Ask any well-travelled soul in the world (or Google) and they will tell you the same thing: Sydney has the best fireworks in the world. The only city ranked higher for New Year’s fireworks is Dubai, and I really don’t think they count because they have more money than God and they shoot theirs off long after Sydney does, making them total copycats anyways. So there.
That said, due to their fame, to get a good spot for Sydney’s fireworks you have to show up really early. Max, a Swedish guy I met at King’s Cross Backpackers, says he wants this New Year’s to be extra special and so he has decided to head out to Mrs. MacQuarie’s Point super early on New Year’s Eve Day to stake out a spot — say, 8 a.m.?
I, too, am eager to make this New Year’s better than the rather anticlimactic ones of my past and jump on board, as does the rest of our new King’s Cross Backpackers fam: Carol-Anne from France, Matt and Tom from England, and potentially Eloise (also from England) who may join us later in the day. We buy groceries, prepare and pack lunch, and make it out of the hostel New Year’s Eve Day morning at…9 a.m.
Now, I realize that anyone who has ever been in Sydney at New Year’s is reading this and laughing hysterically at us thinking we’ll just walk into Mrs. MacQuarie’s Point or the Royal Botanical Gardens (our backup — hah!) at 10am the day of, but, of course, our research on the whole New Year’s Eve matter has been limited to finding good locations. Furthermore, all sites through which we did this research simply say to “arrive early…really early.” So, yes, we clearly are misinformed and rather naive, but this is the route we’ve decided take anyways.
As it turns out, “really early” meant 11 a.m….two days ago.
We arrive at the official entrance to the Point, having sadly been rerouted from my secret back entrance by security, and we immediately see to our right probably fifty people in line to get their bags checked and enter the Point. “Oh no,” we all start to say, “I hope all the good spots don’t get taken.” Then the security guard helping with crowd control near the entrance catches our attention. “Here for the fireworks?” she asks. We all say yes. “Great!” she says cheerfully. Head that way, look for a man in a blue shirt holding a yellow sign.”
We all look in the direction she’s pointing and our jaws drop in unison. (In hindsight, it was probably a pretty humorous scene to watch.) The line to just get to the security checkpoint at the start of the Point snakes back so far from where we stand that the tail end is impossible to spot. The line is coiled so tightly it’s probably close to a mile long and, what’s more, it’s five to ten people thick in most places. Discouraged but not wanting to waste any more time, we march our way back…and back…and back…stopping every few minutes to ask another security person where our blue-shirted, yellow sign-toting man can be found. Eventually we make it to a field — perhaps a quarter of a mile downhill from where we started — that has been packed full of people (sort of like at a crowded music festival performance, only much more organized and with fewer people on drugs). Sure enough, we find the notorious blue-clad man there waiting. He motions for us to join the end of the queue that winds along the field and we do, groaning at the ridiculous length of the line but maintaining hope all the same: “The Point and the Gardens are huge,” we all assure each other. “I’m sure we’ll find someplace decent.”
It was nearly ten o’clock when we joined the orderly queue of hopeful fireworks spectators gathered in the field, but by 10:15, all hell breaks loose. I don’t know who gave the order, or if anyone gave the order, but suddenly there’s no line at all anymore and people are sprinting/jogging/speed-waddling with their picnic supplies up the line, creating a flood of people that bottlenecks only when the front of the mob hits the part of the line that feeds onto a sidewalk framed by chain and post barriers.
Needless to say, the people who have been waiting civilly in the line for the past several hours are most displeased at our sudden lawlessness. Meanwhile, the security people responsible for keeping the line civil in the first place have quite obviously been overrun. To be quite honest, I hadn’t even see more than a handful of security people until our mob of people made it up towards that sidewalk area, at which point I counted three.
