Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Queen Victoria Building

Things I like about Sydney No. 47: The Queen Victoria Building (or, as they must have it in hideous modern parlance, the QVB).

Slap bang in the centre of the so-called Central Business District of Sydney, taking up an entire block along the main thoroughfare George Street, from Park Street to Market Street, stands the magnificent, incomparable Queen Victoria Building.

A huge late-Victorian temple of Mammon, the Queen Victoria Building was begun in 1893 and finally opened (fortunately before her Majesty's demise) in 1898. Back then, as well as housing a Concert Hall, the first floor alone had fifty-eight shops with a variety of tenants, including tailors, mercers, boot importers, hairdressers, tobacconists, florists, chemists, and fruiterers, an enormous coffee palace, a tea room, warerooms, showrooms and offices. On the second floor were further large showrooms and a gallery. The basement boasted wine cellars, strong rooms, cooling chambers and public toilets.

The Queen Victoria Building has been restored twice in recent years and is now resplendent and immaculately coiffed once more, having narrowly escaped demolition in the 1970s. I have a love-hate relationship with it. I love it because it is one of the best late-Victorian extravagances ever built. I hate it because it's current incarnation as a 21st century temple of Mammon leaves me cold. Bring back the mercers, the taxidermists, the tobacconists, the boot importers, the cooling chambers....



The building has fantastic tiled floors, elegant balustrades and balconies, elaborate cage lifts and staircases, a magnificent ceiling, extravagant clocks and other timepieces but all this wonderful interior decoration is marred by the hordes of people buying crap. Obviously, I am glad that the building is a throbbing, magnificent success. I'd just rather it was all for me alone to do with what I would like.

Daniel and I ventured in late last week and I managed to capture some of the tiled floors without a soul in sight...

Ordinarily, you wouldn't see beyond your nose for shoppers.

So let's see....what have I actually managed to buy in the 'QVB'...

Things I have managed to buy in the Queen Victoria Building

1. Over-priced tea.

In the basement, perhaps not even in the building proper, perhaps in one of the interconnecting tunnels that lead to Town Hall station, is a branch of T2. The appallingly named T2 sells over-priced tea (and this comes from someone who, when in London, buys their tea at Fortnum and Mason and is willing to pay the price for quality). Here, at T2, I have to pay almost 40 dollars for a puny amount of Assam which isn't even TGFOP (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) as it is at Fortnum's. It will last about a month and then I have to grit my teeth and go back and buy some more....

2. Over-priced prints.

At the top of the building, on the second floor, is an antique print room run by an extremely snooty husband and wife team - the sort of people who look at you in horror if you try to bargain them down. Actually, they are the sort of people who look at you in horror full-stop unless you're carrying some Vuitton luggage and have pearls (for the women) or a cravat (for the men) around your neck (if it was the other way round you wouldn't even be let in).

Unfortunately the shop has some wonderful things - specifically, 200 year old prints of Australian wildlife and birds and Daniel and I have succumbed to temptation twice (and once I did manage to get 25 dollars knocked off the price...).

Here they are, recently framed by my own expert hands,  - a possum holding a bunch of flowers out to a kangaroo - with a few foetuses scattered picturesquely about - by John Chapman (you have to remember it was very hot out here for Europeans in 1803 and so they obviously hallucinated a lot) and a female Superb Fairy Wren from The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay by Arthur Phillip (1789):

3. Over-priced shoes.

Occasionally, stumbling around the building, you do come across a shop you might want to cross the threshold of. On the ground floor, for instance, is Camper, the shoe-shop. Now Camper is hardly the modern equivalent of a Victorian boot importer - it's a jumped-up parvenu from Spain - but nevertheless I have been known to sport the odd Camper article on my feet. So imagine my horror when I looked at the price tags. $325!!!!!!! $290!!!!!!! WHAT ARE THEY THINKING????? These things cost half that price in London. What is more, the pair I did buy (in a sale) have already fallen apart less than a year later. Split down the side.


