A Small Slice of Sassy Sydney

by wandering freditor / Mar 06, 2011 / 0 comments

Sydney has a beauty that is simply acknowledged in a sentence. Such as “Sydney has a simply stunning setting, full stop”. Or otherwise it is the subject of a voluminous and much-pictured book! Take it from me, that there is simply no comparable, similar sized city in the world, set in such a magical, natural setting. True, Rio, Cape Town, San Francisco and Vancouver, all keep Sydney honest in the beauty stakes, and Honkers gets a bit of a look in as well. Oh not that Sydney is without flaws, but they are probably highlighted by people who say Sophia Loren’s mouth is too wide, or her hips too broad. But on a bright and sunny day, when looking at her closely – and I am talking about Sydney here, not the Pirelli cover girl – simply whisper out loud, “Oh Mamma Mia!”  Sydney around its harbour, whether from above, from the water, from its plethora of green and rocky headlands, from its beaches, and from the reaches of the sea, quite takes your breath away, whether looking at it for the first, or the hundred and first time.

On a morning when the sky was at its azure bluest, and the sun already bold at 9am, inside our hushed aircraft as we slipped softly back to earth over a carpet of green bush, dotted here and there with red roofs and aqua swimming pools. Oh the joy of the approach from the North, for it is as though Sydney is on the catwalk, showing off its finest, and even though I had seen it a hundred times before, like others, I craned my neck. In the distance were the Northern beaches with their broad, golden scimitars of sand, in the mid-ground, there were both broad and narrow fingers of blue water. Then, within reaching distance of my seat, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, our famous “coat-hanger”, with the Opera House in billowed sail behind it, filled the cabin window and I heard the oohs! The city slipped by, then grassy parks and great stadiums, sculptured golf courses. Still uplifted, we touched down. Home again, and all was lookin’ good!

Alas the terminal looked a little tired, but the immigration officials were broad of tone and friendly, while the crew-cut customs official said “Just put yer bag down there, mate” and then his Beagle hound gave it a swift sniff. With a loud “Right-o” we were off, leaving some fellow travelers from the Middle East, good Muslims to be sure, perplexed that in Australia a dog decided whether we were inspected or not! Then we spilled out, cart stuffed high with luggage, as my wife never travels lightly, and into the Australian throng. It was a crowd largely dressed for the beach, or bed! Shorts, loose tops, and of course the ubiquitous, all purpose ‘thongs’ on their feet – and I daresay in many cases, the same name but a brief garment, stretched on barely covered posteriors and only slightly hidden. And the faces that greeted us were a mix of Caucasian, Middle Eastern, Asian, Latino and African, and you quickly realize that Australia is now a polyglot of people from all over the world. The country has changed but they have helped enrich Australia beyond measure, and in general, that absorption has been largely without incident or complaint. Australia has always seen itself as a land of opportunity, and as our National Anthem states, “We’ve boundless plains to share”, although most settle in the cities. And people have ‘come on down’ in droves, so that we now number 21 million, and growing!

For Sydney the harbour city, everything is light and effortless – well if you live anywhere near the water, and with so many fingers of the sea, that is an easy, if expensive, ask. There is too, a whole harbour hinterland a dull, flat plain, simply called “the West”. It is suburban, crowded, ordinary, and somehow it doesn’t count, when singing Sydney’s praises. “Ah, but what a beautiful face she has”, the one that she keeps for the camera! A bit like Elizabeth Taylor in her later years, hiding, as well as she could, her ever expanding body! Compared to Australia’s other cities, Sydney has always been a hussy, brash, flash, loud and flamboyant. She wears her skirts thigh high, and is a vigorous show off, with her beauty on display, even on those days when the weather may be a little depressing. Always a sassy Carmen, never a dour Brunhilda! Spivs, sharpies, sleaze and raunchy sex, Kings Cross claiming a century of iniquity, the city of the Mardi Gras, a place to bet, eat, drink, snort and screw, at any hour of the day or night! Oh yes, Sydney has all the pull of ‘the big smoke’, and it is simply a beautiful and exciting place in which to be.