As we all make our stop-and-go mad dash for the front of the line, people yell and curse and wave their fists at our general mass of people. Though I certainly can’t blame them, I think the fault really lies with whoever planned this whole mess. I mean, really, on a day where it’s 90+ degrees and everyone’s half mad, half drunk, and completely insane about getting a good spot, did they really think the line would stay orderly without barriers? Of course, I wouldn’t put it past me to deflect responsibility for line-cutting blasphemies such as this, but I do think I have a point…
In the end, we manage to push, shove, and crowd-weave our way to the entrance by 11 a.m. It is truly only thanks to the pandemonium of the “line” and our savage lack of empathy for all the civil queuers we cut that we made it up here this fast (a true New Year’s miracle and, somewhere in there, a great metaphor with which we can summarize all of 2016).
Once past the bag-check/security checkpoint, which was abysmally weak, we regroup before speed walking towards the point. It’s actually surprisingly empty when we arrive. Having stood in that line (or most of it anyways), I think we all expected the only open areas to be those with views of fences and trees. Though all the really great spots (the platform with the perfect view of the harbor, the area just next to it, every inch along the fenceline with a clear shot, the entirety of the Royal Botanical Gardens — which we were told filled up before 8 a.m., etc.), we manage to find a nice open spot with a perfect view of three of the fins of the Sydney Opera House and the left corner of the Harbour Bridge.
Not bad for arriving two days late to the fireworks stakeout party…
Despite the fact that queuing at 10 a.m. the day of the fireworks is, apparently, a laughably late start, we still have thirteen hours of waiting until the actual fireworks display, and it’s already nearly 100 degrees out.
And so, we plop down all our stuff, spread out, and pass the day munching on snacks, chugging water, reapplying sunscreen, snoozing fitfully, and playing cards. It’s actually — despite the merciless sun and scorching heat — really, really fun. Our food is delicious, the vibe of the day’s festivities is, overall, quite chipper, and we are all in great company (nothing quite bonds a friend group like thirteen hours of waiting in the Australian heat for a view of the bottom righthand corner of the world’s greatest New Year’s fireworks display, amirite?!).
At 9 p.m. there is to be a children’s fireworks display — a smaller, shorter, and (most importantly for parents) earlier version of the famed midnight display. For us, this is to be our practice run. We haven’t really decided what the plan is for the midnight display: stay put and enjoy only the corner of the display (but in relative peace) or brave the mob and try to get a better view up close. We’re all very nonchalant about it, assuming we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, but then half past eight finally rolls around and projectors started displaying beautiful images of Australian landscapes, wildlife, and aboriginal art on the Harbour Bridge’s pylons. At the sight of this, Max, Carol-Anne, and I almost instinctively bolt for the front area of the Point near my beloved platform (reserved for the media tonight — that’s how good that view is). Despite the mobs of fellow tourists, we manage to snag a pretty great view. When the fireworks go off half an hour later — the only things blocking our view are a few tree branches….oh yeah, and about a hundred cell phones held up in the air.
Quick aside: my biggest pet peeve is people ruining their own and other people’s experience at live events by trying to record the whole thing on their phones. Especially something like this that you know is going to be broadcast on live TV with much better quality than you could ever record on your phone. “Oh but Ailish,” you whine. “I wanna be able to show all my friends I was there, I want people to know how good my spot was, if I don’t post this to Instagram and Snapchat and Facebook and Twitter how will anyone know I was here?!?!” First off: you’re the worst and the reason people hate millennials. Second: if it’s that important to you, record five seconds of video as proof for your miserable social media-dependent existence and then put the damn phone away and actually enjoy this amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Ok. End rant.
