Kirkaldy Testing Museum

Sunday, February 17, 2019

I recently got to spend a cold but sunny Sunday on a little jaunt that absolutely perfectly occupied the sweet spot in the Venn diagram of “Quirky London Sites” and “Things that interest Pam” and “Things that are bloggable” - a visit to the Kirkaldy Testing Museum.

Hidden in plain site on Southwark Street, just a block from the Tate Modern.

David Kirkaldy was a Scottish-born engineer who pioneered the science and practice of methodical materials testing by establishing the first ever independent testing works to determine the strength of the new materials available to Victorian engineers - mostly cast and wrought iron. This was incredibly important because iron as a construction material is part of what fuelled the Industrial Revolution (along with mechanisation, steam power, and a ready supply shoeless orphans to dart around in all the shiny new mangling devices.)

The pediment above the former main entrance to the testing works.

Kirkaldy’s testing works opened in 1866 in a location close to the current site in Southwark. The engineer then later designed his giant hydraulic “Universal Testing Machine" for evaluating different materials in tension or compression, had it built in Leeds, and installed it in a new purpose-built building where it’s still located today. (Mercifully, it’s very much built into the Grade 2 listed property so it would have been difficult to remove anyway. Plus it’s more than 47 feet long, so it’s not like a vandal could have just slipped it into his pocket.) The testing works opened on January 1, 1874 and ran for close to a hundred years, headed by two more generations of Kirkaldy engineers, David’s son and grandson. And along with routine testing of the countless links and bars and columns and beams that built the modern world, Kirkaldy conducted forensic testing on failed structural elements, such as those from the infamous Tay Bridge Disaster. He also continued developing new machines and techniques for analysing materials, and the works received test specimens from around the world.

Luckily, after the works closed the site was recognised by members of the Greater London Industrial Archeological Society, who helped get it listed for preservation. (And can I just say that discovering the existence of the Greater London Industrial Archeological Society was one of the best things about my day? How can they have escaped my detection for so long?) Thanks in part to their intervention, Kirkaldy's works have been a museum since 1983, and it's now open to the public on the first Sunday of every month, staffed with volunteers (much like the poor Kew Museum of Water and Steam which Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will doubtless remember). A visit costs a mere £5 and for that you get a guided tour of the museum’s collection of vintage testing machines and - more excitingly - a live demonstration of some of them.

My guide was a small boiler-suited and bespectacled man who first showed us an introductory video in the basement of the building, and then a few of the smaller machines they keep.

Like these pendulum impact testing machines, which, as any fool can see, are scientifically designed devices for whacking things in a very precise manner and measuring how much energy they absorb when they break.

They also have an impressive collection of small moulds for making concrete test pieces, which are shaped like dog bones and used for testing the tensile strength of concrete by pulling the dogbones apart. They’re shaped like dogbones so that the machine has something to grab and so that the bit you grab is larger that the bit you’re testing, so you can be reasonably confident that the test pice will break in the right place and the results will be properly consistent.

This machine slowly adds lead shot to one side of a set of balances, while the other side pulls on the dogbone. When the sample piece breaks, the flow of shot is cut off and then weighed to determine the breaking point of the concrete.

They also make plain cubes for testing concrete's resistance to compression. Of course concrete is massively stronger in compression than in tension, which is why steel reinforcing is added to most modern concrete structures to increase their tensile strength.

Along with the surprising discovery of the Greater London Industrial Archeological Society, I learned another amazing thing at the Kirkaldy Testing Museum. As recently as 1977, an organisation called the London Hydraulic Power Company supplied high pressure water for hydraulic powered devices to businesses all over London, on both sides of the Thames, through a network of more than 150 miles of cast iron and steel pipes. Before it was established in the late 19th century, companies that wanted to power machinery hydraulically had to run and maintain their own boilers, often also needing to employ large accumulator towers for storing the energy they produced. With the establishment of the London Hydraulic Power Company, pipes ranging in diameter from 2” to 10” eventually stretched from Kensington to the Docklands, powering cranes, lifts, presses and other machinery of all kinds including, of course, Kirkaldy's large testing machine. At Kirkaldy’s they also employed a hydraulic intensifier to take the operating pressure up to an impressive 4,500 PSI.
"Hydraulic power raised the curtain at the Royal Opera House, rotated the turntable at the Coliseum, raised lifts at the Bank of England (and thousands of other offices and flats) and opened dock gates on the Thames. In its heyday the company's hundreds of workers pushed out up to 30 million gallons a week at 850 pounds per square inch from its six pumping stations.” From Subterranea Britannica
Once electric motors became established as a means of powering machinery, the need for the system waned and it was eventually closed down completely in 1977. However, a clever group acquired the assets of the company in 1981, recognising the value of the vast system of pipes. Those same conduits are now used to run fibre-optic cables through the heart of London. And I just think that whole thing is fucking fantastic.

A map of the LHPC network unceremoniously displayed in the basement of Kirkaldy’s

After viewing the impact tester, and the dogbone puller and a few other things like a 40’ long chain testing machine, we got to move upstairs and actually use one of the smaller devices to pull apart a piece of the devilish reinforced plastic strapping that gets wrapped around heavy pallets or packages and secured with those funny metal clips.

The tension mounts. Literally.

Of course the main reason to visit Kirkaldy’s Testing Museum is to see the big machine in action, which you can do if you stick around until 2pm on an open Sunday. (Or, happily, if you take in the other displays and then decamp to a nearby coffeeshop for a caffeine hit and a nice pain au chocolate and then return at 2pm.) I stationed myself with a good view of the area and watched while the grey-haired volunteers prepared the machine to rip apart a rusty steel bar cut out of an old street grate reclaimed from outside the building.

There was even one woman on the crew, which is very unusual in my experience. Here she is setting the moving end of the machine to the right position to accept the steel bar.

The hydraulics in the machine only work in one direction, meaning that the hydraulic ram has to be returned to its starting position by heavy counterweight in the basement. Switching the machine from pulling mode (tension) to crushing mode (compression) is quite labour intensive, so we only saw pulling mode. Also crushing mode tends to produce flying debris that is not conducive to public participation.

Once the carriage was in position another volunteer climbed into the machine to set the tiny steel bar into place. As I mentioned before, test pieces are normally shaped to give something for the clamps to grab, but in this case the bar was simply wedged with a series of tapered steel pieces banged in with a large sledgehammer. Nearby displayed showed lots of different wedges used for this purpose.

At the other end of the machine there's a large horizontal arm connected to the measuring part of the device, which consists of a balance arm and a series of counterweights. As the cylinder moves, the arm swings and transmits movement to the balance. The machine operator then slowly winds a gear that moves a counterbalancing weight to keep the big balance arm level, which simultaneously moves a pointer along a marked scale showing the pressure the machine is exerting. Once the sample breaks, the indicated measure can be noted. Or, if the sample is being proof tested, the pressure in the machine can be increased to that proof load to test that the material is adequate. Two out of every fifty of the giant links that make up the suspension chains in the Hammersmith Bridge were tested this way by that very machine.

