Vern: Sydney was exactly the gleaming buzzing beachside metropolis we were expecting, although it was drizzling a bit when we bussed in and the Opera House isn't quite as brilliant when the sun isn't bouncing of its millions of tiles.
Public transit was straightforward and we spilled out under an enormous Coke sign into "seedy, dodgy" Kings Cross where we found our hostel. Here we realised that Australians no nothing of "seedy" or "dodgy". The Kings Cross hostels sit amongst busy cafés and specialist bookstores on tree-shaded boulevards with skyline views. Apparently the sailors spent their debaucherous shore-leave here in the 50s and the hood has never shaken its bad rep.
Fuelled on a calzone, served by a real Italian who doted on us like we were his first customers this year, we wandered down into town, through Hyde Park and headed for Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour). A man rolling a taped-up suitcase along the pavement was swearing blue murder, startling office workers as they filtered out of skyscrapers. Oddly he bit his tongue when the traffic light walking man turned red, then continued his expletive-laden ranting when it was green again. We switched to the other side of the street. He turned out to be one of several street-walkers suffering crack-induced Tourettes and tottering about Sydney.
The Opera House and Harbour Bridge were just as impressive as in photos and an outdoor photography exhibit there was worthwhile too. We strolled through the botanical gardens and made it back to Kings Cross in the early evening. Back at the hostel we were slightly envious of the dozens of young Europeans living there and earning $20 - $40 an hour working in Sydney. Not only is it good money, but they were all bragging about how easy their jobs are and how they're exploiting tax loop holes or working for cash. An excitable young English Notherner in our dorm told us how his job was to sneak past the doorman and into fancy apartment blocks and deliver junk mail. "I'm like James Bond!" His eyes twinkled with pride.
On our second day we walked for a few hours to Bondi Beach and back, stopping at a Dr Seuss gallery and pondering half-seriously whether we should ship home a print of an inspirational "Oh, the places you will go" painting. The day after that we caught the ferry to Manly Beach and back, then checked out of the hostel and trained across town to Redfern where we moved in with our friend Dean. Dean introduced us to Tim Tams - crunchy chocolate-covered biscuits which go just as well with wine as they do with tea, and which Aussies miss terribly when they're away from home.
The next morning we brunched with our friend Andrew and his boyfriend David in Potts Point and Andrea and I treated ourselves to a Flat White. Sydneysiders swear that the coffee brewed in their independent coffee houses is the best in the world (though Melbourne claims the same). And it IS good, it is. But it's served in irritatingly small spinning-top sized cups (lattés come in a tumbler), so after you've taken your is-the-sugar-all-stirred-in sip, you're already a third of the way through. You can just about squeeze two fingers through the handle-hole leaving your other two pointing straight out, like a Lady sipping champagne. "Well you could've just ordered a large," retorted Andrew cutting short this rant.
Back at Dean's, the regularly scheduled TV programming had been interrupted with a special report (and I thought they only did that in movies). Qantas had grounded their entire fleet in the midst of industrial action. Our flight two days later was cancelled. Their website posted a brief message echoing this and advised us not to call until we were within 24 hours of our scheduled departure. Since there was nothing we could do about the status of our flight, we decided to wait it out and explore more of the city. That evening we wandered around the Covent Garden-eque area, The Rocks, and walked across the Harbour Bridge.
After a haloumi-heavy brunch with Andrew and David the next morning, we took turns listening to music and advertisements in Qantas's call queue but gave up after an hour and half. We found out later that the average queuing time was nine hours and they were no longer advising people to call in. Instead, the website now included a guideline as to how much they'd reimburse inconvenienced customers for accomodation and meals, and a claim form. It was the Saturday before Halloween and the airline wasn't the only thing nearly dead. The urban streets were full of zombies! Zombie nurses, zombie policemen and just your everyday living corpses crept down the concourses and converged near Central Station, clearly heading to one hell of party for the undead.
Andrea's book club had given us a sunset Sydney Harbour cruise aboard a Tall Ship, and the decades old wooden pirate boat didn't disappoint. A few modern additions meant we could motor about when the wind died down and that sausages and chicken kebabs sizzled on a large barbecue amongst the ropes and masts. The sunset played out to script and our memory card filled up fast. It was a wonderful excursion, thanks Booze Club ladies!
On the day we were supposed to be flying we traipsed into a Flight Centre and asked for help. Despite our tickets being issued by Flight Centre (UK), the travel agent at Flight Centre (Australia) couldn't have been less helpful. So we wandered around without a plan for a bit but then pulled it together and skyped the Flight Centre emergency line. The call turned out to be short and effortless and we were booked onto a flight two days later. Since (hopefully) Qantas was paying, we checked into the Westin and from the huge window in our plush crib we had a great view of the 1 St Martin Place clock tower and the bustling city below. Lunch on our last day was a seafood platter at the Sydney Fish Market and as we walked back past Darling Harbour the city streets filled up with fabulously dressed people on their way to pubs and luncheons to watch 'the race that stops a nation', the Melbourne Cup. Later the bowties were pulled loose, the fascinators had dislodged and the city's best dressed stumbled down the sidewalks and collapsed into cabs.
Sydney is certainly a very liveable city despite the exorbitant fruit, veg and house prices and we enjoyed our time there, but to try get this voyage back on budget and to ward off the onset of scurvy, it was time to leave. Bring on Asia!