Sydney, New South Wales. Monday 2nd May 2016.
Pretty much all western cities have multi national populations. Sydney is no exception and has a very large number of people of Chinese extraction, probably close to 200,000. This was made obvious whenever I walked around the CBD. Many are drawn by the education system, others by work opportunities. Some of them seem to be quite well off, especially if the property market is anything to go by.
On one of my walks into the city centre I passed by a building which caught my eye for several reasons. It was one of those obviously well appointed apartment blocks, the kind of place I’d feel lucky to be invited into and that only a lottery win would enable me to buy. But I long ago grew out of pointless envy so what caught my attention were the plants climbing up the walls. Intrigued, I crossed the road for a closer look. Bear in mind this was no ivy clad colonial house but a thirty storey block, where I expected to see glass rather than grass. Then I noticed some strange structures up at roof level, including what looked like stainless steel panels polished to a mirror finish and mounted on a platform which cantilevered out from the building. I really needed to find out what this place was all about.
It’s called One Central Park and is a complex of several apartment blocks surrounding a high end shopping mall. The mall has a central atrium, full of plants which receive natural light, delivered there by the mirrors I noted earlier. The system is known as a Heliostat and on another roof are reflectors which direct the sun towards the mirrors. They have electric motors which enable them to track the sun. I had to smile as it was chucking it down with rain at the time. The buildings are covered in vertical gardens and the whole complex is surrounded by publicly accessible parkland. The building has a very high energy efficiency rating, partly because of water recycling. What particularly drew my attention was that when I went into the sales office to get more information, the two people in there were both Chinese. This suggested to me who the likely occupants of these extremely expensive apartments were likely to be, hence my earlier comments about the Chinese population. Of course, this set me to thinking about whether or not cities benefit from this kind of exclusive development, aimed at the very rich of all nationalities. Is it a benefit or does it lead to the exclusion of people of more ordinary means? All cities enjoy, or suffer, this kind of development. Personally I believe they tend to shut people out, increase prices of all properties and make life very difficult for most people. London has suffered in the same way.
My plans to walk down to darling Harbour were thwarted by one of those pesky museums which I like so much. Like a drunk unable to stagger past a pub, if I see one I have to go in there and sample what’s on offer. The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (the Powerhouse Museum, for short) is housed in an old power station building and displays technology, both old and new. One of the original steam powered generators is still in there, along with several other steam engines. A couple were running, chuffing away quietly. One huge engine had powered London’s Youngs Brewery for over one hundred years. In the Transport section there was a nicely restored steam locomotive and other railway equipment. I used to have a model railway so felt a certain kinship with this display.
A pleasant look at the old technology was followed by an excellent gallery filled with modern science. Designed to be accessible to both adults and children, it has exhibits explaining the many branches of physics, of chemistry, ecology and how to conduct experiments. There is a mock up of the Mars surface and a model of the Mars Lander trundles around, controlled remotely, just as the real one would be. The kids loved it as they could do the controlling.
The transport section had planes, trains and automobiles, as used during Sydney’s past. And there was a section on space too. Models of various satellites and space rockets hung from the roof but the piece de resistance was the mock up of the International Space Station. I was able to go inside and stand still while the walls rotated around me, giving a sense of how weightlessness might feel. Odd, was my conclusion. It’s not very big either. Six months living in a small box room, with several others, doesn’t appeal to me. But then, I suppose there are many upsides too.
Other areas of the museum had displays on design, the nature of modern consumerism, the effects of WW1 on science and medicine – and several others. Almost too many to list. One was all about design awards given to Australian projects, which included One Central park. I wasn’t surprised at that. So all in all, a terrific afternoon in this huge building, stuffed full of interesting displays. I wasn’t too worried about not having reached my intended destination in the end and came out feeling like I’d made the right choice.
‘Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me.’ Most travellers would happily quote this line from Carry On Cleo at some time or another. For me it was all about Carnets de Passage and sorting out bike insurance and registration. While in Melbourne I’d talked to Australia’s AA, who’d been very helpful in guiding me through the necessary steps to get my new carnet lodged with customs. All the arrangements were made and once in Sydney all I had to do was take the old and the new carnets down to customs, at the airport, and get the deed done. ‘Easier said than done’, is the common refrain. And just for a pleasant change, it wasn’t true. The airport is quite close to Sydney CBD, so it was an easy ride out there. I handed both carnets over, along with the form supplied by the AAA, to a very uncheerful customs official. And then sat down to wait, a bit nervous about the outcome. No reason to be really, but life depends on these formalities so much that it’s hard not to be. I needn’t have worried. He came back after about twenty minutes with everything stamped up and I was good to go. A real relief. Up until that point I’d held back from making future plans but now I could commit to meeting friends and booking my flight home for a visit.