4. Over-priced soap.

This is a wholly unnecessary indulgence that is now an ingrained habit. Buying big blocks of green soap from L'Occitane De Provence (which 'concept store', I'm sure, is probably as French as I am). They smell good and last for ever (unlike Camper shoes).

And that, I believe, is it for me and shopping at the Queen Victoria Building in the 21st century. I run in and I run out, clutching either soap or tea. I think I would have fared a lot better in 1898. Those prints would have been a damn sight cheaper for a start... I would still be smoking (because it was good for you, stupid) and could have visited my tobacconist daily to try the latest blend. There, no doubt, would have been a barbers next door where I would have gone to have a quick do-over before nipping up to the taxidermist to see how my Great Bustard was coming along. Then there would just be time to ensure that my wine was being cellared properly before having a leisurely lunch in the coffee palace and a post-prandial browse round the booksellers. My tailor's appointment at 3.00 would have lasted about an hour and a half because I am particularly fussy, which only leaves an hour or so before the first gin and tonic of the day. And that hour I could easily spend at the photographer's studio having my portrait taken with Sniff.

Patently, I am living in the wrong century although knowing my luck, back in 1898 it would have been me stuffing the bloody Bustard rather than me poncing about buying it....

Friday, January 21, 2011

Snake Sightings

Things I like about Sydney No. 46: Snake Sightings

Whilst our minds are full of disturbing images of Queenslanders not only battling floods but battling the poisonous snakes which gaily swam into their houses (one poor man was stranded on his roof with only a rolled-up towel to beat off the marauding serpents) I thought I would regale you with my own tales of snakes here in Sydney.

Firstly, let's put things into perspective. In England there are only 3 species of snake and only one of these, the adder, is venomous. There are no records of anyone dying of an adder bite since 1975. Statistically, the English are much more likely to die of a wasp sting than a snake-bite.

In Australia there are over 140 species of land snake and around 32 species of sea snake. 100 species of snake are venomous and at least 12 species can kill you. Despite these frightening statistics, there have only been 42 deaths Australia-wide that have been attributed to snake-bite since 1980 (less than two a year). 24 of the last 40 recorded fatalities were caused by the Brown Snake, which makes it the deadliest of all.

Considering how much venomous writhing goes on in the undergrowth there are, then, relatively few deaths. And the reason for this is that snakes are extremely elusive. Shy, retiring types really; they only attack if severely provoked.

Which makes any sighting of a snake extremely special.

My first snake sighting has already been a subject for this blog. Back in March we discovered the corpse of a young Golden-Crowned Snake in our driveway. These snakes are very rare here in Greenwich and our sighting subsequently became part of the local council's newsletter so excited were the local herpetologists and environmentalists. Here it is again for those of you who missed it:

Golden-Crowned Snakes are nocturnal and a few weeks later, in early April, as Sniff and I were returning to the house from our evening walk around Greenwich, I saw a snake crossing our drive, lit by the glow from the light perched on our dilapidated gatepost. Sniff rashly hurried forwards but the snake disappeared into the undergrowth with a rapid shrug of its body. It was larger than the dead snake above - perhaps it was the grieving mother looking for her snakelet. Seeing this snake wriggle along the driveway at night sent exquisite shudders down my spine at the time and, to this day, I can conjure up its flight simply by closing my eyes.

(Golden-Crowned Snakes are, indeed, venomous...)

My third snake sighting also involved Sniff - he's good at sniffing those old serpents out. We were walking in Balls Head Reserve and right by the entrance found this:

Another dead snake I'm afraid, this time longer and larger and without the golden crown on its head. I haven't been able to identify it as yet so can any experts please help out? Not as fresh as the other corpse, a large group of ants were busying themselves with it, fussing about that part of its length which was split open and wounded. It looked to me as if it had been run over and then carefully placed on the verge.