The kids’ show is actually awesome. The projected images are beautiful (plus it’s just unfathomably exciting to see the Harbour Bridge turned into a giant movie screen), the songs are great (they include a tribute to Prince during which purple literally rains from the sky — I see you Sydney…I see you), and the fireworks are…well…explosive (in the best way). When the show ends, Carol-Anne and I head back to our picnic area, talking excitedly about the fireworks and about what we should do for the midnight display. After wrestling with my fury over people’s phones — it’s petty, I know, but I can’t help it — I’m thinking I’ll probably stay at our picnic spot for the fireworks. I’d rather peacefully enjoy a wedge of the fireworks than spend the full twelve minutes of the best explosive display on the planet fuming and dodging smartphone screens. Carol-Anne is leaning more towards pushing towards the fence that lines the point around ten in the hopes of snagging a good spot on the path come midnight. We shrug again, deciding to figure it out later since it’s only 9:15 (because us discussing it later totally happened last time).
Only a few minutes later, though, Max — who disappeared into the mob following the kiddie fireworks — turns up again and informs us he’s just gone to talk to one of the security guys and now has the inside scoop. Apparently, at about 11:30, security stops being able to contain the crowds and just lets everyone cram in wherever they want. They told Max to hang out near the trash cans that sit on the path that runs below the best-view-ever platform (so the area where people who’ve waited two days are camped out), so that when security gives up, we’ll have our front row seats. Carol-Anne and I are sold. We decide we’ll make our move early, but not too early — say, around 11?
As the night draws on the three of us get more and more anxious about securing the best possible spot, though, so at 10:30, we join the masses gathering by the trash cans. Within minutes it’s mayhem. Four security guards form a wall and yell at us to go back.
“Come back in an hour!” “MOVE! NOW!”
It gets more and more aggressive as people refuse to listen. As the “MOVE, we’re going to start shoving!!” statements grow more frequent (as does the shoving), I wriggle my way forward and, as politely as possible, say, “Please, we’d love to move back but the people at the very back of the crowd won’t move so we can’t go anywhere. Tell them to move first — we can’t go back with them there and you pushing isn’t helping anything.” To this, they just grumble and get sort of defensive but do at least stop shoving as much, especially as more people along the front of the crowd voice similar concerns.
Gradually, just as promised, security starts caring less and less. At 10:30 they’re yelling and shoving; at 10:45 they’re just yelling at people who try to push past them or climb the walls and railings to get to the front of our mob; at 11 they just stand there, creating a rather imposing human wall; and by 11:15 they’re sitting nonchalantly against the wall chatting with us. They’re still being strict about not letting anyone past, but they’ve relaxed a ton. All of the security guys seem to be close friends (I guess nothing bonds a group of bros like fighting off crazed hordes of tourists) and they joke with us and each other as we wait for the time when the mad dash starts in full.
“You’re from Germany? My friend here speaks German!” one guy says. The friend laughs and puts up his hands defensively, shaking his head as he’s conversed at in German. “No, no I don’t! I really don’t!”
“You’re from Los Angeles? My mate lived in LA for ten years!” Again, laughter and a big shake of the head from the friend.
So it goes for the next fifteen minutes or so and then we all start to realize they really don’t care anymore. Thus, a rather calm version of a mad dash begins and by 11:40 we’ve all wiggled our way forwards to stand behind the groups with the best views — you know, the ones who’ve literally waited 36 hours to claim these spots. Said groups, feeling rightfully concerned for the continued sovereignty of their viewing area, stand up and push towards the glass fencing that encloses the point to at least reserve those prime views (which, I believe, is more than fair given how long they’ve waited). As soon as they are flush up against the fence, we follow en masse. When the crowd more or less settles, I find myself behind only two people who stand shoulder to shoulder against the glass fence. Max stands diagonally behind me and Carol-Anne has played it smart and now stands on the wall back near the security guards with a perfect shot of the Sydney Harbour right over our heads.
There we stand, to the anger of many and the envy of more, for the thirty minutes until the display kicks off. As we stand there waiting, I start talking with a British couple standing to my left (partially because they seem super cool and partially because the couple to my right is throwing so much shade at me I won’t need sunscreen for months). They’re so sweet and we quickly stray from innocent conversation about travel and our hometowns and good National Parks to visit in The States to the topic of politics in U.S. instead. Being abroad means that, for the most part, if American politics comes up, people kind of shrug in a sucks for you guys! sort of way, make a few comments, and move on. I had forgotten how amazing it is to talk about the horror and insanity of American politics in depth (we did, after all, have 30 minutes to kill) with someone as sympathetic and interested and well-versed on the topic as this amazing couple are. Not to mention, it makes for a great cathartic experience with which to round off a year that, frankly, I could’ve done without.
