Looking down on Sydney from the window of a plane my eyes move across its landmarks. The window is the shape of a gemstone, an opal ring, in which the image below flashes with ever-shifting details. No sooner have I fixed my attention on the red and yellow cranes of Port Botany then they have receded, replaced by the Kurnell peninsula and the circular white petrol storage tanks of the Caltex refinery, then the remains of the now-much-eroded sand dunes landscape, then the edge of the land, beyond which Sydney disappears.
This time there’s a bright arc of colour striping across the view of the ocean and sky, a rainbow with another, paler double in parallel. The plane seems to fly right through it, like it’s a farewell garland.
A few minutes later and Sydney, that place that can seem so all-enclosing when I am in it, is gone, replaced by ocean and sky. The seatbelt sign goes off and people start to snap the window-shades down. When they raise them again it will be eight hours later, and we will be in another part of the world entirely.
Coming back home three weeks later, it’s dark, pre-dawn, and I can see the suburbs below me in a pattern of lights. I scan for a few minutes until I spy something I recognise – the orange building at the crest of Taverner’s Hill. It’s too dark to see its colour, but its blocky bulk is unmistakeable. It’s a surprisingly prominent and useful landmark, this building that was once a brewery, now a self storage warehouse. Inside it are millions of objects that people have put to the side, giving the building, in my imagination, a denser weight than the others that surround it.
The plane travels over the inner west streets, over Tempe Tip and the barrier of scrappy land between it and the airport, and then bumps down on the runway. A moment later, the “Welcome to Sydney” announcement comes. I like this transition: the plane hovering just above the runway, then the jolt of the wheels against the tarmac and the plane’s deceleration to a point where it’s certain we’re safe and landed, and then the announcement to seal the journey’s end.
Even after only three weeks away things have changed. The leaves are all fallen from the trees, carpeting the pavement along my street. There are more storeys added to the big developments on the main road and by the railway line. I’m jetlagged, the bright Sydney light pulls at my eyelids, and I feel not quite here, not quite there.
A few mornings afterwards I drive to the cliffs above the ocean at Maroubra. The sea is rough, crashing white on the rocks below the rock platform above which I sit on a sandstone crag, pitted with holes and cracks. I set out my things: notebook, thermos, paper bag with a brioche inside. As I eat the brioche a magpie hops up to me and I toss it a crumb. Soon its friends arrive and there are six magpies on the rock in front of me, and I’m throwing them crumbs which they snap up in midair. I know these birds. Their territory is the headland, and I often see them on the sweep of lawn behind the cliffs, heads cocked as they listen for insects under the soil.
One of the birds starts to sing, a warbling jumble of notes that bubbles up from its throat. Soon they are all singing, a magpie choir serenading me as I sit here on the rock above the ocean. It is the moment I feel truly home, back in the city where my life takes place.
It’s winter and the Manly Waterworks is closed for the season. The tubes of the waterslides are squeezed in between the cliff and the boardwalk, coiled up like fat snakes. We peer in through the wire fence at one of the slides, the “Insane Earthworm”. Around the end of the pipe is a painting of the earthworm, with huge bloodshot eyes, staring in a trance towards the ferns and fronds of the palm tree alongside it.
The waterworks is an eccentric-looking place, a construction of pipes and scaffolding with plastic chairs and beach balls marooned here and there. Recently, the owner of the Waterworks has applied for it to be heritage listed, arguing that, as one of Manly’s attractions since 1981, it has significant historical importance. It was immortalised in the BMX Bandits. People who went there as a child are now bringing their children for a slide down the earthworm.
Long before Manly had the Waterworks there was the Water Chute. Opened in 1903, the Chute was a cross between a rollercoaster and a waterslide. People would ride down a steep slope in a boat-like contraption which crashed into an artificial lake. Crowds gathered to watch the thrilling loss of composure of the passengers as they “shot the chute”, decorously dressed men and women screaming as the sped down the steep incline to the waters below. Eighty years before Nicole Kidman plunged down the earthworm with her BMX, local shoe store owner “Professor” Artie Adrian was making regular Saturday night appearances at the Water Chute, riding his bicycle down the slope and into the pool.
The Chute closed in 1906, going the way of many of other of Manly’s seaside attractions: the fun pier, the camera obscura, the Bioscope, the toboggan, the Shark Aquarium, the horse and cart rides and the balloon ascents. Manly has long been a place of novelty, modelled on the British seaside resort it briefly shared a name with, Brighton.
Before its transformation to European-style leisure resort, the area’s first European name – Manly Cove – arose from Arthur Phillip’s observation of the “confidence and manly behaviour” of the Cannalgal and Kayimai men who inhabited the peninsula. Manly Cove was also the place where in 1789 two Cadigal men, Bennelong and Colebee, were abducted by the British. A drawing of this scene made at the time shows the bay small and enclosed by trees. Now the same cove a mixture of apartment buildings and Norfolk Pines, with the ferries churning in towards the wharf every half hour.
