Saturday, June 7, 2008

Sports’ own country

Australia is a heady mix of modernity and natural beauty. It is a country where love of sports is universal. A.J. Philip shares his impressions after a recent visit

A view of the Manly beach in Sydney.
A view of the Manly beach in Sydney.

Opera House — the most recognisable icon of Sydney.
Opera House — the most recognisable icon of Sydney.

A colleague at The Tribune has a huge wall-size photograph of Sydney harbour in his drawing room. Facing it is an equally large one of the devout offering prayers at Mecca.

When I asked him why he juxtaposed the pictures in this manner, his answer was candid: "I am a Muslim who believes in both tradition and modernity. Sydney symbolises modernity."

Australians could not have found a better advertiser for their harbour city than my colleague who finds in the skyscrapers and the gigantic Opera House that dot the skyline the best that modernity has to offer.

Sydney was not always like this. Until Captain James Cook discovered the continent in 1770 and Arthur Phillip reached Sydney to set up a European settlement in 1788, it had been inhabited by aboriginals who died by the thousands when the new settlers brought with them smallpox against which they did not have any immunity.

For the British, Australia was a kaalapani where criminals were exiled. It was, therefore, a bit amusing to find in the disembarkation card visitors having to answer the query: "Have you ever been convicted?" I wondered whether this was still a qualification to enter Australia. "A poor joke" my Australian friends would instantly comment.

For all its modernity, Australia retains much of its environmental purity. Little surprise, the one question that the customs people ask is whether you have brought any food, plants or seeds. If your answer is yes, they will gently lead you to a huge trash can where you can ‘deposit’ your ‘precious’ stuff.

My friend E.S. Isaac, who heads Doordarshan Sports, narrated with great `E9lan how his colleague from Chennai, who had come ‘armed’ with 25 ready-to-eat, vacuum-packed masala dosas to last the entire duration of his stay in Melbourne to cover the 2006 Commonwealth Games, had a near-heart attack when he had to deposit the whole consignment in the trash can.

"Are you sure, you have no foodstuff?" repeated the customs official when I answered "no". Perhaps, he must have figured out my South Indian ancestry and my unabashed fondness for dosa. He did not seem to believe me, though he spared my bags.

Statue of Major General Lachlan Macquarie in Windsor.
Statue of Major General Lachlan Macquarie in Windsor. — Photos by the writer

"May-June is winter time in Australia", I had been warned in Chandigarh. But I realised I was overdressed in a three-piece suit as we waited for Catherine to pick us up. A student of theology, she looks forward to her marriage with a Dutch pilot on 08-08-08, the day the Olympics begin in Beijing. "After the marriage, we can watch the Olympic ceremony!"

The Sun was blazing when we started out for the Sebel Resort and Spa in Hawkesbury Valley, an hour’s drive from the airport. Amazingly, the only human being we saw on the route was a person of (perhaps) Indian origin trying to cross the road. Small wonder that Australia is still considered a virgin continent.

Overlooking the Blue Mountains, the hotel, spread over eight hectares, is a perfect get-away. With little else to do after checking in as the media conference was to begin only the next day, I went out to explore Windsor, a few minutes by foot.

Set amidst golf courses, cricket pitches, badminton courts, baseball grounds and basketball courts, Windsor is a historic town. Anything around 200 years old is "historic" in Australia. Cemeteries abound around Windsor.

The locals rue the fact that the British had used the soldiers from Australia and New Zealand in the battles they knew they would certainly lose. The statues of two soldiers – a New Zealander and an Australian – with their guns pointed downwards as a tribute to the fallen soldiers flank the Anzac bridge in Sydney.

I accidentally stepped into the war cemetery at Windsor where a huge column stands in memory of the "soldiers from Windsor and district who lost their lives in the service of the Empire in South Africa".

Nearby was the St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, an architectural masterpiece of famed convict-turned-architect Francis Greenway. In the large graveyard could be found bronze plaques affixed to the aged headstones of convicts or freed persons.

From there I wandered into a park which has at its centre a cute statue of Major General Lachlan Macquarie who was Governor of New South Wales from 1810 to 1821, who planned and founded Windsor and neighbouring towns like Richmond and Wilberforce.

A plaque at the foot of the statue says about the Major General, "The honest, sober and industrious inhabitant, whether free settler or convict, will ever find in me a friend and protector". How one wishes our own generals, who become governors and administrators, could say the same to the people they administer.

It was no surprise that the next day our conference began in a room named after the Major General. Earlier in the day I attended what was touted as "Australia’s biggest fund-raising morning tea party by the poolside".

However, there were less than 100 persons, the size of a kitty party. The money collected went for the welfare of cancer patients.

The hotel is a favourite destination for those who plan weddings. Marriages have not yet become old-fashioned. Dominic Steele, who ministers to mediapersons and has blessed "at least one marriage a month for the past 10 years", is certain that not one of the marriages he solemnised has floundered. How many priests or pastors can make such a claim in India, forget the West?

If there is any sporting nation in the world it is Australia. If you are a cricket-lover, you can chat endlessly with an Australian, who knows more about the antics of Sreesanth than you.

It was fun watching two kids play with a baseball. After a while, they threw the ball away and entered into a friendly wrestling match that I thought would end in a quarrel. When they got tired, they again picked up the ball and played with it.

Even so, I was not prepared for what I saw at the Annandale church in Sydney. Nobody found anything incongruous in a youth juggling with a football in the church as the faithful renewed their fellowship after the service. In India it would have been a sacrilege.

The prospect of returning to India without getting a feel of Sydney proper stared us in the face. Thankfully, Steele offered to drive us to the harbour for a cruise. He showed us some of the architectural marvels of Sydney like the tallest tower, the impressive library and the Sydney hospital which has a statue of a black pig spitting water. He drove us through the botanical garden to a spot from where you get a breathtaking view of the Sydney harbour.

The Sydney Bridge and the sail-like roofed Opera House looked God’s own creation from there. A visit to the harbour begins with a tour of the Opera House— the most recognisable icon of Sydney that took 14 years to build— and ends with a cruise.

The cruise to the Manly beach took 30 minutes and provided a panoramic view of the harbour and everything that is viewable in Sydney. The suburb is called Manly because Captain Arthur was impressed by the "confidence and manly behaviour" of the indigenous people living there, one of whom even speared him.

The beaches are the cleanest I have seen and they can keep you spellbound for hours. As we got back to the ferry to return to the harbour and to the airport, a variation of Robert Frost’s lines formed in my mind, "Beaches are lovely, bright and beautiful but I have miles to go and oceans to cross before I can reach Chandigarh".