When people know you’re “well traveled” they make assumptions. Rather than ask you, “Have you been to a particular destination” they’ll ask, “How did you like a place?” Lately, that’s been happening with Sydney and Australia. People assumed I’d been there. I have and want to return! I’m no stranger to Australia because I have friends and family living there. I’m hopeful that next year’s itinerary could include a return visit to Sydney.
Due to the pandemic, travel was pushed forward. However, a return visit to Sydney was in the planning stages when the pandemic began. Obviously, I put the trip on hold. However, my trip planning was done and my interest in history and culture never stops! As I learn, I share, so thought it would be fun to write about some of the fascinating things I learned about Sydney and Australia and lead you on this armchair tour of this extraordinary culture and destination. You might just want to add Sydney to your post-pandemic bucket list of places to visit.
Traveling To Australia
“Down under” is a term you’ve probably heard. I imagine many Australians take offense. After all, who is to say which direction is “down” and which is “under”?
In fact, Sydney is one of the more “up” cities in the world, as in “up-and-coming.” If you have Australia on your bucket list of places to visit, you’ll want to explore and visit Sydney for sure, as well as several other exceptional sites in Australia, such as Uluru and the Great Barrier Reef.
Fascinating Facts About Sydney
- Sydney contributes 25% of the country’s economy (and 65% of the country’s financial industry is located there)
- Sydney is extremely photogenic. In fact, it has been the scene for more than 200 movies
- The Opera Australia is one of the busiest in the world (currently ranked #3)
- The Grand Organ in the Sydney Opera House has 10,153 pipes and they each have a name
And just as interesting:
- 250 different languages are spoken in Sydney
- It is the #12 most expensive city in the world
- There are more than 100 beaches around the city
- Sydney has 658 suburbs (33 inner city)
- People from Sydney are called Sydneysiders
- Rugby is the most popular sport
History of Sydney
Sydney is the largest city in Australia, with more than 5 million people. It is also the capital of the state of New South Wales.
Sydney has one of the most distinctive landscapes of any city in the world. Its defining feature is the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The harbour is surrounded by inlets and bays. This creates a stunning mosaic impression of light on water. You also cannot miss the white, shell-shaped architecture of the world renowned Sydney Opera House.
Combine its illustrious British heritage with proximity to the Pacific/Asian rim, and Sydney is a diverse and innovative blend of east and west, new and old.
As the story goes, Captain James Cook first explored the Sydney area back in 1770. Admiral Arthur Phillip of the English fleet was the first to notice the wonders of what was called Sydney Cove a decade or so later in 1788.
The “cove” (what we know now as Sydney Harbour) was ideal for sea trade. It was protected, ships could safely anchor in the deep water, and it was also close to fresh water sources. On shore it was not as hospitable, since the land was rough and wild and soil was poor.
However, this environment was ideal for the function the British government had in mind for their new acquisition: penal colony. According to the National Library of Australia, about 162,000 convicts were sent to Australia between 1788-1868. It was indeed a punishing life. Food was scarce, conditions were harsh, and discipline was severe.
But Australia soon developed into much more than a place to send unwanted convicts. Over the next century, Sydney expanded and grew. To encourage development, the British government gave settlers free land and even free (convict) labor. Trade routes increased, as did other industries the city needed. The city’s reputation improved from a being seen as an outlier colony to a prosperous port city.
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Sydney’s 19th Century Explosion of Growth
One name you’ll hear mentioned as a tribute to Sydney’s development is New South Wales governor Lachlan Macquarie, who presided from 1810-1822.
This forward-thinking administrator was responsible for establishing paved roads in Sydney, as well as public buildings. He had a hand from famous architect Francis Greenway—a convict serving time for forgery. Other progressive achievements during Macquarie’s time include building the first banks, churches, schools, and the famous Hyde Park.
Between 1850 and 1890, Sydney’s growth exploded—from 60,000 to 400,000 citizens. Many of them lived in dense terrace houses. You can still see this architecture in old Sydney neighborhoods today, with balconies and cast-iron railing.
