Exploring Australia 13: Sydney 1
Bondi Surf Bathers Life-Saving Club
People make a great fuss about the rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne, but as an interested visitor I can't see what's not to like about either. It's like knowing two very different siblings, appreciating their qualities and tolerating their differences.
Sydney has the unrivalled advantage among world cities of its commodious and varied harbour, more intriguing than San Francisco, more complex than Hong Kong. It also has organic growth, having been improvised from the original First Fleet settlement: there are axial streets in the centre, but the place doesn't have the rigidity of the gridiron plans of Melbourne and Adelaide.
On my first morning in the city, venturing from my hotel downhill towards the station, looking for a laundrette, I felt I could easily be in a British city, negotiating streets that crossed at angles and investigating side-roads with obviously ancient names like "Reservoir Street". I was staying on the neighbourly Surry Hills (spelt as Jane Austen did), only a short walk from the Central Business District. It's a borderline backpacker's district, and in due course I found somewhere within walking distance and entirely acceptable to have breakfast, Strawberry X [1a/23 Mary Street, Surry Hills, NSW 2010], and somewhere to have an evening meal, Good Morning Saigon [127 Liverpool Street, Sydney, NSW 2000], and returned to both each day rather than eat my way round Sydney.
A harbour cruise is surely the way first to see Sydney, just as the ferry across the Mersey is the best introduction to Liverpool. With the blue sky reflected in the water it's idyllic.
I'd made careful advance plans through my travel agent, having missed the Vatican on my first visit to Rome and Alcatraz on my only visit so far to San Francisco: I was determined not to miss the Sydney highlights.
Locating the Magistic Cruises [http://www.magisticcruises.com.au] vessel on King's Street Wharf in good time gave me the opportunity to ride the vessel round to the Circular Quay and back, taking photos from an empty deck and being almost first in the queue for the buffet lunch.
When I went back on deck I found a lady with a head-microphone and a Russian accent setting up stall to guide her group. Gradually the place filled with Russians with beer bottles and loud voices, who spent much of the time photographing each other standing in front of the sites. When things quietened down I asked her if they were working her hard and she smiled ruefully. I said it looked like herding cats, and she thanked me for the phrase.
At the end of the cruise I joined an APT city-tour [http://www.aptouring.com.au/content.asp?Document_ID=80563#nsw] in a coach driven by Scott: I wish I could guide as sharply and precisely as Scott did while driving a bus in heavy traffic. He took us through the city-centre out to Mrs Macquarie's Chair, carved for a governor's wife on a promontory overlooking the harbour, to Watson's Bay and The Gap overlooking much of the outer harbour, and then to Bondi Beach which is as splendid as you'd expect from any surfing movie. The tanned and bleached jeunesse d'orée were impressive, but what impressed me most was the history behind them: standing proudly on the foreshore is the Bondi Surf Bathers Life Saving Club (1907) [http://bondisurfclub.com], the founding association of technical beach lifesaving.
I'd booked a bridge-climb tour, but I took one look at the Harbour Bridge and decided that there was no way I would climb that thing in such heat. There is a constant procession up and down the outer girder, and I imagine it's a tremendous buzz to stand at the top, but the tour takes three and a half hours and involves a lot of exposure to the sun. The breathalyzer test and the long climb I would willingly have dealt with, but for me the clincher was that cameras are understandably not allowed, in case they drop on the traffic, trains and pedestrians below.
The Bridge is of course magnificent: curiously, the steel structure – the so-called "coathanger" – isn't actually supported by the stone piers; it's free-standing, and the piers, while supporting the carriageway, provide visual balance to the whole design. It was designed by Dorman Long, Middlesborough, and much of it was fabricated in Britain: construction took from 1923 to 1932. It's interesting to compare it with the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle (1925-1928): spans – Sydney 503m/Newcastle 161.8m; height – Sydney 139m/Newcastle 59m; length – Sydney 1,149m/Newcastle 389m.
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