Sydney, New South Wales: Taronga Zoo and Bondi Beach

This is a continuation of the pictures from our trip to Sydney, Australia's largest and most populous city. After spending our first day exploring the downtown Central Business District, this day we planned to head to several different destinations located along the city's waterfront. Our day would start with a morning trip to the Taronga Zoo located on the other side of the harbor, followed by an afternoon climb up to the top of the famous Harbor Bridge. Finally, we would belatedly make our way to Bondi Beach the next morning, after having missed our original planned excursion to the oceanfront suburb due to the airfare issues that we suffered earlier at the Cairns Airport. We wished that we could have arranged to have more time in Sydney, as three days was nowhere near sufficient to get the full sense of this booming metropolis.

It's worth providing a map of the city here to explain where these various attractions were situated. Our hotel was located on the little peninsula just to the west of downtown Sydney, a little bit to the northwest of the "Darling Harbour" icon. All of the places that we had visited on the previous day were located on the narrow strip of land between the Sydney Opera House and Hyde Park, with that area constituting the oldest and most densely developed part of the city. For this part of the trip, we would be catching another ferry across the harbor to the Taronga Zoo on the northern side of the water. While it would have been possible to take a bus over to the animals, it was a lot more fun to travel by water again and enjoy some additional views of the harbor. In the afternoon we were scheduled to climb Sydney Harbor Bridge, which is still the only structure that spans the distance across the waters of the harbor. (There's also the M1 tunnel that runs underwater, one of several different traffic roadways that flow underneath the city.) Bondi Beach is also just visible in this image, off on the righthand side where the land runs out and meets the Pacific Ocean. Sydney's hot summer weather makes this beach a major tourist attraction, and even in the winter months it's popular for surfers trying to catch the waves.

We decided to make the 10 minute walk from our hotel over to Sydney Town Hall, where we could pick up one of the city's trains and ride to Central Quay. This was significantly faster than waiting for the ferry that we'd taken the previous morning and we didn't feel the need to retrace our steps. The pictures above were taken while walking past Darling Harbour, the small inlet of water to the west of the main business district. This area was under heavy development when we visited, with new construction throwing up buildings full of shops and restaurants as fast as the eye could see. The weather on this morning was picture-perfect, featuring a blue sky completely devoid of clouds. That was a great sign for a day that was going to be spent almost entirely outdoors.

It didn't take long to ride a train full of morning commuters to Central Quay, where we were able to find a ferry heading across the harbor towards the Taronga Zoo. We were treated to more gorgeous views of Sydney Harbor as the ferry pulled out into the water, with the Harbor Bridge off to our left and the Sydney Opera House to our right. This was another slightly different perspective on the Opera House as seen from the water, with the two "sailing ships" formed by the concert hall and the theatre building standing out in the morning sunlight. We had been inside those two buildings looking out at the harbor 24 hours earlier, and it was neat to get the opposite perspective on this trip.

There was one other object of interest in the harbor that we passed on our ferry. This tiny little island is named Fort Denison, and while it's currently a national park and tourist attraction, for much of its history this island was used as a prison. Convicted criminals were hanged at Fort Denison and their remains left on display as an example to deter crime. The island was also fortified with defensive gun placements, which were fortunate enough never to see any real use. The only time that Fort Denison ever came under fire was during a Japanese submarine attack in 1942, when the island was hit by friendly fire by accident. We were not able to visit Fort Denison on this trip and were content to capture these pictures as the ferry continued past it.

We arrived at the Taronga docks and caught a free bus that took us around to the main entrance. The Taronga Zoo first opened to the public in 1916 and is considered to be a world-class zoo, featuring more than 4000 animals of 350 different species. It specializes in wildlife native to Australia, some of which are nearly impossible to see elsewhere due to their rarity. We had to pick and choose what to see since we had to be back in downtown Sydney for the bridge climb later in the afternoon, and ultimately decided that we'd start on the lefthand side of the zoo map and work our way around in clockwise fashion. It was a Wednesday morning in the middle of winter, and even though that was about as uncrowded as the zoo gets, the place was still bustling with school groups and other visiting tourists.

