Sydney

Last Tuesday was the day of the famous Melbourne Cup horse race.  I have been to horse races before, notably twice to the Dubai World Cup and once to Chester races in the UK.  If I could sum up the attendees in each case in one sentence, it would be this: mutton dressed as lamb.  Photos I’ve seen of Aintree and the Melbourne Cup in previous years have done nothing to convince me this is not universal, and so one of the stated major “attractions” of the Melbourne Cup – namely, dressing up and oggling at people – was off the table for me.  (And it turns out, this is what I missed.)

And insofar as horse racing goes, I’d prefer to see them attached to chariots and raced around a hippodrome, followed by a spectacle of lions eating politicians.  I have no interest in horse racing, or the gambling that goes with it, even as a spectator sport.  Now the tagline of the Melbourne Cup is “The Race that Stops a Nation” (which would be a good title for a regional anti-Israel summit held in Riyadh) and in Melbourne it is a public holiday.  Falling as it did on Tuesday, that made a 4-day weekend viable by taking the Monday off, and so my wife and I decided to go and see Sydney.

Taking the 1 1/2 hour Qantas flight was remarkably easy, and the Australians seem to have gotten their domestic airports sorted out.  With minimal fuss we were checked in, boarded, dropped off in Sydney, and out in the taxi rank.  It really couldn’t have gone easier, and I was impressed.  Sydney airport is one of those airports located pretty close to the city centre, and it was a matter of 20 minutes in a taxi to get us to the Sofitel, situated slap bang in the centre and 5 minutes walk from Circular Quay.  (I paid for most of the stay using points acquired during my time in the Novotel when I first came to Melbourne, otherwise we’d have got a $10 per night backpacker hostel, or slept rough in the bus station.)

We arrived late at night so didn’t see much of Sydney, but the next morning we arose bright and early, or at least sometime before lunch, and headed down to the Opera House.  Stepping outside, the first thing I noticed was all the smoke in the air from the bushfires that were raging in the hills around Sydney.  You could see it and smell it, and by the time we got down to a position where we could look at the Sydney Harbour Bridge, this is all we could see.

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I was pretty disappointed, and really hoped it wouldn’t be like that all weekend.  Fortunately, the wind shifted (or something) and within an hour or two all the smoke had cleared.

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Having declined the kind offer from the Sofitel to supply us with breakfast at $40 per head, we decided to get a bite to eat in the outdoor bar/restaurant beside the Opera House which overlooks the bridge.  For $72 we each got a plate of fish and chips and a beer.  This was expensive, of that there is no doubt, but it wasn’t arse-rapingly so.  For a start, we were in one of the top tourist spots in the world with a magnificent view (smoke notwithstanding).  And secondly, the pile of fish and chips on the plate was not measly, as the picture below shows.

264588_10151951238301760_306214114_nYou would have probably paid this sort of money for fish and chips in Melbourne, only you’d have had half as many chips, a quarter as much fish, and you’d be overlooking the Yarra river not the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  So on balance, I judged Sydney to be marginally less of a fleecing than Melbourne, and by the end of the trip I’d seen little to change my mind.

From there it was a short walk to the Opera House, which we got to see up close.

IMG_2447And I must say, it looks one hell of a lot better from a distance.  The architecture is magnificent, and the Dane who designed it (what, you thought it was designed by an Australian?  Ha ha ha ha ha!) had an incredible vision even to imagine the geometry of the thing.  But being built in the 1960s it uses cast concrete and the awful (in my opinion) bronze-coloured steel which I saw plenty of in the Soviet monstrosities of the same era, such as the Rossiya Hotel.  I’m sure this looked very advanced and modern in its day, but nowadays looks as dated as hell up close.  But from a distance, the Opera House still looks splendid.

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Having wandered the Circular Key area for a while, we decided to take a trip out to Bondi beach, because no trip to Sydney would be complete without it.  Unfortunately, getting there from the city centre is not straightforward as it involves a train to Bondi Junction, and then a bus to the beach.  By contrast, Melbourne’s tram system is far simpler to navigate, but obviously the size and geography of Melbourne are major factors in making it so.  So I decided to throw money at the problem and get a taxi, instantly regretting doing so when we got stuck in gridlocked traffic with the meter spinning faster than a politician’s lackey delivering a press release.  It was at this point I realised that Sydney’s taxis are quite a bit more expensive than Melbourne’s, but it was too late to do anything about it.  So we sat in sweltering heat while we inched our way forward, eventually being set down yards from the beach for a princely sum of $45.

