You are currently browsing the monthly archive for September 2011.

There is one thing Sydney does exceptionally well, and that is to make a spectacle of itself. The harbour, the sailboats, the outrageous opera house, the beaches and bodies. Let’s face it, compared to Melbourne, Sydney is a bit of a floozy, dedicated to nothing more than making money and having a glorious time.  Melbourne is like the maiden aunt, forever looking over her spectacles at the her naughty niece. Going tut, tut….

I may have everything absolutely wrong, of course. I am a foreigner, after all.  Sydney did start out as the only officially sanctioned British settlement in Australia.  The settlers of Melbourne sailed across from Tasmania and put up their tents without any authorization.  They were illegal upstarts, a second wave of boat people.  The discovery of gold changed everything.  Gold has a way of doing that, turning pirates into princes overnight.


When you shoot up to Sydney for a quick visit and the weather gods offer you a blast of warm sunshine, rather than cold, wet weather like it did last time, it is hard not to get the impression that Sydney is the bride that was meant to be, and we ended up with the best friend, the daughter that was destined to make doilies rather than marry into society.

My excuse was the usual one. I was tagging along as the trailing spouse at yet another conference. A friend from Sydney had invited us to stay with her, and it was too good to resist.


I took the opportunity to catch up with another friend from the long distant past. Barvara hails from Sydney, but she spent many years living in many other places, including London, France and New York City. We met in 1969, first in Salonika, Greece, then again a week later in Istanbul. I had hitchhiked there from Denmark and she had arrived from London by way of the Greek islands. We ended up spending some time together down along the southern coast, not far from Antalya, in the village of Side.

Barvara re-discovered my whereabouts on Facebook shortly after we arrived in Australia, but we had not seen each other for forty-three years when this trip took us back to Sydney.  I wondered how we would recognize one another, but she had inherited a talent for it, nailing an old primary school classmate on the street not long ago and even coming up with a name.


There wasn’t enough time, of course. Too much had happened to both of us. We remembered some images from Turkey.  We filled in a few of the vast gaps, toasted the good times and commiserated over unhappy events. It was all we had time for. I leafed through her book of photographs and she listened to my history of inherited children.  We shared a long bus ride back from Watson’s Bay.  There was a quick goodbye.  I managed to make it back in time for a dinner party.  Friends of our host had been invited. There was champagne and sparkling conversation. I drank it all in and went to bed, exhausted.

The following day, my wife and I kicked back and relaxed with Claire and and her rambunctious sheepdog, Bridey.  We went for a long walk in Centennial Park, then visited Vaucluse, the odd estate that began life as the abode of an Irish knight, then took on new status, if not real respectability as the home of William Charles Wentworth, the father of the Australian constitution.


Wentworth was born in the Colony, His father had been arrested for robbery four times and his mother had been a convict as well. D’Arcy, the father, prospered, but the “convict stain” was passed on to his son. It was exacerbated by his illegitimacy. The new settlers had brought along their class consciousness, of course, and they were either “emancipists” (former convicts) or “exclusives” (free settlers and military men.) William was educated in England and returned to Sydney in 1810. At the age of 21, he and two friends discovered the first route across the Blue Mountains.

Three years later he returned to England to study law. He was a strong advocate for establishing a constitution in the Colony and introducing trial by jury. Upon his return, he became one of the wealthiest men in New South Wales. He hosted large dinner parties to celebrate the departure of each succeeding governor and became a leader of the emancipist faction.


In 1824 he founded The Australian newspaper and used it to attack the Governor and other exclusives. He struck a deal with seven Maori chiefs to buy a third of New Zealand for a pittance, which would have made him the largest landholder in the world if Governor Gipps had not vetoed the transaction. As Wentworth aged and became wealthier, his populism shifted to conservatism. He lived in England for the last years of his life, but his body was returned to Vaucluse for burial.

On the way back we took a long walk along the water at Neilson Park. It was tricky footing, but the sunset was beautiful. Sydney showing off again, revealing her true colours.


Claire’s house in Edgecliff offers such a wonderful view of the harbour that it is hard to see how she tears herself away long enough to do the grocery shopping or dog walking. It was a Sunday, though, and the weather was gorgeous. So we walked down to the beach and caught the ferry into Circular Quay.  It was chaotic, the Sydney marathon was in progress. We managed to thread our way through the crowd and catch the connecting ferry to  Cockatoo Island.