The first place that we stopped to see was the indoor exhibit on Australian nightlife. There were some really impressive nocturnal creatures in there, particularly an echidna that neither of us had ever seen before, however it was so dark that the pictures didn't really take and aren't worth posting. Easier on the eyes was the Australian Walkabout, an enclosed area where several different types of Australian animals simply roamed about mixed in together with the human visitors. The assortment of animals here was very similar to what we'd experienced back in Brisbane at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary: kangaroos and wallabies and emus. The biggest highlight of our visit took place when an emu started striding confidently towards a group of tourists and prompted all of them to clear out, running away from the animal's approach. I don't blame them for getting out of the way - as I've said before, I don't trust those large birds.

These are some more pictures from the Australian Walkabout area, including a surly-looking gray kangaroo. I swear that this particular guy was about to hop over and punch us for taking his picture. By contrast, the little wallabies were adorable and looked like they were on the verge of falling asleep much of the time, possibly because they had just been fed by the zoo staff. We also spotted about a dozen koalas in this area, although they were not part of the walkabout and couldn't be touched our picked up by humans. As far as getting up close with koalas, Lone Pine was the far superior choice since that was their particular specialty. It's always entertaining to watch koalas though, and a couple of them were even moving about as they ate their morning meal of eucalyptus leaves.

Next we went through an enclosure called the Blue Mountains Bushwalk, although this one proved to be a disappointment since it seemed to have nothing but birds on display. If you happen to enjoy birdwatching this place would be worth a visit, otherwise it wasn't terribly interesting. The giraffe enclosure next door was a better option, and it had draw a small crowd of visitors watching the long-necked animals as they walked around their home. We didn't spend much time here because we wanted to see more of the specifically Australian creatures at the zoo, animals that we wouldn't be able to see elsewhere. Another nice perk of walking around the Taronga Zoo was the views, as whenever there was a break in the trees we could look out across the harbor and see the Opera House and the Harbor Bridge in the distance. Few other zoos can claim this kind of amazing natural setting.

We were heading for the farm portion of the zoo, where visitors have a chance to interact directly with some of the animals. While intended for children, this was another area with Australian animals on display; for example, this was the only place to find wombats at the zoo, although they're aggressive creatures and were kept in their own enclosures. The wombats were all sleeping and we were disappointed that we didn't get to see them moving around. It was feeding time for some of the other animals at the farm, which prompted the kangaroos to continue shooting us dirty looks. (Apparently there are few animals that can toss out a surly glare better than a hungry roo.) We also spotted one of the rarest of Australian animals: a quokka! These tiny marsupials are about the size of a household cat and live only on small islands off the coast of Western Australia. When European travelers encountered them for the first time, they thought that the quokkas were some kind of practical joke and not a real animal. Quokkas have a reputation for being happy animals because they look like they're always smiling, although that's not really true and is more of a coincidence of what their facial structure looks like. These things are still ridiculously adorable though, a bit like a kangaroo standing about a foot tall (30 cm) and hopping from place to place as it eats vegetation. They likely haven't seeped into the popular imagination outside of Australia only because of how rare they are.

The next part of the zoo that we passed through was the "Seal Walk" area, which wasn't so much of a walk as a path that happened to run past the seal enclosures. These animals were constantly bobbing in and out of the water, and I tried for long minutes on end to get a good picture of one of the seals when it surfaced before Liz used up the last of her patience and started walking on. This was also the part of the zoo that held their penguin exhibit, and yes, Australia and New Zealand both are home to a number of different penguin species. The specific animals on display here were the "Little Penguin" species, named because they are the smallest of the 17 different penguin types. We had a chance to see them swimming around in their habitat at the zoo, and we'd see them again out in the wild when we drove down to Melbourne a week later.

We were now reaching the part of the zoo that held some of the traditional big animals, passing by the hippo enclosure and an animal called a bongo, a type of antelope that was native to Africa. But the big draws in this section of the zoo were the elephants and the tigers, with the elephant paddock being the one that we came across first. This was a large open space with four different elephants inside, including a baby elephant that was only a few months old. The little guy was sticking close to his mother but also engaging in various play activities, in particular pushing around a tire swing again and again out of sheer delight. There was a huge crowd watching the baby elephant at play and we wished that we could have hopped into the enclosure somehow to see the animals up close. Liz and I both love elephants and we're hoping to someday visit an elephant sanctuary where we can catch a ride on one of the huge creatures. We rode an elephant once for about two minutes at the Maryland Renaissance Fair and would very much like to get a more substantial treatment of the same experience.

