Friday, May 27, 2011

Week 2: Free-falling off a plane at 14,000 feet + Spying on Little Penguins + Boarding Her Majesty's Australian Ship Vampire

Clicked this picture of the HMAS Vampire when going whale watching. Click to enlarge.

Email comes late in the week. This email is for Monday, May 16 - Sunday, May 22. In Melbourne this week and surviving on four hours of sleep every day (working, not partying) so could not write in earlier. So last week was in Sydney as well. On Monday, went to a real nice restaurant called Rockpool Bar & Grill. This restaurant is owned by Neil Perry, a prominent Australian chef, restaurateur, author and television presenter. The restaurant was recommended by my cousin. Had the Cream of Jerusalem Artichoke & Cauliflower Soup with Mushroom & Gruyere Toast. For the main course I had Goats Cheese Tortellini with Burnt Butter, Pine Nuts & Raisins. The soup was fantastic, the main course while good was extremely bland. 

Tuesday was make your own pizza dinner night at office. You are given the pizza bread and you are supposed to fill it up and put it in the oven. I had no idea how to make one's own pizza but was helped by a colleague and ended up making a pretty good pizza.

Wednesday, Thursday, Friday was in office. On Thursday however, I went for the first day, first show screening of Pirates of the Caribbean On Stranger Tides in 3D at the world's largest IMAX screen at the Sydney LG IMAX theatre. I liked the movie. Much, much better than the previous 'at world's end.' And no, the first day, first show was at 6:45 in the evening so it doesn't mean I skipped work.

On Saturday, I did one of the most exciting things I have ever done. Went skydiving. This was a really early day. The only available slot was at 8:00am and the airstrip was two hours away from Sydney by train and the train runs only once every hour. So had to get up at 5:00am and walk towards the station. Reached the station to find out track work was in progress and no trains would run on my line for that day. So took the bus to the air strip. 

Got all geared up and the skydiving instructor gave me the low down of what I need to do. The most important point he said. When we jump, keep your hands holding on to the strap or keep them crossed like a Pharaoh. Don't spread them or you and me are screwed. Before boarding, they do some brilliant up-selling, 'Sir, would you like to take the completely optional $30 accident insurance.' Who's going to say no at that point in time? We took off and reached 14,000 feet. We were 4 in the plane and the 3 others jumped before me and thats when you get scared first. Seeing someone just dropping off without a parachute.

When I reached the door, I am supposed to sit on the edge of the airplane door and put my feet outside and push them under the belly of the airplane. And then they say...'watch your hands' (the plane door is like a shutter so you aren't supposed to touch it in case you pull it down by mistake)...yeah, the plane door is what I am worried about right now! This at 14,000 feet. At this point, a froze for the nick of second before the instructor shouted asking me to put my legs under the belly of the airplane and then we rolled off. We free fell for 45secs at speeds of 200kms/hr and the wind hits your face hard. The view was spectacular. In the last 15secs we opened the parachute and glided towards the landing zone. By far the most adventurous thing I have done till date. Unforgettable. Especially the moment when you jump off.

I then walked along North beach before stopping at a beach side cafe for a cup of hot cocoa and sitting back and watch the world go by.

Took the train back to Sydney. On the same day, I visited the Australian National Maritime Museum. The main purpose of the visit was to board Her Majesty's Australian Ship (HMAS) Vampire and the HMAS Onslaw.

The HMAS Vampire was an Australian destroyer ship that once had a crew of 320 and after being decommissioned in 1986, she was permanently docked at the museum. It was a delight boarding the ship and being on the decks of an erstwhile destroyer ship and seeing every aspect of the ship from the menu in the ship's canteen still prominently displayed to the chart room to the captain's quarters.
The HMAS Onslaw was a submarine that served in the Australian Navy. It is best known for becoming the first conventionally powered submarine to be fitted with anti ship missiles. the submarine is kept as is and even some of the torpedoes are still present in their bays for users to see (though obviously now defunct). A torpedo missile is pretty huge. Never thought of it. The submarine is as cramped as can be and I was surprised the way the sailors slept and lived in a submarine. Gives you a whole new degree of respect for them. It is is hard to walk with your head straight up and without bumping into stuff. Both the submarine's periscopes are still functional and visitors get to use them. The periscope was super powerful. One of the periscopes is pointed towards the top of the Sydney tower. The Sudney tower is around 2kms away from the submarine and the top is at a height of 1,014 feet. The periscope could not only let me see the top at that distance, but it was so clear, you could actually see people walking inside the tower through the windows. If a submarine built in 1969 has this powerful a periscope, one can only imagine the technology that exists today.

