A day in Maldon

A day (and night) in the countryside began by heading out of Melbourne in the car.

I learnt a lesson on the way, somewhere near Sunshine: if you’re going to try and overtake (well, “undertake”) a truck on the left from a standing start, be at the front of the queue at the lights AND have plenty of space. The lane ended sooner than I thought, and the cars in front took off slowly. Thankfully the truck driver was paying attention, and gave me a bit of extra space to merge in.

Anyway from the Western Highway it’s a beautiful drive up to Trentham through the bush. The target was lunch at our friends’ place just south of the township. I’ll put in a plug for them as they’re selling the house: it’s a glorious mudbrick home, with a lovely walled garden and a tower! You’ve always wanted a tower, haven’t you! There’s even a sundial or two.

View from the tower, Trentham

The garden, Trentham

From there we headed north, up through the town, then via Dayesford to Maldon to stay the night in a B+B/French restaurant called the Rendezvous, in the old Eaglehawk hotel. The owners of that are also selling up. After settling in, we had a walk around the town.

Old Eaglehawk Hotel, Maldon

A small collection of engines in the station yard.
Railway yard at Maldon

They seem to also have a relative of Thomas here.
A relative of Thomas, at Maldon

Railway cat, Maldon

Maldon Main street. It was after 5pm, and the crowds had vanished.
Maldon Main Street

They have a heritage post box… and heritage rubbish bins. I remember when style was everywhere when I was a kid, but most have vanished now.
Vintage post box and rubbish bin, Maldon

Rego Brand self-raising flour. (Was this a prominent brand? I couldn’t find anything on Google, though apparently they also made cordial.)
Old advertising, Maldon

The Anglican church. Note the mining and mobile phone towers on the mountain behind.
Anglican church, Maldon

Dinner was a three-course taste-fest. I had cheese fondant, then duck, then a chocolate souffle. I’m not normally one for photographing my meals, but as you can see, I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Dinner in Maldon

(Breakfast the next morning — croissants, muesli, egg and salmon on brioche — was great too, resulting in a similarly clean plate.)

I had to get back to Melbourne, which meant we didn’t get to ride the steam train, but during a morning walk before breakfast we spotted it getting ready for its day’s duties.
Maldon, Victorian Goldfields Railway

These towns — Maldon, Daylesford and Trentham — were all once connected by regular passenger rail services. (Maldon had passenger trains from 1884 to 1941. Trentham and Daylesford had passenger services 1880 to 1978 — I remember as a kid going to Daylesford by train; it must have been shortly before services ceased. Regular train with old wooden carriages to Woodend, and a rail motor from there.)

All three towns are getting very busy on the weekends thanks to tourism. In fact some of our group went back to Melbourne the way we’d come, and found bumper-to-bumper traffic around Daylesford. Evidently the three coaches per day on weekends (two from Woodend, one from Ballarat) don’t cut it.

Even on weekdays there are only three coaches from Daylesford via Woodend/Castlemaine, and you can’t reach Melbourne before 9:27am. Chatter among the locals is that while some hardy souls commute to Melbourne from this area, most moving to the area with this in mind live in the towns along the (main line) railway line. Those in the other towns tend to drive to a station — hardly surprising.

Anyway, it’s a nice part of the world. I don’t think I’d fancy that kind of commute every day, but it’s good fun to visit.

A week in Singapore

In a couple of months I’m going to Singapore for a week, for my cousin’s wedding.

Any recommendations? Things to see and do? (The wedding itself is on Sentosa Island, at one of the resorts.)

It’s been ages since I’ve been overseas. What’s the best way to organise mobile/data coverage?

What’s the shopping like? Is it like some Asian cities where you can find good cheap suits?

Hmm, what about camera equipment? (I’d love a new lens to play with.)

The weather? Warm I’m sure. I remember from flying back from Europe via Singapore in 1998, looking at the TV weather forecast and seeing a row of 25-32s forecast…

Weather forecast in Singapore, September 1998

Any other tips?

Yes, I’ll be checking out the MTR.

Comparing Sydney to Melbourne in transport and urban planning

Each time I travel (which isn’t often enough), I note the things that are different, and the things we can learn from.