If you are heading for harbour – and aren’t we all – you slip in to Sydney through a series of tunnels, on which the authorities have placed hefty tolls. Why you can even burrow right under the harbour and emerge in North Sydney with its offices and tower apartments, looking across the bridge to the city. But in a word, “don’t”! Slip onto the Cahill Expressway over Circular Quay, and “just look right”! And there it all is, the beating heart of Sydney, ferries like under-the-microscope amoeba, flitting in and out of port, the Coat-hanger one border, the Opera House the other. It is all there so suddenly, that you close your eyes for a moment, and it is instantly there again when you open them. And all so familiar! I must say that even though the tunnel is generally faster, and I have traveled through it a hundred times, I still somehow feel robbed when I don’t take the trip over the bridge as it affords such spectacular views. And I think then, that the philosopher Descartes got it quite right – “I think, and therefore I am”. At any mention of Sydney, my mind is always borne back to this wonderful spot.


On the Manly Ferry leaving Circular Quay

On the Manly Ferry leaving Circular Quay

For lunch, the boys (In Australia, it is always ‘the boys’, when men get together) took me to the old and rickety looking Glenbrooke pub, in part of the historic ‘Rocks’ area, where Sydney was first settled in 1788. We climbed three flights of stairs to the ‘beer garden’, and oh what a view of Circular Quay and surrounds! Everyone was in shorts and tees, sitting at rough-hewn tables, with parasols like flags at a joust. Soon came the large platefuls of good pub grub. The boys laughed when I ordered a Toohey’s ‘Old’ and the barman raised an eyebrow. “Don’t get much call for this mate” he said with a perplexed grin, and we all watched as the dark and bitter brew emerged from the tap as though from a blocked drain. He was much happier with the order for three ‘Pure Blondes’ and for a moment, I looked too, with a measure of envy, as the light an bubbly liquid frothed. Then I turned, and sipped my ‘Old’. Pure Blondes were the fill of youth, and I was long past that! A waiter raced up the stairs, three Blondes in hand, tripped and fell to his knees, but not a drop spilled, and we admired his athleticism and dedication to duty. “Well done mate” I said admiringly, and he shot back a cocky grin, “Thanks mate”. Oh yes, good food, good views, the sun, and mateship. It was good to be home again.

We stayed in Northbridge, a leafy grove shaped like the webbing between fingers, properties running down to the yacht strewn waters of Middle Harbour, a place of residence of a former Prime Minister, stockbrokers, doctors, lawyers, and a famous cricketer! Every place with a view, was a mansion, often with the garage at the top, enjoying too the spectacular views. Bays and coves abound, and houses tumble down twisting streets as though in a waterfall. Much has been built with the abundant local limestone, houses with decks and flying bridges; Jacobs-ladder lifts, and gardens as though sitting in the air.  Parrots squawked kookaburras giggled, lizards and goanna lay a-sunning; here the bush was at one with settlement.

Later we wandered, chests heaving from exertion, to Clive Park, a bush-land setting with gnarled and grizzly trees, but the area with spotlessly clean, stainless steel, free, gas barbeques. We strode out onto a huge granite boulder, there since the creation, and below, on the rocks, were long shucked oyster shells, just as they must have been when the Aboriginals first dwelt there, long before the coming of Captains Cook and Phillip. The views were stupendous, across to Castlecrag with its bush-hidden homes, and across the waters to Seaforth, where the houses dropped Santorini-like, to the boatsheds on the water. In the distance Spit Road with its drawbridge, carried its heavy burden of post-work travelers to Manly, and other northern suburbs. But where I stood, I heard only the wheedling of gulls and the occasional slap of a badly tethered sail. I felt that wonderful ‘bliss of solitude’, as though at that moment, I was the only person on earth!

