After rocking out with Monks, sunshine, temples and tarts in Thailand, it was time to board a 10 hour flight down to Sydney from Bangkok. On the plane, for the first time in four weeks, I had some wine and some cheese. It was bliss – it is indeed possible to become tired of boat fresh sushi, Vietnamese Street food or Thai cuisine.
Australia’s strict about quarantine, to the point where certain foods and plants are forbidden entry. I was greeted by a helpful man in the passport line who asked me if I had any food on me but I said, “Just some Oreos”. “Good on you, mate” he said. I wasn’t sure if he was being friendly or patronising. Would this be a verbal fingerprint of Australian conversation I’d have to get used to?
The train wasn’t running into town because of rail maintenance, so the authorities laid on a free shuttle bus into the city. I didn’t even need to buy a train ticket. The bus arrived at Central Station, just around the corner from my hotel, and it was pretty straightforward to find.
One realisation I had as I walked to the hotel was that this was the first time in over a month that I was in a country where English was spoken as the official language and where I was not illiterate. The other thing I noticed was that traffic and pedestrians moved in an orderly fashion and weren’t in a weird hurry. I was though. I guess the South Asian way of life had influenced me. One thing I hadn’t shaken off was my European love of a prolonged hot shower. I hadn’t had a hot shower in weeks, so I stood under the rain shower in my room for about 20 minutes. The South Asian experience was still an influence, it never crossed my mind to drink the tap water for the first few days.
I had been in contact with an old school friend, Alex, with whom I was at school until the age of 13 or so. He lived in a suburb of Sydney called Manly, much prefered by ex-pats. My first order of business was to hook up with him – a long-overdue reunion and a barbecue beckoned.
To get there from Central, I took the bus north to Circular Quay, putting me moments away from the ferry to Manly, which is a suburb of Sydney. On the bus, people were wearing jumpers, jackets, coats and scarves. It was as warm as a Spring day in England, but being April, was late autumn here and therefore considered cold. I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt.
The Manly cruise was beautiful – taking me past the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge. The sky was blue, with beautiful fluffy clouds. I was utterly thrilled to be here – another rush of excitement hitting me on arrival in a new city.
The ferry took about half an hour, and Alex was there to meet me. I hadn’t seen him in 23 years. Even after all that time, he was impossible to miss – not having changed so much since the age of 13. We walked through Manly to get to his house. Amusingly there are lots of businesses, clubs etc. prefixed with Manly. Manly Wharf, Manly tailors, Manly lifeguards, Manly Italian restaurants.
Alex set a BBQ going on his balcony and grilled 3 steaks, one for me, one for him and one for his wife, Melanie. We attempted to catch up over lunch, whilst looking out over the sea from his balcony. Where do you start to catch up after 23 years?
We did a good job of catching up anyway, and wandered over to Shelly Beach, grabbing an excellent coffee on the way. It really was starting to feel a little autumnal, but this was probably also down to the evening closing in. I was treated to a beautiful sunset over Shelly Beach. We also saw dolphins in the bay, which is unusual – Alex had seen them in the bay only once before in his five years of being in Sydney. The dolphins were hunting dinner, porpoising through the water.
We rounded off the evening with drinks at a “hotel”. In Australia, there are hotels and hotels. One serves up beers and beds, the other just beers. Try asking for a bed in the latter and you’ll be given a blank look, maybe worse.
The following day, I visited Taronga Zoo. As a kid, I’d been fascinated by the weird and wonderful fauna in Australia, so I really wanted to visit a zoo here.
Alex was also up for a visit with his daughter, so it seemed like a good way to spend the day. The koala pose was obligatory:
In New South Wales, it is illegal to hold koalas (presumably in a tourist setting – for research it’s OK), so the best I could do at the zoo was to pose next to one. The koala enclosure smelled like eucalyptus essential oil. Later, I discovered that this was the smell of the koala’s urine. Koalas eat 500g of eucalyptus a day, the plant isn’t very nutritious: koalas spend 20 hours a day sleeping and around 3 hours a day eating.
Sydney’s a big city and initially seems difficult to see beyond the incredibly photogenic Harbour. To help me crack the ice, I joined a free walking tour that lasted several hours, and included the Rocks area. “The Rocks” is historic quarter to the north of the city, by the Harbour. In the 1970s, the local government tried to demolish the area and replace it with high-rise buildings. This inspired strikes, sit-ins and other forms of disobedience and the area was saved.
A fun pub-story fact I learned on the walking tour was that the wily Governor Lachlan MacQuarie, who, being frustrated at the lack of funds coming to his colony from Britain, turned to rum tycoons to fund major buildings in the city in exchange for licenses to sell liquor. This hospital was one of the children of this scheme:
Another was that the First Fleet that landed in Sydney, after a seven-month voyage from England, arrived only 4 days ahead of a similar French fleet. Australia could well have been (or at least started out) French! Subsequent checking on Wikipedia revealed that the true history was more nuanced, but it’s a good one for the pub.
We also walked through the financial district and past this waterfall:
People with a great eye and an even better memory will remember this waterfall from the film, The Matrix. You’ll see it about 34 seconds into this clip:
With the walking tour over, I headed across the city to the park, to chase down a view of the Bridge and the Opera house from Mrs MacQuarie’s Chair:
Walking back from that splendid view, I headed back through the park, hoping to see bats sleeping in the trees, but heard excited squawking instead. There, behaving almost exactly like pigeons in the UK, was a chattering of cockatoos. They were very friendly and made themselves at home on me:
I had to cut my stay in Sydney short in order to accommodate a change to my scheduled tour of the Outback (more on that later).
My last night in Sydney was spent with another friend from the UK watching the lights of the Vivid festival after pigging out on coca-cola chicken wings. I had no idea such a thing could exist!