It would be difficult to overstate how much I love Sydney. But having said that, after moving here for my first full time job and staying for only three and a half years, I don’t regret leaving it for a second.
That apparent paradox was reinforced as soon as I’d taken the train from the airport to St James station and found myself in the throng of the lunchtime crowds. As the late summer sun beat down from a dark blue sky and bounced off the office buildings along Elizabeth Street and then Martin Place, luring the suits outside for their lunch hour before spending the afternoon back inside chained to their desks, I was glad to be back and part of the bustle of this magnificent city. But I was even gladder to walk along here as a visitor, for only the first time in a couple of years, rather than all those days I did it every weekday as a city worker myself.
I had come into the city to pick up the keys for an apartment we’d organised to stay in for a week through AirBnB and, once they were in my possession, I hurried on foot out away from the skyscrapers, across Darling Harbour and over to Pyrmont, where my wife and parents had gone directly from the airport and were waiting for me.
I was excited for this week, to introduce my baby daughter to some people here that even now, nearly a decade after I’d chosen to leave, I still count amongst my best and closest friends. But I was also just as eager to have time to enjoy being in Sydney for the place itself, and to some do things with my parents that I’d never had the time to do with them when they’d visited me here in years past.
Once we’d settled in and stocked up on a few provisions, and with no social engagements on this first day, I was itching for a first walk around. Going back towards the city seemed a natural choice, and the first inevitable waypoint from Pyrmont was Darling Harbour, where we skirted the waterline of Cockle Bay.
To be honest, I never really spent that much time in Darling Harbour while I was a Sydney resident. I had the occasional work events there and one year went to the Sydney Motor Show at the Convention Centre, but by and large I was immune to its supposed appeal. Even as a visitor to Sydney in the late 1990’s during one of our family road trips I remember being very underwhelmed.
To be fair, I’d never seen the area before its transformation in the 1980’s from disused railway yards and docks into a recreation space for the public, but I just never felt all that drawn to the IMAX theatre, aquarium and other attractions, sterile and overpriced restaurants and shops, nightclubs full of posers, and a general lack of green space that is found so abundantly elsewhere on Sydney Harbour. And of course there was the monorail that didn’t really go anywhere. Back when the monorail line opened in 1988 it was a huge innovation, but with the 3.6 kilometre loop lacking easy integration with the rest of Sydney’s public transport system, an expensive novelty for curious tourists was all it really remained.
Even now, on what was possibly my first visit to Darling Harbour in a decade, I found my attitude was still much the same. But things at this end of town are soon to change again. The monorail has only three more months before it is closed down and dismantled. Big development firms are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of new possibilities all across the Darling Harbour precinct, including replacements to the Exhibition, Convention and Entertainment centres and the inclusion of new residential towers. Will Darling Harbour Version 2 be a place I will want to frequent in the future? Honestly, I’m not holding out much hope, but let’s wait and see.
Part of my scepticism comes from the beginning redevelopment of the immediately adjacent area of wharf along Hickson Road. In my time this was an occasionally functioning port for excess passenger cruise ships that couldn’t berth at Circular Quay, as well as a few car transporters and container ships – a far cry from its heyday during the Great Depression in the 1930’s, when it acquired the nickname ‘The Hungry Mile’ as a workplace that could still offer some employment to desperate labourers. In my absence it has shut down completely, with grand plans currently in the works for its own rejuvenation as Barangaroo, a renaming in honour of the wife of Bennelong, a prominent Aboriginal tribal elder in the times of early European settlement. Finding the balance between the amount of waterfront land reserved for public space and the proportion available to ultra keen developers on this extremely lucrative piece of real estate is proving to be a heated debate. Throw in one of Australia’s richest men heavily agitating for a potential second Sydney casino license to be included in a massive skyscraper on the site, and it’s clearly obvious that, first and foremost, the big end of town will profit nicely.
But Barangaroo has more immediate issues. With the first works commencing behind tall fences, we walked the route open to the public along the edge of the wharf until at the site’s midpoint it suddenly diverted away from the water to finish on Hickson Road. The reason: The discovery of asbestos fibres in the soil at Barangaroo’s northern end.
