Sydney: Of rules and strange familiarity


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?

George St, Sydney

George St, Sydney 1900

pritchard st

Pritchard St, Johannesburg

Rissik St Post Office, Johannesburg

Rissik St Post Office, Johannesburg


Old Treasury Building, Sydney

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.

Unroadworthy old Toyota bakkie using a 5 liter plastic bottle as a petrol tank

From photo: Emile Hendricks, Beeld A 1976 Toyota Hilux with a 5l plastic bottle functioning as a petrol tank.

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.

opera house

The Sydney Opera House as I saw it sprinting past the delivery entrance.

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.


Jo’burg jaywalkers. Image courtesy: Germaine De Larch Images 2012

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!

26 thoughts on “Sydney: Of rules and strange familiarity

  1. Bloody hell p- there’s something wrong with the comments section!
    I tried to say this: Australia is disparate. Sydney is not Brisbane is not Canberra. Social attitudes to rules are always interesting (I am an Australian currently living in France – wow!). Is SA various in this way? (You make Jo’burg sound very scary – I have never been there – not sure I ever want to go!)

    • France, how wonderful! I studied French at school and always half hoped that I could set up home in France a la Peter Mayle.

      South African cities do have very different characters. Jo’burg is the big smoke for the ambitious and criminal, Cape Town, with its mountain, is the home to socially-conscious, well-spoken white people and gangsters, Durban is for surfers and Zulus, the Eastern Cape is for hippies, the Free State for conservative farmers, the Lowveld is heaven on earth. These are all gross generalisations, of course.

      As for Jo’burg being dangerous…I thought I was actually pulling my punches in describing it! But really, it is the most wonderful place. You should visit. You’d be just fine. So long as you remembered to look both ways. Always.

  2. I’m very glad you felt at home in Sydney and I prefer your photo of the opera house over any other same old same old I’ve seen for ages. 😉

    Johannesburg sounds like a very lively, interesting place but I can’t imagine living with bars on the windows, surrounded by electric fences and laser beams, what a concept! I park my car in the front driveway and don’t even lock it when it is at home! (The Man borrowed it last night and locked it upon his return. The kids and I couldn’t work out why the doors wouldn’t open this morning. 🙂 )

    The crossing lights do beep for the blind and they are so widespread that when I arrived at a faulty one the other day I was almost incapable of crossing when the light changed! No beep…. Am I sure a truck isn’t about to mow me down if i don’t have the protection of beepy green man…… 😉

    I’m amused at the thought of zebra crossings being a mere suggestion rather than a rule. Eeek! I wonder how many tourists last thoughts were “that car should be slowing by now…..”

    • An unlocked car! Madness! I actually feel quite agoraphobic looking through windows without bars!

      And 23 and I are very relaxed when it comes to security. We do not live scared at all. You just keep your wits about you and it’s a beautiful place.

      • Oh dear, no bars? The next time you are in Aus I had better not invite you over for a cuppa then. 😉 the lounge room has one wall which is a large bay window that we don’t even bother covering with as much as a curtain, the view and the stars are so nice. When we are home all the doors and windows are thrown open unless we are trying to keep the heat in. We do have a security door. But alas, no key….it keeps the bugs out though. 😉

        Your and 23’s posts show me what a beautiful place Johannesburg is though, anywhere you live has its good and bad. 🙂

  3. I’m quite surprised Australia is so uptight, I always thought Aussies were very laid back. Seems like England is somewhere between the two, not geographically but in terms of attitude. Our crossings beep but we don’t get fined for jaywalking (thank goodness or I’d be poor). You have to lock your house and car but there are no bars at the window and no security guards. There are no guns either, at least not legal ones and that I’m glad about. The guns were the thing I found scary about Africa.

    • The people – except Border Security! – were laid-back, I guess. The culture shock, for me, came from the supposition that Johannesburg was essentially a first-world city. It is in so many ways – our facilities are world class, amazing doctors, good roads- but it is, I learnt, quite distinctly third world too. It was fascinating to see all the little rules that could be enforced when you weren’t coping with crushing poverty, insane levels of unemployment and a history of terrible injustice and suppression.

      The guns are scary but so far neither 23 nor myself have been at the wrong end of one. Or the “right” end, for that matter.

