02 January 2006

And New Year's On A Third

Part of the reason the previous accounting of Christmas comes so long after the fact is that I've been in transit and isolated from the internet (which has been surprisingly relaxing)for the past few days. Three days after Christmas I boarded another plane, for Sydney, Australia, where I'm now more or less comfortably ensconced.

I arrived on December 30th, the 29th having disappeared without a trace over the International Date Line, and walked out into the blinding sunlight and temperatures in the high 20s or mid 80s, depending how you measure these things. I had a day to get settled, and then it was New Year's Eve, a fairly Big Deal around these parts. Every year about a quarter of Sydney's four million people make their way to vantage points by the Harbour to watch what is arguably the world's most spectacular fireworks display, and if you haven't taken up your position by aobut 8 in the evening, you may well be out of luck.

Fortunately I had an invitation to a couple of parties at waterfront houses in Balmain, which is a suburban enclave directly across the Harbour from downtown Sydney and affords an outstanding view of the proceedings without having to be trampled by crowds of marauding drunks (an experience I didn't quite enjoy last year). Balmain is on a peninsula, but because of the way it's configured, the fastest way there is via ferry from Circular Quay (between the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, you know, the bits on all the postcards), it feels more like an island. We caught the last ferry out there for the evening, enjoyed a spectacular meal at the first party, which was full of visiting and expatriate Londoners, then moved on to another party which was half Aussie, half Filipino. The Aussiees contributed beer and acerbic comments; the Filipinos a 30-course (well, it seemed like it, and if you count all the appetisers and desserts, it probably was) dinner that was probably the most spectacular meal (in terms of both flavour and setting) that I've ever had. And this less than three hours after our outstanding first dinner of the evening.

There are two sets of fireworks, one at 9 pm, for the children, and the second, larger one, at midnight. Our view as better for the first display, and it was possibly the best I've ever seen; the only one that rivalled it was the London display for the Millennium. But it was dwarfed by the one at midnight, which featured colours I had never known were possible to achieve via bits of burning cardboard and gunpowder. The Harbour was awash with boats enjoying the spectacle from an even more close-up perspective, and I half-jokingly asked our host why he didn't have a boat, living on the waterfront as he did. "Oh, I've got three," he said casually. "That cruiser right down below is mine, but I have to keep my yacht moored over across the inlet because the dock here isn't big enough." He wasn't joking, and apparently, I'll be taking a trip on one or both of said boats in the next few weeks. I forgot to ask where the third boat is. Perhaps it's so large it has to stay out on the ocean.

I was up bright and early on New Year's Day for a trip out to Bondi Beach, where even at 9 am it was already so hot that you could barely set foot out into the sunshine for more than a few minutes (unless you were crazy and/or Australian). Then we moved on to Red Leaf, a small, sheltered beach on the Harbour, where we swam for a while before retreating back into the City to while away the rest of the day in some sort of shade as the temperature climbed relentlessly toward 45 degrees (113 American), just shy of an all-time record for Sydney. The weird thing was that the BBC had predicted that temperature a week earlier, when the Australian weather forecasters were claiming it would be no more than 30 or 35 (86-95) and called it dead on. I'd told my Aussie friends about the BBC prediction and they'd literally laughed out loud. "I don't think it's ever been that hot in Sydney," they said (they were wrong; it was, once, in 1939).

By afternoon bush fires had broken out around the state and everyone was waiting for what they call a "change," or, more picturesquely, a "southerly buster," which is a sudden upwelling of wind and cloud from the direction of the Antarctic which can drop temperatures 20-25 (36-45) degrees in less than an hour. All evening the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Company) tracked the progress of the buster across the state, enabling them to predict almost to the minute when it would arrive in Sydney. It was projected to arrive at about 9 pm, and at about 8:45 I drifted off to sleep. All the windows in the apartment were open, in hopes that some random breeze might wander through, and at 9:02 pm I was awakened by what sounded like a freight train and by the clatter of things being blown around the house. I caught a couple of my shirts that had been hanging on the backs of chairs to dry as they very nearly went out the window. By 9:30 the temperature had dropped from 43 (109) to 23 (73), and I ventured outside. The winds were gusting over 110 kph (66 mph) and sheets of plate glass were being blown out of the high rises on Darlinghurst Road, something I only realised when I found myself walking through piles of broken glass while the police, who'd sealed off the street to traffic, casually watched me from across the street without bothering to tell me that I might want to walk another way.

I switched over to Victoria Street, where I was momentarily hit by a blast of wind that stopped me in mid-step, like a cartoon character, one foot suspended in the air as I tried, utterly unsuccessfully, to walk forward, and only just managing to avoid getting blown backward. By midnight the wind had died down, temperatures had stabilised at around 20 (68), and I went to sleep, only to be awakened at dawn by a torrential, tropical-style downpour. That passed, too, and this afternoon I took a long trek around town under sullen, cloudy skies that reminded me of nothing so much as a London summer day. I came here at least partially to get a suntan and to spend lots of time at the beach, and Sydney, the kind of city that is designed for and is best viewed by sunlight, looks a little shabby on an uncharacteristically grey day like this one. But after yesterday's blast-furnace heat (one writer compared it to being sat under a nuclear-powered hair dryer), I can gladly accept a little cloudy coolness. No doubt the sun will be back tomorrow, and we can resume baking.

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