We traveled to Chatswood, the upmarket shopping choice for many ‘North Shore’ dwellers, now much ‘Asianified’, if appearances and delightful aromas, are telling. The honking of car horns when the lights go green now appears de rigueur, something which didn’t happen in past visits, but was noticeable now. Close your eyes, and you could imagine being in Bangers or Honkers, and not just because Sydney in January is steamy! It was the usual glitzy trove of escalators, food courts, department stores and boutiques, little that was distinctly Australian. If I had popped out of the door into Victoria Street, it would have been no different to being in Perth, Portsmouth or Pittsburg. I sometimes bemoan that shopping centres have lost their uniqueness, and that all has become a ‘shopping sameness’! Same shops, same labels, same advertising, same styles. Indeed we are that global village that in my youth, Marshall McLuhan, said were becoming. It’s here!

I traveled into the city for a day, starting at the old Observatory hill, with its sweeping views of the bridge, and the reaches of the Parramatta River, with its island oases. I wandered through the old Rocks area, and looked up at the stonework on the old buildings, seeing an ornateness from that time when labour was cheap, and there were stone masons and artisans who had time and skills to add adornments which we seldom look at now. I sat in Martin Place, amid stout bank and commercial edifices, and looked past the WWI Cenotaph to the colonnaded sand-stone intricacies of the Victorian structure which once housed the General Post Office. Where thousands of sorters, stampers and telegraph boys once worked, there is now a hotel and boutique shops. And it is all so English, reflecting our colonial settlement, with streets named George and Elizabeth, Pitt and Castlereigh, plus a good smattering of the colony’s own, like Hunter and MacQuarie.


The clock in the Queen Victoria Building

The clock in the Queen Victoria Building


I visited again, one of Sydney’s jewels, the Romanesque Queen Victoria Building, the QVB, which was completed in 1898 and in the 1950s, defied calls to pull it down and replace it with “another concrete edifice”. Today it is alive with boutique and high-end brand stores, coffee shops and eateries, all under oodles of arches, stained glass and balustrades, and has a stunning central clock, which charts New South Wales’ development as a state. I sat in silence on a bench and looked at the glory of it all, as people ambled by, for no-one hurries in the QVB. It was good to sit and absorb its beauty, and rest my feet before I followed Market Street up to the shaded acres of Hyde Park with its ornate fountains and exotic wader birds.

With time at my call, I looked more closely at two of the magnificent buildings by the great convict architect, Francis Greenway, St James Church (1824) and the Hyde Park Barracks (1819). Then I walked along Macquarie Street, past the Georgian Sydney Hospital (1814) making sure to ‘touch the boar’s snout’ (Il Porcellino – a copy of Florence’s famous boar which was placed outside the hospital in 1968), to “bring me luck.” Macquarie Street, which also contains the colonially-built New South Wales Parliament, the State Library, and is renown as the street of medical specialists, overlooks the broad Domain, with its Speaker’s Corner, the Music Conservatorium, Government House, and the magnificent Botanical Gardens. It also gives you a ‘full frontal’ of the Opera House. No wonder it is considered Sydney’s most elegant street. There was just enough time to take a swift look at the old Wentworth Hotel (now carrying another badge), a most significant and personal pilgrimage to times before. Oh yes, Sydney holds so many happy associations and memories.



The Manly Ferry passes the Opera House

The Manly Ferry passes the Opera House

No trip to Sydney is complete, without seeing the city from the harbour – it is a must – so on a fine Saturday, we, and 1098 other souls stepped aboard the ‘twin pointy ended’ ferry Queenscliff, for the 35 minute ‘sea voyage’ to Manly. You see Sydney’s best flanks from the water. There are steepled dwellings that have their feet in the water, and yachts like lily pads beyond, limestone cliffs and cuticle beaches (two of them nude if you have binoculars!), bush land (there are walking trails right around the harbor), and islands, one ominously named Shark, another an imaginative Goat! There are the Sydney residences of the Prime Minister and Governor General, a naval base at Woolloomooloo, a Martello tower fort called Fort Dennison or Pinchgut, where convicts were incarcerated and their girth reduced by their paltry (not poultry – what a fowl pun!) diet, the famous Taronga Park Zoo, the fighting mast of the first HMAS Sydney, and for much of the time, the Opera House the Coat-hanger and the rest of the Sydney skyline, remain in your vision. Crossing the Heads between North and South Head, on an oily swell, can bring a little rockin’ and rollin’ as the ferry digs her nose in like a boxer in a clinch, and the spray hurtles as though exploding, all amid squeals and yelling,. But soon you are again in calmer waters, and the stone jaws of the Heads are left behind. And always, always, like a bathtub full of boats and other floaties, everywhere there is life on the water, all around you.

