This here is Wollongong. Wollongong is a city about 50 miles South of Sydney and I have spent the last three days here.
This trip is an extension of my visit to Sydney. Whilst in the planning stages I had the belief that I wouldn’t enjoy Sydney too much so was looking for a place to stay for a week or so that would give me relatively easy access to the city whilst also keeping me out of it. After some research into the possibilities I settled on Wollongong because it had two activities I could do (I’ll get to those later). Unfortunately, upon investigation of accommodation I found it to be rather expensive.
I compromised, booking two nights in Sydney, followed by three nights in Wollongong, followed by a further three nights in Sydney. This meant that I could get everything done that I wanted to do, escaping from Sydney as much as possible.
After having my two nights in Sydney (I’ll tell you about those in a different post) I gladly hopped on a train to travel South for an hour and a half on Friday. Side note, this train ride cost me less than A$6 (£3).
Alighting the train at my chosen destination I made my way the the local YHA, arriving there two hours before check in was available. Thankfully, the staff were willing to securely store my bags and offered me some info about a nice walk that I could take along the coast.
This seemed like a good idea so I set off to enjoy a nice wander down towards North Beach, along the path above said beach, and around the bay to a small headland. The path offered some nice views of the coast, like this one over the harbour with all its little boats.
The headland is a public space, it houses various memorials; mostly large rocks with plaques on them. There are also three cannons which, although I knew I should photograph them, I couldn’t get a shot that I liked. I did manage to get a photograph of the lighthouse there though, so you can enjoy that!
After leaving the headland, I walked past another of Wollongong’s beaches; City Beach is smaller than North Beach but it seems to be the more popular one as it has a few cafes, barbecue areas, and a play area.
Cutting back towards the YHA I walked through the open shopping mall on Crown Street, and stopped for lunch at a mexican fast food chain; I am becoming very fond of burritos. On the way I was pleased to see a couple of really good pieces of street art, this one I found to be particularly impressive.
Finally being able to check into my hostel I spent some time relaxing before heading off on an excursion to find the local climbing wall, Hangdog. This excursion proved successful and I had a good time ripping my hands to shreds and generally feeling out of practice (this is becoming a recurring theme whenever I make it to a wall, hopefully I can change this in Brisbane).
I wasn’t sure if I was looking forward to Saturday, my planned activities filled me with mixed feelings including fear and apprehension.
I had booked myself on a one day Buddhist retreat at Nan Tien temple.
Some readers may know of my interest in Buddhism (and recently Taoism, but that’s a different story). I read bits and pieces about the faith from time to time, and admire the ethics, principles, and practices. I spent a week or two meditating on a daily basis some time ago and felt the benefits but have never really been sure if I was doing things right and have been hoping to find some guidance in the practice.
Nan Tien temple was one of the first things about Wollongong that made me consider visiting, and whilst researching my activities I discovered that there would be this one day meditation retreat on the 27th June. I ended up planning my Wollongong visit around this date.
I’ll pause here to say that Nan Tien’s website states that there is no photography allowed in the temple which I adhered to. Once the retreat was finished I did take a couple of photos of the front of the building. Here is one of them so you can see where I was.
The retreat ran from 9am to 4pm, and upon arrival I discovered that it was to be what is known as a silent retreat. All participants were to maintain a noble silence. Not speaking for a day was a great experience, I would recommend you try it some time, perhaps at the weekend.
The first hour of the day was spent making sure all participants were registered and accounted for, as well as introducing us to the day’s activities. The first activity was Tai Chi, I wasn’t expecting this and it was a very pleasant surprise. I’ve been thinking to myself that I should try Tai Chi at some point and had vowed to look for a class when I am in Brisbane on a more permanent basis. Being given my first Tai Chi experience at a retreat was fantastic. There were around 30 of us, positioned carefully in a grid after filing silently into the main courtyard, to perform 20 minutes of the Chinese martial art. Then we filed out again, silently forming the same single line of people, heading to the dining hall for morning tea, a very silent morning tea. It must have been an interesting sight for the temple’s tourist visitors, I’m sure I’ve been captured on video by numerous mobile phones.
After morning tea we had our first meditation, I’m not sure exactly how long the meditation itself was as there was some guidance both before and after but the entire session was 50 minutes. I was quite pleased that my previous efforts were very similar to the guidance offered. I won’t go into the details as it’d be very hard to describe, but meditation is very difficult. It is very beneficial though and it’s a practice that I would recommend you try on a regular basis for a period of time.
Then came lunch. A very tasty vegetarian (yes, I ate vegetarian food, pick your jaw up off the floor) spread had been produced for us which we enjoyed, in silence. Mindful eating.
After lunch we practiced walking meditation. There wasn’t a great deal of guidance on this one, we just walked around the temple grounds in a single line (silently of course), I found that my mind was very chaotic and I struggled with the meditation aspect. I am in the habit of walking a lot at the moment and having no one to talk to most of the time, walking has become a time to think, I may have conditioned myself. This was only a short portion of the day though so I wasn’t too fussed by it, I knew there would be more meditation later in the day.
That meditation would come after a guided tour of the temple. This was an optional part of the day, we had the option of exploring on our own, or heading back to the meditation hall for more meditation. I opted for the tour as I would not have chance to visit again. It turned out to be very interesting, I learnt a lot about the temple’s main features, as well as learning more about Buddhism in general. Nan Tien has a museum section with various artefacts relating to the temple, the most impressive of which are two pieces of text; a simple prayer recited by Buddhists (we recited it at lunch). I doubt that sounds particularly impressive though. Would it be more impressive if I told you that they’d been written by a 17 year old boy, using a sharpened grain of rice to ink the Chinese characters on a human hair? Yup.
