Monthly Archives: August 2014

Gap Bluff, An Unexpected Sydney Attraction



I guess it’s because it’s not exactly in Sydney that we hadn’t discovered Sydney Harbour National Park Gap Bluff on previous visits.  It’s not found in this city’s tourist information.  Nevertheless, some visitors and lots of Australians find it and swarm.

One sign there noted that Gap Bluff was such a tourist draw since the early 19th century that it was finally declared a park in 1887.  By 1909 a tramline from the city brought Sydneysiders.  Over time, military installations were common at Gap Bluff because of its strategic locale.   For example, during World War II the Royal Australian Navy had a Radar School there.  In 1960, movie director Alfred Hitchcock was in town promoting his new film Psycho. While visiting Gap Bluff, he insisted on perching on a railing to have his photo taken, causing a stir probably because of its reputation.

In 2014 Ruth and I went by bus to Watson’s Bay to have lunch at Doyle’s, a legendary seafood restaurant.  Watson’s Bay is the closest town to Sydney Harbor’s entrance, the world’s most beautiful harbor in my opinion. The lady we had been talking to suggested we see the Park.

“What park?” I asked.

She pointed to the stairs just past the bus stop.  “It’s a popular suicide spot,” she added.

Sure enough. There were signs all around.  “Warning: Remain behind fences. Penalty $150 and 24 hour CCTV monitoring and recording in operation in this area.  I did some research later and found a 2010 article from the Sydney Morning Herald by Malcolm Turnbull.  He estimated that around 50 people take their lives at The Gap each year.  I also found a reference to Rexie, a German shepherd who belonged to the owner of the Gap Tavern in the 60s. Rexie could sense potential suicides and would bark and run to draw attention to them.  She is credited with saving more than 30 lives.  Locals talking about suicide attempts compare Gap Bluff to The Golden Gate Bridge.

At Sydney Harbor National Park Gap Bluff, a walkway to the promontory provides dramatic views of the coast that almost but don’t entirely reveal the harbor’s entrance.  A trail worth following, however, took me to the full harbor view seen above.

This park is worth tracking down and you can take a water taxi back to Circular Quay and downtown Sydney from Watson’s Bay.



Chautauqua Spreads


Thanks again, Robert Mimiaga.

Ruth & I were about to enter Shangri La (a highly recommended show, see August 3, 2014, blog “Doris Duke’s House in Paradise” for info) in Reno’s Nevada Museum of Art when we met Robert, a photographer who lives in Incline Village on Lake Tahoe.  He invited us to come to Bartley Ranch Regional Park that evening for a performance.  Totally not knowing what to expect, we joined him and his wife and learned about Chautauqua.

For me, Chatauqua had always been that venerable institution on long, skinny Chautauqua Lake in southwestern New York State that attracts about 100,000 people each summer.  They attend music performances, lectures, theater, etc. while vacationing.  The cultural movement that Theodore Roosevelt called, “the most American thing about America” will celebrate its 150th birthday in 10 years.  What I didn’t know is that it sparked a national movement.  There are Chautauquas in Illinois, Florida, Colorado, etc.

The Chatauqua in Reno was created by Nevada Humanities in 1992 and has become one of the longest running festivals named Chautauqua in the U.S.  Its Chautuaquan inspiration is to perform living history.  Actors appear on stage in the outdoor Robert Z. Hawkins Amphitheater and bring historical figures to the attention of a big, rapt audience.  This season, which ran from June 19 to June 27, featured characters who contributed to Nevada’s development. This made perfect sense since The Silver State celebrated its 150th birthday in 2014.  The story of its entry into the Union as the 36th state involved Abraham Lincoln, gold, and an extremely long telegram.  It’s a fascinating story (see blog “A Capitol Idea”, May 14, 2011).

