Alarm rings at 9:30 — finally. Even though it’s a Saturday morning the bathroom remains miraculously clean as I head inside to freshen up, and the dining room is bustling as I head down for a bit of toast and cereal — I thought all backpackers were raging alcoholics? As it turns out, there is a dark side to the hostel kitchen: as we’re dusting the crumbs from our fingers, Amy returns bearing news of “the largest cockroach she’s seen in her life”. I have never been so nervous near a sink in my twenty years.
It’s Kathy’s last full day here in Sydney, and we’re eager to give her a last day to remember. We therefore begin the day by visiting that most Australian of landmarks: a pharmacy on George Street. One of the girls needs something, and so we find ourselves on Sydney’s high street, looking through windows for a certain object, the function of which has since been forgotten. (I’m aware of how dodgy that sounds, but no, it’s not a euphemism.) I’m not as enthusiastic about shopping as the girls are, so instead, I wander off across George Street, still quiet and deserted despite it being almost 11. Trip on a bit of metal lying on the ground and it’s then that I notice the light rail tracks, stretching symmetrically into the distance. This is the CBD and Southeast Light Rail, still under construction after three years of work, still having troubles despite being almost finished. As a fan of these things I know how long projects like this take, but it’s hard not to turn your nose up at such slow progress. Maybe I’m oversimplifying this, but surely laying a few tracks down and running some trams along it isn’t too difficult? The people up in Queensland did just fine building a line in two.
Cross the street into The Galeries and the Kinokuniya Bookstore. This comes at the recommendation of my friend Gabrielle, who once said that she spent much time running around and yelling “WHAT” at the genres on offer. I’m not quite as ecstatic at the sight of books, but a few steps in and you can see why this place could make you that reckless. Perhaps it’s the largeness of the place: row upon row of bookshelves, a never-ending sea of books that both impresses and terrifies with its size, that makes you want to explore every nook and cranny. Or maybe it’s the atmosphere and the smell: a cocktail of paper and dust, mixed with the weakest sunshine; the sound of people in the aisles stepping around, trying to decide which world they want to lose themselves in. There is even a small talk on illustrations in children’s literature, which only deepens my respect for Kinokinuya. No visit to such a sanctum is complete without a purchase, so I progress to the cashier waving a book that ruminates on, of all things, whale music.
Having finally located me and the exit, we cross the street again to another fantastic exhibit of Sydney’s architectural past. I always find it amazing how you can simply turn a corner in these cities and find another building with an illustrious history — but this wasn’t always the case for Sydney. Upon completion in 1897, the Queen Victoria Building was immediately loathed by both government and public for being a waste of money, and spent its first years being labelled things like “white elephant”, “handicap”, and my favourite, “incubus”. Everyone wanted to see it torn down, but for one reason or another they simply forgot about such proposals. So it stood there, quietly rotting for half a century, until it was renovated in 1985 by the government of Singapore (because why not) and suddenly everybody thought, “you know what, I kind of like this graceful building”.
Today it’s held as a shining example of Victorian architecture, with complex clocks and facades that date back to the original building and enormous domes letting in light, filtered through stained-glass windows. It’s the closest thing to a Victorian mystery novel: you keep on asking yourself “where does that lead? What’s that thing I haven’t noticed before?”. But even if exploring a mystery box-like shopping arcade isn’t your thing, the stores here are pretty good at piquing your interest: sellers of fur coats and Mont Blancs sit side by side with those selling toy soldiers, chocolate, Italian biscotti, all advertised in sumptuously decorated shopfronts. We stand zero chance of buying anything here, but none of us can resist walking into a few of the stores, checking a few of the wares. As I’ve said a few paragraphs back, I don’t really shop — but in a pretty place like this, the temptation to turn capitalist is just huge.
Psychedelic trip through Victoriana over, we split up. Betsy and Amy, having read something about a market at the Rocks, have decided to take a look to see if they can strike fairer bargains; Kathy and I, meanwhile, strike west for Darling Harbour, the fireworky place we saw yesterday. As we walk, we reminisce about things we’ve seen and done in Australia. Kathy has been everywhere: a couple of months back she went off to Perth, driving up and down the coast of West Australia with a friend. She seems like she’s in a hurry to go places: tomorrow Kathy will be in Melbourne; by Monday she will be 7000 km away, ready to take up a job that she’s somehow found in the listings. A rather abrupt end to her time here, surely? “I guess I’m going there anyway. Doesn’t make sense to stay here too long,” she shrugs. Clearly she’s got her life figured out.
