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Changing tides: redefining Sydney's iconic waterfronts

Australia’s largest city is built around ocean inlets, beaches and an iconic harbour, but changing economic and environmental tides are shifting the shape of its landscape.

Published 3 Jan 2020, 06:00 GMT
Overlooking bathers beside the green Bronte Ocean Pool, next to the blue ocean and crashing waves.
Bronte Ocean Pool, Sydney.
Photograph by Chris Van Hove

The city is stirring. We set out just as the sky begins to blush, turning the bay an oily pink. There is little traffic out on the harbour this early, but our passage requires precision: in a fluorescent line, we wait patiently for our moment, droplets of water dripping from our kayak paddles, phones tucked away, all eyes on our guide. 

The 06.22 Milsons Point ferry passes, and it’s time; buoyed by the strong currents and bobbing in the wake of the ferry, we paddle under the Sydney Harbour Bridge just as the sun rises, filling the bay with gold. Every rivet and beam refracts the light and, despite previously having seen the bridge from almost every angle, gliding underneath its metal underbelly fills me with awe. 

With its beguiling harbour and shining beaches, Sydney is the kind of place that leaves an impression. However, away from the harbour, along its main arteries and beneath the ground, the capital of New South Wales is in a state of metamorphosis: a new light rail network is under construction, extending from the Central Business District (CBD) to the east; a motorway is being built to the west; and Sydney Metro, Australia’s biggest public transport project, is set to deliver 31 new metro stations and more than 40 miles of new railway. The city is a construction zone. 

And yet, the water that curves through Sydney’s sandstone core seem to wash away all its din and sin. The Pacific Ocean laps its eastern coastline, the harbour spills in at Port Jackson, and Parramatta River pushes beyond the bridge to the geographic heart of a city that won’t stop growing. 

Everyone wants a piece of Sydney. Some buy in, spending millions on a harbourside property; others fly in, selfie stick in hand. But, despite this being one of the world’s most expensive places to live, the best things about Sydney are free — namely its waterways and coastlines, from Smugglers Track at Palm Beach in the north to the Figure Eight Pools at Burning Palms Beach in the south. 

But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been meddled with. Remarkably, over 50% of the harbour foreshore has been artificially constructed, and parts of the coastline have also been irreversibly changed. 

Kayakers at sunrise under the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Photograph by Chris Van Hoe

There are more man-made ocean pools here than in any other city in the world, carved into the cliffs, rocky outcrops and beaches. Some, like Mahon Pool at Maroubra, are set close to grassy nature reserves; others, like the pool at Bondi Icebergs Club, lie metres from high-end bars and fine-dining restaurants. 

No matter their pedigree, however, nature is the greatest equaliser: Sydney’s ocean pools are all battered in bad weather and flooded by heavy swells, with the odd fish, stingray or even shark ending up in their waters. 

Originally built for competitive swimming, to improve safety and as a Depression-era employment project, ocean pools have emerged as one of the city’s most unique features. Another striking aspect of Sydney’s architecture is its finger wharves, at Walsh Bay and Woolloomooloo — a legacy of the city’s maritime industry. 

“The finger wharves in Sydney are unique; [they’re] perhaps Australia’s first innovation in terms of architecture,” says Eoghan Lewis of Sydney Architecture Walks. When it was built in 1915, the wharf at Woolloomooloo was the largest timber structure in the world. Slated for demolition in the 1980s, it has now found new life as a luxury hotel, marina and residences.

Throughout Sydney, these tiny pockets of maritime history remain. Beneath the railway arches in the harbourside suburb of Lavender Bay, the open doors of a shed reveal a timber ship being built by hand. Although boats have been constructed here for more than a century, this is the last remaining workshop of its kind in Sydney. The carpenter sits on an upturned blue milk crate, using a mallet and chisel to slowly shape the keel. 

As industry has wound down, parts of the foreshore have opened up. Barangaroo, located just west of the Harbour Bridge, is the city’s shiniest, and perhaps most controversial, new development. Until 2006, the 22-hectare area was a disused container terminal; in 2015, the six-hectare Barangaroo Reserve was opened to the public — albeit with significant modifications to the original plans, including an increased amount of space for commercial use, the addition of a casino and private apartments, and significantly less public parkland than had originally been proposed. Walking through the meticulously landscaped area, replanted with 75,000 native trees and shrubs, it’s hard to get past the irony of an upmarket dining area in a spot that was known as ‘The Hungry Mile’ during the Great Depression. 

Although the development has opened up the harbour to the public, it’s come at a price. In the past few years, more than 600 social housing tenants living in the local area around Millers Point and nearby The Rocks have been forced out of their homes; the subsequent sale of 193 properties generated A$608 million (£325 million) for the state government and changed the demographic of the neighbourhood forever. 


