I went on a trip, following in the footsteps of my itchy-footed great great grandmother, Ethel, from South Africa to New Zealand. This follows on from where I left off in my earlier post about my great Antipodean time-travelling adventure…
So, there I was, lying on the shiny tiled floor of Sydney airport’s International Arrivals Hall. After some hasty dusting off and a hauling of myself vertical again, I tried not to giggle too much as I hobbled out of the airport towards the taxi rank. I had already made quite enough of a scene. By the time I got into the taxi though, I was quite hysterical with the nervous giggles. I screeched with laughter all to myself at random intervals throughout the drive. My very professional Eastern European taxi driver didn’t say a word to me about my giggles or otherwise in the 20-odd minutes it took to get to my hotel. It was a little surreal.
Also surreal was the idea that I was so many thousands of kilometres from home in a city on the other side of the planet. The sun was shining. It was late afternoon. Back at home it was still the middle of the night. 23Thorns and our little roses were still fast asleep. What made this particularly strange was the odd familiarity of Sydney. As part of the British Empire of yore, like South Africa, architectural features were similar – there were no sharp and pointy 1000 year-old churches. Even the oldest stone buildings were relatively new and almost all of those new-old buildings looked rather startlingly like Johannesburg’s. Have a look at some of the pictures below. Strangely similar, no?
I would find myself driving on a road that shared a name with a suburb in Johannesburg or Cape Town and think, oh wow, this is so similar to home but then I would see a sign for Woolloomoloo or some such entirely foreign-sounding name and realise I was indeed somewhere else.
Somewhere else, though, was quite similar in climate to our sub-tropical Durban. The second I got off the plane, before I had really had a chance to think too much about the fact that it was really quite warm for a mid-winter weekday, my hair let me know that I was indeed in a humid coastal city. My hair is a finely tuned barometer that explodes into a huge, fluffy helmet upon contact with sea air.
So, with a similar climate and a similar look to the bones of the place, what was different? What was different is that the Australian traffic police are infinitely bossier than our South African crowd. I am pleased I didn’t run into any in the flesh because I think they might have terrified me as much as the Border Security customs guys.
Driving along the highway in Sydney, every 10 or so metres there was a sign shouting the speed limit at you. There were digital signs as well as the regular metal signs. There were other signs too; signs that showed you the traffic police meant business. If you didn’t travel at 70km/hr on a particular bend, you would LOSE YOUR LICENCE. If your truck smoked you would PAY AU$ 2000. If you were going to cross a road you had to LOOK RIGHT. When you did try to cross a road you had to wait for the little green man who would shout at you in an insistent and intensifying BEEP BEEP BEEP.
This serious, shouty approach to traffic management obviously works far better than ours does in South Africa. Australia – a big, big place – only lost 1219 people on their roads in 2011. South Africa, by contrast, lost 13802. Australia sees 8 fatalities per 100 000 motor vehicles on their roads annually. We see 203. If the Rugby World Cup final was played at Soccer City in South Africa, 33 people would die travelling home from the event. If the same stadium was in Australia, only 5 people would die in a traffic accident on the way home.
Our approach to traffic management is a little more devil-may-care, as the statistics might lead you to believe. Our road signs are polite and appeal to a person’s better nature: “Remember, speed kills”, “Don’t drink and drive, please”, “High Accident Zone, drive carefully”. If you want to cross the road as a pedestrian, you had best have your wits about you. Regardless of which side of the road you drive on in the world, if you visited Johannesburg, you would be wise to look both ways, every time. We are consummate jaywalkers and never, not ever, have I heard of anybody being fined for this transgression. Generally, when crossing a road, you spot your gap and you take it. Even if you do find yourself at an official crossing, you should not assume that because the little green man tells you that you can, that you will be able to cross the road without sustaining injury. And if you are blind (if that is why Antipodean traffic lights beep), you’re going to have a very difficult time on our roads indeed. At zebra crossings/marked pedestrian crossings, always give right of way to the cars, no matter what you were taught at driving school.