From my most recent short trip to Sydney, here are some notes — not an exhaustive study, but just some observations.

Sydney Central station

Central Station is a rabbit warren compared to Flinders Street Station, though FSS may veer that way when the new underground platforms are built as part of the metro rail tunnel. What was really striking was that the Central Station “grand concourse” looked so much nicer — less chaotically laid out, and tidier.

Glenhuntly station, Melbourne, standard LED "PIDs" displays

Sydney suburban station next train displays

Suburban stations in Sydney have colourful screens on the platforms. In Melbourne if you’re lucky your local station has a two-line LED display, which won’t tell you any more than the basics — and these are common even at major interchanges like Caulfield and South Yarra.

The screens in Sydney, which seem to be universal, can tell you the next three trains, the precise stopping pattern of the next one, and also give a warning (accompanied by an automatic announcement) when a train approaching is running express through the station.

(Melbourne is currently getting colour screens in stations showing tram departures. This is a great idea, but ironically means at most stations the information provided for trams will actually be better than for trains. Lift your game, Melbourne!)

Sydney Trains are spotless. It took us 2 days to spot any litter (a banana peel on a seat). I don’t recall any tags or other litter on the trains (though there was plenty of tagging along the rail corridors). The stations were similarly spotless, even those that are unstaffed most of the time. All stations had bins, even in the CBD.

Opal beats Myki in most respects. The readers are fast and much clearer. You can check your balance on an NFC-equipt Android phone (very helpful if you can’t remember how much money is left). Card and top-up availability was a problem last year, but this is being addressed — it was easy to find both this time.

It’s unclear to me what the long-term strategy is, but so far they seem to be phasing out most non-single-use tickets, but keeping a few single use paper tickets as an option alongside the Opal cards.

Sydney Opal: Light rail touch post

But the Sydney fare structure is broken. It’s bad enough having to transfer modes; separate fares for train/bus/light-rail and ferry are just twisting the knife — particularly as the new bus route structure encourages people to switch to trains in the CBD.

And even the pricing is crazy — a $15 cap Monday to Saturday, but only $2.50 on Sundays? Why not even it out a bit, say $5 on weekend days?

In fact a NSW Audit Office report released last week says 25% of trips on Opal are free (eg the user has hit a cap), including 47% of ferry trips! Discounts are great, but someone has to pay for them — the revenue stream needs to be sustainable such that the money coming in increases as ridership increases, to help pay for upgrades.

Google Transit Maps in Sydney - the info was wrong, the bus didn't go to the Downing Centre

Google Transit is great, but not perfect. As noted previously, our bus ride took as to an unexpected (but not inconvenient) location, so something apparently didn’t quite work. Even so, it was a boon being able to easily navigate around, particularly on the bus network with its myriad of route, without first loading up some unfamiliar clunky city-specific app as visitors to Melbourne must.

Boarding assistance point at Carlton station, Sydney

Sydney still has train guards. Perhaps there’s a benefit from safety, though so many cities manage this with door sensors, mirrors and CCTV that I doubt it. The Sydney guards seem to have little to do other than make announcements (some excellent, some unintelligible — I think I’d prefer auto). They help load wheelchairs (but their position in the train varies from the middle to the end, which must make things challenging for wheelchair users.)

The problem with having two staff on board every single train is it doubles the wage cost when adding extra services. Melbourne and Perth have solved this, with Single Person Operated Trains (SPOT for short, in Melbourne!). Sydney’s new north-west metro line is set to be driverless to get around it.

Sydney train at Museum station

(Virtually) no level crossings in Sydney. And if it seems natural, that’s because it is — as can be seen in old maps, it turns out Sydney never had the huge number of crossings Melbourne has, partly through good planning, and partly because the topography (lots of hills) made it easier to avoid. But they also made a point of removing (almost) all the ones they did have. (They have about five left, on minor lines.)

Lots of lifts are being installed at Sydney stations. Historically most Sydney stations had stairs but not ramps or lifts, and were thus not accessible. They seem to have made great progress in retro-fitting lifts in many stations.