Behind Manly Cove the land rises up steeply. On the top of the hill there was once a stone castle with battlements and a tower, built by the eloquent politician William Bede Dalley in 1881 as a place of retreat after the death of his wife. I’ve long been fond of Dalley, whose bronze likeness occupies an unobtrusive corner in Hyde Park and always make a point of visiting him when I’m nearby. My fondness for him comes from a few details: he liked colourful cravats, he was a patron of the arts (Dalley’s castle included an early writer’s residency, described in 1904 by journalist Mary Salmon as a “haven of rest” for men of letters) and on the side of his statue are the words “Born in this City”. Me too Dalley, I think, me too.
The castle was demolished in 1939 but their gardens remain, and the same vista across the Manly peninsula out towards the ocean and the harbour. Steps form a path alongside jutting rocks, up to the top of the hill. There are rainbow lorikeets sipping nectar from the yellow banksias and swallows circle overhead. Behind the park is a cluster of brick apartment buildings, some with tall chimneys, others with multicoloured bricks and curved balconies, castles of a different kind.
On the other side of the hill is all that is left of Dalley’s castle, a high stone wall guarded by two gargoyles, one lean and toothy, the other canine, a Bloodhound with a mean stare. The gargoyles look out over Ivanhoe Park across the street where bowlers are playing their Saturday morning games on the green. I follow the zigzag path through the park, past an old man carrying a padded briefcase who gives me a brilliant, white-dentured smile.
The most well travelled path in Manly is the one from the wharf to the beach along the Corso. Like the Roman equivalent for which it was named, this is a busy thoroughfare with tourists and visitors, locals walking their dogs or heading out to cafes. It feels perverse to be tracing an alternative path through the hilly streets. Apart from my friend with the briefcase and the bowlers on the green, there is no one else out climbing the hills.
I turn into Kangaroo Street, in search of Manly’s most omniscient, if lesser-known, attraction. It soon comes into view.
From its perch on the hill the Kangaroo has watched Manly grow from a village to a busy suburb. Constructed in 1857, it was commissioned by “father of Manly” Henry Gilbert Smith. Smith was responsible for many of the first buildings in Manly and the planting of rows of Norfolk Pines along the shoreline. He was also responsible for the sandstone mascot which, despite unfavourable comparisons to a teapot, has outlived the majority of Manly’s other tourist attractions.
The Kangaroo rises up from a patch of steep, rocky bushland. Paths trace around it, some more precarious than others. I follow one until I’m at the base of the plinth. Up close the kangaroo resembles a large pear with two stocky paws and a neat little face. Its body has seams running around it, revealing how it was constructed in sections, like a layer cake.
The kangaroo has a clear view of the Manly rooftops and the ocean beyond. In the distance I can see people strolling the Steyne, the beachside promenade named after its Brighton counterpart by Henry Gilbert Smith. The tiny moving figures in the distance seem remote from this high perch. Immediately below me are a series of rock platforms strewn here and there with empty Corona bottles and cigarette packets. Names and initials are carved into the soft sandstone underfoot, inscriptions from visitors recent and past.
From this position I can glimpse my next destination on the Queenscliff headland. It’s marked with a bright pink heart painted on the rocks, a tiny fluorescent chip in the stone wall. I farewell the kangaroo and begin the walk down. At the bottom of the hill is a curving road where I notice the mural on the back of the Salvation Army hall includes an homage to the kangaroo.
After walking along the Steyne to its northern end I reach the bridge across the lagoon. This is not the first time I’ve attempted this mission. A year ago I’d tried only to find the Queenscliff pool under renovation and the cliffs blocked off. This time there’s nothing to stop me from climbing up the stairs beside the still, winter pool and out across the rocks. I work my way along over rocks like stepping stones, moving further towards the tip of the headland and the spraypainted pink heart.
I round the corner and the entrance to the wormhole comes into view, a dark archway in the rock face. I step inside. In here the sound of the ocean is like slipping into the crevices of a seashell, a muted roar. The sandstone around me is unevenly chipped away in layers, wet with seeping trails of water.
As much as I expect the wormhole to lead to another dimension I emerge on the other side of the cliff, facing the ocean. Below me the waves smash into the rocks. The cliffs are layers of striated, eroded rock, complex in shape, as unique as a thumbprint.
The wormhole (also known as the Queenscliff Tunnel) was constructed in 1908 by local fishermen as a shortcut through from Manly to Freshwater beach to the north. Now the path to Freshwater has been blocked by rock falls, though it is still possible to clamber across them and make it to the beach. I don’t do this, though. I stand on the other side of the wormhole, staring out to sea across the restless water, towards the horizon. It’s not long before another group of Wormhole travellers emerge to join me, two hippy men with waistcoats and necklaces and a woman in a short black evening dress and no shoes.
“We’ve all made it through,” I say. “to the other side.”
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There is plenty more Manly history at Manly Library Local Studies Blog.
Thanks to Steve B. for telling me about the wormhole years ago.