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.
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.
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.
You 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.
And 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.
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.
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.
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.
We 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.
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.
I 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.
As 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.
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.
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.
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.
There 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.
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.