Monday, April 19, 2010

In a land far, far away

It has been six weeks since the viva, and I have been sadly lacking in communication. Partly this is because from Down Under the old world of manic thesis writing and worrying about fish seems exceedingly far away, and so too the usual procrastination devices of blog writing and the like. However, here I am to make amends!


D and I spent almost a week on Ko Tao in the Gulf of Thailand for a spot of diving and some R&R. We had no idea the red shirts were massing in Bangkok as we chilled out on the beach with endless mango shakes (so good surely because they must be 20% maple syrup?!) and accompanied by numerous scruffy but lovable beach dogs, after long days of diving. It was lovely for me to be underwater again in Gulf visibility of 20-30m; although much of the reef seemed sadly degraded and not particularly hard coral spectacular, the fish life was really pretty wonderful and I had some amazing dives at Chumphon Pinnacle and White Rock absolutely mesmerised by the shoals of fusiliers and yellowtail barracuda and "ikan bilis" being hunted by trevally. There is nothing like being surrounded by a school of gleaming flashing silver fish as the sunlight filters through their backlit streamlined forms. Other highlights included a sea krait out for a good old hunt, a scorpionfish I spotted on a ledge at 28m, going on D's last open water certification dives and a very, very cute little octopus on a snorkel off Nang Yuan Island which is actually 3 islands connected by a beach (and was famously once rented out in its entirety by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers).

The apres dive action was very lively, as the island is absolutely filled with backpackery types and has bars everywhere along Sairee Beach and in the village. It was pretty good fun if you wanted to partake of it -- I am not used to being able to go diving and then having access to a Long Island Iced Tea in a tiny shack along a road heaving with partiers and scooters. Beach BBQs and Thai pancakes were very yummy eating, and the daily THB300 massages were absolute bliss! Overall a pretty good place to unwind.


In total I think I spent about three weeks in Sydney getting to know it properly. It is, overwhelmingly, a beautiful city. Everywhere you go the harbour gleams boisterously at you and the cockatoos and lorikeets caw above your head and the bridge and opera house peek round every corner looking more photogenic by the second. A surf beach is never far away filled with tanned beautiful people baking themselves or frolicking in the sea, with a promenade lined with breakfast places serving corn fritters and scrambled eggs till noon. And all this under that famed Australian sun in a huge sky -- the light down here gorgeously gilds everything (I liked very much the Aussie light in the landscape paintings of Elioth Gruner in the NSW Art Gallery).

But being in the city for a few weeks with a local boy I think gave me a better glimpse than that of the stereotypical. Whilst we spent plenty of time on the beach and in Circular Quay staring at that famous view and in the prettykins wine bars of Surry Hills, we also had time to wander about in some of the inner city suburbs which are perhaps the most interesting parts of the city. I loved Newtown with its edgy university atmosphere and buzzing mix of vintage clothes stores for the daytime and an endless stretch of cheap Thai eats at night. We also got to visit the pretty villages of Balmain and Glebe with their cafes and bookstores, Italian Leichhardt and Five Dock where a truly excellent flat white to drink over the morning paper whilst one surreptitiously watches the Italian men talking with their hands costs only $2.50, and just five minutes away from Five Dock we stayed in Chinese Ashfield, which although bereft of good flat whites had probably the best xiao long bao in Sydney.

I loved the international nature of the city -- whilst this is of course common to any big city, I felt particularly at home with the influence of Asia and SE Asia in particular on food (hooray for laksa and sushi rolls everywhere!), and what I hope is a real tolerance that arises from being a young city subject to wave after wave of immigration. I must admit that there are things I missed from the cities of Europe that I know -- a subway system, real life in the centre of town rather than endless suburbs, grand boulevards lined with beautiful old buildings, a high street rather than shopping malls -- but then, what other city can claim beaches like Sydney's, or national parks of gum forest right in the middle of the city, or of course that endless sparkling harbour? Or, when you come to it, the kind of people who name an old fossil find the "Demon Duck of Doom" (Bullockornis planei) and then put this on a sign in the Australian Museum?

Northern New South Wales

Halfway through our stay in Sydney we took a road trip up the northern coast which turned out to be a real highlight. It is far too big a country, with us clocking up 2500km in just over a week, but there is plenty to see on the way. We first spent a couple of nights in the Hunter Valley. That we were greeted on arrival with wine, cheese, olives and port and then left to ourselves in our lovely B&B is probably a good indication of what tourism in the Hunter is like. We took a little tour of the wineries (unfortunately we did not find much spectacular -- it is perhaps more of a white wine place, although we enjoyed several of the 07 Shiraz) with plenty of kangaroo spotting in the fields along the way so I got my marsupial fix. It was pleasant enough, although I think we felt a bit like a carbon copy tourist couple!

Heading further north, we stopped in briefly in Sawtell, just south of Coffs. It is a bit of a family holiday zone, so there were yet more endless beautiful beaches and cafes to wander about, and can I be blamed for getting D to take me to see the Big Banana? Finally we headed up to Byron Bay, stopping for coffee at a very pleasant historic river town called Ullmara which with its placid river and sunny beer garden and cafe was a rather nice surprise. At Byron we had a day at the Blues and Roots Festival -- I was pretty excited as it was my first time at a music festival and best of all I got to see Buddy Guy play! He is a true blues showman, in one long set he had the audience entirely enthralled as he told us stories, sang beautifully and also played some fairly mean guitar. Other big names that day included Joe Bonamassa (fantastic guitarist, but not much of a singer...), the John Butler Trio (really enjoyable, though I don't yet understand roots music really) and Jeff Beck (bit of an aging rock god). And all this with only small downpour at the end of the night so minimal mud! After camping the night we spent the next morning eating an enormous breakfast in Byron and frolicking at the beach along with hundreds of other souls trying to avoid being taken by the enormous rip (NSW beaches are really not the wallowing type).

And then we turned back down south, driving to Dorrigo via some lovely if slightly frighteningly windy mountain roads. Dorrigo was interesting, a tiny little mountain plateau town which is an odd mixture of proper redneck country town (two pubs and an exceedingly old school RSL where they shut at 8:30pm) and a couple of rather swish cafes and B&Bs. We spent very little time in town though, as we spent our days walking in the spectacular national parks all around, and our evenings gazing out over the endless rolling views whilst the resident ponies chomped away in the field in front of the house. The walking was wonderful, particularly interesting because the area is filled with completely different microclimates and forest types -- we did one walk in subtropical rainforest, another in dry alpine gum forest, and yet another in an absolutely unexpected and wonderful Jurassic Park landscape of enormous basalt escarpments, moss-covered Antarctic beeches and cycads sprouting their fern-like fronds in any available space. Pretty wonderful and it was a good way to end the trip (discounting the mammoth drive back to Sydney).

Lizard Island Part IV
I write this from an unexpected but lovely stint on Lizard -- I did tell myself I would find some way to come back on the last day of my last field season and here I am! I am helping an old acquaintance with her PhD -- absolutely brilliant to be here without having to worry about my own project. All I do is go diving, laying transect tapes, collecting corals or the like, and when I am done I chill out on the beach with a beer and a book. Today it is a bit blustery so we have had a dry day -- I spent the afternoon getting crabs out of their home corals to weigh and measure them, and collecting their eggs to measure fertility (they go back to their corals after this and are fine). They are very cute little critters! Not a bad way to spent two weeks I think, though I am also looking forward to getting back to Cambridge and the rest of the year. I think it has taken most of the last six weeks to really relax out of the PhD and finally gain some perspective, for which I am very grateful.