SYDNEY — Second Time Surprises.

26 Jun

It was a slightly surreal experience arriving at Sydney airport. My wife, Chris, and I had been primed by the brochures to be welcomed by blue skies, sunshine and smiles, but instead we were greeted by Quarantine signs and sniffer dogs. Our landing cards had also warned us that if we tried to bring any food into Australia it would be confiscated! I suppose the Australians are keen to protect themselves from: drugs, disease and pests brought in from the rest of the world. We were potential carriers. It’s doubly ironic therefore that Sydney began as a disease-ridden penal colony and that 3 of the country’s biggest pests — rabbits, wild camels and cane toads — were imported by Australians themselves.
Luckily, we were found to be “clean” and didn’t have to wade through a chemical dip or undergo a whole body search. Once we were through passport and customs, Australia started to live up to what it says on the packet — i.e. we saw blue sky, basked in warm sunshine and encountered welcoming smiles. The first smile came from my wife’s son, John, who now resides in Sydney. He lives in Dee Why, a beach resort in northern Sydney, famous for its excellent surfing. We had visited him in 2010 as well, so for us, this was Sydney, second time around.
At first glance, Sydney just seems like a British city with added sunshine. The traffic drives on the left. all street signs are in English, the Queen’s face stares out at you from the bank notes and everyone converses in the English language. It’s named after a British politician: Viscount Sydney, and was part of the British Empire and then the Commonwealth. It’s not at all surprising that Sydney is such a popular destination for British holiday-makers, back-packers and gap-yearers. OK, it’s technically a foreign city but for British travellers it provides numerous, familiar home comforts. A large proportion of the population originates from the UK and British programmes often pop up on the television screen. Even the World famous Sydney Harbour Bridge is just a bigger version of the English Newcastle’s Tyne bridge and was similarly built by Dorman Long of Middlesbrough.
However, when one has been in Sydney for a while, more and more differences emerge. The blazing Australian sun is the most obvious example. But then there is the luxuriant vegetation and exotic wildlife. One swaps: sparrows, starlings and blackbirds for cockatoos, parrots and pelicans. Glossy Ibises stroll around the parks and are so common that they are regarded as pests! A range of different egrets and herons fish the rivers and pools, while swans happen to be black with red bills.
Dee Why, where we stayed, is an ocean- side suburb of Sydney in the centre of the Northern Beaches region. It has the usual shopping malls, apartment blocks and a busy main road. However the main focus is its extensive beach and attractive coastline. The short, grassy promenade is guarded by a line of handsome Norfolk pines. The sandy beach leads up to a prominent headland ( Long Reef) and is backed by a lagoon fringed by feathery reeds. Surfers ride in on the big breakers and on windy days kite-surfers scud across the water at breakneck speed. It’s not the usual thing you would see in a British city. On our first walk there we saw a trio of large white pelicans fishing in the shallows, then twisting their necks round to preen themselves. As I reached eagerly for my camera to capture the moment, two of flew off! Then, as we walked by the lagoon, three black swans suddenly took off and flew towards the sun, gradually turning into silhouettes.
Such wild-life surprises continued throughout our stay. My first view of a cockatoo was while I was walking up the street to the supermarket. It was sitting on top of a lamp-post, squawking away and opening and closing its yellow crest like a fan. It seems that lamp-posts are very popular with wild-life in Australia. As we drove north towards Palm Beach one day, John informed us that we were approaching “Pelican Bridge”. I tried to conjure up an image of a bridge in the shape of a giant pelican. Then I saw what he meant. The bridge crossed an inlet of the sea and on almost every one of its lamp-posts sat a pelican warming itself.
On our first full day we walked along the top of the cliffs south from Dee Why on the coastal path to Manley via Curl Curl. The surf was up and we watched as high, crashing waves swamped the open-air swimming pools that feature at the end of every beach. Up in the sky we saw a sea eagle circling and being mobbed by gulls. Amongst the rock pools we observed a small, grey heron standing perfectly still, waiting to strike. Between June and October one can spot migrating humpback whales off this coastline as well as dolphins and porpoises. ( Unfortunately we visited in April, so missed them.) We did however see lizards of all sizes. They scurried along the paths, warmed themselves on rocks or sat like statues pretending to be part of a tree. John identified quite a big specimen with a dragon-like head as an Eastern Water Dragon.
