Bondi Beach, Sydney Australia: You know you are in a Jewish neighborhood when…

A trip to Bondi Beach is one of THE things to do if you’re visiting Sydney; for instance, if you look at TripAdvisor’s top things to do while in Sydney, a trip to Bondi is #2 on the list. It’s the nearest/best beachfront neighborhood to downtown Sydney and while the train doesn’t go the whole distance, there’s busses almost every five minutes to take you the rest of the way. That said, this is my SECOND year spending a few weeks in this neighborhood, so I’ve decided to update this post more than a bit, rather than do a 2nd post on the same subject

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What most people miss when they come here are all the clues that tell those of us who are MOT “members of the tribe” that this is also one of THE most Jewish neighborhoods in all of Australia. For instance, the fact that almost every seller of Jewelry have stars of David for sale, as well as Chais, and Hamsas. Of course the latter, isn’t really a Jewish item as such, but rather a symbol that has been traced all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia, that is used by all the various religious groups of the area, and is sometimes referred to as either the hand of Fatima (for those who don’t know, the favorite daughter of Muhammad), Mary (Jesus’s mother), Miriam (sister of Moses), or just ‘the goddess’…  But of course the evidence goes deeper than that.

IMG_6500.JPGThis is now my second year of spending a few weeks in Bondi. Like I said in a previous post, the first time I came to Australia it was a fairly last-minute decision. I had contacted my travel buddy, who goes to Sydney (his hometown) almost every year during their summer months (Dec through March) in part so that he can spend Christmas with his mother, but also just to be there. His mother lives in a retirement village in the suburbs, so he opts to stay in an apartment rental in one of his old stomping grounds.

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A mural adjacent to Bondi Beach, note my T-shirt, and my Chai necklace (which is also an AT-AT)

Now granted, on the day when I first arrived I didn’t know this… and my friend isn’t Jewish and was utterly oblivious to stuff like this, so he didn’t know either. Anyway, we took the train from the airport to Bondi Junction, at which point — because my friend seems to like to walk everywhere (even when lugging suitcases) we walked  (suitcases in hand) to an eatery called Savta Cafe, which he said was supposed to be good. I was SO tired after my flight that my brain didn’t trigger to the fact that Savta was the Hebrew word for grandmother. That said, the menu made it pretty obvious that this was an Israeli restaurant — something my friend had not realized. I got very excited and ordered the Shakshouka, a dish invented by Tunisian Jews, and pretty common in Israel.

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That said, it was not the best I’ve ever eaten (the excessive use of mushrooms confused me) but it was ok… After that we lugged the suitcases to his rented a ‘room in an apartment’ (but not an Airbnb) in an area called Bellevue Hill, right near St. Stephen’s Anglican Church, that is located just west of Bondi beach and just east of the Bondi Junction Train station — [The map refuses to embed, so please check the location via the link].

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But ONE Israeli cafe does not a Jewish neighborhood necessarily make. The next hint however was SO in your face that I couldn’t possibly miss the implication. The next day he took me on a walk from our apartment to the beach, and we passed THIS house along the way…

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Let’s Welcome Moshiach with acts of goodness and kindness

For those who don’t know who this guy is, his name is Menachem Mendel Schneerson, also known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Many of his followers (I am not one) had actually believed that he was THE Moshiach, aka the Messiah, a concept that should not be confused with Jesus/Christ … even if the Chabad-Lubavitch (who can be referred to with either term) are the most Catholic of Jews — a concept to complex to explain here…  at least until Schneerson died.

To tell you how Jewish I am, I’m one step away from Schneerson via more than a few people even though I am NOT one of his followers; most closely of whom was our family friend and cardiologist (until he retired) who was flown in to also be part of Schneerson’s medical team before he died. [Personal story…. Ira came to my father’s funeral. After the service, he took me by the hands, looked me in the eye and told me how sorry he was to have been out-of-town during my fathers final days — and hence unable to help him personally, but told me that he called in regularly, and had heard via the nurses and doctors at the hospital how I had been at my father’s side every day from his admittance until he died… and he said to me, “Rebecca, you have raised the bar in terms of how a child should be with a sick parent.” … to this day it is probably one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me, and just thinking about it makes me want to cry. Ira is a real man of G-d, instead of going to synagogue and making himself the center of attention, he spends every sabbath quietly in the hospital, saving lives.]

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Anyway, the VERY public display of the Rebbe’s picture on the side of a home (see above) made me realize there must be Lubbavitch in the neighborhood… but what I didn’t realize until I had actually been there a few days and explored the place it was that it was ALSO spitting distance from The Central Synagogue, which is a modern orthodox congregation

AND Adath Yisroel Congregation / Tzemach Tzedek … (when looking at these maps, please note all the OTHER Jewish institutions that Google popped, assuming they were also of interest to me, when I searched the synagogues’ names

AND The Sephardi Synagogue

AND an easy walking distance from the Chabad-Lubavitch House

In fact, there turned out to be about EIGHT … EIGHT synagogues all within an easy walking distance of our apartment!!!! (Not to mention a bunch of other Jewish institutions)…. For those who are not Jewish, in all of Orlando Florida, I think there are maybe four synagogues scattered throughout the entire metropolitan area… miles apart (driving distance). Only THE MOST orthodox of Jewish neighborhoods, the ones where there are all sorts of guys walking around dressed like Jews (which MOST Jews do not do) …  have this many synagogues so close together…. (Orthodox Jews aren’t supposed to be exerting themselves on sabbath — day of rest — and they can’t ride on cars, busses, or horses either for that matter …so they have to live an easy walking distance of their temples … which made it easy for the Nazi’s to round them up… but that’s a different issue.) Speaking of my oblivious travel buddy… by the end of our few weeks in Bundi (a please he’d been to a thousand times before) I was finally able to teach him how to identify orthodox Jews by their tell tale clothing choices.

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The next thing I discovered in Bondi there were actually quite a few Israeli restaurants, alongside Turkish and other middle eastern ones, which are also popular in the area.

