The pilgrimage

The past and the present are strange bedfellows, tangling sheets around tired ankles and emitting weathered scent in each other’s direction in contemptuous disregard.


Deep in the belly of this failing relationship an acid reflux bubbles constantly, agitated boiling set to erupt. Channelling an early morning heavy-breathing fetish the past sneaks up on the slumbering form of the present and blasts rancid fetor into its peaceful face. Naturally, this causes the present to jolt awake, rip the rumpled covers off and call for the future, who arrives dressed to the nines in blueprints and potential-spotted planning papers…


There’s a handsome road in Sydney, with a few scars and scrapes, that’s home to a division of classes. At one end the road is darker, eclectic, while a journey towards its northern end gradually becomes lighter, greener, more upscale. In between – strolling, sipping and snacking – are a multifarious bunch of Sydneysiders, from the welfare recipient to the affluent professional. This is Glebe Point Road.

Glebe Point Road, long a haunt of the weary and weird, wears memory like a shawl. Dive bars and razor gangs bleed into artist haunts and fleapit flicks, while poky rooms and crumbling villas morph into “desirable new living options”.

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Years ago, I dipped my toes into harbour waters at Glebe’s reach, sitting on the boards at Blackwattle Studios as music pounded behind me and a small, wiry man howled his love to the moon.


Overlooking Rozelle and Blackwattle bays, the warehouses and boat shed that made up the studios dated from the 20s and started life as timber drying stores and boatbuilding yards. The Long Building housed over a hundred people – artists, artisans, boatbuilders, furniture makers, ceramicists, film makers, weavers… you get the picture – and were some of the last working buildings on the waterfront. They were described as “important breeding grounds for creative talent and incubators for small business… in an enlightened city [they] would be considered community assets” (


Naturally, they were eviscerated in favour of luxury apartments, leaving a void where once there were the people and places of a once working harbour. And today, with my venerable mother in tow, I can find no trace of their diaphanous tenure, my memory of them evidence alone.

She is unperturbed, as only she can be, unflappable in any crisis and constructed of a very British forbearance. Beyond her nostalgia for stiff upper lips and a lengthy queue – “it means whatever you are queuing for will be better than if you weren’t, darling” – my mother is a well-dressed and benevolent matriarch, who agrees to come on this trip down memory lane on the understanding there is lunch included.

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Once past the Burley Griffin incinerator (now a venue featuring a kitchen – with sink, microwave, fridge, Zip Hydroboil tap – and a small terrace overlooking parkland), we hunt for lunch at Bellevue, itself a relic of an earlier time, but sensitively recommissioned, possibly with Zip Hydroboil taps. Splinters of the past poke through and the larb is tasty.


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Much of the Glebe foreshore was reclaimed land, not considered suitable for residential development; because of the harbour access, it was an industrial haven, a bustling waterfront teeming with life. Today nothing is left of the Vanderfield and Reid timber yards, or the tanneries and abattoirs – all capitulating to the capitalist roar for more. Now the water’s edge bristles with new apartment blocks that gaze benignly over deceptively calm waters. Yet beneath the silvery film of the surface lies discontent – you can feel it.

At least there is Blackwattle Bay Park, the result of nearly four decades of campaigns for public access to the foreshore by local residents. But while it is decorous to promenade (whilst avoiding lycra-clad bike-wielding maniacs and sleep-deprived Bugaboo operators), the paths fall beneath the myopic gaze of surveillance, which taints the experience a little.


A remnant of Sylvester Stride’s former ship-breaking yards is preserved, in all its spiked and menacing glory, the clang of steel on dismembered hulks a rich seam layered beneath bird calls and a cantering Kelpie.

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And a metal drum winch is a relic of Harbour Lighterage, the workers that repaired the floating platforms called lighters that brought timber into the bays. It is beautiful, rusted flora in this palimpsest of a park.

