake off the feeling of “what if?”

Margo and I have enjoyed the time behind the wheel of many cars and our garage has often seen some pretty exotic vehicles parked within. This year, there will likely be further changes taking place, but it was only when visiting a local shopping center before we left on this trip into the country that I was reminded of just how much I miss our yellow Maserati GT-S when I saw the very convertible Margo thinks might prove up to the occasion. And it was yellow as well! With this, we both wish you all the very best for 2019 and hope to see many of you as the year progresses!

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Big boys’ toys that are hard to ignore – Sydney has them all!

There really is something to be said about big boys and their big toys. While spending time with my brother Greg I have become acquainted with his friend, Glenn, who has a real ripper of a collection of HSV’s finest models. He seems to favor red cars and there’s nothing wrong with that in my books. This week, I was able to get behind the wheel of a HSV interpretation of the Holden Monaro. Sold in the U.S. for only a short time as the Pontiac GTO, this Aussie-only HSV interpretation is the real deal and it is a shame these HSV updates never made it to the other side of the Pacific. 

Glenn took Margo and me for a drive around some of the backroads of leafy areas of Sydney’s North Shore and much to my surprise, after a short while, offered me the keys. I jumped at the opportunity and pointing the GTO back towards Sydney’s famous Comenarra Parkway that is a favorite drive for the locals. Back in the early 1970s this was my favorite parkway, or should I more accurately say, raceway, whenever I wanted to go for a bit of a sprint on my Honda 250cc “café racer.”

For the short time I was behind the wheel of this glorious red GTO, all of these memories came flooding back even as I was left with some wonderful new memories. Yes, with the seat set just so where I could see the fenders, this manual-equipped coupe was a delight to toss around. I wonder what a good used GTO would set me back in the U.S. and could Margo and I get our hands on any of the HSV upgrades. Ah but it’s summertime in Sydney now and it’s a time for big events and wide open vistas splashed by brilliant sunshine.

HSV is the Holden Special Vehicles organization that has been taking road going Commodores, Utes and even the long wheelbase Statesman sedans and bringing them up to almost V8 Supercar specification. Sometimes, their output exceeds that of the track versions and the HSV GTS Glenn showed up to first time we met, is based loosely on the latest Corvette Series 7, Z0g. As HSV tells it, this is the car that when you “fire up the GTS’ 6.2 litre, supercharged LSA Generation IV alloy V8, and the roar from the newly calibrated bi-modal twin exhaust system with quad outlets will let everyone know you’re coming. A warning they’ll appreciate, because with 430kW of power and 740Nm of torque at your disposal, you’ll be an imposing force to behold.”

Yes, the full monty, with all 650 hp on tap, this truly is the four door family car version of the fire-breathing track oriented Corvette. Seeing it parked alongside other family cars it really didn’t project the image of the ultimate boy-racer vehicle but once the ignition was turned, the fuel pumps activated and the exhaust valves opened, it provided the unmistakable sound of a serious Aussie V8 Supercar. Loved it – but no, didn’t get to drive this particular pride and joy of Glenn. Perhaps another time! Then again, I wonder if you could go out and buy a former Chevy SS and order all the HSV parts. Again, just saying!

At this time of year, any trip out on Sydney’s harbor will be a time to scan the waters to see some of the biggest racing yachts on the planet. With overall lengths looking to be a hundred feet or more, they dominate the yachting scene and for the past couple of weeks, there have been numerous warm-up races pitting these big boats against each other as Boxing Day looms and the start of the annual blue-water classic, the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race commences.

One of the classic events that pit man and machine against mother nature there’s always plenty of surprises arising and no matter the size of the budget there is always plenty that can go wrong once the race begins. Through much of this century, the maxi yacht Wild Oats has dominated winning a half dozen times (or more), but in each instance faced determined competition.

Last year a mess-up happened along the way where Wild Oates fouled competitor Comanche (picture above returning to its mooring) such that, with the penalty applied after crossing the line first, it had to be happy with second place. But not this year – it’s all on and as the fleet leaves Sydney Harbor on Boxing Day, it will once again be witnessed by a flotilla that stretches from one shoreline to the next.