The 2 characters we saw brought to life on June 25th were Alice Smith and Howard Hughes.  Smith was a Civil Rights pioneer who moved to Nevada from Mississippi  in 1938.  Unable to get a position in her profession, education, she took a maid-nanny job, organized the Reno-Sparks branch of the NAACP, and volunteered for any cause that would lead to social justice. Smith had low tolerance for complainers.  Professional storyteller and TV Producer Juanita Westbrook eerily became Alice Smith.  Long time Las Vegas visitor and resident, billionaire Howard Hughes, was interpreted brilliantly by playwright and actor Brian Kral, who appeared to have read everything about Hughes.  He portrayed Howard as a far from delusional eccentric and crafty businessman who prized his privacy above all.   Hughes got married in Tonopah, Nevada, and bought 25,000 acres west of Las Vegas with the intent to move his aircraft company there.  At one point he owned 5 Las Vegas resort-casinos.

At Reno’s Chautauqua, portrayers appear on stage as their character for about 30 minutes.  Then they answer audience questions about their subject. Finally, a host introduces them as themselves and they, finally able to relax, answer questions from the audience about their personal and professional lives and preparation for the performance.

What most impressed me about my Reno-Chautauqua experience was its obvious appeal to all age groups.  Audience members included elementary school age children, young couples on dates, and entire multigenerational families, all totally involved in the presentations.

The 2015 season has not yet been announced, but I’ll track it and pass the information along in case you have the opportunity to attend a stimulating summer evening in Reno learning about people who really mattered and, perhaps, meeting Robert Mimiaga.




Bathurst’s Mount Panorama


On our way to Sydney from Orange, John, Trish, Ruth, & I went through the town of Bathurst, Australia’s oldest inland settlement according to Lonely Planet and a fairly ordinary town except for the fact that it’s home to the Mount Panorama Motor Racing Circuit.  In mere minutes Mount Panorama went from a place I had never heard of to an unforgettable memory.  The Mount Panorama circuit, if you’re not an avid racing fan, is one of the most intimidating on the planet with, among other challenges, the world’s fastest corner.  Between 1949 and 2006, 16 men have died during Mount Panorama races.

John asked if we’d like to experience a real racing track.  The questions, of course, quickly became,  “How soon can we get there?” and  “How can we do that?”  We were at the starting line in mere minutes to drive the entire 4 mile track that’s shaped like a weirdly boxy seahorse.   We could do this because it’s public road with residences along the way that can only be accessed via the circuit.  The good news is that typical passenger cars can drive the Mount Panorama course in either direction and it’s a free and unquestioned thrill to just be on it.  The bad news is that drivers, including John, are restricted to 37 mph, strictly, and understandably, enforced. Panorama is truly a mountain side race track, rising and descending 570 feet as drivers, like John, negotiate turns with names like Hell Corner and Forrest’s Elbow.

If you want a considerable kick, check out “Fastest Ever Recorded lap at Mount Panorama, Bathurst–In Car with Allan Simonsen on YouTube.  In March of 2012, Danish ace Simonsen reportedly set the fastest ever time around this track, a few seconds over 2 minutes, and viewers get to look over his right shoulder in a Michelotto Ferrari 458 GT3 prepared by Melbourne’s Maranello Motorsport as he does the circuit the previous December.  Lap records for several racing classes are available on Wikipedia.

Mount Panorama has hosted the Australian Grand Prix 4 times, but not recently due to changes in safety standards and its unusual configuration. The Bathurst 1000, one of two major annual racing events here, is held each October. It’s scheduled from Thursday, October, 9 until Sunday, October 12 in 2014.  This self-described “pinnacle V8 Supercars event” may be adrenaline fueled, but I don’t have to be there since I’ve already had my thrill on Panorama Hill.


Minnesota’s Different State Capitol


DSC04424The Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul is closing.   A $272 million renovation is well underway.  Already unavailable for public viewing are the Supreme Court, the Governor’s Office, and the rotunda.

Guided tours are still being given, but they’re increasingly limited.  A veteran of many such tours, I found myself constantly surprised during this one.

Minnesota’s was designed by Cass Gilbert who also worked on Arkansas’ and West Virginia’s capitols.   His last completed design was the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington D.C.  But I didn’t know that Gilbert designed New York City’s Woolworth Building.  Completed in 1913, it was the tallest building in the world for more than 10 years.

I also didn’t know the following:

Gilbert hired Daniel Chester French, sculptor of the Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., to create the Quadriga, the gold-leaf-covered sculpture of 4 horses pulling a chariot fronting the rotunda.