Here’s the day’s operator gesticulating near the controls for the balance arm.

Our little test piece was about half an inch thick and two inches wide. And though it was impossible to perceive the movement of the cylinder as the test proceeded, there came a point when little flakes of old paint and rust began to fall off the test piece onto a sheet of clean white paper underneath. The volunteer running test then said, “We’re inconveniencing the material” which I thought was a masterfully understated way of putting it, considering that a machine capable of exerting loads up to one million pounds of pressure was, at that moment, attempting to rip apart the chemical bonds inside that poor little piece of metal.

Eventually the piece broke, after yielding about two inches. Disappointingly the break occurred inside the clamping jaws, so there was no big aha! moment. They did, however, manage to get the pieces out of the clamps, and passed them around.

It’s also possible to tour a part of the testing works office, which was quite lovely. There was a large glass fronted wooden bookcase absolutely filled with proper engineering books with titles like The Mechanical Testing of Metals and Alloys, Hydraulic Power Engineering, History of Strengths of Materials, and that classic page-turner, Theory of Elastic Stability. There were also framed copies of Kipling’s Hymn of Breaking Strain and a large framed copy of David Kirkaldy's obituary, published in The Engineer on February 5, 1867.

This is just the first paragraph, but it's appropriately laudatory.

It’s really not over-egging things, this obituary. David Kirkaldy made a remarkable and unique contribution to the modern built environment. He was methodical, meticulous and, above all, scrupulously honest. To run a completely independent and unbiased testing works, free from outside influence, was absolutely vital to the safe development of all kinds of structures, which of course qualifies him for the Go Stay Work Play Live Hall of Heroes, where he takes up a position alongside Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Joseph BazagettteHarry Beck, Captain Picard, and whatever genius it was who invented sticky toffee pudding.

Meringue, humidity, and chocolate ganache

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Yes, it’s been a while. I’m very aware that the last time I blogged was two months and three countries ago. Sorry, but sometimes life just gets in the way even when I’m not elbow-deep in a work project in a far-off land. And sometimes I just need a while to get back into the swing of things. (Also, I've been blogging for more than decade now, so cut me some slack, eh?) Having been away from London for 39 of the 52 weeks in 2018, I’ve mostly just been enjoying being back and puttering on the boat. I’m also getting a new show started. Oh, and I celebrated a pretty big birthday, which I did in fine fashion with a visit from my best friend Karen.

After the resounding success of our Prague trip, Karen and I decided to have another vacation-within-a-vacation, this time by catching the Eurostar to Paris for a long weekend. We managed to fill our time there very usefully, mostly with equal portions of walking and cheese, reasoning that if you’re racking up 14km per day on your feet then by God there had better be cheese at the beginning, middle and end.

Karen and the Cheese Plate to Rule Them All. (Clarifying note: This cheese was not all just for us. The giant platter was simply moved from table to table in the restaurant as each set of diners reached the appropriate point in the meal. The procedure was to slice off pieces of whatever cheeses looked enticing (ie: all, especially the one covered in raisins and the super stinky runny one), and then the waiter would take the whole platter to the next people. Such a good system.)

In between cheese plates we fit in a few galleries, some casual sightseeing, a bit of shopping and some long distance viewing of inchoate gilets jaune protests, complete with armoured cars and mounted police. One highlight was a long stroll through the Bastille Market on Sunday morning, which was very conveniently located near our AirBnB, and where we bought the ingredients for an amazing lunch. Also where it’s possible we may have got hot sauerkraut and sausages as a snack to fortify ourselves so we could power through the cheese, charcuterie and token vegetable purchases to come.

Waiting for the sausages

But one of our main activities in Paris was a class in baking macarons. (Another from the increasingly varied list AirBnb experiences, similar to the one Karen and I did in Prague.) For those who have not had the pleasure of encountering a French macaron, I pity you. They’re a lovely sweet treat made up of two meringue biscuits that sandwich ganache or jam or buttercream icing. The meringue shell manages to be both ethereally light in the crust and satisfyingly chewy on the base, and they’re usually made in a rainbow of bright colours matching the flavour, most of which is in the filling, though sometimes the meringue also has a subtle flavour. Popular offerings are vanilla, chocolate, fruit, pistachio and coffee, with more outré forays into matcha, rose, liquorice and even sea buckthorn. (Mon Dieu!)

In a first for this blog series, we’re repeating a photo! This is an encore presentation from back in 2011. Good grief, I’ve been blogging for a loooong time...

Our lesson started a bit too early in the morning for people who were on vacation, but we mitigated the earliness of the hour with a pitstop at the local bakery (Bien sur!) while en route to the apartment near Bastille where the class took place. There we met our host Nomar, who turned out to be from Venezuela, which seemed a bit odd considering we were in Paris to learn about one of the most iconic French delicacies. Then again, she was clearly the most experienced macaron-maker in the room, so we followed the instructions, even when they raised a few eyebrows, as we shall see.

The set-up, ready to go.

Nomar and her partners run a few different classes, including ones for crepes, chouquettes - another classic French treat that’s basically small balls of choux pastry covered in chunky sugar - and even one on traditional Venezuelan arepas. But our plan was to make classic chocolate macaron filled with ganache, so the first task was the ganache. I’ve seen this done countless times on The Great British Bake Off - enough to know that it looks simple, but also enough to know that anything to do with chocolate can be fiendishly fickle. There are traditionally just two ingredients that make up ganache: good quality chocolate added to hot cream, though it’s sometimes made even more shiny and gorgeous by adding butter (because: France!). However, Nomar’s method was a bit different - starting by melting the chocolate alone on double boiler on a very very very low heat (judging by the time it took I think it was only slightly above body temperature). Once the chocolate was finally ready, she incorporated the cream with a technique that involved pressing the back of a rubber scraper/spatula (let’s not get into that, ok?) into the mix and sort of mushing it together, as opposed to simply stirring. I’m sure she had her reasons, but it did seem odd. And it did actually result in the ganache splitting. (For the uninitiated splitting or breaking is what happens when the oils in the chocolate separate out leaving the ganache uneven, gritty and unusable.)

Nomar was ready to start a fresh batch of ganache, because only once in her experience had a course participant managed to bring split ganache back from the dead. However, your humble blogger was undaunted. So while Nomar measured out the chocolate again and cranked the stove back up to 98.6 degrees, I had a go at the split ganache by simply whisking the hell out of it for a few minutes. This was completely successful, so that new qualification is now going straight into my online dating profile: Meet Pam - inconsistent blogger, International Woman and Mystery, and Ganache Whisperer.

