Sunday, December 10, 2017

Chuck's 2017 Oceania Adventure


In early March 2017 I received an email from my friend Rick Moser telling me that he and his wife Jane were going to New Zealand and Australia in November and December. The plan they ultimately decided on was to fly to New Zealand take a 15 day cruise to Australia, and then spend about two weeks in Australia. They invited Barb and I to join them.

Due to back issues, Barb is unable to make long trips and would not be able to do much sightseeing if she did. She suggested that I go without her and after discussing it with Rick, I decided to do so. However, after pricing the cruise for a single and thinking about being away from Barb that long, I decided that I would leave the US later than the Mosers, fly to New Zealand, spend a few days there on my own, and then catch up with them in Australia. The itinerary I chose was:

November 16, fly to Wellington, New Zealand via DFW, LAX, and AKL, arriving November 18 (after crossing the date line.)
November 19, take the Northern Explorer (train) from Wellington to Auckland.
November 20, fly to Sydney
November 21, (Mosers arrive in Sydney)
November 22, Leave Sydney on the Indian-Pacific (train) to Perth
November 25, Arrive Perth.
November 28, fly to Melbourne
December 2, train to Sydney
December 7, fly home via LAX and DFW

I then started shopping for flights. I had already decided that I would fly business class (or better). I had enough points on both United and Delta to do this, but I did not judge the value to be good. I also had points on a Diners Club card that were getting harder and harder to use because the number of their travel partners kept shrinking. (Their best deal, for a train rider, was the ability to transfer points to Amtrak...and the trade was often good enough that 25,000 points would get you a bedroom that might cost $1,000. Alas, they stopped partnering with Amtrak in 2016.) It turned out that they had a program where you buy your own ticket using the card and then apply the points to pay the bill and a redemption value of 100,000 points for $1,000. Not great, but better than any of the alternatives. Plus I could use essentially any airline I wanted.

After quite a bit of shopping (and studying the reviews of the various business class options) I decided that I would use American as the primary carrier. I could have used Qantas but friends who had traveled both airlines said that the seats, etc. were better on American (especially compared to a Qantas A380). Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand were both higher ranked than American, but the fare difference was too great for either of those. In any event, I found a "great" fare from LAX-AKL-WLG, AKL-SYD-LAX and purchased a ticket, intending to purchase a roundtrip from PIT to LAX to connect later. If I had booked it all as one trip it would have cost an additional $1,200 at the time. I figured that I could fly coach out to LAX to save money.

I went to book the flights and fare I found on ITA software on the AA site but ran into trouble when trying to pick the specific flights I wanted. One of the flight segment choices that it presented me with was unacceptable and I could find no way around it. It turned out that I could get exactly the flights I wanted at the fare quoted by booking on Expedia, so that is what I did. (Thanks to Asya for the suggestion.)

Me being me, I almost immediately started to obsess about what was the right way to get to LAX and then about checking baggage through (not possible on a split ticket) should I want to, and then about missing the connection coming home (there is no guarantee that the airline would "protect" me if there was a delay in reaching LAX from SYD.) So I picked the flights I would want to take and, using ITA Software began to watch the fare (which was, at the time I started, significantly higher than it would have been had I booked at the beginning.) Finally, the fare came down and I tried to make the change, but the AA agent I talked to could not get the fare I saw and could not make anything happen because I had booked through Expedia.

I was about to give up, but the next day I had an idea. AA allows you to book a reservation and put it on hold for 24 hours before paying for it. So I booked the trip on their site. I got the fare I wanted but could still not get the flight I wanted between AKL and SYD. I then called AA and got this incredibly competent and nice agent named Sandy. She immediately understood what I was trying to do and was able to substitute the flight I wanted manually, and apply the old ticket against the new ticket. At my request she went off and managed to get the $300 change fee waived. I still had to pay a $50 fee for use of phone reservations (because I had used Expedia before), but that seemed reasonable given that the phone call took an hour (because she had to go through hoops to make this happen.) Also, the final price including the $50 was just under what it would have been if I had just done it from the start (but just a bit more than if I had bought separate tickets from PIT-LAX-PIT.)

I also had to book the Northern Explorer in New Zealand, the Indian-Pacific in Australia, the flight from Perth to Melbourne, and the train from Melbourne to Sydney. All of that except the train to Sydney (which was not yet open for reservations on the day I need it) was easily accomplished.

Then there was the matter of hotels. Rick had reserved a two bedroom "serviced" apartment suite for our last five days in Sydney, but we had done nothing about any of the other hotels. I needed hotels for one night in Wellington, one night in Auckland, two nights in Sydney, three nights in Perth, and four nights in Melbourne. I also had points to burn if I wanted to. I ended up booking Rydges in Wellington--a short walk to the train (for $), the Hilton in Auckland (for points), the Marriott in Sydney (for points), the Hilton in Perth (for $), and a Doubletree in Melbourne (for $).

As it became available for booking, Rick bought tickets for the three of us from Melbourne to Sydney. We had decided that we wanted to experience dining on a tram in Melbourne so I booked us three tickets on the lunch seating one of the days we were in Melbourne: and when the schedule was published in late September, Rick booked us on the PufferBilly steam train (also in the Melbourne area):

One of the problems with booking in advance is that flights change. In my case they changed fairly often. The first change I discovered was a change of aircraft type being flown from Sydney to Los Angeles. Apparently American's Pacific Rim service was not doing as well as they had expected when they initiated it, and they decided to use a 787-9 instead of the originally scheduled 777. Not a big problem, but the seat I had picked on the 777 did not exist on the 787. When I looked online they had given me a new seat near the galley. It was easily changed to one more desireable.

The second change was that my Qantas flight from Auckland to Sydney had been canceled and I had been placed on one that would get me there in the evening, instead of the early afternoon. A quick call to American got that changed to one that got me there prior to dinner time so that I could be in time for a dinner I had scheduled with my friend Jay who moved to Sydney a number of years ago.

The third change was that my flight to Phoenix, where I was connecting to Los Angeles, was canceled. They moved me to one that left at 7:30 in the morning and gave me a 12+ hour layover in Los Angeles. Another call got that changed to something more acceptable as well.

The fourth change was that our flight from Perth to Melbourne was canceled. They had moved us to a flight that left around 7:30am. Rick was amazed when I was able to get us all moved to a more sensible noon departure.

However, it isn't just the planes that change...sometimes it's the trains. We were scheduled on an XPT train from Melbourne to Sydney on December 2. On September 27 Rick somehow discovered that there was a proposed shutdown of part of the line scheduled for that weekend to do maintenance. We had several options: 1) assume that the train would run the whole way because the maintenance was only tentatively planned, 2) assume that the train would run to near the point of maintenance and that we would be bussed from there into Sydney (about a 2 hour bus ride), 3) assume that we would be bussed the whole way from Melbourne to Sydney. 2 and especially 3 would be awful. An Australian friend of Rick's guessed that there was less than a 50% chance that the train would run. We pondered hedging our bets by booking a flight for less than $100 US as a backup, but ultimately decided to change our train ride to the previous day and spend one fewer day in Melbourne and one additional day in Sydney. A flurry of activity resulted in changed reservations to accomplish this on October 9.

Rick and Jane left the US as scheduled on November 1 and arrived in Auckland on November 3. I'm not going to try to detail their travels here (they can write their own blog entry), but in summary they flew to Wellington and took the Northern Explorer out of Wellington to Auckland as I will and then boarded their ship the Holland America Noordam on November 6. They spent the ensuing days visiting various ports in New Zealand, and Hobart and Melbourne, Australia before arriving in Sydney the morning of November 21. (They would be in Melbourne when I arrived in New Zealand.)

