As I staggered into a bar in central Sydney half-starved and struggling to keep my eyes open I found a menu sat down and asked for a beer.
“I’m sorry sir but I can’t serve you that”
With a look of complete bewilderment, despair and anger I said “why not, I can see the beer taps and glasses, it’s not unreasonable to ask for a beer in a pub is it?”.
“No sir it’s not. But it’s 8am and we don’t start serving alcohol until 11.”
It’s then I realised how knackered my body clock was and that Australia is canny far away. In fact it’s fucking far away. 23 arse numbing hours away. But finally I find myself half way across the world in a country that has fascinated me all of my life and I have dreamed of visiting. Whether it’s the fact its the only island to be a continent or that 7 of the 10 most deadly creatures in the world live there it has managed to pull me all this way. So needless to say my first encounter with an Aussie as I stood with a shattered body clock and tired eyes I probably wasn’t how envisioned the start my adventure.
Yet sleep is still far from my mind since like a child on too many blue smarties I am already besotted with this new nation and eager to get out and explore.
Jumping off at Circular Quay Station has to be one of the more surreal experiences for someone new to Sydney. The image in your mind’s eye of Sydney actually lives up to what you see from the station platform. The gleaming sky scrapers with the Opera house on your right and the harbour bridge emerging triumphantly over the crisp blue waters of Port Jackson making the need to get out and explore as much of this city as you can as vital as the warm humid air you breath.
I decided to start my adventure in the place where the first European settlers entered Australia down in the infamous area known as The Rocks. The area was built shortly after the initial settlement of Sydney carried with it a notorious reputation of vice, debauchery and violence. Formerly Sydney’s most famous slum the area is now, like many interesting areas in the middle of a city, is suffering the effects of gentrification with more restaurants and pastry shops than anyone could ever need.
But beneath the hipster skin of The Rocks the history can still be found. Wandering around the winding streets you can still see find the clusters of terrace houses and old pubs where even with the 21st century fixtures you can still imagine yourself in the early 1900’s.
In the early days the British convicts that were deported to establish the colony at Sydney harbour the 8 month transport was punishment enough for there crimes and upon arrival the convicts were set to work built there own camps and administration buildings. Battling against an alien landscape and not enough materials, resources and food the settlers fought. Within 30 years though The Rocks was quickly established as the main commercial hub of this growing colony along with the reputation of any commercial centre with gabling and drunkenness rife. The aboriginal clans who’s lands the colonists had claimed found themselves ever pushed to the fringes of this new and strange society.
The stories of the people who used to live in the area are still fresh in people’s minds with some epic tales such as the bunch of roughian’s know as the Rocks Push known for violence and robbery against police and pedestrians alike. Female members of the Push would entice drunks into dark alleys only to be assaulted and robbed by the gang. Stories of nicer times such as the foundations of the house of two ex-convicts who married which can be found in on the ground floor of the Sydney Harbour YHA.
The Australians are proud of the history of the rocks as the area houses some of the countries oldest buildings, at just over 200 years old. I didn’t quite have the heart to tell them that some buildings back home are double that age. The winding streets have the feeling of a more well thought out York with nice blocks of buildings and straight roads but still with the old cobble streets and flagstone stairs.
By the 1900’s The Rocks was a squalid place with filth and decaying buildings everywhere and after an outbreak of the bubonic plague in the area the decision was made to knock down and rebuild The Rocks. Over the years arguments between residents and government raged with locals trying to preserve their homes culminating in the action of the union leader Jack Mundey along with Rocks local Nita McCrae organising protests and campaigning for the preservation of the Rocks for its local residents. Although this campaign was successful what the Rocks is today is a far cry from what it was and further still from the infamous days of brothels and gambling dens.
In the 230 years since the arrival of the settlers the area has undergone a complete transformation and the foundations were laid of what was to become the nation of Australia was born. From the cramped and squalid conditions of the rocks grew this burgeoning nation 23 million.
Walking around The Rocks, Circular Quay and the central businesses gives off a different vibe to any city I had been to before. Although a lot of the culture and construction is influenced by Britain, with imposing relics of empire on every corner reminding you, the lay out of streets can be quite European with wide boulevards where a Italian cafe would not look out of place. The Australians themselves I had always considered to be loud and proud. Not in a bad way, (but you can’t loose and Australian in heavy fog) but I found this stereotype I had in my head to be in complete contrast to my first exposure to the nation that spawned them. Whilst quintessentially British in a lot of there attitudes they have also taken on a lot of influence from the Spanish substituting ‘Manana’ for ‘No worries’. Its as if Britain finally removed the stiffening branch of snobbishness and delusion of grandeur from its arse and taken a few tokes on whatever Cheech and Chong were peddling making them so laid back they are almost horizontal. Maybe the isolation of being an island miles from anyone else makes you take what you already have for granted not wanting to take more from others and demanding to be the centre of attention.
Sitting around circular quay watching the come and go of the ferries and the constant throng of tourists walking with no real purpose enjoying the late evening sunshine as the sky changes its hues from yellow to red to purple the penny is finally beginning to drop that I am in Australia and despite the bridge looking incredibly similar to the Tyne Bridge everything is different. I am 17,000 km from home having said goodbye to my family and friends only the day before. The distance suddenly seems real and the fact I am in this new country for a year thrills and terrifies me.