Walking and talking, we reach Pyrmont Bridge, the point where the city centre finds itself halted by the sea and metamorphoses into Darling Harbour. The contrast between this place and the opposite shore is evident: there are casinos, convention centres, fish markets and museums at the other end of the bridge, whereas here it’s skyscraper stacked upon skyscraper, a labyrinth of metal and glass. What is common to both sides, we find as we lazily stroll across the bridge, is the sea breeze puffing gently on our cheeks. It’s a bright sunny day here in Sydney today, and it’s truly a wonderful thing to see the ships bobbing up and down — that is, when we can pick them out from amongst the blinding reflections of sun on the waves.
Our gaze alights on a pair of ships, moored just next to the bridge’s Pyrmont side: a naval destroyer sitting side by side with a 18th-century sailboat. These proudly advertise their connection to the National Maritime Museum, the gargantuan hangar that occupies the shoreline next to the two boats. Pop inside for a bit of a look, but as it turns out it’s more underwhelming than its impressive glass entrance shows, so the two of us abandon it for another Museum: the Powerhouse, just a few tram stops down the line. Our original plan is to take the tram, but due to some above-average clumsiness (mine) we just miss it and have to walk there. By the time we get to the front door, Betsy and Amy are finishing faster than expected at the Rocks, and Kathy and I are making sour comments about the museum’s prices (AUD 8? For STUDENTS?). We decide to leave it and meet up with the others for lunch instead. “I might come back on Monday, send you some pictures…”
Half an hour later, we find ourselves at Sydney’s Fish Market. Being near the sea and in possession of a wonderful harbour, Sydney is famed for its windfall from the sea, and we’re here to stuff said windfall into our stomachs. So, it seems, are half the tourists in Sydney: wave upon wave of them are crowded inside this small, far-too-well-air-conditioned warehouse, haggling for the best fish and shellfish at the top of their voices. Just as loud are the people selling them: with their white shirts stained with innards and their exasperated shoutings, they’re selling as if their life depended on it. Not that that’s possible: one look at the prices at the nearest stall and I’m already going “HOW MUCH?” (Sydney, it seems, is an expert at provoking this response out of me.)
To be fair, their servings COULD probably feed a small nation. Walking past the counters, we spot absolutely monstrous plates of prawns, lobsters and fish that none of us have ever seen or heard. The prices are of course outrageous, but we finally come across one platter at a store near the back of the market: it claims to serve 2, but obviously is intended for more people. Since none of us are good at choosing fish that won’t kill us after we’ve eaten them, we agree to give this one a try for lunch. The seafood, when it arrives, is a high-cholesterol nightmare: almost everything seems to have gone through the fryer, from the large fish that lies at its centre, to the tiny ones that can be eaten in one mouthful. So much of the things in it have been battered and fried, a circle of yellow encircling the fish.
We absolutely adore it. It’s wolfed down in a matter of minutes — though conscious eater that I am, I get most of the salad.
Time marches on. 4:30, and we find ourselves at the highlight of the day — a place that surely needs no introduction. Because you’ve heard of Bondi. Even if you only know one beach on Earth, it’s got to be Bondi. When you think about surfing, when you think about people with rippling muscles and sunglasses getting suntans, this is the place you think about. For anyone who’s even remotely interested in the beach, Bondi is their mecca, the one place that they all dream of visiting. A never-ending stretch of pristine, white sand bordering a fabric of blue stretching into and beyond the horizon, people laughing and playing and having the time of their lives: that’s how you always see it in pictures, and that’s how we see it as we get off the bus. It’s an image that holds up for precisely thirty-one seconds.
Look, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Bondi. It is, clearly, an amazing place to be. But today it is also an extremely cold place to be. Fair enough, it’s the middle of winter and it’s our fault if we feel miserable and underdressed. But that’s not why this place falls far short: thing is, nobody goes to a beach when it’s so damn cold (it’s 12 degrees today, though my bare feet on the sand suggest that it’s much lower), and that’s a problem when your idea of a place rests ENTIRELY on people doing all sorts of activities there. Today, there’s nothing to see here: just a weak stream of people coming and going. Nobody’s braving the waters, nobody’s getting a suntan. The Bondi agnostic in me has turned into a sceptic: perhaps I expected too much for this place, or perhaps it’s the cold, rattling my bones despite the three layers I’m wearing. But this place potently gives off an air of apathy, of Paris syndrome: I’m here now. So what?
We half-heartedly snap a few pictures and write on the sand a bit, then it’s time to start the long journey back to the city centre. (The good people of Bondi bizarrely decided that they didn’t like the idea of having a train station that could bring in tourists, so the line which brought us here found itself truncated two miles short of the beach. Thanks a lot, guys.) We’re eager to get back downtown because tonight is the last night of Vivid Sydney, which means it’s the last night we’ll be able to see the fireworks we saw… erm, the previous night… up close. But first: a farewell to Kathy, who’s leaving for the airport soon. Continuing in today’s tradition of cramped eating, our venue for dinner is a ramen shop near the Town Hall that serves its wares on the long benches, a bit like how they do in Japan.
