Down Under Part 2: Splendid Sydney

Having taken repossession of the girl child, we left Melbourne and flew to Sydney. We had booked our accommodation, a small cottage in Bondi Junction, via Air B&B, the first time we had used the service.  It seemed to work reasonably well, though once again we were slightly stunned by the prices being charged for fairly modest lodgings. However, having realised what property costs in that city, we realised that though expensive, it was unlikely that we were being ripped off.

For those used to living in the first world, high property prices may seem understandable and even affordable. But when one considers the relative purchasing power between Sydney and Cape Town say, it comes as something of a shock to the country mice that we have become. We learned that the tiny 2 bed cottage, no more than 60sqm of living space, tops, and a token patio would sell for A$1.3 million. The equivalent sum in Cape Town, ZAR 13.5 million, would get you a house like this.

Of course, salaries are much higher in Australia (minimum wage equivalent to A$36,000 per year) than they are in SA and there is considerably more confidence in the country, not just economically, but politically and socially. Still, the housing differential does explain why some people choose to live where they do.

There is another point that I should make about relative house sizes in Australia and Africa. It used to puzzle me that a country as big as Australia with as much land available should build so many relatively modest-sized houses. However, having spoken to friends who had moved from Zim or SA to that part of the world, they gave a very practical justification. In colonial Africa, domestic labour is very cheap. It is not unusual to employ at least one house worker and a gardener who reduce the levels of drudgery that are experienced by others around the world. But, when you have to do all the cleaning and gardening yourself as well as face long commutes too and from work, small is sometimes very good. Having said that, here we lack many of the labour saving devices that others take for granted.

One thing that Sydney and Cape Town have in common is their natural beauty. Both are spectacular. But both are also under-catered for the growing levels of road traffic. At least Sydney has an efficient public transport system. Cape Town has a heavily vandalised and dangerous metro rail road and a lethal network of pirate taxis that I would not dream of attempting to board. Thank heavens for Uber.

The best aspect of Sydney we felt was scenic beauty of the place including the Botanical Gardens which we visited on a gorgeous sunny day. My brother who lives out of town came to visit with his relatively new wife, whom I had never met before but with whom I got on very well, though we sit at different ends of the political spectrum. They took us for a walk along the coastal path that leads from Bondi towards Bronte Beach. And very pretty it was too. However, we were hugely disappointed by the Aquarium which turned out to be a cynical sausage machine designed to rip off tourists and which could not begin to compare with aquaria in Cape Town and Durban. Likewise the Museum of Sydney, which we had specifically chosen to see because we wanted to learn more about the history of the city, was equally disappointing.

I had made contact with several of my numerous friends whom I have scattered around the world, (Janus, are you paying attention?) One of these was a former work colleague with whom I shared a couple of beers in a bar in Darling Harbour. Another was a class mate from school whom I had known since I was 10. He arrived in Australia in the mid 1980s and had done very well for himself having introduced pilates to the country, or certainly one of its pioneers. He took us out for a fabulous meal at restaurant called Doyles in Watson’s Bay. Delicious food and wine and stunning view of the city across the bay.

Of course while we were in Sydney there was a coup-d’état  of sorts. See Bearsy’s post. I am afraid that I do not have Christopher’s knowledge of Aus politics so I was not familiar with all the intimate details, though I had never liked Turnbull, rightly or wrongly, because of his involvement in the Spy Catcher Trial of the 80s. My new sister in law was an ardent supporter of our Malcolm and horrified by the prospect that Paul Dutton might become the new PM. Liberal people always seem to think that they have unfettered right to express their views in a social environment and that naturally everybody else must agree with them. I had to make it clear to her that I was very right wing and without being fully aware of the alleged evils of Dutton she should not necessarily think that I agreed with her and that I would denigrate him to the same degree that she felt was necessary. As it was, PD miscalculated and ScoMo got in. I don’t know much about Morrison either, but I would be wary of anybody who belongs to a church like his.

There is no doubt that Sydney is a wonderful city with a myriad of charms, but unless you are real high-flyer on a mega salary, I think there are other places where it would be better to live.

