City2Surf in Sydney, not just for runners

London marathon, New York marathon, Sydney’s City2Surf, fun runs in just about every major city in the world – these are iconic events which tens of thousands of people compete in every year, and which I have never, ever, aspired to do. Until this year!

I’m not a runner, and I don’t enjoy running – for me it’s all about walking and I currently walk around 40 kms a week. And I live in Bondi, which is where the 14 km City2Surf race finishes on the beach every August – it is billed as the world’s largest race and regularly has 80,000+ entrants. I’m a big fan of the sausage bbq on the beach at the end, which is just as much appreciated by the spectators as the participants. But this year, completely out of character, I decided I wanted to actually enter the City2Surf, and one of my friends , who has run it before, agreed to join me in the walkers group.

One of the great characteristics about the City2Surf is that it is both competitive and egalitarian (a good reflection of the national character perhaps). The 85,000 entrants this year included some of the worlds best runners at this distance, plenty of serious runners, lots of fun runners, a surprising number wearing superhero and animal costumes, and around 20,000 walkers as well. The start groups for the City2Surf are split by speed, starting with invitation-only seeded and preferred runner groups, followed by runners with previous race times under 70 minutes, runners with previous race times under 90 minutes, an open entry running group, an open entry jogging group, and finally an open entry “Back of the Pack” group for walking, using a wheelchair or pushing child strollers.

Yes, it was definitely the back of the pack group that attracted me, and because the race is so large, we snake along amongst a huge crowd for the whole 14 kms, which is quite awe-insipring every time we breach another hill and see the size of the crowd in front and behind. Of the 85,000 entrants this year, around 70,000 actually turn up on the day and finish the course. In addition, another 120,000 spectators plus dozens of bands and DJ’s line the entire course, and it is quite surreal (and awesome) being cheered on from the sidelines for the whole race. The sun is shining, the views are sparkling, the participants are all friendly and positive, it’s a real feel-good factor event. Now that I am a convert I would say that everyone should give it a go, at least once! We aimed to walk it at a fast pace, with a fair bit of ducking and diving to overtake through the crowds, and ended up finishing in 2 hrs 27 minutes, beating 11,000 other walkers and a fair few stray joggers who ran out of puff. The race winner did it in 41 minutes and the average runner took about 1 hr 30m so we’re very pleased with that. And then we retire to a bar overlooking the beach for a cold bevy and some yummy fried foods. I think I may just have to do it again next year – who’s going to join me?

Walk like an Epicurean – in Portland, Oregon

Today is all about FLOSS  – no, I am not on my way to the dentist, this is about exploring the Fresh, Local, Organic, Seasonable, and Sustainable local produce of Portland. Portland, and indeed all of Oregon, has a reputation of being a clean, green, wet and rainy kind of place, populated by mountain biking, snow boarding, beer and pinot drinking locals. As I walk down the street to the meeting point for my epicurean walk, this stereotype seems confirmed by the rows of mountain bikes tied to the fence near where the queue of people are slowly inching their way into this weekend’s beer festival – but it is a bright sunny day, no rain, so that at least is beating the odds. I am looking forward to the treats in store on this small group walk – walking, drinking and eating being three of my favourite things to do.

Epicurean walk, bikes, Portland, Oregon
Epicurean walk, bikes, Portland, Oregon

The edgy Pearl District, Portland.

We start at the Flying Elephant deli with a sample of their award winning Tomato Orange soup, and then jump on the tram and head to the other end of the Pearl District. This is the once-rundown dodgy light industrial area long since transformed into the edgy, trendy, hipster, and expensive area of town. I had dinner here last night at the large communal table in an upmarket bar/restaurant called Clyde Common – delicious cocktails and locally sourced food, and lots of friendly ’20 something years younger than me’ hipster types to chat with around the communal table. I’m not convinced about the edgy tag though, it may have been originally, but now? I explored the area some more after dinner and found a number of homeless people, but not like homeless people anywhere else I’ve been – these ones  had trendy hairstyles and clothing (but maybe not very clean), their tatts looked very artistic, and I would not have been surprised if they had their mountain bikes stashed behind the rubbish bins. Maybe I had it all wrong and they were just actors taking a break from filming?

What’s brewing in Portland?

