Heart of Sydney Harbour

03:54, Jul 21 2010
Sydney Harbour
STUNNING: The famous Sydney Opera House sails over the harbour, while the ferries keep Circular Quay busy.

A walking tour gets to the hub of Australia's harbour city.

Talk about making the most of a waterfront. You can forget the newer, flasher Darling Harbour complex; Sydney Cove, the original heart of the harbour, and of the nation, remains a hugely popular and accessible tourist spot.

The old green and cream ferries - the smallest named for the immigrant ships of the First Fleet - come and go, as they've done for decades from the wharves on what was originally known as Semi-Circular Quay (ah, of course). The city's buses, including a free green service, swing around the waterfront bounded by the Opera House on one side and the Park Hyatt hotel on the other. Everything is there for the most casual passerby. But for an insight into the history of the nation's founding site, a guided tour on foot offers anecdotes and facts that bring place names to life, and introduces some of the colourful characters who've lived and worked around the harbour's edge, starting with the indigenous Cadigal people, who called the area Warrane.

Kimberley
WALKING TOUR: Guide Kimberley reveals the sights and secrets of Sydney's popular inner harbour.

On a typically sparkling Sydney day, I walk down George St - once a stream, I'll learn - from Wynyard Station to Circular Quay to meet Kimberley, in her turquoise Bounce Walking Tours T-shirt. A tourism and commerce student who began working for the five- year-old company on a university placement, my red-headed guide tells me she falls in love with her city again each time she leads the two-hour walk around the historic Rocks, Circular Quay and Botanic Gardens. Groups vary from 20 tourists to a single visitor - this time it's just me, so monopolising the guide is OK.

History jostles for attention with exciting new art on the west of Sydney Cove, where weary convicts disembarked from the 11 ships of the First Fleet in 1788. On the front lawn of the Museum of Contemporary Art - a former 1952 Maritime Services Board building about to undergo major redevelopment - American artist Roxey Paine's tree-like Neuron sculpture gleams for the Sydney Biennale.

Next door, is a much earlier relic of the city's maritime past. Cadman's Cottage, constructed in 1816, is one of Sydney's oldest surviving buildings, built in stone quarried from the rocks behind to accommodate the Government Coxswain, responsible for two score or so government boats that linked settlements around the harbour in the days before reliable roads. In nigh on two centuries of use, it housed the Water Police, a court, prisoners, retired sea captains and merchant navy officers, among others - all of which is well documented in interpretation panels on the ground floor.

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With no cruise liner at the overseas passenger terminal next to the low-rise Hyatt Hotel (Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban slept here) we can walk on the very edge of the decking, away from busy tourists and the gaggle of school kids sunning themselves on nearby lawns. It's a good vantage point for viewing the soaring sails of the Sydney Opera House - its controversial construction long forgotten, though maintenance is a hot issue - across the cove.

Above us, the flags of Australia and New South Wales fly from the iconic bridge known during its construction in the Great Depression as the "Iron Lung", for its part in keeping the economy functioning. (Paul Hogan aka Crocodile Dundee, had a job here as a painter - in a cast of thousands - before he became a star.)

Up steps, across the road, through hidden alleyways, past several places claiming to be the oldest pubs, and we're into the historic Rocks area. The stones here are 200 million years old; the first hospital was built as early as 1788 - there's still a Nurses Lane - and by 1820, 10,000 people were living here. We duck through remnants of house foundations, occasional sculptures of oversized iron furniture adding poignancy to raw statistics. Piled on top of each other, sanitary conditions were appalling; 3000 rat catchers were kept busy in 1900, when bubonic plague broke out.

I've already experienced some of the culinary delights of this part of town, on the very cool Pony's communal outdoor verandah, overlooking the Rocks Discovery Museum. Today, kids dressed up as male and female convicts and guards are having an al fresco history lesson here, while out on Argyle St's original cobblestones, below the massive stone approaches to the harbour bridge, the new Friday farmers' market offers a taste of local produce.

Fast running out of morning, the rest of my tour is whistle-stop - with a promise to return. In and out of the historic Customs House - still the city's premier general lending library - where the glass floor allows us to see the contemporary city imposed on a model of the original settlement. Then past the Museum of Sydney - built on the ruins of Governor Philip's house (which fact only surfaced during excavations in the 1980s). And finally, through the gates of the Botanic Gardens, past Sydney Conservatorium of Music - a turreted gothic affair built as stables for the governor's horses. Then it's grassy all the way down to the sparkling water of Farm Cove, where early failed farming attempts made way for these gardens.

In bright sunlight in an otherwise lush setting, the sight of an overabundant "camp" of large bats, hanging like trussed black poultry in dead trees, is somewhat incongruous. Absent from the gardens for 70 years until two decades ago, the endangered grey- headed flying-foxes are overwhelming the resources; approval has been granted to use noise disturbance tactics to scare them away. It worked in Melbourne, so Sydney has its fingers crossed.

My tour ends at the Opera House, on Bennelong Point, named after the Aboriginal man who was NSW Governor Phillip's go-between with the local Eora people. Philip built a hut for him on the edge of the harbour; Bennelong later sailed to Britain, met the monarch - and came home to find he didn't fit in any more. We arrive as a morning orchestral concert ends; a swarm of seniors flows down steps where outdoor broadcast units are setting up a pink carpet to welcome home round-the-world sailor Jessica Watson. What would Bennelong make of all this?

Bounce Walking Tours offers "a side of Sydney you'd never find in your guide book" on its Sydney Sights waterfront tour and Kings Cross Walking Tour, which promises "an insight into Sydney's underbelly".

For more information on exploring Sydney's inner city, visit bouncewalkingtours.com and the rocks.com

The Dominion Post