This race is taking place twenty years after the wildest race in history, where half the fleet had to retire as a hurricane bore down on the fleet. Sad to say, six lives were lost and it proved to be the last blue water race of any magnitude for Larry Ellison, the Oracle billionaire who aboard his maxi yacht, Sayonara thought he wouldn’t make it. When he crossed the finishing line he admitted he was just the first survivor and even if he lived to being 1,000 years old, he would never do the race again. Also aboard Sayonara was Lachlan Murdoch and who knows what might have happened if Sayonara had been lost! But there is no accounting for where the big boys will spend their money or what challenges they want to face with the toys they buy!

Of course there are reminders too of former times when the toys got very serious and when all eyes in Australia tuned into the television coverage of the 1983 America’s Cup. Even though it was well before 6:00 am a rapt nation watched in amazement when it was an Australian 12 meter yacht, Australia II that took the cup from the New York Yacht Club. Every couple of years this very same public suffered from one embarrassment after another as its 12 meter yachts were well beaten by their American counterparts, but that initial challenge by the Packer family with Gretel, came amid controversy and a bitter exchange between England and Australia as to who had the right to challenge.

As the record shows, when big boys get together especially when it’s over a few drinks, expect the unexpected.  According to one report, “Knowing that he loved a challenge, two fellow members of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron (RSYS) lured (media mogul, Sir Frank) Packer into a convivial luncheon. As the afternoon wore on, the pair urged their guest to build a twelve-meter yacht to contest the prized America’s Cup. William H. Northam, an Olympic gold medalist and head of the Australian branch of the American firm Johnson & Johnson, was one of the hosts. “We kept the grog flowing pretty fast”, he recalls, “and Frank soon got excited about having a go at the Yanks.”

If you want to sail on a former 12 meter racing yacht you can still do so as both Kookaburra (KA-11, but now AUS-40) and Spirit of Australia (AUS-21) are both still sailing on Sydney Harbor and are available for commercial hire from Sailing Sydney. On our Manly Ferry ride we passed AUS-40 and again, the memories came flooding back from my own days racing yachts on Sydney Harbor.  Ah – the more time we spend on Sydney’s harbor the more we come to appreciate how little prodding is required of many to go build a bigger boat!

But it isn’t just solely about the harbor or its supersized yachts or even about the wicked cars to be seen driving along the foreshore. The very nature of the city abutting the harbor is about to undergo change as the city’s biggest and yes, tallest building continues to reach for the skies. Under construction right now and part of a much bigger complex that’s already complete and on land many Sydney-siders never knew existed, James Packer is erecting a new home for his Crown casino. 

Yes, that Packer! The grandson of Sir Frank who first challenged America for that cup! While it had been Sir Frank’s son, Kerry who complemented his father’s media holdings with casinos, it has been his son James who has concentrated the bulk of the Packer family holdings on casinos.

In Barangaroo, as the area along the foreshore is known, the center piece of this complex – a 75 floor casino and hotel – will forever change the appearance of this part of Sydney Harbor. Having said this however, the work completed a little to the north of this development has meant that you can now walk from Circular Quay, under the Harbor Bridge, past Walsh Bay and then around a grassy open knoll that is attracting a lot of walkers while providing a different view of the Harbor Bridge and North Sydney.

When Barangaroo is complete you will be able to continue this walk all the way into Darling Harbor. It’s a big ambitions plan that ultimately will let you walk from Woolloomooloo to Cockle Bay and perhaps beyond. For me, any city that ensures it’s citizens and tourists alike as much access to its harbor foreshore is doing them all a big favor – it would have been very tempting to sell off property that included direct harbor foreshore access but Sydney resisted any such temptation.

It is not all steel and glass modern urban structures as many of the very first buildings erected in convict times have been kept and restored in a way that lends even more character to the place. When in the 70s I first started work in the city I was able to find free all day parking right on top of Walsh Bay, but no longer. As roads have been redone and more public parking added there is even room for art and to find a car, crushed by a rock, in the center of this development I found quite amusing!

