Monthly Archives: August 2010

CYCLING SYDNEY – to Ku-Ring-Gai and Kurnell

Ku-Ring-Gai. Whoever goes up, gets an easy ride down.

The Young Bull and his father went out on the bikes this weekend, riding in a couple of local national parks. We have new toys to play with – Garmin Edge 500 GPS bike computers which by some mystical process chat to NASA satellites and measure our speed, elevation, calorie count and wobbles around manhole covers.

The YB’s computer is linked to a heart monitor that calculates how fast he should be riding for maximum efficiency and endurance. The old bloke is happy just to wake up each morning and find that the ticker is still vaguely functioning.

The Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park has been YB’s favourite ride for a while now. He likes the hills there. Okay, they’re not the mighty Rockies or the Italian Alps but they can be steep; gradient 14% in places, according to the computer, and regularly over 10%.

We park the vehicle just outside the official National Park entrance. It costs $11 to go in there with a car, and it’s free on foot or on a bike. That means there are fewer cars than bikes in the park, and the road, newly surfaced last year, is excellent.

West Head Lookout, Barrenjoey in the background

We settle for a short, sharp out and back route to West Head – just about 26.98km (approximately – NASA’s satellite wasn’t sure about a few of the metres.) ‘We could loop down to Akuna Bay, but that’s 44km and a big climb up,’ says the Young Bull, ‘and I’m feeling a bit tired’. Meaning he may not have the energy to carry his dad up the hill after the heart attack.

That suits me. I feel my honour has been satisfied just by getting up those hills, despite picking a gear way too heavy for me. And I freely admit to doing what YB calls ‘delivering the mail’, weaving back and forth across the road to reduce the gradient on the steeper sections.

Ku-Ring-Gai Chase has beautiful forest, but the real aesthetic appeal is the chance to see glimpses of the spectacular sea and islands in Pittwater below us. Serious riders may find the road surface even more beautiful than the scenery.

For details of the route we took and to sample the Garmin Edge 500 computer readout, click here.

On Sunday we tackle my regular ride, 69.37km out to Kamay Botany Bay National Park. We can start at our front gate. A short ride through Marrickville streets takes us down to the Cooks River. From there it’s mostly bike paths by the beach or wide, quiet roads past Brighton-le-Sands and Ramsgate to the Captain Cook Bridge.

The Captain Cook Bridge - separate bike path, but I see too much of the back of that rider in orange

Once across the bridge into Taren Point, we’re into a mostly industrial area. Heavy vehicles are a bit of a menace on weekdays, but the surface is good and the roads are wide. On a Sunday we cyclists almost have the roads to ourselves.

Riding into the wind on the flat, it helps to have a big fit rider punching a large hole in the air in front of me. It would be even better if he’d slow down enough to let me slipstream him.

No cycle lane here, but a wide road with good visibility. Getting tired of trailing that orange guy.

Captain Cook Drive, which leads out to Kurnell, also carries heavy vehicles during the week, but the cycle lanes are wide, so it’s always quite safe. Then for the last few kilometres we can climb up into the national park at Cape Solander. The $7 parking charge keeps the cars at bay, and though the road surface is coarse, it’s pothole free.

No whales at Cape Solander today, but worth the trip anyway.

Cape Solander is one of Sydney’s best whale-spotting vantage points. Humpbacks and southern right whales can pass at any time…except today. Sorry, they only surface when you forget to bring the camera.

Petersham to Cape Solander, Kurnell

For details of the route we took and the Garmin computer readout, click here.

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TURIN, ITALY – cycling slow by the Po, Torino

Garibaldi statue, Po River


Squeak- scratch-rattle! My wife and I could have rented smart cycles at a number of places along the Po River in Turin, but our Italian hosts have kindly lent us their battered old ‘anti-theft bikes’, as they affectionately refer to them. No-one’s going to steal them, and they’re not taking us anywhere fast either.

Umberto Bridge, Po River


No problemo. We’re heading out of Turin to a lunch destination that sounds very interesting, and we’re in no hurry. It’s a sunny day, and an easy ride along a cycle path by the river. On the Po, rowers and the kayakers paddle past, fishermen have hopeful lines in the water, and there’s a steady stream of joggers, dog walkers, and cyclists.

