The alarm clock rings at 5:30. It’s a June day in Melbs and the temperature is in single digits. I have a sore throat and four hours of sleep under my belt. Logic tells me that it’s going to be a beautiful day — though I strongly suspect that that’s the cough medicine I had working on me. As I step out into the night, the streets of Fairfield are dark and foreboding, and shadows loom round every corner. The irrational fear that something might jump out rushes past my brain for a second, but I collect my nerves and reach the station just in time — not just for the train, but also for the Sun to make a glorious, dazzling entrance.
As far as spectacular leaps onstage go, this is one of the best I’ve seen. Not just in Australia. In my life.
We’ve arranged to meet outside Melbourne Central, and as the ornate clock above the atrium strikes 7:30 I step out onto La Trobe Street. Amy sees me first: the sole Hong Kong-based classmate I know also taking literature, she looks and sounds Japanese (and I am reliably informed that she speaks the language), and is one of the friendliest people on Earth (by a long shot). Next to her is Betsy, a ditzy-looking character who hides behind her glasses the soul of a true adventurer. She’s literally down for anything — she’s slipping this trip in between two exams and it was only last week that she came back from Cairns on a trip with too many experiences to list here. Then finally Kathy appears in sight: a level-headed (I hesitate to use the term “short”, knowing that this will attract a long hard stare from her, even through a screen) girl with a lot of snark and a frequent companion in Melburnian explorations, she’s also easily the funniest of the three (sorry, Amy). All three of them are rubbing sleep from their eyes and trying desperately not to regret their life choices.
“And exactly why do you have such a bulging bag?” Betsy asks, pointing at my duffel. I have never been good at packing, and so I have stuffed in, along with my laptop, far too many clothes for a five-day trip. At this point the Uber driver arrives, sparing me the indignity of explaining why two pairs of thick pants are really, really necessary. As we drive through an inordinate amount of backstreets towards Melbourne Tullamarine, the sun peeks out from behind the low-lying clouds, providing a soft glare into the car and painting the cabin a nice golden yellow. In no time at all we’re unloading our bags, charging through security — and in my case, then forgetting to retrieve my laptop from security.
Two hours later, we’re preparing to land when I spot what appears to be the coastline rushing towards us. I push my window open and stare out the window. At first there are nothing but shallow sandbanks — lines of beige and yellow, streaking across the ocean again and again. But then the plane banks to the left, and it comes into view all at once: the giant conurbation that is Sydney, with its tall towers and suburbia stretching farther than the eye can see, all surrounding a dainty splash of faint blue that slices its way across the water, crossed by a single structure that everyone recognizes immediately. Betsy points out Manly Beach as we fly across it, says dreamily “I’d like to go there if I have time, they say it’s an awesome place”. We are low enough to spot individual people on the beaches as we fly inland, relaxing despite the cool June weather — then the beautiful dunes abruptly disappear, replaced by flat and featureless grey buildings. Any sense of the dramatic is swiftly swept away, and it’s a weary and resigned crew that lands at Sydney Airport. To nobody’s surprise, our first port of call are the toilets.
After a lot of fiddling with the Opals — the contactless smart ticket of Sydney — we head for the city centre on one of Sydney’s trains. To say that they are “humongous” is understating the point: these are behemoths that contain TWO decks of spacious carriages, and almost endless seating. To a boy from Hong Kong, who grew up thinking that trains could only be one layer, this is a massive shock; the shock is amplified when I discover that the seats, to my delight, can swivel back and forth with a somersault that’s so intricate, it feels more like I’m watching the interior of a clock at work. Whoever thought of installing this swivel feature on the seats — I love you, you’re a genius. The train roars through a couple of tunnels, and then we suddenly emerge into the sunlight and the skyscrapers of Sydney CBD. Everything is big, everything is shiny all at once. It’s a surprise, to say the least.
After a couple of changes, we arrive at our final destination, Kings Cross. It might have the name of the Harry Potter station but you won’t find any wizardry or magic: instead, you’re more likely to find tales of sleaze and sinisterness here. During the latter half of the twentieth century, while Sydney’s popularity was exploding, this district was the epicentre of crime and intrigue in Australia, with strip clubs and brothels and even illegal casinos providing endless entertainment for the visiting tourists — all operating in open view of the police station just round the corner. As we walk down Darlinghurst Road, boards set in the side of buildings illustrate (with an unsettling amount of relish) the events that happened here in the 1970s, when crime in Kings Cross was at its highest, when journalists and clubgoers who got a bit too nosy would simply enter a backroom and never be seen again.
These days, of course, the place looks less like a scene from “Goodfellas” and more like your average gentrified suburb, full of hostels and cafes and pretty little parks — but the strip clubs are still there, and every other doorway leads underground, tempting you with illicit pleasures. But three of us are various denominations of Christian, so we turn with some difficulty away from the sexy ladies and down William Street, where we eventually locate our hostel.
