Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Reptile Madness

Things I Like About Sydney No. 38: Reptile Madness

I often have to get up in the middle of the night to have a pee. Hopefully this is because of the enormous glass of water I always drink before going to sleep not because I am prematurely geriatric and will shortly be in adult nappies. Anyway, getting up involves stumbling in the dark, contact lens-less and subsequently blind, naked and consequently vulnerable, down the corridor and into the bathroom where I turn on the light and hope that its sudden illumination doesn't wake Daniel up.

I often wonder what might be lurking around the corner, what might be underfoot. After all, the YouTube video that scared me so much was of someone barefoot in a laundry accidentally treading on a FunnelWeb Spider. But when you need to pee these considerations become secondary.

But last night, as I relieved my bladder I could sense something out of the corner of my eye on the floor of the shower. Without glasses, it looked like a discarded sock, crumpled and still. But why would Daniel have left a sock in the shower...I finished my business and went over to have a better look...

Good grief.

There's a gecko in the shower pretending to be a bunch of leaves.

Still as the night, toes splayed, disguised as part of a bush. Which was not quite so effective against the green and white tiles of our shower.

This called for the waking up of Daniel. "Whaa? Whaa? Whasthemadder?" he yelled blindly (neither of us having yet had our eyes lasered).

"There's a gecko in the shower" I said. And rather than roundly cursing me and going back to sleep, Daniel leaped up and came to have a look.

This is the marvel that made me wake him up to come and see.

It is a Southern Leaf-Tailed Gecko and they are, apparently, quite common in urban Sydney. It's beautiful mottled skin was scaly, covered in knobbly excrescences which mimic the lichen patterns upon which they spend most of their lives. Its tail was, as you can see, an extraordinary leaf-like shape, very flat with a tapered point.

Unfortunately, it seemed a little out of sorts, unmoving and unblinking. We opened the bathroom window and shut the door and hoped that it would scuttle out in the night back to where it belonged.

This morning it seemed to have gone. Until, that is, Daniel whipped the bath mat off the rail to have his shower only to discover our Leaf-Tailed Gecko clinging on to it for dear life. Clearly, it had to be rescued.

But this is where things went a little awry. It was still early for us humans after all (beyond bedtime for Mr. Gecko) and Daniel's normally agile brain wasn't working on all cylinders. He carried the gecko outside on the bath mat - the lizard made the odd movement and a small dashing feint up the mat but Daniel managed to get it outside in one piece. But then it refused to leave the bath mat. Which was bright red. Which obviously didn't disguise the Leaf-Tailed Gecko in the manner to which it is accustomed to being disguised. Which spelled nothing but DANGER....

Daniel went back to have his shower and I went outside a few minutes later at the raucous insistence of our cockatoos to distribute some sunflower seeds only to see the great black stalking presence of a Currawong viciously pecking at our Southern Leaf-Tailed Gecko in the grass.

The lizard had managed to crawl off the bath mat into the relative safety of greenery but too late! It had been spotted. Before I could do anything useful the Currawong darted off with something wriggling in its mouth, writhing from side to side of the bird's sharply pointed beak. I yelled for Daniel who, for the second time in not too many hours, came running. "What? What?". I pointed to the Currawong in the tree and we both stood and stared horrified.

The Currawong had our beautiful Southern Leaf-Tailed Gecko's southern leaf-tail in its mouth. And the tail was still moving slowly from side to side, side to side. Down in the grass, our pecked Gecko was slowly crawling off into the undergrowth, bruised and battered, punctured and pained, tail-less, but alive.

For, like some other wise lizards, these geckos shed their tails when being attacked. The bird sees the smaller moving tail and picks it up instead of the larger more problematical lizard. The Currawong seemed disappointed with its trophy however and attempted to go back for the kill so Daniel flicked the red bath mat at it like a matador annoying a bull whilst we waited for the gecko to crawl away. All this time the lizard's tail still flicked back and forth eerily in the bird's bill.

