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  • Writer's pictureLinda De Angelis

The Iconic Treasures of Sydney Harbour

Living in Sydney all my life I have seen some massive changes to this spectacular harbour city over the years. It’s immensely interesting to reflect on the history of this area.

Image by Unsplashed Photoholgic

At the time of the First Fleet’s arrival in 1788, the Garigal women of Warrane, what we know as Sydney Harbour, would collect seaweed to make nets & lines. The men would make traps & spears to catch eels, crabs & animals. In the sky there would have been flocks of brightly coloured parrots & cockatoos. In the scrubby bush you would find kangaroos, echidnas, wombats & goannas scurrying & roaming around! Warrane was originally a site where local people would come to eat; they would leave behind the shells & bones. Interestingly the shells were included in the mortar of the first construction of the colony buildings, some of the shells were around 6000 years old.

The indigenous people of this great southern land had a fantastic narrative of Dreamtime to tell stories & legends of the past. A favourite is about how the Australian landscape & animals came to be. There was a great “Rainbow Serpent” who slumbered under the earth’s surface & then emerged from the ground to awaken a great variety of animals who then travelled throughout the land foraging the hills, gullies, lakes & rivers to create a new landscape from the stark terrain that was before.

Unsplashed image by Jeramy Bezanger

Tjubowgully is the original indigenous name for the area we know as Bennelong Point, where the Sydney Opera House is situated on the east peninsula side of Sydney Cove. This area was named after Bennelong, an aboriginal man from the Warrigal clan. He was a warrior, mediator & peacemaker of the two cultures in the 1800s, during the time of Governor Phillip. No doubt Bennelong would have seen both the best & worst of western civilisation. East Circular Quay was used by European settlers where they set up saltworks on this site, it was run by convict John Boston from 1795. Then in the1830s, the foreshore around the Cove became a stone quarry & place for shipping known as Circular Quay. The area was developed later with timber wood walls & doors. It was where the ships were laid on one side to facilitate the scrapings of the barnacles off the bottom of the boats & to carry out repairs. In 1901 Sydney harbour trust took control of this site & started to build amenities buildings. Later this became the Oyster Bar which had a spectacular view of Sydney Harbour, it’s now being redeveloped. I’m curious to see what is being planned for this historic area. Could it be a future new iconic structure? Circular Quay already has two iconic treasures being the Sydney Harbour Bridge & Sydney Opera House.

Unsplashed image by Jamie Casal

The Sydney Harbour Bridge

The Sydney Harbour Bridge is one of the world’s most recognised landmarks. This structure began construction in 1924 under engineer John Bradfield’s supervision. It’s an amazing feat of engineering. The bridge took 52,800 tonnes of steel to make & 1600 people to build, giving much needed employment during “the Great Depression”. Construction started on each bank of the harbour & the two sides met in the middle in 1930. My grandma was born in the early part of the 20th century, she has a great recollection of the Sydney Harbour Bridge being built, saying that they constructed the pylons first, then started to build the two parts of the suspension bridge from either side of the Sydney harbour being the North & the South. My grandma said that it almost looked like it wasn’t going to come together. Australian men in those days would bet on anything, so my grandma recollects they all took bets as to whether the bridge would meet properly, she said it almost looked like there were two bridges being built. There would have been many miffed punters that lost money on their bets because the bridge builders had done a sterling job, the bridge did come together as it was engineered perfectly.

Unsplashed image by Mark Piwnicki The bridge was officially opened by Premier Jack Lang 19 March 1932. It was an elaborate ceremony attended by more than 750,000 spectators. The day had its drama, before Lang could cut the ribbon to declare the bridge open, Francis De Groot, part of an ultra-right-wing group, rode on a horse out of the crowd slashing the ribbon with a cavalry sword, unofficially opening the bridge. He was later arrested & fined £5. The officials hurriedly put the opening ribbon back together & Premier Lang cut the ribbon to officially declare the bridge open. After this a marvellous public bridge walk took place. Today you can walk or climb the bridge as a tourist attraction activity. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is one of Australia’s favourite iconic structures.

Our next iconic structure was dreamed up at East Circular Quay. It was decided in the 1950s to dedicate Bennelong Point to a building celebrating the performing arts. Swedish architect Jørn Utzon & his team started building the now iconic Sydney Opera House in 1959, before I was born! During the 1960s as a child, I watched the Sydney Opera House being built. My father was an old school Italian builder & I had never seen a building being constructed in such a way with curved sail like walls that continued to be the roof. Instead of bricks it looked like bathroom tiles were used to make the building’s facade. Utzon wanted the shells to contrast with the deep blue of Sydney Harbour & the clear blue of the Australian sky. The Sydney Opera House was opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 20th October 1973.