Nobody really says anything. It’s not that we don’t want to, or that anybody’s overwhelmed with emotion. All of us are just tired after walking around for an entire day, and we already know what she’s doing back in our hometown. Maybe we’re all thinking of what to say: maybe we all know we’re headed her way in a couple of weeks anyway, and that there’s no need to make a big deal out of it. Or perhaps we did say things, a lot of things, when we finished and walked to Town Hall station, when we got on the train heading to the airport with her. Perhaps two years’ distance has blurred things, and perhaps we parted with the briefest of goodbyes — or perhaps it was just me who didn’t say much. If the girls said a lot, it’s all escaped my mind.
But I do wonder, honestly, about what we said as we left, cause it seems like a weird way to end the story of a personal connection. Long conversations and walks with Kathy have genuinely been a thrill — not just here in Sydney, but also back in Victoria — and I do remember the pang of regret when Betsy, Amy and I got off at Wynyard, the ever-so-slight sadness that you’re separating from friends just when you’re getting to know them better. I remember an afternoon we spent at the Abbotsford Convent, opening doors and exploring dead-ends, seeing little people, our footsteps echoing against the hallways. Perhaps I just miss those days, of exploring with somebody fun, and the joy of snarking away with a friend in Cantonese 7000 km from home. That final conversation is forever out-of-reach, but it does make you wonder a bit more about that particular friendship, and whether it — you — did enough.
Five minutes after Kathy exits the stage, however, she pops back up again as we’re walking towards the Opera House, figuring out the best place to watch the fireworks display. We’d heard somewhere that Circular Quay station had closed because of crowds, but Kathy texts that this is nonsense: people are getting on and off, just like any normal station. A bit perplexing, but the crowds here aren’t that thick, so maybe they relaxed it? We settle down to watch the show. Judging from what we saw last night, this has to be the show of a lifetime.
Eight o’clock arrives: nothing happens. Ten minutes pass by, swiftly followed by the quarter hour. The sea remains calm, and the flood of tourists seem to be unchanged: loads of people are still milling about, but neither are there loads of people crushing against our prime spot. We shift uneasily. At last, a boat with flashing lights appears on the horizon towards the Harbour Bridge: maybe this is the fireworks boat? It blinks at us, once, twice, then disappears round the corner towards Luna Park instead. The sighs of disappointment are pronounced and prolonged. Try to see if there’s any news online, but reception is terrible here. After a while, we get up and ask a security guard with a grizzly beard why the sky isn’t exploding right now.
“Fireworks?” says Grizzly Man, puzzled. “There aren’t any fireworks here in the Harbour tonight. There were some in Darling Harbour, though, you should have gone there.”
Shrug and go off for pancakes with the girls. Here’s the thing: I do not and have never been a fan of dessert stores. I enjoy having dessert as part of one meal at a restaurant, but the appeal of having to go to another shop just for ice-cream or pancakes has always escaped me. The people here, queueing down two flights of stairs and through the back door, would usually be the subject of my derision. And yet I would gladly die for what was presented to me at Pancakes on the Rocks that wintry night.
Nobody on Earth makes pancakes that good. Not in Hong Kong, not in Melbourne: I would describe this as heaven on a plate, and for once the chocolate, the lemon, the meringue would all back me up. It might have been the atmosphere: decked out like a log cabin in the woods, warm like the pancakes they serve — but no. It has to be the pancakes themselves. They deserve their own spotlight.
There’s still a bit of the evening to kill after we’ve finished, so we step out into the wintry night and explore the neighbourhood. We’ve all been here before, but this is the first time we’ve explored the Rocks closely. It’s not an easy task finding our way along the cobblestoned paths, not only because they twist and turn with labyrinthine intensity, but also because we’ve been walking all day and we’re wasted on pancakes. With jelly-like legs we walk into dead-ends, steep alleyways, and even stairways that drive straight through houses.
This is not your classical neighbourhood: in fact the Rocks is one of the most expensive areas to live in Sydney, and only a select 800 people live on the entire peninsula. The touristy side of the city is in full swing everywhere: the architecture is quirky and antiquated, shops selling high-end stuff (from cards to “experiences”) are everywhere, and even the trees are festooned with chains of Christmas lighting. It’s not so much Sydney, Australia as a typical British village. The cold wind whips through the alleyways as a light rain falls, so light that it might as well be a dusting of snow — or, as I think back to the pancakes, icing sugar. So it is that, on this night in June, so far away from home, I experience the closest thing to stereotyped Christmas I have ever had. And that, I believe, speaks to just how magical the place is.
Back at base I put on a Shakespeare play. Ever since we watched “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Melbourne during the summer I’ve been on a crusade to actually induct my friends into the pleasures of Shakespearean comedy, and “Twelfth Night” seems like a good entry point to me. But if my friends are laughing, they’re doing a very good job of concealing it.