But it is now summer and before I wrap up this post I am reminded too that it is a time for a lot of big sporting events. Not just the sailing or the golf or the tennis – it will be time soon enough for the Australian Open – but cricket as well. And for Australians everywhere Boxing Day isn’t so much about the start of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race as it is about the opening day of a cricket test match at one of the world’s biggest cricket grounds, the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). Cricket’s Big Bash League (BBL) of limited-over cricket has just gotten under way and it’s not the cricket I grew up with, that’s for sure. But it’s still cricket and it’s yet another reminder of all that is big about Australia. As those around me constantly remind me, this is as big as it gets and yes, it wouldn’t be summer without cricket!

We are now aware that our time in Sydney is rapidly drawing to a close. It seems just a matter of weeks before we head to the airport for the return trip to Windsor, Colorado. It has been a very illuminating period away from home for me. I have always felt that I am Australian first but with twenty years spent in America I am seeing that having less meaning. I am not an American just as I am not an Australian. I am both of these and yet I am neither of them. The more time I spend in one country the more I long to be in the other and now the pull of America is very much apparent.

I have written previously how the countries are very similar even as they are so different. The contradictions are easy to explain. Whenever we board the plane for a flight between the countries, no matter which direction that happens to be, we are always excited by what lies ahead. And yet, with some fifty plus crossings of the Pacific Ocean, we still haven’t truly resolved the issue – but one thing has become a lot clearer. Say it’s the cars, or say it’s the price of homes or, more likely, Margo’s family and her grandkids in the US but, whatever it is, America has become our home even as Sydney as big and as bold as it continues to be, will always be a nice place to visit!

On the other hand my brother Greg has informed me that Glenn's HSV GTO is open for offers around AUS$40,000 so ummm ... maybe that might tilt the scales ever so gently!

Saturday, December 1, 2018

'Cross the sea; I am sailing!

After spending weeks ashore with family, friends and business associates we have been all at sea. Business hasn’t stopped, but it’s been a lot easier with so much fresh input to work with – Sydney provides such a rich backdrop to any conversation about technology and Margo and I have taken full advantage of every opportunity that has presented itself for us to see different sides of a very much changed city of Sydney. It has been five years since we walked the streets of Sydney’s Central Business District (CBD) and it’s hard to compare what were once familiar landmarks with the soaring skyscrapers that have essentially popped up everywhere we turn. 

Talk to Sydneysiders and it’s clear that it generates mixed reactions; cities are never finished, just ask your average Parisian. Then again, cities can leverage any natural beauty that they have inherited to present a fresh and sometimes even rejuvenated appearance. Sydney still has its Opera House and its Harbor Bridge, but as for everything else, well, the best that I can say is that it’s evolved. On the other hand, much of the charm that was Sydney in the 1980s is disappearing behind glass and concrete.

If London is undergoing a rapid transformation with multiple skyscrapers looking more like household appliances, Sydney’s reach for the sky is a little more organic. There is a certain symmetry developing even as the heights of these buildings continue to spread north of Sydney’s Centrepoint Tower, but what impresses most is that color is returning to the skyline. Not just sandstone facades but real colors and the impact recent changes in architecture are having is inescapable. 

Like a once great performer with a whole lot of new makeup liberally applied, Sydney always makes a stunning entry whenever it comes into view. All the structures that makes Sydney great can still be seen but the overall presentation is now a mix of traditional with modern and for all its quirks, to someone who has been absent from the city as long as I have, it’s still magical. And it all seems to work! As for the now pristine harbor, a deep blue under clear skies, there is no escaping its ability to contribute yet another color to the saturated canvass unfolding before you as you begin taking in the full vista that is Sydney. 

Of course, hanging out with my brother, Greg, and then with my high school buddy, Dave, cars have held center stage. As much as I like the architecture, when it comes to car talk then I am a sucker. Greg had the opportunity to spend track time out at the Sydney Motorsports Park, formerly Eastern Creek, behind the wheel of a very hot Holden V8 Supercar. Greg adapted to the car’s set up and before long, he was producing some serious speeds as he watched his lap times come down. “They told us not to try fifth gear,” Greg told me. “But after a couple of laps and with the encouragement of my instructor, I was given the OK to charge even harder and fifth gear was quickly selected.” 