In the lovely Parco del Valentino, people sip caffe and slurp gelato as we squeak past. Novelty bikes seem to be the go here. Families are trying out weird vehicles with four sets of pedals. Papa usually does the heavy work, while Mama and the bambinos enjoy the view. The quiet river slips by on the left and when we glance up to our right between the blocks of city buildings, we glimpse snow-capped alps sparkling in the distance.

Life in Turin is seldom hurried. Italy’s fourth biggest city is mostly famous for producing Fiat cars and Pirelli tyres, so it doesn’t get the tourist hordes that flock to Rome, Florence or Venice. There was an exception to this rule this year, because the Shroud of Turin was on display in the cathedral for a few weeks only, its first showing for ten years, so believers (and amused sceptics wondering what all the fuss was about) lined up to shuffle past it.

Borgo Medioevale

We squeak to a halt by the Borgo Medioevale, with La Rocca castle towering above it. Signs (in English) warn us that this mediaeval town is not mediaeval. It was built for the Turin Exhibition in 1884, but people thought it was worth keeping. We’re happy to give the backsides a break and explore it, crossing the drawbridge into a cobbled street lined with reconstructions of mediaeval shops, displays of miniature mediaeval soldiers and a mediaeval drink dispensing machine. Information boards are all in Italian, but the gruesome torture device (okay, maybe it’s just a wine press) is interesting anyway.

A few rattling kilometres down the river we leave the cycle path and brave a little traffic to head into the Lingotto district. We’ve been told not to miss Lingotto’s shopping centre, which at first glance is just like any other suburban shopping centre anywhere in the world. There is one extraordinary difference, though. A lift somewhere between the gelato and Benetton shops takes us up to the fifth floor and the Pinacoteca Agnelli – an art gallery stocked with Canalettos, Picassos, Matisses and a Renoir, and a cutting edge exhibition of odd work too. The view of the Alps from the terrace alone is worth the modest price of admission.

Across the road is our lunch spot, ‘Eataly’, which local experts have promised will introduce us to Italian Slow Food. The pun in the name may be terrible, but we think the place is wonderful, the highlight of our day.

In 2007 an old vermouth factory was converted into a light-filled temple to all things culinary. Eataly is a food market, dedicated to Slow Food, “where buy, taste and learn about high quality foods” according to its website. What a great idea this is, and a simple one too – stock a market with high quality local produce, price it reasonably, display it brilliantly, with information about its provenance, staff it with people in aprons to make them look like they know their food and wine, and people will come!

There are seven separate restaurant areas within Eataly, each with its own specialty – pasta , meat, fish, etc. We go for the fish. We can sit at a counter to watch and learn as the experts prepare it in front of us, then serve it with a glass of beer or wine thrown in. While we wait we’re dished up a basket of generous chunks of excellent fresh bread, olive oil to dunk it in and a litre of sparkling mineral water. Total cost around EUR15 a head, all inclusive.

We love the idea of the Slow Food movement – small-scale local producers, dedicated to protecting and fostering food traditions, defending biodiversity and running food education programs. There are Eataly branches in Bologna, Milan and Rome, and now also in New York and Tokyo, and I bet they’re all booming.

After lunch we browse Eataly’s food market section, with its fabulous displays of locally produced zucchinis, prosciutto, pasta and mozzarella. In the cellar we find a huge range of beers and wines, with attendants on hand to provide expert advice. We could fill our own bottles from the barrels, but we choose a bottle of Barbera, a big red from nearby Asti, to take home.

Then we progress to the caffe bar. Mrs Tulloch takes a classic hot cioccolato for which Turin is famous – imagine a couple of whole chocolate bars melted into a cup. I go for the Bicerin, the locals’ beverage of choice. Chocolate in the bottom, whipped cream on top – pure evil, we know, but we hope that riding back on a gearless, squeaky anti-theft bike will roughly neutralize the effect.