In certain areas across the city where politics has come up short, the public has stood their ground to save their patch of land — and nowhere has been a greater success story than Wendy’s Secret Garden. Increasingly embraced by international visitors, Wendy’s Secret Garden was a place born from mourning. After the death of her artist husband Brett Whiteley, Sydney resident Wendy Whiteley began clearing the invasive species, abandoned refrigerators, tossed beer bottles and scrub from the disused railway near her property in Lavender Bay, transforming it into a magnificent garden filled with sculptures and birdlife. Despite the area blossoming into a much-treasured Sydney retreat, however, it remained government-owned land; its future wasn’t secured until 2015, when the New South Wales Government agreed to hand over the site on a 30-year renewable lease in recognition of its importance to the community. 

Similarly, Chowder Bay, a former military base on the city’s north shore, was opened to the public as a result of intense lobbying by community advocacy groups; it has been maintained by the Harbour Trust since 2000 and has become one of Sydney’s best macro dive sites. Smaller creatures including seahorses and weedy seadragons thrive around its pier, although the reason for this is manmade rather than natural: the concentrated fishing that takes place around the wharf means there are no predators left to eat them. 

Walkers in Wendy's Secret Garden, Sydney.
Photograph by Chris Van Hoe

Slipping on a snorkel and mask, I wade in, passing stingrays resting in the sandy flats and beds of green seaweed. I follow the net until eventually I find magic in the water: a tiny seahorse, its tail curled in a spiral around the net, just metres from shore, unseen by the fisherman casting a line above. 

Recreational fishing is still popular in the harbour. The state government recommends a ‘catch and release’ practice for anything caught west of the Harbour Bridge, but that doesn’t seem to deter the fishermen who cast a line off Milson’s Point each morning. 

Close to where they fish, a series of hexagon-shaped tiles hug the sandstone foreshore. Visible at low tide from any ferry departing Circular Quay, they’re easily mistaken for a quirky art project. In fact, this is Living Seawalls, an initiative by Sydney Institute of Marine Science, designed to make the harbour a healthier place. The tiles mimic the natural root system of the mangroves that once existed here and are designed to colonise organisms that filter particles and pollutants out of the water. 

“Sydney Harbour is unique, because despite the challenges it has with the building work, boat traffic and cruise liners, the actual water quality is very good,” says Richard Nicholls, owner of Dive Centre Manly. 

Visitors need look no further than the World Heritage-listed Opera House to see for themselves — for the past few years, the northern steps have been the favoured stomping ground of a wild, long-nosed seal. 

Sydney has always been a place for wildlife. A robust fairy penguin colony exists off Manly Cove and over 20,000 whales migrate past the city each winter — but a new venture by Taronga Zoo aims to bring visitors even closer to nature. 

Opened in October 2019, the new 64-room Wildlife Retreat at Taronga is built around The Sanctuary, an animal enclosure home to echidnas, potoroos and wallabies. The retreat is so enticing, even the wildlife have moved in, including a ring-tailed possum we shoo out of the lift on our way to dinner. However, it’s at night, when the gates close and Sydney goes dark, that the retreat comes into its own. Braving the chill, I open the sliding glass doors and find a koala perched at eye-level. Wallabies bounce across the enclosure and possums scamper along the fence. 

But slowly, the harbour draws us back. The view is hypnotic. Ferries roll across the bay, the water shimmering around them like an apparition, and skyscrapers blink slowly against the dark sky. Anchoring it all is the Harbour Bridge; tiny pinpricks of moving light blurring the road as cars cross the threshold between north and south, its pylons standing sentinel and its arch lit in flickering colours that fade in and out, like the heartbeat of the city. 

A zoo keeper feeds a quokka at Taronga Wildlife Retreat, Sydney.
Photograph by Chris Van Hove

Getting there & around

British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways and Virgin Australia are among the airlines that fly to Sydney via their respective hubs. Average flight time: 24h.

Sydney Airport has direct train, taxi and bus connections to the CBD. Sydney is served by an extensive network of public transport options, including light rail, buses, metro and ferries. Trip Planner is useful for planning trips on public transport.

When to go

Sydney has an average temperature of 25C in summer and 17C in winter. For sea swimming, the water temperature is best between December and early June. 

Places mentioned

More info

Welcome to Country: A Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia by Marcia Langton (Explore Australia, RRP: £22.99)

How to do it

Expedia offers flights from London to Sydney via Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific from £728; four nights at the Sydney Harbour YHA in a premium private double room with harbour views costs from A$636.60 (£341).

Published in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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