An Alternative Sydney

(25th – 25th Feb)

The Columbus took on her pilot outside Sydney harbour at 5.30am, many of the passengers were up on deck in the dark to watch the iconic Opera House and Harbour Bridge pass by as we made our way to a berth in White Harbour, but to their disappointment the Opera House was in darkness and the usual brightly illuminated bridge had just the navigation lights lit, though its outline was clearly visible. Sue and I watched the bridge slowly progress towards us from the comfort of our cabin bed, before making our way up top for breakfast as we made fast to the wharf.

We were jumping ship today and had packed our cases the previous evening, during breakfast they were being transferred ashore in readiness for our collection. We left our home of the last two months around 8.45am and after passing through customs we collected the cases and found our taxi transfer to the hotel in Castlehills. The journey there was surprisingly long (nearly an hour) and if it hadn’t been a Sunday it may have been even longer.

The Hills Lodge Grand Mercure is a very modern hotel built to look like an authentic British mansion, but the climate and flora betrays its true origin. We were disappointed to discover how far out from Central Quay it was located, but we were determined to find the best the area had to offer. It seems that during the coming weekend, Carnival was coming to Sydney and the hotels in the centre were 100% booked and had been for a year. It is more popular than Australia Day and the New Year celebrations and is held exclusively for the Gay community. How the world changes.

The hotel reception were brilliant at providing us with Opal cards, cash and a taxi soon after our arrival to take us to Parramatta Ferry, where we were to visit Cockatoo Island. The ferry takes you down the Parramatta River, eventually ending up at Central Quay, though our destination was two stops short. The ferry is much used by locals and visitors alike and is usually quite full, with an ever changing number due to the large number of stops along the route. Our journey took 1hr and 5 min. To off load and take on new passengers never took more than a moments as the crew had the procedure of coming alongside the wharfs as efficient as it could possibly get and they hit their timetable targets every time.

At first the river was fairly narrow, around 40m in width and mangrove grew on either side, our speed was limited here to 5mph as not to create a wash that would destroy the shoreline vegetation. The mangrove teemed with bird life, pelicans, herons and cockatoos were prevalent but there were many other colourful species that I don’t know the name of. As the river broadened and the banks became reinforced with rocks the ferry picked up speed and the stops became more numerous. Some having names such as Kissing Point, Abbotsford and Dulwich. The houses and settlements along the shore were certainly upmarket and under a warm sun and clear blue sky were seen at their best. It must be a lovely place to live, if you could afford it. After passing Sydney Olympic Park we started to see apartment blocks, presumably built for the athletes but now used by resident Aussies. Glass seems to be the most used material all along this river.

Cockatoo Island is very close to central Sydney, originally a inhabited by the aborigines (it is sacred to them), but when the British came we used it as prison for those miscreants who were rejected by other gaols as being too violent or disruptive. Soon after wards a dry dock was built there to furnish and repair the British fleet. Of course the prisoners did most of the work in building the facilities and on the ships themselves. The conditions for the prisoners were the worst in the British Empire and deaths were common. The warders had a fearsome reputation for brutality. When the prison was closed it remained a place where ships were repaired and built, before briefly becoming a prison again. It has also been a school for girls. During the 1st and 2nd World War it again become important for ship building for the Australian navy, before being abandoned in the 60’s. Today, it has been recognised as an important heritage sight and work is on going to preserve it.

The island is free to visit, the only charge is $5 for a headset from the Tourist Information office that provides information along the various stopping points on the marked routes of a provided map. We arrived early in the afternoon and there were few visitors, but as the afternoon wore on it became quite busy. Most of the buildings concerned with ship building remain, though most in a poor state, many of which you cannot enter, those concerned with its past as a prison seemed to have had quite a bit of restoration work done on them. The information boards on most of the buildings were excellent and really gave you a feel of the past.

There are three tunnels that go from one side of the island to the other, only two can be walked through, which we did, noticing the chisel marks evident on the walls, chipped out by criminals of the past. From the top of the island you get great views of the Parramatta River, Sydney Harbour Bridge, and the central part of Sydney, you can even see the Opera House.

It was lovely way to spend and afternoon and to get to know and experience a bit of Aussie history that the Aussies themselves are only just waking up to, the trip up and down the River are worth the effort alone. It was this river that Captain Phillip sailed up and created the first settlement in Australia on the site of present Parramatta.

Returning by way of the ferry again, we stopped to have a meal in a little restaurant by the river before taking a taxi back to the hotel, we were very tired, it had been a long day.

We decided to spend our final full day in Castlehill visiting the Koala Bear Reserve. Armed with our Opal cards and Google maps on my mobile phone we caught a bus to Castlehill Terminus then caught another almost immediately to the Reserve, just a few kilometres away. They have a very efficient transport system here.

After paying the entrance fee of $28 each we set off armed with a site map and schedule of feeding times to enjoy ourselves. Highlights were; stroking the koalas, feeding the kangaroos and an emu, talking to a very friendly kookaburra and penguin, spotting an echidna move, woke up two wombats and watched a sheep being sheered. Plus a lot of other animals like bats, that just hung around and didn’t want to interact with us. Nearly forgot, Sue stroked the obligatory snake that she always seems to find.

We had lunch in the Reserve restaurant after seeing everything, then went around again to see our favourites. A lovely way to spend a day and there was plenty to see, even shetland ponies, but we couldn’t work out why they were there.

We retraced our steps to return to the hotel, stopping to have a look around the shops in Castlehill on the way.

That evening we ate dinner in one of the local bars before returning to our room and packing in readiness for our transfer to the airport the following morning.

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