Bondi and Beyond
Some years ago I helped with the enrolment of a Thai student at the Australian school where I was then Director of Development. Like many Thais, the boy’s formal name was very long and almost unpronounceable for most Australians. He and his family had adopted the nickname of “Darwin”. I asked his father why this name had been chosen and was told:
- Oh – we were flying into Australia and crossed the coast above the Northern Territory town of Darwin – and felt that it was a good sign and a good name.
Darwin started at the school soon afterwards, and I became good friends with the whole family. The father’s name again was impossibly long but he had adopted an Oz-friendly name based on a seaside suburb the family had visited on an earlier trip to Australia. He was Mr Bondi.
I would like to say that the rest of the family members had the names of Woolloomooloo, Wagga Wagga, Birdsville Track and Upper Dromedary (all real Australian place names – really!) but that would be stretching the truth. But Mr Bondi called himself “Bondee” and there was indeed a Mrs Bondee.
In November and December this year I spent a few weeks in Bondi, a delightful Sydney beachside suburb east of the city and south of the great headlands that mark the entry to Sydney Harbour, one of the world’s finest natural harbours. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed myself – previously I have had a bit of a love affair with elegant and stylish Melbourne, and thought of Sydney as a garish and brazen old tart by comparison.
The days passed easily, with me pottering about the suburb, jogging along the famous Bondi Beach, eating at the many restaurants lining the streets, poking about at the Sunday beachfront market in the local school grounds and enjoying performances at the stunning Sydney Opera House.
The weather was still a little cool – one fellow commented to me as I came out of the water that I was braver than he – but there were still a lot of people on the beach. In the peak of summer Bondi Beach can host as many as 30,000 people packed towel to towel, hip to hip, bare breast to bb, but those heady days were a month or so away from the days when I was there.
In February 1938 – the days when lawmakers patrolled the beach to measure and confirm that bikinis were of the legally acceptable size – giant waves pummelled the beach, killing five people and dragging several hundreds out to sea on what was to become known as Bondi’s “Black Sunday”, but firmly enshrining the legend of the Australian surf lifesaver. All those dragged out to sea were successfully dragged back to shore.
Life really is a beach
Sydney is a city of beaches – and rather like Barcelona – with different beaches for different folk.
Bondi is one of the largest at almost two kilometres in length, with weekend surf lifesaving “Nippers” training on the sand and in the water, and gaggles of Chinese tourists – in big hats, umbrellas and Nokias – taking photos of each other and of themselves with the famous ocean backdrop, while energetic locals jog along the promenade, sip morning coffees at beachside cafes or work out in the mini “Muscle Beach” outdoor gym near one of the life saving club houses.
I had thought Australians like many Westerners were getting flabbier and fatter and more obese by the day – but this visit to Bondi and Sydney in general revealed hard bodies (most liberally tattooed and pierced) to be the norm, with young people on skateboards sailing insouciantly down the centre of busy suburban streets, well-dressed business women and men side by side with visitors in floppy hats, baggy shorts and flip flops. Perhaps the multitudes of genuine Thai massage parlours has something to do with a renewed interest in body image and health.
Just a few kilometres away from Bondi Beach is Watson’s Bay – home to the famous family-run Doyle’s on the Beach Restaurant (www.doyles.com.au), and where Annie and I had a lovely seafood lunch one day. Watson’s is a small beach with a lovely park nearby, full of flowering trees attracting hundreds of hungry lorikeets sucking nectar from the trees as guests suck on chilled Pinot Grigio and gnaw on freshly barbecued prawns below. Bustling ferries take passengers across the harbour to Circular Quay, the opera house, The Rocks and downtown Sydney.
Just a tiny walk away is Camp Cove beach – a small family-centred beach with kids and grannies paddling in the calm waters, as groups of neoprene-clad scuba divers take to the waters for their first open-water experience. No dangers here. No sharks. No giant manta rays. Just the occasional passing Sydney Harbour ferry – and the occasional grandma perhaps passing water quietly as she paddles with her grandkids.
And then there is Lady Bay Beach – aka Lady Jane Beach – a short walk along a stunning cliff-top pathway from Camp Cove beach. This is a legal nudist beach and is just fifty or sixty metres long and accommodating perhaps fifty or sixty people all towel to towel, or bb to bb. I sunned and swam there most days. Occasionally I was one of just a handful of sun seekers, while on other days I could have reached over and helped the person next to me spread sun screen onto bared buttocks. It is a lovely little beach and popular with people of all ages, all sizes and all sexual orientations. It is also popular with a jet boat joy ride service that every day screams into the bay, does a 1800 spray turn, and allows all the pleasure seekers to wave at and gawk at the sun seekers on the beach and in the otherwise calm waters.
As well as my daily swim in Sydney Harbour I enjoyed walking about a city I had not visited for almost fifteen years.
If Sydney is a city of beaches it is also a collection of villages. On this visit I saw a little of the horrors of the far west at Parramatta (used-car sale yards, discount pharmacies, cheap booze shops), the seedy side of things at Surrey Hills (although I wager that within not too many years Surrey Hills will become THE new and trendy and expensive place to be), the delightfully Victorian terrace houses with their iron lace work in Paddington, Oxford Street and its seedy fast-food outlets and designer clothing stores, the ever-so-genteel Woollahra, and the predominantly colonial and early 19thC downtown, with its stately sandstone and polished marble buildings and heritage-listed red-brick warehouses.
