Travelogue Australia 2: Sydney

SYDNEY
28-31January 2016

It was a good thing our transfer from Port Douglas to Cairns Airport was booked for when it was (1pm) because our little last frolick on the beach had flash-fried a decent tanning, which continued to set over the course of the drive to the airport and through the flight. Any longer and we (well, I. But you knew that) would have been burnt to a crisp!

Coral was again our driver but was (this time being in a people carrier with four other people) considerably less chatty and, from our position at the back of the van, the trip was all scenery sans narrative. A coup for Christian who had snoozed on the way there – and would most often opt for the road less Attenboroughed.

We were well in time for our flight and had even scored the prized front row seats with extra legroom (obviously online check-in isn’t a “thing” with the mature audience with whom we’d shared our off-season mini-break). We hadn’t expected an onboard meal so had had Hungry Jack at the airport (an amazing feat with one girl manning the cashier, cook and delivery functions; easily a 5 man operation at home)… but, never afraid to be a meal ahead, ate the roast beef and the chicken stir fry – and relished the Lindt ball and strawberry ice-cream dessert – that was served to us anyway.

Arriving at Sydney Airport, we were again pleased by our bags arriving on the carousel within minutes. It had given us just enough time to gather data for the bus/shuttle/taxi/train options, and we were set on taking the train to St James Station.

The airport is within the city so a mere 15 minutes later we emerged from the station at Hyde Park in Sydney Central. Around a corner and up the road and we were at our hotel, Megaboom.

Post check in, we were pleased to be vindicated that the hotel we’d chosen for its fun name was perfectly appointed and our suite nicely decked with the requisite creature comforts.

Everything had been so quick and easy since arriving that we got ahead of the game and took a trot down to Circular Quay to get an advance night sighting of the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. It was all very exciting, bar the Bridge having had its thunder stolen somewhat by the miniature (original, predecessor) version of it that we saw in Newcastle last year.

Friday morning’s first mission was to meet up with Christian’s cousin, Helena, who had kindly offered to take time off to tourguide us on our Sydney weekend – along with her family, travelling from Canberra (Grant and Kurt coming from home) and Woolongong (Gabriella coming from uni) to spend time with us.

Helena made it really easy for us, planning daily bundles of excursions in advance but giving us bitesize sets of instructions to follow. It was easy enough to catch the 373 bus to Coogee and head towards the steps… and there she was!

After enthusiastic reunioning and introductions, group consensus was to begin our planned beach walk, which would wind us along the coastline all morning and end up at Bondi where we would meet up with Grant and his cousins (out from Germany and on their last day in Sydney) for lunch.

Coogee was a lovely beachfront, really idyllic and picture-perfect and, had it to do again, we should probably have spent more time there. But you never know these things up front and it seemed more pragmatic to get some walking under the belt while fresh – and less than practical to start the journey of 10,000 steps (hopefully) with wet swimmers and sandy slops.

The conversation – catch-ups, introductory staples and general – flowed easily as we walked along the path and up a hill and round a bend and through a park and past a bowling green… and emerged at Gordon’s Bay, which was a bit rough for swimming. Around the next bend found us at Clovelly, an interesting set-up with concrete decks on either side of the bay turning the inlet into a sort of outsized open-ended swimming pool. This apparently had been a busy-work project initiated by the government during the depression to keep people employed and productive. What a great idea; would be good if the devils at home could manufacture a few decent projects like that to keep some idle hands working.

Walking machines that we were, we whipped past the bathers and baskers, around the bay, out the other side, up and around the bend to Bronte Beach, where we stopped at one of the pavement cafés for a wetty. It was a really beautiful day so the area was buzzing and the beach populated (attributed to uni not being in session for the year yet); great for people-watching in our downtime.

Back on the road, the coast next took us to Tamarama Beach, where we must have looked the part since a lady craned out of the passenger side of the car to “excuse me” us to ask for directions to the Tamarama Beach Club, which by dumb luck we were able to provide since we’d just walked past a building with that name emblazened all along one facade (but which was obscured from the lost lady’s view because of her direction of approach) and the path to that building ran alongside the pavement (which she also wouldn’t have been able to see from her car).

Clearly old hats at this beach walk lark, it was little surprise when we rounded the next bend and were faced with Bondi Beach.

We had to cross most of the beach itself to get to the narrow swimming zone, demarcated by lifeguard flags. It was tough, being South African, to leave our things in our bag unattended on the sand while we swam (which obviously for me meant mid-shin wading).

