I'd like to start today with a little ode to my shorts. You can skip over this part easily, just jump to the big space. I hate clothes. I hate shopping. I hate clothes shopping. One of the best things I did befoe I left for this trip was go clothes shopping for some shorts. Most girl shorts and pants other than jeans don't have pockets. Out of all the other non-jeans I brought, there are pants without pockets, shorts without pockets, and a pair of mens pants with two awkward insert side pockets. The shorts I got before the trip at Cabellas are great. They have back pockets, they have front pockets, but, more than just that, they have cargo side pockets. Today, that was one of the most convenient things ever. It was too hot to wear my sweatshirt in general, so I couldn't stash my camera there for convenient access. I needed my hands free and didn't want to be swinging a camera around on my wrist. The only quickly-accessible place I had to put my camera was my pockets. Not only that, but they still had room for my room key, my mp3 player (which I also wanted quick access to in order to record some animal sounds), and other junk that I wanted to put in there. I love my new shorts.
Now, on to the good stuff.
I don't think that they usually run the Blue Mountain tours on New Years Eve Day, but we got our own personal tour because somebody had made a mistake by booking the wrong day and we didn't get to go yesterday. Rachel stayed behind though because some friend of hers was in town and she wanted to hang out with him. The rest of us, the driver took by the house Nicole Kidman grew up in for some strange reason, and then we continued on to some wildlife park. I've discovered that "Wildlife Park" is the Aussie term for "Petting Zoo." Most of the animals are in cages, but there are always a few roaming freely in a larger fenced off area that you can get in so that you can feed them. While the one we went to had a larger selection of animals than some of the others, the cages were much smaller and there were less animals you could feed and pet. Overall, I was pretty sick of going to them. First, I had already seen most of the animals either in the wild or in another "Wildlife Park." Second, I don't like the idea of putting animals in small cages as a spectacle. I'd rather them have plenty of room to move around in, even if it means that I wouldn't necessarily get to see everything because they might be hiding. We finished up there and headed to the better part of the tour: the Blue Mountains. The Blue Mountains are named that because the eucalyptus trees give off something that reacts with the junk in the air and the sunlight and creates a blue haze around the mountains. I kind of saw it, but not really. However, the views were stunning. We took this little train thing down the mountain. It was open on one side, and had no seat belts. It would never have been allowed in the US. It was also at a very steep (>45 degrees) angle. It is supposedly the steepest rail in the southern hemisphere, although I can't imagine anything steeper anywhere. At the bottom, there are two ways to see the area. The first is a standard hiking path with some 2-6 hour hikes. Unfortunately, we didn't have the time to do that, but when I come back some day, I will. The second is what everybody was doing. The path consisted of a series of boardwalks that went around to various sights. I was highly impressed with the cleverness of it all. The boardwalks gave people an easy place to walk. It was flat, so you could push your stroller (pram) without having your kid fall out. It had railings, so if you needed them in order to walk, you had something to hold on to. Overall, it was pretty accessible to people. At the same time, the railings confined people to the boardwalks. (Other than the real hiking path) there was no way to venture out into the woods. The majority of tourists don't have the opportunity to trample all over the nature out there, and I'm guessing that most people who are willing to take a 4 mile hike know enough to stay on the path. Beyond that, because the boardwalks were raised slightly, animals still had the ability to get across them and plants that like shade could still grow under them. One of the neat things about the boardwalk, other than the well planned design, was that where there were trees in the way, they left at least some of them. There are a few holes in the boardwalk where trees pop out, so you still have a chance to get really close to them. This is good, because some of their trees are really unique and beautiful. One of the "different" trees we saw started out like some sort of palm or tropical tree at the trunk- straight up, no branches, and layered. At the top though, it was a LARGE fern instead of palm leaves. I thought it was one of the most interesting and beautiful type of trees I've ever seen. The other cool plant they have is a vine. The vines weave through the treetops and hold the trees together so that they stand up to wind and storms better. The vines can get pretty fat- wider than a human arm- and twist all over everything. Their ubiquity led my mom to comment that the place almost reminded her of a Tarzan movie. We took a little funicular back up the mountain. To be honest, the pathway was so short (although steep) that I think it would have been fine to do the stairs both down and up. Plus, from both the top and the bottom you get a decent view of the Three Sisters (more on that later), the tree tops, and the mountains in general. I guess for tour groups it's convenient, but next time I don't plan on taking that way if I don't have to. Perhaps because most large tours don't run on New Years Eve Day, we didn't have to fight through mobs of people and didn't have to wait more than one train or funicular before we got on. In some ways, going a day late was a blessing because our tour guide