Our tickets to Sydney were on the budget airline Scoot (think Ryanair; charging for check-in on up). However, after our miserable red-eye to Hong Kong on India Air, we stumped up for an upgrade to business class. At least one benefit of travelling on a budget airline is that their business class is also reasonably priced. As it turns out, our upgrade got us a decent amount of legroom, a terrible free sandwich, and the ability to stream Scoot’s entertainment on our own device without paying (goody). But at least we weren’t hideously cramped.
Once again, we were Airbnb’ing it in the Sydney suburb of Randwick, and this time sharing space with Emma and her black cat Millie. (Loz has an unofficial pet policy for Airbnb, reasoning that people with pets are probably more established and thus minimising our chances of finding ourselves staying in a party house). Loz fell in love with Sydney almost immediately, and there’s a lot to love – the harbour and all its endless intricacies; the dry but friendly Aussie sense of humour; the weather. When staying with Tim and Sue in Singapore, they’d warned us that the rules on bringing any foodstuffs at all into Aus (summary: “Don’t”) were very strict indeed, but I had a hard-won packet of ginger tea I’d acquired in Phnom Penh, so I dutifully filled out the customs form and ticked “Yes” next to “Plants, herbs, etc.” The conversation with the customs officer went like this:
Him, glancing at the form: “So what’ve you got, then?”
Me: “Some lemon and ginger tea.”
Him, with enthusiasm: “YUM! Go on then.”
We took the bus straight to Circular Quay and spent our first morning just wandering around the harbour and the CBD. The Sydney Opera House sits in a prominent position by Circular Quay, and it’s just so striking a sight, and in such a beautiful spot, that we headed straight there to photograph, walk around, and admire. From there, we wandered into the Botanic Gardens, where we just enjoyed a temperature of 25C and minimal humidity over lunch, some strolling, and watching boats enjoy the breeze. Central Sydney has a number of great art museums, so we headed over to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. It begins with an extensive collection of European paintings and sculpture from the seventeenth and eighteenth century, before shifting to focus on Australian art. At first Australian art was an aspiring younger cousin – most of the early paintings look like European bucolic scenes with roos added in – but, as the curation demonstrates, Australian schools eventually arose independently. The gallery also includes a selection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, with thoughtful explanations.
Our second day, we set out to do the Bondi to Coogee clifftop walk. Sydney Harbour is a long, crenellated and wavy stretch of coastline which is very rewarding to walk along, and the walk began with taking the bus out to the long golden stretch of Bondi Beach. It was full of surfers and swimmers, although Antipodean beaches thus far tend to be strewn with rather alarming warning signs about rips, drops, and jellyfish, and swimming is generally only allowed on narrow strips watched carefully by lifeguards. The breeze was stiff enough that we decided not to go in for the day, although the walk took us past a half-dozen assorted beaches of different characters, as well as some rocky cliffs. The next day, we headed back to the CBD to take in the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is located right on Circular Quay beside the mooring point for international cruise ships. The museum had some modern sculpture odd enough to worry even me, but again the curation and the information provided was excellent, and the curators have gone to great trouble to develop and explain a wide collection of Aboriginal art, which can be difficult to understand and interpret from the outside.
Our next trip was out to Katoomba, the town in the Blue Mountains famous for its views. The Blue Mountains sit to the northwest of Sydney, and are so-called because of the eucalyptus trees which constantly secrete oil into the air; the oil picks up atmospheric dust and particulates until the entire area seems to be seen through a blue haze. It was two hours on a slow commuter train from Sydney’s Central Station, but when we reached its viewpoint, Echo Point, it was worth it. A panorama of forests and of rocky peaks and plateaus was punctuated by the three tall sandstone towers called the Three Sisters. We took “the world’s steepest train” down a short, terrifying incline and spent some time on the elevated walk above the rainforest floor before returning to the city. On Christmas Eve, we took the ferry across Sydney Harbour to Manly, the beach suburb very popular for its daytrips. Unfortunately, it was clouded over and nippy enough that the surfers had broken out wetsuits and the swimmers were mostly refraining. Instead of swimming, I walked a few miles up to my ankles in the surf, singing Christmas carols to myself.
What to do on Christmas Day had been something we were attempting to figure out from our first day in the city. We were too late to book a lunch cruise in the harbour; we toyed with buying tickets for the dance music festival on Bondi Beach, but decided against it. Eventually, on discovering that Taronga Zoo was open 365 days a year, we opted to hit the zoo and then picnic, traditional Aussie style, on one of the beaches. Our trip to the zoo on the ferry went fine, at least up until the point that it started to rain, and carried on nearly all day. But we had donned Santa hats and were not to be daunted, although I had to buy a sweatshirt in the zoo shop to keep from freezing. The zoo has an amazing selection of animals; we watched the Asian elephants bathe and play in the water from a few feet away, and were enchanted by the bongo, an African gazelle which looks like a misshapen zebra with enormous mouse-ears, and whose existence was completely unsuspected by either of us previously. There was also a seal show, to which I clapped my hands like a tiny child, and caught myself waving back at a seal shaking his flipper. Our beach picnic became a living-room picnic, but after Skypeing with friends and family at home, we went to bed content and packed up ready for our flight to Melbourne.