Down under

This October, Paul and I had the opportunity to go to Australia. Well, we could have always gone I guess, but this time we had a very good reason, which was the International Semantic Web Conference taking place in Sydney, and we always like mixing work and sightseeing.

It fit best in our schedules to go the week before the conference, so we mid-October we left our apartment in the care of our usual house sitters and traded in rainy autumn Amsterdam for sunny spring Australia. Sydney is bloody far away though. Our journey there was the worst I’ve experienced so far, which was solely because of the changeover at Denpasar, Bali. I’m all OK with paying for a visa when I get into a country, but having to do it for a transfer is just ridiculous. And of course you can only pay cash, and the information provision is just super bad, then you get flooded by taxi drivers, but we didn’t want to exit the airport, you have to check in again, then pay some more for airport taxes, go through security again, have my water bottle taken away, and on top of that we didn’t get airmiles for the second leg of our journey to Sydney because it was on a non-code shared partner. Why did KLM allow me to book that flight through them in the first place? Anyway, we made it to Sydney, the weather was nice and soon the horrendous flight was just a distant memory (it also helped that on the way back we flew via Kuala Lumpur which was a much nicer experience).

We first stayed a few days in Sydney, and we found a little hotel in Bondi. Walking distance from Bondi beach, which is where we went first. We strolled around the beach for a bit, and the market, then I splurged some one a new wetsuit (I had thrown out my 6-year-old 3/2 a few weeks before after noticing it did not keep me warm anymore at all) and then we had a little nap at the hotel. Later in the afternoon, we walked to Bondi junction, our first of the huge shopping centres that the Australians can’t seem to get enough of and we had nice burgers at Grill’d Healthy Burgers (a chain).

The next day we went into full-tourist mode and we visited the Sydney Wildlife Zoo and the Sydney Aquarium. I was more impressed with the Wildlife Zoo (maybe because of the awesome staff scaring the wits out of Paul with a spider). We saw koalas, a super huge crocodile, and encountered our new favourite animal: the wombat. In the evening, we had some really awesome Thai food at 99 Thai, just around the corner from our hotel.

The next day, we picked up our rental and headed out north to Newcastle for some surf and wine. We stayed at Backpackers by the beach, which is a super chill hostel at a great location: walking distance to the beach and surrounded by specialty coffee for Paul (he said that there was even just too much good coffee around).

I found out a few things during my time in and around the water in Australia. My idea of a 1ft wave is very different from what the Australians classify as a 1ft wave. Also, the strength of the waves is nothing like what I’ve experienced before, so I got tumbled around quite a bit, but I also caught some nice rides on the board lent to me (and waxed!) by the owner of the hostel. I also took off over some rocks, so I’m proud of myself there. Funny thing, the first day I went surfing I went to Nobby’s beach, and had a nice morning there. In the afternoon, the lifeguard flags were gone, and they were replaced by a little sign saying “Shark sighted keep out”. Hmm, I think you kind of don’t really want to think about that, but we do share the sea with them.

One of the coolest things from our trip was the wine tour we did in Hunter valley. We decided not to drive up there ourselves but we booked a tour, which was a good idea. The guy driving us around knew his way and picked 4 very diverse wineries. This wine tasting business is hard work; at 10:30 we were doing our first wine tasting at Mount Pleasant wines, followed by wine and cheese tasting at McGuigan’s, after which we broke for lunch. These first two wineries were fairly fancy, and in particular at the first one they really explained us stuff about what to pay attention to, and how to go about the tasting. After lunch we first went to a ’boutique’ winery, Lambloch Estate, which just had the coolest building ever. Even though the winery is quite new, their vines are pretty old, and their wines were really, really nice. The last winery we went to was Kevin Sobels, yet super different again, as this is a family run winery, with a different price range, and a more at-home feel, and yet again very different wines. After tasting 39 wines that day, it was very quiet in the van on the way back to Newcastle :).

On the 20th, we went back to Sydney. After checking in to our hotel and dropping off our car, we took a walk through the Royal Botanic Gardens, popped into the Art Gallery of New South Wales and then did a tour of the Sydney Opera House which happend to celebrate its 40th anniversary on exactly that day. The building is just so amazing, and to find out more about how it was built and the puzzles the engineers had to solve was really cool. So we took loads and loads of pictures. On the way back to our hotel, we stopped at a Korean BBQ restaurant recommended by my Lonely Planet guide. Often such recommendations are a bit tacky, but we tend to get lucky, and this was also definitely one of those nights. I’d never had Korean BBQ, but Paul had and he said this was pretty authentic, although I could also tell from us being the only non-Asian people in the room. We got there pretty early, and people were queuing up by the time we left.

That was kind of the end of our holiday in Australia as the next day the conference started. At least the workshops. On Monday I co-chaired both the Linked Science and DeRiVE workshops. On Tuesday, I gave a talk at the university. On Wednesday I presented our poster during the poster session, on Thursday during the dinner I got to sing with the Linked Jammers (Someone had come up with the fantastic idea to put together a band for the occasion, there are some super talented musicians among the Semantic Webbers, who helped me get over at least a little bit of my stage fright there. It was just heaps of fun to make music with others, the fact that there was an audience didn’t matter so much, funny that is). On Saturday it was time to go home again, tired, but with lots of new experiences and a desire to see more of this lovely country someday. Australia, I will be back.

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