The first time I went to Sydney was as a 12 year old. It was 1995. My family had driven from Melbourne to my uncle’s farm in the Blue Mountains, a regular trip when I was that age and one that usually meant a stay of at least two weeks, because it was bloody far. The drive would take all day – we’d leave at 4am, stop in Albury for breakfast and Bowral for lunch, and we’d roll down my uncle’s driveway just in time for a late dinner. My uncle had an acreage which he ran as part hobby farm, part horse stud, and my sister and I would basically chase chickens and avoid the horses whilst my mum and dad caught up on family gossip and (more often than not) helped my uncle with his latest home renovation project. One of those trips – the 3rd or 4th in a row, and after we’d done everything we could think of in and around Lithgow and the mountains – my uncle suggested we get on the train and make a day trip to Sydney (“pop in to town”, as he called it). I remember being excited, partially at the prospect of seeing Sydney itself, but mostly, I think, at the thought of the long train ride through the mountains.

We left early, and made it into the city by mid-morning. The 3-hour trip was probably amazing but I remember little of it now – I only remember the arrival. I remember the train coursing through the western suburbs and slowing as we entered the city, my strategically selected window seat allowing me to take in the unfamiliar skyline of spires and glass before we eased into the large, welcoming terminus. Central Station was spectacular, with it’s sweeping arches and bronze, glittering clocks; it felt like a proper destination, an arrivals hall. Train stations, in Australia anyway, are rarely the cavernous wonders they are in Europe and elsewhere; as pieces of infrastructure, they are local hubs and transit points, somewhere to pass through on your way to somewhere else, less interstitial spaces and more nodes in a network. As buildings, they’re rarely more than a plain brick box with platforms either side. However, I remember Central Station being distinctly different from any of the stations I’d been to before. Whilst Flinders Street in Melbourne is iconic in its own right (and for different reasons), it doesn’t have the same feeling of grandeur as Central did (and does). The name alone – Central – conjured up associations to more significant, more global places. New York’s Grand Central is the most obvious. Of course, Australians would never be as audacious as to label something ‘Grand’ (unless referencing some kind of giant fruit in a country town), but even the word ‘Central’ conveyed a sense of self assurance and confidence that I hadn’t found in Melbourne’s buildings or in its naming conventions. It certainly had utilitarian connotations, positioning it at the centre of city’s transport system and indicating its usefulness as a starting and end-point, but more than that, it hinted at the assuredness that Sydney had. It positioned the Station, for me, on a slightly more global stage; the name, and its grand arches, were indeed the closest I had been Grand Central, St. Pancras, or Gare du Nord. Central Station took me to those places in ways that Flinders Street station didn’t.

That, and they had double decker trains!

And of course, on that trip, I remember seeing the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House for the first time. Walking down towards Circular Quay with my uncle leading the way, my parents and sister and I in tow, emerging from the edge of the city to that stunning harbour where every angle was a postcard in waiting. I do remember thinking the Opera House, the Bridge and the water were amazing, but I remember more strongly the moments of anticipation before it; my sister and I nattering excitedly, trailing behind the adults or sometimes dashing in front; mum and dad revelling in that same excitement; my uncle enjoying his role as tour guide. It was that affect of anticipation we inhabited that day that has come to define my first encounter with Sydney. That, and those grand, Grand structures.

Since that first time I’ve had at least a dozen trips back; as a young University student, fresh out of high school, embarking on one of my first ever solo trips; as a “young professional” years later, day-commuting up for work and feeling exhilarated to be thrust into this modern working life (and when I thought travelling for work was glamorous -numerous 6am flights account for that pretty quickly). There’s been weekend trips to visit friends who’d moved there for love or jobs (the love of a job? or sometimes just for the weather). There’s also been countless transits spent at the airport, where odd specimens of men roam; wearing rugby jumpers, orange tans and shorts in winter . Each of these visits, these touch points, added something more to the place, accumulated layers of meaning within its streets and the people there. Each one mingled with my own slightly tenuous, childhood affective connections.