The Sheraton Hotel beside Hyde Park had a pair of striking statues (featured image). They looked rather like Luke Skywalker powering up to return to the Mother Ship in Star Wars III if I may mix my metaphors and my imagery. They are called the Angels of Hospitality and were created this year by local artist Stephen Glassborow. According to the Concierge at the Sheraton, the statues
- Have the face of the artist’s wife … but the marriage failed shortly after the statues were cast …
rather giving a new meaning to the question
- Will you love me forever?
- Nope … but the statues will …
Over the road from the Sheraton is Hyde Park and St Mary’s Cathedral. The Anglican cathedral is a pokey little affair buried downtown near the Town Hall, but the Roman Catholic place enjoys a superb location.
Not far from Hyde Park is the David Jones department store – with its fabulous Christmas windows attracting crowds of kids watching the animated bears and elves making Santa’s gifts for the world.
Downtown there is PJ O’Brien’s shop in Clarence Street (Purveyor of fine wines, Porters, Double Stout and Ale), the great Jewish Synagogue in Elizabeth Street erected in 1878, queues of north shore school kids waiting for afternoon buses, with the boys from the Shore School (Sydney Church of England Grammar School) in their straw boater hats and blue and white striped ties and shirttails hanging out, and the lovely York Street art deco Grace Building, built in the 1920s and apparently inspired by the neo-Gothic Tribune Tower in Chicago.
Sydney Tower in Market Street is a huge eyesore of a thing – the tallest building in the city and the second highest observation platform in the Southern Hemisphere – but it does offer wonderful views of the city and the harbour. I had a lovely meal in the unimaginatively named 360 Bar and Restaurant – fresh scallops and medium rare kangaroo fillet with one glass of Hickinbotham shiraz. The meal cost $60.00. The one glass of wine cost an additional $23.00.
- Yes sir, we are at 290 metres above sea level
- Ah! That explains the sky-high price of a glass of wine
Hmm … however the view of the numerous inlets and outlets of the harbour, with an amazing array of water craft (luxury liners, paddle steamer, water taxis, River Cats, private motor boats, sailing ships, yachts, cargo haulers, tankers, jet boats, stand-up paddle boards, RAN warships, kayaks, tug boats, ferries) just about made that glass of red wine worth it. Just about.
Much cheaper – and with no view other than a very up-close and personal view of the two spirited Flamenco dancers – were the two dinners I had at Casa Asturiana (www.casaasturiana.com.au) near the Town Hall. Jugs of sangria, vast platters of paella and loaves of crusty bread continually flew out of the tiny kitchen, dodging the dancers, and landing on tables without a drop spilled. I had several tapas and a glass or two of the local house red and clapped along with others as the women stamped their high heels, tossed their petticoats, called Olé! and flashed their eyes at the diners.
Another popular eating area and sightseeing area is The Rocks – an area just over the harbour from the opera house – is a lovely area to wander, with odd little streets, rear views of old guest houses’ laundries, sudden in-your-face glimpses of seven-storey ocean liners from Valetta in Malta and beyond, art galleries, restaurants – and even more bars and ice cream shops. And Chinese tourists.
The well-known (and, I feel, vastly over-rated) local artist Ken Done has a huge gallery in The Rocks but on an even larger scale are the three or four whole floors of works by Charles Billich, an artist I had never heard of, but who apparently has been working away for years on vast canvases featuring fantasies of ballet dancers and Sydney Harbour bridges. His website is certainly worth a quick view: www.billich.com.au
The nearby MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) is housed in a lovely art deco building nearby on lands traditionally owned by the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation – some of Australia’s earliest inhabitants. Originally the Maritime Services Board building, MOCA now features permanent and changing exhibitions of sensational art.
An exhibition called – perhaps appropriately enough for my visit – NUDE was at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and featured over one hundred works from London’s Tate Gallery, including one of the original marble sculptures by Rodin The Kiss.
I often plan journeys based on the calendars of the Wallabies – Australian rugby – matches or on scheduled opera performances. My Sydney break had neither rugby nor opera but I did enjoy two theatre performances at the Sydney Opera House – Othello with Ray Chong Nee as the Moor, and A Flea in her Ear. It would be hard to find two more contrasting pieces of theatre, but each production was enjoyable and the outside theatre – a huge concert on the Opera House steps by the Australian rock group Crowded House drew even larger crowds. The sole aboriginal man playing a didgeridoo – hooked up to a very loud power amplifier – on Circular Quay did not attract so many listeners.
Melbourne or Sydney?
I have always loved Melbourne – with its stylish European streets, its cranky old trams, the Yarra River, the theatres and restaurants and its rather slow, elegant way of getting things done. By contrast the brash northern rival city of Sydney was in my eyes an overly-painted old tart, noisy, crass, busy with no sense of achievement, and, quite simply rather vulgar.
In November when I arrived my first taxi driver was a man incapable of speaking four words without three of them being obscene (Welcome to #@!!% Sydney?) and I though I was in for an unpleasant couple of weeks but gradually I relaxed, learned to admire the numerous trees that make Sydney so beautiful – planes, jacarandas, Kauri pines, flowering eucalypts, frangipani and Banksias – and started to hear that almost every person boarding a Sydney bus greeted the driver and thanked him when leaving, and thought
- Perhaps the old baggage has learned a few social skills in her old age
- Journey: November – December 2016
- Text and photographs © Christopher Hall 2016
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