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The above restaurant is, Sabbaba (Hebrew slang, derived from the Arabic word tzababa, meaning “cool”, “great” or “ok”)– which not only had a COMPLETELY authentic Israeli style falafel sandwich, but the manager was Israeli (I spoke Hebrew with him) and they were serving MALT STAR (a non alcoholic beer that is almost ubiquitous in Israel) to wash it down with!! (As it should be!) This turned out to be a local chain (there are a three of them scattered around Sydney,) but based on my experience the only one that had the Malt Star was in Bondi … which says something about this outlet’s clientele

About a block or so away from that I found a third Israeli place, called Lyfe Cafe (Life with a Y, again, think of the Jewish Chai symbol) again the owner was an Israeli (again, I spoke Hebrew with them) and I also tried their Shakshouka — a bit better than the last place, but still not “up to snuff” in my opinion.

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While eating at Sabbaba the first time, I spotted a Kosher butcher, called, “Hadassa Kosher Butchery PTY Ltd” located RIGHT across the street from them, which I later learned was an ALL Kosher butcher, that cuts it’s own meat, while serving the diverse clientele that lives in Boni.

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They cut their own meat!!! So rare in this day and age.

and just a shop or two down the street from that I found “Golds World of Judaica” where I ended up spending a few hundred dollars on Jewish/Australian souvenirs to give as gifts to friends, and of course for myself…

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An Australian Kippah! Got more than few of these

Specifically they had fusion Jewish/Aboriginal Australian items, like the above kippot (about $18 USD each… over two years I think I bought about 16 of them, because everyone I had given one to GREATLY appreciated them), as well as Challah Covers.

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During the few weeks I spent in Bondi on my visit a year late I came across Katzy’s Food World, which I didn’t realize was a Kosher restaurant till I got inside, located sort of Kiddy corner from Sabbaba.

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This is a fleishig, or meat restaurant — note the chicken, burgers, and the ‘Ruben’ sandwich with no Swiss cheese and mayo instead of Russian dressing (WTF PEOPLE!!! THAT IS NOT A RUBEN!!!) on the menu?

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When I was there, trying to decide what to eat, the girl working behind the counter told me that Katz’s for instance is FAMOUS for the Aussie meat pies — which is sort of a laughable statement if you understand it, in large part because its one of the VERY few places in the whole country that has Aussie meat pies made with Kosher meat, in a kosher kitchen… and hence if you keep kosher and want to try an Aussie meat pie… this is most likely where got it. (They even serve sausage rolls… which I have a feeling are more ‘pigs in a blanket’, i.e., all beef hotdogs in pastry… than sausage rolls, because there’s no such thing as kosher pork.)

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A mom trying to find a kosher Parve snack for her kids in a meat restaurant (??)

because of the dietary restriction of mixing meat with milk Kosher restaurants tend to serve one or the other but rarely both…  Falafel falls into the parve category, being never meat more milk. The mom in the above picture is clearly just back from taking her kids to the beach. From what was happening, it was clear the kids had been given ice cream while there (milk) and she wanted to get them a mid-afternoon snack but it couldn’t be meat because not enough hours had passed since they’d eaten the milk meal (seriously… there are rules to ensure that the meat and milk don’t even combine in your belly.)

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The two-handled red cup is for the ritual of washing your hands before meals

IF an Israeli restaurant is Kosher (which is NOT a given) then it will have falafel and meat, falafel and cheese, but not both…. Sabbaba has both and as such while it’s Jewish/Israeli it is NOT someplace the Jews who keep Kosher would eat at…. if you ever go to Israel you’ll quickly notice that NOT all the food served there is Kosher… if it is there’s be a big sign over the door advertising the fact in no uncertain terms.

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While at Katz’s I tried their Matzah ball soup. It was ok… my father made better. The “trick” to REALLY good chicken soup is you boil the WHOLE chicken, feet, beak and all, which this place did not do. If you don’t add those ingredients, the soup tends to have a sort of weak flavor and consistency. The feet are what provides pectin, and also a sort of super saturated chicken flavor. Today… when most grocery stores don’t even have the feet to sell you… folks rely on bullion cubes to provide them with that flavor — because they’ve forgotten what it was about grandma’s soup that made it just, better.

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Finally, Not only did I find Krinsky’s, the larges kosher grocery store in Sydney (its the size of a small Kosher market in Chicago), during my 2nd visit, but up in the mall next to Bondi Junction, there are three different supermarkets, and in one of them I found an absolutely MASSIVE (for a non-kosher market) kosher section

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Ochre: a restaurant with a taste for native Australian flavors, Cairns, Queensland, Australia

Located along the boardwalk in Cairns is a MUST TRY gourmet restaurant of the sort you’d THINK would be easy to find in Australia (especially in tourist heavy locations like Downtown Sydney or Bondi Beach), but which really is NOT; namely, eateries whose chefs promote flavors that are UNIQUE to the continent of Australia; places that offer A fusion of native ingredients used by Aboriginals before the European invasion and modern gourmet cooking.  Ochre is just such a restaurant.

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Currently I’m in Sydney, and I have friends coming from Korea, and I’ve been searching, and SEARCHING (for DAYS!!!!) trying and trying to find a chef’s pallet of local flavors that comes anywhere NEAR what’s on offer at Ochre, so that my friends can have the same experience… and I have been failing HORRIBLY… I’ve even reached out to locals and  … SHOCKINGLY the animal does NOT exist is Sydney!!!

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I’m serious! You can find places serving Kangaroo, crocodile and Moreton bay bugs (which are NOT worth the price in my opinion), but that would be about it. There’s a handful of places that offer up maybe ONE dish with a native ingredient flare to it…
but I couldn’t find anyplace with Wallaby and even Davidson Plum and lemon myrtle were rare, and salt bush was only available at this one gimmick chain-restaurant steak place (not all that different from American owned, based in Florida, but Aussie themed Outback Steakhouse). hXvhAh7oTJagcuH8zFkYWA_thumb_c257.jpg

None had a menu anything like what’s listed above — where every item with a (sort of multicolored) stamp next to it (which included ALL the deserts) … i.e., almost half the menu… is a dish that stars, or utilizes native flavors.

Personally, nothing makes me happier than trying foods and flavors I’ve never had before. When I realized a place with THIS many native ingredients existed that played starring roles in the dishes…. I was really looking forward to trying it … Only to learn that not surprisingly, it’s won all sorts of culinary awards.