Once covered with trees, Cockatoo is now home to some fifty cranes. The largest island in Sydney harbour has been through many incarnations in its life, serving as a prison for convicts from Norfolk Island, a workshop to repair ships, an industrial school for girls and a reformatory. In the 1880s and 1890s, shipbuilding and ship repair expanded, and Australia built its first steel warship on the island. The dockyard finally closed in 1992, and in 2001 the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust assumed control. It is now open to the public for overnight stays, as well as various events, like the bi-annual Sydney art shows.

A gelato and a bus ride carried us back to Edgecliff. Just time to catch our breath for the flight back to Melbourne. Straighten up, tighten our seat belts. Act civilized. Melbourne doesn’t put on airs or act like an actress. She wears sensible shoes and whispers in church. We don’t want to disappoint the old girl.

There is a moment in every adventure worth writing about that takes your breath away. If you’re an adrenaline junkie, it might be leaping out of a plane.  If you are anything like me, it can be triggered by a spectacular sunset or the sight of a sheer cliff dropping off into the turbulent sea below. On this particular trip,  an unnatural, diagonal line on the sea set my heart to fluttering.

I suspected it was emanating from Cape Chignecto.  As I sat in the kayak, mesmerized, I heard the imperative words of our guide, Luciano– “Backpaddle, now!” He did not want us to get sucked beyond that line until the tidal turmoil had subsided and we were good and ready for the crossing.  I paddled backwards furiously, easing the boat away from the invisible threat.  Here be dragons!

It was a trip that began, as these things do, with a simple suggestion from me to my wife that we should have a little fun before we packed up and headed back to Australia. We had both been working a fair amount since arriving back in Nova Scotia. My wife had been consumed with her part of co-authoring the chapter of a book. I had been trying to make some headway on a long list of things that had been neglected at the Stewart House, everything from having a dead tree cut down to cleaning up the carriage house.


We hadn’t been to the other side of the Bay of Fundy in some time, and a little nosing around on the internet revealed that NovaShores, a kayak outfitter, was offering a three-day trip around Cape Chignecto. It was an opportunity to see some of the most spectacular cliffs in Nova Scotia. There were two significant question marks to be considered: the weather and our ability to handle this kind of paddling trip. If my wife had had more time to focus on the risk involved, she might have pulled the plug, but our contact with the outfitter and the guide was very reassuring.

Our immersion in Bay of Fundy waters had taken place over twenty years ago with one of the small companies offering Zodiac boat “surfing” on what is called the tidal bore. This refers to a wave that precedes high tide by a couple of hours. The rubber rafting companies offer tourists a chance to zip across the wave as it forces its way up the Shubenacadie, a large river near the end of the Bay.

Twice a day, the tide hits the river, sending salt water up and over the fresh water flowing into the Bay. The wave is usually not high, but it is powerful, and surfing across it in a Zodiac can be like white-water rafting on a field of liquid red mud.  Bald eagles often soar overhead.

I doubt if any of the companies still do this, but we were encouraged to jump into the river about halfway through our tour. With our life jackets in place we bobbed along like corks. The guide told us to take a good look around, then close our eyes for a whole minute. When we opened them the landscape around us had changed. We were moving very fast up the river, but couldn’t feel our speed because we were part of the flow.  It was a memorable experience, a Bay of Fundy baptism.

There are two places on the Bay of Fundy that generate serious turbulence. They stick out like scimitars into the most powerful body of tidal water in the world. Cape Split is only forty minutes from our place, and Cape Chignecto is the other, on the opposite shore. At Chignecto the incoming waters split in two. Part of the tide goes up into Chignecto Bay. The rest rushes into the Minas Channel, squeezing around the cliff called Cape Split, then shooting down Cobequid Bay and eventually up the Shubenacadie.

All of this takes place slowly at first, then gradually increases to fast walk, a trot a canter, then a gallop. Twice a day one hundred billion tons of sea water sloshes in and out of the giant, mud bathtub called Fundy. The water can travel five miles inland or five stories up, depending on the topography it encounters. The force is equal to 25 million horsepower. You don’t want to get caught around a headland when the tide is coming in, at one inch a minute.

It was the morning of July 5. The trip had been delayed one day by weather, but it was still on. Our small group gathered for a briefing at the home base of NovaShores in Advocate Harbour. Our fearless leader, Luciano, was a transplant from Quebec with Italian roots. The other guests looked to be in their late thirties. Glen and Marcia had driven all the way from New Jersey in a tightly packed Mini. It was their first time in Nova Scotia and the kayak trip was the centerpiece of their vacation. After signing the waivers and getting our gear, we piled in our cars for the drive to Spicer’s Cove.

Double kayaks may look roomy, but cramming the “essentials” (plus the gourmet goodies we all eagerly anticipated as a perk of hard paddling) into two tandems and a single is a fine art that requires patience, skill and experience. After lugging the boats and all the gear across the rock strewn beach, we were more than happy to leave most of the packing to our guide.

