Sunday, October 09, 2005

Sydney

The last time we were in Sydney, about eighteen months ago, we stayed for a week. Barbara had several meetings with various sheep-focussed scientists in the University and we stayed in the luxurious convenience of my aunt's apartment overlooking Rushcutters Bay. This worked because my aunt was out of the country at the time, in South Africa attending the birth of her latest grandchild. This time, she was in town. This was nice, as it meant we got to see her. But it was slightly inconvenient because it meant we had to find somewhere else to stay.

Fortunately my aunt is not the only member of my mother's brother's family to have settled in Australia. Two of her children live in Sydney as well, and so we found ourselves in Rose Bay, up a very steep hill overlooking the seaplanes, over the North Shore and up towards Manly in the distance, in a beautiful house. Cousin Shauna's husband Yaron does something in electronics and is comfortably well off. He's a really nice bloke too, which helps. But I have to admit a slight tinge of jealousy clouding my gratitude; I've never seen such a big plasma telly screen.

Sydney is a strange city. It's undeniably beautiful, and if I had to live in a dense urban environment, it would probably be the one I'd choose. There's not many cities where you can commute by boat in such style and from so many different suburbs. It is, however, very busy, and this wasn't helped by the ticker-tape parade held for the Aussie Rules footie team that had won in Melbourne the weekend before. This clogged up the centre of the city and meant that all the streets for blocks around were full of people not quite sure where they were meant to be.

The central business district of Sydney is unlike any other city I've ever been to (albeit that I've not been to many). It has all the high-rise towers you'd expect, but they are all very close together, making it feel like you're walking down endless dark canyons, the sky a faint rumour miles above. The grid pattern of the streets is not quite square, like an old house where the walls aren't true. Thus you think you're walking towards the botanical gardens and then suddenly the harbour bridge looms overhead. Most of the tall buildings are offices, as you would expect of a central business district, but in their basements and on their ground floors, they sport malls of boutiques shops and coffee bars. Passageways and underpasses seem to take you into a netherworld (an underpart of the underparts, if you like), twisting you around until you have no sense of direction, then spitting you out somewhere you didn't expect to be. It's all very bewildering, and the only thing to do is sit down and have a coffee.

Sidneysiders (and that name had to have been coined by a committee) love their coffee. More so even that Adelaide and Melbourne, every corner is a coffee shop and most of the available spaces in between. You can have anything from a decaf latte to a skinny nervous chai (whatever that is, if I didn't just make it up), but not, according to the lament of my cousin Patch, a decent mug of filter coffee. I tried to tell him that filter coffee is an abomination, served only in such hell-holes as British motorway service stations and American diners, but he wouldn't listen. Mind you, he's from South Africa, so what would he know.

We'd arranged to meet Patch on The Rocks in the late afternoon for a beer. Arriving their earlier in the afternoon, we decided to have a beer anyway and watch the foolhardy fellows climbing the Harbour Bridge. It's quite an undertaking, this, as we found out the last time we were here. On arrival, if you're not already part of a big enough group, you're assigned to a team and then shown a brief safety film. You're breathalysed to make sure you're not too tipsy. This is not a good thing if you've been bolstering your confidence with a bit of Dutch Courage before setting off. Next you have to remove everything from your pockets and place them, along with any bags, cameras or other paraphernalia you might have brought along, in lockers assigned to you for the purpose. Then you are dressed in a one-piece boiler suite, slightly reminiscent of the outfits worn in Star Trek by the Ensigns about whom Bones would surely say 'He's dead, Jim'. Once you've been put through a metal detector to make sure you're not concealing any coins, cameras or combs, You're rigged up into a climber's harness and attached to a strange ratchet and cable device before being put through a sort test to see whether you can manage the bridge itself. This consists of a metal gantry, reached by a steep set of steps up, and exited by means of an even steeper flight going down. If you pass this test, then finally you are allowed to climb the bridge itself.

Only first you have to walk about four-hundred yards down the main road dressed in something that would get laughed out of a Trekkie convention costume parade. I guess this is meant to be a team bonding thing. Facing adversity together or something.

Once you've run that gauntlet, the bridge itself is a breeze. I suffer from vertigo quite badly, but I coped. There's a short bit where you walk along a gantry slung from under the carriageway on far-too-thin metal poles. But once you're past this, looking straight down is never really an option. Most of the walkways are part of the original structure of the bridge, and the only slightly nerve-wracking bit is when you climb up a steep metal ladder, through the road deck and emerge with your head appearing at lorry wheel height in the midst of the fast-flowing traffic. It doesn't take long to rise up above such things however, and you're soon on the massive circular arch. The climb isn't as steep as it looks and the arch is so wide that you can't see down - only out.

All the while, each group is given a running commentary on the history of the bridge by their tour guide. This is through strange headphones that don't cover your ears, but instead transmit sound directly through your jawbones. You can't take anything with you on the bridge in case you drop it into the traffic below and cause a major accident. The guides have cameras however, and take pictures of everyone in each group, individually and all together (the cynic in me reckons the real reason for this is so that they can sell expensive photos to the already-fleeced tourists when they get back. It's a very slick operation).What they don't do is tell you to take off your headsets whilst you're being photographed. I have a lovely picture of me and Barbara, with the Opera House in the background, both of us looking like we've got unconvincing dark black mutton-chop bugger's grips. Not the most flattering of photos, nor one you'll ever see on this blog.

For some still-unfathomable reason, the day we did the bridge walk I had decided that morning to shave off my beard. It being late summer in Sydney at the time, it was very sunny and I had some sunblock. But of course I had to leave it in the locker back at HQ. You're on the bridge for quite a long time, and the wind blowing makes you forget quite how hot it is. In short, the above mentioned photo also shows my lobster-thermidor colouring off well. The next day I suffered.

So this time we didn't do the bridge climb. Instead, we sat in a bar and watched, and laughed, and sympathised, waiting all the while for Patch to call and tell us which pub he was going to meet us in. Eventually I phoned him to ask where he was, but getting no answer, we decided to call it a day and take the ferry back to Rose Bay. The next day, a sheepish Patch phoned to say that, after his successful business meeting, he and his colleagues had gone to a pub nearby and drunk themselves into oblivion. By eight that evening he had already taken a cab home and fallen asleep on the couch. I'm not sure that I could have coped with a heavy, Friday night kind of drinking session after a long day in the Sydney sun, so perhaps it was all for the best.

Next time: New Zealand Here We Come.

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