In a city that revolves around life on the water, it seemed appropriate to get out on it. An unusual opportunity presented itself in the form of the James Craig, a restored tall ship dating from 1874. Formerly known as the Clan McLeod, the ship had rounded Cape Horn no less than 23 times in its career, and then ended up on the copra run to Papua New Guinea. Increasingly decrepit and falling apart with tropical rot, it eventually sank off Tasmania. There it lay on the seabed, until discovered by some sailing ship enthusiasts – although enthusiast barely covers the unswerving dedication and obsessiveness that led them to salvage the ship and completely restore it, using an old photograph from the 1900s of it in full sail to accurately replicate the rigging. Now one of the very few tall ships from that era that can actually put to sea – ‘The Museum that Floats’, as the brochure put it – it was crewed entirely by volunteers.
There’s something about putting to sea in a sailing ship that brings out everyone’s inner Captain Bligh (a much maligned man, apparently, due entirely to Charles Laughton’s portrayal of him as a malevolent sadist in the film Mutiny on the Bounty). The crew of the James Craig followed more of a participatory paradigm, in that despite nominal positions of rank such as Captain, First Mate and so on, everybody seemed to be on a relatively equal footing. They’d dash to a particular rope and start hauling on it to cries of: “Come on you dogs, put your backs into it!”, fully getting into the spirit of the occasion. Insurance clerks, call centre workers, bus drivers by day, this was what set them apart – the fact that at weekends they sailed one of the last tall ships. Passing beneath the Harbour Bridge there were five great blasts on the ship’s hooter, and green and yellow Sydney ferries heading in the other direction were lined with tourists photographing the ship. It was a Saturday morning, and there were a number of weekend sailors about, such as the small yacht which didn’t quite know where it was going. Another blast of the hooter, and a figure in the stern muffled in orange oilskins glanced over their shoulder and froze with the indescribable expression of someone who has just looked round to see a three-masted sailing ship bearing down on them. “Man the capstan!” someone cried. “Splice the mainbrace!” A girl power-walked her way up the deck in a low-kneed scoot, all hips and elbows, to berate some of the crew who were standing around chatting. “C’mon guys! We’re all part of a team here!” In response one of them muttered: “Yeah, we’re all playing for Team Australia” – a wry jibe at Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s description of the nation’s political woes in sporting terms, those presumably being the only ones he personally understands.
A group of lads on a school outing were mustered into vague formation pulling on ropes to raise a sail. They were all cut from a pattern of shaggy blond surfer dude hair and baseball caps. They did well enough until we passed Sydney Heads and the swell of the open sea hit us, whereupon they lay around on the grating retching noisily into sick bags, aghast at their own uncoolness. A blackboard listed the various activities that they would be taking part in that day: speed measuring, navigation, depth sounding and dandefunk. I spotted the Historical Accuracy Officer making her way along the deck. “What the dandy fuck,” I innocently enquired, “is dandefunk?”
She decided she must have misheard. “It’s a culinary treat!” she replied enthusiastically. “We’re making some down below using the original recipe!”
I took a pinch when the bowl went around – it was a sort of gingery molasses crumble, which one would have had to be at sea for a very long time to regard as a treat.
The temporary sick bay of the grating was filling up. I hadn’t appreciated before just how much a sailing ship actually moves – not just the pitch and yaw of the swell, but with a kind of corkscrewing movement over the waves. The rigging turned this way and that as the breeze filled the sails, and large wooden winches and hoists swung about. A man with a banjo serenaded us with sea shanties, the chorus of which mostly seemed to involve being ashore and consuming large quantities of whiskey. In response the crew hauled on yet more ropes, and sails rose and descended accordingly. Soon we were fully rigged and bounding across the waves, which began to darken the further out we went. “It’s a 30 knot wind,” said the doctor. “You can tell by the whitecaps.” Gobbets of spray were flung up over the bows as we rode through the mounting swell, and it became difficult to walk on the pitching deck – one moved from pillar to post in a zigzag fashion, clutching on to the only supports. Lunch was served – a large picnic bag each containing rolls and a muffin – but there were few takers. Fortunately I appear to be immune to seasickness – several North Sea ferry crossings as a child, the Irish Sea in all its temperamental glory, and one unforgettable night crossing from Shetland to Orkney in a Force 10 gale, when the hallways became as steep as mountainsides, plates cascaded out of the racks in the kitchen and even the crew were lying on the carpeted foyer of the lounge as I ate haddock and chips in the canteen, holding onto the table with a spare hand to avoid being deposited on the floor, have pretty much confirmed my immunity.