The good news is that we have a four-person room. The wonderful news is that it’s the closest room — by far — to the only toilet in the entire building, and at one o’clock on a boring Saturday afternoon it is delightfully free of spittle, vomit or whatever it is that people my age normally leave in hostel toilets. You could almost call it clean, which is why I call upon the others to witness this marvel of sanitation. Eventually, however, we decide that there is more to Sydney than clean bathrooms, and go off in search of food.
Some wraps and a short trip to the bank for Kathy hastily polished off, we go for a walk down William Street. The cars roar past, all with somewhere to go — unlike Melbourne, where everyone takes their time, this feels a lot more like Hong Kong. Everyone rushes everywhere, and I feel myself aching to tick places off my list. It’s an ache that unsettles me: I’ve prided myself on my ability to slow down since I arrived in Melbourne, freed from the hectic hustle and bustle of my hometown. But now I’m here, I can feel the agitated me knocking at the door: a step that seems to quicken, a desire to see everything at once as if I’m on a time limit. Perhaps I’m being overly self-conscious again. Perhaps it’s just a desire to match everything going on around me.
Turn into Hyde Park — what is it with colonialists naming underwhelming places after things back home? — and St. Mary’s Cathedral looms right in front of us, along with the first herd of tourists we’ve seen all day. It’s a rather warm day despite it being the middle of winter, and the sun is beating down mercilessly on all the heads. Wonder briefly if jumping into the fountain will get me arrested, but instead we crowd into the cathedral to admire what is apparently the longest church in Australia. Inside it’s quieter, but only just: the whispers of hundreds reverberates off the walls, swelling and tolling underneath the soft light of the arches. Betsy rattles off a list of architectural terms that I immediately forget. It’s the sort of place where the mysteries of God come back to haunt you, in the vastness under the cloisters. The sign at the front telling us to lower our voices is unnecessary: we’re already speaking in whispers, afraid to crash our way into somebody else’s faith.
Walk out into the sunshine on Macquarie Street, one of Sydney’s most important thoroughfares. Almost all of the important buildings in New South Wales are situated along this street — and they’re all closed on a Saturday afternoon. All we get of these buildings are a rudimentary glance through some iron gates: the Hyde Park Barracks, the Sydney Mint, the Eye Hospital. Attempts to enter the New South Wales Parliament turn out to be cumbersome and unnecessary: no tours are scheduled for today, making the security checks we had to go through a waste of our time. (This hits Betsy so hard that she decides to post a letter inside the building. Well, we all have our coping mechanisms.)
There IS one building in business, though: the majestic rooms of the NSW State Library are still welcoming readers, along with the rather good exhibition of protest art they have in an adjacent wing. Like the one back in Victoria, though, the main attractions of the library are the reading rooms, which are a triumph of architecture: classical, well-worn wooden tables and shelves containing row upon row of old books, all under an ultra-modern ceiling that lets the light in. It’s a welcome balance of old and new, especially after all the old and dusty buildings on Macquarie Street. Further on down the building, the ceiling curves elegantly through a series of open spaces, like Ariadne’s thread through the Labyrinth — just what you’d expect from a library.
By the time we step out into the street, it’s pretty late in the day, and the sun is hovering close to the horizon. This we gather from our perch in the Botanic Gardens: the angles are just right for a view of Sydney Harbour, uninterrupted by skyscrapers. The girls, being avid users of Instagram, excitedly trade photo snaps: but as we line up and trade our phones we notice that the air is getting stuffy: symptoms of the city’s major problem with air pollution. At this point the cold, having been conveniently forgotten since the Airport, rears its ugly head, and the sore throat returns with a vengeance. It doesn’t really let up for the rest of the day, even when a breeze arrives after a couple of minutes.
The girls are really taking their time with the photos. “Shall we get a move on, then?” I say, a slight edge of urgency in my voice. I know I shouldn’t be caring too much about time, but there’s a place I’d really like to get to before sunset, and that’s less than half an hour away on the other side of the longest park I’ve seen in my life. So I hurry them down a narrow and winding path, past Government House, where the Governor of NSW resides; past a strange birdcage sculpture where the sea presents itself for the first time, calm and glowing in the evening light…
… no, not even that is able to stay our footsteps for long as we head through the park and barrel down towards Bennelong Point. Then we round a corner, a tree moves out of the way and I hear a collective intake of breath — including from myself. For what we have in front of us, just beyond the gates of the park, is quite possibly the eighth wonder of the world.