Bondi beach was nice: I wouldn’t call it exotic, nor even pretty what with it being heavily built around, but it was very lively, had nice cliffs on each side of the bay, great sand and clear, blue water.  Given its proximity to the city, it’s not surprising it has become so famous.  It looks like one hell of a place to hang out when you’re young.

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We stayed on the beach for a few hours, with only Yulia braving the water.  I stuck my toes in and discovered it was colder than it looked (the surfers all had wetsuits on), but Yulia, being Russian and therefore excited that the surface was in liquid form, thought it was “perfect”.  I liked Bondi beach, probably not a place I’d ever go back to, but I can see why it is so popular.  Getting a taxi back to the city centre was another issue though, and we were trying for 30 minutes to flag one down.  There just didn’t seem to be many passing, and the buses were not only full, but seemed to be prepaid only.  I looked in vain for somewhere to buy a ticket in the immediate vicinity, and so we were stuck waiting for a taxi.  Eventually one turned up and whisked us home for $30 or so.

The next day we took the slow ferry to Manly, on the advice of an Australian girl who used to live here.  It was a good suggestion.  We missed the first ferry because it was full (this being a hot Sunday), and waited for the next one, enabling us to be among the first to board and hence able to seize the prime seats on the foredeck.  Only the ferry travelled backwards.  Well done, Tim.  Anyway, taking ferry to Manly (or indeed anywhere from Circular Quay) is a pretty good way to enjoy a cheap harbour cruise, and enables you to see a bit more of what Sydney is like.

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Unlike Melbourne, which is laid out in a conventional grid system more akin to American towns than European, Sydney is built around a natural harbour consisting of dozens of small coves and inlets.  This has two effects: it makes it very nice and interesting geographically, and a nightmare to organise transport.  There are winding streets, watery obstacles, and choke points everywhere and clearly Sydney was never meant to grow this big.  As such, Sydney suffers from the same problems as many large European, Asian, or American cities: overcrowding and traffic jams.  But that aside, the geographical features in the harbour area alone made it more interesting for me than Melbourne.  On the Manly ferry we passed several small beaches and coves, all with dozens of yachts tied to mooring buoys.  For sailing, it looks like one of the best cities in the world.

When we got to Manly, we discovered we’d stumbled upon the Sydney equivalent of Blackpool seafront: a place full of mainly overweight chavs dressed in outfits that would embarrass an 80′s pop band, bucket-and-spade shops selling flip-flops and gaudy t-shirts, and a casino at the beach front.  Signs affixed to lamp posts warning of an area-wide alcohol ban hinted at the previous troubles the place apparently used to witness, with drunken beach-goers enjoying regular punch-ups.  But the few thousand chavs aside, the beach itself was nice.

IMG_2479We didn’t stay for long on Manly beach, instead we took the 1km or so cliff walk to Shellie beach, a tiny west-facing beach opposite the sands of Manly beach.

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One of the main attractions of Sydney is the quality of beaches which exist in the suburbs, a short distance from the city centre.  With Bondi and Manly beaches, plus a whole load others than we didn’t visit, this makes Sydney pretty special.  There are not many large cities in the world with high-quality, natural beaches so close by – San Diego, Rio de Janeiro, and Barcelona spring to mind – and this is probably what sets Sydney apart and goes a long way to explain its desirability.  True, Melbourne has the St. Kilda beach, but that’s pretty much a strip of sand by comparison.  If you can avoid the traffic, growing up in Sydney must be a lot of fun: the weather is noticeably better than in Melbourne, where in mid-November we are not so much waiting for summer to start as winter to finish.

That evening we met up with Tim Blair, who I’d not seen since 2005 when we happened to be in Kuwait at the same time.  Back then we were not able to enjoy a drink together; this time, we could and we did.  Having started off in a pub/bar in the Surry Hills area, we ended up back at his place drinking Alaskan Rock vodka which not only comes in an extraordinarily nice bottle, but is also very drinkable.  Why Alaskan Rock vodka?  Well, the founder and proprietor of the company was in attendance and, I think, she wanted to take full advantage of having a bona fide Russian to sample her product and tell her what she thought.  She liked it, we all did, and indeed we finished the bottle, leaving at 3am wondering whether Tim’s next article would contain a typo or two more than normal.  The final proof of the vodka’s quality came the next morning when we awoke to discover we were not blind and didn’t have much of a hangover.  We had a good time.

The next day I took a walk over the Sydney Harbour Bridge into North Sydney.  The views from the bridge were spectacular.