Often people find these discarded tails in their gardens, still moving, and think they are a leaf-like animal in themselves...Our Southern Leaf-Tailed Gecko, if he survives his brutal attack, will grow another tail ere long.

Nature, red in tooth and claw and not even breakfast yet.

Rewind about twelve hours and I was walking in Blackman Park with Sniff. It was about 27 degrees, and the sun was bringing out all the basking skinks. Every step I took seemed to disturb some loafing lizard, usually Eastern Water Skinks which have a distinctive pale stripe down their sides. I'm blase about skinks now though. Bah, humbug to them I say.

We reached the part of the walk where you have to cross a channel of the river by a small footbridge. Where the sun shines through overhanging trees and the water is gently rippling and dappled with light.

I always stop and look down into the water to see if I can see any fish or perhaps, they are supposed to be there, an eel. And I never really see anything except some tiny minnow-like shadows out of the corner of my eye.

So imagine my delight when I spot a turtle. A bloody turtle. Gambolling away in the shallows, periodically rising for air, its extremely long neck extending and searching. Casual, oblivious to my watching eye, a TURTLE!

Unfortunately I don't have my camera with me, just my wretched iphone, which has no zoom. So you will have to take my word for it that this black blob in the water below is in fact a magnificent Eastern Snake-Necked Turtle:

I watched the turtle meandering about, diving then surfacing, diving then surfacing, searching for food. I have since found out they can live for up to fifty years. Fifty years of bobbing up and down in the water. Eastern Snake-Necked turtles are also known as Stinkers because, instead of shedding their tail on captivity or when in danger, they emit a foul smell from the glands in their 'armpits' and groin that can be sprayed up to three feet to repel and disgust predators.

So, all in all, it's a very good job that we found the Gecko in the bathroom and the Turtle in the river yesterday and not the other way around.

Total Reptile Madness in less than 24 hours. That has to be something I Like About Sydney.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The House Opposite the Greenwich Ferry Stop

Things I Like About Sydney No. 37: the house opposite the Greenwich Ferry stop.

Sniff and I have discovered two new walks recently and one of them is very close to home. All we have to do is drive to the shops on Greenwich Road, carry on past them towards the sea and stop at Shell Park on the right. From there we can walk along a waterside path that takes us down to the Greenwich Ferry stop and to great views over towards Cockatoo Island (scene of former artistic triumphs) in one direction and the Harbour Bridge and City in the other.

The beginning of the walk is very unprepossessing - opposite Shell Park is some kind of gas and oil works (hence the sponsored name, Shell) and there are some alarming signs dotted about:

These warnings were not enough for the poor ring-tailed possum we found the other day.... Hercules Cooper will have to re-open the investigations into random corpses begun way back in May...

Not only was this possum very freshly killed it was quickly followed by another shocking  discovery:

the ant-ridden corpse of a snake. This may be a Yellow-Faced Whip Snake which is, yes indeedy, venomous, but I am having trouble identifying it properly. It had a greenish-blue tinge to its belly and tapered to a very fine tail. I didn't want to get too close because it was crawling with very large red ants and they can give you a very nasty bite. A similar ant attached its ferocious mandibles to Sniff's fore paw the other day and refused to let go. I had to beat it off with a stick. Sniff, having been well and truly bitten, whimpered and trembled and refused to walk for hours (which was rather problematical as we'd just driven for an hour and an half out of Sydney to the Strickland State Forest with the intention of spending the day walking...and the only reason we went there was because you were allowed to take dogs...ho hum).

(He's alright now by the way).

Ignoring the piling-up of corpses and the oil works you can be rewarded with views like this at the beginning of the walk to Greenwich Ferry:

and with views like this at the end:

with the added bonus of constant views like whilst walking:

so all in all it is very lovely. And if you were to come and stay I would pop you on the ferry at the end of the walk and send you off into the becalming waters to Circular Quay and some champagne at the Opera House Bar.