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My friend (the vegetarian) for his appetizer had a Wattle Seed Damper loaf (a traditional Aussie bread) with an Aussie variation of the Egyptian dukka that made with pepperleaf (actually any of three different plants) and lemon myrtle, in macadamia oil for his starter — and yes the Macadamia which I always thought was a Hawaiian thing is actually native to Australia. I tried it just to have a taste, and it was rustic, but quite good.

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For his main dish he had a Quinoa, roast beetroot and macadamia salad with fennel, orange, pickled muntries and tom burratta (a kind of Italian cheese)… which we both agreed was VERY good … 

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I had a Wallaby fillet (looks exactly like a Kangaroo, but is at least half the size) with an Argentinian influenced Chimichurri (which tasted more like a sort of sweet chutney) — that I think was made of something local… served on a salad of puffed amaranth, green tomatoes and topped with sprigs of salt bush (it’s the green thing on top of the meat… and it tasted salty)… the Wallaby I’m sorry to say had a very odd flavor that I didn’t much like, and while it was supposed to be much more tender than Kangaroo, it was in my mind just as chewy… The Chimichurri they served with it hid the flavor nicely, and combined (which I think is the intent) the merged flavors was better than either alone …. and the salad combo it was sitting on was VERY nice.

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For dessert we shared a Davidson Plum Mousse with macadamia Pacoca (normally a a candy made out of ground peanuts, sugar and salt), which was served with a lemon myrtle and coconut ice cream…. It arrived looking like three small cherries with springs of mint on top and some sort of white flower that I’m still not sure what it was — COULD be sprigs of Lemon myrtle but I’m guessing.  The mousse was REALLY REALLY good. The outside was a sort of gelatin (bright red) and it was filled with a more pinkish, tart and fruity, just sweet enough to take the bite off mousse.

I REALLY wish these guys had branch in Sydney… or SOMEONE else would open something similar.

Diving the Great Barrier Reef & learning about underwater photography: Cairns, Queensland, Australia

Earlier this week I am happy to say that I completed yet another one of my bucket list items; I went scuba diving/snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef along the eastern coast of Australia…. before it died completely. That said, I’m VERY sorry to say that, at least for the bits I was able to see up close, were already pretty much bleached/dead, when compared to pictures I have seen over the years of the explosion of color it once was…. very sad. Global climate change, it’s a thing.

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My travel-buddy and I had went up to Cairns in northern Queensland, which is the town located closest to barrier reef, and stayed there for a week. Be warned! Once you get there you’ll be barraged with boat tour options because Cairns is about either diving the reef, or visiting the UNESCO world heritage area rainforests/wetlands that line this part of the Australian coast. We ultimately opted for a company a friend of ours had previously used and been very happy with, called Reef Experience, which advertises itself as the only one to offer “all-inclusive” tours… no “hidden fees”, etc.

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This would be one of the photos they sell to you, taken by their photographer

What this translates to (per my understanding, which may be flawed)… is that while there are other companies that may seem cheaper… in reality they all pretty much cost the same or in fact more, while delivering essentially the same offerings. The major difference is other companies might not include various taxes and fees and what not (cost of the swim gear?) in the advertised price, and you’ll find you have to choose to add them in addition, or not dive… and by the time you do, those other guys are actually more expensive (unless you own all your own scuba gear, etc).

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Our tour group, including me and my friend (can you spot me?). The company posted this to their Facebook page for us to download afterwards — a freebie photo

They do have an online website, but I, rather than make the reservation that way, dragged my ass into their offices (a short walk from our Airbnb) FIVE days in advance of our trip …  on the assumption that this would keep problems from developing … I paid for the two reservations, and they asked were there any food restrictions. I explained that my friend was a vegetarian who was allergic to mushrooms. So, all good, and was told what to bring with me, when we’d be picked up, etc… and went home.

TWO days later (on Sunday, when we were supposed to dive on Wednesday), and I might add AFTER it was already two late to cancel and get a refund!!!!! I get an email explaining that under Queensland law, not everyone is legally allowed to do scuba diving and that we had to both fill out a medical form and send them a list of all the medications that we were taking, dosage, and how often; They would then show the list to their dive doctor and he would say if we could dive; or he would say that we needed to go to a doctor to be certified in person as healthy enough to do scuba. WHY they could not have told me that when I was in the office, and given me the form then, I don’t know. …. AND this was no PDF that we could fill-in and then send back to them, or even a website to fill out, it was an image file (???!!!). Something you needed to print out and fax back. Now keep in mind, we’re tourists, and I’ve yet to find a really portable printer (and who the fuck brings those on a plane?) and the Airbnb we were renting didn’t have “business office” facilities … so we had to get REALLY creative to figure out how to fill this thing… my friend, who is a professional geek, luckily had an image editor on his laptop… I have no idea how other people might manage it

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Also, read the form REALLY carefully. [Have you EVER suffered from a cold? Our best guess was that was, what’s called in the legal profession, a gotcha question; i.e, IF anything bad happens that you might want to sue them over, odds are you answered “have you ever had the common cold” with “No” because you want to be allowed to go scuba diving, and they can then say “SEE they lied on the form! They can’t sue us!”

So… Early Monday morning, after finally figuring out how to fill this thing in, and before we left to do the tourist stuff we had come to Cairns to do — which was NOT filling out medical forms, we sent it to them. LATE Monday night — seriously I kept checking my emails for a response from them, it didn’t come till around 9pm…. we got an email saying that their doctor had OK’d me to dive, but my NOT my friend (who is WAY healthier than I am and not a month before had been scuba diving in the waters off of Bali). Do not pass go, do not collect $200…. He had be seen by an actual doctor to get OK’d to dive, and they suggested a 24 hour walk-in-clinic nearby. My friend (being too tired and grumpy to go that night) contacted them to make an actual appointment for the next morning, but was told he couldn’t get one, that he had to come in as a walk-in, and hope to be seen on a first come first seen basis starting 5pm. (We called the company, who started calling around to other clinics and NONE could see him.) So the next day, he went over at 4:30 …but the doctors on staff did NOT know of his medication, and could NOT ok him to dive! They told him he had to come back AGAIN the following morning at 6:00 AM, BEFORE our 7:30 am dive, when the doctor who actually knew his stuff would be there. So my friend did, and that doctor said it was no problem — the drug is a common one in the USA, but less commonly used in Australia — and thankfully my friend was able to go there and be back by 7am, in time for our 7:30 bus…. which came 10 minutes early…. and after all that rushing, we were dropped off and discovered we now had to stand and wait for the boat crew to be ready…. because they were not.

