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!