Well my time in Australia is nearly up – just one more night in a cave hotel in Coober Pedy then I’m off to Bali and hopefully warmer beaches. I’ve enjoyed my time in Australia, seen a lot of interesting sights, met some strange animals (and I’m not just talking about the people), and sampled the local food, wine and beer. My Australian Walk About has taken me from Sydney to Melbourne along the Princes Scenic Coastal Highway. And then from Melbourne to Adelaide along the Great Ocean Scenic Highway. And finally, inland to the Opal Mining town of Coober Pedy and back to Adelaide before I fly on to Bali.
In total I have driven over 3,000km on the wrong side of the road without scaring the hell out of the locals by entering a roundabout in the wrong direction or trying to drive down the wrong side of the road. I have mastered the tram system in Melbourne, tried Vegemite spread (hated it), and busted my diet on kangaroo and emu pizza. I have a ton of photos to share and will break the Australia blog into several parts: Sydney and the Blue Mountains, Princes Scenic Highway Drive, Melbourne, the Great Ocean Drive, and finally Coober Pedy.
First though, a short history of Australia – Because of its location separate and apart from the rest of the world Australia has developed in isolation. Wildlife seen throughout the rest of the world is not found in Australia, instead this country is home to its own unique animal species. Kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, emus, and dingoes can be found in abundance but no deer, bear, rabbits, turkeys or other species we are used to seeing at home or across Europe or Asia.
The native population (aborigines) also developed in isolation and were still living as they had for tens of thousands of years as stone age nomads when the first Dutch explorer arrived in the 17th century. These small bands of hunter gatherer aborigines roamed from one end of Australia to the other in a constant search for food and water with only stone and wooden tools for survival.
The English Sea Captain and Explorer Captain Cook mapped the east coast of Australia in the 1770 before he was eventually clubbed to death and eaten by a bunch of Hawaiian cannibals. When the American Colonies kicked King George’s royal butt out of his holdings in the New World, Captain Cook suggested the uninhabited land mass of Australia as a fine replacement for a dumping ground for criminals, paupers and other misfits clogging England’s cities.
The first convict ships arrived in Sydney Harbor’s Botany Bay in 1788 and as they say the rest is history. From that first armada of 11 ships carrying 788 prisoners and 300 soldiers modern Australia was born. I was surprised to find the criminals shipped to Sydney were not hardened or violent murderers and rapists but instead petty thieves, fraudsters, drunks, vagrants and debtors. I was also surprised to learn not all were men. One hundred ninety two were women and a few were children.
The first settlement built was in Sydney’s Botany Bay in an area known as the Rocks. The Rocks most obvious feature as you might guess is sandstone rock. The convicts were immediately put to work cutting the sandstone cliffs into large blocks for the building of shelter. And it is in the Rocks area I spent most of my quality time visiting historic pubs imbibing and learning about Sydney’s past.
Before I arrived, I booked a couple of tours to get my bearings and develop a feel for the city. I booked a joint two-day tour that included a full day city tour by bus, Rocks walking tour and Sydney/Darling harbor by boat tour with a lunch buffet. The second day of the two-day tour included a bus excursion to the Blue Mountains, Aboriginal Cultural Show, and ferry ride back into Darling Harbor.
In addition, to the two-day tour I also booked an evening historic pub tour (my favorite kind of tour). So, in all I had the opportunity to learn the same history from four different tour guides.
The tour guide can make or break a tour for you. The poor lady who walked us around the Historic Rocks District had the personality of Joe Friday from the old Dragnet TV Series. She presented just the facts in a monotone with zero personality. Fortunately, the exact same ground was covered by John on the bus tour and Garth of the Pub Tour.
John, the Bus Driver for our Sydney Day Tour was much more interesting than Josie Friday though a little too animated and enthusiastic. He confessed toward the end of the tour that his evening job is as a stand-up comedian on the city’s comedy club circuit which explained his over the top and forced delivery. But all in all a nice effort.
Between John and his bus, the 2-hour lunch cruise and Josie Friday’s sleep walking tour we visited the Rocks Historic District, St. Mary’s Cathedral, the Royal Botanical Gardens, Hyde Park, the iconic Sydney Opera House, Darling Harbor, Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair, Double Bay, Blondi Beach, Fort Denison, Shark Island and the Circlular Cique. I then toured the Sydney Maritime Museum on my own before heading to the highlight of all my tours – the Historic Pub Tour.
The first of Sydney’s three most important landmarks is the world renown Sydney Opera House designed by a Danish architect to either look like a series of sails or a discarded orange peel (check out the photos and you decide). The structure sits on a point of land extending into the harbor beneath the second major landmark the Sydney Harbor Bridge
The Harbor Bridge which was constructed in England in 1923, brought by ship in pieces, and assembled during the Great Depression is also known by two more common names – the Coat Hanger (photos will make sense of this for you) and the Iron Lung. The bridge was dubbed the Iron Lung because it supplied over 13,000 workers with much needed direct employment plus many other jobs supporting the construction. Making the bridge the iron lung that breathed economic life into Sydney during the hard times of the depression.
And the third landmark best known in all of Sydney is the Rocks Historic District. This is the place it all began in 1788 and where most of the action occurred during the early years. All thru the 19th century the Rocks was where the unwanted, unwashed and untoward all resided. The area was populated by the very poor, pubs, prostitutes, opium dens, and gambling houses.
The alleys of the Rocks were notorious for its gangs that preyed on unsuspecting sailors just into port looking for strong drink, hearty food and willing female companionship for the evening. The poor sailor would come ashore with a year’s worth of wages and be immediately set upon by shady ladies offering Sydney’s best Three Shilling Knee Trimbler. No sooner than the sailor’s knees be in full Trimble than he would be whacked over the head by several of the male gang members with a sock full of wet sand. And wake up a day later penniless and shoeless in the hold of a ship far out to sea with a pretend pissed off ship’s captain demanding the stowaway work for his passage to Shanghai for free. At least this is what Garth the Historic Pub Tour Leader swears happened.
The Historic Pub Tour was super fun and not just because it was a good excuse to drink 7 pints of Sydney’s finest local beers. Garth the Goth was both knowledgeable and entertaining. He covered much of the same ground as Josie Friday but with a much more interesting flare and sense of humor. For example, Garth shared with us that the alley called the Suez Canal was where sailors would be taken for their three-shilling knee trembler only to end up with a concussion from a sock full of wet sand. And he also let us in on the original street name for the Suez Canal – Sewer Street.
Seems Sewer Street which runs from the top of the hill down to the harbor was used as a drain by slaughter house at the top of the hill. And as the city fathers began to gentrify the Rocks they had to change the Alley name to something a little more dignified.
Interesting little fact about the historic pubs in the Rocks – five of them all claim to be the oldest pub in Australia. It’s hard to say which is the oldest but all have pretty tasty beer and fantastic ambiance. And all have their own stories of how they helped Shanghai unsuspecting sailors.
Seems the barkeep would slip a little something extra in the sailor’s drink. Once out cold from the mickey the unconscious sailor would be dumped into the basement thru a trap door, robbed of his money and boots, then taken by wheel barrel thru the tunnels to a waiting ship for forced slave labor.
Sydney is a great city today with a diverse and lively population. There is something for every sort of traveler to enjoy and well worth a visit. And when you run out of things to do in Sydney or it is just too hot – travel a few hours up to the Blue Mountains for spectacular views of the Three Sisters and the valley below (photos attached).