Thursday, March 14, 2013



As we flew 14 1/2 hours from Los Angeles to Sydney on Qantas, I was reminded of the line from Dustin Hoffman's Rainman, "Never crashed!"   Actually that's not true--Qantas had 8 fatal accidents with a loss of 63 people between 1927 and 1961--half of those during World War II when it was used for troop transport.    The last incident was a 1961 crash on takeoff at Mauritius which destroyed the plane but with no fatalities.  Incidentally, Southwest Airlines has never crashed either, but it wasn't in business when the movie was made.

Qantas is actually an acronym--Queensland And Northern Territory Aerial Service.  We boarded the plane after 10 P.M.  I settled down to a good night's sleep when they started serving dinner--WTF!  In steerage where we sat, they served braised beef or grilled chicken with corn and peas.  The food was good but the timing was bad.

We had aisle seats in a 3-4-3 arrangement.  Two Aussies from Perth sat next to me in the 2 middle seats.  I asked if they had won the lottery to get the two worst possible seats on a plane for a 14+ hour flight.  The flight went smoothly and the time passed rather quickly.  The seats have TV monitors with news (Australian), entertainment, games, movies and just watching the progress of the flight.  I chose music which had a wide selection.  Greatest hits?  They had 178 albums to select from--Anne Murray, Lovin' Spoonful, Mamas & Papas, Ray Charles.  Classical?  Opera?  Country?  Even Easy Listening.  I made numerous selections from all of those to make the time pass.


We eventually arrived in Sydney (SYD) on a warm summer February morning.  I was warmly dressed; remember, I traveled from frigid Chicago about 24 hours before.  The Australian Customs Declaration asked whether we had any criminal convictions.  I asked the officer whether that was still a requirement to enter Australia.  Fortunately the officer and, indeed, most Australians I met have a good sense of humor.  Aussies are quite similar to Americans in their outlook on life.  Unlike, say, the British or French, they quickly get on a first name basis with you.  They have an independent "can do" attitude, like the American pioneering spirit.  They are a hard working people.

The country is underpopulated, and immigration (at least White immigration--there is much debate about this) is encouraged to fill in a country the size of the continental U.S. with only 23 million people.  Australia has attracted many Asians in recent years.  Many Australians are multi-racial.  The original inhabitants, the Aborigines are black but relatively few in number.  There are estimated to be about 200,000 full blooded Aborigines in Australia, and more than that of mixed race.  Many have assimilated and adopted Western lifestyles, while others have gone tribal, by and large in the Outback, which pretty much means most of the country outside the coastal cities.   The ones we met speak with Aussie accents.  G'dye myte!

At the airport, we had arranged to meet our New York friends, Mike & Dorothy who were coming in on a Delta flight, also from Los Angeles,  20 minutes after us.  We hadn't seen them since last year in Rio de Janiero.  We had booked the same driver because we were traveling together.  We had reservations at the Marriott Sydney Harbour, right on the waterfront.  Our driver took us through the meandering streets of Sydney toward the harbor.  There are no superhighways like those in the U.S.      

Sydney was founded on January 26, 1788 when the "First Fleet" of British settlers arrived with 11 ships and 1400 people, many of them petty convicts and soldiers.  At that time, the British Penal Code had 220 capital offenses. The purpose was to protect property by imposing Draconian punishment as a deterrent.  As a practical matter, many petty offenses (property crimes) were plea bargained and the convicts were given a choice of hanging or going to Australia.  It is not known how many chose the former.  Every year Aussies celebrate January 26, Australia Day, their national holiday.  As a country, Australia was actually incorporated January 1, 1901 when the various penal colonies were united.

When we arrived at the hotel, we had reservations, but we agreed to stay there anyway.  We suffered from jet lag and needed some rest.  I scanned the local newspaper.  An unfortunate motorcyclist in Southwest Sydney was killed in a collision with a kangaroo.  The roo didn't make it either.  How Australian is that!  I flipped the channels on the TV where they have Sky News, as well as Fox Sports, Fox Footy (all rugby all the time), Fox News--Rupert Murdoch who owns Fox is Australian.  I watched more cricket than I ever cared to.  If you don't think baseball is exciting, try watching cricket.

Sydney is home to two iconic attractions, the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House.  We could see both from the window of our hotel room.  After a short rest, we walked with our friends down to the Circular Quay (pronounced "cay"), the Sydney waterfront.  This is a nonstop carnival.  Ferry boats ply the waterways.  On the wide boardwalk, the street performers do their things.  Aborigines play the didgeridoo and sell their artworks.  Boomerangs are on sale.  When a boomerang hits its target, it doesn't come back to you, and you don't get your money back either.  The didgeridoo is a long wooden tube of a eucalyptus tree, hollowed out by termites, and it makes a unique, low booming sound.  You can purchase one for about 100 bucks, but getting it in your carry-on luggage on the plane might be a problem.  The thing is about 6 feet long.  Traditionally, in Aboriginal culture, only men are allowed to play it, but women play it in informal situations.

