Get your Vivid on

Last Festival before Winter in Sydney

At times we like to pretend that it’s always summer in Sydney, but when winter is rolling around, we are lucky to get the bright colourful warm-up of the Vivid Light Festival.

For 18 days, the Opera House sails are dressed in colourful light designs, historic buildings bloom bright flowers and fantasy lands and light art and sculpture pops up in unexpected places. No matter how chilly it gets, when the lights come on at 6pm it is impossible to not smile and enjoy. Hopefully this gallery will make you smile too.

So did you get your Vivid on?

PhotoFriday: Street: The eye-popping Folsom Street Leather Fair, San Francisco

There’s no shortage of colourful neighbourhood street festivals in San Francisco every summer, but the most eye-popping is definitely the Folsom Street Leather Fair – and no, this is not some industry apparel convention!

I wondered whether the festival patrons might be a bit annoyed having a camera toting tourist in their midst, but I didn’t have to worry, this was a friendly crowd – very friendly! They welcome anyone, any gender, any age, any dress code, and people come from round the world to join in. And there’s not too many shrinking violets in this crowd, most people were very happy to be photographed and very offended if they weren’t! These photos in no way give a real picture of the festival, these are the most tame photos of the day – the rest are better suited to a XXX-rated site.

Cowboys and Cowgirls stampede to Calgary

The smoky smell of big juicy steaks grilling on the BBQ wafts over me, making my mouth water, but I am not ready to eat yet. I am focused on getting my newly learned steps right as I line dance in my borrowed cowboy boots, too busy to glance at the amazing 360 view from this rooftop of one of the tallest office blocks in downtown Calgary. Eventually I stop for a rest, grab my cold beer and head over to grab one of those steak sandwiches. Did I mention this is breakfast?


The Calgary Stampede.

The Calgary Stampede every July is one of my favourite festivals from around the world, its one of the world’s largest rodeo’s, and it’s another week long excuse for a party. Thanks to my lovely hosts Ant and Karen, I have my borrowed cowboy boots, which are de rigueur at this giant rodeo, although I have declined the opportunity to add a stetson as well – it’s just too hot in mid-summer Calgary to be wearing a big heavy hat. I am lucky enough to experience the corporate side of this festival as well, as my host Karen works for one of the big firms in town and has enough invites for us to party for free every breakfast, lunch and dinner for the week. And every single event has the same core attractions -it’s held on a high office rooftop, and it has beer, BBQ and line dancing. Maybe not original, but definitely fun. After a few months greyhounding around the States and Canada, staying comfortably in a friend’s house and having all this free hospitality feels like I’ve joined the Calgary 1989 A-list.

We spend a couple of nights at the Stampede showdome, which is part country show, part fairground and part rodeo. There’s all the good old fashioned thrills of bull riding and steer wrangling, as well as my favourite, the suicidal seeming chuck wagon races, those things were not built to stay upright at speed. The remaining evenings are mainly line dancing and beer drinking in various bars around town. Now normally I would have to be tied down and gagged to listen to country music, let alone line dance, but there is no point in coming to this festival and not going for the full immersion experience – maybe it’s just something in the beer but I have to confess that I loved every second of it. And although there is a huge influx of visitors for the Stampede, its does seems like the old adage of having an accent from the other end of the world definitely ensures your popularity, I feel like I got to dance with every cowboy in town. (disclaimer: since everyone in town is dressed like a cowboy for the week, I suspect I danced with very few real canadian cowboys but that in no way diminished my enjoyment)


The Dinosaurs of Drumheller

Even in breaks between all the hospitality during the day, it seems impossible to walk down the street without coming across a spontaneous outbreak of line dancing somewhere. For something a bit different we escape for half a day and drive out to Drumheller, the “badlands” where some of the best dinosaur bone discoveries in the world have been made. The landscape is weird, so un-inviting that its almost beautiful. The nearby Royal Tyrrell museum is one of those places that is going to bring out the awe-struck kid in any of us. It is home to two real tyrannosuarus rex, which seems positively greedy, and a huge variety of other pre-historic species, all discovered in this area.  It’s easy to see where Hollywood got a couple of it’s movie ideas from. Now it’s time to head back into town for another evening of dancing with the urban cowboys.