On November 4 I received an email from American saying that the food service on my flight out of LAX to AKL might be "below standard" because they had temporarily suspended their relationship with their LAX-based caterer. If that happened they would be giving me a travel voucher (of unspecified value) in compensation. (After a little investigation I discovered that the problem was that the caterer had a listeria issue.) Since I plan to board the flight for the 11pm (pst) departure, wait until we're up in the air, and then try to sleep instead of eating, I will be just as happy with the voucher should that happen. 

When I realized I was going to be away for Thanksgiving I had mixed feelings. On the plus side I wouldn't have to drive the 60 or so miles to my brother-in-law's for the Thanksgiving dinner. On the minus side, I'd be missing a really good dinner and my sister-in-law makes a great turkey. I need not have worried as once they realized I would be gone they scheduled an early Thanksgiving for November 11. This had the added benefit that other members of the extended family who normally would have eaten elsewhere were able to join us. Win-win. (Though I still had to drive the 60 miles.)

Sure feels like Crestline to me

Thursday morning, November 16, Pittsburgh

They day did not start auspiciously. Barb drove me to catch the 8:55am bus to the airport...and it did not arrive until 9:10am. I was not really dressed for the weather and it was a somewhat unpleasant wait. Then I got to the airport and the TSA Precheck line was out the door. I am certain that many in the line shouldn't have been there but I immediately asked a TSA person if the auxilary Precheck was open. He said yes, but as I headed there I saw a sign saying it was I went back. And got into the "First Class" line instead because there were only about five people ahead of me there. Of course the guy immediately ahead of me had brought along his whole wardrobe and was completely clueless regarding the process and also stood in the way of everyone else when it was time to take items off the belt. Then, on the first flight of the day a passenger complained to the male flight attendent about the age of the plane and he said it was an old America West A320 "piece of crap".

Things got a lot better after that and both this flight to DFW, and the one from there to LAX (on a much newer A321 with a really good entertainment system) were early. I watched "Casablanca" for the umpteenth time. Here's looking at you.

Rich, Sheryl, Diana, Me, Kenny
American has terminal 4 and terminal 5 (at least) at LAX but the Admiral's Club in terminal 4 was closed for massive renovations (it opened while I was gone) so I went over to the one in terminal 5 to kill some time until dinner. Since I had an eight hour layover I arranged to meet BARGE friends Diana Mercer, and Rich and Sheryl Bremer for dinner. At the last minute Kenny Shei joined us at a seafood restaurant that was semi-near the airport. It was Rich's birthday and I am flattered that he elected to spend it with me. Diana and I had to leave for the airport (she was my chauffeur) before credit card roulette could begin, so we just threw cash on the table. I have no idea if Kenny lost as usual. 

My pod
I returned to the Admiral's Club around 8:30 and then headed over to the gate in Terminal 4 for my 11pm departure on AA flight 83. We boarded early and left the gate early and were airborne by about 11pm. This was my first time in a 787 and I was impressed with how quiet it was. I had a business class pod on it that seemed a bit confining (it was awkward to get in and out of) but was otherwise comfortable. It had a wide screen entertainment system with a bajillion options.

I elected not to have the coach-style dinner they provided (their caterer at LAX still had listeria issues and AA dropped them and had not yet found a replacement--they gave me a $200 voucher in lieu of reasonable food which I hadn't planned to eat anyway!) Instead, as soon as we were in the air I made up my lay flat bed (they supply a thin mattress and a blanket and a pillow), took and Ambien, put on my eye mask, put in ear plugs, and turned on my BiPAP and went to sleep. 

The Captain had told us to expect turbulance as we climbed out of LAX and more about four hours into the almost 13 hour flight. I was aware of some fairly substantial turbulance at about the four hour mark but it did not ruin my sleep. I remember thinking that it was somewhat akin to one of the last Amtrak trips I took to Chicago via the old Pennsy route through Crestline. The track was so bad that trying to sleep in the bedroom they substituted for my slumbercoach was quite difficult. The advantage of the pod on the 787 is that there was no place to roll!

In any event I slept (with two interuptions) for over eight hours and woke reasonably refreshed. That still left over four hours of flight time--which I filled with reading, another movie (something about Bernie Madoff with Robert Deniro playing the Jewish Madoff), and a coach-style breakfast (an egg sandwich with fresh fruit and a small cinnamon roll.) We landed in Auckland a few minutes early but by the time the door to the aircraft was open it was right on the advertised 9:20am on Saturday, November 18 having crossed the date line. 

The Lord of the Rings was filmed in New Zealand.
Wellington Airport has embraced Middle Earth
My friend Rick had told me that immigration at Auckland was a breeze but that it took quite some time to get through biosecurity. I actually was through both and out in the main International terminal by 9:40am. I bought a sim card for my three days in New Zealand ($29 NZ dollars) and then caught a bus to the Domestic terminal and checked in for my noon flight on Jetstar to Wellington. Jetstar has strict weight limits for both checked and carry on luggage, and also does not serve complimentary anything on board, but my AA-booked ticket seemed to include a ridiculously high 64kg baggage limit and a sandwich and a drink on board. I also got a whole row of seats to myself on an otherwise crowded flight. I would have given up those two extra seats for 2 extra inches of pitch though (29" is just not enough). This flight, too, was early and I caught a bus to near my hotel in Wellington and was in my room by 2pm. Along the route to the city I noticed overhead wires for electric buses. But I never saw an electric bus. It turns out that the wires had recently been deactivated and they are being taken down.
The Wellington Cable Car

The Wellington Railway Station
I spent the first part of the afternoon walking around Wellington and taking the cable car (actually it's an incline in Pittsburgh terms) up to the botanical garden (which I spent a very few minutes in). Then I had an idea. I could take a train out along the line that the Northern Explorer uses when it comes into Wellington and try to get a good picture of it. I completely blew this as the train I took out came back ahead of the Northern Explorer instead of after as the schedule indicated. However, had I not been brain dead I would have realized that I could have gotten off the commuter train at Parapararaumu (a scheduled stop for the NE) and ridden it back into Wellington after getting the picture I wanted. It really did follow our train into Wellington...arriving no more than five minutes after we did.

A Wellington-bound train at Waikanae Station

I went back to my hotel room to freshen up before dinner and then went to a Pan Asian restaurant nearby for a rice bowl that was quite good but too much.

Into the Heart of Mordor

Sunday, November 19, 2017

I slept pretty well all things considered but woke up well ahead of my 6:15am alarm at about 5:30am. I took my time packing and getting ready for the day and left the hotel for the Wellington Train Station around 7am. The station being a 5 minute walk (at most) from the hotel, I was in line to check in for the Northern Explorer well ahead of the 7:15am opening time--but it was already open. Check in was fast. My back was tagged for Auckland even before I received my boarding pass. Before dropping my bag at the baggage car and boarding I picked up a minimal breakfast at the market within the station. 
The Northern Explorer is a six car narrow gauge train (baggage, coach, cafe, coach, coach, open sided + generator) that runs three days a week from Wellington to Auckland and three days a week in the other direction. I had previously requested a window seat (alone if possible) not at a table, and in the rearmost coach (for easy access to the open car). They got two of those requests correct. I was in a window seat in the second coach from the rear and I was not at a table. But I did have a seating companion, a very nice school teacher named Rebekah from somewhere "an hour and a half" away from Hamilton. It wasn't a problem except that I had to bother her when I wanted to go back to the open car to take some pictures, etc.

The coaches have huge windows (including some facing the sky) and are set up with a section of table seats (4 to a table) at the Wellington end and a section of pairs of seats at the Auckland end. The seats are comfortable except that due to the narrow guage they are a bit small across, meaning that my thigh rested against the entertainment console between the seats. Also, on the eastern side of the car there is little leg room due to ventilation under the seat in front. (When heading towards Wellington this will be the case on the western side of the train.)

