The Dunderhead’s Guide to Late-Aughts Sydney, Australia

It’s called “The Dunderhead’s Guide” because (a) “The Complete Idiot’s Guide” is taken, and (b) only a dunderhead would take this guide seriously.

To paraphrase Geoff, there are four great cities in the world: New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Sydney. Let’s say you have somehow come into possession of the TARDIS and you want to go visit the last one in 2009. Here’s what you need to know.

Natural Environment

Sydney is on Australia’s east coast, on one of the most gorgeous natural harbours in the world. It’s basically San Francisco with the heat up.* And flies. And funnel-web spiders in the grass and jellyfish in the ocean and a whole bunch of other nasties crawling around.

The sun is out a cumulative total of 364 days a year. It would be 365, except the place gets nailed intermittently with some truly nasty thunderstorms.** They come in, knock the town about for all of ten minutes, and leave as suddenly as they arrived. A steady rain is rare, and snow even rarer. It’s debatable if it ever snowed down there at all. Dust storms are rare, also. Yes, I was in that one. I must tell you about it sometime.

Stephen Baxter’s Flood pretty much destroyed my suspension of disbelief in the opening chapters for two reasons: (1) A Left Behind-esque proclivity for characters who don’t act like real people and situations that could never happen, and (2) Sydney is among the first cities that get seriously flooded. I am now firmly convinced that Baxter had never been to Sydney, nor did he know anything about Sydney geography, because he implies that the city is rather flat. It’s actually pretty hilly in real life.*** Go to the Eastern Suburbs and walk along the beach. There are cliffs. The earth doesn’t slope gently into the ocean like on the US east coast, no, it just ends and sort of hangs there, and a bunch of people thought it would be a good idea to put apartment buildings up there.

Built Environment

The City is small and very dense and walkable. I could walk from the Opera House to my apartment in Ultimo in forty-five minutes to an hour. (Speaking of the Opera House, its slogan, You should see the inside!, is very well chosen.) I spent a lot of time on George Street, which has Central Station, World Square (very good buskers, seriously, these guys made my day), Town Hall, the QVB, and the Strand Arcade all in a row. Wonderful street. Right next to it is Pitt Street, which has Centerpoint (that big observation tower thingy), the Pitt Street Mall, and something like half the filming locations of The Matrix.****

I spent a lot of time in the Inner West, where most of my friends lived. The Inner West looks a lot like one would expect an inner-city suburb would look, except you’ve got a very well-kept colonial townhouse right next to a hulking ruin. That said, Sydney doesn’t really have any “no-go” areas the way some US cities do. I could walk around town at ten, eleven at night and feel perfectly safe.

When I spoke with a friend of mine who’d also lived in Sydney (2000-2003), we both agreed that there were a lot of McDonald’s fast foot joints. From my apartment to the Strand I could count…three or four. I never got straight why Burger King is called Hungry Jack’s down there; the fellow I asked said the name tested well, so they kept it, but I still don’t know why someone got the bright idea to change it to Hungry Jack’s in the first place. (Also, if ever you’re down there, try some of the Thai food. It’s delicious.) If you want some atmosphere and don’t mind paying a little more, duck into one of the coffee shops. They’re everywhere.

I was also kind of surprised to discover that Bill Bryson, in Down Under (In A Sunburned Country in the US) ate at the same Watsons Bay fish-and-chips stand I did. Never underestimate the power of shared experiences.


Compared to US transport, Sydney transport is not awful. One can really only make two major complaints about the trains: (1) the people running it can never really get straight what they want to do with it,***** and (2) it’s expensive. A single ride within one zone costs about $3.50. A round trip ticket costs $4.80 (which is actually competitive; the New York subway charges $4.50 for same). It’s $6 for a round trip ticket to Olympic Park, and $10 to go all the way out to Richmond.****** Because the airport stations are run in partnership with a private corporation, it costs $20 to go to the airport. An airport which is in a heavily developed area very close to Central.******* Seriously, if you intend to use CityRail, buy a return ticket. Single-ride tickets are highway robbery.

