The Several Sides of Sydney

Trip Start Feb 05, 2012
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Where I stayed
Zodiac Lodge

Flag of Australia  , New South Wales,
Friday, March 23, 2012


Sydney is a city of complete versatility. One day could be spent in a lush tropical garden walled by skyscrapers, whilst the following could be passed strolling along a clifftop path as waves crash below you. There is an abundance of pursuits to keep you entertained. This versatility extends to the climate; with the weather changing it's mood as if it's menstruating. An overcast morning can change into a baking afternoon in the time it takes to fetch a coffee. Because of this temperamental nature, the weather, like the city is optimistic. There's always a strong chance of improvement.

The city is arranged around its huge, alluring natural harbour - which extends inland like a hand with a hundred crooked fingers. A home with a harbour view is a beloved attainment and property prices decrease dramatically with distance from the harbour. However, greed does not dictate the city's conduct. An abundance of profitable real estate areas are reserved for natural spaces, beaches and national parks. These spring out from the most surprising of places and are cherished by the locals for their intrinsic value.

Any visitor's trip includes one of the more costly spots of harbour, Circular Quay. Home to The Opera House, The Harbour Bridge, The main ferry wharf and a bounty of souvenirs perpetuating national stereotypes. Here you can purchase a boomerang or a cuddly koala, listen to the hypnotic throb of a didgeridoo being played and watch aboriginal dance performed in tribal dress. Despite its touristy nature, it's an exciting place and the first moment you see the Opera House, sparkling at you from across the water, is a fine one.

Months before we embarked on our trip, Sophie announced that she had booked us all onto a luxurious Sydney Harbour Champagne Cruise. It was going to be a sophisticated, leisurely affair that took in all of the harbour's finest sights. We got very excited by this indeed; wondering whether to pack our cocktail dresses and picturing ourselves sipping flutes of fizz in the sun. It was going to be the most enchanting way to experience Sydney.

As it turned out the experience wasn't quite as magical as we'd imagined. It was one of the rainiest days we'd had in Australia so far. For the whole round trip the rain drummed relentlessly on the windows, making for a very grey, smeary view. Confined to the grim interior of the boat, we watched from plastic chairs as the other tourists fought over the soggy buffet and chunks of frozen chocolate cake. Sophie sat, arms crossed over her waterproofs, sneering.

From our experience, the best way to see the harbour is by jet boat. We stumbled onto one of these rides by chance - seduced by the slick sales spiel from a poacher standing on the harbour. There are rides setting off at set times during the day and if all the spaces aren't filled they try to flog them off cheap to passing visitors. Our ride zipped around for half an hour and in this time we were thrown about at the back of the boat whilst listening to a history of the harbour shouted over the noise of the engine. It was great fun and the most fitting way for an introduction to this exhilarating city.
 
Part of the fun was getting absolutely soaked and Ben, who due to his height had been placed in the most exposed seat on the boat - had borne the brunt of it. When we disembarked, we were soaked through to our underwear and the temperature had turned crisp. Luckily we discovered a hot air vent conveniently located directly outside the opera house and we all sat on it in a line until we dried off. This resulted in lots of lingering looks from passing tourists whom seemed to be wondering whether we were vagrants or street performers. Luckily, Sydney is home to heaps of outlandish and eccentric individuals, so we didn't feel too self-conscious.

Sydney's Royal Botanical Gardens follow the harbour's contours from the Opera House for 30 hectares. Beating away at the heart of the city, the area is rich in local wildlife and even more affluent in plants and flowers. Visitors are encouraged 'Please walk on the grass,' and Sydneysiders from every walk of life do just that; curling up in their own little spot to nibble on sandwiches and sneak a quiet read. If you venture here as the afternoon fades, hoards of ginger-bodied bats scream down at you from the trees. Waking irritably from their daylight slumber and claiming the twilight garden for their own.

On a little peninsula at the edge of the gardens sits Mrs Macquarie's Chair. This chair was carved from sandstone by convicts back in 1810, for the pleasure of the Governor's wife, Elizabeth. Legend has it, she used to sit here for hours on end watching nostalgically as ships from Britain sailed into the harbour. Everything I'd read had led me to picture the chair as an idyllic little spot nestled in a floral corner of the Gardens. However, in a striking twist of irony, the swarms of people flocking to observe the picturesque qualities of this spot, have destroyed exactly that which they seek. A concrete loop of road services the spot, depositing a regular lump of snap-happy tourists at the end. While, a marginally upmarket burger van camps nearby, touting meal deal specials. If you're looking for a quiet spot to sit and ponder, it's best retreating back into the gardens and claiming a secret little patch for your very own chair.