At long last, we’re within minutes of midnight and all conversation devolves into “What time is it? …okay, what time is it now?” Behind us, a group of college students start up a rousing rendition of “Hey! Baby” (complete with the OOH! AH! that made it a smash hit in Australia in the early 2000s). We laugh and sing along, jubilant and excited and — most of all — ready.
At just over a minute to go, the crowd surges and I look up to see the countdown being flashed down from 75 seconds on the pylon of the Harbour Bridge. I beam and start jumping up and down — excitement and anticipation spreading through the crowd like wildfire. The countdown hits 20 and the entirety of Mrs. MacQuarie’s Point starts counting in earnest. Then, 10…9…8…7…6…5…4…3…2…1…HAPPY NEW YEAR!
As the countdown strikes zero most of the crowd forgets to say the actual “Happy New Year” part (though I’m pretty sure I said it loud enough to make up for it) because the Harbour Bridge and the water around it has exploded into such an incredible frenzy of sparks, it’s enough to take anyone’s breath away. Intense, movie-score-esque music booms from speakers set up all over Sydney proper as sparks fly outwards in an arc from the rounded edge of the Harbour Bridge and explosions of color soar into the sky above the Opera House, downtown, and the water behind us. The music morphs from the intense movie score into pop hits from 2016, followed by tributes to David Bowie with “Space Odyssey” and Gene Wilder with a deeply moving rendition of “Pure Imagination,” and then more smash hits from 2016, all finishing off with a booming (in more ways than one) classical piece for the finale.
The display is twelve minutes of pure glory. I can’t even properly describe it. It is unfathomably spectacular. Every time I think Oh my goodness, it can’t possibly get more impressive than this, it does. Just past the halfway point of the show is a glorious false finale in which they set off a quick succession of enormous fireworks over the Opera House and then proceed to blow that out of the water (quite literally) with a waterfall of fire raining down from the bridge into the harbor. I think everyone in Sydney’s jaws drop when it starts. Then they really bring out the big guns for the true finale, letting off everything they have over the bridge and Opera House as that yellow fire continues to pour from the belly of the bridge.
Our spots are perfect — we can see every single detail of every single explosion and we’re surrounded by people from all over the world who are just as excited as we are to be right here, right now, enjoying the moment. So extraordinary is the display — and especially the finale, my goodness — that when it ends, we can’t even be too sad that it’s over. Instead, we all smile and hug and wish each other Happy New Year. The British couple next to me enthusiastically hugs me and says Happy New Year and we part ways with sincere gratitude for having become friends, even if only for an hour. Inspired by the love of the couple who just left and by the joy and enthusiasm that hangs in the air like smoke, I even hug the couple who were throwing me shade earlier (though they really don’t seem like they want to look at me, much less hug me — oops, oh well!). As the crowd starts to dissipate, Max, Carol-Anne and I find each other and exchange hugs and Happy New Years. We decide to stick around in the viewing area for a little longer just to soak it all in and talk and shake our heads together in awed disbelief. As we do, the emotion and gravity of the night hits me all at once. Despite the craziness of 2016 and the stress and heat and chaos of even just today, right now everything is perfect. I just rang in the New Year like I want to start and finish everything in my life: breathless from wonder and dazzled by beauty and surrounded by incredible, loving people. It’s been the most extraordinary, adventurous start to a new year of — hopefully — equally extraordinary adventures.
So here’s to 2017. May it be as brilliant as those sparks, as full of love and excitement as Mrs. MacQuarie’s Point, and as full of wonder and adventure as this night was tonight.
Happy New Year