Next stop: meringue (also notoriously skittish). There are two meringue options available for the macaron chef - French and Italian. Obviously any Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Reader knows the difference, but humour me while I pad things out with a quick explanation. French meringue is made by whipping egg whites to a stiff peak and then carefully adding sugar. The beaten eggs therefore remain uncooked until the meringue is baked. French meringue is apparently a bit airier but more fragile than its cousin, Italian meringue, wherein the eggs are whipped first and then the sugar is added as molten syrup, thus cooking the meringue as it forms. Italian meringue is supposedly a bit tougher, and it doesn’t require additional cooking before it’s safe to eat. (There’s also Swiss version where the sugar and eggs are heated together and then beaten. It’s all explained here.) Nomar chose Italian meringue, which involved making the sugar syrup on the stove while the Ganache Whisperer tried her hand at beating egg whites. Sadly, the results were less than spectacular.

Two attempts at Italian meringue, both failures.

Popular myth is that it’s tricky to make meringue on a rainy day, so perhaps we can put that down as the reason why two different bids with a hand mixer resulted in bowls of white gloop instead of perky meringue.

It wasn’t until Nomar broke out the big KitchenAid mixer that we managed to tame the meringue and add a flash of bright pink to highlight our eventual success.

Next we combined the meringue with a mix of ground almond and sugar into the final batter for the meringue shells (that’s all that’s in macaron shells - ground almond, egg, meringue and colouring). Again, there was an odd pressing/mixing technique that looked well-designed for knocking air out of meringue, which didn’t really seem like the point. Nonetheless, we ended up with something that went into a piping bag and then onto a specially marked silicone baking sheet.

Action shot!

The tray of shells went into the oven for what turned out to be an unexpectedly long time, and I ended up having to rescue the ganache again, since it stiffened up considerably while we faffed with the meringue.

The Ganache Whisperer, Part Two

Luckily, while we waited for the shells to come out of the oven and cool a bit, there were a few distractions.

Like this.

And this!

Eventually, everything was ready for final assembly and managed to put together a plate of quite decent looking chocolate macarons. To be completely honest, the flavour and texture were not up to the standards of Ladurée, but for a first attempt on a rainy day I thought they were not bad.

Yes, there are a few wonky ones. But they all tasted the same with pink champagne.

We each left with a small package of our own macarons. And we left with directions on how to get to the specialist baking shop where they sold little jars of the powdered colour used to tint the meringue shells, which Karen bought in six shades and schlepped back to Canada. She’s also got one of the specially marked silicone baking mats on order, and claims she’s got all the other ingredients too, so no more excuses!

The successful patisseurs. Next stop: Lunch!

So that was the macaron lesson. It was a fun way to spend the morning. And though we had some issues, we certainly left with a lot more practical knowledge about the intricacies of the process than we had when we went in. I’m expecting insta-worthy photos of homemade macarons (in at least six colours) from Karen any minute now. I, meanwhile, will be squandering my ganache talents and concentrating on fixing the latest leak in the boat engine cooling system and getting ready to take the Lucky Nickel out of the marina and back onto the towpath en route to some much more extensive mechanical work that involves actually taking the boat out of the water.

What could possibly go wrong?

The Louvre Abu Dhabi

Sunday, November 25, 2018

In between working and battling stroppy appliances I've had a bit of time here in the Emirates to be a tourist. So at the first opportunity I found my way to the recently opened Louvre Abu Dhabi.

This is a peek at the building. (Thank you to Francisco Anzola, who’s a much better photographer than me.)

It’s a bit odd to find an outpost of the famed Louvre Gallery here in the desert but the two museums are actually entirely separate entities. They're linked by a $525 million dollar branding agreement that allows the Emirates institution to use the Louvre name for 30 years, with further $747 million spent for “art loans, special exhibitions and management advice. And that’s just for the name and a bit of what’s inside. The other part of this equation is the building itself, which is frankly magnificent. I went with friend and colleague Mika, who, before I stole him away to join the ceremonies circus, was an unsuspecting architecture graduate in Baku. We were both more interested in the building than its contents, but dutifully took in a large percentage of the collection.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is billed as a museum of art and civilisations (apparently that S at the end is important), so it has galleries for temporary exhibitions of artwork, but also has a permanent collection of historical artefacts arranged in twelve interconnected rooms starting with prehistory and speeding through the entirety of human existence up to the contemporary era. The most modern of the galleries were closed for re-fit when Mika and I visited, but to tell the truth we didn’t make it past about Room 6 before bailing out for coffee and pastry. Along the way I enjoyed the Egyptian room, which has a very nice sarcophagus. And I loved that a display of stained glass showed not just the front side, meant for viewing, but also the back of the piece, revealing charming curls of lead securing the glass to the supporting frame.

I’m sure the front of this was delightful; sorry I neglected to take a picture of that. I’m sure Francisco would not have been so thoughtless.

But I just found this too fantastic

We also spent a good chunk of time in a temporary exhibition of Japanese prints, and a really fun display about Japanese manga comics (which former Go See Run Eat Drink readers will recall from many many moons ago). That gallery let us colour in the walls!

Me working hard at staying between the lines.

And they had interactive virtual reality goggles you could wear to “enter” some traditional Japanese woodcuts. We both chose a print of a boat on water with a range of mountains in the background. It was surprisingly immersive and impressive.

Mika on the boat, turning around to discover there’s another passenger behind him!

So we did take in the artwork at the Louvre, but that’s really not why we went. We went for the building. Because of this:

That dome is unbelievable. (And of course I didn’t take this photo either, because I'm not travelling with my own drone, jetpack or private helicopter.)

The design of the whole building is fantastic. As you can see, the galleries are a series of 55 smaller, almost discrete buildings arranged a bit like an Arabic souk with alleyways between them. The whole arrangement is completely surrounded by the sea, and the top is capped by that magnificent dome - 180 metres in diameter (almost 600 feet) and weighing in at 7,000 tonnes. (Articles about the dome inevitably mention that the weight is almost equivalent to the weight of the Eiffel Tower.) The entire dome is supported in only four places and appears to float over the “souk" giving cover to the buildings below, which are essentially outdoors, but still sheltered. The entire arrangement is completely beguiling but it’s the dome that makes it spectacular. It’s not simply that the structure is big, it’s that the roof is composed of eight separate layers of perforations shaped like eight pointed stars in different scales. Each layer filters the light, and as the sun moves across the sky the points of light that reach through shift and change creating what’s often described as a “rain of light”.

Astonishing. On the day we visited it was a bit cloudy so we only got the full effect in the brief moments when the sun broke through, but it was still breathtaking.

