I was 17, embarking on my first ever overseas trip, on my great adventure to Thailand for a year. We stopped in Sydney to collect the Australian AFS students, and to wait out a strike by Aussie customs workers that cancelled many flights over several days.
I’d never really thought much about Sydney. I knew it was a large impressive city. But I’d never had a great desire to go there. Perhaps I was influenced by the fact that in the 1970s in New Zealand, Sydney was the place where girls “in trouble” went, seeking solutions to their predicament that were, at that time, generally unavailable in New Zealand.
Sydney though was a pleasant surprise to me. It continues to be, each time I visit. Flying into Sydney is exhilarating. The airport is situated right on the east coast of Australia. Flying in across the Tasman Sea between our two countries, you get the sense of the enormity of the continent behind the seashore. Frequently, because of traffic control requirements or wind direction, we end up circling Sydney, flying over the Parramatta River, the harbour and the city; seeing what a large part of the city borders the water in some way. I’ve flown in after a bad summer of bush fires, seeing how close the fires got to the city, how the houses were surrounded by trees and how frightening it must have been.
Since the Olympics, getting into the city is much easier. It used to be a battle with the taxi drivers, intent on getting as much cash out of you as possible. But now you can board a train and emerge in the heart of the CBD. When I was travelling regularly to Manila for business, I transferred at Sydney, with a 4-5 hour stopover. That was usually enough time to go into the city, stop at the Queen Victoria Building, meet friends who worked nearby for coffee and a chat, stretch my legs or do some shopping, before heading back out to the airport and another 8 hours on a plane.
Unless you are a very jaded traveller, when in Sydney for any length of time you have to head to the harbour. I’ve been there in all weather, but will never forget my first view of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge when I was 17. Since then there have been some criminal (perhaps in keeping with the area’s beginnings) apartment developments adjacent to the Opera House, spoiling the view but obviously making a lot of money for developers and the city council. But back in 1980, as we walked around the harbour from the botanical gardens where we had picnicked, the Opera House came into view. Smooth and cream and beautiful, it is one of the world’s greatest buildings. Under the arch of the Harbour Bridge, jutting into the harbour, the two structures declare loudly (and nasally of course) “we’re Australians, we’re here, and you’d better take notice of us.”
The area around the Bridge and the ferries between it and the Opera House was the first settled in Sydney and is rich with history. These days narrow cobbled streets hide innovative Thai restaurants, pubs and boutique hotels, and on the waterfront you find modern 5 star hotels tucked in under the bridge, and old warehouses on the wharf that are now popular restaurants – lunch for $30 with a million dollar view. This area epitomises Sydney for me. Brashness, beauty, glamour, history and modernity all in one.
There’s a lot more to Sydney of course.
We were there once during the Mardi Gras, which was great fun too.
But you have to start and finish at the harbour, walk around it to or from the gardens, and revel in Sydney.
Just don’t tell any Australians I like it, will you? Please?