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Fantastic Voyage
Gary Smith
September 11, 2000
Cameras may focus on the Homebush Bay venues, but the real glory of Sydney is its harbor, and the best way to see it is from—no joke, mate—an ice-cream boat. Ready? Good on ya!
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September 11, 2000

Fantastic Voyage

Cameras may focus on the Homebush Bay venues, but the real glory of Sydney is its harbor, and the best way to see it is from—no joke, mate—an ice-cream boat. Ready? Good on ya!

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Or he can jump.

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So many Sydneysiders have chosen Plan B—alas, there's just not enough waterfront property to go around—that phone numbers for two suicide crisis centers are posted at the Gap. Try as they might, Anthony and Eva Bettke, who lived across the road and became known as the Guardians of the Gap in the 1960s after dragging 27 people back from the edge in one week alone, couldn't stand guard forever.

No, Matthew's never gone close to the edge, but he knows the feeling. Something like it has started whirling inside him every time he has tried to work a normal job, under a boss, on dry land. That's why he paced so many kilometers around the house that he and Michelle used to share, his mouth and hands flying as he hatched his latest brainstorm for a harbor venture—the Coffee Boat, the Booze Boat, the Floating Beer Garden, the Ultimate Sydney Sunset Experience, the Ultimate Sydney Seafood Experience, each to have its own Web site and brochures—and then carved himself to bits when his dream collapsed or was slow to pan out.

He's at a crossroads, closing on 30. On the skin, just a typical strawberry blond, beer-drinkin', slang-slingin' Sydneysider, lathered up with 30-plus sunblock in deference to the gash in the ozone atop Australia. Which is to say he's one of the earth's easiest strains for a stranger to approach on the street: frank, flexible, self-deprecating, breezy and genial, the inheritor of a code forged by a nation of convicts left to their military jailers' mercy on a land mass that might as well have been on the moon; inmates who made mateship their highest virtue, so that two centuries later every man, whether speaking to his son, a lifelong friend or the foreigner arriving for the Olympics, would address that man as mate.

Mates who, better still, would chop every multisyllabic uppity word down to Everyman's size and then tack on an endearingly juvenile ie or y or o, turning their politicians into pollies, journalists to journos, costumes to cozzies and afternoons to arvos. Sydneysidahs are congenitally incapable of pronouncing the letter r if it falls after a vowel, so that every other week last year, as word of a new fiasco wrought by their Olympic ministers rumbled through the city, they turned to one another and said, "Did ya heah the latest muck-up, mate? A real shockah!"

But that's about as far as outrage goes. They're moderate men, their DNA's rough edges burned off by decades of subtropical sun, men lacking the passion, 99 years after independence, to bother weaning themselves off their ceremonial figurehead, the British queen, or quartering their arrogant Olympic lords. "No worries, mate." That's their mantra. "No dramas. It'll be right, mate." Men of few demons, few burning issues...until they slide behind the wheels of their cars and some ratbag in front of them slows to look for a parking space, or they climb onto their surfboards and some yobbo drops in on their wave. Then, and only then, some hidden primal beast in them comes honking out.

But peer closer at Matthew. Can you see those fingernails gnawed to the knuckle? Can you sense the anxiety fanning through his belly, the fear that every new day of peddling Mud Puddles and taxiing customers across the harbor is another day's slippage behind mates who are earning more, embarked on careers, starting the buy-and-sell hopscotch that will inch them closer and closer to a balcony view...that he'll end up a water rat, renting inland, for life?

He'll get over Michelle, dammit. He'll stop seeing her everywhere he looks: over there at Doyle's, the restaurant on Watson's Bay where they'd eat fish-and-chips and then sip brews in the beer garden next door, watching the sun melt into the harbor as the city, like some space-age metropolis in a fantasy film, began casting its twinkle and glow. And over there, in all those coves where they would sip wine, nibble prawns, pull off their clothes and jump into water clear enough to rinse away yesterday's argument and tomorrow's too.

That's the joy of Sydney, what separates it from the world's other wondrous cities: this cross-stitch of nature and metropolis, this astonishing multitude of secret pockets and hidden beaches that could abracadabra four million people away, nooks that a tourist might never locate unless a local led him down a vine-choked path and a narrow stone stairway to the bottom of another sandstone escarpment. Or invited him aboard a backyard Inclinator, an angled open-air elevator that the rich install to convey them and their Chardonnay to the coves and yachts waiting below.

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