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Chris & Allyson vs. Australia (May 2012)

Day Two: Sydney Harbor Bridge. Royal Botanic Gardens. Meeting a friend.

There are no vacations from maintaining the temple that is my body, so day two in Australia started out with a jog. Please note that it wasn't a strenuous jog -- my body is closer to a ruined, soot-stained temple of the kind you might find in the crappier parts of Athens. But it was a jog.

It's never a bad idea to run through a city, if you have the chance; it lets you serve as the cavalry scout for your traveling companions. You can find all the museums that everyone will refuse to see and the restaurants that will eventually undo the puny health benefits of heaving your man-bosoms around a foreign country for 40 minutes. I took off through The Rocks, made it down to the water, headed past the ferry terminal, then cut through the Royal Botanic Gardens.

It was a good call. The gardens are almost as old as the city. The fourth governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie, designated much of the area around the "government" sector as public parks. This not only provided a fine gathering space for polite society, but also created a geographic buffer from the smell of the poor folks. Plus, parks are great places to throw up earthworks if the convicts ever try something.

It's amazing the things you can do with forced labor, and Macquarie was apparently a bit of a visionary -- he's usually cited as the guy who made Sydney what it is today, through public works programs and enlightened management of the scumbags Britain kept sending his way. He was a definite improvement, at the very least, over Captain Bligh.

Looney Tunes aficionados will remember Bligh from Bugs Bunny's impersonation. He was the guy that the sailors on the H.M.S. Bounty mutinied against, and as a consolation prize for surviving that indignity he was assigned to rule New South Wales. As part of that rule, he attempted to clean up the "rum trade" -- since currency was a little weak in the new colony, people were using rum as a de facto money, and rum came primarily from government rations.

If history has taught us anything, it's that you don't want to take booze away from people with weapons training. Several of the 1848 revolutions started this way, as well as Mexican revolutions 3, 6, 11 and 27. When Bligh tried to stop the rum trade, the soldiers under his command basically put him on a boat and refused to let him ashore until a replacement governor arrived. For his troubles this time, he got a very ugly statue near Circular Quay.

But back to the gardens. Apparently the early efforts at gardening weren't too impressive, but the Brits kept a stiff upper lip and kept improving the soil, mostly by using the decomposing corpses of failed convict gardeners. Now the gardens (and the contiguous "Domain") are a sprawling green space, packed with all kinds of trees, statues, and unbelievably ripped Australians.

The OECD says that Australia is the fifth-most obese country in the world. There must be a lot of 500-pound people in Alice Springs ruining the grade curve, because everyone in Sydney is beautiful. They all swim, jog, surf and box kangaroos. They do this both before and after work, six days a week. The seventh day they spend just on abdominal maintenance, polishing and oiling muscles as needed.

Still, they were polite enough not to stare as I waddled along the sea wall, with the gardens to my right and the harbor to my left. I eventually cut back through the palm collection, enjoyed the horrible shrieking of the birds (more on that later) and made my way back to The Rocks. I had to get back, because we had a date with a bridge.

The Sydney Harbor Bridge Climb is a unique vacation experience. By unique, I definitely mean expensive -- you're going to drop some change. But it's one of those things you just can't do anywhere else. The bridge was started in the 1920s, in part as a Depression-era jobs program. Figuring that it wouldn't be the worst thing to get trains across the harbor, they built a stunning single-arch steel structure of epic proportions, taking eight or so years to do it. The result was transformative, not just for the surrounding neighborhoods, but the whole downtown -- things just sprung up all around the beautiful, sweeping arch. It's the third-biggest single-arch steel bridge in the world, behind one somewhere in China and West Virginia's New River Gorge bridge.

Australians, needing something to do for exercise on the days when their wetsuits were at the drycleaners, naturally figured out a way to walk up it. We had a 10 a.m. climb scheduled. Once you get to the office, they have you sign some friendly, non-threatening waivers for the almost certain event of your death. Then you get to gear up. They give you a jumpsuit, which in its current iteration is a blue-gray affair that makes you look like you escaped from an early 1980s progressive rock band. I'm not a jumpsuit guy, but I have to say the cut was flattering. It really brought out my misshapen blobiness.

You also get a safety harness, gloves and hats; they show you how to "clip in" to the safety rail system; and they let you practice going up and down a few ladders. At that point, you're qualified to dance around 200 feet above the busiest highway in Australia. With the help of our guide Romeo -- he was much less skeevy than the name implies -- we were out the door.

Heading out single-file in a group of 14, they take you along a steel catwalk past the large stone pylons. If you saw the documentary "Man on Wire," the pylons on the north end of the bridge are where Philippe Petit in 1973 strung an unauthorized tightrope, then pranced back and forth over the morning traffic until he came down to get arrested. (At which point he scored lots of Australian tail, and I'm not talking kangaroos.) I would have done the same, but we were on the south side of the bridge, so it wouldn't have been a proper homage.

Somewhere around the pylons, you climb a few ladders to get to the outside part of the frame. Then you ascend a gently sloping staircase for a bit until you reach the top of the world. You're standing over a highway, staring across the harbor toward the sea, with the Opera House and downtown and the Botanic Gardens and the teeny (yet remarkably fit) Aussies below filling in the middle of the page. We had great weather, which deprived us of the thrill of climbing a steel bridge in a lightning storm. It did help with visibility, though.