I also boarded the James Craig. The unique aspect being that this ship was built as early 1874. Through the years it changed hands and was finally abandoned to be sold as scrap. However, volunteers brought this ship back to the museum and through funding completely restored it back its original grandeur thereby giving visitors a unique look in to how ships were over a hundred years ago. The ship is actually now sailable and still runs on sails (though an engine has been fitted as backup). In fact for around $100, you can go with the ship on one of it's sails and experience living in the ship just as it was. I would have taken this up as the ship luckily was sailing the next day but unfortunately I had to fly to Melbourne.

Sunday: Melborune. Cold, raining, windy weather. Anyways, was pretty excited as in the evening I was going to Phillip Island. I was all set to see the little penguins in the evening. The Little Penguin (Eudyptula minor) is the smallest species of penguin. The penguin, which usually grows to between 30 and 33 cm tall (12 to 13 inches), is found only on the coastlines of southern Australia and New Zealand. I had booked several weeks early to book the ultimate tour. This is the best tour as it is only open to 10 people on a first come first serve basis. If you sign up for this, the group of 10 are assigned a dedicated park ranger and you are taken to a secluded beach to view the little penguins waddling ashore to their sand dune burrows. You are also given high-tech night vision 'nightscopes' to 'spy' on penguins in the dark. The reason it's only open to 10 people as you are less than 100 metres away from the penguins and it becomes important to stay camouflaged so as not to startle them or let them know you are there. We walked around 2kms to the area and we had to sit absolutely still for an hour waiting for the first penguin to appear. At first I wondered if it would be better without the goggles. But as we waited and darkness dawned, I realised how I could not see 5 metres ahead forget being able to clearly see a penguin. Slowly, around 6pm, the first penguin swam up to shore.

Now the little penguins are a fascinating species in my opinion. Once they form a burrow, for the rest of their lives, they will live in that burrow and return to it every year. Even after traveling hundreds of kilometres at sea, they will return every year to the exact same burrow. They will also mate with one other penguin and live them them in the same burrow for the rest of their life. This is what makes it possible for scientists to track their exact movements and paths. We were given wireless headsets and the park ranger quietly updated us on each penguin as they came and guided us on various penguins. For example, the park ranger identified how one of the penguins had a little limp and this was a sign of old age. Another penguin landed ashore with its tail covered with oil and hence had been somewhere where there had been an oil spill. It spent a good 30mins cleaning itself on shore before moving on. Now the burrows of some of the penguins are up a slope and it was cute to see the little penguins climbing up and being pushed by the other penguins behind. Then there was this little penguin who came to shore looked around and then ran back into the sea. The ranger told us that this was probably the penguins first return back to its burrow and he knows he is on the right island but unsure so ran back and will soon be back with an adult penguin who is from the same area. Sure enough, after a few minutes it was back with an adult penguin. Overall, I counted seeing 127 penguins and the ranger said it was our lucky day. Though we were supposed to be there for only 2hrs, we were there for a good 3 1/2hrs as the penguins kept on coming (and you cannot get up when the penguins are there). Finally, the last penguin came and the ranger said we would crawl back after this penguin left. But the penguin just stood there looking at the sky refusing to move. Finally it moved on. The night vision goggles were super powerful and allowed us to see the penguins to the detail of their eyes. A unique experience.

So that ends Week 2. Week 3 ends day after and stay tuned for hopefully another exciting weekend!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Week 1: Terra Australis Incognita: The Sydney Opera, Taronga Zoo, the City of Blue Mountains

Off to Australia. Did you know that the term 'Australia' may have been coined by the Romans who referred to it as Terra Australis Incognita (an 'unknown land of the South?') Now this is primarily a business trip so I am trying to make most of the weekends I get. This is my first trip in which my bag does not contain a morsel of food from India despite the incessant, loving coercion to take some from my mother. I figured, lets be adventurous with my food for once. Even vegetarians can have fun when it comes to food.

The trip from Hyderabad to Sydney was uneventful. Arriving into Sydney on Monday night, at customs, I was asked if I have in my food in my bag. Confidently, I said no. Perhaps knowing Indians too well, the officer went, 'Are you sure you have no sweets in your bag Sir?' I said 'no.' Now in Australia, when you arrive from an international destination, all bags are then sniffed by dogs (not sure if for foreign plant and food material or weapons or both). At that point in time I suddenly remembered that last minute my mom had put in a box of badam barfi in my bag. Darn! The dogs came but didn't catch it and walked past.

I am staying at the Oaks Goldsbrough apartments. My company has an apartment there booked for those to visit. The location is excellent (15mins walk from office and the harbour) and my room has an excellent view of the city landscape. Apart from that, the room's terrible. I wouldn't stay here if I were on a vacation (or on business for that matter).