Directly opposite the very quaint ferry stop which, with its wooden walkways and itinerant fishermen looks like something time forgot, is a house which arouses inordinate jealousy in me every time I see it. A beautiful turn of the century building with views straight over the water to Cockatoo Island. If I were to sell our house in London then possibly, possibly we might be able to afford it and then I could stand on that upstairs verandah, walking up and down the widow's walk, looking out to sea like the French Lieutenant's Woman or Mrs Gummidge out of David Copperfield or something out of E Annie Proulx's The Shipping News waiting for Daniel to struggle home across the waters from Performance Space...

Not that I'm complaining about our lovely shack in the bush. Especially as we have a new visitor doing the feeding rounds: the inordinately beautiful Simon, a King Parrot.

He's becoming bolder by the day and now eats from my hand - something the cockatoos aren't allowed to do since one rather savagely bit Daniel last week leaving two nasty indentations on either side of his thumb. As they can destroy woodwork in seconds with their beaks I think Daniel got off lightly....But nevertheless, someone should tell them not to bite the hand that feeds them...

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Myer's Food Court

Things I like about Sydney No. 36 (or Guilty Pleasures No. 1): Myer's Food Court

I am led to conjecture that Myer is the Australian equivalent of London's John Lewis. They have a similar appearance, sell similar things and are both in the shadow of a mightier competitor (in Sydney this would be David Jones and in London, the marvellous Selfridges - both of which are decidedly classier than their lesser cousins). Myer however can't boast the magnificent slogan "Never knowingly undersold" as John Lewis. Rather, their utterly feeble tagline is "Myer is my store"  upon which they no doubt lavished a fortune. Sigh.

I only ever go to Myer in order to buy one of two things - Clinique shaving gel or towels. For everything else its David Jones any day. There you can buy (at a price) Fortnum & Mason tea (but only the bog standard ones), Ben Sherman shirts, L'Occitane shampoo, Arabia moomin mugs (except for the limited edition ones), bed linen, French cheeses and 2xist underwear. It almost makes you think you're living in a civilised country. Except for the service (impossible) and the willing helpfulness (non-existent).

I once asked in David Jones whether they could get some Mouchoir de Monsieur, a perfume by Guerlain that originated in the nineteenth century and was worn by Proust. This was in March. "Oh no", the assistant brayed, "we only order perfume in once a year and that's for Christmas." And that was that. I then asked in the Food Hall whether they could get some Russian Caravan tea. "Is it on the shelf?" No, I replied. "Well then we can't." Right-ho. Thank you very much. You've been so helpful.

Australia. Where you have to remember that to serve someone is a bad thing. It brings back feelings of colonial shame. Must remember to be rude instead.

I digress.

Even when I don't have shaving gel or towels to buy there is something that draws me back to Myer rather frequently. A guilty secret. My guilty pleasure. This is Myer's Food Hall or, to give it it's proper name, Sydney Central Plaza Food Court.

Underneath the department store is a huge cavern, lit brighter than hell, and this, dear readers, is a food court. Firstly, I need to explain to any Australians that unlike Sydney where every building larger than a house seems to have one London doesn't teem with food courts. I can't think of any back home. Hang on a minute, I have some vague memories of one in the Trocadero Centre near Piccadilly Circus: but that wouldn't really count  because only tourists step foot within that hideous hell-hole. So, instead of pigging out in brightly-lit food courts we Brits go to discrete little sandwich shops. Pret A Manger. Marks & Spencer. Bite. Caffe Nero. Eat. Le Pain Quotidien. Konditor & Cook - the list of those is endless.

So food courts have an exotic quality for me, despite the fact that really there is nothing more vulgar. They  remind me of touring with the David Glass Ensemble around South East Asia for three years (over a decade ago now) when we would fall upon a food court in Hong Kong with ravening glee after spending a month braving five hundred year old eggs and fried chicken feet in somewhere like Kunming. We might, back then, even have been tempted to eat the odd, ahem, burger.

