Finding nature in Sydney

First written in April 2015.

I’m not a big city person. The only two cities I’ve lived in have both had only a few hundred thousand people, and neither really has a city centre (Christchurch’s CBD was destroyed four years ago in an earthquake, and Canberra, the “bush capital,” is just weird). I find the crush of people on trains intimidating, the busy streets loud and overwhelming, plus towering concrete-and-glass is not really my aesthetic. Sydney is your typical “big city” – in fact it’s generic-ness is cited as one of the reasons The Matrix was filmed there – so you might guess it’d be the kind of place I’d loathe. I may not want to live in sprawling suburbia with mind-numbing commutes, nor do I have the means to live within the throbbing urban heart of this Aussie metropolis. But I’ve visited Sydney twice, and I will certainly be visiting again. Here’s a few reasons why.

Sydney: sorta okay for a big city.

Sydney: sorta okay for a big city.

Sydney has some cool nature vibes despite its urban-industrial atmosphere.

Simply walking through one of Sydney’s many green spaces, you’re bound to catch sight of cheeky rainbow lorikeets or raucous sulphur-crested cockatoos, or hear the flapping of flying foxes (fruit bats) at night. The Botanic Gardens are an excellent location to soak up some sunshine amongst some lush greenery, a living wall and a tropical glasshouse pyramid. We got around using ferries fairly often, which offered refreshing salty sea air and blue-on-blue sea-sky combos.

Feelin' lush in the rainforest pyramid.

Feelin' lush in the rainforest pyramid.

Sydney has a bloody awesome zoo.

Although there is a kinda commercial vibe to Taronga Zoo, it is on the better side when it comes to animal welfare and addressing wider conservation issues, like participating in the Corroboree Frog captive breeding and release programme.

Taronga has all the usual suspects: cheeky chimps and other mischievous apes, kangaroos (and a kangabro or two) and the big-ticket classics like elephants, tigers and giraffes. There’s a spectacular seal show that emphasises the importance of purchasing sustainable seafood (whether their message makes a tangible difference, I don’t know) and an awe-inspiring free-flight bird show. I’m a bit of a bird nerd (if you hadn’t already guessed, lol) and although I’d much prefer to see birds in their natural habitat, I got a real thrill giving a donation straight to the beak of Jasper the galah during my first visit, and to a Carnaby’s black cockatoo more recently.

Zoo classic: mama and baby elephant at Taronga Zoo.

Zoo classic: mama and baby elephant at Taronga Zoo.

Aside from these big attractions, I reckon it’s the lesser-known characters who make Taronga so fantastic. There’s gigantic stick insects, nocturnal Spinifex hopping mice, tiny bright black and yellow Corroboree frogs and impressive Andean condors. I loved making eye contact with a Tawny Frogmouth, spotting an Eclectus parrot in the rainforest aviary and getting up close and personal with a tree frog’s underbelly. We admired cassowaries, which are probably the closest thing to dinosaurs I’ve ever seen, and had great fun creating Goat simulator-esque scenarios involving the Barbary sheep and Himalayan tahr.

CRAZY GIANT STICK INSECT WOOAAHH

CRAZY GIANT STICK INSECT WOOAAHH

Beautiful female Eclectus parrot.

Beautiful female Eclectus parrot.

Sticky tree frog.

Sticky tree frog.

If you want to round out the full Sydney animal encounter, there is the Sea Life aquarium in the overtly touristy Darling Harbour. Next door to Madame Tussaud’s, the aquarium has a bit of a rip-off-the-sightseer feel, but is nonetheless home to a huge array of sealife: from big barramundi to tiny tropical fishies adorned with bright colours and crazy patterns. There were a tonne of little kids running amok but they didn’t detract too much from the fluttering, graceful stingrays and their mesmerising underwater flight. It was awesome to see sawfish and various sharks cruising overhead, and there’s a stonefish on display – one of the most venomous fishes in the world. Check out the video below from Smarter Everyday on its insane hypodermic spines.

The museums are treasure troves for the science-minded.

The Australian Museum is seriously great. With a mineral collection that would make Hank from Breaking Bad cry, to discovering the giant wombats and “demon ducks of doom” from Australia’s megafauna history, it’s easy to spend hours lost in the scientific and anthropological wonders housed in his beautiful historic building.

“THEY’RE MINERALS MARIE! JESUS!”

“THEY’RE MINERALS MARIE! JESUS!”

Diprotodon: giant wombat.

Diprotodon: giant wombat.

There’s also the Powerhouse Museum, formerly the Museum of Applied Art and Science. If you’re the kind of person who is in to technology or industrial design, then you’ll find it interesting. Personally, I found it a bit of a weird mix, with a fabulous jewellery exhibition but then also some machinery exhibits that really didn’t enthuse me. I was bemused to discover the laptop I’m typing on now featured in a computer design exhibit. You know your computer needs an upgrade when it’s in a museum…

A chilled out surf beach is only a ferry ride away.

Manly Beach: a long stretch of golden sand lined with Norfolk Pines, bustling with morning joggers and surfers. With a coffee in hand, this was the perfect place to sit and people watch, basking in the calm atmosphere after the “inner city pressure” of Sydney’s centre. A short stroll along Marine Parade is Shelly Beach: a cosy, sheltered bay dotted with sunbathers. Only one or two people were in the water despite the sunshine, perhaps due to the ominous sign warning of shark sightings. We walked through scraggly bush on the headland, which offered expansive views down Manly and out to the open ocean. The walk back was halted for a brief swim in a clear rock pool, and was followed up by some delicious Mexican at Chica Bonita.

Cities do have two things going for them: good coffee and food I can eat!

I am a sucker for a sweet café. There’s nothing better than food someone else prepared, especially when it’s tasty food accompanied by a quality caffeinated beverage. One excellent highlight was the serendipitous discovery of Greenheart Espresso, just a block or two back from Darling Harbour. Darling Harbour itself is populated by soulless steak-or-fishnchips restaurants touting themselves as “funky”, so why bother with the just-off-the-cruise-ship crap when Greenheart Espresso is so close by! This little espresso bar was a breath of fresh air, with a cabinet full of delicious sandwiches, fresh salads piled high on the counter and a selection of smoothies with super new-age ingredients like almond milk and cacao.

Another great find was The Fine Food Store in The Rocks, with an extensive menu of crazy delicious breakfast and proper iced coffee (with espresso ice cubes – none of that cream and ice cream shit).