The tigers were the other star attraction with their own special gimmick for the visiting kids. This exhibit was called "Tiger Trek" and there was an elaborate pretense that visitors would be traveling by plane to the island of Sumatra to see the tigers. This included a fake airplane which showed footage of flying over the jungle outside the "windows". On the other side of the plane, the entrance to the tiger section was decorated to look like a national park in Sumatra, complete with fake vendors and the small motorbikes common in Indonesia. It was a nice effort to make things a bit more special for the young visitors to the zoo. We also learned from the sign outside the tiger section that the zoo had three different cubs, each of them born together in a litter about seven months earlier. They weighed only 900 grams at birth but were each up to about 30 kilograms / 65 pounds by this point in time, well on their way to becoming huge cats.

Any worries that we might not see the tiger cubs were immediately put to rest. The three of them were easily visible, out romping and playing with one another in full view from the protected fence. They had various different goofy expressions on their faces as they hopped on top of each other, and I was reminded of nothing so much as a group of puppies playing with each other. Tigers are my absolute favorite animal in the world, the most magnificent creatures to be found anywhere, and the chance to see a group of young cubs at play like this was remarkable.

Overseeing the cubs as they flounced about was their mother, Kartika, and her expression was all too human as the little ones played nearby. At first she was mostly sleeping, or at least trying to sleep as the cubs wrestled with each other next her reclining form. Eventually the cubs became a little too rambunctuous and spilled over onto mom's back, which caused her to pick herself up and roar in their faces. That one image of the mother tiger showing her fangs after being pushed too hard is a familiar scene to anyone who's spent time around young children. She seemed proud of herself after settling down the younglings, staring straight at the watching crowd and showing her fangs before laying back down again to rest. This was amazing stuff and we would have stayed longer if the tigers hadn't retreated out of view in their enclosure. We were lucky to have been able to experience this spectacle.

Nothing else at the zoo was going to top seeing the baby elephant and the baby tigers, but there were still a few more animals that we came across before finishing up. We passed this group of lemers while heading over to the chimpanzee portion of the zoo, only to find that the ape section was closed for construction. This was the time of the year for Taronga Zoo to do renovations since they have fewer tourists in the winter, but it did force us to turn around and retrace our steps back the way we had come. We passed some cockatoos along the way, which we only knew were part of the zoo's holdings due to the numbered tags that they were wearing. And speaking of birds, we finally had a chance to see one of the cassowaries that we'd been warned about back in the Daintree Rainforest. These large birds had dark feathers and a tall crest on top of their heads, blending in well with their forested surroundings even here at the zoo. There were a whole bunch of warning signs outside the cassowary enclosure telling people in strict terms not to hop over the fence; these birds are almost as dangerous as the tigers.

We finished up our time at the Taronga Zoo by taking the Sky Safari gondola car from the main entrance back to the docks. This was a free service included along with the paid ticket entry to the zoo, and it was a wonderful way to wrap up the experience by flying above the various animal enclosures that we had seen from ground level. In particular, the Sky Safari went directly over the elephant paddock and provided another opportunity to see the big, lovable animals from above. We were also able to see the skyscrapers from Sydney's downtown business district rising up in the distance above the waters of the harbor, the very area that we were heading towards next.

The return trip back to Central Quay involved another ferry across the harbor. We continued to enjoy the glorious weather on this afternoon as we retraced our path from earlier the same morning. Liz captured a picture of me standing by the front railing of the boat, striking a Titanic pose as the wind caught my jacket and tossed it up into the air. We were headed for Sydney Harbor Bridge, the landmark structure in the background of that same image. On the docks at Central Quay, we turned in the opposite direction from the Opera House and crossed into the neighborhood known as The Rocks. This is one of the oldest parts of the city, located right next to the waters of the harbor, and this former rough area of slums and bars was transformed at the end of the 20th century into an upscale commercial and shopping district. We didn't have time at the moment to explore The Rocks due to the impending bridge climb, but we'd return after finishing up later that evening.