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Talk about hurry up and wait!!! But back to the issue of pricing…. Essentially most of the one-day tours at this price point, about $150 USD/person, all seemed to last for about the same length. You should expect need to arrive at your ship at about 7:30 am and return to port at 4:30 pm. (Like I said, ours included pickup from and drop-off at our hotel — and thankfully the Airbnb was actually IN a hotel or they would not have — as part of the price… on the up side, they did call us when they were about to arrive. I STRONGLY suggest you find what the nearest hotel to you is, and set that as your pick up location if your airbnb is NOT so situated)

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Finally the staff arrived to check us all in. We had to show either the print out of our ticket or an email confirming it. On their sheet I saw that they had my friend listed as vegetarian, but NOTHING about his mushroom allergy, so I reminded them…. they said “thank you” and wrote it down…..

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This guy was traveling solo

Then every group of visitors (friends, families, etc) had their photo taken… like the one I posted at the top of the blog…. this is a photo you’ll be expected to buy later…

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Before the boat got started they talked to us, and told us that motion sickness pills (both medicinal and ginger tablets) were available. The Medical ones were $3 AUD for two pills (one for BEFORE we got moving, the second to be taken after lunch), which I went straight over the purchased… and was SO glad I did. Even with, I had to focus on calm breathing and such during part of the rougher parts of the ride out. During the way out to the dive site they fed us breakfast, and lets just say some of the folk who had thought they didn’t need the pills had ‘spilled their cookies’. For my travel buddy…. they had a veggie burger, which he didn’t want because he wasn’t hungry… and for everyone else there were fried-egg and bacon sandwiches… I just had a fried egg which I patted down with paper towels, to remove the oil. While doing it I talked to the chef-female and asked her, “did they tell you my vegetarian friend is allergic to mushrooms?” and the answer was “NO they  had NOT.!”… Keep in mind I told them this TWICE…. AND she kind of freaked because the dish she was getting ready to make for his lunch, was FULL of mushrooms!!!! That’s a MAJOR screw up!!

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There’s a top deck for those wanting to tan and rest, note the resort deck out in the distance (it just stays out there pretty much 24/7)

SO, that said… Along the way no matter which cruise you take, they’ll feed you breakfast, lunch, and a snack on the return trip (ours were all you can eat, and there was enough for seconds) — which is either included or you’ll need to pay extra. Ours was included, with water, tea and coffee for free…. pop or beer cost extra.

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Taken using their underwater rental camera… notice the color difference between the shoe in or out of the water?

Once out there, you’ll be lent a blue “stinger suit’ to protect you from jelly fish stings, a pair of flippers, a snorkel and goggles. Our company also lent a wet suit to anyone who was a certified swimmer and didn’t have their own (again something that I think other companies might charge you for). They seemed to have all the gear at pretty much every size, so for instance my friend who wears a shoe size of 13 Australia /49 European & 15 US — huge feet, has trouble find socks and shoes, WAS able to borrow ones that fit… while my feet are at the other end of spectrum (unusually small for a white girl, although average for an Asian woman), and I was also able to find ones that fit snuggly.

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They even had prescription goggles that they were lending out for free. I have particularly horrible eyesight, and doubted they’d have mine… but they had one that was close enough to allow me to see, and even had one that was for folks who were even worse than me… although they weren’t bifocals so I could see far but not near….

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Me, with my borrowed prescription goggles — purchased pic

Once we got out to the reef and dropped anchor, everyone got one scuba dive with an instructor (if they weren’t already certified), where the staff helps you get into the gear, into the water, and then makes sure you can both breath properly using the tank and regulator, and are able to expel water from your goggles while under the water (because apparently the goggles have not yet been made where that won’t happen).

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The rental camera is red filtered for underwater use, and is kind of lousy above it

And then you get led around by the instructor for about 20 minutes after that, after the photographer has had a chance to take pics of you while under the water. A second optional scuba dive was available for $65 AUD more (clearly advertised as such in advance), and you could make up your mind to add it after you’ve done the first depending on how you felt about it.

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This platform (holding a mini motor boat for emergency pick ups) was lowered into the water, and we took off from it, see the 12 air tanks lined up?

The first dive was about half an 35 min and included instructions and making sure each diver UNDERSTOOD them and could demonstrate them (one on one testing), while the second scuba dive is 45 minutes with none of it wasted on instruction. IF you are a certified diver… you could spend the WHOLE time swimming alone, but if not you HAD to swim with a guide and HAD to go through the lesson, even if, like my travel buddy, it’s not your first time going scuba diving. In fact in my group of four swimmers,  I was the only virgin who had never done it before.

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The red filter is simplistic, and makes everything look green

So the pic above — see how it’s very green? — That was one I took with their underwater rental camera which cost me about $99 to rent (but included my choice of 15 of the professional photographer shots … not great, … The pics below are that are blue, are by their photographer…. the very big fish is like the crew’s pet. Apparently this type of fish has a 5 year memory and is a bit like a dog in terms of his level of affection for the divers who come by daily

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The professional photos were color adjusted using very expensive specialized software, I’m SURE of it, because I watched him doing it.

So again, compare the color palate of the pics by the professional (blue) with the one they rented me (green), which I used while scuba diving… i.e., going MUCH deeper into the water than I would experience while snorkeling… much higher water pressure.

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The above were also passed through some basic color balancing attempts by me, using my Macbook’s photo program not complex algorithms for divers

Dealing with this pressure, and the fact that the goggles flood regularly is a big part of what they taught us before we went down. I felt ok for most of it; there were some initial problems my regulator which for some reason was set so tightly that I was having to REALLY force the air out while breathing, I could just breath out.

