If you were to list the top ten iconic structures in the world, I’m pretty sure the Sydney Opera House would rank right up there with the Eiffel Tower, the pyramids of Egypt, Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal. So when we arrived in Sydney on 15 October, the first thing we did after checking into our B&B was to head for Australia’s best-known landmark. Getting there was easy. The Opera House and most of Sydney’s major attractions are situated on the south side of the river, so was our B&B, and like Brisbane, Sydney has an excellent public transport system. We walked five minutes to Central Station, bought tap-on/tap-off train passes, and two stations later, there we were.
Except it wasn’t really that easy getting there, not for us, or, I suspect, for most of the other visitors pointing, exclaiming and snapping selfies on this windy, sunny wonderful day. Because most people don’t just jump on a plane and fly to Sydney for a weekend to check off another item on their bucket list. They work and save for it, they plan and budget, they dream about it, sometimes for years. Which is why everyone around us looked excited and happy and wore big grins. We’re here! We’re here!
The scale and architecture of the Opera House didn’t disappoint, especially for a pair of sailors. How could we not like a building decked out in billowing “sails”? Moreover, there’s plenty of open area around it, so you can admire its originality from every angle. Inside, its multiple venues present a calendar of events ranging from classical and contemporary plays to literary lectures to, of course, operas. The Marriage of Figaro was on, and we were tempted, but not enough for $500+. Guided tours of the interior are also available, but for once we didn’t want statistics, stories and other details. We simply wanted to be there, to stand outside and take in the famous panorama—the riverfront, Harbour Bridge, Circular Quay, the downtown skyscrapers, the ships and yachts and ferries busily plying the water—until the fairy tale felt real. We passed the Opera House repeatedly during our four days in Sydney, and each time we got a thrill.
Now, four days is hardly enough to experience in depth all Sydney has to offer, but we were on a special mission here. Our children, as well as Eric’s sister and her husband, are arriving in Sydney for the holidays, at which time we’ll fly back down to join them. Meanwhile, as advance scouts our duty was to sample as much as possible and report, thumbs up or down, on the various sights and attractions. The whole district around the Opera House turned out to be very walkable, and among our many thumbs-up over the next few days were the Royal Botanic Garden, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (we could have spent all day here), the shops and docks of Circular Quay, and the historic Rocks District and its small, fine Museum of Discovery. Walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, affectionately nicknamed The Coathanger, gave us more great views. Thumbs-down went to the Parliament of NSW (a few open rooms to peek into but no helpful signage and only two public tours a week) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (A framed piece of “found hemp”—what am I not getting here?)
A nice surprise was the art gallery at the State Library of NSW, where, apart from its handsome reading room, some 300 paintings and portraits depicting Sydney and NSW history and people were on display. Some of the art might be called amateurish, but a sign explained that whereas art museums collect for quality, the library collects art for its historical value as a record of people, places, customs and events, and sometimes an amateur painting or sketch is the only surviving testimony. A computer screen in each gallery mirrors the arrangement of the artwork on the wall. Simply tap the image of the painting you want to know more about and up pops the info—cool! For me, the visit shed a new light not only on how we preserve history but on the multifaceted role of libraries.
A standout was the austere and beautiful Anzac Memorial, opened in 1934. Since our arrival in Oz in May, we’ve noted that even the smallest towns in Australia usually feature a war memorial, be it a humble plaque listing the names of the local men and women who served or a modest statue of an Aussie soldier. Here in Sydney, they went all out. Beneath the Art Deco monument stretches an underground museum that showcases weapons, uniforms, documents, battlefield layouts and much more. The best part, I think, are the personal stories of the everyday Australians who marched off to battle, as nurses and medics, pilots and foot soldiers. At 11:00 a.m every day, the memorial pauses to remember them with a short recitation and a minute of silence. It gives real meaning to the words “Lest we forget.”
Our final day in Sydney we took the train and bus to famous Bondi (that’s Bond-eye) Beach. The town itself didn’t strike us, and the beach, though beautiful, is no more so than many others Oz has to offer. It’s not even particularly safe for swimming due to dangerous currents. But Bondi is all about surfing and sunbathing, the vibe of riding the waves and admiring the bodies and watching the foam-crested water tumble over itself in every shade of blue. We walked the beach, then passed onto a coastal cliff walk with dramatic scenery. We’ll be back to see more of Sydney in December.
From Sydney we headed inland to the Blue Mountains, so-named for the lavender-blue mist that hangs over them. The mist comes from oil exuded by the leaves of the eucalypt trees that shroud and soften the rugged landscape. The scenery was spectacular, and the sandstone cliffs and plateaus evoke the Grand Canyon on a small scale. We got in some hiking, jostled with the tourists and buses at the popular Three Sisters lookout, and checked out a couple of trendy towns with stores and restaurants catering to Sydney weekenders. At the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden at Mt. Tomah we found bursting colors and specimens of trees and plants from around Australia and the world. Camping in the Blue Mountains was cold, but the night sky, far from any city lights, teemed with dancing stars.