The entrance to the bridge climb was easy to find, literally right underneath the huge metal structure of Sydney Harbor Bridge. So readers may be wondering, what exactly is the Sydney BridgeClimb anyway? This is an expensive tourist attraction that allows visitors to quite literally climb up to the top of the Harbor Bridge, walking along the exposed steps on the top of the bridge. Tour groups of 12 people apiece run non-stop throughout the day and evening hours, launching every 15 minutes to get the maximum number of tourists possible out onto the bridge. The BridgeClimb has been around since 1998 and it's proven to be enormously popular despite the steep cost. This experience was generously covered as one of our wedding gifts, and we were enormously grateful to the family members who helped make it possible. We arrived at the BridgeClimb facility about an hour before we were scheduled to begin the climb, with the staff walking us through a long explanation of what we would be doing and even going through a training exercise on a fake segment of the bridge. There was a lot of gear to put on, including radio earpieces and a safety harness, all of which made this feel like the introduction to a Hollywood movie about a construction rig. Eventually we attached our safety harnesses to the guidewire and walked out through a tunnel onto the underside of the bridge itself.

We were not allowed to bring cameras or cell phones onto the BridgeClimb for safety reasons, and as a result all of the pictures that I have here are either stock images or taken from the official photographer. These stock images do a decent job of showcasing what the views were like out on top of Harbor Bridge. The climb was extremely easy to do and did not require very much in the way of physical fitness. The first picture above is deceptive in terms of the slope of the bridge's ascent upwards; aside from a couple of short vertical ladder segments, this was no more difficult than walking up a few flights of stairs. (Our group also took about two hours in total to climb up and then down the bridge, making for a slow and gentle pace.) The other stock photos help to illustrate some of the amazing scenery from the top of the bridge, both looking south towards Sydney's business district and east towards the Opera House on its small point. Our guide kept telling amusing stories about the history of Harbor Bridge during the process of the climb, such as how the bridge was a Depression-era public works program that provided much-needed jobs to thousands of people and the dangerous work that was required to see it through to completion. The opening of the "Coathanger" (as the bridge is fondly known) in 1932 connected the northern and southern sides of Sydney Harbor together for the first time, and spurred development to eventually make Sydney the largest city in the nation.

These were the pictures taken of the two of us during the BridgeClimb. Unfortunately the only good pictures of us were taken at the bottom of the outdoor climb and then looking west out into the distant Sydney suburbs. The pictures capturing the two of us with the iconic Sydney Opera House in the background came out looking terrible, as I was making an awful face and spoiling the effort. I truly regret that I ended up wasting this experience, especially since Liz had a fantastic smile in each picture. We did also get the traditional group photo up at the central arch of the bridge, from which we could look out to the east and see all the way to Bondi Beach and the ocean. The views from the top were absolutely magnificent, with the whole of Sydney's harbor area spread out below us. We hadn't specifically tried to book a time when the sun was setting, but the slow nature of the tour caused everything to line up perfectly, and we were treated to a beautiful sunset that accompanied our descent back down to the base of the bridge once again. This was another one of the top experiences of our whole trip to Australia.

It was dark by the time that we were completely finished with the BridgeClimb. The process had lasted longer than we expected, and anyone who might be interested in taking part should understand that the whole thing takes about four hours from start to finish. We were hungry for dinner at this point and set out to explore some of the dining options in The Rocks, which surrounded the base of the Harbor Bridge. We found that many of the restaurants were packed with diners despite it being midweek in a non-holiday season. Walking through The Rocks was a pleasant experience regardless, with the historic buildings decorated with lights and everything still open for business. We ended up heading back down to the waterfront where we ate at a restaurant called the Junk Lounge, named after the Chinese junk ships that used to travel around the Pacific.

I had to mention this dinner because it was probably my favorite dish that I had throughout the whole trip. I ordered something called "spicy crab Szechuan noodles", which was described as follows on the menu: fried soft shell crab, carrot, seasonal beans, onion, and Chinese broccoli served in a spicy Szechuan sauce. This was essentially a type of fried noodles combined with a full crab and then given a delicious type of spicing. I've never had anything else quite like this and it was downright amazing. Liz ordered a series of skewers and spring rolls off the menu, and if she wasn't raving quite as much as I was, we both enjoyed this dinner a great deal. Definitely would recommend Junk Lounge to anyone eating at the Sydney waterfront.