IMG_2508I didn’t do the bridge climb (it costs $200, a price I can only assume is set so high to limit the numbers), instead walking along the footpath on the east side of the bridge.  There is little danger of falling off, the whole thing being securely fenced in, which was just as well as I’m not so good with heights and the deck is a long way off the water.  It’s not that I get scared up high, I just have this irresistible urge to jump off to “see what it would be like”.  I know full well what it would be like (I would die), but for some bizarre reason I don’t quite trust myself not to go through with it.  So large barriers preventing me from doing so are welcome.

The bridge itself is magnificent, and deserves its reputation for being so.  It is an incredible feat of engineering, and is as enormous as I’d read it to be.

IMG_2514As world famous city landmarks go, this one didn’t disappoint.  Across on the north side of the bridge was the suburb of Kirribilli which overlooks both the bridge and the Opera House.  I haven’t checked, but I’m guessing these are probably the most expensive properties in Australia.

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The reason I’d walked over to North Sydney, aside from wanting to cross the bridge on foot, was to meet up with the author of The New Australian blog.  We met up and went for lunch, he being as smartly dressed as his contempt for the normal Australian business attire would suggest, and as amusing in person as he is on his blog.  I enjoyed myself, and wouldn’t mind meeting up with him again at some point.  Although he writes under strict anonymity, I can nevertheless reveal that his name is Ralph, he is black, and he designs biscuits for a living.

Walking back over the bridge towards the Rocks district, I was able to get a photo of an enormous cruise ship that had pulled up into Circular Quay.

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This giant of the seas was the Celebrity Solstice, a phenomenal piece of engineering.  It is owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises, and I assume it must have got lost if it ended up berthed in Sydney.  Maybe the captain was nailing a Moldovan dancer instead of paying attention to the navigation charts?  Now going on a cruise in such a vessel has limited appeal to me, mainly because I am under 85 years of age.  But as a piece of engineering, and looking at its design and construction and considering (as I do) what it takes to run the thing in terms of power requirements and logistics (hey, I am an engineer!) fascinated me.  I spent a good hour or more wandering alongside it over the course of 2 days and an evening, looking on with admiration.  Remembering on our last morning that my brother works for a cruise ship operator, I dropped him an email asking if he knew it.  He did, and by coincidence first met his wife on board the very same vessel.  Unfortunately my email reached him too late for him to swing me a visit on board, which would have been awesome.

That evening I walked down beside the Opera House and took some photos in the twilight and later darkness.

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The next day – Melbourne Cup Day – we took the ferry from Circular Quay to Darling Harbor via Luna Park and Balmain, but the weather had turned cold and cloudy.

IMG_2567There were large crowds out, all dressed up in nylon, rayon, polyester, and other man-made materials in celebration of the horse race, and the bars were all filling up rapidly despite the hefty entrance charges.  We walked through Darling Harbour – which looked nice – and back to the hotel, passing the National Maritime Museum.

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If I come to Sydney again, I’ll visit that place for sure.  A few hours later, and we were on the plane home, which was as easy and painless as on the way up.

I liked Sydney.  My wife preferred Melbourne, but for me Sydney has more.  It’s the harbour areas, geography, and sailing potential that made the difference, I thought.  Shame there’s no oil and gas work there.

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10 Responses to Sydney

  1. Bardon says:

    Pretty good postcard there Tim. I earned my stripes as a died in the wool Bondi Tram set boy, well before it was gentrified and I can relate to some of your comments, such as:

    - the Melbourne Sydney flight which now has the most intercity flights in the word;

    -taxis and getting around Sydney is a complete nightmare and a major problem for its viability in comparison to its peers;

    -Bondi has had its day in the sun;

    -Manly is an oddball and has always been a magnet for misfits;

    -in town planning studies in Australia Sydney is always a case study of what happens when a city never had one, it started at the rocks and sprawled out from there, I don’t know if its fixable either;

    -yes I thought TNA was like that;

    -yes the Sydney Harbour leaves everything else in the world for dead, only problem is try financing a living on the edge of it;

    - there is hope for your oil and gas career aspiration yet as we are expecting there to be a major breakthrough with the lifting of the CSG freeze in NSW in teh short term; and finally

    -I’m with Yulia on this one, Melbourne is a better city overall.

  2. TNA says:

    Bastard! And I even gave you a box of complimentary gariboldis.

    You are right; Sydney never should have grown so large. The only two viable modes of transport now are ferries or a very lightweight carbon cycle.

    I did suggest ski resort gondolas to the previous state government but I didn’t hear back.

  3. dearieme says:

    72 bucks for F&C! Bloody hell! It does remind me that it’s twenty years since we last lived in Oz.