Unsplashed image by Stephanie Wong

Seeing this building been constructed at the time seemed very avant-garde but after going to see many ballets, concerts & especially the Bangarra Dance Company I can see it’s a structure full of vision, built specially for the performing arts. It also seems to celebrate the early history of the shells & bones that were left by the indigenous mob after meeting to have a feed. It’s as if these bones & shells have become like giant seabirds flying out of the harbour making this spectacular shell-shaped sails coming out of Sydney Cove.

The Hidden Gems of Sydney

As well as our major icons there are many hidden memorials in Sydney, I love discovering these gems!

The Writers Walk East Circular Quay

At Circular Quay there are one of these hidden gems. A writers walk along the promenade with the most spectacular view of the two incredible icons, being the Sydney Harbour Bridge & Sydney Opera House. The Writers Walk opened on 13 February 1991 celebrating famous writers through history that have visited Sydney’s iconic Circular Quay including Henry Lawson, Mark Twain & Rudyard Kipling. There is a poignant tile that has this imprinted into the pavement “we are & how we see ourselves evolves fundamentally from the written & spoken word. The writers walk demonstrates that this evolutionary process continues to channel the thoughts & perceptions the hopes & fears of writers who have known this great city & its people”.

"Forgotten Songs" of The Lost Birds of Sydney

Further into Sydney’s CBD the backstreets can be full of surprises. Behind the historic Martin Place at Angel Place & Ash Street there is an overhead memorial that most people miss at first. I love this gem of Sydney, it’s a hauntingly beautiful art installation of 180 empty bird cages called "Forgotten Songs" by artist Michael Thomas Hill in 2009 to represent the “Lost Birds of Sydney”.

Unsplashed image by Bee Balogun

In 1788 when the first fleet arrived at Warrane, the indigenous name we know as Sydney Cove, the area was prolific with bird life. Around the Tank Stream there grew native banksia & grevillea trees. Sadly however, as urban development happened, the bird’s habitat was destroyed forcing most of the bird species to migrate faraway. The birds that are remembered in this memorial have their names carved into the stones of the street.

They are: the Eastern Whipbird, Rockwarbler, Regent Honeyeater, Grey Shrike-thrush, Fan-tailed Cuckoo, Spotted Pardalote, Brown Gerygone, Jacky Winter, Scarlet Robin, Golden Whistler, Leaden Flycatcher, Dollarbird, White-eared Honeyeater, Superb Lyrebird, Brown Thornbill, Varied Sittella, Brush Cuckoo, Dusky Woodswallow, Eastern Spinebill, White-throated Treecreeper, Little Lorikeet, Mistletoebird, Pallid Cuckoo, Red-browed Finch, Rufous Whistler, Brown-headed Honeyeater, Scarlet Honeyeater, Eastern Yellow Robin, Shining Bronze-Cuckoo, Southern Emu-wren, Spotted Quail-thrush, Striated Thornbill, Superb Fairy-wren, Tawny-crowned Honeyeater, Grey Fantail, Variegated Fairy-wren, Whistling Kite, White-browed Scrubwren, White-browed Woodswallow, White-naped Honeyeater, White- throated Gerygone, Wonga Pigeon, Yellow-faced Honeyeater and Yellow- tufted Honeyeater. During the day at Angel Place, you will hear a recording of these birds.

Unsplashed image by David Clode

At night you can hear recordings of the nocturnal birds being the Australian Owlet-nightjar, Powerful Owl, Southern Boobook, Barn Owl, Tawny Frogmouth and White-throated Nightjar. How I would have loved to have been able to hear & see these birds of our Dreamtime in the land & sky of Warrane. Can you imagine these birds flying & squawking into the air when the Great Rainbow Serpent came out of its great slumber?

Summary Reflection: Thinking about the indigenous people of Garigal & Warrane plus the animals of the land, air & sea it’s heart-rendering to understand this city displaced most of the indigenous people & original eco system in the evolution of making its own biosphere of an urban jungle. Moving forward I think it’s so important that town planners make public spaces for all the community to reflect on the past, enjoy the present, making aspirational places for current & future generations. Equally as important to create bush corridors to protect the little wildlife we have left in the city.


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Welcome to Destination Serendipity for inspired travel journeys. I’m Linda De Angelis and I have travelled all over the world as a professional travel advisor. Remember to sign up for my inspired travel blogs. Just click on the button below.

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