We arrived in Sydney, Australia to spend the weekend with a good friend Iain, and his boys Tyler (13) and Connor (11) who had tragically lost wife and mother Joanne to cancer 6 weeks ago. Jo was in her early 40s, full of life and love and a centre piece of the local community and church. How unfair it is that she should be taken from us when others, far less worthy, are left behind. It is a sharp reminder to the rest of us to make the most of our short time on earth. Our hearts and thoughts are with Iain and his family as they try to come to terms of life without her.
Sydney is not the capital of Australia but it claims to be the First City despite Melbourne trying to argue otherwise. Certainly, it was the first European settlement established back in 1788 when Captain Arthur Phillip led the early migrants to the continent. The local Eora people were stripped of legal rights to their land, systematically incarcerated and killed or driven away by force. The early inhabitants bumbled along until the gold rush in the 1850s when Sydney’s population doubled in a decade. Immigration is still strong with 1,000 people a week swelling the city’s numbers. Now they come mostly from Asia rather than Europe, adding a multicultural flavor and a mix of peoples that do not always live easily next to one another.
Sydney is a wonderful city. Built around one of the most spectacular natural harbours in the world, Sydney’s shimmering soul reveals an iconic landscape that signifies Australia. There is something about cities built on water that makes them uniquely attractive. Perhaps it’s the freshness in the air or that the people enjoy a seamless double life of both city working and water leisure. Year round sunshine helps by adding a feelgood factor that we do not experience nearly as much coming from north European climes. To the casual visitor, it feels as if the most strenuous activity undertaken by the locals is breathing.
The city centre is not full of office workers striding purposefully about their business nor with camera carrying tourists straining their necks skywards. It is relatively quiet, with little traffic, half empty pavements and a Sunday morning feel to it. I am sure my postbag will now be full of angry Sydneyites telling me how stupid and unobservant I am but they cannot argue that the pace of life is more relaxed, less stressful and easier going than other great cities of the world. I like it.
The other aspect that is common to all Australia is how early everything closes down. Do not even think about going into a restaurant after 8.30 in the evening because the staff will be heading out the door and you will not be welcome. After 9.00pm it’s as if a disaster movie (the ones about the end of the world where the hero is all alone) has been enacted for real. The place is in darkness and nothing moves in the streets apart from windswept leaves and spiders. There’s no drunken youth sprawled all over the tarmac keeping the local law busy until the early hours.
Of course, a visit to Sydney would not be complete without a visit to Bondi Beach and we got there just as a surfing competition has been completed. we have no idea which one of the long haired, drop shorted, golden muscled fellows was the winner because they were all celebrating with equal tenacity – no doubt a case of ‘win or lose we’re on the booze’ that all of us subscribed to in our youth. But Bondi is a great beach in itself, a natural circle shape where waves from the South Pacific Ocean roll into and augment in stature before peeling onto the soft sands.
On the water, it’s all about surfing. Probably 95% of the sea is given exclusively to this activity whilst the swimmers are confined and cordoned by buoys into one small strip about the width of a cricket pitch. Surfers of all abilities try to catch the waves, zigzagging along the crests or driving into the tunnel of a breaker. From a distance, surfers are everywhere, little black ants on sticks moving about in unpredictable and haphazard ways. Apparently there are rules that apply as to who has right of way but I am surprised that collisions do not happen constantly to keep the life guards at full stretch.
In contrast, off the water, the activity is supine. Bodies strewn around the sand in multitudinous colours of flesh and swimwear. It’s the place to look beautiful if you have the right physical equipment or, if you don’t, the place to watch those that do. Helpfully, there are plenty of bars around the beach area where the less beautiful of us can have a beer and still be part of the buzz and the energy of Sydney’s most iconic beach.
Manly beach, on the other hand, is far more laid back. The narrow peninsula has fantastic views back to the Central Business District (or CBD in Australian) and the beach has a character all of its own. Beachside bars, restaurants and shopping occupy the landside of the road while surfing, swimming, beach volleyball and football occupy the sea side. It is the place for the more mature, less athletic but still highly competitive bodies to enjoy seaside living. Where Ripcurl and Billabong give way to Amani and Dolce & Cabana. Flip fops, or thongs as the Aussies call them (obviously having wrongly overheard an underwear salesman), give way to various forms of designer sandlewear. It was a wonderful spot for a leisurely Sunday lunch, eating delicious fresh food and watching live sport sweating on the beach.
One of the other great aspects of Sydney is that no one has to travel very far to delve into the wild countryside. The spectacular wilderness of the Blue Mountains is about an hour’s drive from the centre of the city. The blue-slate coloured haze that gives the mountains their name comes from a fine mist of oil exuded by the eucalyptus trees and the flat topped hills are a throwback to the time when Australia was part of the super continent Gondwana 180 million years ago. The similarity to the hills and mountains we encountered in our travels within the savannah of Venezuela was striking, the difference being that the forest of the Blue Mountains was more vigorous and the tree line higher up the collar of the hills.
The distant views from the high vantage points stretched for many miles in all directions and were finally arrested by yet another flat top. The valleys plunged deep into dramatic river gorges that wound around the base of the hills and always appeared to finish in dead ends. For years these mountains formed an impenetrable barrier to colonial expansion as numerous attempts to find a route through them ended in failure and it was not until 1813 that European explorers found a way through them to the rich plains beyond. Nowadays they provide a welcome cool climate relief from the sweltering plains and the city with fabulous bushwalking opportunities.
We left Sydney once again with sorrow in our hearts, not just because of the terrible fate of Joanne but also because it is a wonderful place to spend time and enjoy all that it has to offer.