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Multiple boats all sharing reef adjacent areas, and little platforms set up about midway between

I hand signaled the instructor as we’d been instructed… we went to the surface and I told him about it and he made some sort of adjustment to the thing…  and from then on it was fine. Also between the fat on my ass and my tits, there was too much buoyancy between me and the suit (which also has built-in air pockets) so that I wasn’t able to submerge like everybody else … again I asked to go up… explained it to him… he made some more adjustments and then I was fine.

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A purchased pic of the diving staff, the blond guy front and center led my group of 4+him

After we finished the dive the instructor (blond guy wearing glasses above) told me that I had actually done unusually well and should feel proud of myself. He said that MOST virgins on the first dive freak out during the instruction section, because of problems breathing, or feeling like they were being water boarded, or whatever…. and MOST never actually manage to get past the initial instruction phase to do the scuba dive itself. I on the other hand had managed to do the whole thing, including pretty much the whole time allocated to the dive.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_213c.jpgBut at the very end of it my core muscles in my torso, and the muscles in my legs were just knackered. At that point, my friend, who is a strong swimmer, signed up not for the 2nd scuba dive (which he had intended to do) but rather for a snorkel dive with the ships marine biologist (I forget what the fee for that was, but it was less than the snorkel dive), which you could only sign up for if you were a strong swimmer. Since I was tired, he ‘informed’ me that he was borrowing my rental camera. 

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Me, showing off my iPhone in it’s waterproof plastic case, $28 AUD/~$20 USD ($13 on amazon)

Before going on the trip I had found a camera store just near our Airbnb rental. The girl working there had convinced me that the rental underwater camera’s offered by these trips weren’t actually all that good, and intended more for video than photos. That a better option, was to use my own iPhone inside one of these clear, heavy plastic zip-lock bags designed for smart phones. She said that’s what she uses and has used for a few years, and if you’re NOT going to invest in a top of the line camera it’s really the best choice. Supposedly I COULD have used it for scuba diving but to be honest, I didn’t trust it to keep my iPhone dry more than a few feet down …. but I figured snorkeling it could manage…. and in addition to the scuba outing, which you HAD to do with a crew member unless you had certification to scuba solo (which takes a full three days minimum to complete in Australia) there were two chances to go snorkeling independently (about four hours total) — although you had to stay within a certain distance of the boat/life guards while doing it ….

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Googles maps

An image of an underwater reef taken from above the water, they’re easy to spot, and at points they come up so high that boats can’t pass over them… so snorkeling really is a viable option… at the right locations you don’t HAVE to go very deep to seem them. Our boat while it ultimately docked at two different locations, so we got to see some variation of the reef while limiting our snorkeling to within the ken of the lifeguards. Although, that said…. BOTH locations were on/at the bit of the barrier called the Norman reef — if you look at a map of the barrier reef, it looks like a line of underwater islands.

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As the medical thing we had to go through earlier demonstrated, not everyone can scuba dive safely because of medical reasons— for instance people taking certain prescriptions aren’t allowed,  and not everyone feels comfortable scuba diving (even among those who want to, they freak out when first trying it as it can be claustrophobic and a bit like being water boarded). As such, even though scuba is included in the price, you can choose to just do snorkeling the whole time, if you’d rather

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These were the photos I took during our first chance at snorkeling, before we did our scuba session, when I was still using their rented underwater go-pro type camera (i.e., everything is very green)

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Photos from the rented camera, even after I futzed with the color balance on my computer, still not very good (but better)

… First thing I noticed when doing snorkeling was that MUCH bigger fish than I saw by the reefs seemed to like to hang out JUST under the boat. I think it has something to do with what was in the blue plastic bin they had hanging below the boat… it had these things that looked like transponders in it which I guess sent out sound-waves that attracts the fish to the boat… but that’s just an educated guess (after they pulled up the crate, no more big fish were hanging out down there). Anyway, once again… here was the photo I took of the photographer using the expensive to rent underwater rental camera … very very green

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And by comparison, THIS is the image of the same guy only this time I was using my iPhone inside the plastic bag. See how BLUE everything is? And sort of monotone everything is?

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Taken with my iPhone … really

DwdX1JAQSv+xgt9Rj8NcXg_thumb_c24e.jpgAfterwards, at the end of the trip while we were heading back to port, one of the staff members saw me flipping through images, and suggested try a free app for the smart phone, that she loves, which would automatically color correct my photos for me (it also allows you to modify that correction, less or more, etc) called Dive+ … which I did… and here’s what it looks like (before and after)

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So it’s a sort of judgement call as to whether to use it or not to apply the correction… but I was actually REALLY happy with some of the photos I ultimately got with the iPhone/Dive+ combo

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Love this one, it’s very other worldly

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I keep wondering how far down the professional dive photographer had to go to find this shot (below) … because it was NOT up near the surface where we were snorkeling (images above), that’s for sure

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Purchased image from our dive, also visible on their Facebook page

That said, its pretty clear from my images that the barrier reef, at least up at the top where a snorkelers could see it is already like 90% bleached out in these areas… which is very very sad.

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bottom right is scuba and deep divers (folks who are experienced enough to hold their breaths and go deep)

OR of course, if you don’t TRUST the plastic pack to keep your smartphone dry, you could always still rent from one of those underwater cameras from the tour company … which I opted for — at the last-minute — as the thought of a water-logged smartphone popped into my brain before the scuba dive. I admit I did this AFTER a lecture by the photographer about how much better my photos would be if I had the right equipment…

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purchased pic of me and my friend … I’m holding the rented phone (at the end of the yellow thing… which will make it float/bob in the water if you loose it) in my left hand

Actually I think that it was because  I decided to rent their go-pro-type underwater camera (the yellow thing in my left hand in the picture below) along with a package of 15 of the digital photos the professional photographer took……that they decided to put the above photo on their Facebook page… I’m GUESSING it was because … as far as I know, I was one of only TWO people who had opted to rent one of those underwater camera things, and as the camera is front and center in this photo, above, the photo helps to promote other people renting it

Sydney’s Iconic Harbor Bridge, a photo montage…. and some thoughts about the city as a tourist destination.