It’s now only a matter of time before I can entice Greg to come to Colorado to drive Margo and my favorite circuit to the east of Denver – High Plains Raceway (HPR)! As for Dave, his hobby has been covered previously in posts to this blog as he has been racing in historical events for some time. Initially it was a Hillman Imp as I recall, but more recently he has upgraded to a 1960s era Mini. Apart from having a glorious home on top of Bilgola Plateau, Dave maintains an offsite garage complete with a lift of which I am most envious. A quick look around his facility and it’s easy to tell that Dave can pretty much fabricate anything he needs for his race car. Dave has been a passenger in our Dodge Viper SRT/10 roadster as we did a couple of more or less parade laps around HPR.   

Prior to departing for New Zealand we had ample time for breakfast alongside Circular Quay with no fear that our ship would sail without us. For this cruise, we had a balcony cabin on the Lido deck, 16 levels above the water line, with no other cabins above us. Knowing full well we would be sailing out into the Tasman Sea at a time when the weather can be very unpredictable, I have to admit, I was a little curious about how this vessel would fair. With something like 19 stories above the water but only 8 meters down to the keel, it was a modern-day, flat-bottomed, floating hotel. Ouch!   

Turned out it managed the medium swell we encountered with little fuss and it was more or less smooth sailing for the entire voyage. Even though summer is about to arrive, all too often we forget the southern latitudes New Zealand occupies and the weather is not only unsettled at times, but plain cold. As of this sailing, our ship, the Majestic Princess, is the biggest cruise ship in the Princess fleet but leaving Sydney Harbor, we caught sight of another ship that looked familiar and it turned out to be the former Princess cruise line’s biggest ship, the Sea Princess.

Times have changed and after two days at sea, we passed the Sea Princess, that is now part of P&O and based in Australia, but with the itinerary we had in New Zealand, we passed it a couple more times before we returned to Sydney. While Sea Princess was about 800 feet long carrying 2,000 passengers and with a gross tonnage of 77,000 tons, by way of comparison, Majestic Princess was over 1,000 feet long, carried 3,500 passengers (with another 1,500 as crew) and has a gross tonnage almost twice as much, 145,000 tons.

WiFi connections were good even with as many passengers and crew as there were on board. However, Princess changed the protocol from previous cruises to a more complex sign-off process catching many folks unaware, including me. Although Princess gives returning passengers a reasonable amount of free WiFi access, it is instantly chewed up if you don’t follow the sign-off protocol. One of the longest lines we encountered on the ship was the line winding its way to the Internet Café to complain bitterly of all the free minutes lost by nearly everyone onboard. Sure hope that Princess addresses this proactively, but if your plans call for a Princess cruise any time soon, be warned ahead of time. Read the instructions!

On the other hand, one of the more pleasant offerings Princess provides, where there are no lines involved, is the private dining opportunity you can reserve for a five course dinner – with cocktails and champagne – on your suite’s balcony. Being 16 decks above the waterline, our dining experience was spectacular and something Margo and I strongly recommend to anyone planning a voyage on these new “Royal-Class” of Princess Ships – Royal Princess, Regal Princess, and now, Majestic Princess. As it was, not only did we pick the right day when seas were calm and the skies clear of rain squalls but the soft, late afternoon light, provided all the ambiance we needed!

As for being inside the ship, the major drawcard continues to be the three level piazza, where numerous bars and casual dining areas are easily accessed. As is the International Café that I frequent, in the wee hours of the morning, to catch up on work over a cappuccino and a fresh croissant! I am often asked about the difficulties of working from the ship and after a couple of trips out to sea this year I can honestly  report that in today’s “everything connected, everything computes” world we live in, it’s now just another remote location with very few downsides when compared to my other remote location in Windsor, Colorado.

On the other hand, I am much closer to a variety of restaurants and when the ship pulls into port, there are even more restaurants to choose from – while in Wellington, after chatting with folks we know, it was time to head to a Belgium restaurant for fresh New Zealand muscles and good Belgium beer. I have to say, I am a fan of Sydney rock oysters but at a couple of stops, we have tried the local fare and they are acceptable. Just as good? Not to my palate, mind you, but very close. On the other hand, it’s hard to turn away any dairy products, be it butter or cream, as they are simply unsurpassed by anything else we have tasted. Ever!