The most vivid reminder that Sydney is in the sub-tropics is the presence of brightly coloured little parrots. They are actually Rainbow Lorikeets and are red, orange and green. They chatter constantly in the trees and visit people’s balconies on the lookout for tit-bits. As the sun sets and dusk deepens they fly in to roost in their hundreds, their excitable squawking rising to a deafening crescendo. Less than half an hour later, all is silent.
My most unexpected encounter with Sydney’s wildlife was up in the Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National park on the northern edge of greater Sydney. The area is ravishingly beautiful. Thickly forested green hills drop down into the blue ocean. We drove to West Head, a lookout which has fabulous views of beaches, headlands and wooded islands. Two long fingers of the sea meet at Broken Bay off the tip of a narrow peninsula. Sea birds soared on the thermals below us and dozens of tiny yachts dotted the blue bay with their white sails. Opposite, in front of another peninsula topped by a Victorian lighthouse, a seaplane took off, whisking commuters to the city centre. We descended steeply through the luxuriant, subtropical forest to a small beach far below. A tumbling stream followed us. In a tree we spotted a Kookaburra ( or Laughing Jackass), looking like a large furry kingfisher. Later we encountered a Possum perched lazily in the fork of another tree. However, it was when we got down to the beach that the real surprise came. I looked down at my right leg and was horrified to see a black, slimy leech engorging itself on my blood! It’s not a nice feeling seeing a parasite stuck to you. John had leeches on his leg too. I brushed it off in disgust. A smaller one was feeding on my foot. I let out a shudder and remembered Humphrey Bogart in “The African Queen” when he discovered leeches on his body after towing the boat through the mangrove swamp. ” If it’s anything in the world I hate, it’s leeches! Filthy little devils!” A bloody streak was left on my shin. Who would have thought I would have encountered leeches while on a visit to the sophisticated city of Sydney! This second visit impressed upon me that Sydney is much more than a built-up, urban environment. So much of this visit was taken up with :scenic beaches, bays, headlands, forests( bush) and wildlife or all shapes and sizes. It’s a very surprising city experience.
We did travel into the centre on one day however, following up two full days of exploration on our 2010 visit. Easily the best way to arrive into Sydney, in my opinion, is by boat, We took the ferry from Manley, just south of Dee Why. Manley has the Pacific Ocean on one side and the calmer waters of Port Jackson on the other. Both shores have lovely promenades and beaches. The ferry wharf is on the quieter side. Near to the wharf is a colony of tiny penguins, but we never saw them as they are nocturnal. The ferries are big old tubs, painted green and yellow. They are probably from the 1950’s or 60’s and they reminded me of the Star Ferry in Hong Kong. The Manley Ferry service began in 1854.
What a way to commute into the city! Enjoy a cappuccino in one of the cafes at the wharf before boarding the half hourly boat which glides smoothly across the waters of Port Jackson right into the heart of Sydney. Port Jackson is actually a flooded, sunken-valley which twists and turns inland to meet the waters of the Parramatta River. On the way it washes into many picturesque coves and bays, winds around rocky points and past little islands.
The ferry slowly turned a corner and the famous twin sights of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House swung into view. As this scene got closer, the tourist cameras went into overdrive. The water was criss-crossed by a flotilla of small vessels, yachts and cabin cruises as the ferry sailed right into Circular Quay. To the right is the famous arched Harbour bridge, to the right are the graceful, creamy sails or shells of the Opera House, and straight ahead are the soaring, clustered skyscrapers of the CBD. Departure at night was even more spectacular as all these famous sights were floodlit. Arriving by boat at Sydney’s Circular Quay is like sailing into the middle of a picture postcard.
The atmosphere on the quay is relaxed and enjoyable. Commuters mingle easily with tourists. The warm sun, blue sky and sparkling harbour help to make this a special place. Cafes, shops and street entertainers all help to create a pleasing ambience. One of the buskers was an aborigine musician, in white body paint, playing a didgeridoo to a backing tape. He added greatly to the enjoyment and atmosphere of the place, but it was sad to see a descendent of one of Australia’s original inhabitants reduced to tourist fodder.
