The Final Challenge

The time has nearly come.  Tomorrow they unveil the winner of the Awesome Tour of Sydney.  I’m nervous just thinking about it, so in the meantime, I’m turning my focus to the sixth and final challenge: to create a visitor’s guide to Sydney.

Here was my brief:

“We’d like you to create a visitor’s guide for Sydney; it could be a city guide or a guide to a specific location, attraction or event, using knowledge gained from the last 5 Challenges for inspiration. As usual, the medium in which you present this will be entirely up to you – whether a Lonely Planet-style handbook, a spoof tourist-information video, or maybe the sort of post you might come across on a travel blog. You can choose as many or as few of the topics we’ve covered to base your guide on.”

We’ll start with a recap.  The Awesome Tour of Sydney challenges have covered everything from sport to fashion to wildlife, and have given me an overview of a country that I can’t wait to visit.  In the first week, I researched sport in Australia but ultimately found the discovery that hamsters are not allowed in the country irresistible, and created a hamster-themed pub game.  Next up was a virtual tour through Sydney’s famous Paddington Markets, out of which I picked the components for an outfit I’d love to get my hands on.  The third challenge centered on Sydney icons and landmarks; I chose to actually mould my body into the shape of Sydney Harbour.  For the fourth challenge, I enlisted the help of a talented cartoonist to invent a new form of Sydney wildlife.  And most recently, I voyaged to London in search of all things Sydney.

So now it’s time to bring everything together.  And the only way I know how to do that is through books.


Yes.  Books.  See, I have this theory that the best way–maybe the only way–to really visit a place is to augment your experience with literature.  This is something that means a lot to me.  I might never have come to Oxford, where I now live, if I hadn’t read so much about the city in my Southern Californian childhood.  The way we understand place is inextricably linked to what we read; we form guidebooks in our minds before we’ve even visited, cobble together images and ideas from wisps of poetry and funny lines of prose.

Because this competition has been virtual (even the awards ceremony tomorrow is going to occur online!), I’m going to take you on a literary tour of Sydney.  And if I’m lucky enough to be sent to Sydney (fingers, toes, and all other extremities crossed!), you can bet I’ll be doing a lot of reading to prepare myself…

I start, as I always do when I want to get myself into the mood to travel, with one of my favourite authors, the brilliant Pico Iyer, who writes about Sydney in his 1993 book Falling Off the Map. “In the hour before nightfall, what Hollywood calls the “magic hour,” the buildings in Australia start to glow with an unearthly light, and the gold-touched clouds look like something Blake might have imagined in his highest moments,” Iyer begins, tantalizingly.  But it’s a more complicated place than that; not all shimmery light and wide spectacular skies.  “As the night begins to descend,” Iyer writes, “it seems as if the land is reclaiming itself, and Australia is more than ever a place emptied out of people, some dark, elemental presences awakened behind the placid surfaces of its newborn world.”  Iyer paints a surrealists’ picture of the country, and particularly of Sydney.  “The solitary skyscrapers in the city are huddled in an unprepossessing bunch beside the harbor; its Greenwich Village, Paddington, lies mostly along a single street; and its center of red-lit nightlife, Kings Cross, can be seen in a mere ten minutes.  The sense of an uninhabited, an inchoate land continues through the suburbs,” he writes, suggesting a city both beautiful and strange, utterly foreign, despite a common language, to English or American eyes.

Next I open the pages, still sparkling with laughter, of Bill Bryson’s typically hilarious Down Under.  “Without question, it is the harbour that makes Sydney.  It’s not so much a harbour as a fjord, sixteen miles long and perfectly proportioned — big enough for grandeur, small enough to have a neighbourly air…It is endlessly and unbelievably beguiling,” Bryson writes–seemingly stunned into poetic reverence for the place.  Bryson also informs readers that Captain Arthur Phillip, founder of Sydney, had “one other notable achievement” apart from founding the great city: “In 1814, he managed to die by falling from a wheelchair and out of an upstairs window.”