French architect Jean Nouvel designed the building and has said that "Sometimes, in the solar noon, the brightness is so dense that it looks like light stalactites are piercing the dome.” Walking under the roof among the galleries and alleyways is exceedingly pleasant. In a climate like this where the temperature right now - in winter - often reaches 36 degrees celsius, indoor spaces are frequently overly air-conditioned. (This sometimes creates the odd effect of having your glasses steam up when going outside, an unsettling reversal for someone who grew up in Canada.) The indoor galleries of the Louvre Abu Dhabi are also air-conditioned but under the dome, while you’re still technically outside in the true climate of the region, the breeze from the sea and the shade from the roof make it temperate, and while I’d never describe it as cool it does feel right. (To be clear, it is NEVER cool in Abu Dhabi. The overnight lows right now hover around 24 degrees and in the summer it gets into the high 40s. Basically, the sun is trying to kill you.)

Here’s a small taste of that stalactite action Jean was talking about.

Naturally, Mika and I were both fascinated by the design and engineering of the roof. As we stared up at it Mika, who actually went to school for this stuff, told me about a professor he had who dated from the Soviet era. This professor was a bit hidebound and taught his students, with unwavering certainty, that any structure must have a supporting column every six metres. No matter what. Every six metres. Which in the case of the Louvre’s dome would have resulted in a close to a hundred support columns around the perimeter as opposed to, er... FOUR. Luckily, no one called that guy to build the place, since he is clearly a twit.

We stared for a long time but couldn’t see how the repeated pattern managed to curve to the shape. Actually, we couldn’t even see the eight different layers. The whole effect was mind-blowing.

The site for the building is the formerly-mostly-abandoned island of Saadiyat near the port of Abu Dhabi. It was in there, in 2007, and long before anyone started building support columns and galleries and domes, that a huge sand wall was constructed to hold back the waters of the Arabian Gulf while the museum's foundations were laid. Pumps ran 24 hours hours a day for years during construction expelling the seawater that seeped through the wall. This went on even during an almost two year hiatus resulting from the worldwide economic slump and resulting drop in the price of oil. When construction resumed engineers and builders installed a waterproof membrane around the entire foundation, which sits as much as 10 metres below sea level, and fitted every one of the 4500 concrete supports for the building with cathodic protection to prevent the concrete from corroding in the seawater. (Hands up everyone who knew concrete can corrode?)

Throughout construction the seawall held back the water as if the entire building was in dry dock and the partially completed dome was held up by a forest of temporary supports strategically places around the galleries below. But eventually the pumps were turned off and water was allowed to reclaim the land surrounding the museum. There’s a really good article about the construction here, which I highly recommend even if you just skip to the short video that shows time lapse footage of various areas of the build site as they’re cleared of equipment and gradually flooded.

And that’s the other remarkable part of Jean Nouvel’s design - the water. It’s always there as you walk around under the dome. There are views out to the sea, and small, almost private spots where you turn a corner and find another unexpected bit of water. The sea doesn’t just surround the museum, it’s part of the place.

You can walk all the way down to the water in some areas. In others there are raised platforms that are completely surrounded, and in other spots what look like man-made tidal pools.

And every where you get views out to the sea. It truly is an island, with just three ways on and off. Look at it on Google Earth and you’ll see what I mean.

Saadiyat Island is very big. I mean it’s not exactly Baffin Island or anything, but there’s still a LOT of space to fill. Plans call for it to become a cultural centre, including a Guggenheim Abu Dhabi designed by Frank Gehry and the Zayed National Museum, along with a maritime museum, arts centre, schools and a residential community. So far though, it’s still mostly sand.

Mika and I thoroughly enjoyed the Louvre Abu Dhabi, but I also enjoyed the quiet evening at home that followed. Since then I've done a little bit more sightseeing, but work is catching up with me and the days are long. Mostly what I want to do in my small bits of down time is sit on the couch or on the beach, because it feels like a long haul since I left my frozen little boat last February and I'm getting a bit weary. I'm very much looking forward to getting this job done and being home - all of my different homes, that is - in time for Christmas.

The Curse of Room 2153

Sunday, November 11, 2018

It started with the toaster.

Actually, let me back up. I sort of neglected to mention this, but after I left the sunny climes of Australia I had only the briefest of interludes at home on the boat before starting the next, thankfully shorter, adventure. It was so brief an interlude that when I was buying groceries after returning I actually hesitated before investing in a jar of mayonnaise. Then I came to my senses, because the mayonnaise cost 65p and what’s the point of being a well paid International Woman of Mystery if you can’t be a bit profligate with the condiments on occasion?

Having abandoned my mayonnaise, I flew to Abu Dhabi where I’m now working on another Abu Dhabi National Day show. It’s all a bit same-same as the last time I was here in 2015. It’s a somewhat different group of people to work with and a somewhat higher profile event than last time, but it’s the same stadium and ultimately it’s simply another big show. This year is a bit different because it’s the Year of Zayed, so-named because 2018 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the Founding Father of the UAE. It’s a significant milestone for the country, and it feels like our show is one of the key events of the year. No pressure!

So let's review quickly: Jakarta is ancient history. Australia is a fading memory. I'm in Abu Dhabi, and we’re back in the desert!

Also back in a really fancy hotel which - I never tire of telling people about this - 
has a private beach!

It is unquestionably a nice hotel, and my room is lovely, spacious, and well-equipped. It’s got a kitchen area with a large fridge and a two-burner hob and a microwave and kettle and a washing machine (more on which later). And of course it came with a toaster. The hotel room also comes with an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet downstairs, which would seem to negate the need for a toaster, but bear with me. I know it sounds like the worst sort of ungratefulness, but sometimes I just don’t have the heart for the communal breakfast buffet at 7am on a work day. It’s great for a short stay, or for a treat, or for a slap-up day off brunch. But when you’re in for a long term stay and you’re working every day, sometimes it’s nice to have breakfast “at home” like you’re a normal person. It’s also good not to have to walk past the endless trays of pain au chocolate and muffins and donuts every morning. So a few times a week I shuffle into the kitchen and make myself coffee and a bowl of fruit and a soft boiled egg on toast, with Marmite (of course). It’s a less challenging start to the day. Or at least it’s meant to be.

What happened when I first tried my calming-at-home-breakfast was this: I got the egg boiling on the stove, prepped my bowl of mixed fruit, put the kettle on for coffee and popped a piece of bread in the toaster. Thirty seconds later the power went out in the entire room. Of course access to the breaker panel is locked so all I could do was call the hotel desk and wait for an electrician to come reset the breaker. I assumed that the wiring in the room just wasn’t up to the task of running a burner on the stove, a kettle and a toaster all at once. So while I was waiting for the guy to arrive I made coffee with the pretty-much-hot-enough water and I let the egg sit in formerly boiling water to finish cooking and I prepared my Marmite on warm bread. Eventually a lovely man came and unlocked the cabinet and reset the power and I asked him where I could plug in the toaster to avoid the same fate the next time I make breakfast. We identified an outlet next to the couch, he went on his way, and I ate my warm bread.

