Seductive Sydney

Print edition : May 18, 2007

The bustling Australian city, the first European settlement in the country, is enchanting.

TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SUDHA MAHALINGAM

A skyscape of Sydney harbour at dawn. The Opera House sits lotus-like on the water.-

AT 134 metres from sea level, the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge is an excellent spot for a panoramic view of this bustling Australian city. But I was somewhat amused when my tour guide handed me a certificate vouching for my having successfully climbed to the top of it. Frankly, I did not think it much of a feat, especially since the precautions included an iron-chain tether to ensure that the suicidal among us did not jump off the bridge. The incline of the arch is very gentle and there are many ledges that offer ample excuses to pause, catch your breath and admire the stunning scenery. Down below, the cars look like crawling toys. Even further below, boats slice the water and spray foam jets. A train trundles noisily across.

The city of Sydney seems to radiate from this point. The harbour is choc-a-bloc with boats of all sizes. Tourists take off in boats in all directions, office-goers hurry to work, shoppers lounge leisurely around the circular quay. Sydney's iconic Opera House floats lotus-like on the bay. Yonder, the blue ocean shimmers.

The Harbour Bridge, completed in 1932. Sydneysiders claim this is the largest steel arch bridge in the world. As much as 52,800 tonnes of steel was used in its construction. Six million rivets were driven in by hand to hold it together.-

The bridge is beautiful, but not exceptional. After all, there are other impressive bridges - the Oresund, for instance, which spans 16 kilometres across the Oresund Straits from Denmark to Sweden, and the photogenic Golden Gate in San Francisco, which links Alcatraz to the Redwoods of Muir forest by connecting the northern tip of the San Francisco peninsula to Marin County. In terms of scale, size and engineering complexity, they are superior. Besides, there are many high-rises around Sydney Harbour Bridge, mostly hotels and banks, which literally dwarf it and detract from its grandeur. But then, when you consider that Sydney Harbour Bridge was completed in 1932, a year before construction began on the Golden Gate, and over half a century before the Oresund, you realise 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. Tour guide Pete is a treasure-trove of information about the bridge. He relishes telling the story of how six million iron rivets were hand-driven to hold the bridge in place. "Six million rivets, can you imagine? All these were beaten to shape right here on the bridge and transported to the worker perched on a hanging platform even while still red-hot. They had to be driven in before they cooled off," he says proudly. The bridge is 1,149 metres long and its arch span is 503 metres. Sydneysiders claim this is the largest steel arch bridge in the world - 52,800 tonnes of steel was used in its construction. It is, of course, high enough to let even large tankers pass underneath.

The Harbour Bridge and its arch.-

Australia is a young nation and Sydney was its first settlement. Exiled convicts from Britain established a town around Sydney cove. As the population grew, the city developed along the harbour on the southern bank. On the northern side of the harbour, Billy Blue, a colourful ex-convict, was granted land in 1814, which paved the way for what was to become the northern suburbs. In those days, the only link between north and south Sydney was the ferry service. The story goes that Billy Blue ran a ferry service and would often extort money from hapless passengers by threatening to dump them into the sea. Until the bridge came up at the bay's narrowest point, Sydney was a city divided by water. Since the Harbour Bridge was built in 1932, several other bridges have come up to connect the ever-expanding city. One of them, the ANZAC bridge, is seductively nicknamed Madonna's bra for its cone-shaped spaghetti steel ribbons.

The other Sydney icon is, of course, the Opera House. Immortalised in a myriad films, picture postcards and more, it is shaped like a stack of shells or lotus petals and is the pride and joy of Sydneysiders. The Opera House was built by Jorn Utson, a Danish architect whose design won an international competition in 1957 that had inspired over 200 submissions from over 30 countries. It sits on 550 columns, which were driven into the seabed. It exceeded all estimates of costs and time: It took 14 years to build and cost a whopping 102 million Australian dollars, exceeding the original budget by a magnitude of 16. The overspend was so bad that they even had to hold a lottery to raise the funds. But 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.

Bondi Beach, A favourite spot of the city's residents, is known for its good surf.-

The best views of sunrise in Sydney are to be had from the top of the Harbour Bridge. Since it doesn't open early for visitors and costs a lot to climb, the next best option is a hotel room right on the harbour on one of the upper floors. From floor 28 of the Shangri La hotel, I had 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.