We found the shoreline again as Hickson Road turned in front of the piers of Walsh Bay, right in the shadow of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. This was one of the first of Sydney’s former port areas to be redeveloped, with the docks now home to posh apartments, silver service restaurants of the type that I’d never in a million years frequent if I was paying the bill, and the Sydney Theatre Company. I can recall only previously coming to this particular pocket of the city once, and that was to see a play one evening at the STC. If I remember correctly the production was fairly informal, low-budget and low-brow, which almost made a mockery of the elegant surrounds. In any case, tonight at Walsh Bay there was some political theatre going on too – as we wandered past Dad and I spotted two senior federal politicians, one each from the two major parties (Simon Crean and Malcolm Turnbull, if anyone is taking notes), dining outside at one of the fine restaurants, no doubt plotting all kinds of skulduggery.
Continuing on our way we passed immediately beneath the southern pylons and steel girders supporting the road and rail deck of the Harbour Bridge and around to the western side of Circular Quay, where the floating city of a Carnival cruise liner was making final preparations to set sail. By this time it was getting dark and it was time to head back towards Pyrmont via The Rocks.
I’ve always found the reputation of The Rocks as a historical area of interest for tourists to be rather inflated. Precious little of the earliest English invasion and settlement in Australia has survived, due to its reputation in various eras as a decaying slum, an incubator of the bubonic plague and the pressures of progress as Sydney expanded into a true world city during the twentieth century. Cut in half in the 1920’s by highway infrastructure for the Harbour Bridge and lorded over by a rambling 1970’s grey concrete apartment tower, most of the time I spent in The Rocks was to play in basketball and mixed netball competitions at the KGV Recreation Centre at lunch-time or after work.
There are nonetheless a few heritage diamonds in the rough that have survived that I do really like: The row of sandstone warehouses from the 1830’s at Campbell’s Cove near Circular Quay for one (though they are not a patch on the much more impressive warehouses of the same era standing in Salamanca Place in my home town of Hobart), and a couple of very atmospheric and storied pubs: The Australian Hotel, sloping around the tight corner of Cumberland and Gloucester Streets and, my absolute favourite, the Lord Nelson Brewery standing proud at the top of Argyle St. I also appreciate that despite its strategic and highly valued location, beyond the art galleries and twee souvenir emporiums on its eastern side, The Rocks area retains in its west at Miller’s Point a pocket of public housing terraces that has resisted complete gentrification – for the time being at least.
With the weather suddenly turning for the worse, the impending showers of the afternoon limited us only to a short walk around Pyrmont in the morning. Despite it being so close to the city, Pyrmont was not previously ever an area within my charted territory. Mostly I think that was due to the slightly awkward public transport connections, until a recent change of state government allowed state transit travel cards to become valid on the privately run tram line that encircles Pyrmont while running to and from Central Station. So, by staying in Pyrmont now it was nice to have the excuse to actually see some of it.
We first traced the peninsula from west to east, starting from the Sydney Fish Market below the approaches to the Anzac Bridge and continuing through waterfront parkland in front of new apartment buildings that looked out onto the now disused Glebe Island Bridge, the derelict power station and further retreating industrial port facilities of White Bay, Balmain – the archetype of Sydney’s blue collar turned blue ribbon waterfront inner suburbs, before eventually facing the city, Darling Harbour and Cockle Bay once again.
Pyrmont’s boom as a trendy suburb of apartment complexes since the 1990’s has, by and large, erased most previous evidence of one of Sydney’s early industrial heartlands, when shipyards, sandstone quarries, wool stores, flour mills and a large sugar refinery dominated the landscape. These days the big employers all appeared to be in the media game – multiple TV and radio stations and the online arm of the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper all now have prominent positions here.