I knew we were going to eat well.  Down the street from our hotel was McDonalds and a block away Hungry Jack's.  Hungry Jack's is a name unfamiliar to Americans, but the logo looks suspiciously like the Burger King logo.  Apparently the name Burger King was already taken (by a carry-out store in Adelaide) when the chain expanded to Australia.  They decided to use a name already trademarked by Pillsbury, then the owner of Burger King.  Hungry Jack's features the Whopper.  That name was available.

Prices are significantly higher than in the U.S.   At McDonalds, we had a Quarter Pounder with Cheese for $7.05--without fries or drink.  The Aussie dollar is about 5-10% higher than the American dollar, so the burger was closer to 8 bucks American.  But then the minimum wage in Australia is $20 per hour.

The Sydney Opera House stands on a peninsula at the end of the Circular Quay.  We explored the area around it and climbed the many steps to the building, seeking out the best photo opportunities.  They have operas most evenings but we didn't attend.  We were exhausted from the trip and were afraid we'd fall asleep in the show.  I once slept through the entire first act of Phantom of the Opera.  The other patrons wouldn't appreciate my snoring.

Opposite the Opera House, across the harbor is the cruise ship terminal.  Virtually every day a cruise ship is in port.  On this day the Dawn Princess was docked.   Our cruise was to be on Celebrity, from Perth, 3000 miles away.  Although Sydney and Perth are in the same country, most Americans don't realize the cities are as far apart as New York and Los Angeles.

Around the Circular Quay are many restaurants, and we decided to stop for a late lunch or early dinner.  We chose a seafood restaurant.  While the food is good, the prices are shocking to Americans.  I had squid ink linguine at $32 Australian.  The others had fish and chips for "only" $29.  The total bill for 4 was $155 Australian which is closer to $170 American.   Later that evening, we stopped at one of the ubiquitous ice cream stands, Royal Copenhagen for a scoop of $6 ice cream.  I had a delicious coconut shake.  Overall, we ate well in Sydney, but within a day or two, Dianne and I were both to suffer from the Australian version of Montezuma's Revenge, fortunately at different times.

Although the Aussies are quite congenial, we managed to rile up a newsstand operator near our hotel who also sold bottled water from a display, a necessity in Sydney's humid climate.  When I went to purchase a bottle, I tested the cap to make sure it wasn't open.  The operator screamed at me, "This isn't a Third World country, the water is safe here!.".   I placated him somewhat by explaining that in a common scam in the U.S., homeless people take empty bottles out of the trash, fill them in the bathroom sink and sell them out of a cooler for $1.  They always unscrew the bottle before handing it to you.    I bought several more bottles at the stand because they were significantly less than in the hotel.  


England has the Stones, but Australia has "The Rocks", near the cruise ship terminal in the trendy area of Sydney.  It was named by the European settlers for its rocky shoreline.   We visited on Friday night, and the pubs were full with mostly young people.  Neil Diamond wrote a song called Love on the Rocks, but to my dismay, it wasn't about this area.     More appropriately, many Aussies take their darlings to nearby Darling Harbour famous for its Chinatown, entertainment venues, museums and exclusive shopping malls.

In any event, The Rocks is the oldest area of the city.  It was the first area to be settled by the Europeans.  We shopped at the weekend market which draws throngs of visitors to The Rocks for its farmer's market and to buy beautifully decorative boomerangs, didgeridoos and other artworks.


We booked a private tour for the four of us the following morning.  Our tour guide was a Scotsman named Bill Scott who told a lot of stories.  In a prior life he was a musician (piano and accordion) who traveled with and played accompaniment for the Scottish singer Lonnie Donegan who was known as the "King of Skiffle".  Scott was heartened by the fact that we had actually heard of Lonnie Donegan who died in 2002.  Donegan was best known for two 1950's era hit songs, Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight, and Rock Island Line, but he was the most popular British musician prior to the Beatles.  Indeed, among the imitators of his "skiffle" style were John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the Quarrymen. 

Back to our story, it was a beautiful sunny day with the temperature around 30 degrees (86F).  Our Sydney tour included the enormous Harbour Bridge which, for a fee, you can climb with a guide.  I don't like heights, and we chose not to do so.  A popular attraction in the lush Royal Botanic Gardens is Mrs. Macquerie's Chair located on Mrs. Macquerie's Point with a panoramic view of Sydney Harbour.  The chair, really a bench, was carved in 1810 by convicts out of the sandstone rock face overlooking the harbor.  Elizabeth Macquarie was the wife of General Lachlan Macquarie, governor of New South Wales in the early 1800's. She didn't have much to do in this primitive country but wait for her ship to come in.  She enjoyed watching the British ships entering the harbor, and the Governor did what he could to make her happy.