A later, more successful breakfast

The next time I attempted toast was in the evening, to accompany an omelette for supper. While the frying pan was heating on the stove, I plugged in the toaster next to the couch and popped in the bread once again. Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will not be surprised to learn that thirty seconds later I was standing in a dark room, with another slice of warm bread. This time I drew a different hotel electrician who was a bit livelier, and he could tell I had just enough knowledge to be worth the effort, so we did a bit of troubleshooting. We checked the wattage rating on the toaster (a mere 800w) and on the breakers. We even recreated the scene several times - stove on, toast in - and each time, after a tantalising moment of optimism, our hopes were dashed and we were left in the dark. Finally, we turned off everything else and just ran the toaster. And again… darkness. The toaster did it! It was the toaster all along! (It was like a really badly written murder mystery where the toaster, the hob and the kettle are all sitting nervously in a snow-bound drawing room while the famous detective paces the carpet and says, “I suppose you’re wondering why I’ve gathered you all here this evening…”)

Finally, the friendly electrician took the evil toaster away for re-education and brought me this fancy new one.

Then I tried to plug the kettle back in where it had always been plugged, and realised it had a two-prong euro-style plug and the outlet is UK style. And I was baffled, because the kettle had always been plugged into the same place (until we started troubleshooting) and all I was doing was putting it back. I assumed the electrician had mistakenly taken an adapter that I hadn’t noticed was there. He hadn’t taken it, but he did offer to plug the kettle in for me. The kettle with the euro-style plug. Plugged into the UK-style outlet. Intrigued, I backed away and let him have a go. He flicked off the switch on the outlet, blithely inserted a screwdriver tip into the hole for the ground pin - thus neatly defeating the safety lock-out - and slid the plug into place.

Well, played sir. Now if only you hadn’t accidentally left your toolkit in the breaker panel cabinet thus forcing the front desk to phone at 11:30pm while I was half asleep so I could let you in to retrieve it. Then again, we did do the Watts = Volts x Amps equation together twice, so I still feel we’ve bonded a bit.

As I said, it started with the toaster. Next was the fridge. The door wasn’t closing properly, which meant a lot of condensation from the humid air in the room was building up and it was basically raining in the fridge. I asked them to have a look at it one day while I was out. When I got home that evening I could see the workmen had emptied the contents of the fridge so they could fix it, because things had gone back a bit haphazardly (or not at all, like the dish of tuna salad that had been left on the counter). Then I looked a bit closer and realised that there was something missing. On arrival in Abu Dhabi I’d stocked up at the Duty Free shop, because it can be a bit of a faff buying alcohol in the UAE. So I was certain I had two bottles of white wine in the fridge. Not anymore. One bottle was clearly missing. I searched around to see if it had just been mis-filed but quickly realised it was simply gone.

This presented a dilemma. I was missing a bottle of wine. People had been in my room handling the bottles of wine. It not hard to think someone might have taken the bottle. Clearly that was not right, so it should have been simple for me to call the hotel and report the problem. Then again, it was just a £10 bottle of plonk and I suspect the punishment for that kind of thing in this country might be quite harsh. Alcohol can be a touchy subject here, and the UAE is already a tricky place for foreign workers. (And everyone in the service industry is a foreign worker. Everyone.) Did I really need to put someone in that position for a lousy bottle of Riesling? Then again, if someone had taken it hadn’t they put themselves in that position? Then again if you’re desperate enough that you need to steal a cheap bottle of wine, who am I to judge, sitting in my five star hotel room? Then again if it had been taken and I didn’t report it, would word spread that the chick in Room 2153 was an easy mark? I had another six weeks to go in this hotel. I went back and forth again and again. I consulted friends and family. I even checked with one of my local staff. Finally, I called. But I deliberately didn’t say “One of the guys fixing my fridge stole a bottle of wine.” I phrased it much more delicately, saying “I can see the guys who worked on the fridge moved a lot of things around and I can’t find one bottle of wine.”

Very shortly after I got a call from a manager who apologetically explained that while moving things in the fridge, one of the bottles of wine had accidentally been dropped and broken. (This also explained why a red plastic dustpan was left on the counter, the presence of which had been mysterious but ended up being independently corroborative evidence.) So faith in humanity was restored, the wine was replaced, and this time my sleep was not interrupted at midnight by any forgetful fridge repairmen who’d left their screwdrivers in the mayonnaise.

It’s not a Riesling, but I’m sure it will be fine. Sadly, the next morning when I opened the fridge to get the bag of coffee for breakfast I realised the bottle of wine wasn’t the only thing missing. I couldn't find the coffee. This time, rather than tying myself in knots again I’ve chosen to believe it was accidentally discarded during cleanup and I simply bought another bag. There’s only so much moral debate I can handle in the morning. 
Especially before I’ve had a coffee.

So there was the demon toaster. And there was WinebottleGate. But all that was nothing compared to the main event, and the true proof that this hotel room is cursed. I already mentioned the room has a washing machine, and I took advantage of it on the first day off, putting in a load before going down for breakfast. (It was a day off, so I was in just the right mood for the buffet.) When I got back I could hear the machine was on the spin cycle and a bit off-balance because it was making quite a racket inside its cabinet. I didn’t think much of it, and once the cycle finished I happily festooned the room with damp socks and underwear. (Because the retractable clothesline in the bathtub is exactly four inches too short to reach the bracket on the other side, but I wasn’t about to call the hotel AGAIN. Who knows what mayhem could result from that?)

The next week I put a bigger load in and decamped to the dining room for brunch once again. But this time I came back to a scene that was like the opening sequence to that "the-toaster-done-it" murder mystery from earlier. It was the establishing shot of the murder victim lying prone in an expanding pool of vital fluids. Except this victim was a front-loading washer. Or perhaps it was simply that the challenge of life in Room 2153 had proved too much for the poor washing machine because when I opened the door it looked like the thing had tried to fling itself to its death by launching from its cabinet and landing face down on the kitchen floor.

This is the scene I came home to, with the machine still running, desperately grinding itself into the tilework. The plumbing connection had also ripped apart, which meant that water was spouting energetically from the open pipework and flooding the kitchen floor. All it needed was a bit of police tape and it could have been the first episode of Law & Order LAU (Large Appliance Unit).