But even modern additions to the area have had an extensive makeover since I’ve left. On the very few occasions I have ventured inside Star City, sitting pretty with a monopoly (at least, for now) as Sydney’s only fully fledged casino, I was always struck by how maddeningly difficult it was to find an obvious entrance (never mind an exit), and how, once inside, the almost complete lack of any windows in the restaurants, bars and gaming areas made a complete mockery of its prime Darling Harbour location. Somewhere along the way, the casino owners must have come to roughly the same conclusion, tempering the need to disorientate patrons in order for them to stay longer and lose more money with the realisation that taking advantage of more of its natural assets may just lure more punters, diners and drinkers through the doors in the first place. We didn’t go inside, but even just from passing by along the frontage with Pirrama Road it’s clear there has been a total re-alignment of the entertainment areas towards the water, with massive opening windows along the whole front side now bringing in fresh air, the sounds of the city, as well as the considerable views of the water.
Not that Darling Harbour is now entirely bereft of cramped, windowless spaces. As part of the adjacent National Maritime Museum, a range of vessels from different eras permanently moored in the harbour can be boarded by visitors. My parents were keen to check out two former Royal Australian Navy ships, the destroyer HMAS Vampire and the submarine HMAS Onslow. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to join them this time – with a seven month old in a baby carrier, the museum’s regulations understandably excluded me from tackling the ladders and ultra-tight confines on board.
What I liked most of all about our morning wander around Pyrmont were the small pieces of character that I had not previously associated with the area. There were the pockets of tiny cottages made from the local sandstone, particularly in Union Street and dotted here and there along Harris Street, that have somehow survived the eras of boom, bust and boom again. And then there was the Terminus Hotel, still advertising its beer garden, snack bar and Tooths and Reschs on tap, but, if the creeping ivy that has completely taken over the upper floor is any indication, its last trading day seemed as distant as the long forgotten tram line that once ran up Harris Street that gave the pub its name.
The wet weather dragged on for another full day. After lunch in the city with former work colleagues, my main concern was to somehow keep dry while waiting for the rain to abate. The Queen Victoria Building, justifiably feted as one of Sydney’s most beautiful buildings with its sandstone exterior and tile mosaic and wrought iron interior, came in very handy for that purpose, as did the other shopping arcades that fan out from around the underground train stations at Town Hall, Wynyard and Martin Place.
It had been a long while since I’d done anything other than pass through these parts on the way to somewhere else, but even so it appeared like nothing much had changed since my days as a city worker in the first half of the 2000’s. The big exception to this sense of overwhelming familiarity was along the south-eastern side of Pitt Street Mall where Westfield, the now global shopping centre behemoth, had recently opened the consolidation of their Centrepoint Arcade with the next door Sky Garden and Imperial arcades in the biggest city construction project in some years.
All of a sudden my bearings were all out of whack. All traces of the sports shoe warehouse where I bought my sneakers, or the takeaway sandwich joint that did the best lunch-time burger that I had found in the city were completely obliterated. So too was the glory that gave the Sky Garden its name – the bright top floor glass roof that offered unique views skyward of the central shaft and observation floors of Centrepoint Tower far above.
In its place was of course something much shinier, larger and more upmarket. But in comparison to its predecessors it was so dark and difficult to escape. It was as if it was the counterweight to what had gone on at Star City, spending something like $2 billion between them to swap the bright and airy of one site for the dark and labyrinthine of the other. There was no doubt that the original Centrepoint Arcade was looking a bit dated and could have used some investment but, by losing the appeal of the Imperial and Sky Garden arcades as well, it seemed a huge shame to replace venues that would drag even me in for some retail therapy.
Not that I should really care all that much in the end, it’s not like I live here anymore. So I just shook my head in great disappointment and walked down in the direction of Chinatown, where my Mum wanted to have a look around.
Finally the weather outlook started to improve. After another city food court lunch with friends, I had the afternoon free and a clearing sky to appreciate. With my parents exploring the harbour via Sydney Ferries and my wife studying (and simultaneously looking after a teething baby, bless her), I took a train to Milsons Point and walked down to Bradfield Park, directly underneath the northern end of the Harbour Bridge, which offered the often-seen vista back across the water to the city skyline and the Opera House.
