Harbours are magical places: places of economic, social, political and nautical history. Places that were often dirty and smelly. Areas of hard work, grit and grime. In many cases, they have seen rejuvenation and growth into areas of modern commercialism. Take Liverpool, Hamburg, Sydney, these are places steeped in history that are today extremely vibrant and popular tourist attractions, while remaining working and functioning ports.
Harbours and ports are, first and foremost, places of comings and goings. Sites where goodbyes and hellos are cried, shouted and steeped in emotion and significance. They are the places of the conquered and the conqueror, viewed very differently at different times by different people. Perspective in port cities is not to be underestimated.
Today I learned about Sydney harbour. Not by walking around its beautiful inlets with shops, bars and botanical gardens, not by noting the lines marked by brass plates showing the past shore lines, but in the grey rain at its nautical museum. I learned of European settlers, making remarkable voyages for the day, forcing out native peoples with horribly dramatic consequences. These were stories I’d heard before of course, a chapter of my own country’s history I struggle with, but learning about it in situ is different. I learned of people transported against their will. I heard of Indonesians, rising up from their homes in Australia, being supported by Australians, to gain independence for their country.
I learned of Japanese brides, separated from their husbands, arriving, finally in Australia to reunite their families. I learned of Europeans, talented individuals, escaping the horrors of the 1930s and 40s to come to this land, arriving at this very port, to freedom and welcome.
Immigration, arrival, legality, and welcome are all words that can be used to describe almost any port with differing levels of praise and judgement over the last two hundred years.
History is a complex web, and one to which I don’t feel able to do justice. It is fascinating and in many great nations the places where people have been able to come and go, or not as the case may be, have lead the way to making countries what they are today.
That aside, harbours and ports are also places of great beauty, where lands can be seen from the inside out and outside in, where people gather, where life bubbles, ebbs and flows with the tide that dictates it.
Yes, there is real beauty in this city. There is fun and style and wonder. Yes, before I get accusations that I am doing Australia all wrong, I will be spending much time sitting in the sun – should it ever reappear – with a cold glass of wine and hopefully some barbecued sea food, reading and chatting. However, inspiration comes in all shapes and sizes, and forty eight hours into this trip, this land down under has already provided food for thought, even if it is in ways I didn’t expect.