Sydney T4 line timetable, Saturday night

Train stopping patterns are all over the place. Even at 8pm on a Saturday night, on the T4 line there seemed to be at least three stopping patterns in use: Stopping all stations, Express Sutherland to Hurstville to Redfern, and another more complicated pattern that would stop at a few, skip a few, stop at a few, skip a few more.

This resulted in the station we were waiting at (Carlton) having only trains serving it every 30 minutes, with lots of expresses passing by. I suppose it makes the patterns more consistent, or at least more consistently confusing. I wonder if less than ideal acceleration on the big double-deck trains means they are keen to keep express running at all times of day?

The train line numbering is very easy to understand for tourists, but inconsistently used. Perhaps that’s a work in progress.

Pedestrian crossings in Sydney CBD are a mess, partly because of the many one way streets, but mostly because the traffic engineers have clearly prioritised car movements. The waits to cross the street are often really long, because they have complicated cycles allowing for lots of turning traffic. In Melbourne the basic grid pattern means a smaller number of cars get to turn each green cycle, and tough luck if they have to queue — traffic going straight, and pedestrians are (mostly) more important.

Penshurst, Sydney

Zebra crossings seem prominent in Sydney suburban shopping centres, much moreso than in the CBD, and moreso than in Melbourne suburbs. It was good to see; it made walking around much easier.

Roundabout zebra crossing in Carlton, Sydney

That said, they do sometimes fall into the trap of providing crossings at roundabouts that are in no way placed so that people are likely to use them.

Suburban density was clearly higher in Sydney. Apart from big centres like Hurstville, it was common in otherwise quiet suburbs like Penshurst to see 3-4 storey buildings in the areas close to the railway station and shops which would probably have Melbourne NIMBYs up in arms. But what I saw didn’t seem to intrude on the shopping strip, nor on the overall neighbourhood. It’s the sort of thing we need to see more of in Melbourne to help sustainably grow our population.

Obviously, we can learn a lot from Sydney. I dare say they can learn some things from us too.

Short Sydney trip day 3: Geeks galore

Posted 27/11/2015. Back-dated.

The third and final day of my obsessively-blogged short trip to Sydney, and it was destined to be pretty geeky. After breakfast and checking out, we caught a train to Penshurst (changing at Wolli Creek, which I assume is a pretty new interchange station), then a walk in the sun to The Gamesmen, a shop we’d run out of time to visit on Saturday. It had a pretty neat mini-museum/shop of retro games, though as Isaac remarked afterwards, the things he was most interested in buying weren’t for sale.

Display in The Gamesmen, Penshurst, NSW

From there we caught a train back into the CBD, hopped off at Town Hall and wandered around the central shopping area, cutting through the very impressive QV building and heading up George Street, which was partially closed due to light rail construction.

We looked inside the Apple Store in George Street. Melbourne CBD doesn’t yet have one of these, and it’s a different beast to the suburban Apple stores. Apple obviously has made an attempt to make this something of a geek landmark, all gleaming metal and glass.

And like Apple’s interfaces, there’s a minimalist design inside, which doesn’t tell you what’s up on the next level — you’ll just have to click, I mean climb and go and find out. The stairs were weirdly silver metal, like walking around inside a giant Apple computer.

Apple Store, SydneyMicrosoft Store, Sydney

Broken down laptop in the Microsoft Store, Sydney

In nearby Pitt Street, we found the Microsoft Store, also unknown in Melbourne. It’s like they tried to copy the Apple Store, but ended up with something not quite as fashionable. Both stores had helpers in red t-shirts. Hopefully that’s not redshirts in a Star Trek sense. And typical Microsoft, one of the laptops on display had stopped and was in Repair mode.

We found some lunch in one of the shopping centres, then took a look in the very grand Museum of Contemporary Art at Circular Quay. It was okay, but I think not as interesting as the Art Gallery of NSW which I visited last year.

The weather was glorious as we wandered around the Quay, stopping to buy ice-creams at some place called Royal Copenhagen, though Princess Mary didn’t seem to be in attendance.

