I love the way little people define their world. It reminds me of how we used to say our night prayers when we were small, listing off like a mantra all those we loved. I was listening to Dermot tonight as he chatted away happily to himself in a sing-song voice in the next room, reciting “MaMa, DaDa, Claire, Mikey, NaiNai, YeYe, NaiNai… and then, after a pause, huati (slide), che (car), huo che (train), haishui (the sea), before repeating the list of names again and eventually drifting off to sleep, content in the boundaries of his little life.
He had an exciting day today – a trip to the beautiful Taronga Zoo in Sydney which involved a bus ride to Circular Quay, a ferry across Sydney harbour, a cable car to the zoo’s main entrance and, later, a train ride across town to dinner in The Chef’s Gallery, a Chinese restaurant near Darling Harbour. But that wasn’t enough to wear him out before bedtime so we had to end the day as he had begun it with his other NaiNai, with a visit to the local playground up the road here in Randwick before returning home with a dirty face, a cheeky grin and a few more bruises from slides and football.
Sydney is a wonderful city for children and as I gaze at my daughter Claire’s growing belly I envy that new life inside her and the childhood Claire and Mike can hope to provide for him or her in this beautiful, child-friendly place.
Over the two weeks we have been here, I’ve watched Dermot change from being a shy little boy, used to spending most of his time in a 21st floor Beijing apartment, to one who can’t wait to get out the door each morning and on to the next adventure. I’ve watched him begin to connect with other children, making eyes at the pretty six year old girl in the playground this evening until she eventually joined him on the see-saw and trying to get involved in an impromptu game of football.
We’ve fed ducks in Centennial Park, paddled at Clovelly Beach, had a Christmas morning picnic at Bronte Beach, visited the Sydney Aquarium, attended barbecues in Claire and Mike’s friends’ back gardens and walked the windswept promenade at Bondi, and all that apart from five days down the New South Wales Coast at Culburra Beach.
Getting around Sydney with young children is relatively easy – the buses, ferries, trains and even the Taronga Zoo sky-train are designed to be accessible and locals will go out of their way to make sure that space is made available for a child in a buggy.
Children lead an outdoor life here, well protected from the sun with high factor suncreams and body suits or snuggled in children’s tents on the beach for their afternoon naps. Running buggies are a common sight and birthday parties start as early as 10 am in the cool shade of Centennial Parklands.
Many restaurants are geared up for toddlers with high chairs and kids menus. The Chef’s Gallery provided Dermot with his own bowl, Chinese spoon and mug today, complete with illustrations of a monkey. The major attractions are expensive but you can get better value at Sydney Aquarium by buying tickets on line in advance and the best value way to get to Taronga Zoo is to buy an all-inclusive ferry, sky-train and zoo entrance ticket at Wharf 2 on Circular Quay. In general children under four are free and of course the beaches and parks are free for all to use and equipped with dedicated spots to set up your barbie for breakfast or lunch.
If I was to do just one thing with children here it would be bring them to Taronga Zoo. It has to be one of the most beautifully laid out zoos in the world with stunning views over Sydney Harbour. As you rise above it in the Sky Train to the entrance at the very top you get a bird’s eye view of the elephant enclosures and the big cats. The tall giraffes have the best views of all looking out onto Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge.
The Australian walkabout takes you past kangaroos, wallabies, koalas and many other native species I had never heard of although Claire has encountered some of them in the wild. In keeping with the ethos of the zoo, the kangaroos and wallabies aren’t even fenced in, it’s just the daily visitors that have to stick to the paths. It’s obvious that the guides and keepers love their jobs and the animals in their charge. The gorillas are disdainful, the meerkats cute, the platypus delightful and the Tasmanian Devils not as angry looking as I expected. There is a great programme of talks and close-up encounters too. Needless to say Dermot was as excited by the che – the sky cars passing overhead – as he was by any of the animals.
Arriving at the zoo by ferry is an added bonus. I am constantly smitten by the sheer, exhilarating beauty of Sydney Harbour and I can think of no nicer daily commute.
For an authentic taste of China in Sydney, I can also strongly recommend The Chef’s Gallery – we visited the one near Sydney’s Chinatown but there are several branches around the city. The Three Cup Chicken, Sichuan Green Beans and Red Braised Pork Belly were among the best we’ve tasted. The noodle master swinging his rope of noodles in the open kitchen made MaMa feel right at home.
Shane and Shan’s time here is drawing to a close and they return to the icy Beijing winter in a few days before relocating to Ireland at the end of the month. We will miss them until we meet again. They will be sad to leave Sydney and us too no doubt and MaMa will miss them and Dermot very much when they leave Beijing. As for Dermot, who knows what goes on in that little head of his as he processes all the change and new experiences. I just hope some subliminal memory of his time here in Sydney will stay with him for life.