Having voyaged from the profound to the profoundly funny, I now turn my attentions to Peter Carey’s 30 Days in Sydney.  Carey’s amazing portrayal–subtitled “A Wildly Distorted Account”, begins with an idea of home (Carey, originally from Melbourne, returns to Sydney after a decade in New York).  “The past in Sydney is like this,” writes Carey, “both celebrated and denied, buried yet everywhere in evidence as in this Exhibit A, this irritating honorific Customer, which I set before Your Honour as, on this clear blue-skied morning, I come to claim a home.”  Carey’s book is also about people, and friends, the human makeup of the city.  He addresses the delicate topic of racism, of “Us and Them”, and concludes that “The peculiar history of Sydney has left us with two sets of underdogs in the cultural dynamic.  Judging our ancestors’ behaviour with our ancestors’ values, we find their behaviour abhorrent.  And if Jack and Sheridan and Kelvinator will, at every turn, consider where the Aboriginals walked, fished, burned, this is not simply romantic or even guilty talk, just white men finally learning about the country that they love.”

The country that they love: a beautiful country, a complicated one with that blue, gold, empty, grand, peculiar city of Sydney perched on its south-east edge.  These are only three authors, of vastly different backgrounds and focuses, writing about one city; but any place that can inspire such deep consideration, such unabashed awe (when Bryson can write about a city for pages with scarcely a quip, you know there’s something impressive there) in the writers who have come before is a place I want to visit, and a place I want to reinterpret, in my own way, through words.

It’s up to you, now, and to luck.  And in the meantime, as we wait for the results, I have one final favour to ask of you: that you provide a little feedback.  What was your favourite challenge?  Where would you most like to go, and what would you most like to do, in Sydney?  What other thoughts do you have, about Sydney, about the blog, and about the Awesome Tour?

Thank you all for reading, for contributing with comments, ideas, drawings, laughs, and support.  Thanks to the fantastic guys at 1000heads and Tourism New South Wales for coming up with this crazy idea, and then inviting me to be a part of it.  And here’s hoping (please please please please!) that I’ll find myself wandering through Sydney in the not-too-distant future.


About a hundred years ago, the Awesome Tour of Sydney team challenged me to “turn my attentions to Sydney culture and nightlife” by running an event.  I ignored them and turned my attentions to finishing my dissertation.  Then I handed my dissertation in, and ignored a little voice in my head saying, “don’t you still want to go to Sydney and blog about it? Isn’t there something you should be doing about that?”, and went on vacation instead (and, since it’s travel-related, you can read about it here, here, here, here, here, and here, because apparently all I needed was a little break from work to become the most prolific writer since P.G. Wodehouse).  Then I came back from vacation, and continued to ignore that little voice, which was not so little anymore, and hid behind the great shield of WORK.

Having procrastinated my way into the title of Queen Procrastinator of Procrastination Land, however, did nothing to shut that voice up, and it also left me feeling empty and guilty.  So finally, this weekend, I decided to take my crown off, send my lazy subjects away, and revisit the challenge at hand.  Too weary for a visit to that usual wellspring of inspiration, the pub, I convinced Xander to cook a hunk of beef so big we’re still trying to work our way through it, invited Ben to carve the meat and help consume some of the millions of potatoes we’d ambitiously roasted, and the then the three of us sat down in the throes of a food coma to brainstorm.


Here’s a question: what do you do when you’re overworked and overfed, underpaid and well past the deadline you were given when someone handed you £200 to host an event, with no other resources but your own dubious ingenuity?

You make another cup of tea.  Then you and your friends look up alternate meanings to the word “event.”  Someone might even suggest, high on his fourth cup of builder’s, that you make up and write about a mental event. You might even decide to put that idea on the back burner, because it’s not so absurd, actually–or it isn’t, at least, the longer you look at it.

