Sydney – Sultry & Sizzling (multiple times)

Sydney – Sultry & Sizzling (multiple times)

The top of Sydney Harbour Bridge is an excellent spot to get a panoramic view of this bustling Australian city. But I am somewhat amused when my tour guide hands me a certificate vouching for my having successfully climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Frankly, I didn’t think it was much of a feat, what with so many precautions including an iron chain tether to ensure that the suicidal among you don’t jump off the bridge. The incline of the arch itself is very gentle and there are many ledges which offer you ample excuses to pause and catch your breath while admiring the stunning scenery. Down below, cars look like crawling toys and even further below them are boats slicing the water and spraying foam jets.  A train trundles noisily across the bridge on one side, way below the level on which you’re standing. Sydney city virtually radiates from this central point. There is bustling activity all around. The harbour is choc-a-bloc with boats of all sizes, there are tourists taking off in boats in all directions, office-goers hurrying off to work, leisurely shoppers lounging around the circular quay. Yonder, the blue ocean shimmers.

You conclude the bridge is beautiful, but not exceptional. After all, you have seen other impressive bridges – the Oresund, for instance, that spans 16 kilometers across Oresund Straits from Denmark to Sweden and the photogenic Golden Gate in San Fransisco that links Alcatraz to the Redwoods of Muir forest. In terms of scale, size and engineering complexity, they are far superior. Besides, there are many high-rises around Sydney bridge, mostly hotels and banks literally dwarfing it and detracting from its grandeur. But then, when you consider that Sydney Harbour Bridge was completed in 1932, you realize it is indeed exceptional. The bridge defines the spirit of Sydney in many ways. It embodies the determination of Sydneysiders to demonstrate to the world that they could leave their convict past behind and build something at once concrete, constructive and spectacular.


Australia is a young nation and Sydney was its first settlement. Initial settlers, exiled convicts from Britain, established a town around Sydney cove but as the population grew, the city developed around the harbour on the southern bank. After all, being an island nation, the harbour was the gateway to Australia, literally. On the northern side of the harbour Billy Blue, a colourful ex-convict was granted land around 1814, laying the foundation for the northern suburbs. Those days, the only link between the north and the south was through ferries. The story goes that Billy Blue ran a ferry service and would often extort money from hapless passengers threatening to dump them into the sea if they did not pay up. Until the bridge came up at the bay’s narrowest point in 1932, Sydney was a city divided by water. Since then, several other bridges have come up along the bay providing connectivity to the ever-expanding suburbs on either side. One of them, the ANZAC bridge is seductively named Madonna’s bra for its cone-shaped spaghetti steel ribbons resembling one of her garments.

The other Sydney icon of course, is the Opera House immortalized in myriad films, picture postcards etc. Shaped like a stack of shells or lotus petals, this monument which sits on 550 columns driven into the seabed is the pride and joy of Sydneysiders.  Built by Danish architect Utson, the Opera House exceeded all estimates – of costs and time. It took 14 years to build and cost a whopping 102 million Australian dollars, the latter exceeding the original budget by a magnitude of 16 so much so, they even had to hold a lottery to raise the funds!  And it is entirely government-owned. Sydney Opera House  hosts scintillating ballet, opera, theatre and music performances by the world’s best artists. No wonder it is a favourite meeting point for the city’s cognoscenti.

The best views of sunrise in Sydney are to be had from the top of the Harbour Bridge, but since it doesn’t open that early for visitors and costs a packet to climb, the next best option is to make sure you get a hotel room right next to the harbour on one of the upper floors. From the 28th Floor of Shangri La hotel, I get a lovely view of the sun splattering its first orange rays on the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge bathing them in an ethereal glow.

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Initially I had some apprehensions about spending too much time in a city. I was impatient to get to the bush to taste the country in its pristine environs, but then I realized that enterprising Australians have in fact brought the bush to the city. You don’t really have to go into the Australian outback to get a peek at those fantastic Australian mammals or marine life. They are right here, in Sydney, just on the quay. Sydney Wildlife Park and Aquarium imitates the natural habitat of these creatures. Rock wallabies lounge around on cliffs, tropical butterflies and birds live in harmony in a mini tropical jungle overgrown with tree-ferns and shrubs, tree-hugging koalas munch blithely on eucalyptus and echidnas scurry from bush to bush. And the soothing sound of wild bird cries filters through the hidden microphones on the roof. It is hard to believe you’re in a man-made park in Sydney’s central business district.