Talking of Balls Head Reserve, the other day Sniff and I, instead of taking our normal route back down to the car, plunged off down a path towards the sea and stumbled across the most amazing thing - an enormous echoing tunnel leading underneath the old Quarantine depot:

Sniff wasn't too sure about its dank, dripping interior but I loved it...

Here's a gratuitous photograph of an insect spotted on the same walk - and it's even alive:

And here's a spider pretending to be a wasp:

Back to snakes and to the fourth, and most exciting, sighting.

Blackman Park is the furthest away of our possible local destinations for walking with Sniff. I have to summon up some extra enthusiasm to drive that little bit further to go there but it is always worth it when I do. The trail is usually empty of people and it rapidly passes through a series of different landscapes which increases the likelihood of spotting new creatures and birds. It is the only place I have seen Eastern Yellow Robins and Firetail Finches in Sydney and is always replete with lizards and cicadas (and there was once the Snake-Necked Turtle, already blogged).

Daniel and I took Judith, Daniel's mother, to Blackman Park whilst she was staying for Christmas. I had promised robins and finches and goodness knows what but it was rather hot and NOTHING could be seen except for the dried-out, shed husks of cicadas still clinging to grasses and twigs:

Here's a live one, shiny and new (and out of focus - I don't have any fancy macro lenses I'm afraid):

We were returning back along the track, rather disappointed with the distinct lack of wildlife (although Judith was rather taken with some wild orchids), when I casually said to Daniel "Is that a snake ahead on the path?"

As I spoke the words I didn't believe it was a snake, I was simply uttering a kind of hopeless longing. But, lo and behold!, as we both looked harder at the object before us it unfurled into a long shiny black thick roundish creature, over a metre and a half long, which then slid quickly off the wooden path into the bushes and obscurity.

Breathtaking. A Red-Bellied Black Snake, "capable of causing significant morbidity" or, in our case, significant astonishment. Again the sight was so extraordinary that I can vividly see it again now as I recall it. I'm sure it was reading many books during my childhood that contained colonial types battling anacondas in the jungle that make these rare sightings so resonant to me now...

Last weekend we went to the hugely disappointing Australian Museum (Sydney's museum of natural history - mundane, badly laid out, terribly curated, un-cared for specimens) to double check on this identification (and to buy a do-it-yourself science kit for Daniel's nephew). Their sad-looking stuffed Red-Bellied Black Snake, lying randomly next to a crocodile, was the spitting image of ours. Unfortunately I forgot to take a photo of it or of the plastic bendy one you could buy in the Museum shop (and I refuse to shell out another fifteen dollars to go there again) so you will either have to imagine its magnificence or google an image.

My fifth and final snake sighting occurred this week. I was walking along the creek at the bottom of our garden when I spotted an unusual-looking lizard. Unusual, in that it didn't seem to have any legs. As there are a lot of just-born baby lizards and skinks scuttling about at this time of year you catch a lot of small things flitting around out of the corner of your eye. But something told me that this was no ordinary lizard.

I picked up a stick and poked around in the leaf litter to try and disturb it and, sure enough, out scuttled a creature which definitely had no legs. I'd seen a similar something the day before, balanced on top of a frond of fern, but I couldn't get close enough to be sure. Now I was. It was a baby snake.

In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have got so close. It might have been a baby but perhaps even babies are venomous....it looked so cute though... I let it scuttle off and disappear. Straightening up, I suddenly began to wonder if mother was anywhere near...

Another gratuitous photograph, this time of flowering gum, especially for those of you who are currently in the throes of a supernaturally cold winter...

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Suprised! at the Strickland State Forest

Things (I like) about Sydney No. 45: Surprised! at the Strickland State Forest.

Our trip began peacefully enough.

After packing a little picnic Daniel, Sniff and I piled into the car yesterday morning (it was eleven or so) and drove north along the Pacific Highway, leaving the city behind. We were heading for the Strickland State Forest where we were going to walk the 'Bell Bird Trail' ("an hour and half, moderately difficult"), find some shady spot, eat and then return home. Despite the gloomy gray skies above Daniel assured me that, according to his weather iPhone app, it wasn't going to rain anymore. We felt we were going to be lucky.