But eventually (pun fully intended), you will realise, like I realised, that the best thing to do is always to simply use what you have, and use it well.  What did I have?  Words.  The internet.  Some much needed spare cash, which could cover transport and incidental costs.  And easy access to one of the world’s most dynamic capital cities.  So I decided to make my event a voyage of discovery; to look for Sydney in London.  Not being much for nightlife (give me a cosy pub over a raucous club any day), I focused my energy on art, culture, and history. What followed was a virtual (and literal) exploration of all things Australian in the Big Smoke…

This is an internet-based competition, so I made my preliminary map out of websites and links.  My first stop was this site, which became a kind of 21st century compass.  I learned that 20% of all those Australians who live abroad reside in London, a city which ironically figures in the nation’s history as a point of departure, for both convict settlers and others.  Today, there are many aspects of Australia–often surprising, almost always hidden–lingering on the streets of England’s largest city, but you have to know where to look for them.


So on a bright Sunday morning, I headed out in search of Sydney.  My point of departure was the Australian War Memorial at Hyde Park Corner. Elegant and affecting, the memorial “commemorates the service men and women who served in WWI and WWII by listing the names of the towns in which they were born.  Superimposed on the 23,844 town names are 47 of the many battles in which they fought and made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, Australia.”  Here’s where to find Sydney on the wall…

Picture 1

Then I walked through Kensington, past chic shoppers and harried youths on mobile phones, to the Victoria and Albert Museum, which houses a variety of Australian works.  If you’ve got the time, take advantage of the Prints Study Room, open 10-5, Tues-Sat, to order all the Australian material you want–check this site out for a good list.  But if, like me, your hours are budgeted, you could visit these two pieces, to give you historical context, a sense of variety, and a nice stroll through the museum’s vast third floor…

Start with this rather spectacular 1887 print, designed to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.  The print portrays the Queen, surrounded by representations of the British Empire, including Australia (hint: look for the kangaroo), and can be found in the British Galleries, Room 123, Case 1.


Then head for the jewellery room, past the dull lights and bright glitter of a thousand years’ worth of bling, and find this gem, by Australian jeweller Rowena Gough, born in 1958, who “sees her button jewllery in the context of South Pacific culture, where the use of shell often has social and political implications”.  Find it in Jewellery, Room 91, Case 39, Shelf B, Box 3 (personally, I think it would look nice with my Sydney-inspired outfit from week 2)…


They’re only two pieces of art amongst hundreds of thousands, but if you make a pilgrimage to them, as I did–if you place them side by side in your mind–a poetic juxtaposition emerges, an indication of worlds colliding–one rigidly colonial, one inspired by cultural history but openly modern, functional, visually and ideologically appealing.

I strolled out of the V&A and down the street, to my next stop, the beautiful and imposing Natural History Museum, as a nod to Captain James Cook, the British explorer known for having achieved “the first European contact with…Australia.”  The Natural History Museum houses a number of stunning botanical drawings prepared by the fortuitously named artist Sydney Parkinson on board Cook’s HMS Endeavor, including many, like this one, from Australia:


The museum holds records from Cook’s voyages, and incredible descriptions of things seen for the very first time, including the kangaroo, described by a visitor as “…an animal as large as a greyhound, of a mouse colour and very swift.”  Before exiting, I bought a book, chronicling all three of Cook’s exploratory trips, for inspiration.  If I’m lucky, I’ll get to chronicle my very own exploratory trip to Sydney soon…

To conclude, I meandered southward (how appropriate, really) to Sydney Place, where I stood and basked in the glory of the name, and then reflected on how amazingly London-y the Place still manages to be.