The ferries are great. They’re fun to ride and go pretty much everywhere on the harbour, especially the tourist spots on the opposite shore that would be rather difficult to get to otherwise. I used it to get to Manly and the [world-class] Taronga Zoo, and going there was half the fun. (Incidentally, they sell combo tickets for the Zoo, so you can buy a ticket to the ferry and then use it to get into the Zoo. Very convenient.)

The busses are invaluable for going into the city’s capillaries, where the trains and ferries don’t reach. If you think you’ll have to use the bus often, get a TravelTen pass. They’re available at any convenience store that’s got the blue and purple PrePay logo hanging on a flag out front. Or were, I think the system is slightly different now.

Don’t try to drive, for several reasons. First: they drive on the left side of the road (as God intended). Jokes are cracked about this. They say that, instead of driving on the right side, they drive on the “correct” side. Second: Sydney drivers can be pretty bad. Nothing compared to New York City (“Those traffic lights are more like guidelines, really.”), New Jersey (“I got high on the refinery fumes, occifer.”), or Pennsylvania (“Which one’s the gas and which one’s the brake, again?”), but still…not…good. At least they know what all those signs and marks are for.

Third: Sydney streets are not arranged in any discernible pattern. This town was not planned, it just…grew, and someone thought keeping everything to a nice grid a la Manhattan’s Grid Plan was blasphemous, so it just grew. To this day, Sydney remains the only city I have ever got completely lost in. Which is kind of strange, considering I’ve heard stories about people from Sydney getting lost in Melbourne, which actually is arranged in a grid.

The People

A big part of what makes Sydney great are the people. They’re a very easygoing, laid-back lot. One of the first things you’ll notice is that everyone addresses everyone else on a first-name basis. I did not know the last name of my poli sci lecturer down there; I only knew him as “John,” which is kind of nice when you’re used to the relatively stiff, formal “Dr Smith,” or even just “Smith.”

Sydneysiders will mock people they like. Do not take offense, it’s generally a sign that they’re comfortable in your presence. (And if, like me, you were raised in a culture where good-natured ribbing is also the norm, you start getting the impression that your ancestors went to the wrong continent.) They can be blunt; that is okay, too. The standard greeting is “How are you going?” Depending on who you talk to, you might even hear someone unironically use the word “mate.”

There was a very memorable moment early on in my Australian history class, where the guy talked about the voyages of Captain Cook, and how people in the 1770s thought there must be a Great Southern Continent down there to counterbalance all the land in the north, and how Cook went down there to observe the transit of Venus, and, he said, “discovered what couldn’t even be considered a consolation prize: New Zealand.” Yeah, the relationship between Australia and New Zealand is not dissimilar to the relationship between the United States and Canada.

Indescribably Weak Conclusion

Well, that’s pretty much all you need to know. Have fun, bring back pictures.


*”Just saying that tells me you’ve never been to San Francisco.” “Uh, well, I changed planes there, does that count?” “No.” “Shoot.”

**Random Oklahoman: “Pansy.”

***Random San Franciscan: “Pansy.”

****If you have Rob Dougan’s Clubbed to Death on your iPod, you are contractually obligated to walk Pitt Street from King Street to Martin Place with it playing. The Matrix is a system, Neo…

*****General consensus is they want to expand it, but they can’t get straight how. When I was there, they wanted to put in a metro system from the City to Parramatta, which junked an earlier plan for an extension to the northwest. Now, the metro plan has itself been junked and the northwest extension was reinstated.

******Although why you’d want to go out to Richmond in the first place is beyond me.

*******Incidentally, you’ll notice I don’t distinguish between US$ and AU$. That’s because they’re pretty much at parity and have been (more or less) since I’ve been there.


About theoditsek

I like going places.
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