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The View from Oz:

Sharks, spiders and mandarin trafficking, perceptions of the land down under

by Matt Kemp

see also the Tales of Asia guide to Sydney

March 2005

Ask anyone from the northern hemisphere what immediately springs to mind when you mention Sydney and you could reasonably expect to guess some, if not most of their answers. The Wallabies, the Opera House, maybe even Paul Hogan quietly sipping an ice cold Fosters with a freshly tamed ‘croc sprawled at his feet.

Well maybe that’s what Australians would like to think, and that’s certainly what I expected. My boss recently asked me to liase, via email, with a European student who was coming out to Sydney for a short fellowship. No problem there. However, once the initial formalities were out of the way, it quickly became apparent that my new Nordic friend had some rather different perceptions about Australia than what the good people at the tourism office might like.

Hannah, rather than being interested in sightseeing and tourist attractions, was far more concerned about her personal safety. Topping her list of “things to know about Sydney” was the current status of the long running, rampant infestation of “deathly little spiders” that apparently favour living in urban environments, assumedly so they are able to prey upon unsuspecting tourists without having to stomach a lengthy commute in from the bush on a city rail service (see below).

After we had established that she was not going to be living on the set of arachnophobia (yes we do have spiders here, but most of them are small(ish) and if you are lucky, largely harmless) we moved on to the weather. Yes, it is possible to swim in the ocean in March, in fact the water is great. “But what about the sharks?” was the reply waiting nervously for me the next morning. Hannah it seems (understandably), wasn’t terribly keen to encounter a shark underwater, and wanted to know how many great whites my friends and I had seen whilst swimming or diving around Sydney.

Once I had explained the only shark I’ve ever seen in Sydney was battered, deep fried and served with chips and sauce, we seemed to be making some progress. No she wasn’t flying into a spider-infested desert ringed by packs of rogue sharks at the bottom of the world, a fact which seemed to relieve her no end.

Several days later I dutifully cooled my heels in the milling throngs at Sydney airport, waiting for Hannah to clear customs. 45 minutes passed, then an hour, without any sign of her at all. Nearly an hour and a half after her flight landed, a rather stressed looking girl emerged from the customs area looking decidedly worse for wear. Although she had been prepared for all manner of biting and poisonous vermin on arrival, we had overlooked the one of the more intimidating creatures you are likely to encounter in Australia, the customs officer.

Australia has a disproportionately large percentage of the world’s dangerous and noxious wildlife. However, rather than working hard to keep all of the biting, stinging and clawing delights safely at home, Australia’s border protection authorities are more concerned about keeping the one or two species of vermin that don’t currently reside here, out. Topping the customs list of illicit substances (apart from your stock standard narcotics, pornography and weapons) is fruit. So you can imagine the delight of a bored customs officer when he stumbled across just under 2 kilograms of ‘Grade A’ Dutch mandarins with a street value of about $1.50, hidden (courtesy of a well meaning mother) in my friends luggage. Fines were immediately threatened, bags were emptied and searched, accusations levelled.

Hannah was, however, more than a match for the situation. “I just started sobbing”, she said to me with a cheeky grin as we lined up for a taxi a few minutes later, “loudly. The officer started to become a little embarrassed and then he decided not to fine me and let me go”.

Which made me think that Hannah was going to have a lot less difficulty adjusting to life in Sydney than I originally thought.


Civil unrest is an unlikely topic that has been receiving quite a lot of attention in Sydney of late. Ever since colonial times Australians have appeared to enjoy a good stoush with the authorities (do a Google search for the Eureka Stockade if you are interested in that sort of thing), however recently, there has been a noticeable increase in crowds hurling abuse, Molotov cocktails and whatever else comes to hand at the police.

The death of aboriginal teenager “T.J” Hickey in 2004 following a police chase produced a night of spectacular rioting, and weeks of heightened tension in a notorious housing development in Redfern known as “the block”. Last week, the deaths of two teenagers in a stolen car which was being chased by the police, (the driver escaped from the scene and was arrested this morning) ignited four nights of civil disturbances with large crowds again hurling projectiles and abuse at heavily outnumbered police in the Sydney suburb of Macquarie Fields.