The Harbor Bridge, in Sydney Australia, which Wikipedia claims locals refer to as the coat hanger (although in the three months I’ve been here I’ve yet to hear it referred to as such), and the combined views of it and the Sydney Opera House … are as iconic of the city of Sydney as the Golden Gate is to San Francisco.

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Taken from the west, Opera House to left

Having grown up in the Chicagoland area and having LIVED in cities like London, Tokyo, San Francisco, and Seoul (the latter of which I consider to be one of the most overhyped cites in the world –the rest of Korea is great, but Seoul itself, is Soulless), and I have visited Rio and Los Angelus (I HATE LA)… I’m now on my second trip to Sydney (the first one being shaped mostly by the massive concussion I suffered, which a year later I am still dealing with) and am still trying to figure out what it is about this city …OTHER than its impressive natural beauty — which is complimented by the Sea Shell like Opera house and the bridge, makes this city top most people’s lists as a tourist draw…. Seriously, I don’t see it.

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Taken from the East, Opera House to right

That said, I was really happy to see that Travel.com agrees with me that once you get past the views of the bridge and the Opera house — which admittedly are SO good that you can happily spend weeks just admiring them — that the city of Sydney itself is completely overhyped… especially if like me, the beach really isn’t a major draw.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2063.jpg

That said, the views are really quite impressive…. Every time I walk around areas where you can view nature, and admittedly Sydney offers a lot of them… you’re often times also seeing the bridge

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[With regards to the Opera House, I’ve heard the six performance spaces it holds are more about great acoustics than about looking impressive — once I’ve seen shows in them, then I’ll post about the interiors]

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_208a.jpgGot to love the double bridge effect in the photo above…. first the rainbow bridge, and then the Sydney bridge

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And as is obvious from the images above… I’ve spent many hours enjoy it from my Airbnb’s bedroom window … DAMN did we have a view or did we have a view???!!! (Not very expensive either considering it was an entire two bedroom apartment at the height of the Sydney travel season… about $140/night)

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Watched fireworks over it

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and bats flying in front of it

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UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2062.jpgOver the few months that I’ve already spent in Sydney, I have taken boats under it

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From a bus, from a car you can’t see much

And have been driven over it by car ….and by train (but didn’t take photos from the Train)

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UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2064.jpgThe ONLY things I’ve yet to do is walk across it — I will at some point when I’m feeling athletic and the weather is not too hot… that and climb up it… which I’ve seen people do regularly… it’s a THING for tourists to do, but I am no longer capable of it now that I’m in my mid 50’s, 50 lb overweight and suffering problems with my hips, knees and balance.

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That said I felt I should probably to a photo montage at this point of some of my best images of it to date.

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Me and My travel buddy

Stubby Stonehenge in Rolla, MO vs seeing the Real Stonehenge & Avebury Henge, in UK

Located right off of Historic Route 66 as it meanders through the town of Rolla Missouri and passed the Missouri University of Science and Technology, is a half sized version of Stonehenge, similar to the one on in Amesbury on the famous Salisbury Plain of England.

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Sometimes referred to as the Stubby Stonehenge, according to their website the structure this ‘functional art’ ….

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… works just the same way that the original Stonehenge, as a solar calendar… only in this case it comes with annotations in the form of etchings into the stone and plaques placed on the various rocks… and it

“stands for many things; a lasting monument to man’s drive for knowledge and engineering, the largest monument to ever be cut with a water-jet, and a link from the past into the modern. It was dedicated on June 20, 1984 or the summer solstice, at the site of the northwest edge of campus. Approximately 160 tons of granite were used in the monument. The rock was cut to the proper dimensions by Missouri S&T’s Water-jet equipment.”

According to other websites, it was mostly something to do to show off how good their High Pressure Water Jet Lab was at stone carving. Although I also found an FAQ page put up about the place by the University

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Somehow I did not spot this on any of the preparatory maps that I used when planning this Route 66 road-trip… so to just happen to drive by it, unexpectedly…  it was a super cool surprise…. it made the geek in me very happy…..

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Of course this also gives me opportunity to include some images I took back on July 3, 2014, when I was at the REAL prehistoric Stonehenge site near Amesbury … less than a month before my father died. I had gone to the UK to present an academic research paper at a conference at Keele University near Stoke-on-Trent, and afterwards had gone to visit a friend of mine who USED to work for Google in SF (she was on the team the created Google mail) but who had grabbed her golden parachute when her stock options matured a few years before, and had retired to Bristol in the UK, about an hour drive away from Stonehenge.

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For an explanation of the fences behind me, keep reading

[My T-shirt reads: “English doesn’t borrow from other languages.  English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.” Why yes, I’m a geek, what’s your point?]

I remember that I got there late, and didn’t make it in time to actually be able to enter the site. I had “assumed” (never assume) that closing time meant closing time… it doesn’t. For Stonehenge the LAST admission to the site is TWO HOURS before the place closes, and they only let in a limited number of people at a time, so unless you’re very lucky, you’ll need to book your visit in advance (from this site), which I had not done… not to mention I showed up a half hour before closing. When I got there the guard refused me entry and told me to come back some other day, and to book my admission rather than just showing up. I almost cried… when I explained I was American and this was my last chance before heading home… he made a suggestion. He told me to drive around the henge area, to a gravel side road on the far side of the tourist entrance, where I would see a lot of other parked cars. From there, he said I could at least see it better. So I drove there…  and met this new age-ie guy, making a mini- henge with rocks he found on the road…. [The paved road visible via google maps is NOT accessible to public traffic, it’s for tourist busses only]UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2006.jpg

There were in fact a LOT of new age types parked along this gravel road… they had a sort of mini community thing going on over there. Since then Folks have even noted its location in google maps, and if you zoom in you’ll see a LOAD of cars along that road, parked for free instead of in the paid lot. They ALL suggested that I walk down to the edge of the official property, at which point there’s a pedestrian accessible wooden gate to his property, with some warning signs on it about keeping your dog on a short leash and respecting that you’re on private property, etc., that opens to a path along the edge of his sheep farm and along the official Stonehenge property … and they promised me that the farmer who owns the place actually wants folks crossing his property to get a closer look — they said it was a sort of “fuck you” to the English Heritage Trust government folks — that was as long as you don’t mess with his sheep.