Now here's the amazing thing about Sydney, almost everything shuts at 5:00pm. Now that's living! To me this is super impressive. At a time when even Europe is expanding it's business hours, Australians still like to down the shutters early and live life to the full. As a visitor on work, it of course gets difficult, but if I was a native, I think it's awesome. However, strangely enough, all shops are open till 9;00pm on Thursday. Why? Because they need to stock up as they travel over the weekend...nice!

I spent Tuesday evening at office so nothing to report there. Wednesday evening took a walk around the harbour and came upon this amazing eatery called 'Pancakes on the Rocks.' Their menu is a delight. I started the meal with sliced grilled eggplant with sundried tomato, zucchini, spanish onion, mushrooms and mozzarella cheese, topped with fresh rosemary and ended the meal with crepes filled with cream cheese and sultanas, served with rasberry coulis and vanilla ice cream. The eggplant was great, I didn't like the cream cheese in the crepes but loved the sultanas with the rasberry coulis.

Wednesday, Thursday at office.

Friday, I booked tickets for the Sydney Opera to watch a musical ballet called 'British Liaisons.' The reason I chose this because it was the only event playing in the main Opera Theatre. The opera house has many theatres so be careful when booking and book something in the main (and most famous) theatre. To begin with, the Sydney Opera House does not disappoint. I would definitely agree that it's one of the most impressive modern architecture buildings I have seen.

The 'British Liaisons' was a 3 part ballet. Also, my first ballet. Part 1 and by far the best was 'Checkmate.' The storyline is intriguing, it's a game of chess being played between love and death and the ballet consists of the pieces on the chess board. I liked this the best because the ballet was pretty intense and action oriented from duels between the pieces (each a human character) to the choice of love or country. Checkmate is widely regarded as de Valois' signature ballet and a cornerstone of the British ballet repertoire, being performed regularly by the Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet.

I wasn't awed by the second and third part (all too slow). The second part was 'After the Rain,' an unspoken love affair and the third part was 'Concerto,' a modern classic.

After the concert, I went down to the Opera Kitchen (an open air restaurant). This restaurant has by far one of the best views in Sydney. I sat right next to the water, the Opera house on my right, the Sydney Harbour bridge to my left and the Sydney skyline north. This restaurant makes for a fantastic, quiet evening. You can just there devoting time to your thoughts. I ordered a vegetarian burger (called the 'Producer's Burger). I so wish I had jotted down the contents to share. The burger was excellent.

Saturday, I took a ferry that gives you a tour around Sydney harbour and then takes you to Taronga Zoo Tip: Take the 'Zoo Express' ticket which includes return ferry and zoo entrance and save AUD $20. I was real lucky as on the way to the zoo, our boat saw the season's first ever dolphins....4 of them! Even more lucky to be able to capture them on my amazing Google Nexus S (courtesy of Google). I have uploaded the video on YouTube (where else?). My first ever video upload! Click here to view.

Taronga zoo...the highlights being the Koalas (ooohhh so cute and fuzzy)...the Koalas were sleeping all curled up like a little fur ball. They actually sleep for 20hrs a day (waste of life if you ask me). The Kangaroo enclosure was great. You actually walk the path and the Kangaroos are hopping away freely without any fencing. They actually hop right next to you and jump around on the same path on which you walk! The same enclosure has emus, wallabies and other native Australian species (ducks and such) all roaming freely around you and it's fun to see how these animals interact with each other. It was a very unique experience. I saw a Kangaroo jumping around and a Kangaroo cleaning itself up with it's legs...very human actually, it was brushing it's teeth, combing it's hair...all captured on video: Kangaroo Hopping Video and Kangaroo Lazing Around.

I took the ferry back and for the evening I walked over to 'The Rocks.' The area is famous for it's roadside cafes coupled along with historic pubs and hotels. A very happening street. In fact, all streets are under surveillance for maximum tourist safety. I first went over to the Guylian Belgian Chocolate Cafe. Sitting outside in the cold, warmed by a fire lamp post, I had Belgian Waffles served with Guylian praline ice cream with seasonal fruit (strawberry, kiwi and the third was peach I think) & Guylian chocolate dip (African 70% chocolate). Needless to say, the dish was fabulous. Need to come back here again.

I then walked down the street to reach Sydney harbour bridge before heading back to the 'Fortune of War' which is the oldest pub in Sydney. Set up in 1828, I sat on the same table on which the likes of Sir Don Bradmund and Sir Edmund Hillary once sat. The pub has an amazing history...revolutionary armies have had their secret meetings here to famous ship crew stopping by for a drink. The best part is that throughout the pub, the walls are decked with the history of the pub and a bio of its visitors. As detailed as the names and particulars of the names of the crew members who sipped a drink there with details of the ships.