Initially, I had some apprehensions about spending too much time in a city. I was impatient to get to the bush to taste untouched country. Then I realised that the enterprising Australians have, in fact, brought the bush to the city. There is no need to go into the Australian outback to get a peek at those fantastic Australian mammals or marine life. 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 ferns and shrubs, tree-hugging koalas munch blithely on eucalyptus, and echidnas scurry from bush to bush. The soothing call of wild birds filters through the hidden microphones on the roof. It is hard to believe this is a man-made park in downtown Sydney's business district.

An Iguana. Just the size of a garden lizard, it has developed spikes to protect itself against predators.-

I was absolutely delighted to meet Darren Ritchie, an aboriginal artist who has an ethnic stall in the park. The stall is a circular mud hut with typical aboriginal motifs on the mud walls. He demonstrated how to use a boomerang and a digeridoo. For the first time, I learnt that there is such a thing as a non-returning boomerang. He also showed me painted emu eggs and an album of paintings using colours ground from ochre and other stones. He informed me that there was a cruise to an original aboriginal settlement in Sydney where I could see their culture and traditions at first hand. Unfortunately, it only ran on Tuesdays and Saturdays and I was not able to go.

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. They seem oblivious to us as they go about their usual business. The lighting is dimmed to mimic the ocean. I felt as though I was in a National Geographic film.

A Koala Bear, a marsupial specific to Australia.-

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

Two and a half hours drive from Sydney is Port Stephens - an interesting day trip for those keen on seeing dolphins and whales in their natural habitat. The boat harbour looks out into the Pacific Ocean and is in the migration path of these sea mammals - the boat tour virtually `guarantees' a dolphin sighting. April is not the season for whales but dolphins are there, aplenty. Dolphins are such fun-loving mammals; they actually raced with our boat, occasionally sprinting out of the water to give us a tantalising glimpse of their gleaming bodies.

A Rock Wallaby, a member of the kangaroo family.-

Douglas Hocking, our effervescent tour guide, insisted on taking us to a winery to taste the fine Australian merlot, pinot gris, pinot noir and Shiraz. Port Stephens, once a trading port for timber and coal, is now famed for its 125 wineries and cellar doors. Australian wines are sought after by discerning oenophiles for their distinctive quality. Port Stephens wineries are a formidable competitor to their better-known cousins, the Hunter and Yarra Valley wineries. Port Stephens also boasts another strange Australian phenomenon - a desert that runs into the sea. The Tomaree National Park is unlike anything I have ever seen before. Sea and desert sand dunes, seemingly unlikely bedfellows, co-exist in harmony. This is not your desert pockmarked by bushes and shrubbery, but pure fine white sand mounds on which the wind has etched its wavy patterns. But for the roar of the sea in the background, it is easy to believe you are in the Thar in Rajasthan, back home. Stockton beach, which runs 34 km between the desert and the sea, is truly Australia's most magnificent beach.

Stephen Westcott, who drives a four-wheel drive for Port Stephens Sand Dune Tours, insisted on showing us Tomaree's Tin City. It is exactly as it sounds, a tin settlement of a few houses in the middle of the desert. These tin shacks were originally built to settle shipwrecked sailors but have since been occupied by people-shy loners. They seem to have electricity since a loosely slung electric line runs to these shacks, but what do they do for water? Steve assured me that digging just a few feet into the sand yielded ample water. We lounged around for a while hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the residents, but no one showed up.

Our next activity was sandboarding, which is not unlike tobogganing but instead of snow there is sand. A busload of Koreans landed there and the slopes were furrowed with mirthful sandboarders. While sliding down was fun, I found myself unequal to the task of climbing up the steep dunes again and again. A group of young boys in sand scooters zoomed around the dunes kicking up dust. Yonder, a procession of four-wheel drives on top of a sand mound looked like a scene straight out of the movies. On the horizon, clouds gathered, hinting at an impending storm. The expanse of white sand and the deep blue sea juxtaposed against the ominous black clouds made for a fascinating panorama. The elements seemed to be at their rawest on the Australian coast.

Back in Sydney that evening, I checked out the city's beaches. Bondi beach, beloved of Sydneysiders, was packed with surfers and swimmers. I preferred the winding walks along the ledge of the cliffs that hug the coast.

Aboriginal sculptures coloured with organic dyes such as ground ochre.-

My last night in Sydney was spent on the Showboats, a leisurely cruise around the harbour by night when Sydney's twinkling fairy lights came on and the city assumed a magical aura. It was a fitting finale to an enchanting journey to seductive Sydney.

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