My bike insurance was also due to expire, as was its registration with Queensland Roads department. A few phone calls sorted that out. I renewed my insurance and worked out that the rest could be done when I actually reached Queensland in week or two’s time. Excellent! My tail was up and wagging and I could carry on enjoying Sydney.
I mentioned before that Governor MacQuarrie, and his wife, spent time and money organising Sydney as a proper town, with over 250 buildings and infrastructure projects, and one of the first buildings to go up was the Barracks. It housed newly arrived convicts, although MacQuarrie encouraged them to move out and make a life for themselves. He believed in making them into settlers rather than mere prisoners. If they behaved well they were allowed to leave and give things a go. This may seem strange, but it’s worth remembering there was no escape from Australia so no real need to lock people up. This enlightened attitude got him into trouble with the British government and he was eased out of his position eventually. Meanwhile, as the colony grew many ex-prisoners made a good living, even to the extent that dynasties were formed over the years.
The convict built barracks building (see photo in previous blog) has been renovated to a very high standard. It shows its history as convict accommodation, a place for female settlers and, finally,a courtroom and offices. Most of the women came from Ireland, were single women, and were found positions as domestic servants. There was a labour exchange function included in the building. The conversion to museum included some stripping back of paintwork and wall coverings to reveal the older paint and wallpaper. It is one of Sydney’s oldest buildings and provides a fascinating insight into the city’s early days.
On the same theme, I took a walking tour around The Rocks. This area lies between Circular Quay, where the opera house is, and Darling Harbour. It was the area where the freed prisoners went in order to become settlers. It grew into a place full of dodgy characters, raucous pubs and people genuinely trying to make the best of their new life. Gradually, proper brick houses were built to replace the wooden shacks, shops and other businesses opened, and it began to look like a suburb. Convict transportation to Sydney ceased in 1840 but The Rocks (so named because of the ground beneath) carried on as the dark underbelly of the new city. Elsewhere, in the MacQuarrie designed city streets, fine buildings were erected to reflect the growing and successful trade with Britain and the Empire. The Rocks simply became more notorious for crime, drinking, the sex trade, gambling, and the fleecing of visiting sailors and other unfortunates. One of those places where you could have all the fun you liked until your money has been fleeced from your pocket. Many of the convicts came from Ireland and although most never rose much above labouring status, many became successful merchants, publicans and so on. They were proud of their success and were the biggest ‘employers’ of convict labour in the colony. By the time MacQuarrie left in 1821, 85% of Sydney’s population were ex-convicts. Marriage with the aforementioned young Irish women was common and later in the 19th century, when Australian independence was mooted, the Irish presence, naturally anti British, helped promote the idea. Our guide also told us of the plentiful shady characters and gangs which used to plague the area.
This was an evening tour so next morning I walked round there again, just to get a closer look at some of the places she mentioned. There’s some archaeological work going on, exploring how people lived back then. The area is full of narrow cobbled streets and there was a busy lunchtime crowd enjoying the food stalls near the Rocks Museum. Good food, if the queues were anything to go by.
Near to The Rocks is another old area of the city called Miller’s Point. This is full of 1920s and 30s social housing which the city is trying to sell off. The problem is that tenants still live in them but because of their location, overlooking Darling Harbour, they are worth millions of dollars. Needless to stay the city is slowly moving the residents out and there is an active protest movement trying to stop it. Many of the houses have already been sold, at prices around $3 million dollars un-refurbished, but others are draped in protest banners, and photos which reflect the residents family history as lived in the house. The city says it will use the money to build more social housing, but it will be out in the suburbs, nowhere near the area in which these families have lived for generations.I can only feel angry at this kind of gentrification and social cleansing. It’s happening in London too, as well as many other large cities.