After a few days in the city, I bade goodbye to my pals (who were heading back to England) with a happy night out in Chinatown. It was the end of our wonderful trip together and also the end (for the time being) of living in hostels. Ben and I moved into more permanent accommodation in Glebe - a suburb in the city's inner west - with my old friend Sare and her boyfriend Boz, who have been living in Sydney since December. Glebe was quite a seedy place in times gone by, but has enjoyed a fairly recent renaissance. It's architecture gives off a very French feeling and the suburb is now considered a cool place, very popular amongst lesbians.

The four of us met up with another friend from back home, Fell, (who has been flirting with Sydney for nearly a year) and headed to Sydney's Future Music Festival at Randwick Racecourse. The festival was a poor imitation of its European counterparts. For one, it seemed entirely geared against enabling anybody to get intoxicated in any way, shape or form. The purchase of drinks was heavily policed - after waiting in a 6 man deep queue you were only allowed to purchase 2 drinks - and none of the 4% drinks on offer dipped below the $10 mark. The whole process really took away from the carefree, hedonistic festival vibe. Additionally, there were a mere 4 food stalls to cater for thousands of hungry revellers. The DJ's seemed to have soaked up the listless atmosphere and their sets were limp as a result. The whole event clarified that music festivals, as I was finding with most nightlife in Australia, are not a patch on those back home.

Of all the Australian cities, Sydney is the richest in history. New South Wales was founded as a penal colony in 1788 and over the next 80 years, more than 160,000 convicts were transported here from Britain - often for paltry crimes. For these people, Australia was offered as a marginally preferable alternative to the death penalty. Today, about 20% of Australian's are directly descended form convicts (including Former Prime minister Kevin Rudd). Interestingly, the country's convict past is often considered a source of shame for many Australians. I think it's incredible that a bunch of cast-offs, against all odds, gave birth to the Australia of today. Rather than being regarded as a dirty stain, I think this triumph should be celebrated for the achievement that it is.

One of our early afternoons was spent nosing around the city's oldest residential building, Cadmans Cottage. The Cottage pops out at you unexpectedly whilst wandering around The Rocks area and has been restored to the extent that it now slightly resembles a playhouse. Nevertheless, it gives an interesting peek into the gumption of early settlers.

After this we walked across the Harbour Bridge to the city's Northern Suburbs (a walk that many Sydneysiders themselves have never done). It is an interesting walk, but the safety fences and the sounds and fragrances of traffic mean superior views can be enjoyed elsewhere. The real reward was finding Wendy Whiteley's Secret Garden on the other side. Wendy is the wife of famous Sydney artist Brett Whiteley. After Brett died of a heroin overdose in 1992, Wendy set about transforming a slice of derelict railway land next to her house, in his memory. From a dumping ground strewn with litter, abandoned furnishings and squatting homeless people, she created a floral oasis, peppered with sculptures, poems and benches. Staggered pathways run through the garden, like secret streams, delivering you to different surprising sections. As you explore you get a real impression of the garden's depth and a peek through the greenery reveals stunning views of the harbour. It is easy to see why it is called a Secret Garden; you feel completely hidden from the world.

Tragically, the couple's daughter Arkie, who helped build the garden, died in 2001 from cancer before it was properly completed. Both her and her Father's ashes are buried in the garden in an undisclosed location.

The following day we boarded Sydney's most famous ferry trip, across the harbour to Manly. The beach here is a very relaxed spot, frequented in the main by locals. There is a happy, mellow vibe and every resident, down to the seagulls, seems cotched and relaxed. From Manly we completed a short walk to Shelly Beach, a smaller and much more picturesque bay, where we lolled about for the rest of the day.