Bondi Beach is a world famous beach, as well known as Copacabana Beach in Rio and Waikiki Beach in Hawaii.  Beaches don't impress me much, as I grew up on the less famous Rainbow Beach in Chicago.  Like any other beach, I saw girls in bikinis, lots of sand, umbrellas and surfers.  However, they do sell a lot of Bondi Beach t-shirts.  Bondi Beach is popular, partly because unlike many Australian beaches, it is free from crocodiles and, by and large, sharks.  As a lawyer, I wasn't concerned about the sharks--professional courtesy.

We ate lunch at the famous seafood restaurant, Doyle's On the Beach in Watson's Bay.  This establishment has been in business since 1885.     It overlooks a yacht harbor and beach.  It was expensive (42 bucks for grilled barramundi, a local fish) but good.   The specialties also included seafood like John Dory (a fish) and giant prawns, oysters and calamari.  The seafood chowder was delicious.  We invited Bill to eat with us.

I explained to Bill that his namesake was a successful Illinois Attorney General, from my high school who, before he could become governor, suffered the same fate as most of the other recent governors.  He had many "friends" who would give him cash "gifts" which he forgot to report on his tax returns.  The IRS found that, based on his reported income, he had, after other expenses (including a first class trip to Pago Pago) about $1.98 left to buy food for the whole year. The jury didn't believe his assertion that he had given up eating, and the end result was that he spent a year as a guest of the taxpayers at the Federal facility in Lexington, Kentucky which among other things, boasted a golf course.  I know--one of my clients was there at the same time.

After lunch, we went through Woolloomooloo, formerly a mostly working class suburb of Sydney.  The name was coined by John Palmer, the first homesteader there around 1800, but he never explained the meaning of the word.  We assume it came from the Aborigine language, but there is debate about whether he just made it up.  The town is home to Finger Wharf, the largest wooden structure in the world--1310 feet by 210 feet on 3600 wooden pilings.  They've since built 300 residential units and a boutique on the wharf.  The actor Russell Crowe lives in a $14 million penthouse on the property.

Continuing on, we passed by the Outback Steakhouse (there are 5 in Sydney), the Cricket Stadium, the Sydney Olympic Complex and Westfield Mall.  Westfield is an Australian company which also owns many shopping malls in the U.S.  Most malls have Woolworths or Coles which Scott explained are the prominent supermarkets in Australia.  Woolworths has no historical connection with F.W. Woolworth Co. (the dime store) except that it stole the name which the U.S. company had never trademarked in Australia when the company was formed in 1924.  Today, it is the largest retail chain in Australia and New Zealand.  Among other things, it is the leading liquor retailer, pub owner and gaming poker operator in Australia.

After the tour, we decided to take a boat ride around Sydney Harbour.   After talking to the locals, we found that the best deal in town is the Sydney to Manly Ferry,  the Aussie version of the Staten Island Ferry.  For $7 each way, this workingman's ferry sails past the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge and the spectacular skyline on the 35 minute ride to Manly, a Sydney suburb best known for its beach bums and surfers.  Think Venice Beach in L.A.

This resort town actually received its name from Capt. Arthur Phillip who admired the "confidence and manly behaviour" of the natives who lived there.  Apparently, he didn't impress them much--they speared him in the shoulder after a misunderstanding.  To his credit, he didn't order his men to retaliate.  Eventually peace was made and the town acquired its manly name.  


No discussion of Australian culinary delights would be complete without mention of the national dish--Vegemite.  Aside from kangaroo steaks, the quintessential Australian dish is Vegemite.   Manufactured by Kraft, Vegemite is a dark brown spread made from yeast extract, a by-product from brewing beer.  It looks like apple butter, and Aussies spread it liberally on bread or crackers.  They eat it on sandwiches.  The taste has been described as a mixture of battery acid and salt.

Now I'm a connoisseur (common sewer?), and I'll try anything.  I spread some Vegemite on a piece of toast while my companions watched me intently.  I spit it out almost immediately.  Yeeecchhht!  It looked so good, but what a disappointment!  Anything that tastes that bad must be good for you, and indeed, Vegemite is loaded with Vitamin B.


I'm sure everyone in the world knows that Australia is famous for its kangaroos, and certainly there is no shortage of them.  They are like deer in the U.S.; they are not endangered.  People are allowed to catch them and barbecue them or use their soft fur for handbags and other clothing.  Kangaroos can be dangerous however.  The big Red Kangaroos can be well over 6 feet tall and weigh more than 200 pounds.  They can hop at 40 miles per hour and deliver a knockout punch if you get close.  As I mentioned earlier, you don't want to have a collision with one.

The popular explanation for the word kangaroo is that it comes from the Guugu Yimithirr word gangarru which essentially means "I don't understand you."   Back in the 1700's, Captain Cook asked the locals what the animal was called, and the reply was "gangarru."   There is now some debate about that story.  Linguist John B,. Haviland disputed this theory in the 1970's.  He maintains in his book that gangarru is really the native word for a species of large black kangaroos.   I like the Captain Cook story better.