Considering the seriousness of the situation, I was a bit surprised at how long it took for one of the hotel engineers to arrive. Sure, I’d closed the cut-off valve for the water so it wasn’t actively flooding the room. But I was still expecting a slightly more energetic response than one mostly disinterested guy. Then again, as soon as that one guy took in the entire scene of the crime it didn’t take long for a whole team of people to arrive. Soon there were two workers and a supervisor and a manager splashing around and the supervisor guy quickly diagnosed the problem. Apparently in the two years since the machine was installed no other guest had ever used it. Because if they had, they would have been the ones to discover that the stabilising bolts that are put in place at the factory to hold the internal drum solidly for shipping had not been removed when the machine was set up in the room. This meant that the drum couldn’t move freely on its shock-absorbing mounting and instead any imbalance in the load was transmitted through the whole appliance while the drum was spinning at 600 RPM. It must have sounded like someone swinging a sledgehammer around inside an oil drum.

The offending parts. They are not small. 

At this point I feel like I should put the hotel maintenance staff on my Christmas card list. They’re here so often they’re practically family. My colleague Kieran and I have discussed setting up an pool to predict what might go wrong next. I think it’ll be something that takes out the phone, so I’m unable to call to for assistance. Kieran suggested that if blood starts to seep out of the walls I should really ask to move rooms, but I’m sort of enjoying the frisson of anticipation that comes every time I get home.

In fact things have settled down, though I’m nervous saying that out loud. And I hasten to add the really, the hotel is lovely and the staff are very friendly and helpful and good with a mop when called on. And despite the suicidal washing machine I did manage to salvage most of my day off and went down to the beach to enjoy the end of the afternoon.

There really wasn’t much wrong with this at all.

And definitely nothing wrong with this.

Ways I didn't die in Australia

Sunday, October 28, 2018

There was a time in the late 1980’s that the more mature Go Stay Work Play Live Reader may recall. It was shortly after the release of the movie “Crocodile Dundee”, when a tide of what I can only describe as Australiamania swept across North America. You couldn’t swing a didgeridoo without hitting a can of Foster’s lager or hearing some twat spout out a “G’day mate” while brandishing a boomerang. I found the whole business really boring. Now that I’ve actually been to Australia, I can confidently say that whole Australiamania business genuinely was really boring, but that Australia itself is pretty fantastic. Sure, at the time I visited I was exhausted with Jakarta in particular, Indonesia in general, and the basic concept of Asia as a whole. Plus anywhere I didn’t have to endure 32 degree temperatures and one million percent humidity was bound to be popular. And you really can’t overstate how much easier it is getting on in a place where they speak a passingly understandable dialect of English. But all that would be true in Minot, North Dakota or Sudbury, Ontario and Australia is definitely more fun than either of those places.

Bondi Beach. And apologies to Minot and Sudbury, but let’s be real here.

Before my Oz Adventure I had the supreme pleasure of re-reading Bill Bryson’s book about the place, “In a Sunburned Country”. It’s perfectly excellent and I recommend it highly, especially to Karen, who persists in claiming that she hates Bill Bryson’s writing, which is one of the things we have to agree to disagree on. (Other such topics include my staunch belief in the inherent interestingness of gears and industrial machinery in general, and her slight obsession with jewellery of all kinds.) One of the things Bryson goes on about at some length is the many and varied ways it’s possible to die in Australia. And I’m not talking here about the usual western civilisation killers like heart disease or diabetes or say, being hit by a bus. No, Australia has a lot more interesting ways of bumping you off than that.

It’s relatively common knowledge that the wildlife in Australia is surpassingly deadly. I had to keep reminding myself of that while I was there because it reminded me a lot of Canada so it was easy to get complacent. There’s a “we’re all Commonwealth here” feeling with an appropriate smattering of war memorials and familiar place names and pictures of the Queen, and with the more relaxed vibe I associate with Canada rather than with the mother country. Then again, because Canada is squashed up against that cultural juggernaut to the south, we ended up with baseball and "American" football and hot dogs. Whereas Australia is so ridiculously isolated that even after the colonial influence faded they carried on with cricket and rugby and even managed to evolve their own Australian Rules version of football (it’s like the Madagascar of field sport - an evolutionary one-off). Still, Australia feels familiar, especially for me who can speak fluent baseball and just about keep up when someone starts prattling about square leg and silly mid off.

The size of Australia also means it’s geographically spread out in a way that’s a lot like home. There are wide streets and long highways and a general sense that there’s no need to bunch up. Case in point: I was invited on a road trip up the east coast wherein the plan was to leave Sydney Monday morning and arrive near Byron Bay in time for dinner. It’s a distance of about 900km, and true proof that Canadians and Australians really are soulmates because when I was presented with this plan my instinctive thought was, “Yeah, that sounds about right.” In England the notion of traveling 900km in a day would be greeted with howls of derision and a detailed explanation that merely to get from Central London to Reading would take at least a day, and really one should be prepared to overnight in Slough, just in case.

But back to how Australia can kill you. Everyone is probably aware that the spiders and snakes in Australia are really not to be trifled with. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, ALL are Australian. The native funnel-web spider is the world’s most toxic and a nip from the redback spider will also definitely make you late for dinner. One of my hosts in Sydney, in a typically blasé Australian way, told me that these days they tend not to give you anti-venom for some spider bites. “They’ll just see how you get on at first” she said, which was not reassuring. Then again, the typical Aussie would probably be pretty unnerved by the notion of digging a car out of a four foot snowbank in -30 degree blizzard, so I guess we all have our blind spots.

In any case, after that lovely 900k trip up the coast, including a mandatory detour for a photo op at The Big Banana, we fetched up at our home for the night and had a lovely dinner of lamb and talked about what the next day’s activities should be.

More evidence that Canadians and Australians are alike. We both love a giant thing by the side of a road. Sadly, we missed the Giant Prawn.

Our hosts suggested there were some nice nature walks in the area and even handed over a small guide book that seemed to be comprised of equal parts walking directions and careful notes on things you should really avoid encountering while walking. And even though I thought I was pretty au fait with the lavishly lethal nature of the country, I was still alarmed when the first entry I saw was for the Giant Stinging Tree. A tree that can sting you? That’s just offside. Needless to say, I declined to go for a walk in the woods.

What we did instead was spend the day at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, which was great. Apparently many Australians of a certain age have traumatic memories of being taken to Currumbin as a child and being subjected to the “lorikeet feeding” ordeal, which is a particular form of child torture that involves being equipped with bird feed and then covered in an alarming number of lorikeets - a type of small, colourful parrot - while screaming bloody murder and having one’s photo taken. I wisely skipped the lorikeet feeding, but I did get to pet a kangaroo and see koalas, Tasmanian devils, dingos, crocodiles AND a spiny echidna! Even the lorikeet-scarred Paula admitted that modern Currumbin was an excellent day out. Sure, it was kind of cheating to see the animals in captivity (the “koala crossing” signs we saw on the highway were clearly hoaxes) but for a kid from Canada it was pretty great.