Docking again at 4pm after a day out on the open sea, Darling Harbour came as something of a shock. It was a Saturday, and the waterfront was lined with bars and cafes that belted out music, with a continual promenade of passers-by headed from one to the next in search of amusement. Girls in miniskirts and high heels, tourists with daypacks and sunhats, cops in shorts and sunglasses with pistols at their belts. I decided that it was time to leave the city for a while, and head for the Blue Mountains. The view from the train between King’s Cross and Sydney Central reminded me of somewhere else entirely, but I couldn’t be sure where. Purple sprays of jacaranda were dotted around, with occasional palm trees giving the scene a tropical atmosphere. Three large and decaying tower blocks loomed over the harbour, favela-like, with mildew-blackened walls in the humid air. In the manner of all such urban housing they had a battered and rather menacing look. This was the Woolloomooloo Housing Project, and the blocks posed a stark contrast to the neat villas and whitewashed walls just a few streets away. At Central I bought a train ticket to Katoomba, in the heart of the mountains, just a two hour ride from downtown Sydney.
Sydney’s trains are double-deckers, and this was essentially a branch of the suburban rail network that continued on to the town of Lithgow, a few stops further along from Katoomba. We passed through a series of small, drowsy suburbs, the train stopping frequently at stations which either seemed to be named after places in Britain (Woodford, Penrith), or vaguely Aboriginal (Bullaburra, Warrimoo). I’d booked at place at Number 14 Guesthouse, largely on the recommendation of a Croatian couple I had met in Sydney who had enjoyed it, and it proved to be a good choice, with a plant-covered balcony and nice wooden-floored rooms. It had been a guesthouse since the early 1900s – there were photographs of ladies in ankle-length skirts posing on a walk through the bush – and had an old advertisement pinned to the wall: “30 rooms. Cleanliness my motto. Beautiful views. Motor trips arranged.” Of this, the only aspect which seemed to have changed were the views, due to the onset of suburbia and a busy road just outside which meant the incessant grumble of traffic. Katoomba itself was a fairly typical small town with a main street lined with cafes and outdoor shops, the only thing distinguishing it from a thousand and one other small towns being the steepness of the main street, which dropped sharply away downhill and ended at a cliff overlooking a spectacular vista of the bush-covered Blue Mountains rolling away into the distance.
Most of the Blue Mountains towns are strung out along a ridge, with Katoomba being the main tourist centre. At the edge of the town, a half-hour walk downhill from the main street, lies the rock formation known as the Three Sisters – three dramatic pinnacles of rock. These used to be popular with rock climbers and abseilers until a few years ago, when climbing was banned due to the amount of damage caused to the surface. Aborigine legend has it that an old chief, fearing an attack by his enemies, turned his three daughters to stone for their own protection, but he was unfortunately killed before he could reverse the spell. I walked along a quiet suburban road, emerging into a large car park where several coaches had drawn up. Large numbers of sightseers, most of them Chinese, were converging on the viewpoint overlooking the Three Sisters. Put off by the clamour I snapped a few photos then headed off along a trail leading to a quieter viewpoint a few minutes away.
As I walked along, I heard a high-pitched call. “Yeah yeah!” – or perhaps “Yeye!”. A small Chinese girl, perhaps five years old, came toddling along the path, calling out. “Yeah yeah! Yeah YEAH!” Her tone was becoming increasingly agitated. She had clearly lost her mother somewhere in the crowds. She trotted past me, little pigtails bobbing, calling out all the while. I wasn’t sure what to do. I watched her heading across the main viewpoint, threading her way through groups of people, making for one of the paths that led off on a 15-minute walk. I decided I must intervene. But how? I couldn’t even ask her name. What could I say? Even so, I turned around and began following her in case she headed off down one of the tracks into the bush. I could always bribe her with barley sugar, a bag of which I had in my rucksack. “Ba Li Shu Ga?” I considered the ludicrous media paranoia of life in Britain, where so many people wouldn’t dare to intervene for fear of being branded a paedophile – “Man Lures Child With Sweets”, or suchlike – and it doubled my resolve to do something out of sheer common humanity.
At that moment, an elderly Chinese couple came walking across from the car park. The little girl was heading rapidly away from them, but at that point something made her change her mind and she turned back towards the car park as she trotted along. “YEAH YEAH!” Her tone was increasingly frantic and she seemed on the verge of crying. The Chinese couple stopped and looked back, then had a short discussion between themselves. I reached them and said: “I think she’s lost her mother”. The man, in his 60s and wearing squarish gold sunglasses, replied in good American: “Lost her mom, huh?” He spoke a few words of Chinese to his wife, who called out to the little girl, beckoning her over. I mentally translated the conversation: “What’s your name? Have you lost your Mummy? Well don’t worry, she’ll come back. We’d better wait here by the car park for her”. Mutely the little girl nodded and then put up a hand to be held. They headed over towards one of the benches and sat her down on it, where she looked miserably at the ground, blinking back tears. Figuring she was in safe hands I watched for a while then wandered away.