Although the tour was a good part of the retreat, I did find that having it part way through the day was a bit distracting. Many of the participants (who were attending with friends) opted to break their noble silence (which there was nothing really wrong with at that point in the day). I kept my silence in tact but even so, having the tour was an entirely different experience to the retreat which broke the atmosphere a bit. I have a feeling that this is what made the final meditation so difficult for me.
The final meditation was much like the first, although this time we were given some guidance on techniques to count breathing which helps concentration. In my own foray into meditation I was counting breaths but in a different way, a way which may not have been a particularly effective method so this guidance was beneficial. Nonetheless, I did struggle to calm my "Monkey Mind" which was a tad disappointing, this is just part of the practice of meditation though, next time will hopefully be better.
The retreat was ended with a seminar from one of the Buddhists at the temple, who imparted advice about “Living Chien”. Methods that everyday folk can use Buddhist teachings and practices in their daily lives. I’ve waffled enough on this subject though so I’ll leave the discovery of Living Chien to you.
Sunday brought with it some more photographic activities. The first of which was a hike up Mount Keira. I hopped on the free city shuttle in the morning and arrived at the base of the 464m high escarpment at around 10am.
The first part of my hike took the Ken Ausburn track; a steep path through fairly dense forest. This section is relatively short and it wasn’t long before I passed the Lawrence Hargrave Memorial Sculpture, created in 1989 by Bert Flugelman. “Winged Figure” is quite a striking piece of work, belonging to the Wollongong University art collection it’s made of stainless steel and stands in a small clearing facing towards the city.
Continuing my walk I joined the Mount Keira Ring Track, a 5.5km route that runs around the entire escarpment and offers access to the summit. Upon reaching the beginning of the track I waved and said hello to a couple who were just setting off on the same route before I paused to have a quick drink of water and read the information sign preceding my climb. I opted for the anti-clockwise route around and enjoyed taking various photographs whilst wandering through the forest. I am particularly fond of this shot of light hitting a tree.
The light was just perfect, glinting through the forest’s canopy and hitting these branches in just the right place to compose with light and dark areas, and that little bit of lens flare, and I got the exposure just right, and the depth of field creating that bokeh, and look, I’m just really proud of this image ok?!
After walking for a while things started getting a bit trickier. Without wanted to sound boastful, when it comes to scrambling up things I’m confident doing so which meant I wasn’t particularly phased by the obstacles in my path, but they were somewhat unsettling on this route due to their unexpectedness.
I ended up putting my camera away so I had both hands free just in case. I was climbing over large rocks, some of which were quite loose, zig zagging around boulders, ducking undergrowth perched on the edge of steep inclines, and clambering over fallen trees a little too often for my liking.
I persevered though, and eventually things began to clear, as well as level out. And then I saw a sign. Well, the back of a sign actually. Annoyingly I didn’t photograph the back of it, had I done so you would have been able to see how interestingly it was placed smack bang in the middle of the path.
Of course, when I reached it I had to spin around and read it. This time I did photograph it.
I have no idea why there wasn’t a sign at the bottom of the track as well, it might have deterred me a bit. On my climb I had been followed (not in a creepy way) by a man and his (I assume) daughter, who also hadn’t seen a sign on their way up.
A short walk along a proper road (one for cars!) brought me up to the summit where I spent some time relaxing, enjoying the viewpoints, and purchasing a cup of tea. Remember that couple I waved to at the beginning of the track? They spotted me at the top and greeted me with a jovial “you made it then?! Did you go up the closed bit?” My nodded reply was met with a chuckle from all parties and exclamations about the lack of a sign at the bottom. Definitely not just me then!
From the summit I set off along the Dave Walsh track which would join a different section of the Ring Track on the way down, but not before some steep areas, with more zigzagging, this time through large trees and down large rocky paths.
Crossing the road at the end of the Dave Walsh track placed me on the last stretch of the Ring Track that would take me back round to the Ausburn Track I used at the start of my adventure. There were’t a great deal of exciting photographic opportunities along this section of path, one thing did catch my eye though. Quite a harrowing one too.
It’s difficult to figure out exactly what you’re looking at in this image, I had multiple viewpoints and more visibility options available to me that a camera can't offer in one shot. Anyway, the small white thing, above the brown section, is a car. I only really took this image to show you the environment that the car is in. It is not where a car should be.
My current photographic project forced me to find a way up the slope for a closer inspection.
Getting up there wasn’t easy, partly because there was no path and I had to use loose rocks as footholds and trees to steady myself, and partly because I didn’t know what I’d find. I was certain that the car had been there for a long time, but its occupants could have been as well. I had no idea what had happened, this car was so far off the road that it wouldn’t be seen. I can’t describe all the things that were going through my head, but it was unnerving.
I was relieved to find the vehicle empty, but I still can’t help wondering what happened, what caused the car to come off the road? How did the occupants get out? Were they injured? Dead? It’s disturbing to think about.
So of course I took a photograph.
Right. Let’s move on to some happier stuff.
When I arrive in a new place, I often have a quick Google search for local events that are going on that I might be able to find time to attend. Wollongong presented me with a Toy Brick Fair in a local shopping centre. An exhibition of various Lego creations. Winner.
There were some excellent pieces, I was particularly impressed with the recreated Star Wars locations; Mos Eisley, Hoth, and Endor. There was also a large Lego City with all sorts of things going on in it; dinosaurs roaming free, superheroes watching over the city, trains running around, cargo boats being loaded into the harbour.
Here’s a gallery of some of the photos I took.
And that brings us to the now. I’ve spent the remainder of the evening processing these photos (and others), eating Dominoes pizza whilst rewatching episode 1 of Spaced, and then tapping out this blog post.
I’ll leave you for now, but expect a full recap of Sydney within a week.