The train itself traveled at speeds of up to 100kph and the ride was mostly excellent. The line climbs and is very twisty for the first 2/3 of the trip. There is no opportunity to get off the train at any of the stops and the intermediate station departure times seem to be advisory at best -- I imagine if they have no reservations at a particular station they feel free to leave early. In the event we ran on-time or early all day except at Auckland where we were about five minutes late (by my watch) due to track work slow orders.

We saw very little traffic once we got out of the Wellington area and before we got into the Auckland area. The whole ride takes about eleven hours. Although the cafe car had an alluring menu, I ended up buying just a soft drink and a bag of peanuts during the trip.

One thing I didn't understand. There are wires for electrified service basically from Wellington to Hamilton and then from Papakura (the start of Auckland "suburban service") into Auckland. Why did they use a diesel the whole way from Wellington to Auckland?

The scenery was at times boring, but mostly spectacular -- at least in the mountains. The highlight was the Raurimu Spiral in the Heart of Mordor near National Park, but there were also a number of major viaducts traversed. (Though traversing a viaduct does not provide good views of the train on it!)

My brain fart of the day was forgetting to charge or swap batteries in my camera last night. I had not used it too much the day before, but sure enough it ran out just before hitting the aforementioned spiral. I was about to give up and leave the (very cold and windy) open car when I realized I had my iPhone in my pocket. It did an excellent job pitch hitting. (I then swapped batteries and you can be damn sure I charged both that evening.) 

Arrival at Auckland
The railroad runs a free shuttle from the Auckland Strand Station to the transit center known as the Britomart. Apparently they can't run diesels into the station at the Britomart (but they can drive a diesel bus to the same location.) From there it was a 10 minute or less walk to my hotel, the Hilton on the Wharf. Even though I had booked the room on points, I was given an upgraded room with a balcony with great views of where Rick's ship docked two weeks ago. 

The view from my room's balcony
I wasn't sure what to do about dinner. Even though I had eaten little during the day I wasn't all that hungry and certainly didn't want a fancy time-consuming dinner. I ended up walking around a bit and found a burger joint nearby and had (most of) a hamburger and a handful of fries.
The tail end of the evening commute

Should Have Scheduled More Time in Auckland

November 20

I got up way too early, showered and had breakfast all before 8am. Because, for a few more months, I was Gold in the Hilton HHonors program the breakfast was on the house and it was excellent. The dining room overlooked the harbor (Harbour) and had spectacular views. I almost paid for room service instead so that I could enjoy watching the morning ferry commute from my balcony while dining, but it turned out to be just a tad too chilly for that.

The Hilton is ideally located if you're leaving on a cruise ship.
Not bad for just watching things either (but hope for an upgrade.)
I went for a walk around the central business district but mainly along the harbor. At some point I realized that I loved the hotel, and loved the harbor area enough that I wish I had scheduled an extra day in Auckland so that I could take (at least) a harbor cruise. Because of the train schedules (the Northern Explorer on Sunday, and the Indian-Pacific on Wednesday) doing so would have necessitated adding at least two days to what is already a long trip.

Instead, at about 10:40am I left the hotel and walked to catch the Skybus to the airport. This is not at all similar to the Skybus that was supposed to be built in Pittsburgh in the 1960s (and did run in Morgantown, West Virginia for a while), but for an "express" bus it runs just about as efficiently as a non-existent rapid transit system. It must have made a dozen stops along the way to the airport before it went express, and took an hour to do it. But I got there. Qantas check in was a breeze, as was clearing departure control, and I spent a relaxing hour or so in the Qantas lounge (nothing to write home about, but better than the gate area). My 2pm flight was delayed due to a late incoming flight and a minor mechanical issue (I think I heard that it had to do with the PA system), and we ended up leaving about 55 minutes late and arriving in Sydney 40 minutes late.

While we were still on the ground the flight attendant asked me which of the 5-6 meal choices I wanted...ignoring the woman sitting next to me. I asked why and he said that they prefer to give paying customers their selections ahead of those who are upgraded or traveling for Qantas. I thought that was refreshing. (The very nice lady sitting next to me got exactly what she wanted anyway.) Unlike on American, this was a true business class meal, but I only ate part of it due to dinner plans in Sydney.

Other things about the fight: 1) I watched an Amy Schumer movie and reinforced my opinion of her (and won't be watching any more of her stuff as a result), 2) my Uniball pen gave up the ghost all over my hands and the landing card that I was filling out at the time (but luckily not all over my clothing). 

As a business class traveler I was given an "express" pass for customs, but ended up not needing it because there were almost no lines anywhere. We arrived at 4:20 and I was through customs having picked up my luggage before 4:45pm. My first stop was to buy a Telstra sin card for my phone and my second was at an ATM to get some cash. At the ATM I discovered that only chip cards work in Australian ATMs -- my CMU id would not work. Luckily I had a chip card version along or I would have been in some trouble. My third stop was to buy an Opal (transit) card so that I could ride the train into town.

Jay and Chuck
I was staying at the Marriott and when I got off the train I asked a staffer for directions. He said "follow me" and took me to the fence and pointed right at it. It was literally a 5 minute walk. I checked in and called my friend Jay Sipelstein. Years ago Jay was an ABD grad student at Carnegie Mellon who played in our weekly poker game. He was lured away by an investment company to do quant and systems type things and eventually opened an office for them in Sydney. I hadn't seen him in at least 5-6 years so it was good to catch up with him over dinner (which was at a really good burger and ribs joint that I will try to visit again when we are back in town in a week or so.)

Wherein I finally meet up with Rick and Jane

November 21

The change from Auckland to Sydney netted me another 2 hours of time zone change, so yet again I was up earlier than I wanted to be. I left the hotel in search of a small breakfast at about 7:30am and was back in the room when Rick called. They had gotten off their ship early and were at their hotel (the Hilton) but had not been able to check in. I walked to the Hilton and met them about 9:15 and after catching up a bit we walked to Central Station (could have taken a subway but it wasn't that far) to catch a train along the south coast to Kiama. This was about a two hour line that was alternately urban, suburban, and scenic (and back again). It was a pretty long and entertaining ride for less than $6 each way. The equipment was clean, comfortable, and at least mid-day, not crowded.

Central Station, Sydney

Central Station, Sydney
In Kiama I guessed (wrongly) which way to go to find something quick to eat, but we did find a bakery/pie store and were able to get something and be back at the station with two minutes to spare for the return departure. Arrival back in Sydney was after three and we took the subway to our respective hotels. I walked around the harbour area a bit and was back in my hotel room after 4pm pending a 6:30pm dinner reservation.

Lots of activity at Circular Quay all the time
Dinner was at an Italian restaurant recommended to us by Jay. The food was very good, but the atmosphere was, shall we say, a bit too energetic making it difficult to talk. (Well more difficult to hear than to talk but you get the idea.) After dinner we wandered around the Circular Quay area a bit and I took Rick and Jane to the Customs House where there is a diorama of the central business district (and more) embedded under the floor. (Jay had shown it to me the previous night.)
Some random building in Sydney

A diorama of Sydney embedded in the floor of the Customs House

From the Pacific through the Blue Mountains

November 22

Today the main event was the departure of the Indian-Pacific (IP) on it's four day journey to Perth. This was my longest true transcontinental train ride...from the Pacific ocean in Sydney to the Indian ocean in Perth, Western Australia. (My shortest ocean to ocean ride took about an hour.) But it wouldn't even be in Sydney from its Eastbound trip until around 11am and wouldn't be ready for check in until 1pm. I awoke way too early again, around 5:30 and had a breakfast around 7. The previous night I had agreed to meet Rick and Jane at Central Station to ride a Light Rail train to Durwich Hill and then a regular train back to my hotel, mainly to kill the morning. We did this and then I went back to my room to finish packing and check out. 