Saturday night also had a dark side. Back at home, at around 9:00pm, my work colleague and I headed for dinner at the nearby mall. As I went to get my food and he went the other way, three guys tried to provoke him with nasty comments. This went on for a good 10mins before they broke off. This at 9:00pm in a crowded mall. The same night, at around 3:30am, our room suddenly had knocking with shouting around 'let me in.' After a few seconds the person walked off. Probably a drunk but two incidents in one night makes you cautious. For example, in the first week, I usually stay back in office and walk back home at around 9-9:30pm. I know I won't be doing that again and have now enabled Google Latitude on my phone.

Sunday, I caught a two hour train to a town called Katoomba to see the Blue Mountains, a UNESCO world heritage site. Katoomba, is a quaint little (population of 7,000, the street where I work has more people), Australian town with friendly people. Just like you see in the movies. Blue Mountains is a pretty place famous for trekking, hiking etc. The highlight was the Three Sisters a unique rock formation. The commonly told legend of the Three Sisters is that three sisters (Meehni', 'Wimlah' and Gunnedoo' lived in the Jamison Valley as members of the Katoomba tribe) they fell in love with three men from a neighbouring tribe (Nepean tribe), but marriage was forbidden by tribal law.The brothers were not happy to accept this law and so decided to use force to capture the three sisters causing a major tribal battle. Battle ensued, and the sisters were turned to stone by an elder to protect them, but the elder was killed in the fighting and no one else could turn them back. I missed visiting the Katoomba waterfalls but that's all right (just a heads up that you must go there if you visit).

Took the train back home to end a pretty good first week in Australia. Stay tuned for more...

Thursday, May 5, 2011

World Heritage - Nordic Countries

To view the high resolution images,  click on the images above

On 5 May 2011, the United Nations Postal
Administration (UNPA) issued a set of
commemorative stamps on the theme “World
Heritage—Nordic Countries” which includes
five Nordic countries plus the Struve Geodetic

44 cents: Iceland – Surtsey Volcanic Island
98 cents: Sweden – Drottningholm Castle
F.s. 0,85: Denmark – Kronborg Castle
F.s. 1,00: Finland – Suomenlinna Fortress
€ 0,62: Norway – Urnes Stave Church
€ 0,70: Struve Geodetic Arc

On 5 May 2011, special first day hand-cancellations
for the “World Heritage—Nordic Countries” stamps were made available at United Nations Headquarters in New York, the Palais des Nations, Geneva, and the Vienna International Centre.

The same can be seen in the scanned FDCs'.

The stamps, in denominations of 44 cents, 98 cents, F.s. 0,85, F.s. 1,00, € 0,62 and € 0,70, measure 50 mm horizontally by 36 mm vertically, perforation to perforation. Perforation: 14 x 13 1/4.

The designs were adapted as stamps by Rorie Katz (United Nations).

The stamps were printed in offset by Joh. Enschedé Stamps Security Printers B.V. (Netherlands).

Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural heritage and our natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.

What makes the concept of World Heritage
exceptional is its universal application. World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the
world, irrespective of the territory on which they
are located.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity. This is embodied in an international treaty called the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, adopted by UNESCO in
1972. The United Nations Postal Administration has chosen five Nordic countries, plus the Struve Geodetic Arc, for this year’s stamp issue.


98 cents Sweden – Drottningholm Castle

The royal domain of Drottningholm is located on Queen’s Island in Lake Mälaren, outside Stockholm. The island’s name acknowledges the closely interwoven history of the castle with the different queens of Sweden.

The ensemble of Drottningholm— castle, theatre, Chinese pavilion and gardens—is the best example of a royal residence built in the eighteenth century in Sweden and is representative of all European architecture of that period, heir to the influences exerted by the Château de Versailles on the construction of royal residences in western, central and northern Europe.

The changes and shifts in styles and fashions also affected the gardens: the French garden, which surrounds the complex, designed by Nicodemus Tessin the Younger in 1681 on the model of the Baroque park of Versailles, with bronze statues by Adriaen de Vries, hedges with surprising shapes, and flower-beds, bushes, waterfalls, fountains and artificial ponds; and the English garden, to plans by King Gustav III and the architect Adelcrantz, reflecting the new preference for a more lively and “picturesque” landscape.

With its castle, perfectly preserved theatre (built in 1766), Chinese pavilion and gardens, it is the finest example of an 18th-century north European royal residence inspired by the Palace of Versailles.