Pamplona – the running (and revenge) of the bulls

Every year, around July 7th, my thoughts turn to 1988 in Pamplona and the running of the bulls, the Festival of San Fermin.

Even back then we had the moral debate as to whether we should go because it was a great party, or not go because it was cruelty to animals. As new backpackers, the arguments of “its too good a party to miss” and “at least the bulls get to maim and injure the humans too, so its not all one way traffic” won out easily. Even the cheap smelly 30+ hours bus ride from London didn’t dent our excitement. Arriving in time to pitch our pup tents, we threw on any clothes that gave a token nod to the “red & white” brief and headed into town to the main square for the (6th July) midday festival kick off.

There was a small parade of giant papier-mache historical and religious figures, and then, as far as I remember, the kickoff involved thousands of locals and tourists sculling down as much cheap sangria as possible while also throwing it over each other. Then as all the locals disappeared for siesta, we tourists started desperately scouting for (a) open bottle shops, and (b) public toilets.

Pamplona Statue diving.

Eventually realising that (b) did not exist, and (a) were extremely rare, all the tent tourists gathered in what is now called the Muscle Bar area, which did have a small kiosk selling sangria. It also has a 3 metre high statue.

This is where I first got to observe the second thrill seeker sport in Pamplona, statue diving. This involves getting drunk, climbing to the top of the statue, throwing yourself off and hoping to be caught in the web of outstretched arms of your equally drunk friends and/or total strangers.  There is a related activity, running bets on how many jumpers there would be before the catchers got bored and someone would hit the ground breaking a bone or two. It was suggested that more people sustained injuries jumping off the statue than people did running with the bulls during the week, and in terms of sheer stupidity it was definitely coming first.

Pamplona, Running of the Bulls.

The daily routine was to get up at sunrise to watch the morning running of the bulls, back to the campsite for an afternoon siesta, sunbathe, and swim in the campsite pool (while drinking more sangria) and then to head back into town for a night of immersing ourselves into street parties, cheap sangria and street stall tapas.

Early morning the bulls run, as do those who want to run with them.  A number of large and testy bulls are revved up and let go into a course around the narrow old streets which eventually leads into the stadium about four minutes later, with safety fences erected in every gap so that the bulls cannot leave the route.

To watch the run, we could either find a spot on the barriers and hoist ourselves up somehow to see over them, or go and sit in the stadium and wait for the bulls to come running in. There were two bells, the first one starts the people running, and then a very short time after that, the second bell signalled the release of the bulls. The locals to run the entire course, while some visitors will position themselves to jump in partway along the course, and then jog along hoping that the bulls only catch up with them right before the stadium, so that they can run in looking brave. Anyone who runs in before the bulls arrive is booed for having no bravery, so its all in the timing.

As the big bulls run in, the professional handlers step in and race them straight through and into pens on the other side, as a large bull in a crowded ring with lots of amateurs can do a lot of damage indeed. As the ring then fills up with runners, they release some younger smaller bulls in for the crowd of runners to practice their hand to horn bull fighting skills on. As a spectator I have to admit that it is hilarious watching the runners peering over their shoulders and the pandemonium that breaks out as a bull catches up and everyone tries to get out of the way and let it through in those narrow alleys, there are some very panicked expressions on faces.

Pamplona, revenge of the bulls.

There were no serious gorings that year, but there was an incident in the ring that showed just how dangerous playing with bulls could be. There were already a couple of bulls in the ring, so all the runners were watching where those bulls were going. The organisers opened a gate and sent a third young bull in, all revved up and tearing along at full speed. The new bull ran straight into the back of a young tourist who was looking the other way, appearing to break his spine on impact and sending him hurtling through the air. In an instance the crowd went from partying to a sober hush, the professionals raced in and had the bulls out of the ring and the injured tourist on a stretcher, and the show was over for that morning.  Rumours swept the campsite that he had died but we never did find out what happened to him, no internet back then to track down the info. It certainly seemed to back up the theory that it was an event where the bulls and the humans shared the risk.

Pamplona, the bullfight.