A train at Durwich Hill. Don't worry if you miss it, there will be another along in 10-15 minutes.
Rick thought it would be easiest if I booked an Uber to pick me up at the Marriott and him and Jane up at the Hilton and take us and our luggage to Central. Since checkout was at noon for both of us I called said Uber around then and thought it would be a quick ride to the Hilton and then to the station. I had not counted on Sydney traffic. I took over 20 minutes just to get to the Hilton. (I had walked it yesterday in less than 15!) Then there was the bin packing problem of getting three larger than they should be suitcases into one smaller than it should be trunk. The driver and the Hilton doorman succeeded, but I think it cost the driver a banana. The driver was an interesting native of Hong Kong from when it was still a British colony. He had immigrated to Australia 27 years ago. He kept up a running patter the entire drive.

One of two units that pulled our Indian-Pacific
When we got to the platform they were ready for us to check in. I ended up in bedroom 4 in carriage B. The Mosers were next door in bedroom 5. The train consists of sections, each with sleeping cars, a lounge car, and a dining car. In our section there were four sleepers in front of the lounge/diner set. The front most sleeper consisted of single rooms (roomettes) and the other three were for two (bedrooms). Including two power cars there were 28 cars on the train leaving Sydney. It made a pretty sight going through the mountains in the afternoon.

The pre-departure party on the platform between tracks 2 and 3. The Mosers are in deep discussion,
You can also see parts of the two parts of the Indian-Pacific.
At the station the train was so long that it was split onto two tracks. Ours was on track 1. Prior to boarding they served non-alcoholic drinks and canapés on the station platform for tracks 2 and 3, while a guitar player sang. It was a cool, comfortable afternoon and an enjoyable way to wait out the boarding call. Just before two that call came and we had to carry our stuff out to almost the end of track 1 for boarding.

Carriage B, Room 4 in its day configuration (plus my overflowing suitcase)
The bar in the lounge car 
The lounging portion of the lounge car
Our diner set for lunch
This is the premium class diner.
We got to see it when we had to walk through it to re-board and Cook
Our attendant, Lisa, soon opened the door and pointed us at our rooms and then proceeded to come by and explain how everything in the room worked, and what the general routine for the train would be. She also asked us for our preferred off-train excursions the next day at Broken Hill and Adelaide. A bit later, the dining car supervisor came around and took signups for dinner. We chose late seatings for dinner and tomorrow's lunch.

As the train snaked through the Blue Mountains you could see it from the lounge car
We then repaired to the (crowded) lounge car for some libations as the train headed up to the Blue Mountains. The crowd, in the words of one of my friends not traveling with us, skewed "mature", but we met several fellow passengers including a couple that was doing a 150 day trip carrying a total of 36kg of luggage between them. Then there was the family of daughters and their 92 year old mother who were celebrating the trip.

Our 7:30pm dinner call came and we enjoyed a good dinner with three courses. We all had the fish entree.

Into the heart of Bavaria

November 23

When we went to bed the previous night we set our watches back 30 minutes to match the Central Time Zone used by Southern Australia. We had been warned that the first night out of Sydney had rough track, but I didn't notice it. (Others on the train definitely did.) I slept well except that my mattress was a bit too hard. I awoke ahead of my 5:30am alarm so that I would be ready for arrival in Broken Hill and the 6:15am excursion to the "Living Desert". The train pulled in a bit early and we were soon on the bus. Because we were early the driver gave us a nice tour of the city whose history I had no knowledge of. It was a boom town beginning in 1883 with the discovery of massive deposits of silver and lead. The town has gone through ups and downs in recent years, but the mines are still going strong and the town, while maybe not thriving, is not on its last legs by any means. After this history lesson the driver took us to the "living desert sculptures" which are a set of sculpted rocks high on a ridge in the desert above the city. The views were spectacular.

Various Stone Sculptures
Jane and Rick reading about one of the sculptures
We were back on the train in time for an 8:10am departure. Breakfast followed soon after and then a morning of just enjoying the varied scenery (something we wouldn't see much of the next day). Lunch was at 1:15pm and we arrived in Adelaide around 3pm. This is the headquarters of the Great Southern Railroad and some passengers only ride from Sydney to Adelaide or Adelaide to Perth. It is also a crew change point for the entire crew. Finally, it was the location of our second off-train excursion. We had a choice of several but chose a visit to Hahndorf, a town with German heritage up in the mountains above Adelaide. We started with a visit to Mount Lofty where there is a spectacular view of all of Adelaide. While there we actually saw a kaola bear (sleeping as usual.) On the way out there, along the highway, we saw a "kaola bear crossing" sign (similar to a deer crossing sign in the states). We had seen a kangaroo crossing sign in the morning (as well as numerous kangaroos hopping around.) 

A Koala spotted at Mount Lofty
Another siting at Mount Lofty
Adelaide from Mount Lofty
From Mount Lofty we headed up to Hahndorf where our first stop was at the Beerenberg Family Farm, and operation that makes great jams (some of which were served on the train). Then to a place called Chocolate #5, where the owner taught us a bit about chocolate and illustrated with samples. Finally we walked down the street to Haus, a German restaurant where we had a very good, but too long dinner, accompanied by singers and dancers. We were back at the train a little after 9pm for the 9:40pm departure. The excursion was enjoyable, but too long. We all wanted to be on board at least an hour earlier. Oh, but I guess we were, because as soon as we boarded we were told to turn our watches back 1.5 hours. This does not correspond to any known time zone in Australia, but they do that to avoid having us turn our watches back 2.5 hours all at once to match the Western Australia timezone.

The Mosers at Haus
The Indian-Pacific ready for re-boarding at Adelaide
That turkey sure tastes like lamb to me

November 24

Of course when I awoke on Friday morning at "6"am many of you were getting ready to sit down to your Thanksgiving dinner. Alas, they did not serve turkey on this train (though Rick might way that they did serve a turkey on this train.)

I put the "6" above in quotes because I am not really sure what time it really was. As I mentioned they had us set our watches back 1.5 hours from Adelaide time as we left, but that does not correspond to a real time zone. Shortly we will set them back an additional hour to be on Western Australia time. This will be as far west as we get on this trip.

I had a very restful night except that I awoke around 2am to find the train not moving and became aware that it had not been moving for quite a while. While I didn't have anywhere to be, I puzzled over this instead of sleeping. A check of Pocket Earth showed we were near Port Augusta at Spencer Junction. It turns out we were on time.

I took my time getting ready in the morning and then went to the lounge car to await Rick and Jane before going into breakfast. They arrived maybe 30 minutes later and we were seated immediately. The food on this trip was really good, but not spectacular. After breakfast we spent the morning either in our rooms or chatting with others in the lounge car. At one point the train manager announced that we had just entered the world's longest section of straight track (about 300 miles of dead straight track). I commented to Jane that I thought he had announced this a bit early and shortly after that felt us going around a curve so...

As we went around that curve it was as though someone had turned off a switch. Prior to it, the landscape was both varied in terrain and flora. Immediately after the curve the landscape became flat as Nebraska and with miles and miles of the same brush. Perhaps the most barren place on earth that I've visited.

At Cook

At Cook
Prior to lunch we stopped in Cook, Australia for an extended service stop. This four person town exists solely to refuel and otherwise service passaenger and freight trains that some through. It gave us an opportunity to get off and get fresh air as we took pictures of the train. After a suitable period we reboarded and went into the dining car for lunch.