But there it’s always been – Sydney. Strangely different to my home city, it’s streets somewhat anonymous, differently alive and less legible to me, but yet acutely aware of its order in the world; Australia’s post card city, it’s global, smiling, bleach-blonde face.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, and I had a chance to visit Sydney again. It’s been a few years since I was last there; my partner had a work trip booked, and with a bit of free time up my sleeve I decided to tag along and enjoy the hospitality of her already-paid-for hotel room. It was mid-week and I was largely left to my own devices, and so I wandered the city with a few vague plans spread across 3 days, equally interested in figuring out the train network again as in actually going somewhere; looking forward to seeing a couple of old friends but taking my time getting to them.

Despite my novice ability to actually read the place, Sydney to me has always felt like a city in action. It has always seemed busier, more hectic than Melbourne, and even after I had spent a few years in Tokyo, Sydney always had a pace that is uniquely fast, uniquely its own. Tokyo might have its scramble crossings and network of cities-within-cities along the Yamanote line, Melbourne its plodding trams and flash-mob sports crowds, but Sydney has its bustling roads and twisting streets, it’s unpredictable terrain, it’s busy skies, and it’s mishmash of transport modes.

I’m always struck by this busy-ness and its qualities – the hustling buses (not to be confused with bustling hussies), with their screeching breaks and decompressing suspension systems, commercial and commuter cars skirting between these hulking beasts, the whole cacophony moving through it’s spaghetti tangle of a business district that rises and falls at a whim, darting left or right in the blink of an eye. On foot Sydney sounds foreign, closer to Saigon or Singapore than Melbourne. It feels different, too. Unlike Melbourne’s largely flat and inherently knowable Hoddle Grid, Sydney twists, turns, dips and rises; its sky-scrapers reach higher because their own foundations are higher, and as a result  you feel deeper in it. You’re never quite sure where the street will take you; what a particular glance will reveal; what will be over the hill.

The airport is close, too; planes are regularly spotted overhead at various obtuse angles, circling and then disappearing behind the silhouette of a building. Helicopters, blimps and other craft hover across the sky. And of course, on the water, ferry’s spray across the Harbour, delivering literal boat-loads of people to somewhere otherwise painfully inaccessible, all whilst yachts and their orange-tanned owners linger, pose, look.

This procession of action has always been a combination of its transport networks, terrain, improvised urban design, and a commerce focused aspirational culture that never quite made it to Melbourne (in my opinion, although that might be changing). However, on this most recent trip, I felt like the bustle had risen a notch, and had perhaps gained a more subtle quality. The Sydney Bienalle was in full swing the week I was there, as was Vivid Sydney – a cultural “festival of ideas” that doubled as a night-time projection light show. This time, I wasn’t just in the action of Sydney-per-usual, but configuration of flows and landscapes that was new to me.

On my first day there, after flying up in the morning and basking in the 10-degrees warmer weather, I decided to head out to Cockatoo Island to see some of the Bienalle. Our hotel was in Kings Cross, and so I worked my way along the train system towards Circular Quay – that same place my uncle had guided us towards almost 20 years earlier.

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I was early for the ferry and so got to sit at the Quay for a good half an hour, waiting for a boat to deliver me to the old penal colony and shipyard, now host to art festival. The waiting commuters were a mix of local students, international backpackers, and an indigenous community group accompanying some of their elder members on a day trip. Some of them slumped on their luggage, others holding hands and waiting, patiently. I heard German. French. That friendly indigenous accent I hear too rarely in Melbourne. And I remembered my uncle, who passed away last year, showing us the way to the Opera House steps.