Each afternoon there was a bullfighting contest. After another short moral debate, we decided it was patrolling of us to judge a local custom without ever seeing it, so we coughed up for some overpriced, scalped tickets and went along.

Pamplona, bullfight
Pamplona, bullfight

It was an extremely unpleasant experience. There were six bullfights on the bill for the afternoon, and we left after the first. We saw the picador horsemen repeatedly lance the bull in its spine, particularly near the rear, as did the banderillos who stabbed it with their barbed spikes, until it was crippled in its rear legs and was dragging itself around slowly from its forelegs. Only when it was this crippled did the matador appear on the field. The helpers actually had to continue to stab and beat the bull to stop it collapsing to the ground while the matador waved his cape in its face, before finally  delivering the the fatal blow. Cruel and revolting? Yes. A noble sport? No way.

So would I go to the Running of the Bulls again? Definitely. The festival atmosphere is fantastic, a week long sangria driven street party. The running of the bulls is exciting, including watching way of the locals would show off fancy footwork and bull baiting moves. The running is like a disney version of bull fighting, (mainly) removing the cruelty, brutality and death while retaining an artistic representation of the battle between man and bull. But go to a bull fight again? – that is never going to happen.

The Bondi Beach Drag (Queen) Races


2010 Bondi Beach Drag Queen races hosted by Vanessa Wagner
2010 Bondi Beach Drag Queen races hosted by Vanessa Wagner

In a sea of bright spandex and stiletto heels, the competitors prepare for the main events of the afternoon – the handbag discus, the 3-legged stiletto race, the feminine posing section, and then the big finale (for any contestants that haven’t already twisted their ankles wearing stiletto’s in wet sand) the Dainty Dune Dash.

The Sydney Mardi Gras reintroduced the Drag Queen Races for 2010, and a crowd has gathered to cheer on their favourites. Unusually for this summer’s day on Bondi Beach, the grey clouds have rolled in and it has started to rain, which may make a mess of the carefully applied makeup. I can’t help but think that running in stiletto’s in wet sand must be even more difficult than in dry powdery sand, not that I am likely to try either. But these are professionals, and they are not going to let the weather interfere with their plans to outlast their competitors.

It looks like the contestants’ favourite event is the feminine posing, as they each get their 60 seconds of fame in the spotlight, posing and voguing as only Madonna fans can. So who ended up winning? I have  no idea, as the skies opened and the mild rain turned into a torrential downpour, the audience sprinted for shelter and the contestants sprinted for the after-party.

Sydney Biennale -brilliant or bore?

The Sydney Biennale is on again, but what is it and should I bother? You’ve maybe seen the features in the newspapers but still not sure exactly what it is? Well I went and checked out the core part of it, the art walk, to help make your decision easier. So cutting to the chase, what is my conclusion? It’s BRILLIANT! And here’s some of the reasons why.

10 reasons to go do the Sydney Biennale art walk -even if you are completely uninterested in art.


  1. The Free Hop-on Hop-off Ferry trip. It’s free, it uses three lovely old restored deck timber vessels, it’s on beautiful Sydney harbour, and it runs in continuous circles around three stops. Even if you hate art, its worth it for this alone. Leave from Circular Quay at a special spot just in front of the MCA, see the opera house on your right and then pass under the harbour bridge and cruise past lovely harbourside suburbs to Cockatoo Island and disembark at it’s delightful wharf building. When ready, reboard and continue to the second stop at the historic old pier 2/3 in Walsh Bay, a burgeoning area of renovated historic finger wharves and an ever improving food and cafe scene. From here take the ferry for the final leg back under the harbour bridge and return to the starting point, or alternatively it’s a ten minute walk with great views around the point, under the bridge and into The Rocks

  2. The Sydney Weather. A chilly winter day with clear blue skies – this is the perfect time to explore Cockatoo Island, just rug up and go. The biennale runs til 1st August so you still have one more month to get there.
  3. Cockatoo Island. If you haven’t visited this gem in the middle of Sydney harbor yet, this is just another reason to do so. This is no pretty beach island, this is grittily industrial and seeped in its history as a former imperial prison, an industrial school, a reformatory and a gaol. It was also the site of one of Australia’s biggest shipyards during the twentieth century. So we have a mix of dozens of art installations scattered around and in tunnels under the hill, old warehouses and remnants of old machinery. And all for free.