After lunch, what else? More relaxing. I read for a while, and had a late afternoon libation, and before I knew it we were at the end of the long straight track and in Rawlinna. We disembarked and were fed a lamb roast dinner under the stars (it was mostly cloudy so we saw a sliver of a moon, but no real stars.) We were aboard and moving again by 8:30pm and I sat in the lounge for a while where I had a nice conversation with a 92 year old lady who was aboard with her three daughters (ranging in age from, I think 54 to 68), and her daughter-in-law...just for the fun of the ride. Sort of like me! The 92 year old out-lasted me -- I went off to bed well ahead of her!
Dining under the (soon to be) stars at Rawlinna

From sea to shining sea

November 25

Although I slept well, I again woke up frequently to find the train stopped. In fact, it seemed as if we had been stopped all night once we got to the service stop at Kalgoorlie (where we were due at around 3am.) In fact, what would happen is that we would stop. I'd awake long enough to realize we were stopped. I'd quickly go back to sleep. We'd travel some unknown distance and stop for a freight, etc. So essentially every time I awoke during the night we were stopped. It was actually easier to sleep when we were moving because the motion of the train tends to lull me (even when I am trying to stay awake.)

In any event I was up and showered and in the lounge car with about half of my section of the train ahead of the 6:30am "first call" for breakfast. (Remember, we'd set our watches back three hours in the last two+ days, so 6:30 was actually rather late.) Since Rick and Jane were not up yet, I did not go into the first call, but rather waited for them. Sometime just prior to our sitting down the train manager announced that we were on schedule, or perhaps a bit early and that we would be meeting 14 freights between where we were (Lake Julia) and our eventual arrival at East Perth station. We met at least one of those trains during the excellent breakfast, and another as just afterwards.

Around 11:30am we found ourselves sitting just west of Cunderdin. We had passed a station that actually had people on the platform so Rick and I surmised that a train would be coming to pick them up. We quickly determined that the Prospector, a daily train from Kalgoorlie to Perth was due at 11:38am and was scheduled to arrive at East Perth Terminal at 1:45pm. Since we were due at East Perth Terminal at 3:00pm, clearly the Prospector had to go ahead of us. Sure enough a two car train soon zipped around us. Others around us wondered how we could have guessed that would happen. :) I should point out that the Prospector is carded between its end points in 6 hours and 40 minutes, while the Indian-Pacific, a much longer and heavier train, is scheduled to take roughly 12 hours for the same distance. There is lots of padding in the Indian-Pacific schedule as evidenced by the fact that we waited for freights in many places and still managed to be almost on time at East Perth.

Because of trackwork (causing a partial shutdown of the tracks near Perth) we didn't actually arrive until 3:33, 33 minutes late. As we got off the train I called an Uber and we were soon picked up and delivered to our respective abodes (I stayed at the Hilton, while Rick and Jane stayed at a serviced apartment for the three days we were there.)

A little while after checking in, Rick called and we walked over to a local Woolworth's grocery for supplies (things close at 5pm on Saturday here.) After some downtime we met at a restaurant recommended by the Hilton's concierge on Elizabeth Quay. The whole Quay area was jumping and full of young people (plus us.) Dinner was good, but the restaurant was quite noisy with various private parties going on everywhere.

I guess it is worth spending a few minutes reflecting on the Indian-Pacific trip. It was quite expensive but I was paying for an experience on what is essentially a cruise train. The equipment on the train was amazing. That is not to say that I wouldn't have designed things somewhat differently, but the rooms were spacious and comfortable.

The staff was wonderful. I can't think of a single bad member. The crews change in Adelaide. The one that took us from Sydney to Adelaide was finishing their multi-day trip. The one that took us from Adelaide to Perth was just starting theirs. Both were excellent.

The food was universally good, but perhaps a bit over-the-top. I like chef prepared dishes, but would have liked some simpler options as well. The off-train events were good. I especially liked the dinner under the clouds (stars?) at Rawlinna. It was magical. I could have done with a much shorter excursion in Adelaide. I enjoyed it, but at six hours it was just too long. The scenery ranged from outstanding to boring, but even the boring (the Nullarbor plain) was fascinating in its way.

The age of the passengers skewed somewhat higher than us, but almost everybody was extremely friendly and we got into many interesting conversations over the four days. In addition to the aforementioned sisters and their 92 year old mother, there was the recently retired Delta 747 captain and his wife (who had worked in the penal system) from Florida, a couple from Seattle that was in the middle of a 150 day trip out of Seattle that would span at least 6 continents. They traveled with luggage that weighed 36 kilos between them (said luggage including a stuffed moose so that her grandchild could see the moose everywhere they went.) She was a district judge--I never found out what he did. There was a relatively young British man who seemed to be continually traveling and blogging about his travels. There was a Sri Lankan couple from Sydney (she worked for Medtronics and had moved to Australia from Minneapolis who, although they were in a different multi-car section of the train, dined with us both at the Hahndorf excursion and the Rawlinna dinner. And others I am sure that I am forgetting.

Bottom line, I would recommend the Indian-Pacific trip to anyone. I liked it so much that I would consider coming back to Australia at some future time to ride its sister train, The Ghan, from Adelaide to Darwin via Alice Springs. If only I didn't have to endure the flights to here to do so.

Finally make it to the Indian Ocean

November 26

On the first full day in Perth I had breakfast with Sam Aronson. Sam is the son of Caryl and David Aronson, all three of whom are friends in the poker community. Sam has been in Australia for a year, touring and working basically for his keep.

The Indian-Pacific doesn't actually go to the Indian Ocean...just to a bay off the ocean. The nearby port is Fremantle. I first saw the Indian Ocean in 1988 on a trip to Singapore. Getting to Singapore in 1988 was a lot harder than getting to Auckland in 2017. Although today there is no nonstop service from PIT to LAX, there is nonstop service from LAX to either AKL or SYD. In the old days one had to change in Tokyo as there were no aircraft in regular use that could do the hop nonstop. 

Elizabeth Quay, Perth
In the morning we took a Captain Cook's Tour one way across the bay and down the Swan River from Perth to Fremantle which is on the ocean. This trip took about 45 minutes, but with boarding, etc. is scheduled for 75 minutes. Along the way the (way too loud) announcer narrated how this house along the shore is worth only $1 million, while this one in a really exclusive area is owned by X and is worth $10 million, and this one in a really, really, exclusive area is owned by Y and is worth $25 million, and so on. (I'd give real names to X and Y except that there was so much bass on the sound system that I could barely understand him half the time.) The best part of tour was the arrival in Fremantle Harbor where we saw a huge container ship, an auto carrier, and a Australian Naval frigate.

A couple of ships in Fremantle
The boat let us off right across from a market that someone had mentioned was a fun place to visit. We walked quickly through a bunch of souvenir stands, fast food places and antique stalls, and were not overly impressed. From there we spent an hour or so walking around the downtown area. The famous prison was a bit farther than we wanted to walk, so we returned to the rail station near the pier and caught a train back to Perth. Amazingly, even on a Sunday, these trains run every 15 we could keep to our own schedule.

Scenes in Fremantle
Back at the Perth transit center we stopped for lunch at a bakery, where I had a steak and bacon pie. Then we rode another train out to Butler and back (roughly 40km and also running every 15 minutes or so.) When we got back I went with Rick and Jane and saw the apartment they had rented for the stay. It was quite nice. Then I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in my room before Rick and Jane met me for dinner in the hotel restaurant. (The restaurant had a special that was an excellent value and also was good, and I had some drink coupons, so who could resist?)

Perth Transit Center
After dinner we took a walk so that I could add to my step count for the day. According to the Apple health app I walked 13,350 steps and climbed one floor. I don't put too much accuracy on those numbers though as on one of the days I was mostly on the train it showed that I had climbed 19 floors!

Perth, Mandurah, and onto Melbourne

November 27, 28

On Monday, I met Rick and Jane at their apartment about a block away. From there we went to Elizabeth Quay and bought day passes on the rail system. After a quick trip to Mt. Lawley on the Midland line (so that we could "connect" with the Indian-Pacific which terminated at East Perth Station) and a turnaround to Armadale, we took a train to Mandurah which is a city by the sea about 40km south of Perth. 