I am delighted to find our first stop in the Pearl District is at the iconic Bridgeport micro brewery (although pretty large in relation to the rest of the Oregon microbrewery scene I suspect). They have impeccable green credentials, recycling everything from the grains that form the base of the beer (into breads and pastries in their on-site bakery), to their glasses and bottles, to the fat from their kitchen. So while we sample their range of beers, the charming beermaker tells me the story behind IPA (Indian Pale Ale) beer – something I had never known in my ten years in the UK. He says that many people order it thinking they are getting a lite beer, and are then surprised by its dryness and bitterness. It all dates back to the days of colonial India, when the British found that too many of their soldiers were getting ill from the local water supply in India. So they instructed the soldiers to drink beer instead of water. But they had the problem of getting enough beer from Britain to India to supply their daily needs. Because of the long boat trip from Britain to India, around the coast of Africa and through a lot of heat, the beer was spoiling before it arrived. The solution they came up with was to add more hops as a preservative, and this is where the bitter flavours and dry aftertaste come from. So now I have a taste rule of thumb for ordering beer: dark beer is sweeter, amber beer is balanced, and pale ales are more dry and bitter.

What’s baking in Portland?

All that beer sampling has me ready for the next stop, the Pearl Bakery. Here we don hair nets and slippers to go behind the shop counter and into the bakery proper for some bread tasting to soak up a bit of the alcohol consumed so far. Their baguettes are crunchy with a soft centre that melts in the mouth, the sourdough is an interesting and healthy chewy wholegrain version, and the croissant is of perfect buttery flakiness. They also have some super sweet treats, a sweet bread with flavours of orange peel and anise, and a dark chocolate mini muffin, although I think the sweetness overwhelms the flavours a bit in both of these, a little bit less sugar would be a good idea. Maybe they just don’t mix well with that super dry IPA. One of the chefs explains that although they would like to be completely organic, all the best grains available in the US for breadmaking are grown in the mid west – not an area with a groundswell of organic farmers, so they just have to go with the best grains and make sure all the other ingredients are local and organic.

Portland Tea and Mustard anyone?

Escaping from our hair nets, and grateful that there’s no one who knows me here to see that particular look, we visit a specialist cookware shop for a glass of refreshing pinot and some mustard tasting. The mustard tasting was disappointing as each of the samples was busily disguising the mustard taste. One was  mixed with orange and egg and tasted like a mild mayonnaise, one was a lemon, mustard and dill sauce that tasted like mild sweet vinegar, and one was a mustard and curry paste that actually tasted like a nice strong curry paste (but also overly sweet – I am starting to worry about this trend of too much sugar added to things that should be savoury). This isn’t a problem at our next stop for a cuppa (of tea). The Tea Zone is one of those wonderfully cosy cafes with an extensive collection of quality teas from around the world, so I was able to refresh myself with samples of Lapsang Souchong, Camomile and a delicate white Green tea.

Portland Pizza divides opinion.

Now we get to sit in the sun outside Hot Lips Pizza in the Eco Trust building – yes, an environmentally friendly pizza place with vegan pizza bases and the source of each of the possible toppings listed by their farm and even paddock of origin, and located in the greenist 6star rated building in town. I like this place, they are of the “thin crust, no more than three ingredients on top simplicity” school rather than the “load it up with as many toppings as possible and then inject more cheese inside the crust” school of thought. Listening to the comments of my walking companions though, it seems I am in the minority on this. If only they didn’t go and spoil it by bringing out the pizza on trays about a metre in diameter – this isn’t Texas, there’s just no need for this kind of ridiculous oversizing – are you listening Hot Lips Pizza?

Portland’s cupcake sweetener.

And we finally fizzle out at Cupcake Jones, just down the street, where I mainline on more over the top sugar in the form of their organic mini cupcakes (from locally sourced ingredients) – at least these are supposed to be sweet, and these ones were not skimping on the sweetness. My head buzzing with the sugar high, I decide I need a lot more walking, so I head for the riverfront and start by strolling through the weekend market stalls. Plenty of spicy but not sweet organic soaps to sniff, and some pretty interesting jewellery as well. Then I find the beer tent, a tradition that too many markets miss out on, and I am able to grab another bitter IPA to keep me cool as I walk south along the riverbank for a couple of hours on this hot sunny day, watching the locals taking their kids swimming in the public fountains that pop up all around this city. On reaching the Downtown Waterfront area, I find an outdoor table, overlooking the river, and order a selection of baked olives with a flight of Oregon Pinot Noir, and settle in for some much needed savoury bliss. Which just goes to prove that one epicurean’s savoury special is another epicurean’s sweet nightmare.

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.