The Ferry arrived and the kids rushed to what I assumed were the best seats (another way the city is not legible to me – which way were we going? which side has the views?) and I sat down and watched as we moved out of the Quay and around towards Barangaroo – a new development in a city I thought had nowhere left to develop. People rushed from one side to another, cameras held precariously by excited hands as the Bridge and Opera House swivelled into and then out of view. And then we skirted out into what felt like open water (but was actually heading further inland), the city receding behind us as we snaked through heads and coves, slicing around the national park (another island I haven’t been to). I was reminded of that space of anticipation from my first time in the city – the unknown twists and turns, the accelerations and decelerations, not knowing whether you’re “there yet” until that thing you’re aiming for rises in front of you.


And then the island itself, full of history I had no idea about, and stuffed full of art I also had no idea about. But still, this trip was nothing if not a trip of discovery, and so I spent hours moving between the buildings, watching and noting the pieces I liked. I spent ages playing in the slightly mad Bush Power by Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger, was delighted by the lo-fi mobile Spectra VI by Ross Manning, and felt immersed in Eva Koch’s I AM THE RIVER.


Spectra VI


Bush Power’s exercising skeleton


The stunning I AM THE RIVER

I also really enjoyed Ignas Krunglevicius’s Interrogation; a textual representation of a police interrogation of a woman who eventually confesses to a murder. It was harrowing in many ways, not least because of the piercing sounds that accompanied each slide of text. Above all though, I enjoyed roaming this old island, looking at it’s rusting infrastructure and taking in the views of privileged suburban Sydney surrounding it across the water.


The old ship dock

That night, when Savindi finished work, we met a friend in the city for food and trekked on foot down to Circular Quay yet again, first to check out the projection lighting but then ultimately towards another first for me: an actual show at the Opera House. The projections were good, not least because of the canvases they enjoyed, but I found myself a little disappointed at how concentrated everything was around the Harbour. Melbourne’s own White Night quite literally takes over the whole city, and I felt the organisers could have spread the action out a little more, so to speak. Still, there was some impressive sights to be seen.


We were those guys. Blurry but good!


Projections on the Opera House

We made our way through the adoring crowds and into the ‘orange skin’ building itself, me for the first time. Performing in the Joan Sutherland theatre, Nils Frahm didn’t disappoint. I’ve never been great at describing music, but I know that I loved it. It was hypnotic and enthralling at the same time, and the guy was charming in a way that made me slightly jealous. He’s an amazing talent, and I’m looking forward to his shows in Melbourne later in the year.

After the show, we left the Opera House and got ourselves a jaffle from a conveniently parked food truck, before making our way back to Kings Cross, via train to Town Hall and then across town on a replacement bus (due to track works). People here, too, were buried in iPads and phones, talking to each other or not, looking tired, or not. And the city again was illegible to me – this time due to the harsh reflections from inside the bus smearing the soft lights of the city. We got off at the corner in front of some nightclub, and a backpacker with drink cards for a strip joint approached me but then ignored me when she saw I was holding Savindi’s hand. Not that that should have mattered – we might actually have taken the drink if we weren’t tired. But then we went up to this view, and fell asleep.


Instagram’d Sydney

20 years after my very first visit and Sydney continues to evolve for me. This time though, it seemed to be augmenting its already considerable strengths with a different quality. It’s starting to wrangle some of that bustle and procession into something more focused, something slightly more community based. For the first time, on this trip, I actually thought I could live there. Originally, it’s ‘grand’ structures were the scaffolding for my affective experiences of the city to attach themselves to and grow. Now, I suppose I’ve had enough encounters to imagine some kind of longer-term connection to the city forming. It’s taking on a different shape; less like a postcard, more like a real place.

I could probably live there. The rain we got at home didn’t help, either.

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One Response to Travelog: Sydney

  1. audubon says:


    my favorite bit was your review of the opera. i would have preferred the beginning to have more anecdotes about your uncle – and you started to go there, but then didn’t really pull him into the narrative except as a reference. would be interested to reframe it as such.

    makes me want to check out sydney, though!

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