TRIP NOTES:

Getting there: Bus from Milan Malpensa airport to Turin takes 2 hours and costs 18 euros one way.
For non cyclists, trains run to Lingotto from central Turin.

Staying there: For accommodation options see turismotorino.org

Further information: Entry to the Borgo Medioevale is free. La Rocca castle entry is 5 euros, Pinacoteca Agnelli 7.5 euros. TIP: A three day Torino Card costs 25 euros and gives entry to most museums in the area, as well as unlimited use of trams and buses.
For more about Eataly, see www.eataly.it.

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AMSTERDAM – Anne Frank’s tree falls over

Photo - Evert Elzinger A/P


The Anne Frank tree will be removed today. In her diary, Anne made occasional references to the large chestnut tree, which she could see from the back window of her hiding place and which became a symbol for her of the natural world and the changing seasons.

The tree had been the centre of a battle through the world media and the Dutch courts to save it, since arborists warned that it was rotten to the core and on its way out. Funds were subscribed from around the world. But a storm on Monday blew it over, fortunately with no damage to life (though some to limb of course).

Its removal is unlikely to affect interest in what is perhaps Amsterdam’s most visited tourist attraction. At almost any time of day the queue stretches around the corner. The house is in fact the Frank family’s former jam factory, and since when the family was betrayed and arrested all furniture was removed, there is little remaining there in the way of Anne Frank artifacts. But most moving I find the wallpaper in Anne’s bedroom, now preserved behind perspex, on which she’d posted photos of movie stars clipped from magazines, just as any teenage girl might do.

Visitors queue to pay homage to Anne Frank

The rest of the now extended building has very much the feel of a museum rather than a house, but the displays and videos tell a powerful story of courage and survival in the face of terrible fear and oppression. It is very well done, and recommended if you have time to wait in line.

Bits of bark and wood from the tree are now for sale on marktplaats.nl, an online website which is a Dutch rival to ebay. Oh dear – the age we live in!

STOP PRESS: The owners of the tree are planning to donate pieces to Jewish musea in New York, Tel Aviv, Berlin and Amsterdam.

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CATHEDRAL COVE, NEW ZEALAND – sea kayaking in mercury

Phew! Sea kayaking has been cancelled. Mike Grogan of Cathedral Cove Kayaks tells me when I phone to check, ‘Sorry if it messes up your plans, but the sea’s forecast to be pretty lumpy till Thursday.’

‘No problem,’ I say quickly, ‘Safety must always be the number one priority. I absolutely understand.’

I’m secretly relieved. Paddling looks easy enough, but I’m a complete novice and have no idea whether I’ll be able to last ten minutes before being totally exhausted. Moreover, my body is flexibility-challenged. Can I even squeeze through that little hole in the top of a kayak, and will I ever be able to straighten my legs again afterwards? Now I won’t have to worry about that till Thursday.

In the meantime, I have plenty of very important things that must be done around Mercury Bay, on the east coast of New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula. There are beaches begging to be strolled, mountains that need tramping and cafes that must be drunk in. Island cruises, fishing trips and glass-bottomed boat tours are on offer.

But first, I try Mercury Bay’s weirdest attraction; Hot Water Beach, where people rent spades, dig holes in the sand and sit in them for hours. Something volcanic is close enough to the surface to heat the ground water, which bubbles out of the sand at over 60 degrees, creating a natural hot tub.
At low tide, the spot is crowded with bodies lying in the pools like a colony of pink seals – backpackers, families, and oldies who have poured out of the tour buses. From time to time somebody with a spade builds up a sand wall to protect the warm bath from the incoming tide. Then the next wave floods the pool with cold water, and the bodies scream, scramble and scatter.

That sort of paddling is all good fun, but the kayaks are waiting at the tiny town of Hahei, and the forecast is fair for Thursday. It does look like kayaking heaven out there. Mercury Bay, named by Captain Cook while he was observing the transit of that planet, is dotted with little islands with clumps of trees on top. Along the shoreline, soft white cliffs of volcanic ash and pumice have weathered into extraordinary pillars, pitted with caves.

