At God-knows-what hour, my cycle of snoozing, reading, and staring blankly into space in my little corner of airplane hell is graciously shattered by the clamor of plastic dishes and the smell of breakfast. The plane clock countdown says we have two more hours left of the flight (*sigh*) out of the original total of eighteen. As the flight attendants distribute a shockingly delicious breakfast, though, my excitement starts to build and I’m left feeling overwhelmingly content despite going on sixteen hours trapped in our gravity-defying, 575-ton floating hunk of metal.
The two hours fly by and in no time we break through the clouds and the Australian coastline slides into view with the kind of cool, casual beauty reserved for only the world’s most underrated places. The morning light is weak and hazy, painting the gray ocean turquoise where it manages to land and making the coast’s verdant green cliffs glow softly against the rough, frothy surf below.
The suburbs and skyscrapers of Sydney stand at attention far in the distance, swinging in and out of view as our ridiculous behemoth of a plane circles the coast. (Really, the plane is enormous. The walls of the plane are over a foot thick and, just to give you an idea of the size of this thing, my window seat on the wing is one of forty — just in economy. This is one of those planes whose turbines you see in airline ads with grown men standing upright and flashing a smile in them.)
In the distance, a low fog makes the Blue Mountains look almost more like a boundless expanse of tropical golf courses than the jungle they are. Meanwhile, above, the sun forces its way through the heavy clouds in big, angular shafts of light that come from all different angles, turning the view out the window into a Kandinsky of ocean and sun and sky. Below, a broad blue river winds its way through lazy, scattered neighborhoods perched precipitously on ocean cliffs and river beds until, finally, as we start our earnest descent, civilization pops out of the bush like magic.
Wheels touch down at Sydney International Airport and I’m two parts excitement, one part numb exhaustion. I’d never know based on my overwhelming fatigue, but I actually did sleep alright on the plane. Unlike airlines I’ve flown with in the past (*cough* *cough* Delta), there was actually a decent amount of room in Qantas economy, so I probably managed to sleep for about a third of the flight. That said, I’m really quite confused about what time it is. My brain says 2pm, my phone says 6am…tomorrow. Even more confusing than the time, however, is why I thought it was a good idea to book a hostel that doesn’t let you check in until 2pm.
All the same, I clear customs, restrain myself from jumping for joy when I get another stamp in my passport, change into shorts because at 7am it’s already climbing towards the high eighties, and call an Uber to my hostel hoping that maybe, just maybe, I’ll get lucky and will be able to check in early.
King’s Cross Backpackers is squeezed on a side street just a few blocks from King’s Cross station (hence the name). Like much of Australia, I’m beginning to realize, the name of the train station is a reference to the country’s British colonial origins, only nobody seems to talk about it because it’s so normal now — so…not Britain anymore. But more on that later.
My Uber driver — a kind, easy-going Aussie guy who has lived all over the world (including West Hollywood, what?!) — drops me out front and helps me get my things out of his car. As he disappears down the street, I drag my three bags upstairs into the main lobby and present myself to the front desk, sweating profusely. The girl at the desk looks about my age (and also looks like someone who was out last night doing what girls my age are wont to do on summer break in one of the coolest cities in the world). She tells me curtly that I can put my stuff in a little storage closet off to the side of the main room until check-in time, which is actually noon (not quite as early as I was hoping for, but I’ll take it).
The closet doesn’t lock and my friend at the desk doesn’t look particularly vigilant, but I decide that even though literally everything important I own is in my three bags, I’m going to risk leaving them all but unattended and go out exploring. I’m not about to just sit here sweating and uncomfortable in the main room with no one but two sad, hungover workers as company for four and a half hours, all while Sydney — one of the coolest cities in the world — sits right on the doorstep.
So I take one of the free breakfast vouchers from the girl at the desk, grab my camera pack from the closet (so now only the vast majority of everything important I own is there unattended — woot!), and head out to explore.
I use Google Maps sans data (so, you know, like a real map) to get to somewhere called Mrs. MacQuarie’s Chair, a place I’d read about in my Bill Bryson book just a handful of hours and some 2000 miles ago. The Chair is a lookout point famed for it’s glorious view of Sydney and named for the wife of Lachlan Macquarie (Australia’s governor in the early 1800s) who decided to take a break from naming things after himself and name something after his beloved wife for once. She, apparently, used to enjoy sitting at the head of the small peninsula that frames Darling Harbour and taking in the panoramic view of the ocean. As for whether or not an actual chair exists, I’ll have to wait in suspense to see.