But, most importantly, this event is about you–the reader.  If my hunt has inspired you, consider making a visit to the Imperial War Museum, which holds “a large collection on the experience of Australians during wartime” and, amazingly, has a copy of the only surviving film of the battle at Gallipolli.  And for even more Sydney-inspired stuff in London, check these links out:

Australia Now: an exhibition of contemporary Australian art on at this Covent Garden gallery.  Open to the public from 18-28 September 09.  Curated by Jonny White, Director of COMODAA (Contemporary Modern Australian Art), the exhibit showcases nine of Australia’s leading emerging and established contemporary artists.  “Through supporting and promoting Australian Art outside of Australia,” White explains, “I hope COMODAA is the missing link between European Collectors and Australia’s contemporary art talent.”

The Big Pond: Australian Artists Overseas–a great set of articles on the practical and creative issues that face Australian artists working overseas.

East London West Sydney is “a new hip-hop theatre project led by artist from the hip-hop and urban cultures of the UK and Australia.  These artists explore the urban experience and struggles…the project’s emphasis is survival and creativity at the margins of the city.  Utilising a performance framework and engaging other art forms and technologies, UK and Sydney’s hip-hop cultures will converge, exchange and co-create.”

And, of course, if you’re nowhere near London, this post just goes to show: Sydney is not as far from your doorstop as you might think.

I’m off on my Sydney-themed adventure tomorrow…so watch this space!

Oh, and…

…I almost forgot!  Check out this to see what I (and my fellow competitors) would look like in Sydney…

I’m a bit late posting this–but here goes.  Two weeks ago, I received my brief for the penultimate Awesome Tour of Sydney challenge.  Here’s what I’ve been tasked with:

“For the 5th challenge, we want you turn your attentions to Sydney culture and nightlife. Your task is to run your very own Sydney-themed event, and we will provide you with £200 to do it. The type of event is entirely up to you – a Sydney-themed dinner party for your friends, or perhaps a night at the opera – the only rule is that the £200 is used responsibly (Sydney drinking isn’t a valid topic!).”

Hard to believe the Awesome Tour is nearly over.  I’ve been so caught up with finishing my MA (turned in at long last–that’s degree #2, so bear with me while I pour myself another congratulatory glass of champagne) that I’m still convinced it’s August.  Very late August, perhaps.  But September?  Mid-September?  Can’t be.  Madness.

Some good things are coming up, but I’m in Devon, on official (I’ve got an out-of-office autoreply on at work and everything!) and much-needed holiday, so you’ll have to wait to hear about my Sydney-themed event.  In the meantime, check out these links, from the folk at 1000heads and Tourism NSW–and if there’s anything in particular you want me to include/do in my (super secret and super awesome) Sydney event, please let me know!


Our task this week was animal in nature.

“This week,” wrote my cruel challengers, “we are looking at Sydney Wildlife. We want you to take inspiration from the various animals that can be found in and around Sydney, and create your own Australian creature – whether it be a mash-up of existing animals (platypus, koala, wombat, emu– there’s plenty to choose from!) or a completely new species.

As always, the medium in which you deliver your entry is up to you, and you’ll be judged on creativity, community involvement and use of the resources available to you.”

Luckily, the challenge corresponded with a mission set to my eager team by the ambitious Royal Society, hoping to add new discoveries to their already impressive list by sending us into the depths of Sydney.  “And this also…has been one of the dark places on earth,” said Conrad’s Marlow.  And despite her penchant for sport, her cutting-edge fashion, her civilized landmarks, Sydney, like everywhere else, has been a dark place.

So with trepidation, we ventured into her black heart; we set out to discover her most obscure and fascinating creatures.  Here, laid out for my reader’s eyes and minds, are our best findings:

29th August, 2009

My travels into the heart of Sydney take me closer, also, to the heart of man.  Such a strange world; such a curious one!  “Curiouser and curiouser,” as Alice said.  Last week we encountered a handful of fascinating creatures: Kangaroos, Wallabees, Crocodiles.  But today we found something entirely different.  I feel certain that the Royal Society will welcome this discovery, when at long last we arrive home.  My companion has temporarily dubbed this creature the Duck-Billed Kangadile; but I am certain, when our journey concludes and we are once again ensconced in the safe and stuffy realm of our University, that we shall find a more suitable name for this amazing beast.  One of our enterprising team has made a sketch, which I reproduce here:


1st September, 2009

We have ventured even further into the heart of the city.  Such delights, such horrors, await us!  But through the beer-coloured haze we discerned today the most incredible, most extraordinary, discovery of all.  Sadly the Royal Society shall not find this animal worthy of its honours; for the residents of Sydney have long been aware of this beast’s quiet presence, and forbid us to consider its discovery a finding of our own.  But for our pains, they allow us to make an accurate depiction of it, and to describe it in proper scientific terms.  So astounded, so flabbergasted were we, that we spent several hours in quiet observation before one of our more aggressive guides leapt forth and seized the creature; what happened after (a grilling of meat, a dousing of sweet and glorious sauce, a consumption of implausible quantities of cold and bittersweet ‘beer’) can only be described, by myself and my noble companions, as a sort of heavenly regional ritual.  We are honoured and humbled to have been indoctrinated; though quite how we shall survive when we are back in bleakest England, without hope of such a refreshing creature, I scarcely know.

Our official description of the beast follows:

Flightless Queensland Bottle-Opener (Fantasia australis)

Found primarily in the most remote regions of Queensland, Fantasia australis, commonly known as the Flightless Queensland Bottle-Opener, or FQBO, is one of the most spectacular sights to behold in a nation teeming with spectacular sights.  Here we have a creature which defies Darwin’s laws: built for the pleasure of Australian man (Homo sapiens australis), and Australian man alone, the FQBO staggers onward in the evolutionary race in spite of having few survival instincts.  “It is difficult to believe in the dreadful but quiet war going on in the peaceful woods and quiet fields,” Darwin wrote—and indeed, to look upon the FQBO, it is difficult to believe that such a creature could ever have triumphed in such a war.  Yet in spite of being flightless and easy prey for the passing human, this strange bird has managed to survive for generations, and shows no sign of dwindling in numbers or strength.

With a bill shaped like a bottle-opener, the FQBO is a must-have for any social occasion, and with fat wings and thighs, it is the most perfect fowl known to man for BBQs.  Best of all, each FQBO carries its own bottle of barbecue sauce in a Kangaroo-like pouch, guarding the precious sauce until occasion or necessity demands the heavenly nectar be released.

In recent years, scientists have discovered that the FQBO possesses even more amazing properties.  Its guano—traditionally ignored as a sticky and stinky substance–is one of the most effective sun-block creams on the market, and its curious tail-plumage can be used to cork hat-rims.  The famously luxuriant crest on the FQBO’s head has most recently been employed in hair-replacement procedures for Shane Warne.

Though native to the Queensland region, the FQBO is frequently lured by ingenious Sydney-siders into New South Wales, where herds of the helpless and useful creatures are trapped and traded on the black-market.  You will not find anything on the FQBO in your New South Wales guidebook; these miraculous birds are a local’s secret, and only if you manage to gain the rare and valuable trust of a true native will you manage to also reap the wonderful benefits of this most special creature.

(Please click on the image below; it shall magically enlarge, and it is well worth your time.)


(I must thank the wonderful Ed, of Rusty Bicycle fame, for his representation of the Duck-Billed Kangadile; and especially the spectacularly kind and talented Adrian Teal, for his portrayal—and indeed discovery—of the Flightless Queensland Bottle-Opener.  Please know that they, not I, are primarily responsible for the findings described herein.)

An interesting (if a little anti-American) evaluation of the wine business in Australia: “We really did not care if the Australian wines did not taste like Bordeaux or Burgundy. Indeed we revelled in their difference.”

A link (via Academic, Hopeful) on Australia’s search for a new slogan

D.H. Lawrence: “Australia’s like an open door with the blue beyond. You just walk out of the world and into Australia.  And it’s just somewhere else.”

And, finally, one of my favourite writers, Pico Iyer, on Australia: “Everything starts with the light here.”