Bondi Beach was a completely different experience. It is a bustling, multicultural, sizzling spot, with a spirit similar to a nightclub. Ladies rollerblade around in bikinis, whilst cube-shaped men parade down the sands flexing their muscles. We tried to sneak a glance into the Lifeguard tower (made famous by TV Series Bondi Rescue) but not much seemed to be going on. Although the lifeguards were making their presence known, whizzing around in their supersized buggies, churning the sand like cake-mix. Yes Bondi is showy and brash, (it is one of the few Australian beaches that permit topless bathing) but it is all in the name of good fun and there's a nice atmosphere of camaraderie - something like mutual respect between members of one big party. Just don't venture there if you're looking to relax.

From the beach we started The Bondi to Coogee Clifftop walk, which spans 6km and twists through the coastal suburbs of Tamarama, Bronte, Clovelly and Gordon's Bay. The day was blessed with ideal weather conditions for walking - it was bright, clear and warm, but not oppressively hot. From the minute we joined the trail, the views were suddenly and simply sublime. We followed the curve of the cliff's edge round to the first suburb, Tamarama, nearly forgetting we were still within a city, and stared in awe at the houses along the way. The properties give off the scent of wealth, but not in a gloating manner. As we passed we felt slightly envious of the people who lived here and got to welcome each day in with such magnificent views.

When we reached the second suburb on the route, Bronte, we were taken aback by its beauty and stopped to have a dip in the saltwater pool. Bronte has been voted the best suburb in Sydney and Heath Ledger was a resident for two years before getting hounded out by the media. As we soaked up the loveliness of Bronte it was easy to understand why he had tried to chance it in the first place.

We soon came to the next striking sight on the route, Waverley Cemetery. This large graveyard is as bizarre and eerie as it is beautiful. Here, thousands of pure white crosses protrude from the sloped clifftop, staring silently down at ocean. It is the perfect resting place for anyone with a slight soft-spot for the sea and it has been dubbed 'The most scenic burial ground in the world.' It certainly is a fine one.

The last beach we passed through was Gordon's Bay, a captivating, deserted cove, where fishing boats rested in the last of the day's sun. The last km or so of the walk was tough going. The track cruelly got steeper, mocking our exhausted legs. When we reached Coogee we collapsed in a grateful heap on top of the hill overlooking the beach. However, it was all worth it. It is the most breathtaking walk I have ever taken and would be my top recommendation for anybody visiting Sydney.

After sampling some of Sydney's most famous beaches, we developed a fancy for some of the lesser known ones. Throughout our trip, the beach on the front cover of my Lonely Planet has beamed out at me every time I've picked it up for consultation. The beach was a bit of a mystery. From the photo we could fathom that it was definitely in Sydney (the Skyline is visible in the background). However, nowhere in the book is the photograph or its location acknowledged.  After a bit of detective work on Google images we identified it as probably being Nielsen's Park - a beach enclosed by national park, far east of the city. We hedged our bets and worked out a complicated bus route to get there. After arriving and conducting an inspection, we were satisfied that Nielsen's Park was indeed the beach from the guidebook. Although, as often is the case in life, it did look quite different from the picture. The greenery surrounding the cove had sprouted quite dramatically and deceivingly. Nevertheless, the beach was an absolute beaut. It stretches across a tiny cove and you can sit on its soft sands and watch all the action on the harbour, whilst feeling fairly anonymous. There is also a wonderful little cafe, serving fresh, relatively cheap food. We sat looking out at the beach scene, sheltered by trees whilst tucking into a Greek salad and feeling as though we were in the Mediterranean.

After spending an afternoon there we understood why the guidebook had been so cagey about its identity. Nielsen's Park is a real secret, local treasure, made all the more special by its solitude. The locals, and even the travel researchers, probably want to keep it that way.

Sydney has a reputation for being the cultural inferior of Melbourne. But from what I have seen, culture thrives here and the locals savour it. One lunchtime, on a dismal day spent looking for work, was spiced up by an impromptu performance from local band 'Set Sail.' They pitched up in the middle of Pitt Street Shopping Precinct - complete with a crouching, shoeless violinist and drums made from paint tubs - and bashed out an impassioned cover of 'Bittersweet Symphony.' A huge crowd of smiling faces quickly crowded around them, feeding off their energy. The street's atmosphere quickly changed to one of intoxicated joy and for six minutes it allowed people to forget their working day.

For me the performance was a real Sydney moment. I can't imagine any sort of busking being received like that in London. The band have hijacked the same spot since; so if you're ever in Sydney, keep your eyes peeled for them. (See video below for Set Sail in action)
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