I could have paid for a photo op cuddling a koala, but I decided to spend my money on seafood and beer. I have no regrets.

After Currumbin we ended up in South Golden Beach, at another house generously provided by the previously mentioned network of Australian friends and acquaintances. And that’s when I had to remind myself again about Australian wildlife, because that night as I was getting ready to brush my teeth I dropped my toothbrush beside the sink. When I bent down to pick it up, I saw it had landed right next to an occupied spider web. At first I took no notice. Then I took a mental step back. And then I took a physical step back. And then I called Paula, because you can’t beat an Australian when it comes to identifying deadly wildlife. She came to check it out, and was generously derisive when she saw the beast, which was apparently microscopic and harmless, but my policy is you can’t be too careful in Australia. And Paula can laugh all she wants but she better not call me the next time she needs someone to dig her out of a snowdrift, that’s all I’m saying.

The next morning I got up for a run and was struck - and not for the first time - with the surpassing beauty and ubiquity of Australian beaches, because this is what was at the end of the block:

South Golden Beach. One of a countless string of stunning beaches along Australia’s east coast. It’s a wonder anyone gets anything done over there.

Aside from the spider in the bathroom, the house at South Golden Beach was fantastic. However, lest we get too misty-eyed about the beach itself, remember that it’s not just things on land that can kill you in Australia. The sea is home to a lively variety of deadliness. Of course there are the sharks and the stingrays. And don’t forget the tiny-but-murderous blue-ringed octopus and the famously painful box jellyfish. Yes, the waters around Australia are full of deadly delights. But that’s not all. Even if the ocean were utterly devoid of life you’d still want to keep your wits about you when you go for a dip.

I only understand about half of what this sign is saying, but the strong inference here is that even the water can kill you.

When I decided I wanted to go for a quick swim at South Golden, Paula cautioned me. “It’s pretty rippy out there” she said, meaning it looked like there could be a strong rip current. I’m still not really sure what that means, but it seems significant that they call it a RIP current and not, say, a joyful current or a mellow current or fluffy bunny current. Paula tried to explain it to me - something about how the waves were breaking creating a current that can pull you far out from shore. She told me not to go in too deep. When I pressed her about how deep was too deep - Chest? Waist? Ankles? - she sighed and said, “Why don’t I just come with you?” (Subtext: “So I can video you being pulled out towards New Zealand and give the Coast Guard rough coordinates.") Like I said: even the water can kill you. For the record, I did go for a very short swim and didn’t get sucked into an international shipping lane or fatally stung or have any appendages bitten off.

In fact, the closest I came to snuffing it was when Paula tried to kill me with red wine on our last night at South Golden Beach. Then again, that wasn’t Australia’s fault. And I didn’t actually come that close to death, I only prayed for it fervently when I woke up the next morning. Which is why it’s all the more admirable that after I’d been delivered to the airport for the short flight back to Sydney, survived the flight, schlepped my things back to the guest room, and had a short but very very very necessary nap, I managed to rouse myself in time to go out for what turned out to be a perfectly quintessential Aussie evening. My lovely hosts dragged me out to the Returned Services League Club at Paddington (not that Paddington). The RSL is the Australian equivalent of the Canadian Legion - a club nominally for current and former members of the armed services. They're all over Australia that serve food and cheap alcohol and usually have sports betting and other gambling, and maybe a dance floor. Membership is open to anyone, and entitles you to even cheaper beer and extra chances at the many many draw prizes, and profits support the aforementioned servicemen and women.

The trip that night was somewhat calculated, as we'd planned a barbecue for my last day in Australia, and Friday night at the Paddo RSL is Meat Tray Night! What better excuse for a night out than a chance to drink cheap beer, watch Australian Rules Football and try to win a meat tray for the barbie? Despite my fragile state I did manage to enjoy a couple of beers and had a very credible seafood basket. And Nick did his best to explain Aussie Rules Football to me. As far as I can tell, it involves large men running around on a pitch approximately the size of Wales in very tight shorts. There’s a ball that looks like a rugby ball and you can run with it (for a while) or kick it but you can’t throw it. You can, however, do a pseudo-volleyball-bump thing to pass it to someone else. To score you have to kick the ball between a set of four posts, which makes the whole field look a bit like a Quidditch pitch. It’s actually quite fun to watch. It's fast and rough and the action is continuous, so it’s quite like hockey in a way.

The main event though, was the meat draw! There were more that 20 different meat trays in the cooler so early winners could choose from steaks, lamb, whole chickens, roasts, sausages, chops, and various other treats. Our table spent $60 on tickets, so we were getting quite nervous as the night wore on and we were left empty-handed. And then finally, with only three trays left (including the dreaded breakfast tray which was really just sausage, bacon and a dozen eggs) at last our number came up!

Behold the winner! Pork chops, pork steaks and pork sausages for lucky number 4169! Especially cherished because I’d spent the previous six months in a pork-hostile environment.

And so ended the perfect Australian evening. I had beer and deep-fried seafood at the Returned Services Club. I watched the footy. And I won a meat tray. All while hungover.

And that was my vacation in Australia. I think you'll all agree that basically, I nailed it.

Cockatoo Island

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Brace yourself for another industrial wonder from down under! Cockatoo Island was the pick of a friend in Australia who clearly understands me well. When he said “Go to Cockatoo Island” and I asked “What’s that?” He came back with, “Don’t ask, just go.” And he could not have been more spot on. I mean, who wouldn’t want to spend a whole Saturday wandering around an abandoned convict prison and shipyard?

It’s also a fast and pleasant ferry ride from Circular Quay, and the day was hot and sunny. 
And check out those cranes!

Largest of the islands in Sydney Harbour, Cockatoo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its association with Australia’s convict history, which began in 1839 when the island was designated a penal establishment. It remained so for 30 years, with convicts first being employed in the construction of their own prisons and guardhouses (#twisttheknife). The island itself, like, it seems,  much of Sydney, is basically a big chunk of sandstone, so once they’d adequately imprisoned themselves they went on to quarry stone for other building projects in the area, including the seawall at Circular Quay.

This is what’s left of one of the convict-built guardhouses. It’s actually much nicer than the cell buildings, with windows to provide some ventilation in the blazing Antipodean heat.

Getting to Cockatoo was easy, and as I mentioned, the weather was gorgeous. There’s also a nice information centre right near the ferry dock where they offer reasonably priced audioguides. Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will recall I love a good audioguide, so I pounced on that and headed to the convict precinct of the island, which is sort of high up in the middle. Happily, the Cockatoo audioguide was quite good (unlike others in my experience - Roman Forum, I'm looking at you) and I liked that I could move at my own pace around the island, following the directions past the island's campsite.