In the meantime, Grant and his German cousins had arrived in Sydney, so we navigated them to our spot on the water’s edge. They were keen for a swim but since angry grey clouds had pulled in, we moved off the beach to the undercover corridor at the pavilion. None too soon either as soon it was raining up a storm!

No mind though, it would take more than a few raindrops to dampen our spirits (especially since we were still damp from the seawater!) so we walked down the road to the Bondi Hotel and had a very tasty lunch, meaning a barramundi and chips for Christian and I.

Over lunch we got the back story on the Germans. It was Grant’s cousin, Barbara, and her son, Simon, who were on a 5 week holiday in Aus. Fortuitously, their stay had overlapped with ours as they flew out of Sydney the day after we flew in, giving us the serendipitous Friday sweetspot. From lunch we got in another swim at Bondi before Barbara and Simon were driven to the airport and we returned to our hotel.

We reconvened with Helena and Grant at our hotel in the evening and headed to a recommended dumpling restaurant, Din Tai Fung, in Chinatown for dinner. We were hungry again after our 25+ thousand step day and shared a combination of steamed and fried dumplings for starters and all sorts of exotic treats for mains. Although not particularly late, we were among the last to leave the restaurant.

Saturday started with a panic. Somehow my phone – despite being on the powerbank – had died overnight and Christian’s alarm hadn’t gone off, so we woke up 45 minutes later than the planned meeting time!! Our gracious travel companions were very easy going, so had thought nothing of it and gone ahead with meeting their kids as planned. We threw on some clothes and chucked some swimgear in our togbag and hightailed down the road to meet them at the coffee shop they’d chosen for brekkie.

They were very chill about our faux pas (now diagnosed as a flat powerbank and a 5-day week alarm) and perfectly happy enjoying their own company. So nice to meet the 2 new faces to put to all the stories I’ve heard over the years – and who I so narrowly missed meeting on their last trip to South Africa.

Group communed, we were ready to walk down to the harbour to catch our ferry to Manly Beach, which is across the water and just past the heads that serve as the entrance to the harbour.

Manly is very cool. The landing point must’ve served for decades because it’s all old buildings that look like they could easily be 100 years old. From there it’s a legit beachtown with wide pedestrian streets, market stalls and buskers and entertainers swapping atmosphere-creation for cash.

We did a bit of ambling and browsing, but really only attempted direction when the subject of lunch came up. Grant had mentioned earlier, when we’d arrived, that there was an infamous spot called Hotel Steyne that always made tabloid headlines for brawling among liquored Manly Sea Eagles, so that was enough to pique our curiosity and secure it as lunch destination du jour.

The restaurant was a lovely airy sea-facing dining room with self-service counters at the back. The food was delicious and we had very tasty toasties and pizzas. The Hotel seemed too savoury to believe the stories… until I realised, on going to find the loo to change into swimwear, that there was a whole lot more to it. Passing through the big front bar, the bustling courtyard full of checkered characters and the stale-beer smelling pokie room at the back, the stories seemed a bit more plausible.

We hit the beach and all enjoyed frolicking in the cool Pacific Ocean water, at our various chosen depths. Christian, still not getting the rules and compliance thing, got into trouble with the lifeguards for a constant commitment to swimming beyond the demarcated flag zones. The guards were tooting away on their whistles and bleating requests on their megaphones as he carried on bobbing, blissfully unaware… much to our amusement, watching from ankle-depth in the safe zone.

A family after my own heart, the suggestion was tabled to go get ice-cream so that brought to a close our episode on yet another of Sydney’s glorious beaches.

The ferry ride back to the city is quite quick and pleasant, so it must be a pleasure to live somewhere as lovely as Manly and commute in and out of the city.

On our way back in, we happened to pass a Gallagher’s Irish pub so felt obliged to stop in to measure the Guinness Index. $10 a pint, putting Sydney into 2nd place (still behind Hong Kong). The Wellington 7s was on and our timing totally coincidentally coincided with the SA vs New Zealand, which we narrowly lost in the last plays after the final whistle. All was not lost though since we were still through to the next round and teed up to play Australia in the quarter final.

Having made the pitstop, we had to move to get back to the hotel and get showered and changed to meet the others for dinner.

We’d decided on another visit to Chinatown after the success of the previous evening – and on Gabriella’s recommendation of an authentic but modest dumpling place. It was an excellent suggestion and everything we ordered (to share between us) was amazing!