For some, that just about encompasses all Sydney Harbour is about. But for me, what makes it so beguiling is not so much the man-made landmarks so photogenically positioned on it, nor the size of the harbour itself (again, my humble home town of Hobart trumps it with a body of deep water that is significantly more expansive). What really does it is the narrow fingers of land and hidden coves and bays stretching from the Parramatta River and out to Sydney Heads that give the coastline such ever-changing variety. And, for the lower North Shore in particular, with no direct roads from the city until the Harbour Bridge was opened in 1932, its post-European development was slowed by the long reliance on ships for all cross-harbour transport. As a result, quite generous slices of harbour frontage geographically close to a globally significant city centre have been protected from urbanisation.
Meaning to walk as far along the jagged northern shoreline as I could before it got dark, I left Bradfield Park via a new boardwalk along the rocks in front of the apartment blocks on Kirribilli Avenue, and then up to that street itself. The parked Federal Police car, high walls and security cameras announced my arrival at Admiralty House and next door Kirribilli House, the Sydney residences of the Governor-General and Prime Minister respectively. I don’t know if either Quentin or Julia were here or whether they were at their other official homesteads in Canberra, but it was clear I wasn’t going to see either of them out in their yards pottering around in the garden. It’s funny how when seen from the water both houses are quite visible and open to the gaze of gawkers travelling by ferries, yachts and cruise ships, but from the vantage point of the residents of the older style apartment blocks directly on the opposite side of Kirribilli Avenue they’re much more like Fort Knox.
With little direct foreshore access from this point I zig-zagged along narrow and sometimes steep streets towards Neutral Bay, passing fine early 20th century manors, a mish-mash of decidedly average looking 1960’s and 1970’s blocks of flats that, due to their views, must each be worth a mint regardless, an exclusive private girl’s school, and a few ship chandlers and yacht clubs that provide some continuing link to the naming of Neutral Bay as a sheltered anchoring spot for non-English flagged ships in the early days of European settlement.
Further on was Cremorne Point, one of my very favourite parts of the harbour. On the western side in Shell Cove a concrete pathway began by cutting through regenerating bushland, and where my presence disturbed a large lizard who hurriedly retreated into the scrub (but I did not seem to faze a couple of large spiders safe in their sticky webs). The path continued to the MacCullum Pool, a former harbourside rock pool that was turned into a proper swimming enclosure and lined with timber decking in the 1920’s – just one of so many historic and picturesque Sydney swimming spots located inside the harbour or fronting the Pacific Ocean. This pool is towards the top of my list partly because, whenever I’ve visited it, I’ve almost always had it to myself.
Not far past the Cremorne Point Ferry Wharf was the very tip of the headland itself, where, beyond a playground and more bushland reserve, a small lighthouse still stands sentinel, before I turned back and followed the Mosman Bay side of Cremorne’s finger. Facing away from the city, this side is steeper, the foliage more dense, and the bay is sheltered and tranquil. The first time I ever passed by this way and stumbled on the Lex and Ruby Graham Gardens, a lush semi-tropical landscape tumbling down the bank to the water’s edge, I thought I’d stepped into some kind of secret enchanted world. For many decades it was the pride and joy of a locally resident couple for which it is now named, and since their deaths it continues to be very well tended by volunteers and funding through the local council. I don’t envy all the continued hard work needed to cultivate this special piece of mini-rainforest in the city, but evidently there are enough passers-by like me who appreciate it to make the effort worthwhile for some green fingered and community minded people.
What I do envy, though, are the lucky buggers that by a legal quirk own the only three absolute waterfront properties in all of Cremorne Point, where the gently lapping emerald waters of Mosman Bay make a dog-leg, and the foreshore pathway turns away briefly to become an official street called Bromley Avenue. Of all the astronomically expensive Sydney mansions, historical homes and apartment buildings that enjoy the privilege of backing directly onto one of the world’s most beautiful harbours, somehow it is these three that I covet the most. And it’s all because this little corner of Mosman Bay feels like a kind of forgotten hideaway. Even in my craziest fantasy world where money is no object, I’d happily forgo the chance to own the biggest, brashest mansions that command prices of tens of millions of dollars in Point Piper and the other more built-up Sydney suburbs of the super-rich, for the chance of such natural seclusion so ridiculously close to the centre of the city.