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The view from the location of me in front of Stonehenge, but in the other direction

The ironic thing is… IF you go in the official way, while you do access to the educational tourist center, which is supposedly quite good (I have not yet seen it) … that’s not what you’re paying to see. What you’re really wanting is to get close to Stonehenge — but no one is allowed to do that anymore except on days like Solstice and other Pagan festival day like that. Somewhere we’ve got photos of when my brother and I were very young children (so like 50 years ago) and our parents took us to Stonehenge. In them you can see him on one of the rocks (I was still a toddler). But those days are LONG past… Today, ironically, the distance between this free path, and the path you’ll be paying to walk along is little enough as ‘never mind’. That said, the free way limits you to one side of the henge, while the paid path takes you all around it… but pretty much at an equidistant.

 

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That said, three days later on July 6th, 2014, my friend who I was staying with in Bristol (she’s the one standing, wearing a backpack, with her back to the stone in the picture above) took me to an arguably more interesting, albeit less famous, prehistoric henge directly north of Stonehenge in Avebury, on what is debatably the northern edge of the Salisbury Plain (the actual edges of the plain are up for debate). This henge, which the public can STILL visit entirely for FREE and get up close and personal with the stones, is actually the largest Neolithic stone circle in Europe (in terms of ground covered). Unlike Stonehenge, which has the largest stones and as such is famous for the “how the fuck did pre-technology man get stones this big to this location?” question, that has in the past made people think aliens must have done it… This henge consists mostly groundworks, that encircle very large stones (but of the, “ok, I can see how primitive man working together might have moved these to here” size).

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Here, and I was shocked when I first realized this — and you can’t but, I noticed it as soon as we drove to the location, the village actually cuts THROUGH the center of this historic henge, so that some homes actually have henge rocks in their gardens….

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This is most easily seen via a satellite shot, like via google maps (see above), or from an aerial shot from a drone or plane…. like the one that heads this English Heritage Trust’s website for Avebury (click-through to see it).

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Note the road I was on when I took the photo cuts right through the circle, and the shot below is of the same location from a slightly different angle (you can tell from the church spires) only in the 2nd one I was up on top of one of the ground-worksaKhq%FLtS2yPCoxzYKT0fw_thumb_20d5.jpg

In a way looking at these is sort of bitter-sweet for me. Unbeknownst to me, my father was having real health issues back in the states but he refused to tell me about them because he didn’t want me cutting my trip to England (he was British by birth) short on his account. MEN!

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As is obvious from the above picture, this prehistoric area is actively used by locals for hiking and picnics, etc.

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and it’s really easy to see how the ground was worked by prehistoric man, with both dug trenches into the chalk ground (which must have been very hard work) and then used that to make man-made mounds surrounding them

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The top of the man-made mound, and the chalk exposed as a result of folks walking there
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Where these holes part of how they lifted and carried the rocks?

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A 20 year storm hits Sydney Australia — Hail, Rainbows, etc.,

We had weather!!! This storm produced what news outlets are dubbing the worst hail storm to hit Sydney in 20 years. My friend and I were actually VERY lucky during it, we got all the pretty and excitement, and none of the damage… while the area called North Sydney, which is a short walk east of us as the crow flies (its the area of tall buildings on the right side of the image below) got tennis ball sized hail that broke straight through car windows, we only got hail the size of quarters. Apparently, all told, there were 30K lightning strikes over the four hours of the storm. News reports today put the damage into the millions, and 20K homes lost power.

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Panorama shot

The plan for today was to take advantage of the fact that my one year pass for Scenic World, which I bought last year while in Katoomba, had not yet expired, and drive out there with my travel buddy and his mom. We cancelled because there was a warning of sever storms…. First we had rain coming down in sheets, then we had hail that started out pea size and graduated at about quarter size…

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The little white spots on the ground are hail

and then we got THIS. note how it seems to be starting just AT — as in in FRONT of the bushes on the far side of the street, AND its a double rainbow?! — you can’t see from this shot but its a COMPLETE rainbow%CITXMUWRy+VT2YeOhXW7Q_thumb_b9a9.jpg

My travel buddy was in his bedroom, working — he works remotely, hence his ability to travel… but he still has to work…. and had headphones on and was missing the whole thing… when it was hailing, he was not excited… I even brought him a quarter sized piece of it that had landed on the veranda, but NOPE, unimpressed, but THIS woke him up….

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This is the photo he was trying to take
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And here’s my two arch shot… note the bridge to the right of the rainbow

What was kind of interesting was that over time it drifted away, as in didn’t get less intense, but seemed to be more out into the distance. FIRST it was in front of the nearby bushes… but then behind them…

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But then it moved out like miles away onto the horizon… so that now I could get it all in one shot without having to use panaroma…. and then 45 min later

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This was going on…. …. SCARY… The cloud formation in the photo above showed up in a news article the next day…. And according to the news report it was directly over Manley Bay (a few miles east of where we are)

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And its not done… at one point I had my back to the window and saw two bolts of lighting reflected in my screen as my room lit up… and there was a building shaking BOOM a second later…

All told, it appears that my weather karma is still holding.

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Batchawana (Alona) Bay, Ontario

At this location along the Trans Canadian Highway there is an educational sign devoted to the wreck of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. The Ship was a Great Lakes Iron ore freighter that sunk November 10th, 1975, during a storm that contained 25-35 foot waves and hurricane-force winds. The wreck occurred southwest of this location, in the waters of Lake Superior; The ship’s wreck was immortalized in song by the great Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot; and is historically important for all those who work the waters of the great lakes, for how it forever changed the safety regulations upon them.

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For those who do not know, Superior is the third largest freshwater lake in the world both by volume and the largest by surface area; In fact it is so large that it contains about 10% of the worlds fresh water supply. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_4bc.jpg

And, because of its impressive size and volume, it is large enough to have its own tide, just like an ocean.

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And while it is beautiful, it can also be as treacherous as any Ocean — especially during the months of November.

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It has had 350 recorded shipwrecks, has taken over 10,000 lives, and her waters are notorious for not giving up her dead (as in the bodies never wash up on the surrounding shores).