But in the end, it's not about the views. As with any situation where you are chained single-file in a group of 14 strangers, it's about the people you're chained to. Romeo was phenomenal the whole morning. He spoke to us through our radio headsets and told us the history of the bridge, the funny stories about people falling off (hilarious!) and the staggering engineering statistics. Did you know that to get hot rivets into cross-beams, they heated them from a furnace on an arch, then THREW them to a guy holding a bucket while standing on a cross beam? And the bridge hasn't fallen down yet. When did megaconstruction get so girly? Because we ask a lot of questions (you're paying $200, get your money's worth) we got a little extra attention from Romeo, and by the end of the excursion he was telling us about the time he saw the Rolling Stones perform at RFK stadium.

We had some interesting neighbors on the chain. Ken was an Australian guy whose wife had wanted to go on the climb with him a few years before -- but he had begged off for some reason. When his birthday came up a little while later, she bought him a ticket and told him to get his ass up the bridge. Later that night, the birthday was going to continue with Ken actually getting to pick a restaurant for once. He thought he'd end up paying, but the choice was gift enough. Somehow it came up that he had visited Gettysburg and loved it.

And next to Allyson was Andrew, another man taking this trip without a spouse. His daughter was sick -- she was in a Sydney hospital with anorexia, apparently refusing food or drink for over a year and being kept alive through tubes. He had gotten a gift certificate for the climb ages ago, but he never got to use it while watching over his daughter. With the certificate set to expire, he figured climbing the bridge might offer a little mental break. Not the story you expect to hear on top of a giant bridge in the middle of a harbor, but a story worth hearing.

Eventually we got back to base and turned in our jumpsuits, along with any dreams of being part of a crime-fighting gymnastics team. Our gift certificates (I had gotten the climb for Allyson as a Christmas present) apparently had about 100 non-refundable dollars remaining, so we got the deluxe photo package and a stuffed koala bear (in a bridge climb jumpsuit, naturally) for the road. After a final goodbye to Romeo -- tour guides love us -- we dropped Allyson's new koala friend at the hotel and thought about ways to spend the rest of our afternoon. Thinking back to my jog, I hauled Allyson over to the Royal Botanic Gardens to look around.

In hindsight, it wasn't the best idea, because Allyson was a combination of achy and tired. Climbing a bridge takes something out of you, it turns out, and following it up with a three-mile walk might not be the best plan.

But it was my plan, and I can be very insistent about these things, so we went. Personally, I love a good botanic garden. I couldn't identify a flower if your life depended on it, I have no memory for bird names, I know only three adjectives useful for describing trees, and I'd rather die than lay out in a sunny field. However, I do like "lay-up" photography, whereby the photographer takes hackneyed forced-perspective shots of inherently pretty things, thereby forcing his friends to say things like "you have a great eye for composition" and "you should sell your photos at the flea market!" To the hacky vacation photographer, flowers, fountains and public sculptures are like a license to print compliments.

We strolled around the grounds of Government House for a while, then slow-walked it through a meadow, then came to dead stop near some Asian-themed gardens. After that, there were some contemplative "why are you doing this to me" jaunts through the palm collections, a quick stop to see a photography exhibit with some (actually good) garden shots, and a cautious d├ętente reached in a cactus garden. Things were looking a little bleak, until flying foxes saved the day.

You many know them as fruit bats, or as "CHRIST WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?" On our way toward the edge of the garden, we spotted a sign explaining how these flying foxes are damaging the trees and must be stopped. We started looking for them, and Allyson -- who has chronic double vision and prescription glasses -- won the race. There they were, a handful of bats, red and furry and sinister. This was a great delight to Allyson, for if my wife likes any two things, it is furry animals and murderers. She usually falls asleep with a stuffed animal while listening to a non-fiction audiobook about someone trying to make a maypole from his victims' innards. You'll have to ask her why, assuming you aren't mortally terrified of her at this point.

I had packed a zoom lens, so I spent the next few minutes trying to capture furry death from above. We were so proud of our sighting that I helpfully informed a group of strangers further up the path to watch the skies. They helpfully pointed upward to the trees where they were standing. Approximately 9,000 foxes were above their heads.

Invigorated, we were ready for some more trudging through the city, and we made our way down to Hyde Park. It's a little closer to the heart of Sydney's Central Business District, but it still had some lay-up photo opportunities, such as a statue of a man wrestling a minotaur -- in front of a huge Catholic church.

We actually stopped in St. Mary's, which is one of the oldest churches in the country. Allyson, who is Jewish, doesn't feel comfortable in big churches, but since "Allyson's discomfort" was the theme of the afternoon, we checked it out. It was pretty.

The theme of the evening was meeting our friend Goli. About a year and a half before, she had moved to Sydney -- a bold and adventurous trip halfway around the world -- for the chance to run a team of cancer-fighting research superstars. In short, Goli is the kind of person who makes you wonder what exactly you've been DOING with your life, and why you never applied yourself like your mother always wanted.

Goli took some time out from saving your future children from cancer to meet us for drinks, at a very neat place called The Summit. It's a revolving restaurant, and revolving restaurants are the classiest of all the moving eateries -- they are more dignified than a dinner cruise, and less sloppy than having a martini while riding a galloping camel. We did a full rotation while Goli told us about her cool Australian life, and afterward we went for Chinese food in a non-revolving basement. All this made Allyson happy, and though there were no abstract sculptures for me to photograph, I enjoyed it too.

On to Australia Day Three

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