Sydneysiders think nothing of the sort. To us, the beach is part of the city. Only the act of grabbing a towel, shucking your shoes and slipping on a pair of thongs separates them. Going for a quick dip is not an event. It is something people do before they go to work, at lunchtime or in the early evening, as a matter of course. It wasn't always like that. A hundred years ago Australian law and custom frowned on sea bathing, because it suggested nakedness and immorality. When I was a kid, beach inspectors--craggy, implacable men with skin tanned a blotched mahogany by the cancerous sun--would roam the sand harassing any woman daring enough to wear a bikini. But regular attendance at the beach was part of the ritual of masculinity. I never liked surfing much: Those toppling, two-story, green-glass waves scared me, and they still do. And you had to wade in, gasping as the Pacific cold hit you (the bodysuit came later, in the 1970s). One of the chief ceremonies of Australian machismo is still enacted on the Pacific beaches by the lifesavers, volunteer brigades of surf wardens who keep watch for sharks from beach towers and now, on weekends, by radio link from spotter planes as well. Bondi, the most famous of the Pacific beaches, is only one of a vast string of them, each with its particular character and wave pattern to challenge the board surfers: Tamarama and Coogee, among others, to the south, and Palm Beach and Whale Beach to the north. Until quite recently Bondi was surf on one side, scurf on the other--a decayed suburb that had seen better days. In the last ten years it has come up in the world; the Greek fish-and-chipperies on its promenade have given way to more upscale restaurants, and the once run-down deco flat-blocks, each with its view (if you're lucky) of the huge, blue curve of ocean and sky between the north and south sandstone bluffs, are in a fever of renovation. Now Bondi is Oz yuppie heaven, and there are worse ways to have your morning coffee than watching the younger versions of Elle Macpherson toting their surfboards past, chatting like parakeets in that high, nasal accent. (It may or may not be worth knowing that Sydney teenage slang at present refers to young women as "moisture"--as in "We're gunna pick up some moisture on the divider"--and to girls under sixteen as "dew.")
Those who prefer still water to surf go to the public beaches inside Sydney Harbor, of which there are many. Little coves, each with its blond meniscus of sand covered with oiled bodies: Camp Cove, Seven Shillings Beach, Lady Martins Beach, Parsley Bay and Watsons Bay on the south side; Shell Cove, Little Sirius Cove, Taylors Bay, Chowder Bay, Forty Baskets Beach and Manly on the north. Many are topless now, and Lady Jane Beach, just around from Watsons Bay, is nudist. Others are, by custom, mainly gay. No one cares or makes any kind of point about this, pro or con.
Most of these inner beaches have shark-proof nets. No one has actually been eaten by a shark there in years. But it is still a bad idea to go swimming in the open, unnetted harbor because there are sharks--probably more of them now than before, as the harbor contains more fish of all kinds since the big cleanup of its once industrially polluted waters. The very thought of the gray nurse, the mako, the tiger, the bull shark, the hammerhead and the Carcharodon carcharias, the great white itself, has always scared the bejesus out of visitors and residents alike, and quite rightly. Heroic feats of derring-do are associated with the shark. In 1922, for instance, at Coogee Beach, a young champion swimmer named Frank Beaurepaire won renown and an award of twenty-five hundred pounds--a lot of money then--for helping to rescue a swimmer from a shark. Instead of spending it on beer with his mates, he used it to start what became Australia's largest tire company. And then there was the even more celebrated Coogee Shark Arm Murder in 1935, in which a large shark, captured by brothers and delivered live to the Coogee Aquarium, which they owned, gratified a crowd of weekend visitors and their ankle-biters by vomiting up the tattooed arm of a minor felon who had been killed and dumped at sea by his mates. This has never been forgotten by visitors to the aquarium, who hope for an encore.
The shark bulks large in Sydney (and Australian) iconography because it is one of the only two large Australian creatures that presents any danger to human life. The other is Crocodylus porosus, the saltwater crocodile, the world's biggest lizard and a fearsome brute--but they all live far from Sydney. What small critters should one watch out for?Realistically, few. There are not many snakes. Suburban gardens have funnel-web, trap-door and redback spiders, all seldom actually fatal. The latter like warm, humid refuges, and gave rise to a popular ballad that begins, "There was a redback on the toilet seat / When I was there last night. / I didn't see him in the dark / But, boy, I felt his bite."
No worries, though, mate. There won't be any redbacks in your hotel. Or sharks or crocs or blowflies. You're not in the frontier Australia. Just settle back, with your icy beer or your Chardonnay, and let Sydney take you away. It may still be the best kept secret in international tourism, this town, but from now on it won't be any kind of secret from you. Particularly if you go there after the Presidents Cup, and beat the Olympic rush.
For Most Of Its History, Australia had no cuisine. We had burning and boiling, but the joys of the educated palate hardly existed. Our food began as jail rations, evolved into English work fuel (meat and potatoes, with vegetables boiled to rags) and then got overlaid with a veneer of American-style gourmet and convenience food, frozen or canned or blister wrapped. Today, Australians joke about the old English-style Dickensian Christmas dinners eaten when the temperature outside was one hundred degrees Fahrenheit, with the flaming brandy on the plum pudding scarcely visible against the white blast of summer light.