FOR a first 24 hours in an unknown city, my arrival in Sydney has got to have been the most varied and unpredictable that I have ever experienced.
Arriving at about 5pm on Oz Experience, our brilliant driver Sconzey gave us a little tale about the city's origins, and then drove us straight over the Harbour Bridge straight into the heart of the city. Now I had heard much about the structure, with many saying that it is smaller than they expected, or not as impressive as the photographs they had seen of it, but for me there was no greater visceral thrill than arriving over it. From the bridge the metal 'coat hanger' is an enormous structure and simply staggering in proportion, and it provided a fantastic gateway to the city. We turned immediately after it, curving around to capture the bridge and the wonderful Opera House. We had arrived.
Dropped off at Base Backpackers, we checked in and for the first time decided to sleep in separate dorms. By 'decided' I really mean Jeannette checked herself into the female-only, all-inclusive, bolt-on, frilly and fantastic Sanctuary, where you pay $5 per night extra to have longer mirrors, pink walls and a free towel. Us gentleman have to make do with gray coloration and the nasty company of smelly boys. Entering my room, there were clothes and dirty plates everywhere. Unable to locate a free bed, I dropped my bag in a corner and assembled my affairs. There was a knock on the door.
It was the police.
They asked me if I was called Aaron. My negative response did not seem to please them. They had a look around the room, asking me who slept there, whether it was shared or single sex and whether I knew the whereabouts of said Aaron and a girl called Ursula. Having entered this empty room only 1 minute previously I was not much use to them, and they left leaving me delightlessly paranoid about my possessions.
Presently I met Jeannette and went for a walk up to Hyde Park, walking around the noodle markets and having a quick look around before returning to the hostel and to the room, whereupon I met two Kiwi working-visa tourists by the name of Aaron and Ursula. I suddenly became very polite and very, very English.
Shortly afterwards, while I was checking my email, I received another shock, but this time a pleasant one. Sat next to me was somebody very familiar. Since our departure from Cairns we have met many people, and at various places and stages we have bumped into them again, since most people have similar plans and stopovers along the coast. For example we left one girl behind on Magnetic Island, only for her to get back on the bus in Brisbane. In two weeks she had overtaken us, hitchhiking to Rockhampton and flying on to Brisbane before boarding OzExperience to Surfers Paradise.
However the girl sat next me now was not somebody I had met in Australia. I met her in England ten years ago. Her name is Pippa Bills, and I spent the first five years of secondary school in the same tutor group as her. We caught up on gossip and shared travel itineraries, and then agreed to attend the night's quiz together.
Back in the room I met my two other dorm mates. Both came from Exeter, a 40-minute drive from my home. These coincidences were beginning to become familiar: in Singapore I had met a girl from the tiny village of Seaton Junction, which nobody has ever heard of unless you live where I do, for it is five minutes or so from my door.
The quiz was a spectacular affair. Our team, which mainly consisted of Pippa's OzExperience friends, ascended through the ranks and astoundingly won. A fifty dollar bar tab was presented to the name of Crouching Woman, Hidden Cucumber, the team name they had chosen for us. However a greater prize was to offer: for the chance of winning $250 cash, one nominated member of the team would have to answer a question unaided, and you can probably guess that I was volunteered.
"What is the real name of Elton John?" I was asked.
My spirits lifted. I knew the answer.
"Reg Dwight" I replied, a cocksure smile on my face.
"What is his full name?".
There was a lot of cheering.
Next morning I arose late and wandered down into the beautiful Darling Harbour, watching the boats, seagulls, pigeons and ibis' and enjoying the waterfront views. I followed some gardens and water features in search of the Powerhouse Museum, which had been recommended to me in my guide to Australia. A science and innovation museum, it was advertised as having a unique emphasis on Australian achievement. I paid the $10 entry fee and wandered in, excited as to what I would find.
What I found was an exhibition on Princess Diana, some Japanese dresses and the James Watt/Matthew Boulton steam engine, designed where I have spent the last three years: Birmingham, England. There were, however, uniquely Australian features, such as some model Utopia carved animals from the Ngkawenterre camp, including an echidna, a ngintaka (a goanna lizard) and a 'Devil Dog', said to assist ritual law enforcers. An exhibition on William Stanley Jevons, the father of modern economics, was very interesting, for he used the freedom offered by Sydney to explore his theories and unravel the world in mechanical terms. Beginning at the Royal Mint, he loathed the reluctance of Melbourne to accept the currency of New South Wales, and became a renowned economist, meteorologist, photographer and teacher of symbolic logic.
I was slightly disappointed that the museum did not contain more about Australian communities. The only section on such a topic focused on the 70,000 Estonians who emigrated to Australia between 1940 and 1944 after prime minister Ben Chifley offered employment and refuge to Europe's 'Displaced People'. I left after about an hour, having enjoyed the museum's random collections - which cover modern car design to Vegemite and firework manufacture - but also disappointed that I hadn't found anything on Aboriginal culture. I spotted a didgeridoo show advertised just outside and made a mental note to return, for now walking the streets towards the Opera House.
Blimey Sydney is a pretty city. Clean and tidy and full of modern, stylish buildings and ornate classic structures, it was laid out like an American city using British idiosyncrasies. I fell in love with it instantly. I went up George Street, past lots of expensive shops and arcades, I got lost in a bookshop (I often do) and wandered up Martin Place to the hospital and state library, with its statue of Matthew Flinders. I patted a statue of a pig. I crossed into the beautiful Botanic Gardens listening to Len, lost in a world of my own: I clicked my fingers, swung my hips and pretended to play the drums and then, because the signs told me to, I walked on the grass, smelt the roses, hugged a tree and spoke to the birds. I meandered around and into the Conservatoire, then on around the harbour and out to Mrs Macquerie's Point, the place to be to capture that classic photograph with the Opera House to the left and the Harbour Bridge behind it. I slalomed past a group of Japanese tourists, looked for marine life in Woolloomooloo Bay (I also chuckled at the name) and took another route through the gardens, only now noticing the inscribed pavement tiles with Aboriginal names.
Briefly I entered the Opera House, suprised to discover the present set of evening performances are being performed by the choir of Westminster, and from here I hurried on to Circular Quay, suddenly conscious of the time. By prior arrangement I was to catch the 5pm ferry from the wharf to Manly, a district of Sydney out on the coast, and home to one of the most beautiful beaches in the region. The ferry departed on time, thus ending my epic 24 hours, but not so my day. Half an hour later (for Sydney to Manly is seven miles; the entire harbour has a shoreline of 194 miles) I disembarked, and there waiting for me outside the legendary Max Brenner Chocolate Bar was Julia, sister of my girlfriend Rachel.
And Julia is, for the record, lovely.