Due to the public outcry following the “apparently heavy handed tactics” of police during and after the “T.J.” Hickey affair, police appeared to take a ‘softly softly’ approach in Macquarie Fields. Yesterday they decided not to come to the assistance of a local resident who, having criticised the actions of the mob during a television interview (probably not the wisest move), was getting bashed outside of his home by up to 10 men (including, apparently, the wanted driver of the crashed stolen car), while his 13 year old son called 000 for help. The police apparently thought it was either a hoax call, or decided that someone was trying to set them up for an ambush. Oops.

The Premier of NSW, Bob Carr assured people that everything was under control. None too surprisingly the leader of the Opposition, John Brogden, took the standard ‘chicken little’ approach and then demanded that the rioters immediately be crushed with 800 police.

The reasons for what appears to be a bout of civil unrest are (as pretty much every social commentator has been at pains to point out in the past week) complex. Sydney is a wealthy city, although as with most large cities there are large (and increasing) pockets of significant social and economic depravation. Redfern and Macquarie fields are two such places.

Surprisingly, on Saturday night, while more than 500,000 people were celebrating the annual ‘Gay / Lesbian / Transgender / Just like to get dressed up in something small and silver and party’ Mardi Gras on nearby Oxford street, police came under attack from an estimated 150 people throwing bottles in Darling Harbour. Darling Harbour is one of Sydney’s prime tourist attractions in the heart of the city, similar to Clarke Quay in Singapore (although the drinks aren’t that expensive).

So who’s to blame for these incidents? The friends and family of the car driver say all the trouble wouldn’t have happened if the police hadn’t been chasing the car. So called “rational people” say that if the three men hadn’t been out stealing cars then they wouldn’t have got killed or arrested in the first place. But it’s not quite that straight forward. For my two cents worth I think that anywhere you get poverty and frustration with authority, people are going to look for an excuse to vent their anger (and at the same time throw a few bottles) at the most visible form of authority. Sorting out the problem is even more complicated, but I don’t think several hundred extra police is the long term answer.

City Rail

Sydneysiders traditionally have a “love – hate” relationship (as in “I hate having to catch the train, and I love it when someone gives me a ride home in their car”) with the state run rail network. The rail network provides, more often than not, efficient cheap transport around the Sydney metropolitan area. However, recently several changes have come into play in the rail system:

Change number one: Significant delays in rail operations, cancelled trains, trains changing destination mid journey, general mayhem, frustrated commuters. This is due largely to an aging rail system, and more than a few incidences of drivers and guards turning up to work after having a ‘few too many’

Change number two: The introduction of “State Rail Officers”

It is not terribly difficult to see how continual disruption to people’s travel plans can get annoying. What is interesting is that the State Rail Authority (the people who “run” the rail system) decided that far too many people were getting away with not paying, or paying too little for their train travel. So under the guise of “increasing security on the rail network” it appears that they scoured the city for the most mean spirited, bad tempered and uncompassionate people they could find, dressed them up in snappy Gestapo inspired grey and black uniforms and unleashed them and their ticket books on the commuting public.

It is obvious to anyone with even the most limited intelligence that “revenue security” rather than “public safety” is the primary focus of the State Rail Officers, who now happily fine you upwards of $200 for a range of “offences” including:

No ticket
Wrong ticket
Putting you feet on the seats
Swearing on State Rail Property
Drinking on State Rail Property
Smiling on State Rail Property (well not really but you get the idea……)

My daily travel takes me from the city centre out to a suburban stop where I work. Normally, any ticket purchased from a ticket machine would read something like “city – x destination - return”, allowing you to get off the train at any of the six or so stations that comprise the “city circle”. Recently the ticketing machines have started nominating your station of origin, meaning that you can only get off where you boarded, even though the price of a ticket for getting off at any of the other city circle stations is the same. It doesn’t take a genius to work out what will happen if you do attempt to disembark anywhere else on the city line, although they haven’t advertised this fact, or this recent change.

Many people have complained about being fined for getting lost on the rail network and travelling outside the area allowed by their ticket, having the incorrect concession card (even though the less interested ticket sellers will still accept it) and so on. I’m not advocating people should be able to ride for free, or do whatever they like on public transport. You ride, you pay, everyone’s happy (assuming your train arrives!) However, when the system is running badly (as everyone freely admits) it does seem odd that the rail authority appears to be more interested in scamming fines out of people, and making the system more complicated to use (possibly to allow the more effective fining of unwary commuters) than fixing the rail network itself.

Perhaps, in order to circumvent the problem, I will have to take some fake crying lessons of my friend Hannah before she heads home?

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