It takes about an hour and twenty minutes to get to the forest, especially in post-Christmas traffic. We had to weave in and out of a constant stream of cars and lorries until finally leaving the freeway at Peak's Ridge Road and shaking off all the other travellers. We soon found the dirt track that leads into the Strickland State Forest despite taking a wrong turning and we drove down its bumpy surface for two kilometres or so and parked, solitarily, at the entrance to the trail.

Last time we came to the forest, back in September, Sniff was bitten by an enormous red ant after five minutes of walking so we never made it to the Bell Bird Trail. This time we were determined to see and hear the Bell birds and to spend most of the day walking amongst the trees and ferns.

The forest is very jungly with massive amounts of palms, creepers, grasses and odd-looking vines. The whirring of insects is almost deafening and birds trill by the dozen. One feels like Tarzan.

It is very isolated and today there is not a person in sight. We are a long way from civilisation, on an escapade. It's all very Picnic At Hanging Rock (except of course that this is a forest not a rock). We set off down the trail carrying half the picnic (we'll reward ourselves with the Christmas Cake when we get back), some water, some dog treats, a water bowl, the binoculars, a camera and our iphones in case we get bitten by a snake and need to call an ambulance.

Meandering slowly along the track Daniel trains his new super-clear super-magnifying binoculars (Xmas present) on an Eastern Yellow Robin and some tiny wrens, Sniff bounds along sniffing and I photograph a remarkable dangling bird's nest.

We reach the entrance to the Bell Bird Trail and it looks distinctly unused and overgrown. We have to  hack our way through the undergrowth searching for the path below our feet. As we progress slowly deeper into the forest, the sounds of Bell birds begin to emanate from all sides. Their distinctive calls are remarkably close but the birds themselves remain very difficult to spot. We stand still for a while, deep in the damp undergrowth, whilst Daniel peers about with his binoculars. He spots what he thinks might be a Bell bird directly above us in a tree.

Daniel's pointing out the exact spot where the bird is perched but I am strangely preoccupied with a crawling dampness on my leg. Suddenly, the air is rent with the sound of screaming.

It's me. Screaming. For my shoes and legs are covered in writhing, waving, blood-seeking, ravenous, predatory sucker-mouthed leeches.

I panic. I flail about, trying to brush them off my shoes, yelling to Daniel "Get them off me! Get them off me! They're everywhere." And indeed they are. On my socks, on my jeans, on my legs, on the ground ready to sucker on. I yell some more. It only seems right to. "Get them off me. Push them off with a stick. Nooooo!"

Five or so leeches fall, thwarted, to the forest floor. I look past them and see another dozen waving their heads in the air waiting for their chance at a meal. We now realise that the Bell Bird Trail is probably not a good idea. We realise that we should abandon our leisurely pace and hightail it outta here. The path is literally crawling with leeches, fore and aft.

Daniel, for some reason, thinks it best to press forward rather than to turn back, despite the fact that the trail is 3.4 kilometres long and we've probably only done 0.4 kilometres. So we push on through the undergrowth determinedly not looking down, bringing our feet up high and bringing them crashing  down, destroying the chance of seeing any wildlife or birds because of our swift pace and noisy progress but hopefully scaring the hell out of the leeches as well.

I keep wanting to stop and check my legs and feet (I even have a hole in my shoe and imagine the little bastards gleefully crawling through it to feast on my toes) but Daniel thinks its better to crash on and check once we're back at the car. I can't obey this ruling however and stop to have a look. Sure enough, another four leeches are making their obscene way up my socks to my bare flesh and I yell and scream and brush them off frantically before carrying on again.