  4. The cafe on Cockatoo Island. As well as great coffee you can get fare as good as any sydney cafe – including gourmet pies through to intriguing and healthy salads and treats for the sweet tooth – I am very impressed with how good a range of food they have in such an out of the way place.
  5. The MCA Biennale exhibition. If on the other hand you are here for the art, then don’t miss the MCA as well, where the majority of the space is turned over to about 48 different artists. You will have your own favourites. I was fascinated by the work of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, who paired photos of Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong with their backs to the camera, with a photo of their place of work – and had the workers insert a toy grenade into the photo of the house where they worked as well. Intimate and impersonal at the same time. I found the life and death masks of Fiona Pardington haunting, and the photos of stunning small Greenland villages by Tiina Itkonen made me put Qaanaaq and Kullorsuaq on my travel to-do list. And thats just a tiny taste of the volume and variety of work here.
  6. The AES+F russian collective’s large scale digital video installation on Cockatoo Island. I walk into one of the exhibit spaces in an old warehouse, blacked out, and sit back with others on a large circular sofa in the middle of the room. Its mesmerising. In a circle around us is a circle of nine giant screens, three sets of three. Each of the three sets are showing a different film, but all part of the same story. And each of the three screens in any one set are showing three different views of the same story thread. In the words of the program, “with panoramic, immersive, sumptuous colour and a loud symphonic soundtrack, this depicts an orgy of consumerism reflecting on the contemporary state of the world”. Your teenager will be besotted by it, and you will be too, the hyper-real colour and shine is addictive.
  7. If you like bright shiny lights and fireworks, and who doesn’t, then you’ll enjoy the Cai Guo-Qiang work, also on Cockatoo Island. Bodies of identical old cars are hung throughout a hangar sized building in a sequence depicting the sequence of an explosion, named as detonation, blast, launch, tumbling, gravitational return, and rest. Each car is pierced with rods through which light pulses and fades with the imagined explosion sequence. Its eye catching and on a spectacular scale.
  8. I am not normally a big fan of digital and video art but there are a few such installations on Cockatoo Island that hook me in. Another one was the work of Isaac Julien. This time I ascended a staircase into another blacked out floor, find myself a seat on one of the many stools scattered around the floor, and then watch a beautiful film that entwines historic and modern china. The twist is that the film is played across another ten or so screens scattered around the space, but with a different perspective of the scene showing on each screen, and each view flicking around from one screen to another. So you could follow the main theme on one screen while there might be a closeup of a character’s shoe on a second screen, a view of the background behind the character on a third, and so on. Yes, hooked again.
  9. Also on Cockatoo Island, in another small blacked out room, is an unusual film of an old man performing tai chi, but the film-maker has morphed this into a stretched version where all the consecutive movements have flowed together as occur at the same time. It hard to describe but beautiful to watch

    Sydney Biennale, Cockatoo Island, Daniel Crooks
    Sydney Biennale, Cockatoo Island, Daniel Crooks
  10. The Royal Botanic gardens. Its always a beautiful walk on a sunny day from the opera house, around the harbour and through the gardens. This time I have a further reason for wandering, as I try and find the two installations in the park. I find these are not as well sign posted as the other areas, but maybe that’s the plan, as it succeeded in making me wander through many paths and gardens trying to find the right spots. It is well worth the effort, particularly Janet Laurence’s ethereal piece.

Nursing a broken toe means a fair bit of limping so I haven’t yet completed the entire walk. But i have plans to go back to the bits I missed, at the Opera House, the NSW Art Gallery, and the Artspace set up in Woolloomooloo on the other side of the botanical gardens. The Artspace, in addition to its gallery, has a big programme of live performances from around the world every night, as well as movies, talks and anything else that takes their fancy. So if you prefer your art to include a late night bar and lounge, this may be the part for you.

And don’t forget pretty much everything is free, except your food and drink – now thats a pretty good deal. I can’t think of any reason not to go and enjoy it.