To cheer me up a bit I went to visit the Sydney Observatory, sited in its own park on top of the hill. As you’d expect, its all about telescopes, stars and planets and is still active. Opened in 1858, it replaced earlier observatories, undertaking the important work of mapping the southern skies. Given the fairly recent settlement of the southern hemisphere, this was very much a work in progress, although Aboriginals had been doing it for millennia. Perhaps someone should have just asked them. Meteorology was also practised and there were displays of all the instruments used over the years, as well as plenty of telescopes and chronometers. One especially interesting item was the Time Ball, which sits on top of the observatory tower. On the 5th June 1858 the ball was raised up its pole and dropped at exactly 1pm, thereby telling Sydneysiders and ships’ masters the correct time of day. Watches were checked and ships clocks adjusted accordingly. The true time was determined by astral observation, giving the observatory a very real function, applicable to daily life. It was vitally important for ships’ navigators to know the correct time because measuring longitudinal position on the Earth’s surface was dependant on it. The info panel pointed out that most large harbours around the world had such a device. A comforting thing for sailors, even if they had their mind on other comforts while moored near The Rocks.
With the Sydney weather keeping mild and dry, I thought it a good idea to explore some of the small harbours which lie within the bigger Sydney Harbour. The best way to do this seemed to be by ferry so I selected the route that called in at the the greatest number of places. The ferry I chose went right up to the suburb Paramatta, on the river of the same name, calling in at lots of places on the way. This town was settled soon after Sydney as a way of expanding the settlement. It used to be a five day river journey, it’s about an hour now. As many of you know, seeing a city from its waterways usually gives you views unobtainable by other means and adds a feeling of being an explorer, albeit a slight one. But you’re guaranteed fresh air rather than traffic fumes and it was fun to stop at places with familiar London place names, such as Chiswick, Greenwich and Woolwich. Once at Paramatta I sat by the river to eat lunch and had a pleasant conversation with a Zimbabwean who’d escaped his office for some fresh air. He’d also managed to escape the turmoil in Zimbabwe too and had forged a new life with his wife and Aussie born children. The immigration story goes on.
Governor MacQuarrie had his official residence out here and I enjoyed the walk around the Domain, admiring the old buildings. On the trip back I had a nice conversation with Min, a retired Chinese restaurateur who’d been in Australia thirty four years. She enjoyed photography too, and there’s lots to enjoy through a lens, especially the harbour bridge.
‘Art for art’s sake, Money for God’s sake.’ So sang 10cc, back in 1972. Sydney offers plenty of both and given that their hit occurred at the height of the Glam Rock period, a visit to the Grayson Perry exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art seemed fitting. After all, he does enjoy make-up, a dress and a showy necklace. He had appeared in a Channel 4 documentary fairly recently and was asked ‘When you wear women’s clothes is it performance art?’ ‘Not really,’he replied, ‘I just enjoy cross dressing.’ I like this man’s sense of humour and I like his art too. In reality he does wear clothes sometimes for artistic effect and some of these were on show. But most of his work is in ceramics, sculptures and tapestries, with some watercolours. He tends to depict personal strife and angst, with themes centred on childhood, religion, warfare, sexual themes and transvestism. Much of this originates from his own childhood. He digs down into life’s pretensions and vulnerabilities. I really liked this exhibition and felt plenty of common feeling with many of this themes.
I toured round the other galleries in the MCA, some good, some which didn’t grab me at all. Some of the art relating to the effects of European settlement was great. Other displays were in the ‘stare and wait for inspiration’ category. Boring, in other words. But Hey! It is a contemporary art museum after all.
In fact my first taste of Sydney’s art delights came at the Art Gallery of NSW where I saw an exhibition called ‘Tang, treasures from the Silk Road capital.’ The Tang Dynasty was around in the 7th century and is considered a golden age of Chinese art. Buddhism was the major ‘religion’ of the time and archaeologists have uncovered hundreds of tombs, stuffed full of grave goods. These include gold and silver figurines and other artefacts, along with plenty of terracotta items too, such as camels and horse riders. Usefully, the tombs often had lists of their contents written on the walls. Archaeology made simple. Some of the artwork from the walls had been reproduced for the exhibition and was very eye catching. The city was named Chang’an, now modern day Xi’an in Shaanxi province. With over one million people, its riches came from its position at the eastern end of the Silk Road trade routes. Fabulous stuff.
Tang Dynasty Art.
Other galleries had old European art, early 20th century works, especially Cubism, along with plenty of Aussie paintings and contemporary sculptures. All of which I enjoyed to a greater or lesser degree.