    And another thing.

    Either (i) I forgot to tell you to use the ferries and, in particular, to go to Taronga zoo, take the cable car to the top of the hill, and wander down enjoying the views and the beasties, or (ii) You have wilfully disobeyed an order.
    http://taronga.org.au/sites/default/files/tzmap_ed4v6_march13_maponly.pdf
    It’s brill, it’s triff, it’s amazeballs, etc. Next time.

  4. Van Cloud says:

    And even though you’re upside down, your photography was great. Van

  5. For fish and chips (or more exotic seafood dishes) go to the Sydney Fish Market in Pyrmont. It’s a retail market during the day, and virtually all the sellers cook seafood for people who want to eat it on the spot. Buy a beer from the bottle shop inside, sit at the tables outside next to the harbour (not as famous a part of the harbour, but still the harbour) and it’s lovely, as well as being much cheaper than you paid. It’s easy to get to by public transport, too – just hop on the light rail outside Central Station.

  6. Sydney Harbour Bridge was astonishingly overbuilt for its time (opened in 1932). Originally it carried six traffic lanes, two tram tracks, and two rail tracks, although it’s now eight traffic lanes and two rail tracks. It was the only crossing until the Harbour Tunnel opened in 1992. The pylons are just cosmetic, and have no structural significance. Personally I think they look stupid.

  7. boy on a bike says:

    You went to Manly? hahahahaha.

    The oysters at that Opera House place are better than the fish and chips. And possibly cheaper.

    The character of Bondi changes markedly throughout the day. I used to turn up before dawn for a body surf – at that time of the day, it’s full of middle aged to very aged professional types power walking, running, swimming, surfing and generally being overly healthy. They all leave for work, and around 10am, the sunburned pommy backpackers start emerging from their hangovers and the entire character of the place turns to shit. Before they extended the sewerage outfall into deep water, the place used to actually reek of shit when the wind blew the wrong way. A large brown Bondi Snapper was not something you wanted to bump into.

    Melbourne Cup is a waste of space. Derby Day on the previous Saturday is 1000 times better. I can’t stand horse racing – but Derby Day is a fun thing to do.

    Never get in a taxi in Sydney unless you can expense it.

    The bridge climb is worth the $200 and more. Heights scare me silly, but I still managed to do it without weeing in my overalls. If you like to study smooth running operations from a management perspective, go do the bridge climb.

  8. Tim Newman says:

    @Bardon: thanks for the comments…yes, I thought the 3rd picture would have made a good postcard!

    @dearieme: sadly, I never received your sagely advice. It’ll have to wait until next time.

    @Van Cloud: thanks, and thanks for visiting, as always!

    @Michael Jennings: yeah, on this trip I was an unashamed tourist and just did what all the Chinese were doing, pretty much. If I’m in a well-known tourist destination for a few days, I prefer to do the tourist thing. If I’m there for longer, or with a local, I do all the other stuff. And yes, apparently the pylons were added to the bridge to dispel public fears that the bridge might not be strong enough. I have to say, I was surprised that there is nothing keeping the uppermost arch in tension, but obviously that’s not how the forces are transferred.

    @boy on a bike: I’m not into oysters, and I’m no connoisseur of anything, let alone fish and chips! Interesting about Bondi, I had heard about the sewage problems which, I am told, were only solved relatively recently. And yes, I can imagine gangs of sunburned pommy backpackers would have that effect on the character of the place! I might give the bridge climb a go, if and when I go back.

    Thanks for the comments everyone, much appreciated.

  9. The most expensive properties in Australia are the ones on the south of Sydney Harbour to the east of the CBD, in the so called “Eastern Suburbs”. Kiribilli and other districts on the north shore of the harbour are traditionally not quite as exclusive or expensive, although they are still outrageously expensive by any normal standard. (The two large mansions on the large parklike estate at the eastern end of Kiribilli are Kiribilli House and Admiralty House, the official Sydney residences of the Prime Minister and Governor-General respectively. The holders of these offices often tend to spend rather more time living in these houses than in what are theoretically their primary residences in Canberra). Rich people from the north shore and rich people from the Eastern Suburbs are by custom two separate tribes who despise one another.

    Once upon a time, the beach suburbs were unfashionable, working class places. They are now also so expensive that this is not remotely true any more, but you can see that history when walking around just the same.

  10. Alaskan Rock says:

    Glad you liked our spirit Tim (and special shootout to Yulia – Russian approval is worth so very much in the vodka world). Catch you again Sydney-side hopefully soon. Cheers in the interim.

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