Monday 9 November 2015

A City Remembers its Wild Past

Returning to Sydney is a bit like visiting an old girlfriend. At first it’s all about the former attractions. The eyes and the smile sparkle; there’s an easy familiarity; a shared history; some comfortable conversation. But it’s not long before the other side of things surfaces, and you remember why it didn’t last.

[Sydney's Harbour Bridge from Barangaroo] 
It’s late spring. Sydney’s unmistakeable warmth and humidity enfold me, along with the scent of gardenia and jacaranda and diesel and a thousand other introduced scents. The bird sounds too are from everywhere as well as here. Indian mynahs, English sparrows, European turtle doves and rock pigeons happily mix their calls with homegrown rosellas and lorikeets and currawongs.

It’s an eclectic mix that reminds me Sydney belongs to the world as much as to Australia. Yet though I was born here, she isn’t “mine” any more: not even when the upward, spiralling call of rainbirds (eastern koels) transports me to my former life. The unmistakeable sound rises into the burgeoning cloud, calling up the thunder and rain that locals know will follow.

[A rainbird (eastern koel) calling up a storm] 
Lynne and I sit by the open window of a Vietnamese restaurant, grinning at the coming storm. Are we the only ones enjoying this? We admit that we miss Sydney’s mini-monsoons: the build up, the bullying loom of the clouds, the sudden shock of lightning, and that final chaotic deluge.

Childhood memories aside, I love these storms for their reminder of the wild. Even a city of nearly 5 million has to pause in the face of such power. Pedestrians shelter; cars stop; peak hour is on hold as rain floods the gutters, hooshing leaves and rubbish before it. When it all stops sodden piles of debris, with jacaranda bloom highlights, block the drains. In my childhood the end of such a storm brought the neighbourhood children into the streets to stage improvised boat races in the still-flowing gutters.

The following day we discover a wholly more surprising echo of the wild. We are visiting Sydney’s newest development, Barangaroo. It comprises 22 hectares of harbourfront land nestled between Darling Harbour and Walsh Bay. Most of the area was working dockland, and I recall it as an ugly clutter of ships, cranes and dilapidated buildings.

In reshaping its future, the designers have not entirely escaped that former clutter. Sixteen hectares of it is being transformed into bog-standard high rise office blocks of glass and metal. They thrust skyward the same as do towers in any finance district of any city in the world.

[Sydney's glass towers from Barangaroo] 
It’s the other six hectares that are bringing something both unique and inspiring. The Barangaroo Reserve is new open public space. Those last few words would be rare enough for a city like Sydney, where the dollar and the car so often determine what happens. But this is prime harbourfront land that hasn’t been open to the public for over a century. And now, suddenly, anyone in Sydney has another way to celebrate and enjoy its superb harbour.

The reserve has been opened for less than a month when we visit, but it is already attracting large numbers of visitors. Walkers, joggers, cyclists, parents with strollers, picnickers, and sticky-beaks like us, all join the gardeners and other workers still finishing off bits and pieces.

[Nawi Cove, one of Barangaroo's re-imagined bays] 
The scale and design of the reserve is breathtaking. I have said there’s an echo of the wild, and that’s what surprises us most. The old shoreline has been re-established – or re-envisioned – using thousands of blocks of local Sydney sandstone. The vaguely Lego-like effect is already softening as time and tide do their work. Revegetation work of vast proportions – more than 75 000 individual plants have been used – has started to turn the area into genuine green space. But more than this, by using mainly local endemics, it has come close to showing visitors the kinds of plants that once thrived here.

[Sydney sandstone and a few of the 75 000 new plants] 
Of course it is not meant to be a replica of old Sydney coastal bushland. For a start there are concrete and steel sections, and paths and stairways criss-cross the reserve, partly to honour the industry of the last century. Yet there’s no doubt that the bush, the coastline, and the harbour vistas are the star attractions. They honour a bush past that dates back to the last ice-age, and to the Aboriginal people who lived here throughout the drowning of this former river valley.

And one other aspect of Barangaroo’s “wild” past is hinted at in its name. It seems that the Barangaroo after whom the place is named, was a powerful and feisty Cammeraygal (Aboriginal) woman. One story has her threatening to take a whip to an English soldier after he has flogged a miscreant in front of local Aboriginals. It’s a wild sense of justice we might wish to see more of in our era.

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