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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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Between ice cream sales, between paranoia attacks, between pickups when he's piloting the water taxi, Matthew loves to imagine that he's back in time. Back before England's prisons overspilled and began disgorging their forgers, misfits, rebels, slackers, highwaymen and petty thieves upon this distant continent for almost three quarters of a century. Back before the cries of the flogged filled this outdoor gulag's scruffy dirt streets; a convict could have his back shredded by a cat-o'-nine-tails for even looking at a passing ship. Back before Capt. Arthur Phillips's 11 First Fleet ships appeared, bringing cholera and influenza germs that laid waste to Aborigines whose ancestors had roamed the continent for at least 40,000 years. "It would've been like nothing else," Matthew gushes, picturing waterfalls and tributaries feeding a shoreline without high-rises or wharves. Picturing a time when all those koalas, wombats, platypuses, dingoes and echidnas in Taronga Zoo—up on your right as we round Bradleys Head—were at large rather than in pens. Then again, for vistas that spectacular, who's to say those animals didn't turn themselves in?

Because from here, as you see, the city unfurls its heart, a half-dozen dazzling national treasures at Sydney Cove for just a swivel of the neck. Small wonder that back in 1992 Paul Keating, Australia's prime minister at the time, reportedly led a group of International Olympic Committee delegates—who were hedging between Sydney and Beijing as host of the 2000 Olympics—into a harborside room at the Park Hyatt Hotel on your right, flung open the blinds and cried, "Take a look at that, gentlemen! That ain't no Beijing city!" The IOC delegates looked. They gulped. Gawwwd...it was almost better than a bribe.

Let's start with those massive vaulted shells spreading like sails and shimmering with a million white Swedish tiles. Sure, you've seen pictures of the Opera House, and you'll see so many more coming in and out of commercial breaks that by October you'll want to dynamite it and NBC both. But to see it bloom here, against the water's glittering blue and the lush green velvet of the Botanical Gardens' 7,000 species of plants and trees, makes you grateful that there exists a man with the imagination of Danish architect Joern Utzon and a city willing to commission a foreigner to unleash such brazen white madness on its most sacred soil.

Who cares now, more than four decades after its planning began, that the Opera House cost $102 million instead of the $7 million projected and took 16 years to build instead of four, or that Utzon left in a huff long before it was finished and hasn't returned? Who'll lose sleep over the marginal possibility that a white pointer shark might join the swimming leg of the Olympic triathlon, compared to the delight that a billion viewers worldwide will experience with this as a backdrop for the event? "Look at it!" cries Matthew. "Think of all the crap jobs I could be doing, and instead I have the chance every day to witness that!"

His eyes alight on Circular Quay. Here's where Boat Boy spends hours on his Harbour Taxi shifts, trolling for pickups, watching the buzz and tangle of mass transport and human flesh. Here's where 28 ferries chug in and chug out on their 268 daily runs to the harbor's 36 wharves—don't even suggest that there's a finer commute on earth. Here's where office workers surge off the ferries toward files of waiting buses and taxis, or bounce up stairways to the trains rumbling into the station above, while cars whistle overhead, another level up, across Cahill Expressway. Here's where mimes, clowns, acrobats and musicians lay out hats and seduce tourists blinking up at destination boards, where a painted Aborigine blows on a didgeridoo as an Asian with a one-string Chinese violin reproduces the sound of a strangled cat and an old chap strums a child's plastic guitar while board-toting surfers glide past robed Hindus who are whisking by bikinied college girls and a fat pensioned fella feeding on a dripping meat pie. Love it.

To our right rises the Rocks, the oldest section of town. Hooly dooly, did Sydney-sidahs ever celebrate here on Sept. 23, 1993, when Juan Antonio Samaranch blinked into the camera at 3 a.m. and said, "Sidinee!" Every time Matthew strolls the Rocks' pub-lined streets, his hankering for history and cold beer comes burbling out. He'll point out what was lost when rats scuttling off incoming ships spread the bubonic plague at the end of the 19th century and much of the Rocks was razed to contain the horror. He'll lead you into the pub with Australia's oldest liquor license, the Observer Hotel, the one he used to end up in on Saturday arvos crooning old Aussie classics, back when the late, great Lani the transvestite ruled the roost and any man caught drinking from a glass in his right hand faced the music: empty his glass in one swallow, or sit on Lani's lap and give 'er a smooch. "Oh, I emptied my glass," Matthew is swift to declare. "Those are the places I like in Sydney, where everyone's pissed and happy."

******

Bloody oath! That garish, gargantuan clown face looking over your shoulder, directly across the harbor? That's Luna Park, with its waterside roller coaster, something every adult Sydneysidah was obligated to ride a half-dozen times before exiting adolescence. Behind Luna Park, trying to pretend that big clown mug's not really there, transnational corporate headquarters rise toward the clouds. That's North Sydney, trying valiantly to catch up to Sydney in the skyscraper standings.

Let's be honest. Scarcely one of these high-rises on either shore is anything to write I.M. Pei about. It's the whole muscular shebang taken together, thrusting up from this setting, that stops you cold. But don't stop cold. Keep turning your head. That lovely green headland is Kirribilli, and that white mansion overlooking the harbor is the official home of Prime Minister John Howard. He's the bloke who refuses to say "I'm sorry" to Aborigines, whose way of life was poleaxed by the whites. His stubbornness pulled 200,000 Aussies out of their beds on a chilly Sunday morning a few months ago to hoof over that black leviathan above you.

Oh, that. Yes. The Harbour Bridge. Wide as a football field, long as five of them, 58,185 tons of British steel clenched by six million rivets: the world's largest steel-arch bridge, whose construction in the early 1930s lightened Sydney's Depression. But those are only facts, and that's not how you feel this bridge in your belly. Something about it—the way it erupts from earth, water and cityscape with such massive, elegant simplicity, the way it binds the bluffs and skyscrapers of the south and north shores like a tense dark sinew...let's just suck on Paddle Pops for a while and stare at it. Those gray ants crawling on top of it? You, too, can don a gray jumpsuit and scale the bridge for $108 Aussie, $66 U.S.

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