told us that yesterday (when we would have gone) the lines were horrendous. After the park, we had lunch in a small outdoor cafe. While it mostly served western food, the wedge fries still came with a sweet chili sauce, a testament to the strength of the Asian influence here. To be honest, I much prefer the mayo and sweet chili sauce to our ketchup. However, I'm just not used to fries coming with those as standard. We made a quick photo stop at Echo Point to get a different view of the Three Sisters, and were on our way back to town. The story behind the Three Sisters varies depending on where you hear it, but basically, there were 3 daughters of a shaman. They were wandering through the woods (possibly headed somewhere they weren't supposed to be going), when a monster came upon them. In order to protect his daughters from the monster, the shaman used his wizard stick to turn them into rocks. Depending on who tells it, he may have also turned himself into a bird at the same time, losing his wizard stick and with it his ability to do magic. In any case, he was not able to turn his daughters back from rock. There they stand today, waiting for him to find his wizard stick and turn them back, or just waiting for the end of time. We also made a quick photo stop at the Olympic Village, but there really wasn't anything exciting there. Our last stop wasn't so quick. We had the tour guide drop us off at the hospital because we thought Michael had pink eye. (He did.) While my mom and Mike waited to get helped, (they gave him drops and he's doing fine so you don't have to worry, Grandma) Shanaenae and I went to find an art museum and see the botanical gardens. The special NYE info booth said the art museum didn't close till 5, but when we got there a little after 4, they were shut down. Also, the only way into the main part of the gardens was via the road to Mrs. Maquaries chair, one of the best spots in town to see fireworks. The line stretched for MILES. It extended through the main part of the gardens, into the Domain, zigzagged all across the Domain, and kept running down the street. I decided that perhaps I would rather just see the Domain part of the gardens and get some sleep at the hotel instead of waiting in line for hours. After our rest, Shanaenae and I headed out to see the first set of fireworks in Darling Harbour. The 9 o'clock fireworks are the "family" fireworks, but we wanted to see them anyway. However, we needed food first. The first few restaurants we checked out did have spots for people without reservations, which I was surprised at. However, they had a set menu with a $150 price. We were sure we could do better than that. We eventually found a place with only a $25 minimum where we could get pizza. We partied like it was 1999 by having dessert first, and pizza second. During our pizza the fireworks started. We could see them pretty well from our table, but got to go boxes for the rest of our food and headed just outside so we could have an unobstructed view. This whole time, the fireworks were ongoing. The fireworks in Sydney really were as great as they say. Instead of just throwing one or two up at a time and waiting in between, like most places at home do on 4th of July, they just threw everything up at once. The sky was lit up like it was daylight. The smell of burning was strong in the air, and the resulting haze was very thick. Not only did they have fireworks in the sky, but they also had these flame thrower things on the ground (out of the reach of people of course) that spat fire. I was most certainly impressed by the fireworks in front of us, and could also see some from further down the harbor that were going off at the same time. Getting back to our hotel, which was on the block directly next to where we were standing, was horrendous. The thousands of people trying to all go up a few sets of stairs at once, trying to cross the same bridge at once, and also trying to cross streets at once was just a nightmare. I expected they'd shut down the intersections nearby to cars, even just for 10 minutes, but they didn't, so there was a lot of either jaywalking or holding up the crowd. Nobody got trampled though, and the crowd was generally polite about everything. I'm not sure if everybody is calmer and less angry than Americans, or if it was due to all the kids around. The other difference in the crowd that I noticed is that instead of funny hats and glasses, people generally had tinsel or electric light up ears- bunny ears for adults and Mickey Mouse style ears for the kids. Some of the kids had cheap battery powered light up toys, but I didn't see a single one-time-use light-up necklace (the kind where you have to snap it to et it to start working) like the vendors sell at 4th of July fireworks. This time, when we got back to our hotel room for a break before the midnight fireworks, Michael and mom were there. Michael came with Shanaenae and I later to see the midnight ones down by the Harbour Bridge. We had originally found a space at the rocks, but fortunately they shot off a couple of fireworks early, so we could tell that we wouldn't be able to see them from our original place. We moved to a spot just next to the bridge where we had a great view of the fireworks ove the Opera House, the fireworks they shot off the bridge itself, and a decent view of the fireworks that were further over toward Darling Harbour. Again, they were pretty amazing. The Harbour was lit up like day time, the bridge continually appeared to be on fire, and the (high quality) fireworks were well timed with each other. There were so many that the ashes were falling on our heads, a small price to pay for such a glorious display. Check out the video to see some of what we saw. We are right under the bridge looking up at it so what you're seeing at first is stuff coming right over the side of the bridge.