As I continued on my way, that sense of privacy disappeared slightly as Harnett Park opened up at the very end of the bay into the reclaimed land of Reid Park, which itself gave way to the hilly well-to-do suburbia of Mosman. With little public foreshore access from here I crossed the footbridge that straddled the sandstone gully at the rear of the park and walked residential streets until I found a set of stairs down to Little Sirius Cove.
From here things really get wild – and it’s not just the rhinos, tigers and other fauna occupying the higher ground of the headland inside Taronga Zoo. With much of the foreshore from here within the protective boundaries of Sydney Harbour National Park, the scrub is rugged and, after all the recent rain, the rough bush tracks were not much more than long puddles and mud. With a couple of small and secluded beaches accessible from the track, it would be so easy to lose my bearings and imagine myself on a bushwalk somewhere far out in the country. But the noise of the ferries and other vessels plying the harbour, not to mention the intermittent glimpses of the city and eastern suburbs wherever the scrub thinned, served as little reminders of where I really was.
After rounding Bradleys Head it was tempting to continue on to Chowder Bay, the old military fortifications of Georges Head and to Middle Head and beyond, however the light was fading and this was not the kind of terrain to be exploring unprepared and in the dark. Sadly, my aim to one day walk from Kirribilli all the way to Manly is going to have to wait for another visit.
Instead, I cut back across Bradleys Head, found myself awkwardly walking across the backdrop of a twilight wedding ceremony taking place at Athol Hall, and waited at the Taronga Zoo wharf for a ferry back to Circular Quay along with the very last of the stragglers who had spent their afternoon at the zoo, going against the flood of city workers interchanging at the zoo between ferries and connecting buses home across the Lower North Shore. When I first moved to Sydney I dreamed about how nice it would be to get to and from work by ferry. Thankfully it didn’t work out that way and my only opinion of Sydney Ferries is as an enjoyable way to occasionally pootle around the harbour while in no particular hurry.
While the harbour and the ocean are natural draws for much of a visitor’s time to Sydney, the truth is, of course, that this isn’t reality for the vast majority of its residents. And for my friends who continue to make this place their home, as vocations have changed, mortgages acquired and offspring produced in the years since I’ve left, they are tending to radiate further outwards to the north, west and south of the sprawling metropolitan area.
Take Andrew, my best friend since primary school, who, as fate would have it, happened to relocate from overseas to Sydney not all that long before I left Sydney for overseas. Four years ago, he and his wife Kathleen were living in a flat close to the city and the harbour and enjoyed all the benefits of that mobility. Two years ago, on my next visit, they were managing to stay in the same location with the addition of a son. Today, now a family of four, we were travelling further out into leafy suburbia to see the house they’d up-sized to. Where once it was easy to catch up over dinners out, this has naturally made way for backyard barbecues and the inevitable distractions of keeping one eye on the ankle-biters (though the opportunity for both of us to duck out to the pub for the evening after the kids’ bed-time was welcome and greatly enjoyed).
Even though it’s becoming more difficult to spread the time catching up in person with as many old friends as I’d like, those that I can see provide another compelling reason for why I like coming back to Sydney so much. And, chances are, even if I was living here I reckon I may not be able to see them properly much more often than I’m currently able to now.
Before now the furthest west I’d ever travelled by Sydney Ferries was Balmain, which, as far as achievements go, is like saying I can beat my daughter in a sprint. Considering she can’t yet crawl, this is nothing to boast about. With the morning free before more social catch-ups in the afternoon and again in the evening, I ventured from Circular Quay with my parents slightly further beyond Balmain (and not by all that much) to Cockatoo Island.
A former naval installation that was returned to public access in 2007, on approach the military presence still appeared strong, with rows of khaki coloured tents set up in the grassy patch on the island’s northern side. But this is no temporary military barracks, this is a public campsite (and probably smartly marketed as Sydney’s cheapest absolute harbourside accommodation), but behind is an interesting collection of buildings that span almost two hundred years of prison and naval history.
