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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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Why, you're wondering, aren't we selling ice cream? We're waiting for Sydney's midafternoon sweet tooth to strike as we creep along the rocks so that enemy ice creamers won't spy us. Boat Boy is dressed tastefully in his yellow shirt, the one with the topless island babes straddling palm trees and being ogled by top-hatted foxes with their tongues hanging out. Hell, he had to come up with some kind of gimmick. Two of his rivals are muscle men zipping around in pocket-rocket Speedos. Another bloke stimulates business by wearing only a G-string!

"Just look at those houses!" cries Matthew. He's pointing out all the palaces terraced into the hills overlooking the harbor, objects of a lust that fills Sydney newspapers with photographs and price tags. Obscene, you mutter when you hear the numbers, but wait. Stay here long enough, mate, and the day'll come when you'll round a curve, find yourself alone with a harbor sunset and face the truth: Given half a chance, you'd merrily commit that obscenity as well.

"What do you think the people living in those houses do for a living?" asks Matthew. "Stockbrokers? Lawyers? You've got to be some kind of crook like that to afford those houses." Fair enough. But all those green acres along the harbor's rim that the developers haven't sunk their fangs and pylons into? Salute the military, mate. So much of the foreshore was fenced off ages ago for naval bases and gun emplacements—then gradually converted to public land as Aussies realized that your average foreign Fascist, Communist or hegemonist wasn't up for the commute—that today Sydney Harbour National Park covers 959 acres of prime waterfront real estate broken into seven chunks along the harbor banks and three small islands, coiled with some of the most heartbreakingly beautiful walking trails on earth, bristling with she-oaks, red gums, flame trees, wattles, palms, limes, chestnuts, jacarandas, blackboys, mangroves, Norfolk pines and Moreton Bay fig trees, not to mention rainbow lorikeets, kookaburras, currawongs, magpies, galahs and ibis, surely the squawkiest, most colorful crew of city birds on earth.

"Just look! Magnificent!" Excuse Matt. Even amid his mooning over Michelle, those words jump out of his throat now and then; he simply can't help it. Or...is he referring to those naked bodies sprawled across the sand and boulders at Lady Bay Beach toward whom we're hurtling at 50 mph? Hard to say, because now Boat Boy's got that fixed look in his eye and that funny feeling in the pit of his stomach, the kind that bull sharks get when a school of whitebait happens by.

He scans the horizon for rivals and grins—coast's clear!—then throttles back and glides onto the sand. "Any of them been here yet?" he calls out anxiously. Good ol' reliable Charlie shakes his head no, bolts off his towel in his birthday suit and holds Matthew's boat steady in the surf, as he always does.

Relax, mate. No need to avert your eyes here. This is an island culture. This is a city that shrugs over the sailors' tongues of its eight-year-olds, a place where organized religion isn't something brandished or bashed...no, just sort of beside the point. A town that parades flesh in G-strings for 700,000 spectators at every Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, that juts it in taut tank tops on every sunny Saturday shopping stroll down Oxford Street, that airs it out topless on the city's 67 other beaches for people too bloody squeamish for the three nude beaches. A city that blazed the word ETERNITY on the Harbour Bridge at midnight on New Millennium's Eve but keeps its gaze fixed on the easy pleasure of right here, right now.

The Puritans, you see, didn't make the traveling squad when the Brits started cramming convicts onto boats and shipping out Australia's first Caucasian gene pool 212 years ago. Matter of fact, on that summer night when female convicts, 188 of them, first laid foot in Australia—on Jan. 26, 1788—the skies let loose a torrential storm, the sailors and jailers dipped deep into the rum and joined the 548 male convicts running amok, and a new nation was born amid lightning bolts, thunder booms, mud puddles, fiendishly slippery boulders, shrieks of protest and screams of rapture in the waterfront section of Sydney that came to be fondly known as the Rocks. Ah, such a pity that the Games fall a few months before the Sydney summer really starts to sizzle and that all the days of the XXVII Olympic Summer Games may not quite measure up to that earthshaking night.

******

Hard to believe, surveying all this bronzed anatomy on Lady Bay Beach, that it was illegal for their great-granddaddies even to swim at Sydney beaches. But local gentility was so desperate to distance itself from the ever-swelling number of convicts, who bathed in the harbor and ocean to get clean, that in 1838 it had swimming banned between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. At Manly, across the harbor, a bloke with a huge dinner bell would come around at sunrise to gong the vermin off the sand. Until Oct. 2, 1902, that is, when William Henry Gocher, editor of the Manly and North Sydney News, strode into the surf at midday wearing a frock coat, striped trousers and a hard hat and carrying an umbrella under his left arm, according to a copper on duty. The authorities didn't prosecute, the public rallied around Gocher, the ban was broken, and Sydney's beach culture exploded. The harborside beaches were preferred by those in search of a quieter aesthetic. The ocean-side beaches such as Bondi, Tamarama, Bronte, Clovelly, Coogee, Maroubra, Cronulla, Manly, Dee Why, Shelley and Queenscliff—how could one city possibly have so many stunning choices?—awaited those in search of ripper waves. Mateship felt so much truer when everybody was stripped to his shorts.

"So how ya going?" Matthew sings out to the nudists, mostly males on Lady Bay, as they queue up with fistfuls of coins. My oath, those Gay-times sell like mad here. Bingo-bango-bongo: $30 in the till.

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