Despite the climbing temperature, the walk is really nice. It takes me down a calm, mostly empty street through squat, residential areas and then, quite abruptly, dumps me out of the urban sprawl and onto a boardwalk surrounding a wharf. The boardwalk is scattered with beautiful modern art pieces, which sit there looking oddly abandoned on the backdrop of the lapping water of the docks. I look at a few of the pieces but mostly press on, passing joggers who eye my disheveled, post-18-hour-flight self as they trot past. A couple of people walk their dogs down to play in the place where the edge of a park (which, I’m assuming, contains Mrs. MacQuarie’s beloved throne) meets the water of the wharf, and I follow their path towards the area, looking for a minuscule path that Google says will lead me to the Chair.
By now, I’m starting to attract flies like a cartoon character, but I’m so excited to be here (really here, in Australia!) that not even my intense need for a shower can keep me down. Near the makeshift puppy play area, I find the shaded little staircase cut into the side of the steep, rocky edge of the park (how Google finds these things, I’ll never know). I climb up and make my way diagonally across the park until I can start seeing the famous fins of the opera house poking through the gaps in the trees. Grinning like an idiot, I pop out onto the platform set up for tourists such as myself and take in what is undoubtedly the perfect view of the Harbour Bridge, Sydney Opera House, and, of course, the harbor itself. Gaping and giggling like a little kid on Christmas, I yank my camera out of its bag and snap away.
From the platform I head back towards where I came from and find Mrs. MacQuarie’s Chair, which does, in fact, exist in sittable form. It’s a bench cut into the stone of the downhill slope of the furthest edge of the peninsula (which, I discover, is known in its entirety as Mrs. MacQuarie’s Point) and is shaded by a big, beautiful tree with nice smelling flowers. Not a bad place to sit and relax, back in the day, I think. That said, the Chair itself is swamped with a surprisingly large crowd of tourists snapping pictures on selfie sticks and so, having experienced the glory that is the Chair’s existence, I make my way towards the Royal Botanical Gardens instead, opting for a stroll along the harbor towards the Sydney Opera House. After all, I still have hours of spare time and have hit only a sample of Sydney’s most touristy sights.
I cut through the gardens, stopping every now and again to snap shots of the beautiful sprawling green that cascades into the path along the harbor or to ogle the little pockets of wildlife nestled in the enormous fig trees that litter the edge of the gardens. White cockatoos soar from tree to tree and rainbow lorikeets (beautiful little mini parrots, essentially) bicker en masse in the branches above. Meanwhile, all around Mrs. MacQuarie’s Point, the Botanical Gardens, and the Opera House, fences and barriers and Port-a-Potties are being set up for the upcoming New Year’s festivities. Nothing is off limits today, luckily, but I must say — at least in the gardens — it ruins a bit of the magic.
Continuing on, it’s like my head is on a swivel trying to take in all of this beauty. As I round the curve of the harbor walkway and, at last, see the Opera House poking over the trees like a collection of sailboats, my excitement pretty much peaks. Up close, it’s even better than I ever could have imagined. Even though I’ve probably seen millions of images of famous places like this for years — enough pictures to make me feel like I really know what the Opera House is like even though I’ve never stepped foot near it — as I approach it now I can say with confidence that it has retained every bit of its magic, remaining impressive beyond belief.
It has truly earned every bit of its fame.
There’s something especially striking about the Sydney Opera House, I think, even compared to some of the world’s arguably more famed structures. Maybe it’s because its construction was one of the most impressive engineering feats of the 20th century: never had a structure so top-heavy or off-balance been attempted before Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s design was chosen for Sydney’s first big performance venue. In the end, it was thanks to the haste with which the sponsors set the project in motion that nobody questioned its design…or didn’t until it was 47 weeks behind, at least (by the time the ribbon was cut on the building, the planned six-year, A$7 million project had turned into a fourteen-year project that was 1,457% over budget). Maybe, rather, it’s the iconic architecture itself: the way those famous curved fins knife skywards into tortured clouds while, below, the cavernous brown glass entrances gape like the open maw of some long-forgotten sea monster. Maybe it’s simply that — after a childhood spent familiarizing oneself with this place via the epic tales of Mary-Kate and Ashley and Nemo alike — to finally stand in front of it, in all its fame and enormity, is an experience guaranteed to be an awe-inspiring. Whatever the reason, I am, without a doubt, in complete and utter awe.
The sun is rising fast and, at barely 10am, the heat is already unbearably oppressive (and this is coming from a SoCal-transplant from Florida). Thus, having seen the best touristy parts of Sydney within walking distance of the hostel, I make my way back towards what will be home for the next five days. Despite the beauty of that walk, which wound through the lovely tropical palm forest section of the Royal Botanical Gardens, I hurry back without stopping to read the plaques or labels along the way.
There’s a cold shower calling my name.