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We turn from the shore, deep in conversation. This pilgrimage to the stomping grounds of Glebe is a window into my past, a glimpse into a world previously only described in lengthy missives scratched excitedly on paper-thin blue air-mail. For my mum, it is the sight, smell and sound of my history. With lunch included.

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Glebe puts on a show, tangles of life crowded in tight, skinny malinky streets that lead to tiny cul-de-sacs of calm.

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And slices of Asian wonder cast into the mix, from teetering Bangkok style board-ups to the exquisite seclusion we find at a back-street temple.

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Sze Yup Temple has grown roots deep into the soil next to Jubilee Oval. Tucked in tight in a dimly lit corner of the city, this crimson and gold Buddhist realm has been here since 1898, a living memory of Chinese settler history.

Incense spirals lazily on the breeze, cleansing the air of noise and need and instilling an innate veil of calm introspection,


I take deep pleasure telling my mum of my appreciation for Buddhism, years spent in Hong Kong, China and with the crinkly-faced Tibetan community of Dharamsala, absorbing the culture and ritual of this sacred belief… as well as Yat Lok roast goose and an abiding love of firecrackers.

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The red-brick temple with its fluted gables is dedicated to folk hero Kwan Ti – revered by Daoists, Confucians and Buddhists alike – and is flanked by the Chapel of Departed Friends and the Chapel of Good Fortune. I can’t help but wonder if the departed friends ought to have visited the Chapel of Good Fortune to ward off their departure, but I am silenced by a matriarchal glare.

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Inside, there is an intriguing sensory imbalance. To the right of the main temple, which is shrouded in passive offering, tumbles of oranges and lemons and stinking garlands of lilies wreathed in smoke, the Chapel of Good Fortune is whirring.


It blinks and twitches with movement and light, a thousand tiny suns to brighten your fortune. Tiny metronomic clicks guide me to the front, eyes skyward, until I stand before a mirrored shrine. As my eyes descend, they glimpse the broad grin plastered on my face.


To the left, in the Chapel of Departed Friends, a catalogue of dearly departed on the rosewood walls is reflective and stilling. I can’t read the Hanzi, but I understand the emotion captured in a picture, partners caught in time forever…


The Kelpie is also inept at Chinese script, however, she is quick to find the sooty swag of Snickers in a corner. I hurry her out of this rare sanctuary, portal to another part of my life.


Bound by this dedication to the dead, the heartfelt worship, the smoky pall and those who seek guidance, incense clasped between praying hands, Mum and I are quiet as we stroll to the gates. We both, however, notice the sign:


The temple has an orbit of exuberance, yet it is still and peaceful. Flashes of fire and crashing symbols are tempered by strolling Ibis and soulful prayer, and possibly the spirits of many discarded cats.


Climbing the steep streets above the ANZAC Bridge’s strings, Glebe is an old place, weathered with remembrance, reminiscence and ‘how it used to be’s’.


And while the future busily maps out coloured spheres of ‘desirable new living options’, transit solutions, high-density shopping and a new socio-economic order, and the present balefully ignores the old guard, its eyes riveted on what’s next, the past slinks contentedly to the corners and beds down peacefully for the night.







First landing

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I am in thrall to the sand, salt and sun ratio that the powdery fringes of our world promise, toes scrinching in the cool damp of buried seawater, the sluice of surf over the break, and a horizon that sidles up to the sky. And while I have a deep appreciation for the finest beaches in the world – mirror-clear waters in the Maldives, the raw savagery of Fraser Island’s ragged coast and the scented chic of the Côte d’Azur – it is the schleppy beaches of the world I cherish.

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A sorry excuse for a strip of sand, Power Station Beach frills its way along the edge of Lamma Island, itself an outlying island of Hong Kong. It was once my home, literally. I slept in a teepee above the tideline and woke each morning to the belch and squeal of hot air rising in monolithic cement chambers, and the warble of red-throated loons as they paddled off-shore. There was a smear of sulphur in the air sometimes, which collided gracefully with saltwater and early morning char siu bao.