We walked towards The Rocks in the direction of the Harbour Bridge. This is the historical quarter of Sydney, being the site of the original convict settlement, established in 1788. The native aborigines must have looked on in amazement at the arrival of their strange, pale-skinned visitors. Some were armed to the teeth while the rest were shackled in chains. The local native tribes were about to be overwhelmed by a very different society than that they were used to. The area soon became a slum and in the later 1800’s became notorious for: crime, drunkenness, disease and debauchery. Luckily what was left of The Rocks was cleaned up and saved from the clutches of developers in the 1970’s who wanted to demolish it all. It is now one of Sydney’s top tourist attractions, slightly resembling an historical theme park. However it is only “historical in an Australian context being 19th and early 20th Century. British and European visitors would have seen much older areas than this. Nevertheless, the Victorian-era architecture of The Rocks contrasts nicely with the modern high rise developments nearby and lend a different feel to this area.
We walked up towards the Harbour bridge passing through Argyle Cutting. This was created by convict chain gangs and later by hired labourers in the mid 19th century. Between them they took 16 long, hard years to cut through solid rock with hammers and chisels. We climbed up a steep staircase at the side of this cutting to gain the bridge.
It’s not every day that one gets to step on to the page of a tourist brochure or get up close to an “icon.” I hate the overuse and subsequent devaluation of the term “iconic” but even I have to admit that Sydney harbour bridge deserves this accolade. Along with the Opera House which sits opposite to it across the glistening water, the harbour bridge is the instantly recognisable symbol of Sydney and of Australia as a whole. Show someone a picture of the “Coat-hanger” as it’s locally known, and no captions are needed. Last time we gazed at it from below and took photographs of it from different angles and in different light conditions. This time, second time around, we walked across it.
The bridge is immense. It carries a 4 lane road, a railway, a cycle track and a pedestrian walkway. It is introduced by 2 huge towers on each side and then the graceful, intricate web of iron girders curves up into the sky. The views of the harbour, the Opera House and the city beyond are fabulous. The bridge was completed in 1932 and links north and south Sydney. At the time it was the largest arched bridge in the world. Today a Harbour Tunnel helps to take the strain of the ever increasing traffic but when you’re up there, the vehicles thunder by in a constant stream. We were too nervous to do the ( expensive) bridge climb over the top, but despite the din, it was a real thrill to walk across it.
Later we made the obligatory visit to the steps of Sydney Opera House designed by a Danish architect, Jorn Utzon, in the early 1970’s. The giant sails or shells that make up its roof, fit perfectly with its waterside location. Utzon’s father was a yacht designer. The thousands of creamy-white tiles shine and shimmer in the sun. The whole effect is strikingly beautiful and it almost looks as if the building is about to float off on the water
Two icons in one day is more than enough so we then relaxed by strolling through the Botanical gardens and visiting the Art Gallery of New South Wales. One disappointment was that the large colony of fruit bats ( or flying foxes) which had been roosting in the garden’s Palm Grove on our previous visit, was now nowhere to be seen. John’s partner, Freya, suggested that they might have been culled ( ie killed). I hope not.
So it was another memorable visit to Sydney second time around. We saw the famous sights again, but also encountered numerous surprises. This time we didn’t visit the wonderful Blue Mountains to the west of the city because of time constraints, but we did have a glorious view of them from the air as we flew north to Queensland. Although it is Australia’s biggest and busiest city, it is Sydney’s picturesque coast, beautiful national parks and exotic wildlife that will live longest in the memory after this second visit. In many ways Sydney defies the conventional definition of a city. I’m glad that the immigration men and the sniffer dogs let us in!

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One Response to “SYDNEY — Second Time Surprises.”

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  1. HK Ninja : HK Q&ASYDNEY — Second Time Surprises. » HK Ninja : HK Q&A - June 26, 2013

    […] It was a slightly surreal experience arriving at Sydney airport. My wife, Chris, and I had been primed by the brochures to be welcomed by blue skies, sunshine and smiles, but instead we were greeted by Quarantine signs and sniffer dogs. Our landing cards had also warned us that if we tried to bring … …read more […]

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