The one item that did surprise us was that while in Tauranga, reunited with a business colleague we have known for more than a decade, we were driven into a forest of Redwoods that had been brought to New Zealand in the early 1900s, now a tribute to the Forestry men and women who perished in both world wars.  These redwoods have thrived. Even though only a hundred years old and centuries in front of them, they looked spectacular and as we walked a trail, I was half expecting to encounter a bear or an elk. What was a little different from those forests in California we know so well were the sulfur hot springs that bubbled to the surface to feed small streams. But then again, we were walking in the shaky isles where the landscape continues to be redefined on a regular basis.

For a very long time I was a sailor. My first career change took me from Wollongong to Sydney to work for the container shipping division of P&O – Overseas Containers Limited (OCL). At the same time, I was crewing on a Peter Cole 40 foot fractional-rigged sloop as its sole for’ard hand. Sailing out of Middle Harbor Yacht Club we managed to put in enough races over the course of a long season to win the division one title a couple of years in a row.

I was reminded of this when spending time with my brother, Greg. At one point prior to my departure to the US, I gave serious consideration to buying a famous yacht, Inch by Winch. I was working for Nixdorf Computers and was a friend of a  mate of Joe Goddard Jr., who thought I would be the perfect “next owner” of this yacht as, you see, in a previous Sydney to Hobart yacht race, it suffered serious internal structural damage. For just Aus$100,000 it could be all yours! What a deal – so I took it out for a test sail and took with me, my brother who I put to work on a coffee-grinder winch. Ouch – he threw his shoulder out in a big way and to this day, he still winces and casts an eye in my direction. Thanks, brother! And no, I elected not to buy the yacht and that is perhaps one decision I regret to this day.

That was so long ago. Another lifetime, really! But as we headed for dinner the other night and I caught a glimpse of the harbor we would be leaving behind, it all came back. Margo’s and my reluctance to fly anywhere when we can help it is now very well documented and it will not be the last time we catch a ship instead of a plane. But to date, the most pleasurable aspect of this working BizCation has been reconnecting with so many of my former business colleagues, and in a way, Margo has been given an “education” into much of my life back here in Sydney during the turbulent days that were the crazy 1980s.

The world of IT is definitely not as much fun as it once was but then again, I still recall the last line of code I wrote back in 1979. It was June of that year and I was installing software at the Reserve Bank of Australia in Martin Place and I was adding function to VTAM (or was that BTAM?), a networking protocol typical of mainframes of the day. But just as with sailing, writing code is something I left behind a long time ago. Perhaps it’s time too to think about how much longer I throw cars around a race track? Maybe not yet – but as that time approaches, look for another post. For now, all I can hear are the lines from that Rod Stewart song from the 1980s:

    I am sailing
    I am sailing
    Home again
    'Cross the sea

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Big times and events; more to follow ...

In my previous post to this blog I talked openly of how it was our intention to absolutely immerse ourselves in everything Sydney had to offer; we hit the ground running and we haven’t stopped. While the pace has slowed considerably over the past couple of weeks, there has been no letup in the number of social outings. We have met with good friends and former colleagues even as have spent time “talking shop” with a number of them. The day job as it were is never out of mind and the mere fact of being in Sydney is giving me a lot of material with which to work in the coming months. Have I mentioned how much I really like Sydney? Have I also mentioned that after just three weeks away from Colorado, we miss our home in Windsor?

It was in my previous post that I observed just how crowded Sydney has become and how there are people everywhere you turn. Or that the city of Sydney is rapidly morphing from a village of single level dwellings to massive high-rise condos (alright, home units and apartments or whatever) are everywhere. It’s definitely not like Singapore and it’s not anywhere close to being comparable to Hong Kong and yet, there are similarities at first glance. A day doesn’t pass when I cannot count more than a dozen cranes dotted along Sydney’s skyline. All of which is to say, Sydney projects many faces to its audience and when the audience is mostly tourists the reciprocal responses of “wow!” and “oh, my gosh!” can be heard time and time again.