Enough of art! It was time to look at some Hearts of Oak and learn about rum rations and weevil filled biscuits. The only place to do this is at the Maritime Museum, down at Darling Harbour. As well as the museum building, there are four naval vessels moored in the harbour, which can be explored at your leisure. Possibly the most interesting of these was an almost exact replica of Lieutenant Cook’s ship, HM Barque Endeavour. It’s tiny! And very with low ceilings between decks. Modern facilities have had to be installed, as well as an engine, but that’s the only difference. The original contingent was ninety four people and even the officers had to sleep below decks because of the presence of scientists etc. A barque has a flat bottom, ideal for exploring shallow coastal waters. But on the open sea it would bob around a lot and wasn’t very fast either. Even so, it has to be admitted that the original did a pretty good job. This replica runs with a crew of thirty six and has been round the world twice, running training and team building events. The masts, sails and rigging all look very complicated but I imagine everyone had a specific area to work in and would have become very good at it. A very tough life though.
Moored near the Endeavour replica is the Daring Class destroyer HMAS Vampire. I joined a guided tour around it which was, of course, fascinating. It’s always good to delve into different worlds and find out about them. The naval life is full of anachronistic customs. One example: the Captain is only allowed into the officers’ mess by invitation. Otherwise they eat alone. Custom demands that they are not allowed to buy any drinks, so he’s on a freebie all evening. That’s probably why they doesn’t get invited too often. I suppose it makes sense. Having to share your relaxation time with your boss isn’t a good idea. Our guide used to serve on aircraft carriers so he knew his stuff.
This ship was Australian built, based on a British design. They made some sensible modifications, such as putting the wheelhouse and radio room below decks so that they wouldn’t get damaged if the ship took a hit. Pretty sensible really. Armament was three twin 4.5 inch turret guns, four anti aircraft Bofors guns and one anti submarine mortar. These days it’s all guided missiles.
Fancy having to rely on two minute showers? That’s all the crew were allowed. After that ran out it was seawater! But they were well fed even if their accommodation was necessarily pretty cramped. Nothing much seemed to have changed in that respect during two hundred years.
Next to the Vampire is an Oberon Class submarine, HMS Onslow. A tour round this vessel made the other two ships seem like mansions. It was built in Scotland and carried a crew of sixty eight. They all lived cheek by jowl and you wouldn’t want to have the sailor with bad breath or digestive issues as your neighbour. ‘Cramped’ just doesn’t do it justice.
The rest of the museum was full of maritime exhibitions and curiosities. I really enjoyed the display of fish x-rays. Pictures of fish bones? Well, kind of. They displayed the x-ray next to an info panel which included a picture of the actual fish. I just thought it was a quirkily different way to look at things. The display about the search for a reliable way to measure longitude was fascinating. The problem was always about knowing how far you’d travelled from Greenwich. Sailors were pretty good at measuring local time but they also needed to know the correct time at the Greenwich Meridian. Because every minute equals a fixed distance of the Earth’s rotation, measuring the difference between the two times would determine a ship’s location when coordinated with the easily worked out latitude. A problem big enough for the British Admiralty to offer a £20,000 prize for a reliable chronometer. That was big bucks back in the mid 18th century. Clockmaker John Harrison finally came up with an accurate timepiece, which enabled a ship to sail to Bermuda and be only 9.8 miles off true. An amazing achievement for the time, although it took him forty years and many trials and tribulations to do it. So did the Admiralty pay him the money? Of course not! They gave him £10,000 and would only pay the rest if he revealed his construction methods to them. He refused to do this but made up the rest of the money in other ways. A genius? Maybe, but more about hard work and determination than anything else. Here’s a couple of links if you want to find out more.
From within and from without.
A rather off the wall collection showed a-rays of various fish alongside their normal selves. I thought this was pretty cool really. The other galleries focused on the history of the navy; immigration journeys and so on. Very well worth the visit and I was able to spread it over a couple of days by using the facility for re-entry.
