Sydney, New South Wales. 23rd April 2016
I arrived in Sydney in fits and starts (please don’t misread that), with Doris running more like a Japanese jumping bean than a super smooth motorcycle. She didn’t want to tick over during the frequent traffic enforced stops and the response to the throttle was far from precise – to put it mildly. I’d spoken to a hostel the day before, who said they had room for her in their back garden provided the bike wasn’t ‘one of those huge BMW’s with big panniers.’ Well it isn’t but even so, would not fit through their gate. I found another place further down the same street which had a secure private car park and, most importantly, vacancies. That wasn’t ever likely to be a problem at that time of year anyway, but finding a place near to the city centre, with off road parking, most definitely was. I was in a three bedded room and my two roomies were both Brits, one from Oxford, the other from Glasgow. They’re both painters and decorators, hoping to get residency visas, who had some interestingly derogatory things to say about Aussie workmanship. They had no issues with the wages though, which are far higher than in the UK.
As usual, the first thing to do in a new city is to find out what there is to see. I soon discovered, not surprisingly, there’s plenty. Australia’s largest and oldest city has a plethora of historical and cultural delights. ‘Kid in a sweet shop’ time then.
Australia had been found by quite a few European sailors before James Cook arrived on the east coast in 1770, claimed it for Britain and named it New South Wales. I must say this situation puzzles me slightly. Why was it that Europeans tended not to fight over new lands? Was there some kind of agreement between Europe’s trading, raiding claiming nations? That the first one to reach a new area and could be bothered to stop and plant a flag had first dibs? Or was it a product of some kind of colonial mutual respect, similar to the ‘honour among thieves’ principal?
Anyway, Britain, having managed to lose its American colonies, needed a new home for transported criminals and the south east corner of New South Wales was chosen. Led by captain Arthur Phillip, the first fleet of eleven ships arrived in Port Jackson on 26th January 1788. This date is now celebrated by most Australians as Australia Day. Certain Australians regard it as Invasion Day. I’ll leave you to work that one out for yourselves. The ships carried around 1,000 convicts, soldiers and free settlers and they set themselves to work to create a convict settlement.
One of the strengths of this new colony was its harbours and hinterland. Within a few decades the settlers had overcome their early difficulties, including near starvation, and although the original objective was not to build a city as such, that began to happen anyway. Key to this progress was Governor Lachlan MacQuarrie and his wife. He arrived in 1810 and during the next eleven years laid out a proper town, with planned streets and civic buildings. His wife wanted the settlement to better reflect European urban ideals and she was instrumental in setting up the Botanic gardens, among other projects. MacQuarrie undertook many infrastructure projects, such as roads, bridges, quays etc, and named most of the streets after the Ducal names of George 111’s sons – Sussex, Kent, York and so on. One of the main thoroughfares he named after himself – and why not! Perhaps one of his most important decisions was to allow convicts to earn their emancipation and eventually become free men. This encouraged good behaviour and helped the growth of trade and the development of the city. Early trading related to sealing and whaling but as more land was cleared then wool became the key export product. More convicts and free settlers arrived so a virtuous cycle of growth occurred. Eventually the New South Wales authorities allowed the city to be incorporated and in 1842 the newly named Sydney came into existence.
As usual, I’ll point you towards a couple of websites where you can read more:
And there’s a fascinating story about how Governor Phillip kidnapped some Aborigines here: http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/woollarawarre_bennelong
Now that I had a long list of places to visit, which should I go to first? In the end the decision was easy. I’d arrived on the ANZAC day weekend so after a relaxing Sunday I walked down to the CBD to watch the bank holiday Monday parade. It was impressive, that’s for sure. Various regiments and groups from the different services marched through the city, to the applause of the watching crowds. Ships’ crews, army regiments, air force squadrons. Most branches of the services were represented. Some were currently serving, others clearly veterans. Their banners usually gave their section name and all the theatres of conflict in which it had operated. Lots of marching bands, some from military related youth groups. It was fascinating but also moving at times. I stood near the main entrance to the ANZAC War Memorial, which is in Hyde Park. As each group marched up Elizabeth Street the order would go out from the leader: ‘Eyes Left!’ The banner would drop to lay parallel with the ground and the marchers would salute as they passed by. Very moving. I’m no lover of nationalism and am always suspicious of ardent patriotism, but it’s very proper to pay respect to those fallen. Australia has sent its military into almost every conflict during the 20th and 21st centuries and Aussies are quick to recognise those who served. I was very happy to join them. A couple of days later I went into the memorial itself, where there is a simple statue and an eternal flame.