At Caisebrook (suburban Perth)
As we were waiting to board the train to Mandurah we got into a conversation with a lady on the platform who, when she learned that we had come in on the Indian-Pacific, informed us that the train that headed back to Sydney on Sunday had made it about 12 minutes out of the East Perth Station when one or two cars derailed. The train was supposed to leave at 10am. It is not clear what time it actually did leave (after the cars were rerailed and one was removed from the train), but according to news reports passengers waited at least seven hours! There is so much padding in the schedule and there are excursions that can be eliminated or shortened if necessary, so they will probably get to Sydney more or less on time anyway. But we were glad it wasn't our train! (I just called and they are predicting an ontime arrival in Sydney.)

Where we had lunch in Mandurah
The Indian Ocean at Mandurah
We almost boarded the wrong train at Mandurah (which would have cost us all of 20 minutes)
At Mandurah we caught a bus to a cove where we each had a Fish and Chips meal at Cicerello's Seafood that was excellent and then took a long walk to the sea and then to where we could catch a bus to the train back to Perth.

At 6:30 the Mosers met me in the lobby of my hotel and we walked (more!) to an outdoor mall so that Jane could buy something she needed and then had dinner nearby. We then caught a train back to Elizabeth Quay and walked to our respective abodes. 

On to Melbourne

November 28

We had planned to take the 9:25am bus to Perth Airport. I was packed and out of the room by 9am and made the short walk to the bus depot where I met the Mosers. The ride to the airport was reasonably quick and checking bags was a breeze. There was no line at security. We were at the gate way too early. Actually the Mosers could have gone to the Virgin Australia lounge since they had been upgraded to business class the day before, but since I hadn't they elected to stay with me.

My non-business class seat on the Airbus 330 was surrounded by about an even dozen kids under age 3 within 3 rows on any side of me. Mostly they screamed for the entire 3.5 hour flight. Oh, and the entertainment system was broken from about row 20 to row 35. I was in row 35. Finally, the empty seat next to me was filled mid-flight by a gentleman whose tray table was (and had been) broken. Not a very pleasant flight (for me). The Mosers, on the otherhand, had a functioning entertainment system, a choice of entrees and liquor, etc. And no kids.

I talked the Mosers into using Uber instead of Skybus to our hotel in downtown Melbourne. It ended up costing about $8 more (total) than three bus it took us door to door. The negative was a long walk at the airport to get to the designated ride-share location.

It was nearly 8 when we checked in, and at about 8:30 we had drinks at the bar and then went our separate ways for dinner (none of us were very hungry, and we could not agree on a place and there were plenty of choices.)

I think I can, I think I can

November 29

Another early day, this time made worse by the three hour time change and that the fact that I slept poorly due to street noise. After a quick breakfast, I met Rick and Jane and we went across the street to the Flinders Street Station to catch a train for the town of Belgrave at 8:30. Belgrave is the start of the Puffing Billy excursion train, a steam powered tourist operation that runs several times a day to Lakeside and once a about 10 miles further (yes, miles) to Gembrook. We elected to do the shorter (1 hour each way with a 1 hour layover) ride.

Flinders Street Station (the only 
Flinders Street Station from my room
Flinders Street Station at night
The Puffing Billy runs on a very narrow gauge (2'6"). The line has existed since 1900 and was operational through to Gembrook until 1953 when a landslide blocked the line. It was reopened as a historical line in stages starting in 1962--all the way to Gembrook in 1998.

Puffing Billy at Belgrave
The train out of Belgrave was very long, with lots of cars reserved for groups. In fact it was so long that they put two steam locomotives on the front to haul us as far as Menzies Creek where the cars and the engine were taken off (persumably the end of the tour for those people). All of the cars were overflowing with people, most of whom had selfie sticks and were not shy about using them...constantly. It was both a pleasant and unpleasant ride because of this.

Passengers are encouraged to (literally) hang out the windows
Watering the locomotive at Lakeside
The through train to Gembrook arrives at Lakeside
At Lakeside there was an opportunity to take some pictures as they ran the engine around and watered it, as well as to get something to eat and drink. An equally crowded train brought us back to Belgrave where we caught a train back into Melbourne.

While we were out the hotel moved me to a room not as susceptible to street noise.

After a bit of relaxation, we walked Jane to where she was catching a tour to see "Penguins on Parade". She wasn't back until after 11:30. Rick and I rode a tram out to Royal Park Station intending to ride a train back into town only to find that the service had been suspended, perhaps due to wasn't clear.

A tram approaches Royal Park Station
It turns out that I have friends almost everywhere! Charles Haynes (who is receiving these reports) is a poker friend from the old days who lived in the Bay Area when I played a poker tournament against him in Las Vegas, perhaps as early as 1994. He moved to Australia a while ago and has settled, with Debbie Ann, in Melbourne. He came by my hotel at 6:30pm, and while Jane was off with the penguins, Rick and I joined him for dinner across the river. After dinner we walked along the riverfront until we reached a place for ice cream in the casino located nearby. A quick tram ride and we were back at the hotel ready to call it a night.

Dining on a Street Car

November 30

The line up at Southern Cross Station
This morning I was up early (I have been all trip) and had an early breakfast. I ran out to top off my MyKi (the Melbourne area transit card) and to get some cash from an ATM and then met Rick and Jane. Jane had some shopping she wanted to do and Rick and I tagged along. We then went to Southern Cross Station where our train to Sydney would leave from the next day to scope things out and then walked to where we could catch a route 35 tram. This route is handled by historic trams and does a circle around the city. It is free. It is also not air conditioned which was a factor on this 90+ degree day.

The City Circle Tram (route 35)
After completing the circle we took some pictures at the throat of Southern Cross Station and then walked to a nearby Coles to purchase a cold drink--which we sat and consumed for about 20 minutes. We then caught another tram to Clarendon Street Junction where the dinner tram boards.

The Colonial Dinner Tram, as it is called, offers three sittings a day onboard a tram car as old as I am, outfitted as a full gourmet restaurant. We took the lunch sitting that includes crackers and dips as you board, a choice from two entrees and two mains and a cheeseboard at the end. It also includes choice of beverages. The food and service was excellent but, perhaps because the A/C could not keep up with the 90+ degree weather, none of us could finish our meals. We were lucky enough to have a couple from Brisbane, more-or-less our age, sitting across from us, and we had a nice conversation among the five of us as the tram made its two hour transit of the city.

The Colonial Dinner Tram
Interior of the Colonial Dinner Tram
Enjoying our meal on the Dinner Tram
From there we decided it was too hot and retreated (via a properly air conditioned tram) to our hotel for a while. Unfortunately there was an air conditioning failure at our hotel (the Doubletree). Even though the temperature outside moderated quite a bit after our quick dinner and a stroll down the riverfront, it was still not at all comfortable in my room. The tip-off should have been that the front doors of the hotel were wide open and the lobby was hot when we returned.

The Starlight Express to Sydney

December 1

After a hot night at the Doubletree (hot as in warm, not hot as in fun) we checked out at 7:30am and made the long trek (across the street) to Flinders Street Station. We rode the first train that came along (actually it was already there) one stop to Southern Cross Station and found our way to track one where our XPT train to Sydney sat. The train consisted of six(?) carriages...three coaches, a buffet/first class car, another first class car, and a sleeper. (The title of this installment came from some lettering on the front of the locomotive.)

The XPT at Southern Cross Station
We had first class seats in the second to last car that weren't much better than those in an Amtrak long distance coach. The buffet (which I didn't partake in because of a stomach ailment) seemed much better than the Amtrak equivalent. The hot lunch the Mosers had was great according to them.

