Is it only me or does everyone respond entirely subjectively to new places and experiences? Wherever I find myself in the world, it’s the houses and dogs that I find most fascinating and so it is that on my first-ever visit to Sydney, it was the Spoodles, Groodles, Cockerpoos and Labradoodles that caught my attention wherever I went.
The Sydney dogs were some of many surprises and just part of an experience that managed to turn all the pre-conceived notions I had of Australia firmly on their heads. I don’t know what I’d expected as I hadn’t stopped to give much thought to the canine population down there, but I know I had not expected to see all of the above in abundance along with Maltese Poodles, Standard Poodles (wearing jackets and sporting designer coiffeurs), Yorkies, Spaniels, Airdales, Golden Retrievers and Bouviers. In fact, it seems the furrier the breed, the more popular it is in Sydney. Everywhere I went I saw dogs I wanted to dognap, pack in my case and bring home.
So what had I expected? Tough dogs, I think. Fighters. Canine versions of Leighton Hewitt. Short-haired terriers, Boxers, Bulldogs and Dobermans and maybe, for the reputedly rare, soft-hearted Aussie, a Dachshund or two. How wrong one can be.
The dismantling of my not-very-high expectations began with the excellent Qantas flight from Johannesburg direct to Sydney. It took exactly eleven and a half hours – the same time it takes to fly to London – and the jet lag on the other end was nowhere near as bad as I’d been warned it would be.
The immigration and customs officials were friendly and efficient and didn’t ask any rude questions about African food, fruit or diseases I might be trying to smuggle, knowingly or unknowingly, into their country. Another myth exploded. And then then there was the drive to my hosts. With tales of narrow roads, gridlocked traffic and a complete absence of freeways ringing in my ears, I found myself being driven along a perfectly good highway and then through tree-lined suburbs with a crossing over the iconic and spectacular Harbour Bridge thrown in for good measure. And there was water everywhere. I knew about that but knowing and seeing are two different things entirely and nothing had prepared me for the glittering glimpses of sunlit water popping up where I’d least expect to see it.
So daunting had been the stories of traffic, I allocated hours to travel from one area to another and arrived way ahead of schedule for every engagement, necessitating impromptu neighbourhood tours to pass the time.
And rather than the flat, dry, sunburned acres of mediocrity I’d envisaged, the suburbs were pretty with undulating streets and avenues that looked disconcertingly familiar. Many of the flowers and shrubs are the same as ours and with driving on the left and spotting uniformed school children on the pavements – some little boys still in caps – the sense of similarity is disorienting; like looking through a friend’s prescription glasses. The bird calls can easily dispel any sense of being home-away-from-home though. The cacophony heralding every sunrise leaves our Louries and Hadedas sounding like an African symphony.
Then there were the houses. They too were intriguing. The older suburbs of Sydney have not been abandoned by people in search of bigger or greener pastures further from the city. Rather, they have grown into themselves and the beautiful old Victorian architecture remains with intricate wooden fretwork, verandas, and old, stained glass windows immaculately maintained.
From my Johannesburg perspective, Sydney public transport is fantastic; buses, trains and, best of all, ferries, carry people of all ages and stages, from school children to pensioners, wherever they want to go. What a pleasure it is to take a ferry to the opera… No parking issues; no car guards. (No car guards anywhere. Ever.) And no litter either. You have to actively look for it. I must have remarked on this often because eventually someone found some for me. “Look, there’s some litter. It must be the wind.” In a 60 kilometer per hour gale, four plastic bags lay beside the road.
How could I have got it all so wrong? Is there a subversive, misinformation campaign at work in SA, I wonder? A self-appointed, suburban, anti-emigration Third Force? There is something provocative about Australia. South Africans react to it. Mention that you’re going or have been there and question marks spring into eyes. ‘Are you going on a “look-see?”, ‘Are you thinking of moving?’ It’s odd. Trips to other English-speaking countries don’t evoke this response, but Australia brings out the uncertainty in us. So many South Africans have relatives or friends there; so many of us have had the ‘to leave or stay’ debate. It’s an emotionally-loaded destination and a subtle sub-text weaves through our conversations: The terrible traffic, the old, damp houses, the tiny plots, the flies, the cost of living (it IS very expensive) and OMG the drug problems. The list goes on until the coup de grace; ‘Those Aussies are tough. After all, they’re descended from convicts…’ And for sure, some of this may be true, but now I’ve detected something else: Underneath that rugged, brash, sports-mad, competitive exterior lie some soft, English hearts. The Spoodles, Groodles and Labradoodles have given them away. For some reason I find this hugely reassuring.
So this, my very first visit was just that. It was not a ‘look-see’. Prompted by a wedding invitation, it became a journey to reconnect with old friends and family and to provide at last, a frame of reference for their lives faraway on another continent and it did all that and more. Sydney, I’m sure, is to Australia what New York is to the US or London to Britain, a cosmopolitan mini-planet hardly representative of the mainstream at all. And a first impression is a primary and subjective response. It felt to me like Johannesburg and Cape Town combined. It distills the energy of the Highveld and the chilled, coastal cocktail of the Cape without the ever-needy and persistent undertow of the Third World. I loved it.