I’m told that, in the high season, whole flotillas of kayaks bump into each other as they splash round this coastline. But when Thursday arrives there are only three of us ready to paddle; instructor Mark in his solo kayak and my partner in the double one, fit-looking Joanne who’s done kayaking before and rowing too, she says. Great – she can sit in the back, flex her rowing muscles and steer with the foot pedals. I’ll contribute the essential ballast in the front.

Cathedral Cove beach


Mark gives us a quick equipment and safety lesson. I’m sure I look very fetching in my lifejacket and the rubber skirt designed to seal my body to the top of the kayak and keep out the water. Then Mark pushes us off and I desperately flail my paddle as we burst into the pounding breakers. Okay, they probably just look like little ripples to any wimps watching from the beach, but you should see them from low down in a kayak!

Once we’re through the foam the sea flattens out, so I open my eyes again and enjoy the sparkling view. We’re in the Te Whanganui A Hei marine reserve, so declared in 1992, after years of battles between conservationists and fishermen. Now fish stocks have risen dramatically, attracting seals, dolphins and even killer whales so everybody is happy.

We paddle out a kilometre or so to circle Motueka Island, with waves crashing on its rocky shores. Maori chief Hei named this island, because he thought its shape resembled that of his own nose. He must have been an interesting-looking chap, since Motueka has two large humps. The name of the town opposite, Hahei, means ‘breath of Hei’.

The swell is building. ‘There’s nothing between here and Chile,’ says Mark, pointing to the eastern horizon, ‘but you’re paddling well, so we can cope with this.’ We take his word for it, even daring to follow him towards the natural tunnel under the end of Poikeke Island. The surf carries us right through, as we ride the swell and steer nervously. Whoo-ooh!

After an hour in the kayaks we land at the much-photographed Cathedral Cove. Mark makes surprisingly good cappuccinos on the portable stove, and we explore the amazing cave and rock formations in the soft pumice. ‘Those two pillars used to be an arch,’ says Mark, ‘but the middle collapsed not long ago.’ Oh, really? Without appearing to hurry, I step nimbly out of the cave and admire it from the outside.

Getting the kayaks back into the sea should be a doddle now we’re old hands, but the surf is bigger than when we set out. The first dumper breaks full in my face. My skirt flips loose and water floods into the kayak. ‘Keep paddling!’ yells Joanne, ‘How can I steer when we’re not going anywhere??’ I can’t think of a satisfactory answer – besides, my mouth is full of salty water.

We burst through another breaker and reach flattish sea again. Ah, now we can gently paddle back past Stingray Bay and Gemstone Bay, looking with some scorn at the lazy wusses who have arrived there in powerboats.

On the way to Hahei we hear one more story from Mark, and a tragic one. Around 1820 the local Ngati Hei tribe stole a princess from their neighbours, who came with muskets seeking revenge. Many were massacred, and reputedly bodies were boiled at Hot Water Beach.

By now we’ve going three hours, and we’re ready to face our final tricky landing through the surf. Mark will paddle to the beach first, then guide us in with hand signals. Beckoning arms mean ‘paddle this direction’. Palms out mean ‘wait for the wave behind you to pass’. Hands crossed on the chest, like a laid-out corpse, mean ‘paddle backwards as hard as you can; the wave behind you is really, really big!’

It all goes swimmingly. We paddle, we wait, we paddle backwards, we surf in and thump onto the beach. There are handshakes and backslapping all round. I won’t make the K2 team in the London Olympics, but next time someone asks ‘Anyone for a paddle?’my hand will be the first up. Whoo-ooh!

TRIP NOTES

Getting there: Hahei is best reached by private transport, about four hours drive from Auckland.

