Weather down under: Not buried in snow, but soaked by rain
It feels odd to have spent much of the last week enjoying what most would consider near-perfect weather, but lamenting a missed “opportunity” to shovel heavy snow. Or at least to cross country ski, which is pretty much my favorite activity.
That is, however, the unusual situation in which I find myself.
I’m about three-quarters of the way around the world from Stevens Point – 9,171 miles away, to be exact. Traveling as the faculty member in charge of a group of 14 University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP) students and headquartered for three weeks in the high summer of Sydney, Australia, I had expected to be enjoying myself a little less in a miserably hot environment.
I took lots of quick-drying fabrics in anticipation. Those clothes are helpful, but for a different reason.
After four days of very unusual and truly delightful temperatures (rarely hitting 80 degrees Fahrenheit and generally falling to the low 60s at night), we are now in the middle of our third day of downpouring rain that has badly flooded a number of communities around Australia. For now, there’s no sign of the scorching 100-plus-degree days that preceded our arrival.
So far, I’ve heard news of only one death because of a man’s car being caught in floodwaters at a crossing, as well as one suburban house on a hilly street that lost its entire backyard and much of its patio when a section of retaining wall collapsed.
Otherwise, the news isn’t yet as frightening as that out of the Mississippi Valley – except when crocodiles are seen swimming through some of the flooded Australian towns.
Still, the weather is one more reminder of the strangeness that is becoming increasingly “normal” in our world.
Tuesday, I heard reports of 125 millimeters, or about 4.5 inches, of rain in parts of Sydney over the previous 36 hours. Wednesday, I woke to news of an expected 200-plus millimeters in Hunter, not too far from here, over the next 24 hours.
It has rarely let up for more than a few minutes since early Monday.
Fortunately, we’ve been able to enjoy the majority of our outdoor activity early in our trip and for the last two days have been little affected by the soggy conditions, as we’ve mostly heard lectures and spent our off-time working on class assignments.
Still, we’re ready to get back out and enjoy Australia’s fantastic outdoors, and it’s time to share a little of that with Gazette readers.
Urban ‘outside’ is relative thing
A very pleasant surprise for all of us in Sydney is the greenery, bird life and natural scenery, but it’s a very different experience than we get in small-city Wisconsin.
In some ways, the outdoors are surprisingly easy to enjoy because of a paradox. The congested nature of cities may be the very condition that allows us to celebrate being outside more easily, and that’s probably because we have to walk more.
After all, who can afford a car in a metro area like Sydney, which will soon reach 5 million inhabitants?
Here for less than a week, many of us have already made multiple trips to the closest grocery store (Woolworths – no, not affiliated with, but apparently named after, that mostly-defunct U.S. five-and-dime company).
When you have to walk, and can’t carry much with you, it means more trips.
Crowded onto narrow sidewalks by buildings that hide the sun, one tends to notice flowers, trees and other living things a bit more easily, and Sydney’s subtropical environment has plenty of interesting ones. Our relationship to them seems to change, too.
Walking down the street to work in Stevens Point, I see more open space, but it is people’s yards. I’m acutely aware that the greenery is not mine.
Here, most open spaces are very public and often come as enchanting surprises when one turns a corner. It’s also easy to feel more kinship, and even communal ownership, of every tree, park and playground along the way.
There are almost a dozen named open spaces, and several that aren’t, within a radius of a third of a mile on all sides from our hostel: Pemulwuy Park, Charles Kernan Reserve, Vine Street Playground, Strickland Park, Peace Park and more. The largest is Victoria Park, about 20 acres with a small lake, a public pool, a fountain, an outdoor cafe and a totem pole from Canada.
While natural settings are my normal preference, two generally artificial environments may be my favorites in Sydney so far. Chippendale Green, a geometrically designed combination of lawns, sculpture, steps and a cascading granite stream, ends in a mall, of all places, that is called Central Park (home to the aforementioned Woolworths).
It’s always a pleasant emergence from the grocery store’s exit, below street level, to the slopes of the green and its gurgling waterway. The area is bordered with several dining establishments, all with patios.
Then there’s a completely bogus “Spice Alley” not far from the same mall.
It’s meant to replicate the street-food culture of an Asian city, with several small stands offering a variety of ethnic foods. Nooks and crannies throughout the semi-covered walkway offer small wooden tables underneath paper lanterns, and it’s a particularly cozy setting for a tasty meal as the rain patters down just beyond the tables.
Even though it’s artificial, I have fallen totally for it – just like the rest of Sydney, which is as fine an outdoor urban setting as one could hope for.
Native ‘wildlife’ more normal in city?
I hate crowds. So much that I stayed at the hostel while the students all went off to Sydney’s New Year’s Eve fireworks display, one reputed to be the world’s most spectacular.
I did that because 1.5 million people were expected to pack the downtown and harbor area where it was centered.
Internet video will confirm that the reputation is deserved; the pyrotechnics were extraordinary, and in some ways better on television. The aerial shots from a great height allowed viewers to see the widely spaced, but perfectly aligned, triple set of launching points from the harbor up the Parramatta River, while other camera angles captured the amazing firefall that poured off the famous Harbor Bridge as rockets shot upward from the structure.
I liked my more relaxed view. One student told me she waited in line three hours for a port-a-loo. Not the best way to spend outdoor time.
This brings me to another observation: people are the native wildlife in cities. Everywhere else, they’re out of place.
I realized this when we took a substantial walk in one of the Sydney area’s suburban national parks this past weekend. Something that struck me for the first time on this outing was how much more bothered I was by people than I had been in the far thicker crowds of downtown Sydney.
I noticed it because we were in the ’burbs, where population density was lower but building density on the ground is the same. Every square foot of real estate seemed to have been purchased and used for wall-to-wall homes (many of them fairly standard, but virtually every one of them valued at more than a million Aussie dollars, which not too long ago was worth more than the same number of American bucks).
Although we were mostly on steep and well-canopied trails over Hunter’s Bay, Reef Bay and Manly Cove, we still wove in and out of neighborhoods. No real yards and still plenty of people and driveways, which was the problem.
I discovered my expectations for a non-downtown environment were unrealistic, but that didn’t help me shake the idea that the suburbs shouldn’t feel like a crush of humans. Every time our group of somewhat-less-fit Americans was passed by a dad with his baby in a sling, this park felt more crowded than the city, even with fewer homo-suburbans wandering around.
The city is a natural environment for people. So hundreds of people on a one-block stretch of sidewalk don’t bug me, but every young couple on a rocky national-park pathway does.
The suburbs aren’t, I now believe, a natural environment for anything except reminders that it may not get much better.
That’s irrational, but nobody ever accused us city folk of being anything more, right?
Regardless, Australia is a lovely country, and I’ll bring you all more Aussie outdoor experiences over the next couple of weeks.