Next, Canberra, Australia’s capital. The six states of Australia came together as a united country in 1901, with Sydney and Melbourne competing to become the new capital. As a compromise, a rural location between them was chosen, and in 1911 an international competition was held to design the new federal district. The winner was the American husband-and-wife team of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin of Chicago; Marion was one of the first licensed female architects in the world. The Griffins’ concept encompassed the Parliament complex, the avenues and all the landscaping, though not everything came to fruition. The government invited the public to submit names for the new city, and though it is said that the final selection, Canberra, may derive from an aboriginal word meaning “meeting place,” no one knows for sure. Over the decades, the original complex was outgrown, and in 1988 a new government center opened.
Today New Parliament House sits on a hill overlooking its predecessor and offers displays and a short tour. Old Parliament House, which resembles a white loaf-style wedding cake, has been reinvigorated as the Museum of Australian Democracy. Its thought-provoking exhibits trace the history of democratic principles with assistance from a 1297 version of the Magna Carta and lessons from the American Constitution and Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. It’s only fitting, then, that on the front lawn of Old Parliament you’ll find the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, founded as a protest action in 1972. It came and went at other sites until becoming a permanent fixture at Old Parliament, operating from a trailer and a shed. We didn’t see anyone around to ask about it, but we got the message.
More exploring took us to the Royal Australian Mint, where we had an excellent tour. We learned about “holey dollars” and “dumps,” the first official Australian coinage, and watched a robot crane called “Titan” lift barrels of blank coins and dump them onto an assembly line; almost all of the minting process is mechanized. Gold commemorative coins are also produced here, but paper money is made elsewhere, and in fact Australians do not use “paper” money at all. Their bills are made of a polymer which lasts longer and is very hard to counterfeit. They are also way more colorful and fun than our American bills.
Finally, no matter how many war memorials you’ve seen, you can’t not visit Canberra’s. The national Australian War Memorial blew us out of the water, starting with the Anzac Parade that leads up to it. The broad boulevard is lined on either side with monuments representing the conflicts in which Australia has played a part, beginning with the Boer War. The museum is vast, and you could spend days perusing the stories, watching the videos, and studying the vintage aircraft and ship models. It also holds the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier and a double wall bearing the names of the over 102,000 Aussies who have died in combat and peacekeeping missions; a red poppy adorns many of the names. A docent pointed out that the War Memorial, built on a slight rise north of the city and opened in 1941, was deliberately sited to be in a direct line of view with Old Parliament House across the river to remind the legislators looking out their office windows to think twice before instigating any wars. That same line of view now includes New Parliament as well.
After Canberra, it was back to nature, to the green and the blue. At the Killer Whale Museum in the coastal town of Eden, we learned about Australia’s whaling past, and from the viewing deck we spotted humpbacks breaching, tail-slapping and spy-hopping not far offshore. At Paynesville we took a quick ferry ride to Raymond Island to spot koalas. The koalas are protected and monitored but free to roam the small, mostly undeveloped island. We found 14, including a mom cuddling her baby. That afternoon, my nature fix was complete when we stopped to take a photo of an echidna on a back road and it waddled right over to poke at my shoes.
Between Eden and Paynesville we crossed the border from New South Wales into Victoria, and the landscape grew ever more lush. Cattle and sheep grazed on green velvet hillsides, and we camped in state parks and forests endowed with towering trees and home to brightly colored parrots and sulphur-crested cockatoos. The weather veered from wind and drenching rain to brilliant blue, sometimes in the same day. Well, that’s nature, too.
At Wilsons Promontory National Park on the southernmost tip of mainland Australia, the convergence of scenery was magnificent—ocean waves, huge granite rocks, and rose-brown sand cradling a tidal river. It reminded us of northern Michigan where Eric grew up. Later, we hiked a number of trails, but the birds and other wildlife had gone into hiding due to more rain. We also missed being at the right place at the right time to sight a wombat. Fingers crossed we’ll come upon one of these curious creatures on our future Oz travels. The next day we hiked on Phillip Island—out to the rocky headland, over grassy hills, to a pretty freshwater lake dotted with ducks, the weather warm and sunny once more. Our idyll with nature was about to end, however. Bidding goodbye to the green, we headed for Melbourne to see what Australia’s second largest city had in store.
15-18 Oct. – Sydney
19-20 Oct. – Blue Mountains, Mt. Tomah, York Mt.
21 Oct. – Hartley, Oberon, Goulborn, Gurney
22-23 Oct. – Canberra, Numeralla
24 Oct. – Eden
25 Oct. – Driving day, Eden to Paynesville
26 Oct. – Paynesville
27 Oct. – Wilsons Promontory
28 Oct. – Phillip Island, Bass Valley
29 Oct. – Melbourne