At Junee
Leaving Melbourne at 8:30am I had a seat mate named Bob who was riding to Wagga Wagga to catch a bus to his home ... about an hour away. He had driven his daughter to Melbourne and left her with the car. He was a well traveled fellow who was also at least a bit of a railfan, so we had an interesting conversation. He got off at 1pm and was replaced by a woman who was returning home to Sydney. The trip to Sydney takes almost 11.5 hours and the scenery changes constantly. I confess to reading a lot and dozing a lot.

From Central Station to our hotel, the Meriton Serviced Apartments at World Tower, took about 20 minutes, some uphill, but nothing impossible. We were quickly checked in to our two bedroom suite on the 77th floor. This is the first accommodation that we shared on the trip. The Mosers had their own bedroom and bath and I had my own bedroom and bath. There was a laundry, a kitchen, and a huge livingroom/diningroom with a view to kill (as long as the clouds don't get too low). The first thing we noticed was that we could easily watch trains coming and going at Central Station below.

The view of Central Station from our apartment
After checking in we went to the almost attached Coles supermarket for supplies for the apartment and to grab some food to take home for dinner since it was late and none of us particularly wanted to go out.

We ran into one little snag regarding our time in Sydney ... namely that there was a lot of rain in the forecast.

Oh my aching dogs

December 2

As of 5pm this day, I have walked (if one can believe my iPhone, anyone know if I can?) 14,648 steps, climbed 14 floors and walked 4.8 miles. We had agreed to be ready to go at 9am, and after a nice cool sleep I was up in plenty of time to make that happen without relying on an alarm.

After a quick breakfast in our suite (we had bought the fixin's the previous evening) we headed to the Town Hall train station, a few blocks away, where we quickly caught a train to Circular Quay. We were just a minute or so too late for the 9:30am ferry to Manly and Manly beach. But no worries, the next one was 30 minutes later. We boarded it and found seats at the very front of the upper deck outside. The main purpose of this ride was to see Sydney Harbour and we did that in spades, all for the cost of a standard ferry ride. It was a great ride even if the day was overcast.

Some views from the Manly ferry
A quick word about transit (multi-modal) in Sydney...if one uses their "Opal Card" the daily amount you can spend on transit is capped. On a normal day, and if you aren't going to the airport (which has a surcharge) the cap is just over $15. So ride as much as you want, and don't worry about the cost. This includes the ferry which was $7 each way. (We got an even better deal the next day, because the Sunday cap, but only with a card, is less than $3.)

Manly Beach was closed due to weather
We arrived at Manly about 40 minutes after leaving Sydney and made the 12 minute walk to the beach (which was closed due to very heavy surf and wind), and then walked back to catch the 11:10am ferry back to Sydney. We sat inside for the return trip.

After disembarking at Circular Quay we headed towards the Sydney Harbour Bridge even though we didn't have a good idea of how to get to it. (But hey, we could see it, so how hard could it be to find it?) After asking directions (Google kept confusing us) we made it to some stairs that took us up to the so called Cahill Walk across the bridge. The bridge is spectacular and it took us 30 minutes of slow walking to cross it (this time does not include the approaches at each end). After the walk we descended into an area called Kirribilli and had a quick lunch before catching a train into Sydney. My feet were killing me by this time so I decided to head back to the apartment to rest them. Jane wanted to visit an outdoor market in The Rocks (we had passed it on the way to the bridge) so she and Rick got off at a different stop and arrived back about an hour after I did...just as the skies opened up with the rain that had been promised for today.

Circular Quay from the Sydney Harbour Bridge
We went to dinner around 7pm and the weather was a bit more that a drizzle, but not much more...I never opened my umbrella. The restaurant was a 2+ block walk and most of it was under cover. When we returned to the apartment my "final" step count for the day was just under 16,700 and the floors climbed was 17. And, oh my aching dogs!

Back to the Blue Mountains

December 3

This was expected to be the last day without rain before we headed home on Thursday, so we decided to spend it back in the Blue Mountains, about two hours by train west of Sydney. We elected to catch a train that left Central about 8:50am so we left the apartment about 8:30am and walked there. We had covered the trackage on November 22 on the Indian-Pacific but, since we were really just settling in at the time, we thought it would be nice to see the mountain railroading again. Plus, at Katoomba is the Blue Mountains National Park which has gorgeous scenery. Although there were other ways to see the sights we decided to use a hop-on-hop-off bus (a big mistake as it is a ripoff) and visited Scenic World which had a (very steep) inclined plane, a cable car, a boardwalk, and a skyway (the cable car went across a valley, the skyway went up from the bottom of a valley). All provided scenery galore, but at Disney World-like prices (Disney World back in the 80s that is.)

The incline at Scenic World
Scenery at Scenic World
After a quick lunch we hopped back on the bus and just missed a train back to Sydney by a couple of minutes. But, unlike the US, these semi-long distance trains run frequently, and less than 40 minute later we were on our way home. I watched the scenery for a while, then read, and then dozed and pretty soon we were home.

We walked back to the apartment, and spent a few hours relaxing before heading out for dinner and a walk through the CBD until we found the Sydney Christmas Tree. Then back to the apartment for the night.

The Sydney Christmas Tree
According to my iPhone I walked 12,443 steps covering 4.5 miles today, and climbed seven floors. I must be getting better at this because my feet don't hurt quite as badly today.

But we didn't hear the fat lady sing

December 4

When we awoke it was raining as promised, but we didn't really care as we had a more or less rain-free plan for the morning hours (ride some more trains). In the event, by the time we actually got going (around 9am) we could see no umbrellas being used from 67 stories up. We did not need to use umbrellas on the several block walk to Central. It did rain while we were on our train to Newcastle, but had more or less stopped by the time we got off at Hornsby where we caught another train back into Sydney via a different line and then connected to the harbour at Circular Quay. Total fare for about two hours of travel was less than $3. 

At Circular Quay the rain finally caught up with us, but we only needed our umbrellas for about fifteen minutes as we walked to purchase some souveniers and have a leisurely lunch at a nearby food court. At about 12:30 we ambled over to the Sydney Opera House to be there in time for our 1pm tour. The tour lasted a bit over an hour. It was quite informative and well worth the time. 

Sydney Harbour from the Opera House
The iconic Opera House resulted from a design competition held in 1956. The winning design by Jørn Utzon wasn't even in the runoff until Eero Saarinen joined the judging committee. There were issues with the construction, and along the way politics (Australia elected a leader who had no use for art or aesthetics--sound like anyone?) and rising costs played a part in stalling its completion. Utzon left the project before it was completed and never actually saw it finished in person. It was finally dedicated by Queen Elizabeth II in 1973 with (and this may be the most amazing thing about it to me) zero construction deaths. Utzon went on the win the Pritzker Prize for the design and, with his son, helped to design various modifications over the years.

After the tour we decided to do one of the rainy-day activities that I found recommended online and took a ferry to Neutral Bay and return. This trip takes about 30 minutes and is interesting because it shows how integral the ferry is into the local transportation network. We then caught a train back to near our apartment.

We spent the evening more or less anchored to the apartment, ordering in a pizza for dinner--the act of ordering it took up at least 45 minutes due to an incredibly awful website.

Lions and Tigers and (Koala) Bears, oh my!

December 5

This was the one day that they guaranteed it was going to rain all day. So, of course, we planned to go to the Taronga Zoo.

We left the apartment at about 9am and caught a train from Town Hall to Circular Quay and then a ferry to the zoo. We arrived about 9:35, just after it opened. Did I mention it was raining? Well it wasn't.

Since the zoo hugs the side of a mountain, they have a sky lift from the wharf to the top and the idea is to work your way down. We did this, with only a few up hill excursions. The zoo is quite impressive, with lots of Australian animals such as wallabies, kangaroos, koalas, etc. We saw a tiger (barely), but never a lion (we did not head into the African animal part of the zoo). We saw a seal show and a flying birds show, both of which were impressive. I can't imagine the amount of training it took to get the hawks to soar as they did.

