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2005-05-10 Sydney visit makes a return essential

There are certain city-skylines which cause genuine excitement, upon arrival by air or by sea - New York, Hong Kong, Rio, and most definitely Sydney.

 

Sailing into Sydney harbour is an unforgettable experience - thousands of bleached yacht-sails resting like butterflies on dark-blue harbour waters, the staggered sky-scraping skyline, the `coat-hanger' Harbour Bridge, and the glinting man-made tiled sails/shells of the once-controversial Opera House, surely one of the world's most photographed sights.

 

This was my first visit to this vast, brash, glamorous, vibrant, cosmopolitan and egalitarian metropolis. It was my first visit to Australia - a country almost the size of the USA, but with only one fifteenth of the US's population, mostly concentrated on the east coast.

 

One fifth of Australia's 20 million live in Sydney - modern Australia's birthplace - the landing-place for those thousands of criminals who were banished `down under' `at Her Majesty's pleasure'. This is a nation built with blood, sweat and hard labour, which continues to lure people from every nation in the world. A land as vast as Australia is inevitably full of contrasts - the ancient, dry, carved landscape of the never-ending outback and the vibrant youthful sophisticated cities, the indigenous Aboriginal folk who settled here thousands of years ago and the `Bruces' and `Sheilas' with their `beach and barbie culture'. The Rocks area of Sydney is the site of Australia's oldest settlement.

 

Where once, shady characters wandered the narrow alleyways, now trendy European-style bars and tasteful boutiques line the quaint historic streets. Sydney's most famous landmark, the avant-garde Opera house, was surrounded by controversy for years, but has now become an iconic symbol. Its Danish architect Utzon resigned before its completion and has never been back to see his work. I attended a performance in the opera theatre, one of five performance halls in the venue, and the "Carmen" I witnessed that evening was one of the finest live performances I have ever witnessed, on every level. The city's tallest structure is the Sydney Tower. A cringe-makingly bad film followed by a more exciting virtual `Oz'-tour preceded the journey to the top of Sydney and the spectacular views.

 

We were staying at Potts Point, near Kings Cross and the Red-light district - a seedy and at times dodgy area of Sydney. By comparison, Sydney boasts endless museums, galleries, shops and assorted eateries, and areas such as the beautiful Botanic Gardens, the peaceful Chinese Garden, or the `hip' recreational Darling harbour with the splendid Sydney Aquarium. I actually found the people of Melbourne friendlier as a rule, and the Sydney people a little up themselves!

 

Sydney's hinterland offers endless added attractions. Bondi Beach is synonymous with `Aussie beach culture', displaying a bustling carnival atmosphere, with eccentrics, exhibitionists and lots of surfers. Near perfect bronzed bodies use the beach as their catwalk, but several far from perfect blotchier specimens cleared the way for me to strip down to my Speedos and take advantage of the spectacular and at times aggressive Bondi waves. I felt like an illegal extra on the set for "Home and Away", except that it is filmed just up the coast on Palm Beach.

 

The celebrated Manly Ferry offers panoramic views of Sydney Harbour. After the pleasant 30-minute trip to Manly Wharf, I walked up The Corso and arrived at the main beach - much more `me'. A picturesque walk around the head revealed secluded coves away from the crowds. I took a day-trip to see for myself the scenic sandstone beauty of the Blue Mountains - so called because of the blue haze emanating from the millions of eucalyptus trees.

 

A near-vertical funicular railway lowered us into the rainforest for a tranquil but sweaty hike. We returned across the valley by cable-car, taking in breath-taking views of the trademark "3 Sisters", the plummeting Katoomba Falls and the mega-long Megalong Valley. A dramatic thunderstorm, fork-lightning display and hailstones the size of moth-balls provided added theatre.

 

En-route back to Sydney we stopped off at Featherdale Wildlife Park to hand-feed kangaroos, get attacked by Emus, and cuddle a Koala. Koalas just seem to eat, then sleep in amusing positions, high on eucalyptus. I have barely touched the surface of this vast continent. I am determined to return as soon as possible, if only for the relaxed, sunny, quasi-Mediterranean, laid-back Aussie way of life. "Streuth, is it any wonder they have `no worries' mate?".