If it’s Sydney Harbor you long to see, take all the time you need. Take the slow ferry to Manly or anywhere else on the harbor for that matter. As time permits, take the fast ferry by all means but the slow passage from Circular Quay to Manly, passing the “heads” that lead into the open ocean, is a time-honored way to soak in the variations on display with each headland you pass. Sitting atop one of Sydney’s high rise office buildings, you can quickly see five headlands protruding into the harbor but I am certain there are many more than five. There has been a lot of work done to ensure the waters of the harbor are clean and it’s noticeable too – standing by the wharf in Manly, you can see all the way to the sandy bottom even as sizable fish swim freely between the pylons.

For Margo and me, it is very much about the people. We have come to see the sights but we really have been looking forward to hearing the stories from family and friends we have just not seen for half a decade and you don’t really appreciate the passage of time until you are reminded at every turn that you have been missing from the scene for five long years! OK, so we get the picture now – consider us back. For the time being, at any rate! The niceties and politeness coming from everyone we have had time to meet is appreciated so much so that as you might have guessed as of this past weekend, it feels like we have never left.

A very long time ago the church that the Buckle family attended – Willoughby Gospel Chapel – happened upon a piece of land out in an area well to the north of Sydney and only marginally south of the mighty Pittwater harbor. It’s now a suburb called Ingleside and is adjacent to the up and coming suburb of Terry Hills. From the earliest years of my childhood, Saturdays were spent working on the construction of a dwelling complete with its own giant water cistern built into its foundations that was to be used as a campsite for the youth of the area. My good friend Dave drove Margo and me to the campsite and what a huge difference with many buildings on site and on this occasion, a group of youngsters enjoying themselves on the playing fields now groomed nicely where once there had only been a pile of rocks!

The rock I am standing on was where we all sat to have lunch every Saturday we were on site, working. My father threw his energies into the construction of the dwelling after having finished building our own home in the Sydney suburb of Lindfield a couple of years earlier. He joined the likes of Liv Clark, Keith Long, and many others whose names I have now unfortunately forgotten, but this was always the highlight of the week for me, particularly during the summer months as there was always time to walk through the bush as the tracks meandered down to creeks that then flowed into places like Church Point. Sometimes we made it to Coal and Candle Creek that opened up into a sizable estuary feeding Pittwater.

Lost in time however were the wartime stories of how troops were loaded onto the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth in places like Pittwater, as the harbor is many times the size of Sydney Harbor but off limits to commercial vessels of all sizes. My father was shooting 16mm video when his activities came to the attention of the shore patrol and he was arrested as few people of those times possessed such video cameras. The records say these ships always spent time in Sydney but it wasn’t always in Circular Quay from what I could determine. There were even sightings of troops boarding the Queens as far north as Port Stevens and I sure would like to know about this as according to my dad, they really didn’t want the enemy of the day figuring out where exactly there leviathans of the sea were moored.

After two weeks with my brother Gregory and his family in the northern suburb of Beecroft where we became good friends with Tony over many cappuccinos in his Beecroft café, along with pizza and pasta, we headed to the coast. But before venturing any further into this escapade other than to give you a little hint as to what our new temporary abode was going to be, I can’t leave the topic of Beecroft without talking a little more about Tony.

He was a fun guy to get to know and archetypal of the small shop owner that dotted the Sydney landscape for many years. Even though he tried his hand running a bigger restaurant his heart was definitely in the small shop intimacy that comes with being able to serve coffee, wine and a little grappa. Next month we will be returning to Beecroft for just a little longer and I sure hope he remembers us as his coffee early in the morning was the best we tasted in all of Sydney.

Our trip to the coast took us to the home of David and Suzanne. David had been a good friend of mine back in my high school days and part of the reason for the trip down under was to join classmates for our graduating class 50th anniversary. You may recall my reference to David Roberts in posts back in 2016 and 2015 as Dave visited us in our Niwot home many times. When his enthusiasm over his new home bubbled into emails and texts, we knew we just had to find time to visit him and the generosity of Dave and Suzanne bubbled too as they gave us the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks with them in their new abode atop Bilgola Plateau.

To say that Margo and I were poorly prepared for the welcome we received would be an understatement as Dave and Suzanne opened their doors to perhaps the most magnificent home we have ever entered. Anywhere – and that includes the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, a French seaside villa located at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat on the French Riviera that we have visited numerous times!