The previous night we’d noticed one huge cruise ship in port. Today a completely different cruise ship was docked — a P & O liner — it turned out the next day P & O had no less than five cruise ships in the harbour.

Selfies by Sydney Harbour
Selfies by Sydney Harbour

Boats on Sydney Harbour
Only a matter of time before there’s Water Uber?

We had a look around the Opera House, joining many other tourists snapping away on our cameras, before climbing the nearby Moore Steps and finding a park to have a little rest on the grass.

By this time it was getting late in the afternoon, so we went back to the hotel and picked up our luggage, then headed for Museum Station and a train to the airport. Being peak hour, the train was pretty busy, and notably there must have been 100+ people getting off at the Domestic Airport station — pretty good for a service running every 6-9 minutes as they do in peak.

Domestic Airport station, Sydney

Qantas plane

View out of the plane from Sydney
An uneventful flight back — a dish of chicken gumbo for dinner — we landed back in Melbourne on time. I was furiously chewing gum again, and managed to bite my own tongue as we landed. Ouch.

We walked back to the car park, encountering the taxi queue along the way. The lead taxi was parked right across the pedestrian crossing, blocking the ramp — making life difficult with wheeled luggage. I angrily tapped on his boot as we walked around, and he moved a paltry few inches up, not really helping at all. Honestly, I know taxi drivers aren’t perfect, but I really expect better from people who drive for a living. This guy might as well have been trying to get people offside deliberately — the last thing the taxi industry needs right now.

Anyway, it was a quick trip home from there.

Total steps that day, according to my phone: 20,215.

We had a great time in Sydney. Yes, it cost a fair wad of cash to go up for only 3 days, and to attend the Doctor Who Festival, but the weather was perfect (we arrived the day after the 41+ degree heatwave), and the whole trip was very enjoyable.

Sydney Sunday: Doctor Who galore

Sunday! And so we get to the main excuse reason for the trip to Sydney on this specific weekend: the Doctor Who Festival.

I’ve been to Comic-Con in Melbourne twice, but this was a different beast: 98% dedicated to Doctor Who, with little bit of Sherlock (which has many of the same producers/writers/crew members/fans!) getting a look-in too. But its official status meant this event got big guns in the guest department: star Peter Capaldi, former Doctor Sylvester McCoy, semi-regular cast member Ingrid Oliver (as Osgood), showrunner Steven Moffat, writer Mark Gattis, special effects supervisor Danny Hargreaves. These things don’t get to Australia very often — that’s why I was willing to build an interstate trip around it.

Doctor Who Festival Sydney: miniature Dalek props in a Dalek city

But first: Doctor Who is currently airing on Saturday nights in the UK, and in Australia the ABC puts it on iView as soon as the UK broadcast is finished: in this case, 8am Sunday.

So we got up at about 7:30am, showered and dressed and went downstairs to enjoy the slightly bland but plentiful breakfast buffet, then with our unlimited hotel WiFi organised ($9.95 per 24 hours), we fired up iView on the iPad, plugged it into the TV and watched the episode. Which I won’t talk about in case anybody hasn’t seen it.

Then we headed for the bus stop outside Museum Station, where Google Transit told me we needed a 373, 377, 392, 394, 396, 397, 399 or M10 bus. This was a common theme for the inner-city trunk bus routes: as each bus approached, I’d look back at the phone and see if the number matched one on the list.

The bus took us to Moore Park and the Hordern Pavillion, where after a lengthy walk trying to find a way in (like the restaurant the night before, sadly clearly designed to prioritise arrivals by car), and a mild panic trying to find the right ticket barcodes (thank goodness everything was available in my email, and thank goodness for mobile internet), we entered the Festival.

Inside the Doctor Who Festival

Doctor Who Festival Sydney: I feel like I've forgotten something

The main hall was a mix of displays and small theatre areas: a very impressive fullsize Lego TARDIS, sessions on writing, production, Cosplay, a big display of costumes and props, some merchandising, a special effects display, “pub” quiz, and areas for autograph signing and photos with cast members.

People were snapping away at anything that moved, and many things that didn’t. Two uber-fans behind us in the queue for the costumes and props seemed amazed that few people were taking photos of Matt Smith’s actual coat.