A little bit of Asia then is conjured up for me whenever I descend the escalator to Myer's Food Court - but it's certainly not by the food. Despite the fact that in the Sydney Central Plaza Food Court you can eat in any country you want - Mexico? check; Turkey? check; China? check; Japan? check; Vietnam? check - nothing, absolutely nothing, is authentic. Not a herb or a spice or an unusual condiment is allowed past the Food Court's draconian watchdog for here we proudly fly the flag of mediocrity.

If the food is so bad, why then do I like it?

Firstly, because it is the only place in central Sydney which is always packed to the rafters but where it is nevertheless absolutely fine to be eating on your own. Secondly, because of one dish out of the hundreds on offer - a heart-attack inducing salt-laden dish of squid from the lovely people at Sea In The City...

Sea In The City is really a chinese take-away in disguise. From a distance you think you're in for a lovely healthy steamed fish or perhaps a lightly battered Barramundi or a round of rock oysters but instead (this is a Food Court after all, the Devil's own restaurant), upon reaching the gleaming counter you are confronted with pile upon pile of glistening sauces and stack upon stack of deep-fried morsels, all betokening an early grave.

The Spicy Salt & Pepper Squid (above, bottom right) is my particular guilty pleasure, my heart-stopping indulgence. Crunchy tentacles of squid, deep-fried in a crispy salty batter (oops, where's the spice?) are served along with another dish of your choice (crispy spicy fish with a surprisingly large number of vegetables but, yup, undetectable spice) on top of rice flecked with the odd vegetable (more would obviously be unhealthy). This feast, served up on a cardboard plate, comes to the grand total of $6.50 (at today's conversion rates this comes to a paltry £3.95).

I would like to point out that my server today was rather stinting with her portions. Normally I have to stagger away from the counter under an enormous weight of deep-fried sea-food, tip-toeing to a seat in order not to cause a seismic shifting of battered squid from my groaning paper plate. Today, I think she was rather put out at my taking photographs and she punished me accordingly.

Once sat down at your fake marble table, there are two problems with eating the dish. Firstly, the smallest plate (your £3.95 option) is still too much for lunch. I usually have to leave something behind, wilting under the high-wattage lighting on the side of the plate. Secondly, you have to eat the thing with a plastic fork which is well-nigh impossible. The fork bends, it sways, its prongs refuse to enter into a discussion with anything tougher than a pea. Frankly fingers would be better. But we have standards to maintain at the Sydney Central Plaza Food Court and fingers are a big no-no.

Whilst tucking in to my guilty squiddy pleasure I spend the time people-watching. My fellow guzzling gourmands amaze me with their stamina, with the huge quantities of food they are able to hoover up. I wonder whether they contemplate having dinner as well and note that their waistlines often admit to it.

Spotting who lives here and who is a tourist is always fun. Looking down on those with their KFC and their McDonalds is a good game (although I know that my plate contains more salt than a dozen Super-Sized BigMacKingBurgers and that the working conditions at Sea In The City are probably not the best in Australia). Frightening children by drooping tentacles out of the side of one's mouth is always entertaining. Gazing into space vacantly is encouraged and a lovely way to rest the mind whilst chewing squid. Watching people go up and down the elevators and pondering would it be too much to expect them to walk is not allowed.

Sydney Central Plaza Food Court does not encourage lingering once you have finished your meal. Someone will be wiping down your table before you've chewed your last bit of squid and someone else will be hovering nearby with a ginormous plate of steaming crap, beadily eyeing your table. Obviously it is not advisable to be too energetic after ingesting so much sodium chloride so I glassily get up and idle towards the escalator where, lo and behold, I stand still and let it effortlessly glide me upwards out of the Devil's Restaurant. Looking back over my shoulder I glimpse a waving mascot above the heads of those lovely people at Sea In The City. It is inscrutable and unmistakably Chinese and therefore more authentic than their food. The mascot's left paw waves mechanically up and down in an everlasting farewell and I watch it until it can be seen no more. Until next time that is. Must be about time to get some more shaving gel....