After the museum I went over to Seaworld for a look at life under the ocean waves. I wasn’t too impressed with this place. It was a bit shabby, although there were some new exhibitions being built. It’s not the kind of place that keeps whales or dolphins in captivity, I’m pleased to say. The largest sea creatures there are Dugongs – Sea Cows. A male and a female, both rescue animals. I’d seen these in their natural habitat when I was over at Shark Bay, WA, on a bout trip. The problem is they only surface for a enough time to draw breath so you don’t get to see much of them. They feed on the sea grass found in the warm, shallow waters off the western coast. There’s no sea grass anywhere near Sydney so they feed them cos lettuce instead. It’s about the same nutritionally and they like the taste. So there’s staff who do nothing other than cut up the lettuce and place it in racks ready to go in the dugongs’ tank. About two hundred per day. What fun. Other fish included manta rays, small sharks and thousands of colourful reef fish. Enjoyable but I didn’t feel it was worth the entry fee.
Much better than that was the glorious sunset I watched over the harbour and its surrounding buildings. A good opportunity to play with some of the special settings on my camera.
Sydneysiders enjoy their beaches rather like I enjoy motorbikes, and spend as much time on them as they can. There are plenty of them, including some for naturists, both on the north and south sides of the harbour. The most famous of these is Bondi Beach, known throughout the world as the best place to have Christmas dinner al-fresco, or as the surfing crowd’s paradise. I’d been told about a very nice coastal walk, from Coogee to Bondi, so a bus ride from the city found me breathing sea air down at Coogee and walking up the cliff path to admire the sea view. It was nice to stretch my legs in the sunshine as the path wandered up and down the cliffs. There were some surfers and sunbathers in some of the small bays, other cliff top walkers enjoying the sea breeze and several people pumping iron at a clifftop gym. A clifftop gym? Yes indeed. Kids have slides and climbing frames provided by the local council, adults have gym equipment, set out like a torture circuit for flaccid muscles. There was an elderly woman there being urged on to more and greater effort by her own personal trainer. She didn’t seem to be enjoying it much but she stuck with it anyway. I always used to enjoy my time in the gym so I spent half an hour on the various machines, stretching muscles I’d forgotten I had.
Eventually I reached a point from where I could see Bondi Beach laid out in front of me. All sand and surf, it was easy to see the attraction. There’s a wide sweep of golden sand and the waves roll in constantly. The surf wasn’t very high that day but there were plenty of people in the water anyway. It looked a lot smaller than all the pictures had led me to imagine, but it was still very beautiful and the attraction was obvious. From Bondi I took a bus up to the very pretty Watsons Bay and walked up to South Head. The path handily went past the naturist beach so on the way back I went down there and enjoyed some all over sunshine. Sorry, no photos of that – and I’m sure you’re very pleased.
Back in Bondi I met up with Kym again (see previous post). She lives near there so we met up for fish and chips and a couple of beers. Johnny, one of her old friends from home, came with her, a computer programmer originally from Northern Ireland. The meal was nice, the frozen yoghurt shop next door was even nicer! Plenty of chatting and laughing is a good way to finish off a sunny outdoors day. Sunshine comes in various guises, that’s for sure, but it was sad to think that it’s most probably my last visit with Kym.
Still on the subject of nice young women, I met my French friend Jo one more time before I left. We went to a local pub, along with her American friends Mike and Maggie, and her Aussie boyfriend Andy. Another nice evening of beer and laughs. And another one where they threw us out of the pub at closing time. And, as with Kym, probably my last visit with Jo too. Sad.
But we all must move on and I planned to head up into the Blue Mountains. I’d not seen everything Sydney had to offer, but had definitely seen the culture and history. It’s Australia’s first and largest city and has many things to offer visitors. Although all state capitals are by the sea, Sydney seems to have much more of a sea based lifestyle. I think that’s because its harbour has dozens of much smaller coves and harbours where leisure is the main activity. Plus a couple of iconic structures that have captivated the world. As the city grew its suburbs spread around the coastline too, aided by first the ferries and then the bridge. After all, over four million people can’t all be wrong.
For my part I found Sydney to be attractive as a place to visit and walk around. I particularly liked Circular Quay, with the hustle and bustle of the busy ferries docking then leaving. I spent time sitting on the benches near the MCA, listening to the well organised buskers and admiring the harbour bridge and the opera house, as did many others. The difference between this harbour and those of other cities is that it’s in constant use as part and parcel of the city’s daily life. It would still be very busy even if there were no tourists. Other cities don’t quite manage that. It has its underbelly too. No longer at The Rocks but in the Kings Cross area. That’s were some of the gay bars are and plenty of ‘adult stores’ too. I walked past one day but didn’t explore. Melburnians may not agree but Sydney seems more like the capital city than the capital itself.
But it was time for me to leave. The only question was, would my bike start?