Cathedral Cove Kayaks operates year round from Hahei. Half day trips cost NZ$95, full day trips NZ$150. See cathedralcovekayaks.co.nz

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SYDNEY HARBOUR BRIDGE – cycling the home town icon

Sydney has a new plan for spending millions of dollars on new bike lanes and infrastructure, and it has met predictable opposition from motorists and radio shock jocks. The usual arguments fly round: “This is not the solution to Sydney’s traffic congestion” (No it’s not, but it’s part of the solution; every car off the road helps a bit), “It takes away parking spaces” (Very few, and every bike means one less car needing parking’), “Sydney is too big, hot and hilly – we’re not Amsterdam” (No, and Amsterdam is cold, wet and crowded, so bikes could never work there)…

I ride the bike every day when living in Amsterdam, for commuting and for fun. So I tried to imagine whether cycling in Sydney could ever take off as a tourist activity. There are a couple of companies offering guided small group cycling tours. I haven’t road-tested them, so I can’t recommend (or condemn) them, but could Sydney ever offset expenditure on its cycling infrastructure by attracting more cycling tourists?

I tested a route from inner west Petersham, into the city centre, then across the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge, to see what Sydney had to offer. I was pleasantly surprised.

Here’s the route in pictures…

Leichhardt Council's been spending some money on green paint and splashing it around Annandale. That's a good start, though there are still too many places where the green just stops. But the roads are quiet and leafy, and there are nice houses and parks to visit.


The digger wished me luck on the Anzac Bridge, but it's a good car-free cycleway and I didn't need it. The view from the middle is exhilarating and only the ramps at the ends are tricky.


A simple green designated cycle lane across Darling Harbour would make this bridge much safer for pedestrians and less frustrating for cyclists. As it stands, cyclists have to weave between them. But it's good that we're allowed there at all, and there's plenty to keep tourists happy here - shopping, cafes, aquarium etc.

Rumour has it that this art work in Hickson's Bay Rd was designed by a cyclist.


After a few false turns in the historic Rocks area, I found my way to the Harbour Bridge cycleway - note the signs banning pedestrians!

People pay big bucks to the Bridge Climb company to get this view. It's free from a bike - and still brilliant!


Security guards keep the joggers off the path.


Shame about the steps at the Milson's Point end - a ramp would be good, though I'm told the serious MTB boys and girls like the challenge of riding the steps.

The view from the Milson's Point side makes you think Sydney's not a bad city at all.

This is not a route for getting up great speed, and there are often frustrating waits at intersections where the cycle path stops and you share a footpath with pedestrians. However it is generally very safe, and certainly spectacular. More tourists should try it!

At Milson’s Point I met a couple of Sydney riders who had taken a week’s holiday just to go bike riding in their own city. ‘The bikes have been gathering dust in the shed,’ they told me, ‘and this is a cheap holiday.’ And how has it been? I asked. ‘Best holiday we’ve had in ages!’ was their verdict.

It was about a 26.68km round trip, including a few false turns and a bit of backtracking as I searched for photo opportunites. To see my route in detail, click here.

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KAWAKAWA, NEW ZEALAND – Hundertwasser’s touristy toilet

This has to be the world’s most photographed public toilet.

After we’d spent nearly four hours driving north from Auckland, the sight of any facilities was welcome. But these ones, in the village of Kawakawa in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands district, added a special magic to the relief. They were designed by the late, eccentric Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. His adobe arches, the pillars like strings of giant beads, and the grassy roof with a large tree growing through it make this loo a pleasure to spend a penny in. And it was free.

It’s a bit of a rip-off of the great Spansih architect Gaudi (or a ‘tribute’ to him, if we’re being kind to Hundertwasser), but fun all the same. Hundertwasser did a great job of cheering up stuffy old Vienna with his quirky creations, and when he moved to New Zealand, the Kiwis were so impressed they gave him this lavatory to work on. Trademarks of his architecture are bright colours, rounded pillars, jumbled mosaic tiles and organic floors – organic meaning ‘not even close to level’. We once drank coffee in Hundertwasserhaus in Vienna and had trouble balancing our cups on the organically rocking table.

I can now assure you that using a Hundertwasser toilet is not so challenging, though in Kawakawa you should prepare to be interrupted by sightseers with cameras.
Then watch out for trains as you cross the street; a little steam engine puffs right down the middle of the main drag.

TRIP NOTES:

The best way to get to Kawakawa is to drive there.

Once there, you can pee for free.

PS. In his quest to make ordinary things look interesting. Hundertwasser also designed Vienna’s incinerator – surely the most spectacular one in the world. For photos of this result of burning ambition, click here.

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