Minnesota is the only state with a French motto: L’ETOILE DU NORD.

The last proposal to draw a big crowd had to do with same-sex marriage; 4,000 showed up at the Capitol to either protest or support.

Minnesota was the first state to volunteer men for the Civil War.

One mural still seen on the tour dramatically reminds everyone that Minnesota is the source of the Mississippi River.

Germans, not Scandinavians, are Minnesota’s largest ethnic group.  In fact, this Capitol contains a huge traditional rathskeller decorated with German mottoes.  They range from commercial-like–enjoy a glass after a duty is well performed–to pretty scary–as time flies we are nearing eternity.

There are many statements inscribed inside.  My favorite, “The best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce it strictly,” was spoken by Abraham Lincoln.

Jesse Ventura, not Harold Stassen, was surely Minnesota’s most colorful Governor.  With professional wrestler, sailor, and actor already on his resume, Ventura was top pol from 1999 until 2003.  Since leaving office he has written books and hosted TV shows.  He is reportedly thinking about running for President in 2016.

Most state capitols contain marble, but Minnesota’s has 16 different varieties ranging from traditional Italian White Carrara to unusual French Fleur de Peche.  I doubt if any other state can brag about Pipestone from a National Monument in its rotunda, which no visitors can see for now.

The exact date isn’t available yet, but the Minnesota State Capitol will be completely closed for tours some time in 2016.  The restoration will hopefully by completed in 2017.







The Unlikely National Music Museum


As I bypassed Sioux Falls in blinding rain, I was still determined to re-visit an unlikely attraction that would take me well out of my way.  Vermillion is a town of about 11,000 in the southeastern corner of South Dakota.  Its named for the red banks of the river that flows through it.  The unlikely attraction, the National Music Museum (NMM), was there.

Several years ago, Ruth and I stopped there while traveling south from Winnipeg, Canada.   It was a slow day so a NMM curator showed us around.  During World War II metal was scarce, so an instrument company manufactured about 1,000 plastic trumpets.  NMM had one.  I was curious about its sound, so our host took it down from the shelf and played it.   Its tone was warm and, well, perfect.

In the early 20th century The Larson’s were a musical family in an unlikely place–Hanska, Minnesota.   All 9 Larson brothers and sisters were musically-inclined, and there were enough of them for an orchestra so they formed one.  Brother Arne began collecting instruments in the 1920s, and during The Depression he set out for the Minneapolis College of Music with a nickel in his pocket.  By the time he started teaching several years later, he had earned a Master of Music degree.  While his bands & orchestras were winning awards, Arne was obsessively collecting instruments.  In 1966 he accepted a job of Professor of Music at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.  The National Music Museum was founded in 1973.  Six years later Arne donated his collection of 2,500 musical instruments to the State.

There was a temporary exhibit in NNM’s Arne B. Larson Concert Hall.  The instruments were owned by the Sax family of Brussels, Belgium.  I asked the lady at the entrance desk if the Saxes were connected to the Brussels’ Musical Instrument Museum that has over 8,000 musical instruments. Unwittingly, I said it was the best museum of its kind I had ever been in. She visibly bristled.  Her National Music Museum has 9 well-filled galleries, and its collection has grown to 15,600.  “We’re the best!” she exclaimed.

To calm the lady down I asked about NMM’s oldest instrument.  “A 1560 harpsichord,” she said.   I asked her about its weirdest and she had to think that over.  “That serpent thing in the Beede Gallery,” she said vaguely.  The Beede was upstairs and focused on instruments from Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands.  I couldn’t find the serpent, but I continued looking for the plastic trumpet.  The Rawlins Gallery featured an arresting Stradivari collection including a rare guitar, one of 4 survivors of its kind.  Lillibridge featured row upon row of classic guitars.  After looking around the National Music Museum, it was impossible to argue with the desk lady, especially after I found a Theremin and an unusual Pouchette collection of dancing masters’ fiddles. On the way out I learned from Micky that the plastic trumpet is still in the collection but not on display.

At one point a woman passing me said, “absolutely fascinating!”.   At first I thought she was talking to me, but then I realized she was telling herself about the 5 Compass National Music Museum.  She was absolutely right.