Bring your own tent, or go glamping in one of the ready-made tents shown here. Or if you really want to splash out, several of the historic building on the island have been converted for short term rental. Apparently it’s really popular for New Year’s Eve, which I hasten to remind readers is in the middle of summer. Summer in January… I swear I’ll never get used to that.

Along with quarrying limestone, the convicts of Cockatoo were set to the construction of Australia’s first dry dock - the Fitzroy Dock - which was built to service the Royal Navy. Not long after the dock was finished, the convicts were moved to the mainland Darlinghurst Jail (or Gaol, if you insist) and the convict cells and related buildings were turned into a reformatory for wayward girls. Around the same time, just offshore, a large, wooden, three-masted sailing ship was anchored and became a home and school for neglected boys. The girls were split between two institutions - one a reform school for those who had broken the law, and one an industrial school intended to operate more like an orphanage. In practise, the two halves intermingled as the girls were all housed in the same dire cells the convicts had recently vacated, drinking from troughs, eating without utensils and sometimes forced to sleep on the flagstone floor as a punishment. The boys, on the other hand, were led by relatively benevolent masters who, while strict, taught them nautical skills, gardening (in a plot on the island), shoe-making and other useful skills. The intent was to reform the boys into useful citizens. The girls, on the other hand, were treated as a lost cause, trained for life as servants, locked in gloomy cells twelve hours each night, and left with little to occupy them. Charming.

There are quite a few of the old stone convict-built building left, including homes for the island governors and other staff. And while the main buildings have been tidied up you can still get a sense of how miserable they must have been, especially in the intense heat of an Australian summer. But convict prisons were not really what I went to Cockatoo Island for, so I was very pleased to head to the industrial side of the island.

Which was extra exciting because I got to there through this tunnel carved right through the island!

Even while the reforms schools were still in operation, ship repair and ship building activities  occupied the Fitzroy dock and surrounding area on the lower level of the island while the hapless girls were housed on the higher level of the island and the boys came and went from their ship, The Vernon, moored just offshore. The mix of shipyard workers with neglected boys and downtrodden girls led, inevitably, to some fraternisation, with the mistreated girls often seen as the source of the trouble. This went on until 1880 when the girls were transferred back to shore, though the boys stayed in The Vernon and then later in The Sobraon, until 1911.

Fitzroy Dock as it appears today. (Well, actually as it appears when someone else took a picture, because mine didn't turn out.)

Once the juvenile delinquents finally left, shipyard activities became the sole focus of life on Cockatoo. Sutherland Dock, a second, even larger dry dock was built, and was for a time the largest dry dock in the world. Even before World War One, the island had produced more than 150 vessels - mostly dredges and barges. By 1913 Cockatoo Island was the official dockyard of the Royal Australian Navy. World War Two saw the island become the main ship repair facility in the southwest Pacific, converting commercial vessels for wartime use and repairing Allied ships who limped to its docks after suffering sometimes debilitating damage. After the war Cockatoo was busy converting ships back to civilian use and building new and impressive vessels, like the Empress of Australia. Launched in 1964, it was the largest passenger ferry in the world at the time, travelling between Sydney and Tasmania.

And this is where things got exciting for your humble blogger, because once I’d got through the tunnel, the audioguide turned its attention to the minutiae of ship-building and sent me through sensational, giant, abandoned cathedrals of industry.

Like this enormous beauty where they did…you know... ship stuff.

And I have no idea what this machine does but I LOVE IT. It’s like a set designer said, “Make me something with lots of winding handles and cogs and unexplained bits that could chew up your fingers. And it’s gotta be on wheels. No wait! Rails! Put it on rails!"

It was great. I listened to the audioguide talk about the different stages of shipbuilding, and wandered back and forth among the mostly empty halls. There was a lot of emphasis on telling the stories of the workers, which was absorbing. One of the upper island buildings had an extensive exhibit of old photos - again, mostly about the workers. There were also audio recordings of stories from former Cockatoo Island workers - apprentices, old hands, and union organisers. For a long time Cockatoo Island was a significant force in the Australian labour movement. Immigrant workers from English shipyards brought a strong tradition of trade unionism with them and as early as World War One there were more than 21 different unions representing Cockatoo Island workers, among them "boilermakers, blacksmiths, ship painters and dockers, gas fitters and plumbers, electricians, shipwrights, storemen and packers, timber workers and the biggest group of all, ironworkers.” (From the Cockatoo Island Website.)

Gratuitous picture inserted for no reason other than that this is a lovely overhead traveling crane. My blog, my rules.

The tour also led through what was called the Mould Loft - the massive upper floor of one of the biggest buildings on site. While the plans for each ship would be created in the large drawing office on the ground level, the Mould Loft was where each piece of the ship - like the giant curved ribs and each steel plate that made up the hull - would be laid out in full scale with absolute accuracy. From that layout, wooden templates were made and sent for manufacture in the island’s workshops. This was the practice until computers arrived to assist in the 1980s.

Sadly, even as early as the mid-1960s, the logistical challenges of running a huge shipyard without rail or road access to ease the flow of materials, along with general decline in manufacturing in Australia, led to the dwindling of Cockatoo as a industrial powerhouse. For a time the shipyard survived largely on a government contract to refit the Australian navy’s submarine fleet, but in 1987 the government announced it would close the shipyard and in 1992 the site was shut, machinery sold off and many buildings demolished.

Poor Sam. Out of a job.

The island was neglected for about a decade until the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust started extensive renovations in 2001, eventually opening to the public in 2007. I was really captivated by Cockatoo Island - it’s presented well, and on the day I went there weren’t a lot of people around despite it being a weekend. I sense it’s not high up on the list for a lot of tourists. I suppose most people who visit Sydney want to tick off the big things like the Opera House and the Rocks and the Botanic Gardens and the ferry to Manly. (For the record - I also did all of those.) Clearly they don't have the discerning tastes of your humble blogger, or lack expert advice. Once I’d finally had my fill of Cockatoo I walked back to the dock through the other tunnel (Because of course there are two.) and caught the next ferry back to the mainland. By the time I made it to the apartment the full day of sun, wind, and giant rusty machinery had me craving a nap. But alas, there was just enough time for a short collapse followed by a shower because that evening I went out for something completely different but also excellent. I went to hear the Sydney Symphony play live to a screening of the original film of Mary Poppins (the one with Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke and the world's worst Cockney accent). It was at the Sydney Opera House main concert hall.

You could barely move for the number of 8 year old girls in attendance.  And sure, I love a good rusty bit of industrial machinery, but… Mary Poppins!!!

It was great. I love the movie anyway and seeing in that context, with the live music, was really fun. Plus I got to see the inside of the Opera House and (big bonus) I didn’t have to sit through an opera to do it! And then I had a gelato on the walk home. And when I got there I slept like the dead and took the next day off. There is, however, still more to tell about my Australian adventures, so watch this space.