6 thoughts on “Down Under Part 2: Splendid Sydney”

  1. The confidence is part of the curse. At the close of the last century, Australia wasn’t that unreasonably priced. In fact, it was quite affordable. Looking at housing in Sydney and other Australia cities around the years 2000-2002, it seemed positively affordable. A few things happened to change that. The first was Australia’s commodities-fuelled boom. Money flowed into the economy. It was not, however, always to the benefit of your typical Aussie battler. Like the tech industry in California, the sums of money benefited a relatively small slice of the population while causing inflation to get completely out of control. The other main factor was in influx of foreign capital, especially in respect to real estate. The exodus of proper Hong Kongers from their homeland continues apace. They have been buying properties in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom should things really go tits up at home. Many others have given up completely and emigrated. An arguably even larger group are mainland Chinese looking to move capital abroad. There is precious little confidence in Chinese banks and institutions. Real estate in stable, well-developed countries like Australia makes for a popular investment. I know a well-off Chinese family, I’m close friends with the son. He is close to acquiring permanent residence in the United States; something that pleases his entire family to no end. Having me as a close ally was an added benefit, one that is worth even more now that I’m permanently settled in the United Kingdom. There are two safe destinations should the need arise.

    Your description of Sydney is unfortunately very apt. It’s one of the few cities in the world that is so stunning naturally and architecturally. It is, however, anything but affordable. Some of the aquaria and zoos in Sydney are designed for nothing but squeezing money out of tourists. Those around Darling Harbour are the worst of all. Being a natural cynic, I took a dim view of it all. One thing that is good about Sydney is that there is a multi-day combi-pass available for some of the area’s most interesting historic sites such as Hyde Park Barracks, the Justice and Peace Museum, the Mint, etc.

    Thanks for the information on Cape Town.

  2. There’s only one thing better than dinner at Doyle’s, and that’s dinner at Doyle’s when you’ve arrived by water-taxi across the harbour from The Rocks on a beautiful moonlit evening. Boadicea and I are unlikely to forget that particular evening, although we’ve been there since several times. 😊

    Sydney is a great place to visit, particularly on business supported by a UK expense account, but when we lived there (late 90’s) our moderately medium flyer salaries would only allow us to buy a house in the suburbs, which meant a longish commute like most of our neighbours and work colleagues. When we left Sydney for Adelaide (2000) we were delighted to sell for about half a mil, but Boadicea’s research tells us that the same property is now going for approximately one and a half mil. Quite an appreciation for 18 years!

    Great article, keep ’em coming! 😎

  3. Hello Christopher. Yes, I agree with you about prices 15 years ago. I was there in 2003 and looked at investing in Brisbane. Prices were manageable then. But I would probably have screwed up in the process and bought the wrong property. It is difficult to manage things when you are on the other side of the world. I have heard that in Perth, which is where at lot of South Africans and Zimbabweans have moved to and which probably experienced some of the biggest rises when the boom was in full swing, there have been some horror stories with house prices falling out of bed. Between you and me, I would not be surprised if a property bubble was in the offing, especially in Melbourne. But I am usually wrong, or certainly my timing is pretty bad.

    As for Cape Town, I may have been unfair about the public transport. Things have moved on since I was living there with the introduction of a service called MyCiti Bus. It seems to work well on the Atlantic Seaboard, where I imagine you would want to go, but does not really operate in the Southern Suburbs which is more of a family oriented residential area. So you may find that it suits you perfectly. And it will be much safer and more pleasant than the taxis, which are over crowded 18-seater mini-buses driven by lunatics.

    Uber works well, but it is a new phenomenon and was not operating when I was living there. In those days, people had a far more cavalier approach to drinking and driving and for visitors it was relatively cheap to rent a car. Since then, the authorities are much more rigorous in clamping down on abuse and as a result people use Uber and other similar services.

  4. Bearsy, thank you. High praise indeed. I can imagine that the water taxi ride across the harbour would have been the cherry on top. For a short while I lived in Mosman and would take the ferry too and from the Rocks. It was a very enjoyable and civilised way to travel for a night on the town..

    Not just in Sydney have prices exploded like that. The house I sold in London in 2003 has tripled in value. The irony being that I sold then because I thought there had to be a crash seeing as how I had more than doubled my money in the previous 6 years. The crash, when it came in 2009, was a minor blip as far as London was concerned.

    I think with property, so much depends on where you are going to live and what currency you will be using. Cape Town prices have rocketed over the same period, but the SA rand has plummeted.

  5. I loathed living in Sydney. I was never the most confident of drivers – the traffic and my total lack of any sense of direction made every journey I embarked on an absolute nightmare. There was no public transport where we lived and the nearest train station, probably within the limits of my confidence, had the teeniest, tiniest car park – fine if one got there before 6.00 am!

    If I wanted to go to the CBD, I went with Bearsy to where he worked, which was right on the river, and took a ferry into the city. I did like that – a most civilised way to travel.

    I have to agree with you about Sydney’s tourist ‘attractions’ – the bare minimum for the maximum profit.

    I will also admit that Sydney is the only place I have ever got so angry with a rude taxi driver that I slapped him. Never done it before or since…

    As you may gather – not my favourite city!

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