By 1911 Sydney was the leading city in Australia, though it stills maintains a rivalry with Melbourne.
Many Australians still proudly claim their British stock. But after World War I a huge flood of immigrants came to the country. They were not just from Europe but from the Middle East, China, Vietnam, and many other places. Because of this, many Sydney neighborhoods are a blend of cultures with a fusion of ethnic foods. There is a Chinatown, a Greek suburb, an Italian suburb, and a neighborhood comprised of indigenous people.
Sydney is a city for people who love the water. There are beaches within a short distance of the city, surfing, sailing, and swimming (and yachting, for those inclined). There is also a world-class zoo, numerous museums, and at least five universities.
A Bridge Like No Other: Sydney Harbour Bridge
There are a couple of notable features that you should know about when you visit Sydney.
First, let’s talk about the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge. You can’t miss it! It’s the main transportation link between Sydney and its suburbs.
This bridge is one of the longest steel-arch bridges in the world, spanning 1,650 feet. The bridge includes a highway, two pedestrian walkways, and four railroad tracks.
Back in 1912 engineer John Bradfield first pitched the bridge concept to parliament. He offered plans for both a cantilever and a suspension bridge. World War I delayed construction of the bridge until 1924. That might have been a good thing, since steelmaking technology developed over the years to the point where an arch bridge was possible. The arch bridge was a better plan because it was both sturdier and less expensive.
Because Sydney Harbor is so deep, the steel arch was built and assembled from opposite banks, meeting in the middle by 1930. The bridge officially opened in 1932.
Today thousands of motorists, train travelers, bicyclists and even climbers traverse the bridge each week (yes, a popular tourist activity when you visit Sydney is climbing the bridge!).
The Sydney Opera House
Not only is The Sydney Opera House an extraordinary architectural feat, but it also has a story to tell.
In fact, almost everything about the Opera House was intentionally designed to align with the natural landscape, and to provide the highest quality acoustics and aesthetic experience.
The story of the Opera House began after World War II. Australians decided they needed a world-class facility to showcase their symphony orchestra and other performing groups. In the mid-50s, the government held an international design competition. More than 200 entries were submitted, representing more than 30 countries.
The winner was Jørn Utzon, a Danish architect. He envisioned two side-by-side main auditoriums facing the harbour on a huge podium. The auditorium roofs looked like interlocking sails, and were made of precast concrete.
Easier imagined than accomplished! Structural engineering problems and budget problems delayed construction for years. Building the Opera House started in 1959 and was not completed until 1973. More than 10,000 construction workers were required.
The building project became controversial and unpopular. But eventually, stage by stage (pardon the pun), the various reception halls, colonnades, and seminar rooms were completed.
Today the Opera House is more than a building! You could say it is a performance in itself.
It is a multipurpose performing arts facility featuring a 2,600+ seat concert hall. Another hall –the Joan Sutherland Theater—is a 1,500 seat venue devoted to opera and dance. The complex also includes three additional theaters for films and smaller performances. In 2007 the Opera House was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The original cost was estimated at $7 million. The final cost, financed by the State Lottery, was closer to $102 million.
Who was the first person to perform at the Sydney Opera?
In 1960, American baritone Paul Robeson reportedly climbed the scaffolding and sang “Old Man River” to construction workers at lunch.
Check this source for more Interesting Facts About the Sydney Opera House.
From the bustling Sydney metropolis, a 3-hour flight will take you to the middle of Australia where you can appreciate a stark contrast between the human and natural worlds.
Uluru is a mysterious and beautiful rock formation in the Northern Territory of Australia. It has been a sacred place for indigenous people of the region. Uluru is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
It is an enormous oval shape made of sandstone, standing 9.4 kilometers wide and 348 meters tall. Archeologists estimate it is 600 million years old.
In 1873 an Australian government official came upon Uluru and named it Ayers Rock (in honor of Sir Henry Ayers, South Australian Premier at the time).
The Anangu people have lived in the Uluru area for 30,000 years. The formation is full of rock paintings and ancient petroglyphs. Rock paintings were made from red and yellow ochre colored clay, oak, white ash, and charcoal. The Anangu cultural and religious traditions are called Tjukurpa.