The earliest European remains on the island are underground wheat silos and holding cells from a penal punishment outpost of the 1830’s. From later decades there are dry-dock facilities that were used for building and maintaining sailing ships, huge industrial works needed for the Australian naval fleet of the early and mid twentieth century, and then later design and maintenance facilities used until well into the 1990’s for submarines.
Cockatoo Island’s strategic position in the middle of the harbour was clearly beneficial in being able to build and repair ships a little away from the prying eyes of the city residents, however this remoteness was also sometimes an inhibiting factor – two armed robberies took place in the twentieth century, where in each case thieves made off with the weekly pay of hundreds of workers and were never caught.
It had been an interesting morning exploring an island that was not accessible to the public while I lived here, and discovering new things about the city’s past as a result. Not to mention the nice views across the water to suburbs like Birchgrove, Drummoyne, Woolwich, Greenwich and others.
For our last full day I’d saved my favourite piece of Sydney until last, a walk facing the ocean rather than the harbour. The Bondi to Coogee walk was one I did regularly when I lived in this part of Sydney, and is justifiably well known. But with all day free there was time for my parents and I to do something a little more ambitious, starting instead from South Head and continuing beyond Bondi and Coogee to end at the hallowed sands of Maroubra.
Starting with yet another ferry from Circular Quay, the Opera House, botanical gardens and active naval base at Garden Island on the southern side of the harbour soon gave way to the exclusive suburbs of Point Piper, Double Bay, Rose Bay and Vaucluse. I found myself looking out for the spots that naturally catch my eye in this area – the Norfolk pine studded Shark Island, the historic sandstone castle-like bulk of Kincoppal private girls school that looks as if it was directly transplanted stone-by-stone from Scotland, and the public recreation reserves of Nielsen Park and Parsley Bay.
Just before the harbour opened out through the towering cliffs of Sydney Heads to the ocean, the ferry pulled into Watsons Bay, which is famous for two things (or three, if you include the nudist beach at Lady Bay): The first is Doyles, an upmarket seafood restaurant sitting right on the small beach by the ferry wharf for well over a hundred years, coupled with its slightly less posh outlet on the wharf itself (selling a nonetheless high-brow take on common old takeaway fish and chips). As the full ferry-load of passengers disembarked, there were plenty who would have gone no further than one or other of the Doyles venues, thus consolidating and perpetuating its credentials.
After walking up the grassy incline of Robertson Park we came to the second famous place, a section of the ocean-facing cliffs known as the Gap. Its claim to fame for well over a hundred years has been as Sydney’s best known suicide spot (with a fair few ‘did they jump or were they pushed?’ style mysteries thrown in). The proliferation of high fences well behind the cliff edge, surveillance cameras and free phone boxes urging people to call a support helpline was a sad reminder that going no further from here in life was also still something of a regular occurrence.
We followed the cliffs southwards towards Bondi, following a succession of public reserves, looking out at a line of container ships on a hazy horizon where the blue sea met the blue sky and jutting headlands we’d cover over the next five or six hours. I’ve seen this view look very differently at times, when angry, grey storm clouds have come together and then parted like theatre curtains, at intervals revealing a stage of similar freighters out in a choppy and foaming sea of white-caps.
As we dropped down from the golf course at Ben Buckler, the kilometre long scallop of the golden sands of Australia’s most famous beach was revealed. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Bondi, which can generally be summed up as a fondness for most things on the beach-side of Campbell Parade and an almost complete disregard for the ho-hum commercialism that starts immediately on the other side of the street.
I love the tradition that comes from the world’s oldest Surf Lifesaving clubs, as sea-bathing and later surfing began to emerge as popular past-times, and the 1920’s grandeur that is the Bondi Pavilion. I love the beach itself, with its clear water and reliable swell (and with my parents making a stop for lunch here I relished the opportunity to go for a swim). I love the big grass bank which offers a nice vantage point to watch the line-up of surfers – particularly at the southern end of the beach. And I love that as Bondi has become such a magnet for socialites, TV personalities and international tourists (even now, coach loads of Asian tourists were coming to drop their toes in the sand, take group photos and then soon after moving on), they can all congregate here leaving me to enjoy the relative peace of some of the other beaches nearby.
