If you were a convicted English felon living in the 1800’s or so, learning that you would be sent to Australia would not be a happy prospect. It would likely mean saying goodbye to everyone and everything that you knew, being subjected to a torturous and lengthy journey just to get there, followed by a hard life in a penal colony. As if this weren’t bad enough, you would also discover that the aforementioned penal colony was home to some of the some of the creepiest-looking spiders and deadliest snakes anywhere. For many, the latter alone would be enough to scare them straight.
Happily (especially for the Australian Tourist Board) perceptions of Australia have changed dramatically since then. You’d be hard pressed to find someone in the arrivals hall there against their will; maintaining contact with family and friends is a cinch; even the trip to get there, while tediously long from just about everywhere, is far less likely to end in death as say, rounding the Cape of Good Hope in a wooden merchant ship.
But even in the thoroughly modern capital city of Sydney, you can still find those spiders. And when I say spiders, I’m referring to enormous though harmless arachnids whose only threat to your health is a sharp jump in blood pressure upon seeing them in all their gigantic glory. More on them later.
Spiders aside, Sydney is a fantastic destination. Most people don’t come to Australia for the urban scene, but this city set in a natural harbor on the banks of the Parramatta River is modern chic despite the wilderness that surrounds it. Home to skyscrapers, shopping malls and a multicultural population, the feel is decidedly more European or North American than former penal colony. I’m sure even the spiders must be impressed by how far Sydney has come.
Sydney’s most iconic building – the Sydney Opera House – is more than just a working performance venue; it’s a tourist attraction in its own right. The sail-like eaves (surprisingly made entirely of ceramic tile) juxtapose with the skyline behind it, and provide a counterbalance to the famous lines of the Harbor Bridge just beyond. Climbing the bridge has become a rite of passage; ranking highly among Australian tourist experiences such as throwing a boomerang or playing a didgeridoo (or more accurately, blowing into a didgeridoo and wondering why it doesn’t make the same noise it’s supposed to).
The opera house is set amid Sydney’s Royal Botanical Gardens, which is home to various indigenous flora, quite a few flying foxes (a.k.a. bats) and many of those innocuous but enormous spiders dangling on massive webs woven between trees. While I struggled to get my own blood pressure under control, a glance at my wife’s expression – revealing a genuine revulsion at such a large spider’s very existence – left me wondering if she wouldn’t just hop on the next flight out of there. Fortunately she was able to overlook this unpleasant revelation, and wound up enjoying the city very much. Trust me, that in itself is quite an endorsement.
Fortunately that was my only encounter with creepy-crawlies. The downtown has a sleek, modern design, especially in nearby Darling Harbor. This to me was similar to New York’s South Street Seaport not only because of its waterfront setting, but its blend of happening restaurants, shopping venues, and street performers pandering to the pedestrian crowds.
A short monorail ride away is the Queen Victoria Building – a stately stone edifice that stands out against the backdrop of glass and steel. Though the interior is used as a shopping mall, shoppers will do well to notice the elaborate architecture on display – particularly the Great Australian Clock, depicting some 33 scenes from Australian history from both the Aboriginal and European perspective.
For anyone hoping to relive the days of convicts in exile, one can visit The Rocks – a neighborhood which made up part of the original settlement. Today it is a district of restaurants and souvenir shops; a decidedly a more pleasant destination than it was for the arriving convicts.
As I mentioned before, most people don’t come to Australia for the cities, so it is fortunate that some truly magnificent natural beauty is located within reasonable proximity to Sydney. Besides the beaches of Bondi and Manly on the nearby Pacific Coast, a fifty mile drive to the west will bring you to Blue Mountains National Park. This UNESCO World Heritage region is a gorgeous setting of sweeping vistas, forested valleys of gum and eucalyptus trees, along with the famous “Three Sisters” rock formation the park is known for. For the record, I’m sure there must’ve been some spiders out there but I didn’t see them. And even if I did, seeing this powerful landscape in person is worth a little discomfort from the ‘heebie-jeebies’.
Continuing in a vein of what people come to see in Australia, not far out of town is Featherdale Wildlife Park, a uniquely Australian petting zoo which allows guests to observe and in some cases interact with some of the continent’s most lovable and villainous denizens. You can have your picture taken with a sleepy-eyed koala, feed a baby kangaroo right out of your hand (watch out for interloping emus!), and admire more wallabies than you can shake a stick at. There was even an enclosure housing Australia’s most-deadliest snakes and the infamous Tasmanian Devils (you’re not allowed to interact with these guys). Whether you’re into naughty or nice, there’s something here for everyone.
Without a doubt, visiting Australia today is a far more pleasant experience than in times past. Sydney in particular is not only an awesome city but a great base of operations for exploring the beauty of New South Wales. Sure the trip is long, ticket prices are high, and there’s always the chance of seeing a giant spider. But as opposed to those convicts of days gone by, visitors come to Sydney of their own volition and the majority leave happy. Spiders or no spiders, that has to count for something.
Have you been to Sydney and have an experience or suggestion to share? Leave a comment!