Heading into The Rocks, it’s hard to imagine it was once one of Sydney’s dingiest areas, a suburb dripping with the sleazy squalor of prostitution, drugs and crime.
Given a massive facelift just a generation ago, Sydney’s historic quarter, now dominated by the towering metal of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, is packed with some of the city’s best pubs and most captivating stories. Unsurprisingly, it’s near the top of most backpackers’ must-see lists.
It has not always been so, however. The Rocks started life as a dive packed with dangerous slums that only the most hardened (or desperate) travellers would have dared step foot in. Backstreet dealers and visiting sailors lurked menacingly in the shadows of gloomy alleys, waiting to see who would come their way. It was no place for a late night stroll.
Back in the day
Prior to European arrival in 1788, the indigenous Cadigal people lived around The Rocks area, using the harbour for food and transport. That soon changed, however, with the arrival of Captain Cook and his mates.
With America no longer an option after independence, the Brits decided to crash the Cadigal party by sending convicts Down Under. These crashers, however, didn’t turn up with a slab of Coopers, instead preferring to bring delights like smallpox, measles and flu. It’s believed that over half of the Cadigal population was wiped out by a smallpox epidemic within three years.
As the convicts and their minders began to make their mark on their new home, debauchery followed, with brothels and pubs being frequented by dodgy sailors looking for a… well, you can guess what they were after.
And there were certainly slim pickings for the sailors who liked the opposite sex. In 1800 there was only one woman to every four men living in The Rocks, with the ratio continuing for another 40 years. No need for a ladies gym in the 1800s that’s for sure.
At first the convicts were kept in tents around the settlement, but they were eventually housed in a gaol where the Four Seasons Hotel now stands. If a prisoner was hung, they could be watched from Gallows Hill, which is now Essex Street. Lovely.
While over 100 buildings, including pubs, are now protected by heritage listings, the bubonic plague outbreak in 1900 prompted the demolition of several structures. While plans to rebuild were on the cards, World War I came and reared its ugly head, putting any redevelopment on the backburner. By the time the council got around to having another look at the drawing board it was the Second World War’s turn to interrupt.
Eventually in the 1970s, it was decided they’d just scrap the whole thing and start over with new apartments. Luckily a large protest put that to bed and Sydney’s rich history prevailed.
Walking with the dead
A place with such a dark history of naughtiness, violence and scandal obviously makes for an ideal night of freaking yourself out. Join one of the area’s ghost tours to be led around with lantern in hand, being told spooky stories of horrific murders and disease-ridden suffering in the very alleys and paths which you are treading. You might even get to meet a lingering spirit…
There’s a bit of a tussle going on between two pubs in The Rocks, with both claiming to be the oldest in Sydney. The duo of boozers, who’ve been at it since… well longer than anyone else on mainland Australia… are the Fortune of War and the Lord Nelson.
The former is located on George Street and is said to be where soldiers of the defence force had their first and last stops before they went to experience their “fortune of war”. This drinking hole claims the “oldest” title on the basis that the site itself has been licensed since 1828. The current building, however, was only built in 1922 and is about the fourth building to be erected on the site.
As for the Lord Nelson, it used to be a house before it was turned into a pub, restaurant, guest house and brewery on Kent Street. This one takes the gong for the oldest building as it went through its renovation from house to watering hole in 1841.
Indeed, unlike anywhere else in Australia, with the possible exception of Hobart, The Rocks is crammed with old-style traditional English pubs with plenty of character, making it perfect pub crawl territory.
So, before heading into The Argyle or the Löwenbräu Keller to create your own modern-day debauchery, make sure to get high. For the views that is. Climb up to the rooftop bar, in The Glenmore pub on Cumberland Street, for a beer with unrivalled views across the harbour. After that, line your stomach by munching on a crocodile pizza just down the road at The Australian.
Sale of the century
The Rocks really comes alive at weekends, from the moment the afterwork crowds hit the town on Friday night. Don’t just wait for the sun to set, however, as the streets fill with markets and live music during the day. Stalls packed with clothes, souvenirs and artwork are all in abundance on Saturdays and Sundays, while the farmers come to town on Fridays, offering awesome opportunities to sink your teeth into local produce and splurge out for a good dinner.
While trying to drive across the Simpson Desert, LIZZIE JOYCE and her partner were forced to hitch a ride with some dodgy truckers.
Early one January morning my boyfriend Dan and I set off on our trip across three states, covering 3,000 miles on what would turn out to be the best trip I have ever done, not to mention the most dangerous. We were attempting to cross the Simpson Desert on our way to Alice Springs from Sydney. We were fully prepared and set off in our 4WD loaded with equipment, including 60 litres of water, a double swag, a laser beam,
and an Epirb signal.
After 10 hours of driving, watching the landscape turn from highways and tall buildings to red earth and eternal horizons we glided past an old mining town called Cobar, stopped for a wee and drove on through, thankful that this ‘Hicksville’ town was not our destination. But while driving at an average speed of 120km per hour, the trusty car (which I was assured had “just had a full service and was made for driving across such terrain”) was disintegrating and the entire wheel was about to fall off.
Suddenly, the brakes started to fail and smoke started pouring out the front passenger tyre. We were 120km from the last town and with at least 100km to the next, Dan decided we should drive on (without brakes) and see if we could make it to our destination. Luckily it didn’t last long anyway as the car stopped in defiance and we were forced to pull off the road in the middle of nowhere. Within minutes two semi-trailers driving in convoy by brothers, pulled up to offer us help and I’ve never been so glad to see two spectacularly ugly truckers before in my life. Freaky Brother One then began to undress me, with his eyes, almost frothing at the mouth at coming in such close proximity to someone of the opposite sex, while Freaky Brother Two was pretending to be a mechanic and baffling Dan with his bullshit. It was turning into Wolf Creek.
Nothing could be done with the car, and we had no choice but to accept a lift from Freaky Brother One to the nearest roadhouse 13km up the road. But then he said there wouldn’t be enough room in the cab so Dan should travel with his brother and I should hop into his cab by myself. By this point I was close to hysteria and there was no way I would be getting in that lorry by myself.
So we both hopped in with Brother Number Two. Dan settled in the middle of the very spacious cab which had enough room to house a small Albanian family! Relieved to be on our way to a phone box and in relative safety, (even if we were in being driven by an axe wielding maniac I had enough faith that Dan could knock him out if it came to it) I thought it would be plain sailing from here. After a couple of minutes on the road Brother Number One starts becoming agitated – he thinks he has lost his keys as he can’t use the radio to contact his brother. He pulls into the side of the road and asks me to hop out to see if he had left them in the door lock. This forced me into ungraceful acrobatic maneuvers in order to hang myself out the door and reach round to grab the keys, with freaky brother one more than enjoying the view of my ass in the air. The keys were there, so off we set again in stilted silence.
Finally we caught sight of the roadhouse and saw our escape was only minutes away and we made a sharp exit from the freaky brothers. Good riddance!
The roadhouse turned out to be a petrol pump and a shop that was about to close. They had a phone though and we arranged for a tow truck to pick us up and take us back to the nearest town… Cobar (the Hicksville town we drove through scorning) where we would have to wait for the next three days for the car to be repaired. How ironic that the town we were laughing at turned out to be our refuge.
So we skipped the Simpson Desert and took another route to Alice Springs where we arrived two weeks later with the biggest smiles and the best memories!
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