Our traffic officers don’t generally mean business, they are quite often in business. Anything from a speeding fine to a fine for talking on your mobile phone while driving can generally be stopped in its tracks by offering the traffic officer a bribe before he starts writing you the ticket. And if we thought to fine trucks that spewed smoke from 60 year-old exhausts, industry would grind to a halt.
I did miss the thrill of the morning drive to school but all in all, it was rather nice to feel safe in Sydney. I did, while walking through the nighttime streets of the CBD encourage my lovely Australian friend to jaywalk with me because you can’t follow the rules all the time. Really, you shouldn’t. A little adrenalin-charged jaywalk in the dark is good for the soul.
Less good for my soul was getting lost on the way to Circular Quay the following morning when I was on a time limit. I’m not really sure how I did it, but the Quay was 800m from my hotel. I had passed it on the way home from dinner the night before. In the clear light of day, it should have been a doddle to find it, not least of all because it is in a harbour. The sea was at the end of the road. I just needed to walk to end of the road. I needed to walk straight until I hit the sea.
I did not do this. I walked until I hit a cathedral and the botanical gardens and the Opera House from a never-photographed-before angle. I went through some sort of government building’s quad and it was at around about this time that I started to panic. I needed to be at the ferry quite soon if I was going to meet my friend on the other side. In all of this, I was trying so hard not to look like a tourist – It might have been the travelling alone thing but I just couldn’t behave like a tourist while I was in Sydney – that I didn’t ask anybody for directions. I just ran purposefully in high-heels, in a direction I hoped was the right one. By now I had found the water though and I felt that was a good sign. Dripping with sweat, hair particularly wild, I ran onto the ferry just as the ferry guys were shouting 2 MINUTES UNTIL GATES CLOSE. I knew the gates would close in exactly 2 minutes. I had learned in my 2 days in Sydney that Australian officials stuck to the rules. Always.
The Northern Beaches area of Sydney was just beautiful. I got to spend time with an old friend and her family. We nipped out of her house, walked a few 100 metres and, hey presto, we were in a swampy forest with a waterfall at the end of its well-maintained hiking trail. It was a magical adventure to take with two small children after school. I’m afraid there is just nothing comparable in Johannesburg. I am not overly security-conscious but I would never walk anywhere in Jo’burg alone with the children. I stood for about 2 minutes deciding whether I would ever consider emigrating. It would be nice to take the kids for a walk in a forest. It would be nice to get into a car and not immediately establish how many people are standing near your car and whether they look like carjackers. I don’t like the electric fence and laser beam alarm system around my house. Would it be nice to cross the road at the pedestrian crossing?
The danger of life in Johannesburg is overstated though and I find it difficult to explain how I can feel safe in my house, yet have bars on every window and an armed response private security company on the payroll. It is difficult to explain. What is not difficult to explain though, is that home is just home.
You see, there is something very vital about life in Johannesburg. It’s noisy and fast and cosmopolitan. You get the impression that momentous changes are happening all the time, from the shifting of the earth itself as the old mine shafts collapse to the shifting of class and colour and our attitudes to them. People in Johannesburg laugh a lot. It is colourful. People hoot their car horns incessantly. They fight, sometimes to the death. Jo’burg was established in the middle of nowhere, a grassland, with no natural attraction except its rich and deep vein of gold. It is a city made from gold. It has retained much of that gold-digger, Wild West spirit. And sure that can be scary at times, but who never wanted to be Billy the Kid just once when they were growing up?
So, thank you so much Ethel for taking me to Sydney for cigarettes. I loved it. I loved the people I met and reconnected with in beautiful, bossy, organised Australia. It just wasn’t home. I wonder if that’s similar to what Ethel felt about her home as she sat in noisy, hot, slightly dangerous South Africa. Did she long for her quiet life in Christchurch in the same way that I longed for my loud one in Johannesburg? Home is just home and we’re not all cut out for adventure. I wasn’t until I arrived in Wellington on a Saturday afternoon in earthquake season. That’s next up though because I’ve talked too much again!