The big plan for Sunday was to meet up with old friends from SA, Carrie and Andre, who had emigrated in 2015. The arrangement was for us to go through to their house in the ‘burbs in the early arvo, so it left the morning for us to see The Rocks and Darling Harbour.

The Rocks is the old section of town which had been the first settlement when the original migrants had made Sydney their home. Helena and I had a lengthy discussion as we walked en route about the hows and whys of who went past this then-remote neck of the woods, thinking that it seemed very out of the way in a time when travel was, to be base, a bit of a schlep. We rationalised that it perhaps was in perspective when you consider that those voyagers were traversing the globe for a few spices and whatnot and if that was enough to motivate, then maybe a little tropical pitstop was a treat after all. Gabriella picked up the tail end of our convo and piped up “Well, I’d come here for a packet of chips and a high five”, which is a winning tagline for the Sydney Tourism Board if I’ve ever heard one!

Not sure about the first settlers (“unlikely to have scored a bag of chips nor cared for a high five” as Gabriella put it), but the next few batches can’t be faulted for wanting to stay. The Rocks is a perfectly preserved slice of history, with the turn of the last century buildings and narrow cobbled streets now housing a generous helping of cafés and restaurants as well as a street market (possibly only a Sunday thing?)

It was easy enough to find space at a café to settle in for some brunch and an enormous toastie and milkshake hit the spot, as we soaked in the atmosphere in the shadow of the famous bridge.

Keeping up our steps, we walked from The Rocks to Darling Harbour. Part of the fun was taking in the foreignness of all the strange Aussie names of things:
Girra Girra Steps, Waranara Terrace, Nawi Cove. All very exotic.

We were given some background on and a basic run-through of Darling Harbour, which was sadly the end of the line for our tour courtesy of the Michls. The few days we’d had together had been so much fun that it was with a heavy heart that we parted ways at Town Hall station to embark on the next segment of our adventure.

Dab hands at the train system, we found the train to Hornsby effortlessly and were soon on our way – for the first time – over the bridge and into the ‘burbs.

Carrie was waiting for us at the station (for some time, I suspect, since our timings had been so sketchy) and we were delighted to reunite! She took us on a quick tour through her new home town and we were soon at their lovely new(ish) home.

It was awesome to catch up with the Boshoffs who, we couldn’t believe, had lived in Sydney for a year already! They were still amazing hosts and lavished us with a lamb shank feast in their charming lush green back yard to the soundtrack of the babbling creek that flowed in the bridged canal flowing between the house and garden.

With a bellyful of deliciousness on board, the plan was hatched to take a trot down to the Cole’s store to get some brownie mix and ice-cream for dessert. A good opportunity to see the neighbourhood on the ground. We also ended up buying a replacement case of beers, which was less than optimal for poor Christian who had to hump them all the way home!

The brownies more than made up for it though, teasing us with delicious aroma while we waited patiently for them to bake, amusing ourselves with trying to fathom the mystery that is Aussie Rules football.

Comfortable in the living room, we watched the first few episodes of The Last Man on Earth while we enjoyed our dessert and stretched the last section of our day together, before our hosts drove us to the train station for our return journey to the city.

Now very au fait with the lay of the land, we opted to go to Town Hall station… and logicked on our walk back to the hotel that this would also be the better station in the morning because, even though a little further on the train, it’d be an easier station to get to in the morning throng since it was a flat walk with fewer traffic crossings than the shorter, downhill, weaving walk to St James. And, with a 09h45 flight requiring us to be at the airport around 07h30, prudence  would be of the essence.

We could not be more wrong. We emerged from the hotel at 07h00 to an empty street and only encountered the first other lone sole at the first intersection! There were progressively more people as we approached the station, with a few mini-bursts of life as our flightpath happened to cross-section a bus stop… but certainly nothing you’d call a “rush hour”. Maybe Central wakes up later because it’s retail driven? Maybe there’s a business district bustling elsewhere?

We were at the station in minutes, convinced that we’d be faced with a flood of people coming in on the train we’d need for the airport journey, as has been common on our previous experiences with metropolitan primetime public transport travel. We stood back on the platform, prepared for the influx to disembark before we tried to enter the train.

The train arrived.

We waited for the rush – both people – to exit before making ourselves comfortable in the caboose we had all to ourselves.

The hard part done, Sydney Airport International Terminal was only 5 stops for us, so we were at our destination before 07h30. What a win!

Sweet sorrow to conclude our Aussie Adventure. And really sad news that they’re all first world and automated so there’s no stamp in the passport to commemorate a truly excellent vaycay.