It doesn’t take long to follow the boardwalk to the first of those beaches, Tamarama. A narrow and deep horseshoe shaped gully with its early twentieth century Surf Lifesaving Club perched atop the northern end of the beach, looking at it now Tamarama seems an unlikely place for an amusement park – but for a few decades from the 1880s that was exactly what was developed here. A century after its demise I’ve never actually had the guts to take on the beach’s all-natural thrill ride – with one or two strong rip currents always present across the tiny 80 metre beachfront even the security of swimming between the red and yellow flags of the patrolled area is not enough to entice me into the swell.
Immediately beyond Tamarama is the (only slightly) calmer beach at Bronte, whose constant draw for group picnics has always been the generous swathe of parkland extending for a good way up the hill behind the sand. But unfortunately not everything here has stayed the same. As recently as my last visit two years ago, the fish and chip shop at the end of the low-key line of cafés on Bronte Road was serving up the best burger with the lot I’ve ever had in these parts. I’d been holding out on lunch until we passed by, but alas, alas, in the meantime it had clearly changed hands as the décor and menu had been given a complete makeover, and the salt and pepper squid I ended up with was not sufficient enough to cover my disappointment.
After leaving the southern end of Bronte via a semi-circular cutting dug through the sandstone bluff that has lasted far longer than the tram line it was created for (it’s simply astonishing to find out how extensive Sydney’s tram network used to be, until like all major Australian cities except Melbourne the lines were ripped up with even more vigorous enthusiasm to make room for the golden age of the car. How short-sighted that seems now), the next point of interest is a little less Eastern Suburbs glamour and a bit more macabre.
When I first saw it, Waverley Cemetery was instantly recognisable to me from burial scenes (and the occasional climatic good guys/bad guys shoot-out) in numerous Australian movies and TV shows. Given its enviable location, the bodies that rest under the headstones and within marble family crypts that enjoy such views over the ocean here must, on current Sydney prices, be sitting on more lucrative real estate now when they’re dead than anywhere they lived when they were alive.
Significant improvements to the coastal walkway had been made here since my last visit, with a wooden boardwalk recently built out beyond the cliff edge across the whole width of the cemetery. This meant it was no longer necessary for walkers and joggers to pick their way haphazardly around the front rows of graves – unless they actually wanted to. It’s a great piece of infrastructure to remove the transiting pedestrian traffic from disturbing the landscape of the cemetery, but like any major by-pass I’m sure the residents who, for a hundred years or more, had enjoyed absolutely uninterrupted water views are turning over in their graves at their loss of amenity (and the accompanying drop in market value that results).
After passing the always windswept Clovelly Bowling Club, where old people in prim white uniforms pass the time away playing lawn bowls until they move into their permanent digs next door at the cemetery, the walkway winds down to the lovely little inlet at Clovelly. Protected from the swell by large concrete barriers placed at the bay mouth, this little beach is a favourite for families for young kids, and the concrete terraces along the waters edge also make it popular for Mediterranean style sunbathing. With many kinds of fish caught inside the bay on the tide, it also makes a safe and interesting place for people of all ages to go snorkelling. But for all that, my favourite part of Clovelly is the pub, just behind the beach on Clovelly Road, a far more relaxed place to hang out over a schooner than the more boisterous (and sometimes violent) nightlife options of Bondi and Coogee.
Between Clovelly and Coogee the pathway winds up and down between houses of monumental proportions and the always clear waters of Gordons Bay, where a marked underwater trail of some kind is available for snorkellers and novice scuba divers, before continuing up to another grassy bluff. Once, for a change of scenery one weekend, at low tide I made the mistake here of scampering around the rocks below the bluff rather than sticking to the concrete pathway up above. The rock scrambling itself was very fun, but the unexpected and gratuitous views of sunbathing male nudity were not so much.
And so past the old concrete archway of Giles Baths and onto the promenade at Coogee. Less reliable for surfing than perhaps any other open-ocean facing beach in Sydney due to the rocky reef of Wedding Cake Island just offshore, the relative calm may well make it the most English style stretch of sand that the city has. Not surprisingly that encouraged the construction of an English style seaside pier in 1924, complete with ballroom, theatre and arcade, but it only lasted until 1934 when it was demolished after sustaining heavy damage in stormy conditions.