44 cents Iceland – Surtsey Volcanic Island

Surtsey, a volcanic island approximately 32 km from the south coast of Iceland, is a new island formed by volcanic eruptions that took place from 1963 to 1967. It is all the more outstanding for having been protected since its birth, providing the world with a pristine natural laboratory. Free from human interference, Surtsey has been producing unique long-term information on the colonization process of new land by plant and animal life. Since they began studying the island in 1964, scientists have observed the arrival of seeds carried by ocean currents, the appearance of moulds, bacteria and fungi, followed in 1965 by the first vascular plant, of which there were 10 species by the end of the first decade. By 2004, they numbered 60 together with 75 bryophytes, 71 lichens and 24 fungi. Eighty nine species of birds have been recorded on Surtsey, 57 of which breed elsewhere in Iceland. The island is also home to 335 species of invertebrates.


F.s. 1,00 Finland – Suomenlinna Fortress

In the history of military architecture, the Fortress of Finland (Suomenlinna) is an outstanding example representative both of the general fortification principles of the period and of its specific characteristics.

In 1747, when Finland was part of the Swedish realm, the Diet in Stockholm decided to build a fortress to serve as the main base for the armed forces stationed in Finland. A group of islands close to Helsinki were chosen to be the site of the fortress, which was to be called Sveaborg, the “Fortress of Sweden”, and construction began in 1748. The purpose was to link and fortify several islands so that entry into the city’s harbour could be controlled.

One of the main reasons for building Sveaborg was to help Sweden counter the ambitions of Russia, whose principal military base in the Gulf of Finland was Kronstadt, commissioned by Peter the Great to protect the city of St. Petersburg and as the home port of a new Russian Navy to challenge Swedish maritime power in the eastern reaches of the Baltic Sea. Following Finland’s independence (1918), the name was changed a final time to Suomenlinna (Fortress of Finland).

Located on islands off Helsinki, Suomenlinna is a unique historical monument and one of the largest maritime fortresses in the world. Its history is closely entwined with that of Finland and the Baltic region.


F.s. 0,85 Denmark – Kronborg Castle

Located on a strategically important site commanding the Sund, the stretch of water between Denmark and Sweden, the Royal castle of Kronborg at Helsingør (Elsinore) is of immense symbolic value to the Danish people and played a key role in the history of northern Europe in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. Construction began on this outstanding Renaissance castle in 1574, and its defenses were reinforced according to the canons of the period’s military architecture in the late seventeenth century. It has remained intact to the present day. It is world-renowned as Elsinore, the setting of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.


€ 0,70 Struve Geodetic Arc

The Struve Arc is a chain of survey triangulations stretching from Hammerfest in Norway to the Black Sea, through 10 countries and over 2,820 km. These are points of a survey, carried out between 1816 and 1855 by the astronomer Friedrich Georg Wilhelm Struve, which represented the first accurate measuring of a long segment of a meridian. This helped to establish the exact size and shape of the planet and marked an important step in the development of earth sciences and topographic mapping. It is an extraordinary exam-ple of scientific collaboration among scientists from different countries, and of collaboration between monarchs for a scientific cause. The original arc consisted of 258 main triangles with 265 main station points.

The Struve Geodetic Arc World Heritage site consists of 34 of the original station points established by Struve and his colleagues between 1816 and 1851—four points in Norway, four in Sweden, six in Finland, one in Russia, three in Estonia, two in Latvia, three in Lithuania, five in Belarus, one in Moldova and four in Ukraine. These marks take different forms: small holes drilled in rock surfaces, and sometimes filled with lead; cross-shaped engraved marks on rock surfaces; solid stone or brick with a marker inset; rock structures (cairns), with a central stone or brick, marked by a drilled hole; single bricks; and specially con-structed “monuments” to commemorate the point and the arc.


€ 0,62 Norway – Urnes Stave Church
The stave churches constitute one of the most elaborate types of wood construction which are typical of northern Europe from the Neolithic period to the Middle Ages.

Christianity was introduced into Norway during the reign of St. Olav (1016-1030). The churches were built on the classic basilical plan, but entirely of wood. The roof frames were lined with boards and the roof itself covered with shingles in accordance with construction techniques which were widespread in Scandinavian countries.

Among the roughly 1,300 medieval stave churches indexed, about 30 remain in Norway. Urnes Church was selected to represent this outstanding series of wood buildings for a number of reasons. Its antiquity, the exemplary nature of its structure, outstanding quality of its sculpted monumental décor, wealth of liturgical objects of the medieval period and excellent conservation and location all make it an exceptional monument.