All the time I was in Sydney the weather was kind, apart from one or two slightly miserable days. Some locals were feeling the autumn chill but I found it warm and pleasant, and good weather for walking around. I suppose how you react to the weather depends on what you’re used to. From my hostel most places to visit were within a walking distance of about forty minutes, so if nothing else I was getting plenty of exercise. A walk through the very pleasant Botanic Gardens took me down to Mrs MacQuarrie’s Point and to Mrs MacQuarrie’s chair. Rather than being an item of domestic furniture they left behind when they went back to England, the chair is a rock shelf which she used to sit on when she wanted to look out over the harbour. What she used to enjoy looking at is a matter for speculation but what my eyes were drawn to was the architectural wonder of the Sydney Opera House and the engineering marvel of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, one sitting beyond the other. If you want to choose the one thing that made Sydney into an international city, then look no further than its opera house. A simply stunning building, sitting on Bennelong Point and looking like a silver flower opening its petals to receive the rain, or maybe a ship hoisting its sails for another trans-ocean voyage. I walked round there, eager to get a closer look and some close up photos.
I was pleased to find that tours were available so I paid up, then queued up, waiting for it to start. One of the first things I discovered was that the structure is of a building within a building. Despite my flower analogy the exterior was designed with a maritime theme and the support structure really did remind me of the ribs of a sailing ship. I was not surprised therefore, to discover that Jorn Utzon, the Danish architect who won the design competition, had a father who was a naval architect. The inner building was designed to provide a very high quality acoustic experience There is the main opera stage, a large performance stage and a couple of smaller stages. In the main auditorium is a 10,000 pipe organ. They often show films in there and full orchestra, such as the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, play the score live. It wasn’t difficult to imagine how magnificent that organ must have sounded when it was used on 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Fascinating fact time: when the auditoria were refurbished in the 1980s they took the opportunity to install acoustic seating. Now, don’t run away with the idea that all the armrests and headrests have speakers in them, or any such thing. This is an opera house, not a small town Lothario’s passion wagon. The idea was that each seat is made of a material which has the same acoustic property when it’s empty as when it’s occupied. The idea is that the sound in the auditorium will be the same regardless of whether it’s full or not. Crucially, it also means that rehearsals have the same sound quality as a performance. What a great idea. It was a great shame that I couldn’t manage to see a performance while I was in the city.
The whole design and appearance of the building is monumental in both its vision and its execution. The engineering involved was beyond cutting edge, it was truly inspired. It’s such a shame that the city had a bitter falling out with the designer and he never saw its completion – and still hasn’t visited it. If I were to try to describe everything here we would be in for a seriously long session, but there’s lots more information via this link. Well worth the read. It’s a fascinating building.
Some of the more intricate details of the opera house.
While I was on the icon trail it seemed a good idea to walk round Darling Harbour and take a closer look at Sydney Harbour Bridge, affectionately known as The Coathanger. Although far less cutting edge than the opera house, it is still, nonetheless, very special. Why was it needed? As Sydney grew suburbs sprang up on the north shore of the harbour, particularly around Manly. Ferries plied their trade across the harbour but created a bottleneck for travellers, especially those who wanted to take their cars across. A bridge was proposed as early as 1815, and again around the time of federation in 1901. But serious efforts were made around the time of WW1 to get a design approved and eventually a tender for construction was issued. It was won by a Middlesbrough firm, Dorman, Long and Co., a steel manufacturer and bridge building company. The project was overseen by Sydney’s much respected civil engineer JJ Bradfield. Started in 1924, it was completed in August 1932 and provided much needed work for thousands of people during the depression years. Sadly, sixteen people died building it although this was a small number for a project of this size during that era.
