We dash across the railway bridge, desperate not to miss the train to Sydney. My feet feel awkward and flat footed, as I try to grip my flip-flops between my toes while running as fast as I can. Later I discover that one of the Paua-shell earrings that Hicksy gave me last Christmas has fallen out, presumably during the run. Bugger.
Making it just in time, we take our seats on the upper deck next to a group of round, grey haired women who are comparing sun spots on their hands. To my left a deeply tanned man is explaining how the best way to kill something is to stretch its neck and snap it, while his companion argues that she prefers to use a shotgun. I have no idea what creature they are hypothetically killing, and I don’t ask.
I zone out as the train sways on for an hour and a half until we come in to Sydney Central Station. It is my second day in Australia and at $20 our return tickets from Wollongong include access to all buses and ferries for the day.
The first thing I notice in Sydney is the women. Supposedly Australia has the highest obesity rate in the world but you wouldn’t guess it looking at the Sydneysiders (as they cheerfully refer to themselves). They are immaculately dressed, and the majority of them are in great shape. I point this out to Hicksy, who politely pretends not to have noticed. We walk from the train station to Darling Harbor, where Governor Phillip and a boatload of petty criminals ambled ashore on January 26, 1778: Australia Day. The Aussies don’t like to talk about this bit, alluding to their convict origins as “The Stain.”
In In a Sunburned Country Bill Bryson writes, “So what if dear old Gramps was a bit of a sticky-fingered felon in his youth? Look what he left behind.”
And he’s right. I look up at the gleaming skyscrapers, the water features that make the walk through the city feel like a walk through a park, the Sacred Ibises (Ibi?) perched amongst the palm tree leaves, and it’s hard to imagine this magnificent city’s scraggly beginnings.
It’s Friday morning and the harbor is quieter than I expected. We walk along the water stopping to look at the jellyfish, picturing the sharks swimming below us. Hicksy, the walking encyclopedia, informs me that Sydney Harbor has one of the highest concentrations of sharks in the world, a fact which I’m not entirely sure is accurate but certainly makes me wary.
We catch a ferry to Circular Quay, and I finally feel like I’m in Australia. In front of me is the monumental structure of the Harbor Bridge, and through it I can see the architectural masterpiece that has become a symbol not only of Sydney, but of Australia: the Sydney Opera House. It’s smaller than I thought it would be, but then, I am quite far away. To the left of the bridge is Luna Park, a theme park with a large Ferris wheel, a big dipper and gigantic clown with a demented toothy grin that doubles as the entrance to the park. A local friend of Hicksy’s has suggested this place that looks like the setting for a film like Final Destination 15, as an ideal spot to spend New Years Eve. I suppose it’ll have a good view of the fireworks.
We get off the ferry into a much more crowded environment, the quay is positively buzzing. All around us are people, some dressed lightly and some not so lightly, some strolling, others moving more swiftly. It’s now about 11:30 and despite the sun beating down on us (I can fell my nose starting to blister) there are joggers everywhere, bouncing through the crowds. I hear the doof-inz-doof-inz-doof of techno music and look over to see an Aborigine man, his dark torso painted with white markings, playing a didgeridoo in time to the music. He raises two fingers in the ‘peace’ sign as I snap a photo, feeling particularly touristy. As we walk along the quay towards the Opera House I have to restrain myself from entering the restaurants that line the water. With leafy green archways and an air filled with the smells of seafood, coffee and pizza, they are particularly inviting on this hot day.
The Opera House looks bigger now and I am impressed. There is something satisfying about standing in front of such a famous landmark, the same feeling I get in front of the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty. These structures are as ingrained into my mind as a McDonald’s logo, and I always get a little feeling of surprise looking up at them, an “Oh, so it’s real!” sensation. This is swiftly followed by a case of the “now what’s.” Do I photograph/climb/explore it? Do I stand in front pose idiotically, as if I’m pushing it over? I resolve to come see a show at some point. And perhaps take a tour.
The sun burns hotter as we make our way back to the ferry terminal. I know I’m harping on about the sun and how hot it is, but after a year in New Zealand sunshine has become a bit of a novelty. Aboard the ferry I meet a man from rural Victoria who works as a gas appliance technician and complains about the heat. He isn’t mad about Sydney and says he came for the weekend because his wife wanted to; she likes the hotel room.
The ferry takes about half an hour to get to Manly, a place that I can only describe as a storybook seaside resort town. We are surrounded by people, mostly teenagers, in various states of undress. As I look down at numerous pairs of perfectly pedicured feet I am reminded of how beautiful the women in Sydney are. I look down at my own feet, my toenails a painfully luminous shade of yellow from when we painted them at the daycare I worked at in Auckland, and vow to put in more effort.
We have a cheap lunch at one of the many restaurants that line one of Manly’s eighteen beaches, watching people go past us on bikes, roller-blades and skateboards, some carrying surfboards, others walking dogs. A pair of women at the table next to us are discussing whether or not to leave their phone numbers for the waiter.
After lunch my blistered feet are finally free of their flip-flops as we search for a spot on the beach. Still thinking about sharks, I pick a spot smack in the middle of the flags marking the swimming area and we strip down to our swimwear, Hicksy standing proud in his pink shorts, myself a little shy, aware of my so-pale-it-glows bikini clad body. “Nicole Kidman, Nicole Kidman,” is my mantra, although I suspect that I look less like the fair Australian beauty and more like an anemic lump of dough. Again, I vow to make more effort.
The water is freezing and Hicksy squeals and whinges. I look at him with scorn, “pathetic Englishman.” Scorn soon abandons me as an icy wave wipes me off my feet. We stick it out wincing as we edge our way deeper into the sea. We make a few halfhearted attempts to catch waves, but each attempt involves diving into the water headfirst and eventually we resign ourselves to splashing around while we try to look nonchalant.
The sun disappears behind a cloud and without it, the water is too cold to handle. It’s getting late so we make our way back to the ferry station, along with half of Sydney’s teenage population, or so it seems. Our timing is perfect, we board the ferry as the wind and rain blow in. After disembarking it is a sprint down George St so that we don’t miss our train. I nearly pull a muscle in my neck as I twist to look at the magnificent assortment of shop windows along the route. As we ride the train back to Wollongong, I sit and bask in a feeling of sunburnt happiness. My skin feels salty and dry, and I have the worst flip flop blisters I’ve ever had. I’m reminded of my childhood, but at the same time am surrounded by a new place that is completely unfamiliar. A young, tanned man with strong surfer’s arms boards the train, and Hicksy remarks on how fit the Aussie men are. I politely tell him I haven’t noticed.