A Visit to Sydney While Australia Is Burning

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About a month before we left for Sydney, we started hearing about the bush fires in Australia.

“Hopefully they will be gone before we get there,” we thought. But as Christmas approached, the bush fires only intensified. My weather app showed temperatures of 100+ degrees (F) for the first day of our trip then highs in the 70s for the rest of the time.

We looked at fire maps, which showed red, orange, and yellow flames dotted all around the country. The flames were particularly concentrated along the east and south coasts including in New South Wales, Sydney’s state. Would the whole city be on fire?

On Christmas Day, a day before our departure, Australia tourism released a new ad featuring Kylie Minogue and other famous Australians. The ad was directed towards Brexit-weary British visitors, telling them to “ignore the news” and “come and fix what ails ya in Australia.”

“Huh, I guess things are fine down there,” I thought.

Day 1: Arrival, December 27, 2019

We arrive early in the morning to our apartment in Woollahra. We unpack, freshen up, and take a walk in the neighborhood. The weather is breezy and mild, refreshing after having been in hot, humid Sri Lanka. We settle at a cafe, have flat whites and avo toast (as one does). Locals are reading the news and drinking coffee while their dogs sit patiently at their feet. All the dogs are recognizable breeds; there isn’t a mutt among them.

We notice a few Italian restaurants in our temporary neighborhood. They are closed for the holidays, at least until January 6. The vacation signs remind me of Rome during the summer.

Time for a walk. Edgecliff to Rushcutters Bay. There are sunbathers out on the grass near the boat landings. We climb some steep stairs up to Potts Point and walk those empty streets until finding a bookstore. I’m happy to linger here in the air conditioning for a while, despite the jet lag. But we limit our stay to about 10 minutes in order to avoid buying books that we will have to tote around for the rest of our walk.

More walking, downhill this time. We reach the docks where the military boats are parked. Further along the wharf is Harry’s Cafe de Wheels, a historic kiosk in Woolloomooloo known for its savory pies. A little sustenance to keep us going. Sydney is a lot bigger than we thought.

Australian artist Brett Whiteley's "Almost Once" sculpture in Sydney is better known as the "Big Matchsticks"
Australian artist Brett Whiteley’s “Almost Once” sculpture in Sydney is better known as the “Big Matchsticks”

We followed a pedestrian overpass and reached a parched hill, grass the color of hay. Until now, there had been no obvious signs of the fires. Skies were blue, the sun was hot, and everyone seemed to be happy and on holiday. Then we saw a giant sculpture of two matches, one unused and one singed and black. Brett Whiteley’s “Almost Once” dual, 8-meter-tall matchsticks have stood outside the Art Gallery of New South Wales since 1991 and are a popular landmark. An art blog says the work “prompts meditations on life and death, burning out, and the cost of living life to the full.” But I just think of it as an ominous foreshadowing.

We walk some more and reach the Sydney Opera House. There it is — the symbol of Sydney. We snap some family photos. Enough sightseeing for Day 1.

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Made it to Sydney ??

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Day 2: Taronga Zoo, The Rocks

I wake up early because of jet lag. The air is cool enough that I need a sweater. I take a walk down to the news agent, buy some croissants, and return to the apartment.

I turn on the radio in the kitchen and it’s set to 2ser. While I read about the bravery of the “firies” fighting the bush fires, two radio voices discuss what’s trending on twitter. Everyone is upset with the Kylie ad. “Imagine if the UK tourism board made an ad to tell us to forget that our country is on fire,” a woman half-jokes.

Everyone sleeps in a little late today, so we decide to take an Uber to Taronga Zoo. Anthony talks to the driver about the economy, the dry weather, real estate, and where to go to see the New Year’s Eve fireworks. “The chimpanzees at the zoo have the best view in the whole city.”

Koala at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia
Hang in there, Koala

It’s weird going to a zoo to see the animals that are indigenous to the land surrounding it. On the other hand, they seem safe here. I haven’t yet seen any horrifying images of burned kangaroos or cattle out in the fire areas. But I know they could be in danger.

We get dropped off at the top of zoo and work our way down. Taronga is located on a steep hill that is terraced with animal exhibits the whole way down. Koalas, kangaroos — we want to see the Australian animals more than any of the others. The wombats and Tasmanian devils are fast asleep at the height of the day, typical for their species. The platypuses (not platypi) are in a very dark enclosure, we can barely make out their weird shape as they swim in tanks. Lizards and bush chickens roam the grounds freely, and cucuburras swoop around the cafe areas trying to steal people’s lunches. At the gift shop later, Leo picks out an echidna to add to his stuffed animal collection.

At the bottom of the zoo, we wait for the ferry to Circular Quay. People are out on their boats, blasting music, laughing, jumping onto wobbly rafts. It’s hot and I want to jump into the water with them. I wonder if all of these people on yachts are Sydneysiders or are tourists chartering cruises for the afternoon. Either way, I envy them.

The ferry has incredible views of the Opera House. After we arrive at Circular Quay, we take a walk to The Rocks, one of the oldest neighborhoods of colonial Sydney. It’s Saturday and there’s an arts and crafts market in the shadow of the Harbor Bridge. The docked cruise ship is taller than the restored dockside tenements and surely a lot of its passengers are the reason why the bars and cafes are so crowded.

Day 3: Bondi to Bronte

Bondi to Bronte walking path and cliffs

Arriving at Bondi Beach, you wonder why anyone would want to live anywhere else on the planet.

