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August 2000 Cover

Sydney: On Top of the
World Down Under

by Bill Bryson

(Excerpted from “Sydney” in the August 2000 issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC)

Sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s—no one can quite agree when—a remarkable thing happened in Sydney, Australia. The city discovered its harbor.

Of course it had been known for some time that the center of the city contained 21 square miles [54 square kilometers] of deep, usable water—hard to overlook something like that—but it seems hardly to have occurred to anyone that this fjordlike intrusion had a certain superlative potential as an amenity.

“It was mostly just a kind of impediment really, something that had to be crossed to get from one side of the city to the other,” recalled Deirdre Macken, a Sydney journalist and old friend, of her childhood days in the city in the 1960s. “Some people sailed on it, and there were a few small beaches scattered around, but mostly it wasn’t something you were drawn to for pleasure. It was just sort of there.”

Then, one after another, Sydney discovered lots of other things that were just sort of there—broad and congenial parks, neighborhoods that felt like neighborhoods, miles of superb ocean beaches, a culturally diverse populace that presented a heady possibility of cosmopolitanism. It wasn’t that these had entirely escaped attention either, but no one had noticed that they had a certain ensemble quality: Taken together they had the capability of making Sydney one of the world’s most engaging and livable cities.

They’re noticing now. These days Sydney basks in a glow of self-generated confidence. With an enviable climate, outstanding restaurants, an almost pathological commitment to culture, a booming economy, and the excitement of the coming Olympics, Sydney has the air of a place whose moment has come. It is almost impossible to imagine now, when Sydney enjoys more or less universal adulation, that there was a time not so far back when few thought of it as particularly special. Sydney wasn’t the jewel of the antipodes but merely the Big Smoke—a rather dull, grimy, hardworking, provincial, not notably attractive metropolis. Melbourne, in an Australian context, was the seat of culture, refinement, and power.

“It’s rather telling that in 1956 the Summer Olympics went to Melbourne and that in 2000 they have gone to Sydney,” said Roger Johnstone, Deirdre’s husband. The three of us were dining at a popular and pricey harborside Asian-Australian restaurant called Wockpool, where the chef at the time of my visit rejoiced in the gloriously multicultural name of Kylie Kwong—a history of modern Australia in itself.

“No one would have dreamed of awarding the games to Sydney in 1956,” Roger went on. “The place was dead after five o’clock in the evening. There was practically no theater or nightlife. The pubs shut at 6 p.m. It was nearly impossible to get a really good meal.” He gave me a big smile. “Things have rather changed, wouldn’t you say?”

Indeed they have. Wockpool enjoys a prime position in the heart of Darling Harbour, a 2.4-billion-dollar (U.S.), 160-acre [65-hectare] cluster of shops, restaurants, museums, convention centers, and airy plazas spread around an 11-acre [4.5-hectare] arm of the harbor along the western edge of the central business district, or CBD, as Australians call their downtowns. Once a busy cluster of wharves lined with wool warehouses, machine sheds, a railroad marshaling yard, and other productive but unsightly clutter, Darling Harbour began to decline in the 1950s and grew increasingly derelict. In 1988, when the first phase of development opened, it was the first time in 150 years that the public had access to a significant part of the harborfront.

Today 15 million people a year come to Darling Harbour to shop, eat, stroll, visit Sydney Aquarium or the National Maritime Museum, or otherwise take advantage of what is a hugely successful public place. Stretching away from us along the harbor’s eastern side stood a complex of stylish bars and restaurants called Cockle Bay Wharf, which at a stroke had recently added 3,100 seats to Sydney’s already lively dining scene. There on open-air decks crowds of mostly young, tanned, and clearly prospering patrons were sipping esteemed Australian wines and dining on food spanning the range of gustatory possibility from French and Malaysian to mod-Oz (Oz being short for Australian, of course). Thirty years ago you might with effort have found a glass of Australian Shiraz in the city, but none of the rest—alfresco dining at harborside, a locally inspired cuisine, even female chefs—would have existed.

“Just 10 or 12 years ago you would have seen hardly a soul in the CBD in the evenings,” observed Deirdre. “There was no reason to come into the city at night. There was nothing to do.”

“So what happened?” I asked.

“That,” said Roger, nodding at the quietly lapping water. “We discovered that.”

For all Sydney’s other virtues, it is the harbor without question that makes the city. Although it covers only a fraction of metropolitan Sydney’s 1,450-plus square miles [3,755-plus square kilometers], for a good many of Sydney’s four million people the harbor is a constant presence. Because it continuously wanders off into back bays and hidden coves, its shoreline extends 150 miles [241 kilometers], most of it fetching, much of it incomparable.