Yarra Beach, which skims the edge of one of Sydney’s least known and smallest suburbs, Phillip Bay – La Perouse’s jerry-built neighbour – also fits the bill faultlessly. It features a container terminal squat at one end, sand that may contain dead bodies and a distinct case of multiple personality disorder.

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It’s our favourite place – me, the Tin Lid and the Kelpie – even on a wintry day that scours vapourised breath from chapped lips. It stretches away from the eye in a leisurely curl, deep anchorage in its embrace. At one end, Port Botany Transfer Station and container terminal hulk-in, heavy; towering stands of metal boxes await the colossal grip of the lifting crane, and tiny stevedores scurry like ants from a height, busy in their endeavours.

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Sydney Ports Corporation

Peering in close, to get a good view of the action, blighted headstones line the ridge, the residents of the Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park taking best advantage of this ‘forever’ spot.

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At the other end is the splintered timber and plastic veneer of the sailing club, blinking with pokies and bickered at by bookies.

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I think that might be part of the attraction, the hustle of activity on a stretch of sand that stands sentinel to time. Ocean leviathans steam into port honking and wallowing, their steel guts either laden or set to gorge on the gargantuan consumerist container picnic that awaits them. The dead on their last journey, as they shift and sift through the sand; yachties riding their charges over trough and peak and returning, sodden, to the sailing club for a cold schooner and hot chips; the burning rumble of the jets as they land and soar from Kingston Smith; and local dogs who howl and splash in joy, catching life in salty draughts on lagging tongues.

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Defined by Yarra Point and Bomborah Point, the Bay is a series of south-westerly swoops, unique in this east-facing city. At the height of summer, we head to the shade of some scrub at the southern tip; in winter, we get to luxuriate in its length, right up to the otherwise sun-baked perimeter, a concrete seawall beneath the steely gaze of Port Botany, its industrial choker.

The Tin Lid is agog at the plastic-bottle whirlpool churning in the eddies, and the Kelpie insists on dragging a tree wherever she goes. Ring-ins for the day include a bestie and her bottom-waggling charge, who hurl themselves into dune climbing with verve:

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Beyond the bend is Frenchman’s Bay (and La Perouse on the spit), considered culturally significant as the site of some of the earliest contacts between Europeans and Indigenous Australians, and it remains significant thanks to the survival of the archaeological remains of a nineteenth century Indigenous encampment and mission, the continued presence of the La Perouse Aboriginal Community and the oral tradition and social identity associated with this history of occupation.

But that is another story.

Today, we are here, ensconced in a world of salt spray and cool sand, a blustery wind bemoaning our intransigence.

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This was where Governor Phillip first strode ashore; here on 18th January 1788, the Indigenous population of Yarra directed the be-hatted Arthur to a fresh water source, Bunnerong Creek, which flows between Frenchman’s and the Bay.

It is believed that Yarra means flowing, originating from this water source. With resoundingly narcissistic flair, Admiral Arthur quickly renamed the place Phillip Bay, despite the lack of ‘lush meadows’ promised by Joseph Banks. In fact, he was quick to decree that Yarra was ‘unsuitable for habitation’. And the meadows, it turns out, were round the corner at Port Jackson, which is where they headed, more demand for the HMS Supply…

No-one knows why Phillip’s name was kept for the suburb but dropped for the Bay, but Yarra will always be Yarra to us, as I suspect it is for the Aboriginal community here, who have successfully claimed Native Title for the Yarra Bay headland and Yarra House. But that’s part of that other story…

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As the shadows stretch we head away from the Bay, promising ourselves a longer adventure next time. The Tin Lid is intrigued by Serious Stuff, complete with it’s half-drunk bottle of claret, and the bottom-waggler is intent on discarded hot chips, to his mother and the local gull’s dismay.

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The Kelpie yelps at the prospect of leaving, but she is soon snoring, dreaming of slung sticks and foamy surf that she snaps at in her sleep.


That other story, with its 16′ skiffs, haunted homes and secret coves, awaits our return.

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