Our drive up had been through scrub forest, covering an area of amazing geological diversity. This was a boundary area of tectonic collisions, when a huge chunk of ancient Africa broke off and attached itself to the North American plate. More than a dozen rock types make up the plateau that formed the backdrop of our trip.

Our route would take us southeast, tracing a leisurely semicircle back toward Advocate Harbour. The cars would magically reappear at the end of our trip. Despite our early start, it was noon by the time we were ready to launch, and from our point of view the timing couldn’t have been better. In the time it had taken to get all the gear into the boats and our bodies into the PFDs and spray skirts, the tide had come in and the sea was lapping at the hulls. One push and we were off.


On the water, a kayak trip soon turns into variations on rhythm, the stroke of the paddle, the counter stroke of wave against boat, the dip and pull of another stroke. We launched in fog, but by lunch time that had burned off and the rest of our trip was fine. The first day established the pattern– a late start dictated by the demands of breaking down the camp, rolling up mattresses, having breakfast, brushing teeth and then packing everything back into the tight confines of the hatches.

And we had serious tides to consider. Hauling the kayaks up above the high tide mark was essential to avoid having our sleep interrupted by sea water. Our journey would take us past Squally Point, the Three Sisters, Seal Cove, and French Lookout.  Two spots were haunted by memory– Eatonville and Refugee Cove.


Each party in a group adventure of this kind brings something to the table, jokes, anecdotes, songs or some ability that others don’t generally take for granted. Glen and Marcia brought the candor and off-beat humor that New Yorkers seem to cultivate as a mark of the tribe. Marcia’s artistic temperament came into focus as soon as she discovered a rudimentary driftwood creation on the beach. By the time we left it had been transformed into something worthy of an exhibition.

Luciano brought his paddling skills, of course, navigation, trip coordination, culinary talents, and a repertoire of songs.  My wife brought stories and her inimitable skill at starting fires the old-fashioned way.  I brought along my own stock of anecdotes and enough cameras to cover a wedding. Unfortunately, only one was waterproof.

Refugee Cove and Eatonville represent two eras in Nova Scotia history– the unhappy end of the Acadian saga, and Nova Scotia’s golden age of sailing ships. The Cove is the only significant break in the southern escarpment.  It is fronted by a high cobblestone beach littered with logs and a sheltered flood plain beyond the beach. Acadians fled here in 1755, at the time of the Great Expulsion, struggling to survive one winter on game and fish. Later, a logging operation would operate here for some time.

In the 1870’s the Eaton Brothers established a settlement at an anchorage on the western shore of Chignecto Bay, naming it after themselves. Twenty-one boats were built here, including one that weighed over 1,550 tons.  The lumbering and wooden shipbuilding industries would soon be replaced by iron and steam, however, and the community was abandoned by 1920.  It was a peaceful, beautiful spot, offering us a fine place for a gourmet lobster lunch.


Our progress toward the Cape was slow but inexorable. All the while my wife’s anxieties about the traverse had been gnawing away at her. On previous trips, we had both encountered waves for which we were wholly unprepared. I had been dumped unceremoniously into the freezing waters of the Nahanni, and twice into the Bonaventure River.  Both immersions had been from canoes, however, not kayaks.

We both knew the Bay of Fundy was no cakewalk, but I had more faith in the stability of the the big, Quebec-built tandem than she did. Fortunately, the weather on the day we encountered the Cape was absolutely perfect. Our timing was a little off thanks to our habitually late start.  We had arrived about three hours before slack tide, so when Luciano told us to back paddle, we did not hesitate to do as he suggested.

We retreated to the nearest beach and sought shelter from the sun until the time was propitious for the crossing. It was a quiet time, a little tense. In the interest of balancing our strengths, we switched paddling partners. The water crept up the beach. It was time to go. When we reached the mesmerizing line that had extended out from the Cape, it had disappeared.

We were near slack tide, and the waves would carry us on into West Advocate with very little effort required to keep the boats moving.   As we shot around Chignecto, atabatic winds barreled down off the bluff, whipping up the water and nearly tearing the paddle out of my wife’s hands.  In no time at all, the Cape was behind us. The rock formations of the cliffs were stunning, but we were moving too fast for more than a couple of photos.  I could not do them justice with my waterproof camera.

We were past the Cape, moving fast and it felt good.  We were on our way home.


Flickr Photos


Blog Stats

  • 41,500 hits
September 2011

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 143 other followers

Top Rated

September 2011
September 2011