History in the Sand

In The Art of Travel Fall 2017, 4. The Spirit of Place, Sydney by Nicolas1 Comment

Attempting to uncover the identity of certain cities can be an incredibly demanding task.  On the surface, particular locations become blurred when compared amongst the vast network of multicultural global cities that have taken full form in the 21st century. On the other hand, preformed expectations and stereotypes can also work to alter and hide the defining features of locations.

Sydney, New South Wales, is comprised of a massive metropolitan area that stretches over 12,000 km² (In comparison, New York City’s five boroughs total approximately 800 km²). If I was asked to derive the signature factors of Sydney within the confines of my typical weekday activities, it would be close to impossible. The central business district (CBD), where my classes and internship are located, isn’t particularly different from the business districts within any other major financial hub: suits and skyscrapers certainly aren’t enough to define a major city.

For me, discovering the “soul” of Sydney has come through a combination of outdoor adventures and lessons within the classroom.  Although Sydney is the oldest colonial era city still standing in Australia, I often forget how “new” it is when comparing it to other global cities across the world.  Due to its founding in the late 18th century, Sydney’s identity is not as much defined by it colonial history; instead it is the natural, untapped beauty of the landscape and the rich history of its longtime inhabitants that prove to be truly noticeable.  Just in the Sydney area alone, Aboriginal people have existed for over 40,000 years and there are countless areas where they have left their mark. The Eora nation is the group of clans that existed in the Sydney metropolitan area. Of the nearly 30 separate clans that inhabited the region, the Gadigals owned the land within downtown Sydney.  On a recent field trip to the Sydney Museum with my marketing class, we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak with current members of the Gadigal community.  We learned about aspects of their culture and community that have been passed down for centuries, like their cuisine, craftsmanship and weaving expertise, and music and dance rituals.

Three of the most heavily traveled streets in Sydney (George Street, King Street, and Oxford Street) were Aboriginal tracks that originally served as routes of trade between the inner grasslands and the zones designated for fishing. Along the sandstone cliff path that connects two of Sydney’s most famous beaches, Bondi and Coogee, Aboriginal engravings that depict clansmen, important animals, and commonly used tools and weapons are carved into the surrounding rock.

Simply put, Sydney’s beaches are among the most identifiable locations in the entire city.  Even though spring has just begun and the weather hasn’t quite reached favorable beach conditions, the beaches are consistently packed on weekends with locals and tourists alike.   Although the beaches are certainly among the most beautiful I have seen anywhere else, the main reason for their popularity is due to their overall proximity to the city center. There are close to a dozen large beaches within a 25-30 minute commute from the central business district.  Surfing is also unquestionably a pastime for local Sydney residents.  Looking towards the ocean from the beach there always seems to be a wall of surfers 70 yards out crashing through the waves.  Thinking back to the reading I’ve done about Sydney’s pre-colonial history, it isn’t hard to imagine the Gadigal people fishing in the same waters over the past several tens of thousands of years.


  1. Hey Nicholas,
    Thanks so much for this post! I completely agree with it—it’s indeed quite a demanding task to attempt to describe the spirit of a city, especially when we are only a little more than a month into our study abroad program. Because this is my second time studying abroad, I have had the privilege of visiting several European cities, and I am afraid that sometimes they do kind of blur together, which is why I do my best to try to travel to different areas with unique histories, and that is why I have landed in Prague. You, however, are in such a great position because you’re in a major city that was once part of a colony (something I think most people forget)! In Gallatin, I study Empire so it was a pleasure to read your post and learn a little more about Australia’s colonial history. I also appreciate the fact that you took the time to share the way in which the Aboriginals undoubtedly helped shaped the Australia we know of today. I think that frequently, too little attention is given to the natives because they are depicted as ‘backward’ and all the credit is attributed to European colonists in Western academia. Evidently I am less informed about Australia than you are, so I wonder to what extent Australia has truly acknowledged its Aboriginal community and its contributions beyond the history that cannot be erased….Anyway, I will definitely be looking forward to your posts to see if my musings can be answered, and so that I can keep learning more!

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