After some 30 hours in transit, including a stopover in the Hong Kong airport, my wife, 13-year-old son and I arrived on a summer Sunday in Australia for a week visiting friends.
Day one. Long lines for immigration and customs at the Sydney airport. Our friends met us outside; an American, now dual citizen, who’s lived in the country since 1995, his Australian wife, and their dog; their 14-year-old daughter would join us later. I’d been to Australia once before, in 1987 to celebrate graduating from college. We dropped off our bags at their house in Malabar, a beach suburb of Sydney. Then, after a fish-and-chips lunch, we went to Bare Island.
Bare Island got its name from an explorer’s description as a “bare island,” with little vegetation. It’s the site of a 19th-century fort built to defend against possible Russian invasion after the Crimean War. We had a walking tour with a park guide from California who gave a land acknowledgement to the Gadigal and Kameygal Aboriginal peoples. Sometimes Aborigines take the tour and ask why they have to pay to see an island they roamed freely growing up. The fort was decommissioned because of its inferior concrete, and for a time served as a retirement home for soldiers. It was mocked up to be a villain’s headquarters, with a motorcycle and helicopter rumpus, in Mission Impossible 2, a movie I never saw.
Dinner that night was at Sushi Train, where you pick up dishes as they move on a track. We shopped for groceries, our friends buying kangaroo burgers for the next day; something new for them as well as us.
Day two. Intense summer heat. We walked part of the Bondi to Bronte, a coastal path with striking views, then had lunch at the Bondi Icebergs Club, an establishment overlooked by tourists unaware it’s open to the public. We swam at Bondi Beach, an impressive crescent stretch with cliffs on both ends, then drove to Little Bay, a beach with a rocky area excellent for looking for shells and creatures in its intertidal pools. Our sightings included a crayfish pregnant with numerous eggs.
We had the ‘roo burgers for dinner that night. They’d a similar flavor to a beef burger but firmer consistency. My wife, tired from travel, fell asleep early. As our bedroom was next to our friends’ laundry area, I stuck some of their clothes into the dryer, not realizing they’d rarely do this, instead using the backyard Hills Hoist. A Hills Hoist is a rotary clothes hanger with multiple lines, allowing efficient exposure to wind and sun. An icon of suburban Australia, it spread rapidly in the decades after World War II; a man named Hill popularized the brand, without apostrophe, and it became a generic term.
Day three. Our friend had a flat tire from running over a screw; he swapped in the spare, and we drove off to get fishing tackle and boat keys. We fished most of the day, from a 28-foot boat off Point Piper, a wealthy Sydney suburb. He’d sold this boat to his real estate lawyer, who let us borrow it, but engine trouble required us to stay anchored, just offshore from some of the country’s priciest real estate. The Sydney skyline was in the distance. Military jets flew by in formation at one point, a South Korean demo. I caught a small snapper, which we threw back; I’d probably never caught a fish before. We swam to and from shore, treading carefully when near the beach to avoid stepping on any stingrays.
Australia’s an environment with many risks, including numerous types of venomous snakes and spiders. Aquatic dangers include the great white shark and the blue-ringed octopus. The blazing sun is intensified by the ozone layer’s thinning. Re-applying sunscreen this day didn’t prevent sunburns. That night, there was a drenching downpour. Dinner was at a Brazilian restaurant. There’s little tipping in Australia, though restaurant checks sometimes note the option of leaving a tip.
Day four. The American visitors took an Uber to downtown Sydney, some 20 minutes from Malabar. We had a guided walking tour of The Rocks, the neighborhood where Sydney began as a convict colony; Max, an enthusiastic historian with a company called Journey Walks, took a dozen tourists around the area, once ridden with crime and disease. Many old limestone buildings were preserved. Australia has much awareness of its convict origins as a modern nation. By contrast, it’s only on this trip that I learned that the British transported numerous convicts to the American colonies, and that the American Revolution’s ending of that practice spurred British settlement of Australia (after other possible locations for dumping convicts, including Madagascar, had been considered).
After the tour, we visited the Sydney Opera House. Its immediate environs are paved-over, yet the seashell-like structure remains connected to nature, with Sydney Harbor behind it and the Royal Botanical Garden just inland. Inside, a screen showed scenes of its construction, including Danish architect Jørn Utzon, who faced massive resistance to his innovative design. We walked through the splendid botanical gardens toward the New South Wales Gallery, where our friends met us.
One highlight at the gallery was “Fruit Bats,” a 1991 sculpture by Aboriginal artist Lin Onus. It shows these animals, also known as flying foxes, hanging upside-down on a Hills Hoist, their folded wings painted with Aboriginal designs. It was a comment “on race relations and rights to Country in Australia,” read the curatorial sign, elaborating that “Like Aboriginal people, flying foxes have a right to be present and continue to adapt despite ongoing encroachments into their Country.” We’d seen a dead fruit bat outside our friends’ house that morning.
Driving back to Malabar that night, we stopped at a lookout off scenic Mrs Macquaries Rd, and took photos of the opera house and Harbour Bridge. The bridge was lit in colors for Sydney WorldPride.
Day five. After breakfast at a café in Malabar, we walked around the neighborhood. A few blocks from our friends’ house is an Aboriginal sacred site, a rocky shelter that long served as the natives’ hospital. A little further on was Malabar’s saltwater pool, next to the ocean; many beach communities have such pools. Later that day, we got a tour of the Jewish school attended by our friends’ daughter, and stopped by a daycare center for the elderly run by her mother’s organization. Closer to downtown, we had a stop at Paddy’s Market, an indoor flea market where we bought crafts including Aborigine-made boomerangs. Dinner was back at Malabar; a waterfront restaurant for the adults, pizza for the kids while they did homework; then late-night drinks at the house together, as the kids had neglected to go to bed.
Day six. We packed up and drove to a horse farm in Orangeville, a rural area about an hour away. Our friends live there on weekends, and their daughter is a competitive equestrian. On the way, we stopped at Camden, a charming town with an excellent local-history museum. At the farm, we met our friends’ horse, and then wandered through fields looking for deer and kangaroos, while keeping an eye out for snakes. We spotted two ‘roos in the distance, and they looked back at us for a minute or two before hopping away. We stayed at a hotel as our friends’ cottage on the farm is too small for guests.
Day seven. Our son had a morning pony ride while his friend practiced jumping. Then our friend drove us to the Sydney airport so we could catch our flights home, again via Hong Kong. This would be another passage of 30 hours or so. Leaving Australia Saturday afternoon, we’d arrive in winter New York early Sunday morning local time, Sunday night in Sydney.
—Kenneth Silber is author of In DeWitt’s Footsteps: Seeing History on the Erie Canal and currently posts at Post.News.