Quick, what’s the first thing to pop into your mind when you think of Sydney, Australia? Chances are it’s the Opera House, the iconic white sails flowing into the harbour, giving the burb its ‘world class city’ look. It’s definitely a must see on any itinerary, but not for the reason you may think. Marred in controversy, it was originally commissioned in the 1950’s to a Danish architect, who planned the whole thing with a design estimated to cost roughly 7 million dollars. Partway into construction, political issues led to the Dane walking away from the project, taking the plans with him. The revised plans brought the total costs to over 100 million dollars, and failed to capture the grandeur (or functionality) of the original design.
The saddest part of it all it is that, despite what the guidebooks say, it does not “bring tingles the first time you see it.” It looks just like it does in every postcard, TV show and movie that has used the landmark as an easy way to signify that the shot was legitimately taken in Australia. Pretty, but perhaps some icons become so… iconic, that they lose the magic that elevated them to icon status in the first place. It is a common fear among world travelers to find themselves following a preordained path of ‘must see’ places and missing out on true adventure, or new experiences. The extreme are those who refuse to visit any site that might be listed in a guidebook or at least considered ‘the place to go when in…’ But this also leads to a narrow and limiting path and guides them by what they are trying to avoid, and so, is still confining. We were content to just find a good vantage point and snap a few shots, even if only to prove (much as the directors of Crocodile Dundee) that we were, indeed, in the Land Down Under.
With children, it is simple. Tell them what there is to see, they want to see it, and they judge it by its merits, not by what has been said or seen before. Take Violet. Her must see thing was a kangaroo. Not just the stuffy that jumped across her path at the airport, but a real, live, hoppin’, chewin’, pouch wearin’ roo. On our third day, our journeys through downtown Sydney led us to the wildlife ‘zoo’, a mostly indoor affair with a wide display of Aussie critters. Sure enough, they had a rooftop Kangaroo biome, complete with ‘wild’ kangas on the other side of a glassed in enclosure. After the initial fascination wore off, Violet seemed to emanate the sense that she had seen what she came for in Australia, and we could leave at any time. After all, what more could there be? As Aussie icons go, the Kangaroo takes the cake. They’re cute and cuddly looking, and could probably kill you with one good kick. Deadliness seems to be a theme for the wildlife in Australia, a classic case of evolution in action on a continent that’s mostly covered in desert where resources are scarce. In the desert, there are many things that prick and sting, mostly for the sake of guarding and securing precious resources. This might also explain the behavior of many desert cultures the world over.
The real plus we found on our meandering path from Kings Cross to Downtown was a long shortcut through the Royal Botanical Gardens. Constructed on a small peninsula in 1816, the gardens border on downtown, offer spectacular views of the Opera House, and are also famous for their Flying Foxes, a species of fruitbat that inhabit the trees in the garden, which cause them considerable damage. Not surprising, considering there are over 22,000 of them congregated in one small part of the gardens. Although harmless, it is unsettling to see the great swarms of them nestled in the trees overhead as you meander through the manicured landscaping. Another (somewhat less alarming) feature of the RBG is the Andrew Charlton Pool, a seaside, Olympic sized swimming pool that offered us some relief from the relentless heat. Needless to say, we frequented it several times over the next few days attempting to relieve ourselves from the harsh rays in the skin cancer capital of the world.
Despite our enjoyment of the sights of Sydney, it didn’t take us long to realize that we needed to get out of the city. But what lay beyond the edges of the bustling metropolis of 4 million souls? In every documentary, movie or photo I’ve ever seen of The Land Down Under, it is entirely covered in red desert, and every point is within walkabout distance to Ayers Rock. It didn’t help to defray this notion that we arrived in Sydney in a late summer heat wave, with temperatures hovering in the muggy high-thirties. I envisioned the city limits sprawling out into the hot plains, Kangaroos and crocodiles duking it out in the untamed wild.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the whole East coast of Australia is a lush landscape that gets more and more tropical as you go further North. More than half of the population of the entire country lives in this temperate and tropical zone. I guess it wouldn’t seem that exciting of a place if everyone thought it looked like Northern California; the outback has so much appeal to the sense of adventure. Once we realized that it would take three days drive just to reach the outskirts of the desert, which would be excruciatingly hot and dry, not to mention filled with dangerous creatures of the insect, human, and animal kind, it quickly lost its appeal. Now we just had to choose where to go and how to get there.