We closed out the evening by taking some of these nighttime pictures of Sydney's harbor. The weather had been absolutely perfect all day and we were practically alone on the empty docks as we snapped these shots of the buildings lit up for the night. It was hard to believe that we had been up on top of the Harbor Bridge just a few hours earlier, and in fact there were still more BridgeClimb tours heading up to the top even at this late hour. The historic houses in The Rocks were similarly alight in the soft glow of old-fashioned lamps, not running off of gas but designed to look as if they were. The only slight disappointment was the Opera House, which we had heard would be illuminated by a light show at 8:00 PM but which didn't end up happening. Perhaps we had the day wrong on that. In any case, we'd been very lucky with what we'd seen and this was a wonderful closing to a fabulous day.

Our time in Sydney was finishing up at this point, as we checked out of our hotel for the final time the next morning. We decided that we would cut into our time at the next attraction (the Blue Mountains) by spending the morning visiting Bondi Beach, which we had missed out on seeing our first day in Sydney due to airport delays. This beachfront suburb of Sydney (pronounced locally as "Bond-EYE" and not "Bond-EE" as the spelling suggests) is only 4 miles / 7 kilometers from the downtown business district, and it attracts huge numbers of tourists every year to enjoy the sun and surf. We drove our rental car to Bondi and ate breakfast at one of the many small cafes running along Campbell Parade, the main road that circles the beach itself. After stopping to eat and pet some of the dogs at the cafe, we headed down to the beach proper to check it out.

Bondi Beach is known specifically for its surfing, and it attracts surfers from around the world who come here to test their skills on the waves rolling in from the Pacific. Even though the water was rather chilly on this August day, there were more than a dozen surfers out on the water doing their best to catch the waves. As the various warning signs captured in these pictures illustrate, the swimming conditions at Bondi can be quite dangerous due to a strong undertow that pulls weaker swimmers out to sea. The northern end of the beach (the other side away from where these pictures were taken) is much safer, but unfortunately that side is further away from where most of the buses drop off their tourists. There was a terrible day in 1938 when five swimmers drowned and another 250 had to be rescued on what came to be known as "Black Sunday". None of this should stop anyone from swimming at Bondi Beach, just be aware of the undertow and keep an eye on small children.

We weren't interested in swimming at Bondi given the winter season, but we did spend an hour walking along the Bondi to Bronte Coastal Walk. This is a walking path that winds its way along the top of the cliffs at the southern end of Bondi Beach, running for a few miles until reaching the next beach along the coast, Bronte Beach. The views from up here were significantly better than down at the water's edge, as we could see the green-blue color of the waves crashing up against the rocks that ran along the shoreline. This was an easy trail to walk and it was full of other people, runners out for exercise and people walking a dozen different breeds of dogs.

We went about halfway along the Coastal Walk, making the trip to Mackenzies Point before needing to turn around and head back to our car. The constant erosion from wind and surf carved the rocks into strange shapes all along the path, making for some wild formations that the trail deftly wove between. In other places the coastline was jagged and forbidding, leaving no place for ships to tie up near the shoreline. This would have been a beautiful but highly rugged landscape when the first settlers arrived in the late 18th century. The last picture above was the view across the corner looking past Mackenzies Point, just catching sight of Tamarama Point and Bronte Beach up ahead. It was a shame that we hadn't been able to explore this place on our first day in Sydney, when we would have had more time to continue onwards and explore some of these areas. That was Tigerair's fault more than anything else.

After returning to our rental car, we drove off to the west and brought our time in Sydney to a close. This is a wonderful city to visit with all manner of different attractions for visitors to explore, and thanks to the lovely weather outside, it was probably our favorite destination of the whole vacation. If we'd had more time in the city, we could have visited some more of the its museums, or devoted more time to shopping, or traveled out to the Olympic Park complex in the western suburbs (which was sadly not terribly close to anything else). It's a cliché to say that a visit to Australia needs to include a stop in Sydney, but sometimes things become clichéd for a reason. We greatly enjoyed our stay in the city and would love to come back again another time.