Question for you lot down in the comments: when’s the first time you ever saw a world-famous building? Perhaps you saw it first in a travel brochure, or perhaps you went and saw it for yourself on your travels. Perhaps one’s already part of your life — if you live in, say, Paris or London. But regardless of where you live: the first time you see one of these places, it’s always euphoric. There’s so much mystique around these places, so many legends, that when you finally see your first glimpse of these places, you feel like you’ve accomplished something big at last. You feel like you’re finally growing up, like a big boy who’s seen the world. That’s how it was for me: in the summer of 2004, I was supposed to be in school, but my parents had defied school orders and taken me to Australia to sound out prospects of emigration. (Given how things have turned out here in Hong Kong, they certainly planned ahead.) I was really young, but I still remember bits and pieces of that trip, one of which was a visit to the Sydney Opera House. It was the first time I’d ever been exposed to a building of legendary status, and fourteen whole years later, I can still remember the thrill of that first glimpse as its beautiful off-white shells revealed themselves, that spark of recognition that coursed through me as our train arrived at nearby Circular Quay station. And as we walk down the last few steps onto Bennelong Point, I realize that it’s a feeling that has never really left me even when I’ve grown up — because how could it leave you? How could anyone fail to be moved by the awkward grace of the Sydney Opera House?
Those welcoming curves, those tiled steps… everything is lit by the fading sunshine, a blinding gold that turns into a mysterious blue as you look up towards the heavens. Under the sun, everything is turned into a silhouette: the people, the flagpoles, even the Harbour Bridge, so rarely the supporting character in a view of Sydney. We charge up the steps, debating for minutes how we can take a picture here that captures both the majesty of the Opera House and our wonder at just being here. I’m extremely camera-shy, but surely there has to be an exception for this place. I’ve been to other famous landmarks, before and since — yet this one still is, and perhaps will be forever, my favourite building in the world.
Dinnertime brings us right back down to Earth. Being the closest commercial district to the Sydney Opera House, Circular Quay is full of restaurants. Unfortunately said restaurants all have extortionate prices: one look at any menu there is enough to have any sane person clutching their wallet in fear, especially four very broke students. Eventually, though, we find a relatively lower-priced food court just across from the station, littered with the cuisines of the world. I am fascinated by the counter selling Egyptian food — what are all these Arabic words, and why do they all have to be nigh unpronounceable? In the spirit of adventure (read: irresponsibility) I order a sort of dinner box that comes with a lamb kebab and a dip which I later discover is baba ghanoush, a sort of aubergine dip (and which a scene from Sex Education has since ruined for me). It’s not exactly warm, but the flavours are aplenty and it’s a shock to the system I didn’t know I needed.
The girls, being less adventurous, stick with Southeast Asian and the comfort of hot phở.
By the time we step back out into Circular Quay, it’s night-time, and we are amazed. No, we aren’t marvelling at how daylight works: we’ve arrived in Sydney just in time for the last few days of Vivid Sydney, the annual light festival that turns the entire Harbourfront into a canvas of light and art. The largest concentration of these installations is at the Rocks, the posh suburb on the opposite side of the Quay, and from there we watch as the sails of the Opera House morph into a zebra pattern, and the trees light up in a dozen different colours. My favourite is the one where a million paper birds hang in a frame above us, flashing different pastel colours: it’s absurdly simple, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t the most romantic thing I’ve seen in a while.
But that’s all there is to it, really. It’s pretty and everything, but having been to Melbourne’s White Night celebrations, all of us (especially the girls) are a little ambivalent about the other stuff they’ve got on offer. Besides a couple of performances involving some sentient hula hoops, it’s all light and projection, an effort to spruce up what’s already beautiful with some good old artificiality. There’s no audible joy from the crowds around us, no collective gasps of wonder. Maybe it’s because it’s a Thursday night, but the crowds are thin, and nobody seems to look at a piece for more than a couple of seconds.
At the edge of the Rocks, we find a pontoon facing the Harbour Bridge. Leaning on the wooden handrails, we chat quietly, ignoring the beautiful colours of the bridge above. It’s only half past seven, but we all agree that we’ve had quite enough for the night: the early start has wreaked havoc on our brains, and the pretty colours are a little too much — especially for the person who’s self-medicating today. We decide to call it a day.
Back at Kings Cross station I walk across to the building opposite the station for fruit — I might be beyond the grasp of my very concerned parents, but I still keep a healthy diet like the good little boy I am. A stab of red lights up my eyes, and I look up to see not a sniper aiming for my forehead, but the giant words COCA-COLA filling my vision. A little online research tells us that this is the largest billboard in the Southern Hemisphere, though we all agree that it’s got nothing on the ones we have back in Hong Kong. Coke has had this billboard since 1974, and such is its size that this monument to consumerism has bizarrely become a tourist destination in its own right. In the dark of the night, it looks ominous, its gaudy lights only amplifying the death and decay that’s happened in Kings Cross before and since. But I have to admit I’m charmed: there’s something kitschy about old-school advertising, something about that empty promise — that everything will be alright if you buy the world a Coke — that’s strangely comforting. Perhaps I fall for these things too easily.
To bed, heavily sedated by a double dose of cough medicine.