Ah, Manly Beach! Like those Hilton Sisters, perhaps one not as well known as the other, in a Parisian sort of way, but really, Manly is just as beautiful as Bondi, and there is more of her to love! Bondi has the curve and cove, Manly has the sands stretched out, all the way to Queenscliff, and its Norfolk Island pines are bigger and more prominent than Bondi’s! We shuffled with the throng along the tacky Corso, a place of cheap shops, amusement arcades, pies, fairy floss, and places selling basins of as much as you can eat ‘chew-and-spew’ food! A sort of Butlin’s-on-the-street, if you know what I mean!  But oh what joy the sight of the surf, the seaside cafes, and the salty air touched, here and there, by the smell of fresh fish and chips and potato scallops!

The waters were alive with wriggling body and boogie-board surfers, as well as the blokes with planks (big surfboards are in again), while the sand was strewn with bodies of all ages, proportions, and leatheriness. Everywhere, there were tanned “surfie chics” with touselled hair and tatts, women  in shorts and bikini top, striding along behind “real dogs”, Labradors and Retrievers, Cockers and the occasional Westie from the Gorbles! Laconic blokes carried iconic boards, they bronzed and wirey, one arm probably longer than the other, their gaze always to the next wave. Aussies love their beach, nippers, strippers, those from nearby, and out of town trippers, all there enjoying the great outdoors and the ocean. You just sit and watch all the ‘life’ around you, warm, refreshed and sated by food and nature, in that ‘you wouldn’t be dead for quids’ sort of way. We stayed till our faces felt hot, then we adjusted our hats and sunnies, and travelled back in the glorious manner in which we had come, the harbor sights to see, all over again, with not a skerrick of boredom to spoil the journey.



Upon Manly Beach

Upon Manly Beach

You have to be away from the wonderful land of Oz for a while, to realize just how friendly the people are, and the cheerful manner in which casually-dressed wait-staff approach you with a warm “G’day”, and deliver a detailed knowledge of the menu. Service without servility! There is little hovering for a tip, and a genuine smile when they get one. Then again, they could be Irish or Italians on ‘working holidays, but they have slipped easily into an Australian skin, and vernacular. It wasn’t just a “put on” for the recent Oprah Winfrey’s Down Under sojourn, Australians genuinely like a chat and a laugh, in the restaurants shops and sometimes when you are just sitting at the bus-stop, or in the malls. And no doubt they will soon tell you that you’ve made the right decision by coming to holiday in God’s own holiday resort, for not only do they believe it, they live it! Australians remain outspoken. It is either a drawback (especially if you infringe the aggressive non-smoking policy, or do something which is “way out of line”), or a virtue, depending on the moment, and the thickness of your skin.

Yes, the country and the people, undoubtedly have flaws, and you will find them listed in a host of articles, film and television broadcasts, by admirers and detractors alike, many of them, of course, Australians themselves. “Professional Australians” who have lived overseas for so long, but keep their accents and “Australian-ness” because that is part of how they sell themselves, and how others see them, Australian ‘icons’ like Germaine Greer or Peter Carey. Oh sometimes their views are ‘entertaining’ but in other ways, they are now part of a ‘cultural cringe’ we left behind long ago. People are seldom ambivalent about Australia and Australians, even expatriate Australians! But detractions are of secondary concern in the face of Australia’s uniqueness, its beauty, its splendour, its youthful confidence, and the sheer warmth of the welcome, whether you are visiting for the first time, the hundred and first time, or like us, just coming home again. And then, “coming home” to Sydney makes you realize, what you really missed for in so many ways, for Sydney has got it all!



Winfred Peppinck is the Tales of the Traveling Editor for Wandering Educators