There’s a whole pile of impressive statistics – the amount of steel; the number of rivets; the size of the bridge etc. But my favourite was that in order to allow for the seasonal temperature changes, and the consequent effects of expansion on all that steel, they built the bridge on top of four massive hinges, thereby allowing it to move as it expanded. These are housed at the base of the four towers that all the pictures show, and are anchored into the rock beneath them. Although faced by granite, the towers are built from steel. There is an excellent visitor centre housed at the top of the south east tower and the view over the harbour and the city is magnificent. I went up there, and then walked halfway across the bridge, just to get a feel for it. Visitors with deep pockets, strong legs and a very good head for heights can join tours which take them up onto the top of the arch – 134 metres above the waters of the harbour. The road deck carries eight lanes of traffic, two rail tracks, a cycle track and a pedestrian walkway. But imagine sailing into the harbour as a post WW2 immigrant and catching a first glimpse of that massive bridge. What a lasting impression it must have made!
Once I’d arrived in Sydney I’d contacted a couple of old friends who I’d met on the road. Jo is a very nice French woman and we met at the hostel in Broome. Kym is a very nice English woman who worked in a pub in the small, former gold town of Ravenswood, way out in Far North Queensland. I’d kept in touch with both of them via Facebook, surely one of the most useful facilities for travellers in existence. Kym and I were going to meet at the Australian museum, then go for a bite to eat. But before our afternoon rendezvous I had a morning to fill so I went to the Police and Justice Museum, housed in the old police station and courthouse. All big cities have their criminal ‘fraternity’ and Sydney is no exception. There’s a huge selection of old photos, taken by the crime scene photographers who, in the 1920s and 30s, were only just beginning to learn their trade. The negatives, mostly old glass plates, had been found in a shed somewhere and made a fascinating display of rogues. More than anything it was a revealing display of the city and it’s people. Almost traffic free streets, very old fashioned clothes and a snapshot of how people lived ninety years ago. I joined a tour and heard the tale of a husband murdering his wife and getting away with it for ten years because there was no body. He was finally caught by forensic evidence, another science in its infancy at that time. This was one of those small museums which offered much.
On to the Australian museum where I met Kym. I hadn’t seen her for eight or nine months, so the reunion was good. The museum was excellent too. It focussed mostly on the natural history of the country but included Aboriginal history and especially the dreadful effects on them of white settlement. There were galleries covering all the fauna and flora, very well laid out and with some great exhibitions. I’ve pretty much decided that birds are my favourite animals so I enjoyed the huge variety they had on display. Kym particularly enjoyed the geology section, full of exquisitely coloured gemstones and minerals. Australia has some quite unique geology and it takes this kind of display to show it at its best.
But museums are thirsty work so when it closed at 5pm Kym took us to one of her favourite city pubs for burger and beer. Curried Pork Belly isn’t a traditional burger filling but I can highly recommend it. The pub also sold a nice variety of draught beer too. I found one I liked, a nice pale ale, and stuck with it for the duration. Kym told me all about her job in graduate recruitment, similar to what she’d done back in England. Her company was prepared to sponsor her full work visa so a bright future beckons. I was very pleased for her. Unfortunately she had to leave by 6pm but we arranged to meet again. She lives out at Bondi and I would plan a walk out that wat to coincide with a day when Kym could meet me.
It was an even greater shame that Kym couldn’t stay long enough to meet Jo, who arrived soon after. I’m sure they’d have got on, as travellers usually do. As it was Jo and I spent the rest of the vening ta;king about many subjects, including her interesting and challenging upbringing in France. I’ve always found beer and conversation to be good companions and both flowed very easily. They threw us out of the pub when it closed at midnight. We’d had a great time. I made it back to my hostel with no problems, somewhat to my surprise, if I’m honest. It’s a very long time since I’d drunk so much. But what a terrific, busy, beery day!
At the beginning of this section I mentioned the culture and history Sydney has to offer. More on that very soon.