I am absolutely delighted to meet Darren Ritchie, an aboriginal artist who has an ethnic stall in the park. The stall itself is a circular mud hut with typical aboriginal motifs on the mud walls. He demonstrates how to use the boomerang and digeridoos. For the first time, I learn that there is a non-returning boomerang as well. He also shows me painted emu eggs and an album of his lovely paintings using colours ground from ochre and other stones.  He informs me that there is a cruise to an original aboriginal settlement in Sydney where I can see first hand,  their culture and traditions, but unfortunately, it is only on Tuesdays and Saturdays and I won’t be able to make it this time.

In the aquarium next door, you can literally get up close and personal with sharks, manta rays and sting rays. All that stands between you and them is a sheet of glass of which they seem oblivious as they go about their usual business. The lighting is dimmed to mimic the ocean and it is as if you’re watching these marine creatures in their natural habitat.  I feel as though I am in a National Geographic film.

But if you want to see those elusive Tasmanian devils and dingos, you may have to travel out of Sydney to Australian Reptile Park en route to Port Stephens where an enthusiastic Benjamin Tate will drag a reluctant wombat out of its burrow just so that you can get a peek. In the process, not only does he get his clothes muddy, but also gets scratched and kicked violently. He reminds me so much of late Steve Irwin that Australian veteran of the outback who brought all those lovable creepy crawlies of the bush into our living rooms. Tate’s little daughter has a possum nestling in her arms and kookaburra perched on her shoulder.

A two and a half hour drive from Sydney takes you to Port Stephens which makes for an interesting day trip especially if you want to see dolphins and whales in their natural habitat. The boat harbour looks out into the Pacific Ocean in the migration path of whales and dolphins and you can take the boat tour which ‘guarantees’ dolphin-spotting. Of course, April is not the season for whales to visit Port Stephens yet, but dolphins seem to be there, aplenty. They seem such fun-loving mammals and actually race with our boat occasionally sprinting out of the water as if to give you a tantalizing glimpse of their gleaming bodies.

Duglass Hocking, our effervescent tour guide insists on taking us to Port Stephen’s winery for tasting those fine Australian merlots, pinot gris, pinot noirs and shiraz. Port Stephens used to be a trading port especially for timber and coal which is produced in nearby Newcastle, appropriately named by the first settlers, but now its claim to fame is from its 125 wineries and celladoors. Australian wines now sit in some of the most discerning cellars around the world and are sought after by oenophiles for their distinctive quality.  Port Stephen wineries now are a formidable competitor to their better-known cousins, the Hunter and Yarra Valley wineries. Adjacent Anna Bay Produce Store and Café offers some unique locally-grown organic Australian produce where you can stock up on virgin olive oil and gluten-free vegetarian gourmet bakes.

Port Stephens also boasts another of those unique Australian phenomena – desert alongside the sea – at Tomaree National Park. Tomaree is unlike anything I have ever seen before. Sea and desert sand dunes, seemingly unlikely bedfellows, co-exist in companionable harmony. This is not your desert pockmarked by bushes and shrubbery, but pure fine white sand mounds where wind has etched its wavy patterns on the surface. But for the roar of the sea in the background, it is easy to believe you’re in Thar in Rajasthan, back home. Stockton beach that runs 34 km along the desert is truly Australia’s most magnificent beach. Stephen Westcott who drives a four-wheel drive for Port Stephens Sand Dune Tours insists on showing us Tomaree’s Tin City. It is exactly as it sounds, a tin settlement of just a few houses right in the middle of the desert.  These tin shacks were originally built to settle some shipwrecked sailors – there are many shipwrecks in these parts – but have since been occupied by apparently people-shy loners. They seem to have electricity alright since a loosely slung electric line runs to these shacks, but what do they do for water? Steve assures me that digging just a few feet into the sand yields ample water. We lounge around for a while hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the residents, but none shows up. We move on reluctantly.

Our next activity is sandboarding. It is not unlike tobogganing except that instead of snow you have sand. A bus load of Koreans have landed here today and the slopes are burrowed deep with mirthful sandboarders. While sliding down is fun, I find myself unequal to climbing up the steep sand dunes again and again. A group of young boys in sand scooters zoom around the sand dunes kicking up dust. Yonder, a procession of four-wheel drives on top of a sand mound looks like a scene straight out of the movies. On the horizon, clouds gather hinting at an impending storm. The expanse of sand and the deep blue sea juxtaposed against  the ominous black clouds make for a fascinating panorama. The elements seem to be at their rawest here on the Australian coast.

Back in Sydney that evening, I decide to check out the city’s beaches. Bondi beach, beloved of Sydneysiders is packed with surfers and swimmers, but I prefer the winding walks along the shore built on the ledge of the cliffs that hug the coast. My last night at Sydney is spent on the Showboats, a leisurely cruise around the harbour area by night when Sydney’s twinkling fairy lights come on and the city assumes a magical aura. A fitting finale to an enchanting journey to seductive Sydney.

(Published in Frontline dated )


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