A wide variety of wildlife live in the Uluru region, including a breed of python, the red kangaroo, and the rufus hare wallaby.
The Great Barrier Reef
Our final stop in Australia is to another World Heritage Site: The Great Barrier Reef (designated in 1981).
The Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven wonders of the natural world. It’s the most extensive reef system on Earth, and is actually made of more than 3,000 smaller reefs, islets, and shoals.
The Great Barrier Reef stretches more than 1,250 miles (point of reference: San Diego to Denver is about 1,000 miles). Visitors can find the reef as close as 10 miles offshore—and as far as 100 miles away. The square area amounts to more than 135,000 miles.
Europeans discovered the reef around 1770. That’s when Capt. James Cook arrived in the South Seas. Cook and his team began to chart the convoluted passages and channels through the maze of reefs, though it took many years to produce accurate maps.
Before we go any further, a tutorial is in order.
What exactly is coral?
If you know the answer you can skip this part and skim on to How Was it Formed?
There are hundreds of different kinds of coral, but most of them share the qualities of growing and living in colonies.
Coral is made of hundreds (and sometimes hundreds of thousands) of individual animals we call polyps. A polyp has a stomach that opens at one end. This opening has a “mouth” surrounded by tentacles that the polyp uses to capture food, (tiny animals), clear debris, and defend itself. After the polyp eats, it excretes waste through the mouth.
Corals capture their meals using nematocysts—the same kind of stinging cells a jellyfish uses. The nematocysts are located in the polyp’s outer tissue and tentacles. Most corals feed at night.
Some polyps secrete calcium carbonate, which becomes the structure of the coral reef. Living tissue connects each polyp to the next, forming what we call a “colonial” organism.
Coral and algae have a symbiotic relationship. Coral produces chemicals that protect algae from the sunlight (similar to sunscreen). Algae produce food and oxygen –from photosynthesis—for the coral. The coral also produces nutrients for the algae. Coral takes its many colors from the algae as well!
How Was The Great Barrier Reef Formed?
Geologists have estimated that the Great Barrier Reef was formed more than 20 million years ago. Live coral attached to dead coral, resulting in millions of years of coral growth. Continental shifts and sea level changes have also influenced the Great Barrier Reef.
The Reef is remarkable for many reasons, one of which is the vast variety of species that call it home. More than 9,000 species live in the Reef, including 400 types of coral, 1500 kinds of fish, and 4,000 kinds of mollusk.
It is also the natural habitat for many kinds of algae, dolphins, turtles—some of which are endangered.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act of 1975 created the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. The main office is in Cairns. The Park authority reports to the Australian Government Minister.
The Great Barrier Reef is in Trouble
The Great Barrier Reef is in trouble.
Because of climate change on Earth, the sea temperatures have risen. This has caused the algae to produce chemicals that are toxic to the coral. The coral, in turn, negatively influences the algae in a process called “bleaching.” The coral turns white.
In 2018, a study suggested that bleaching has damaged about a third of the Great Barrier Reef. The study also showed that huge portions of coral have died from the warming waters of the ocean.
Several other factors threaten the Great Barrier Reef. Biodiversity is being reduced by overfishing, coastal development, as well as chemical runoff. Even species that live in the reef can be damaging, such as a particular starfish that apparently loves to munch on the coral.
But help is on the way.
Many oceanographers continue to study the Great Barrier Reef and conduct research. One example is Erika Woolsey, a National Geographic explorer who has created 3D versions of Great Barrier Reef organisms her team can study in a laboratory. Woolsey and her team can examine damage to the reef in great detail—and all from a great distance (and without getting wet). Woolsey conducts her research from labs at Stanford.
I hope this tour and visit to Sydney and more has impressed you with Australia’s awesomeness!
Australia, like other island nations, was hit hard by the pandemic and its borders are still yet to open.
Don’t buy your ticket quite yet, but as soon as you can, you must fly into Sydney, climb the bridge, see an opera, and enjoy the sparkling beaches and waterways.
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