Until quite recently, if you had suggested to me that the day would come when I would long to trade places with a person who spends his days conveying fare-paying members of the public back and forth across a sheltered body of water, I believe I would have given you a small smile and urged you to step up the medication. But that was before I met Andrew Reynolds. A cheerful fellow in his early 30s, with that air of imperturbable capability that seems to be innate with Australians, Reynolds pilots Sydney ferryboats for a living. You won’t find a happier person in uniform.

“Look at my office,” he said by way of explanation, indicating the view from the bridge of the large and old-fashioned Lady Herron, a 550-passenger vessel whose plump lines bespeak a certain plodding elegance. For the past 20 minutes we have been moving through the tranquil waters of Mosman Bay, a boat-cluttered cove enclosed by steep hills of dense woods and peeping houses, but now, as we round a headland called Cremorne Point, we are met by open harbor and a view of celebrated splendor.

Ahead, across a half mile [0.8 kilometer] of diamond-bright water, stands the Sydney Opera House, dazzling in the sunshine and jaunty as a clipper ship under full sail. Off to the right is the soaring might of the Harbour Bridge—the Coat Hanger, as it is affectionately known to Sydneysiders. Between and behind these two landmarks rises a backdrop of skyscrapers of a scale and newness that tell you this is a city on the go, and the whole is contained beneath a dome of flawless blue sky. Every object on the landscape—every house, jetty, jutting headland, and leafy green island—fits comfortably, looks exactly right. I asked Andrew if he ever tired of this view.

“No,” he responded with unshakable certitude. “There is always something new on or around or even under the water. I saw three whales the other week. Just out there.” He pointed toward a point called Bradleys Head. “One of them swam right under the boat. Well, you never get tired of something like that.”

He gave a small toot of horn to a pleasure boat motoring slowly toward the Harbour Bridge. Glancing over his shoulder, the owner took on the confounded expression of someone who finds 300 tons of metal coming his way. Andrew gave a patient nod.

“Small craft can be very unpredictable,” he said. “A lot of them aren’t used to moving about among big ships. They don’t always appreciate that boats like this aren’t terribly maneuverable. It takes 50 seconds to stop this thing.”

“How long?” I asked.

He smiled at my concern. “You get a lot of momentum with 300 tons of ship underneath you, even at ten knots, so you have to be thinking ahead all the time. But don’t worry. I’ve done this before.”

Clearly there was more stress in this line of work than his laid-back demeanor suggested—a point that became clearer five minutes later when we arrived at Circular Quay, the main terminus for the city’s many ferries. With what seemed the most modest and casual down-throttling, we berthed in a preposterously tight space without so much as a bump. A couple of hundred passengers got off and a couple of hundred more got on, and we were off again.

I spent the morning shuttling back and forth across the harbor—from Circular Quay to Taronga Wharf and from the quay to Mosman Bay—and I can’t tell you how much I envied the people for whom such a charming mode of transport was routine. After our third run Andrew shut down the engine, and we left to go our separate ways—he for a lunch break, I to explore the city.

“I’ll miss these old boats,” he said as we stood on the quayside.

“How do you mean?” I asked.

“Oh, they’re phasing them out. All the old-fashioned ferries like this are going to be replaced with catamarans. The cats are faster, but they haven’t got the same elegance, you know, and they’re not nearly as fun to pilot. But that’s progress, I guess.”

Everywhere in Sydney these days, change and progress are the watchwords. Scarcely a corner of the city—scarcely a corner of a corner—seems to have escaped the march of improvement and redevelopment. Much of the boom, as you would expect, is attributable to the preparations for next month’s Olympics. More than two billion dollars has been spent on the games themselves, principally on Sydney Olympic Park at Homebush Bay, to the west of the CBD. Over 3.6 billion dollars of general construction has risen across the city, including more than 20 new hotels as well as offices and apartment buildings beyond counting.

But something more than just the Olympics is going on here. En route to toppling Melbourne from its undisputed prominence, Sydney has become a truly global city. Its futures exchange is now the biggest in the Asian market, and its branch of the Australian Stock Exchange—once smaller than Melbourne’s—trails only Tokyo and Hong Kong in the region. Sydney has become a magnet for international businesses, two-thirds of which now choose it for their Australian headquarters.


Certainly there is no question that Sydney has become a much more worldly city. As David Dale, a writer and longtime Sydney-watcher, explained it to me: “Fifty years ago we ate British food, read British books, lived unadventurous British lives. If you had suggested to Australians back then the idea of eating squid”—he was eating squid as he spoke—“they’d have looked at you as if you were mad. Then we had a boom of non-British immigrants, mostly southern and eastern Europeans in the 1950s and ’60s, Asians since then. It completely transformed Australia, especially the big cities.”