Suddenly, it's all too much. I snap. I can bear it no longer. I'm going to be leeched alive. As I discover another three leeches on my FLESH I start to run like a mad thing through the forest, heading for the car as fast as I can go leaving both Sniff and Daniel behind, rending the air once more with my screams. Now it really is like Picnic At Hanging Rock. I am possessed by supernatural energy and the possessor of the loudest screams the Strickland State Forest has ever witnessed.

Once back at the car, closely followed by a very bewildered dog and Daniel who looks like he wants to slap me very hard, I rip off my shoes and socks and start searching my legs for leeches. I realise this isn't enough and rip off my jeans as well. I sit on the bonnet of the car half-naked, moaning, and beating the leeches off my socks and legs with my shoes. My periodic checking on the Bell Bird Trail has won out. Nothing has managed to get their suckers in me.

Daniel's coping mechanism hasn't worked so well. His wait till we get to the car park plan. For not only are his socks crawling with leeches, so are his legs...

He also crawls onto the bonnet of the car, takes off his shoes and socks and jeans and starts whimpering a little.

At this point all we needed was for someone else to drive into the clearing and see us, together, in our underpants, sprawled on the bonnet of our car. That would have made our day.

Once relatively leech-free I was ordered to go and put the cigarette lighter on in the car. That old familiar mechanism whereby you push that old button in and a few seconds later out it pops, red-hot. Time to burn the bastards.

It was only after Daniel had been successful in ridding himself of two leeches by poking them with the cigarette lighter in this fashion that he calmed down enough to let me take a photo of this, the third.

And of this, the aftermath:

His legs and feet wouldn't stop bleeding. There was blood on the bonnet of the car, all over his
handkerchief, on the picnic. Picnic at Hanging Rock had turned into Halloween III.

Obviously, the anti-coagulant that leeches use is extremely effective. AND you can't feel them latching on. Silent, stealthy, blood-sucking bastards.

After about twenty minutes of searching all our crevices and clothes for any sign of more leeches we began to calm down. We stomped on and sprayed with insect spray all those leeches littered around the car and were then able to contemplate a bit of picnic. But I soon realised I'd lost my appetite. I couldn't eat any cake. We had to leave. The forest, once so benign, now loured around us like a menacing beast.

After checking every inch of the car for more leeches we set off for home. Straight for home. No more wilderness today, thank you very much.

As Daniel steered us towards Sydney I fell asleep for forty minutes or so with Sniff on my lap, waking up just as the city was taking shape around us and the traffic was chaotic once more. Sniff shifted about a bit, yawned and then decided it was time to take a look out of the window. As he got up onto his hindlegs and put his paws on the windowpane I looked down at my lap and, to my horror, saw I was covered in BLOOD! Halloween IV!

I had checked Sniff for leeches, after we'd checked ourselves, but hadn't found any on his fur. I hadn't reckoned on the leeches being able to nestle into the gaps between his claws on the underside of his paws. Which they had. And all this time they had been feasting on Sniff on my very lap, draining him of his blood.

I looked around me. On the floor of the car wriggled two very fat, sated leeches, slowly waving their heads, contemplating their next meal - my ankles.

I couldn't scream or panic too much because Daniel was driving. So I beat the hell out of the bastards with the blunt end of the can of insect spray and flicked their disgusting bodies out of the car window. Sniff skulked off to the back seat of the car once he'd realised that he'd been suckered and licked at his paws for twenty minutes or so, looking rather bewildered.

"Would this hell ever end?" I thought to myself.

The idea of our lovely home in the bush was of no particular comfort - it's far too close to nature, red in tooth and claw and sucker.  I began to dream instead of being in a nice clean modern hotel in a nice clean modern city wearing a nice clean new set of clothes. Of shopping in a nice clean air-conditioned mall where all the plants and trees are plastic and the birdsong piped. Of wandering around somewhere like Disneyland where there is nothing real enough to actually bite.

And then I realised what Daniel and I have to do. That's it. We must give up this real life nonsense and live in a cartoon.

I'll be Snufkin and Daniel can be Moomintroll.

Perfect bliss...

...just, that is, as long as the Hattifattiners don't get us...