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The Fitzgerald had been the largest freighter on North America’s great lakes when it was first launched in 1958, and to this day remains the largest to have sunk within them; and in large part this catastrophe is why no other freighters have sunk on the lakes since then.

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The ship went down without a trace, taking along its entire crew of 29, and its singing, along with the notoriety the song brought it, led to changes in shipping regulations on the lakes. Now all boats must carry depth finders, higher freeboards, and undergo more frequent inspections of their sea-worthiness. In addition, these freighters are now required to carry survival suits for every member of the crew, so that even if the boat does go down, the workers can still have a chance at survival.

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For those unfamiliar with the song,

I also found this 20 minute video on YouTube called, The Edmund Fitzgerald: a 40 Year Legend which goes into depth about what we know, or think happened to the ship:

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The various points along the route in the photos above, see my click map

Route 66’s Chain of Rocks Bridge, Madison Illinois

Privately built as a toll bridge across the Mississippi River in 1929, The “Chain of Rocks” was part of the designated Route 66 city bypass beginning in the late 1930’s, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. When you see it, the reason why the bridge was retired is obvious, it’s only wide enough to allow a single line of cars headed in one direction to pass over it at a time. As vehicles are no longer allowed over the bridge, it is now (by default) one of the world’s longest pedestrian bridges.

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It’s name comes from its location along the river. Previous the 1960’s when the United States Army Corps of Engineers built a low water dam to correct the problem, this area was actually the sight of river rapids that made navigating this stretch of Ol’ Man River very dangerous indeed.

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That said, when the bridge first became the designated bypass, the Route 66 traffic that WAS willing to pass through downtown initially took the more southerly MacArthur Bridge, located just south of where the I-55 crosses the Mississippi… although that only the first of the bridges, as route 66 traffic was continually being re-routed….

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As I’ve said repeatedly, when you are in this part of the country, being able to “drive 66” becomes a questions of WHICH 66 you want to travel on… there is not just one… simply to cross the river there are FIVE different options.

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… the best place to access the bridge is on the East/Illinois side of the Mississippi rather than West/Missouri side. On the east side there’s easy parking dedicated to those wishing to walk across the bridge (with I might add police protection there around sundown), while on the west side there is no dedicated parking lot

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When you first approach this area (heading west) you’ll pass over a shorter, cars traveling in one direction at a time, bridge that is still functional. This one takes you from the Illinois side to Chouteau, a man-made Island that when I was driving through it seemed like it was being used as garbage dump, but apparently its being converted into a recreational area. You then drive to the other side of the island, directly into the parking lot for the Chain of Rocks bridge.

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If you look at google maps, the area directly after the gate (behind me) is green on the map… it’s not land so much as it’s swamp. As I mentioned before this section of the river was called chain of rocks because it was shallow enough that it had rapids before the corps of engineers fixed things… this was done in part by digging out the middle of the river, and this island was created with the mud …. but the first section of the Chain of Rocks passes over “land” that is still shallow and swampy

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After you’ve walked for a bit — and its was a very lonely walk (it actually made me very nervous walking across it by myself, as it could have just been me and G-d knows whom else on the bridge, in a location where there’s no one to hear you scream) you finally pass the swamp land into the wide River

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A 2nd word of warning… This bridge see’s so little traffic that the spiders seem to have taken over ownership of the place and humans are just intermittent visitors. It’s not just spider webs along the sides, as that is to be expected.

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Rather, it’s that as you along it every second or third step you find yourself walking into yet another strand of spider silk … as in THOUSANDS of them live here — this is NOT a place for anyone suffering from Arachnophobia.

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Over the course of the whole walk I saw only 6 people… one middle-aged woman walking alone (which made me feel much more secure) the group of three young people walking towards me in this shot, and then as I was leaving, middle aged couple who were smoking pot.

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And from the above photos you get a sense of just how far from downtown St. Louise the bridge is…. that odd-looking thing is the Gateway Arch from a bit of an angle.

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And no, I didn’t get all the way to the bend, the sun was going down and I was worried about getting caught out there when it started going dark.

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Kakabeka Falls, in Oliver Paipoonge Ontario, Canada

Nicknamed “the Niagara of the North” Kakabeka Falls is located on the Kaministiquia River, 30 miles west of Thunder Bay Ontario, in the municipality of Oliver Paipoonge Ontario Canada. At a height of 154 feet with a drop of 130 feet, it is the largest waterfall in the Lake Superior Watershed.

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Kinniwabi Pines Restaurant, in Michipicoten, Ontario Canada

The Kinniwabi Pines Restaurant is located on the Trans-Canadian Highway, Route 1, in Michipicoten, Ontario Canada, and based on the reviews is hands down the best restaurant in the area, if you don’t include chains…

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I was staying up the road and according to Yelp, this was the best restaurant in the area where I had a decent chance of getting a healthy meal… and there was BISON on the menu!!!! Love me my bison.

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My first impression was this restaurant couldn’t make up its mind about what it wanted to be. Take a look at the menu offerings… at best they seem to want to be all things to all people… There’s German, Polish, Italian, American, Chinese, Caribbean, and lord only knows what offered on the menu

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Unfortunately, not only were they out of the Bison, according to the waitress they’d not had it in a while and she wasn’t sure why it was still on the menu… grrrrrr….

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The tomato soup was offered to everybody as free with our dinner — mostly I think because it was a full hour wait between when I ordered and when they brought me my food. I talked to some locals and they said this is normal at that restaurant, so if you know this about your chef, if DON’T at least dull the customer’s hunger with some free soup, odds are you won’t have many.

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So my dinner, because there was no bison, was the grilled trout– The fish was supposed to come with dill potatoes and some other stuff I couldn’t eat, but they modified it to meet my needs. That said, the food was very good… but clearly the chef has no idea how to cook quickly. So it’s a good thing he hasn’t much competition in the area.

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Because the wait was SO long… I asked them if I could wander around their patio and garden while the food was being made, and could they come out and get me….

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While they do have a beautiful view and garden — what they did not have was any Wi-Fi … which is particularly egregious as there isn’t any 3G or anything in this town. So all in all, its supposed to be the best place in town, but be ready for a VERY long wait