If you have ever listened to a couple of verses in the Carly Simon song, You’re so Vain you will likely be familiar with the lines:

Well I hear you went to Saratoga
And your horse, naturally, won

Having lived in Saratoga, California, for as many years as she had done - yes, I know, a different Saratoga - I always think of these lines whenever talk of Saratoga comes up but how little I knew. You see, this past week was a big occasion for Australia. The first Tuesday of every November is when the nation comes to a stop. It’s time for yet another running of the Melbourne Cup. It’s a time to party and a time to dress up. And it’s a time too to have a little flutter on the horses. 

Dave took as to a fancy establishment in nearby Newport where the ladies competed for prizes in a fashion category and there were many outstanding examples of fashion that was easy on the eye. But it wasn’t the fashion parade that attracted Margo’s attention so much as the ticket she bought for the sweepstakes – a tradition dating back to who knows when – whereby you buy a ticket and draw a card or pretty much any slip of paper to see what horse you will be supporting when it comes time for the big event.

Margo drew horse #23 and with absolutely no knowledge of what it all meant, settled in to watch the race unfold with a glass of bubbly in her hand. As the horses turned for the final time in traditional fashion, the race to the line was a spectacle taking up the full width of the Flemington course. And out of nowhere, blindingly fast along the outside of the track, came #23 and it went on to win, naturally. I don’t think Dave quite believed it and kept pointing at the big screen telling Margo, I think that’s your horse! It was Margo’s horse after all … as they say, she scooped the pool and it was onto a magnum of Veuve Clicquot! The photo atop this post captures that winning feeling perfectly I think. We now have been informed as to who won the fashion contest – but we left early before the ladies of Newport got a little out of shape. Or so we were told after the event wrapped up.

In the previous post I wrote of how it’s hard to put up an argument against an invite to join friends, colleagues and associates for a little bubbly but how little we knew as in Sydney, with the Aussie dollar faring as poorly as it is against the almighty US dollar, it seems a day barely passes where somehow or other a glass of bubbly finds its way into our hands. We have caught up with our really good friends, Dieter and Chris who invited us to their penthouse condo overlooking the harbor at Balmoral even as we have caught up with the “old boys club” of former Nixdorf folks all of whom had worked at one time or another for Dieter who had been Nixdorf’s Managing Director. Truly, a big thanks to Kevin who seems to muster a good group of folks whenever we are in town.

But perhaps the highlight of the week came when we had breakfast in the northern suburb of Hornsby, followed by a train ride to Beecroft to pick up a couple of items, then on to North Sydney for lunch with former IDC Vice President, Len Rust, before catching a ferry to Manly for a stroll along the Manly Corso and then it was dinner in the beachside community of Collaroy with Paul Matthews and his lovely wife Georgina. Paul joined IT only a few months before I did so we have much the same backgrounds but Paul went on to create a business that still sets a benchmark for very clever entrepreneurship. On the other hand, I actually met Georgina long before that as the two of us both worked at Overseas Containers Limited in Bridge Street, deep in the heart of Sydney’s Central Business District (CBD). Who knew that after the decades had passed we would once again be able to catch up to share stories and be able to laugh hard and long well into the evening hours.

Whether it was time spent with my brother Greg and his wife, Robin, or simply hanging out with Toni in his coffee shop. Whether it was the fun times we are now having with David and Suzanne at their fabulous home or with Dieter and Chris – and yes, their Balmoral condo is simply amazing with its views straight out the heads of Sydney harbor. And too, whether it is with colleagues Paul and Georgina or Len or Kevin there is only one constant. The sheer joy in being able to catch up on five years of happenings; of five years of absence and yes, five years of well, so much has happened, hasn’t it! In closing it is all too easy to simply sit back and say well, we could have done all this over the phone or via skype but in reality, we simply couldn’t have.

It’s the sum of what we see in the faces of our friends, what we feel in the smell of local cooking and the sights of an ever changing vista. It’s all of this and much more … yes, these are big times but they are also the best times and for that the caste of hundreds we have met all played a role and for that we are forever grateful. The hospitality of Sydney is being showcased for us and there is no way we could ever say enough thanks to communicate all the joy we have experienced.  We are just so thankful to you all!