I’ll always have a soft spot for Coogee. Of the three flats I lived in during my time in Sydney, the one just off the top of Coogee Bay Road was easily my favourite. It wasn’t the flashiest place I lived (that was the Club Med style complex in the Inner West), and it wasn’t the cheapest (that was the small and pokey art-deco place in Maroubra Junction), but it had great public transport links to work in the city, there was the old-style cinema and various restaurants just around the corner at The Spot and supermarkets close by in Randwick Junction. Even the surprise of coming home one night in mid 2003 to find a raw sewage spill that had gurgled up out of the bathroom drain and shower and into the hallway and living room doesn’t detract from my happy memories there (my flatmate at the time wasn’t so thrilled, and I was almost immediately looking for someone else to share the rent).
What I loved most about living here was that with my bathers on, wetsuit slung over my shoulder (putting that extra layer on made it possible to swim for a good nine months out of the year) and with nothing other than my front door key in my back pocket I could be down at Coogee Beach within minutes. Though admittedly, if I had some time on my hands I would more often than not do what my parents and I did now, which was to continue without delay to Maroubra instead.
Taking the most coastal of routes from Coogee to Maroubra via the rocks at Lurline Bay can be a bit challenging (or even impossible, depending on the tide), and the inefficient detour up Cuzco Street and back down Edgecliffe Avenue is frustrating, but I still think this stretch is the equal of any of the rest of the Eastern Suburbs coastal walk – perhaps even better because it’s nowhere near as crowded.
Coming to Sydney feels incomplete if I can’t swim at Maroubra Beach or, at the very least, walk around a bit along the promenade and up Marine Parade to the Mahon Pool. Its golden sand may be a bit more coarse and contain more little bits of shells than other Sydney beaches, and there may a criminal gang called the Bra Boys, identified by tattoos of the local postcode of 2035, who get into some bad business (which, despite their name, apparently does not include cross-dressing), but I absolutely adore Maroubra. There was nothing quite so atmospheric than body-surfing on Saturdays with the accompanying soundtrack of volleys of gunfire echoing out from the expansive heath lands of the Anzac Rifle Range at Maroubra’s southern headland.
Though the process of gentrification is slowly ongoing and inevitable (the fronting apartment buildings are one-by-one being torn down to make way for new ones that are way more high-spec), it has still managed to hold onto its blue-collar roots longer than the other aforementioned beaches on this walk, with the nearby Port Botany, Sydney Airport and Kellogg’s factory continuing to be big employers in the local area. There’s still a fair slice of public housing too, particularly on the southern side of Wentworth Avenue.
While the rifle range has helped the area remain a scenically undeveloped backdrop for a suburban beach, its long term future is far from clear. It can only be a matter of time before it’s sold off to developers who will make a tidy sum out of a new built-up beachside mass development for moneyed yuppies. I’ll be very sad when that happens, although the disappointment of losing that view while waiting to catch my next wave would be cushioned somewhat if I could conspire to afford to buy a piece of that development for myself.
And that about confirms my current relationship with Sydney. I felt comfortable and at home from the very day I moved here as a wet behind the ears university graduate ready to start earning a living. It’s exciting (and I wasn’t even living here during the 2000 Olympic Games), the natural location is gorgeous and the climate is generally pretty conducive to an outdoor lifestyle all year (and even when it’s not, the lightning can beat any over-hyped New Years fireworks spectacular). But I can’t imagine being able to live anywhere near where I’d want to without significant cost-of-living stress or onerous commute times (or, considering how ridiculously long it took just to get up Anzac Parade by bus towards the city, even though we should have been going against the traffic, both could easily apply at once), and I just can’t see how I’d really get to see my close friends spreading further across the city much more often than I’m currently able to now.
I still love this city, probably more than any other city I know. But just not in that settling down, long-term commitment sense of love.
You gotta love this city, for its body and not its brain.
You Gotta Love This City by The Whitlams.