  4. Australia used to have horrific drink driving statistics. During the vietnam War, it was safer for young men to become soldiers than to stay at home. I remember a campaign in victoria alone – ‘Declare War on 1034’ which was the annual fatalities for that state, so back when we had a population of under 10 million, the road toll must have been about 3-4,000. That’s why the rules are so strict. As for modern South Africa, I’ve met a lot of expats here in Britain – pretty tough guys – who have no intention of going back there due to the high crime levels.

  5. It’s funny how adaptable we all are – describing somewhere you can’t walk outside with your kids and need bars on your windows, private security guards, etc as ‘slightly’ dangerous is amazing to me. I would hate to live like that (my 8 year old niece and 10 yo nephew walk half a mile to school themselves every day and their house doesn’t even HAVE a lock – so it’s unlocked even when they’re all on holiday for a week). Then again, I’ve never seen someone here dancing round their wheelie bin in full evening dress plus bin bag tribute to Isadora, so I’m probably missing out on the lighter aspects of SA life. I can well imagine we perhaps laugh less in the cold, wet darkness of a northern winter.

    • I did have a heart-stopping moment this week, when our 9 year-old’s school was burgled overnight. He then went into complete panic that somebody was going to burgle our house and that he was going to be killed in his bed. Of course, I made all the comforting noises, but the truth is that because of where we live, I can’t actually promise that he’ll be safe in his bed. Although maybe you never have that certainty. It did give me emigration pangs.

      • Ooh 😦
        But you’re right of course, safety and immortality can’t actually be guaranteed. Also my nephew’s (as were his mum and myself, way back in the 1970s) more than capable of waking with night terrors for no rational reason whatsoever.

  6. I believe the reasons Sydney is so bossy (great description) is due to the 2000 Olympic games. With many of those drive-on-the-right visitors coming they felt it prudent to let pedestrians know that the first car to worry about whilst crossing the road would come at you from your right, not your left.
    I know your feelings of nearly but not quite familiarity. I found enough similarities to confuse when I was in London. Yes, very different but still, achingly similar, particularly when one is homesick.

    • Thank you for the Olympic Games explanation. It makes me feel better that there is a slightly more rational explanation than Australian children only having been taught to look to the left when crossing the road and needing constant reminders to look right 🙂

  7. It’s amazing to see bars on windows. We watch “Come dine with me South Africa” a most entertaining program and everyone has bars! The only bars we have are 3 of them in Beaconsfield and they all serve beer on tap. Sydney might be bossy but the rest of Australia is more relaxed. Sydney has a reputation to uphold…they are our unofficial centre of the universe (in their minds) and the rest of us are peripheral rays of sunshine in every decreasing stages of civilisation…Tasmania being akin to the deep South of the U.S. (or perhaps the upper echelons of the Appalachian mountains…).

    • Oh my word! You get ‘Come Dine With Me SA’! We do all have lots of bars. 23 and I have bars attached to the window frames and then an extra set of Spanish bars affixed to the walls covering the windows. It means that we can never open our windows wide. As for the nuttiness of the SA dinner party folk. We’re generally not quite as crackers as the average contestant. Just so you know.

      As for relaxed Australia, rabidlittlehippy commented on 23’s post that Victorian farmers shared the fashion sense of ours. If that is true of the Tassie farmers too, you all are less Deep South and more Mid-Mpumalanga.

      • Nope…here in Tassie it’s tiny shorts, wife beaters (tank tops) and thongs (flip flops? What a STUPID name for them! 😉 ). It’s all “Gidday moit!” and “Git that inta ya!” whilst extending a beer from one of the kind of bars that we have. I would feel helpless surrounded by bars. I guess we have our own bars of a kind…we are surrounded by American Staffordshire terriers…we all have our security systems don’t we? 😉

      • Sad but true…my own father (rest his short wearing soul) wore the shortest shorts possible. A small man and you would think he would be inclined to wear the largest shorts possible to accentuate himself but no…short shorts all the way…sigh…I don’t have any muesli to cry into and its 3.06pm so I might have to be satisfied with an apple…its not the same…

      • Nevermind the Yanks. A Sydney friend went to a summer dress-up party last year and both her and her husband went as giant thongs. When she first mentioned it I nearly choked on my piña colada. She then sent through pictures of her and hubby with liloes on their backs. I was hugely relieved, I can tell you.

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