We were sitting in a welcoming, quietly elegant restaurant called Beppi’s, named for a welcoming, quietly elegant fellow named Beppi Polese, who came to Australia from Italy as a young man in 1952 and began working in restaurants. Beppi laughed when I asked him what the dining scene was like in Sydney then.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” he said. “In those days fried chicken Maryland was a sophisticated dish.” He shook his head with a degree of wonder that clearly has not dimmed in half a century. “Most Australians had never tasted garlic or field mushrooms or eggplant. If a vegetable wasn’t green and spherical, they wouldn’t touch it.” He paused and raised a finger. “So I took it upon myself to improve their diet.”

In 1956 he and his wife, Norma, opened Beppi’s on a quiet road near Hyde Park. It is now the oldest continuously owned restaurant in Sydney. I asked him how he got the customers to expand their tastes. “Oh, I cajoled, I begged, I bullied a little. I gave the food away if I had to. But it was hard. I remember once I offered mussels to a very good customer. He took one look and said, ‘That’s not food. It’s bait.’ But once I got them to taste the food, they’d often be amazed at how good it was—better anyway than chicken Maryland.” He shook his head again, then excused himself to greet some new customers.

With change so ubiquitous in Sydney these days, anything that recalls an earlier, simpler era in the city seems all the more cherishable—and nowhere will you find that better represented than at Bondi Beach, the most famous of the many Sydney beaches strung along the shores of the Pacific. There, since 1906, devoted members of the famous Bondi Surf Bathers’ Life Saving Club have been looking after the public. The work is unpaid and voluntary.

“Actually we pay for the privilege of saving lives—30 [Australian] dollars a year in membership dues,” said John Mackey, age 32 and one of about 700 members of the club. An accountant by profession, Mackey spends one weekend in three on average patrolling the mile-long [1.6-kilometer-long] beach as part of a team of 10 to 15 lifesavers.

“We can get up to 60,000 people on the beach on a hot day, so as you can imagine, we’re confronted with all kinds of things—heart attacks, cuts, bee stings, jellyfish stings, people getting hit by surfboards, you name it. Plus of course we save swimmers in trouble—88 of them last year.”

I asked him why he was prepared to devote such a big part of his life to what is, after all, unpaid work. “I see it as an honor,” he responded at once. “I love the idea that people have been doing this voluntarily for almost a century. It’s a very important tradition in Sydney.”

But traditions, alas, are increasingly rare. In its headlong rush to modernity in the 1960s and ’70s, Sydney unceremoniously swept aside much of its past, including many of its finest buildings. I asked Shirley Fitzgerald, the city’s official historian, how much the city has lost.

“We’ve lost about all of it twice,” she replied with a wry but weary smile. “In the 1880s, during an economic boom, most of the city’s best Georgian architecture was replaced with rather more ornate and showy Victorian buildings. Then in the 1960s and ’70s, when we discovered the joys of the skyscraper, we lost much of the Victorian stock.”

Nowadays Sydney tends to engage in a practice known as facadism in which developers preserve the fronts of Victorian structures but fill the space behind with skyscrapers. The result is that at street level you seem to be in a Victorian neighborhood, but stand back a block or two and the deceit becomes apparent at once. It is, in Shirley Fitzgerald’s view, a compromise that serves neither old nor new.

“Sydney is confused about itself,” she said. “We can’t seem to make up our mind whether we want Sydney to be a modern city on the North American model or an old-fashioned city in the European style. It’s a conflict that we aren’t getting any better at resolving.”

On the other hand, being young and old at the same time has its attractions. I considered this when I met a thoughtful young businessman named Anthony Bertini. “There’s a phenomenon here called the cultural cringe,” he told me, “which is essentially the belief that we lack culture in this country. What people forget is that the Italians, when they came to Australia, brought 2,000 years of their culture with them. The Greeks brought more like 3,000 years, the Chinese more still, and so on through all the different immigrant groups. We’ve got a foundation built on ancient cultures but with a drive and dynamism you can only get in a young country. I think that’s a pretty hard combination to beat.”

He is right, of course. But I can’t help wishing they would keep those old ferries.


Get the full story in the August 2000 issue. Or receive NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC by joining the National Geographic Society—only (U.S.) $29!

Bill Bryson is the author of A Walk in the Woods, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, and the recent In a Sunburned Country, about his amblings in Australia.

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