(Photo courtesy of Richard A. Moser)
(Photo courtesy of Richard A. Moser)

As we worked our way down the hill the sun came out a few times and we never felt a drop of rain. We ended up back at the wharf and caught a ferry back to Circular Quay and a train back to the apartment. We were all pretty exhausted at that point (what with fighting the "rain"), so we rested until dinner. When it was time for dinner we walked over to Darling Harbour where there was a whole lot of restaurants.

For our last full day in Sydney they also forecasted (really this time) rain, so we planned a trip to the beach.

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

We planned a leisurely day today, our last in Australia. The weather was forecast said it would rain all day (near 100% chance), but by now we had learned not to trust the forecast so we planned two activities:

1. A visit to the Powerhouse Museum to see the first Australian steam locomotive, and then,
2. A walk along Bondi beach

When we awoke skies were only partially overcast so we reversed the order above and took off for Biondi beach. This involved a train connecting to a bus (for about $3) and then an up-to 3km walk along a gorgeous coastline. When we got there the sun was shinning and it stayed that way the entire time. Of course, since it was supposed to rain we had packed umbrellas but all three of us forgot to pack sunscreen. About half way through our walk, in the mid-day sun, I was able to buy a tube of sunscreen at a restaurant along the beach, but the sun was bright so it is not clear that it wasn't a case of closing the barn door after the horses had already run away. We shall see.

We ended up doing the first two thirds of the walk and then caught a bus back to Bondi Junction (where the train to Sydney begins its run). Before returning we had a quick lunch at a food court nearby. (We did this so that we could each get what we wanted.) We might have preferred a cafe on the beach, but what we saw didn't appear to be worthwhile.

On the way back to Sydney, both of the Mosers fell asleep and I, sitting in front of them, didn't notice. I got off at Town Hall Station and expected to see them right behind me. They awoke just in time and barely got off before the doors closed.

Rick and Jane did a bit of souvenier shopping on the way back to our apartment, and just before we arrived it started to rain. By the time we got up to the 77th floor we could not see out our windows through the downpour. There was also some lightning. But as I am writing this about an hour later the skies are only mostly cloudy with no apparent rain. However, we were all tired and want to begin packing for the trip home and so gave up on going to the Museum.

A final view of Central Station from our apartment
By the time we went to our farewell dinner at an Italian restaurant about a block from the hotel, the sky was blue and the sun was shinning.

Tomorrow we leave for the airport about 7:30am. That's the earliest we've left for anything all trip except for the excursion at Broken Hill.

The Day of Infamy becomes The Longest Day

December 7

I was going to write about my return to Pittsburgh in an epilog, but I changed my mind.

I did not sleep well the night of December 6 and awoke before 6am on December 7. We had planned to leave for the airport at 7:30am but all of us were ready earlier. We walked the two blocks to the recently refurbished Museum station and caught an airport bound train. A few stops later we got off at the airport station, and went to our respective airlines (AA or me, VA for the Mosers). We were all through border protection, etc. within a matter of minutes and had a lot of time to kill until our 11:15am flights. I went to the Qantas Club and they went to the Ethiad Club. I was somewhat disappointed in the Qantas Club, but at least it was a comfortable (if crowded) place to wait.

The recently refurbished Museum station
I walked down to my gate. As soon as I got there they announced that boarding would be delayed because Maintenance was on the plane. It ended up being delayed 55 minutes. At Sydney airport's international terminal, all announcements regarding all flight boardings, etc. are broadcast throughout the gate area. So there was almost no silence during the delay as I attempted to read. Very unpleasant.

The flight left at 12:01pm instead of 11:15am, but the pilot expected us to arrive at LAX ontime at 6:05am. The flight itself was fine. Shortly after departure they fed us lunch. I had a chicken curry and re-watched the first (and only so far) season of Brockmire. Then, about 4 hours into the almost 13 hour flight, I took an Ambien and turned on my BiPAP and slept (not very well since it was only late afternoon in Sydney) for about five hours. When I woke up there were three hours left to the flight. I filled them with eating a not very good breakfast, reading, and watching a movie. As expected, we landed on time and I was off the plane and through Customs and Border Protection (CBP) within 20 minutes (thanks to Global Entry). The Mosers' flight arrived about an hour ahead of ours, but since CBP doesn't open at LAX until 6am they were forced to wait on the plane, and were only a little ahead of me. They were still at the VA baggage claim when I passed by with my carry-on, and we said one final goodbye.

My flight had come in from the Tom Bradley International Terminal but the nearest Admiral's Club was the (newly opened) one in Terminal 4, so I walked there and took forever to go through security a slow-as-molasses TSA Precheck line. Although I was entitled to use their Flagship First lounge, that was scheduled to open December 13. I have to say that I was less impressed with the rennovated Admiral's Club than I was with the one in Terminal 5, but again it was a quite place to wait.

The next step to home was a flight to DFW. It turns out that it used the exact same 787 that I had just flown on, and that it left from the same gate that I had just arrived I had to trek back to the Tom Bradley terminal. The flight left on time, but sat waiting for takeoff for a while and arrived at DFW a few minutes late.

You may recall that AA's caterer at LAX had a listeria issue at the beginning of November and that AA dumped them before finding a replacement. A flight attendant told me that they have a replacement, but that they have been doing test runs, etc, with it and that they weren't going "live" with it until Saturday. So the "breakfast" in business class on this flight was a bagel and cream cheese (which was actually better than most breakfasts.) The difference between sitting in a "pod" on a trans-Pacific flight and one on a domestic flight is major. Without a pillow I found the pod to be uncomfortable.

My final step home was on an AA 737-800 to Pittsburgh. It left on time, and arrived early. The enchiladas they served in business class weren't very good, but I also wasn't all that hungry. I ordered up an Uber and was home before 7pm roughly 28 hours after leaving the apartment in Sydney. I managed to stay up until about 9:30pm and then went to bed and slept mostly through until about 8:30am.


Here are some closing thoughts about my Oceania adventure.

First of all, I need to thank Rick and Jane Moser for inviting Barb and I to join them on this adventure and then putting up with me alone. I hope that I wasn't too much of a third wheel.

Rick spent a lot of time researching and planning the details of this trip. I was presented with a package that I could add to or subtract from -- a lot easier than creating out of whole cloth. He made the trip the success that it was.

I used four airlines on this trip: American, Qantas, Jetstar, and Virgin Australia. Although I only flew them on a reasonably short haul, I thought Qantas business class service was significantly better than American's (even giving AA a pass on their LAX catering problems). I was not impressed with either Jetstar or Virgin Australia. Of course I was in economy class for the flights on both of those.

I had mixed success with my hotels. I stayed in three Hilton properties, one Marriott property, a Rydges, and the Merition Serviced Apartment. It is perhaps not fair to compare a service apartment to a full service hotel, but regardless, the Meriton was miles above any of the hotels. I thought the Hilton in Perth and the Doubletree in Melbourne were substandard for their respective brands. The Marriott in Sydney was fine, as was the Rydges in Wellington, but the Hilton in Auckland was exceptional.

I used three long distance trains during my visit to Oceania. The Indian-Pacific was designed as a cruise train and was exceptionally fine. As mentioned earlier I would have preferred a shorter excursion in Adelaide, but this was the stand out train of the trip (as it should have been). The Northern Explorer from Wellington to Auckland was a train I would ride again should the opportunity arise. On the otherhand, now that I've ridden the XPT from Melbourne to Sydney, I believe I would fly the next time.

I would love to visit both New Zealand and Australia again to see other parts of those countries, but it will take me a while to forget about the pain of getting there. Perhaps next time I can use a cruise from the US mainland as some of the folks we met on the Indian-Pacific did.

If you've read this far, thanks for staying with me throughout my Oceania Adventure.