Surfers with their boards walked barefoot on the sidewalks. Health food cafes were full of the toned and tanned. The beaches were crowded with families and friends enjoying the holiday break.

The beach at Bondi is wide, framed by cliffs and grassy knolls. The sand is like talcum powder, maybe even softer than the famed white sand beaches in Florida.

But the sea was rough and cold — too cold for me, anyhow. Swimmers were relegated to a small section between the flags. But most of the people in the water were in wet suits, paddling around on their surfboards waiting for wave after wave.

The sky was milky and overcast, ideal weather for a walk between the beaches of Bondi and Bronte. The Bondi to Bronte walking path is part exercise path, part scenic walking route, following the curves of the overhanging cliffs. Along the way are stops fitted with exercise equipment (pull-up bars, incline benches) and beach coves. The Bondi Icebergs Club, a nearly century old pool club with two saltwater pools carved into the cliff’s edge, is a favorite photo stop along the walk, as is Tamarama Beach. Dogs and alcohol are prohibited at the beaches, but it didn’t seem like anyone paid attention to the signs.

The following morning, I posted a photo on Instagram: ” I took photos of so many beautiful beach scenes yesterday. But I didn’t realize until I got back that the day hadn’t been overcast but choked with haze from the bushfires. There are no visible fires where I am in Sydney. And, as a tourist, it’s hard to tell that anything is amiss until you catch a headline on the paper at the newsstand or look at the day’s photos and see the very visible smog. Surreal and sad. #nofilter #climatechangeisreal

“Why did you write ‘choked?’ Anthony asked, as if he were now working on the Sydney Tourism PR team. “We weren’t choking.”

“But you can see the lines of smoke in the air. The air was choked. The sky was choked.”

I changed the word to “cloaked.” But I still maintain it was choked. The winds had shifted just enough on the day of our visit to Bondi to give us a sense that the fires were much closer than they seemed.

Day 4: Manly

Burger King is called Hungry Jack’s in Australia because there was already a restaurant named Burger King when the company entered the Australian market. That is the only thing you want to know about this photo from Manly Beach, right?

Another day, another beach, another boardwalk. Another ferry ride past the beautiful structures in Sydney Harbor.

We ate authentic Neapolitan pizza in Manly at DeVita and walked the backstreets, ducking into bookstores and vintage shops.

Day 5: New Year’s Eve

New Year's Eve fireworks over Sydney Harbor. January 1, 2020.

Had we not been listening to the radio (2ser) or browsing the headlines at the newsstands or chatting with our Uber drivers, we probably would have been oblivious to the controversy over Sydney’s New Year’s Eve fireworks.

In the middle of the bush fire crisis, many had called for Sydney to cancel its annual fireworks display over Sydney Harbor. Municipal, state, and federal officials held emergency meetings to discuss the event with the fire chief.

Meanwhile, in the previous days, we had seen a lot of signage about the fireworks and where to see them. There were kiosks downtown, including outside of Circular Quay, where you could pick up maps of the best viewing points, what was available there (e.g., water, toilets, alcohol for sale). The “SYD NYE” festivities were very organized, and even offered info on late night transportation and routes.

We talked to a woman at one of the kiosks who told us that gates at the opera house would open at 7am and the area would be full by 11. After that, the gates would be closed and no one else could enter. There was no way I was waiting in the heat for 15 hours to see fireworks, even Sydney’s.

I had always wanted to see the fireworks in Sydney because they are the first big ones in the world. But I also felt ambivalent about the whole situation. What if a spark flies off of the bridge and into one of the neighborhoods? I’ve also always felt sorry for the animals, the birds and the dogs, when fireworks went off. If they canceled, I wouldn’t have to make a decision. But, if they canceled, what was the point of being in Sydney on New Year’s Eve?

In the end, the government announced that the show would go on. The money had already been paid. Everyone kept their fingers crossed and hoped for the best.

We stayed in our neighborhood that night. Around 11:15, Dante and I started walking towards Darling Point, following a handful of others headed in the same direction. By 11:30, we reached a clearing in a residential neighborhood where dozens of people were gathered to watch the show.

Midnight. We were so far away we couldn’t hear anything. But the fireworks were incredible. We were in bed by 1.

Days 6-9: Neighborhoods and Coastal Walks While the World Falls Apart

Sydney Harbor under the smog

The rest of our time in Sydney was spent visiting more neighborhoods. Vaucluse, Nielsen Park, and the Hermitage Foreshore Walk; Sydney Fish Market and beautiful neighborhood of Balmain. We at dinner in Chinatown — twice. We checked out vintage shops, record stores, and a taco stand in Newtown. We took more ferries to and from Circular Quay, getting more glimpses of the Opera House, the bridge, the smog that had settled over the harbor, and the dry, very dry, lawns and parks.

The fires to the south grew more intense. I kept up with the news on Twitter and Instagram via IV drip. We visited pubs and bookshops while I browsed harrowing photos of fires and evacuations in Mallacoota and Malua Bay and read scathing reports about the Australian government’s response and global apathy with regard to this and other climate emergencies.


Meanwhile, half a world away, my own country announced the killing via drone strike of an Iranian general. #WW3 was trending on twitter.

I was thankful I was on vacation, that I was obliged to ignore the news and get on with my exploration of Sydney. At the same time, I felt a knot of dread and guilt. I still have to fly back home through all of this.

A tweet summed up this feeling: ” I don’t know what’s more disturbing: this guttural, primal instinct that everything is falling apart everywhere, that the world is literally on fire…or the fact that I woke up, got dressed, left for work and am now on a very normal train on a very normal day.”

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