A Festival crew member showed us the stick from the recent Dalek episode — actually made of rubber, making it safe despite the pointy end, and had the advantage of not being caught up in quarantine as an actual stick would.

Doctor Who Festival Sydney: Adam Spencer with Sylvester McCoy

Doctor Who Festival Sydney: Adam Spencer with Peter Capaldi, Ingrid Oliver and Steven Moffat

After a circuit, we went into the Sylvester McCoy session — which was very entertaining, as he strolled around the theatre taking questions.

We had pretty good seats despite not having paid the premium for the front section, so we stayed put in the theatre for a short time until the Capaldi/Moffat/Oliver session started. Before it was a trailer for the new Sherlock episode, which got applause from the audience.

On stage, Moffat noted that it would be a good idea not to talk about the climactic events of the latest episode, given many wouldn’t have seen it yet. Oliver said the first time she really appreciated the popularity of the show among fans was seeing lots of people dressed up as her character. They took some pretty good questions… though the one that got the biggest laugh was when one little kid asked Capaldi how much longer before he’d be quitting.

After that we grabbed a bite to eat then went back into the hall to join a long queue for photos with Capaldi. These had been pre-booked at $60 a pop, which seems to be the going rate for a photo with a star of this calibre. Churning through one about every 30-45 seconds during a session lasting a bit under an hour must mean a fair wad of cash is collected, though a whole infrastructure of queues and staff is needed to make it all run smoothly.

It must be a bit exhausting for the star, but he seemed to be managing okay. He was chatty with everybody, greeting them by name (with help from assistants), and he seemed to have figured out a range of poses for photos that would make the punters happy.

I told him I was enjoying his stint as the Doctor, and I loved him as Malcolm Tucker too. I don’t know if he was taking it all in, but we posed for a simple handshake (other people got more “in-character” poses). So here’s me making a deal with Malcolm Tucker:

Hatching a deal with Malcolm Tucker... or maybe it's the 12th Doctor Who

After collecting the photos that we wandered around a bit more, before looking in on a special effects presentation.

Special effects whiz Danny Hargreaves blew bits off a “stunt Dalek”, and with the help of some audience members and a sonic screwdriver, had sparks flying off a Cyberman.

By then, we’d just about had our fill of Doctor Who.

Was it worth $195 each? Well, you know, YOLO. The boys were delighted. I refrained from paying the $170 additional for premium tickets (which gained you a showbag, access to a “lounge” and a fast track queue to good seats up the front of each session).

Doctor Who Festival Sydney: A Cyberman gets his comeuppance

Bus way outside Moore Park/Hordern Pavilion

Finding dinner

Eventually it was time to go; we headed back to the bus stops, and were about to cross ANZAC Parade to wait for a bus back when we saw a bus approaching on the parallel bus way. I’m not clear on why some buses do and don’t use it, but it took us back to the hotel for a bit of a rest.

Time for dinner: I thought we could catch the ferry to Manly and have fish and chips — especially as we’d hit the ridiculously low Sunday Opal $2.50 cap, so all PT would be free for the rest of the day.

The Manly ferry only runs every 30-40 minutes at that time, so I checked Google Transit for the quickest bus to Circular Quay. It showed a “5 CC” bustitution service that would take us there — but while I’m pretty sure we were standing at the suggested bus stop adjacent to Museum Station, the regular 5 CC buses didn’t stop there. After seeing a few of these zoom by (and other buses not going to Circuular Quay) we walked up one stop and quickly got a 5 CC to the Quay… only to miss the ferry by a couple of minutes.

Circular Quay

Trains at Milsons Point station

Sydney Opera House

Another ferry for Milsons Point was leaving shortly, so I identified via Google Maps that there was a fish’n’chip shop nearby to there, and we caught that instead. Dinner in the park under the northern end of the Harbour Bridge, then we walked back across it at dusk.

A further walk through the CBD, via a supermarket to get some fruit to eat and also something flat for storage of our precious printed Capaldi photos, then back to the hotel for some sleep.

Total steps that day, according to my phone: 14,938.