I always describe Sydney as an Urban Paradise. It is certainly an active “urban” environment with its pristine Central Business District and unique village-scale neighborhoods. The “paradise” is the natural landscape, which does not seem to get old. Nestled between a harbour and the coast line, the city weaves around bays, beaches and national parks. But the more Sydney exposure I have, the more I begin to wonder whether “Urban Jungle” is a better characterization.
With the “jungle” comes spiders, lizards, snakes, bizarre insects and an exotic array of both native and foreign bird species. In addition, some of the native mammals, including possums, echidnas, bandicoots, wombats and kangaroos roam the edges of the metropolitan areas. Just to dispel the myth, kangaroos are NOT hopping through the city and no one has a kangaroo as a pet.
Any New Yorker is used to squirming as rats run across the subway tracks, avoiding flocks of pigeons, and watching Central Park’s manic squirrels; they don’t call it a “concrete jungle” for nothing. But with a mix of urban, paradise, and jungle, Sydney presents a distinctive condition that makes you realize that you are at the ends of the world.
A walk through Sydney’s Domain and Royal Botanic Gardens is full of surprises, revealing the diversity of wildlife in Sydney. The garden is positioned adjacent to Bennalong Point, the location of one of the world’s most identifiable buildings, Jorn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House. The garden is a perfect backdrop for this icon.
At its western edge, the garden is straddled by the city’s Central Business District. The southeast edge connects to the Domain Trust, another city park and cultural district. This is the site of Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair, a bench carved out of sandstone which was constructed in the early 1800’s for the wife of the New South Wales Governor (Mrs Macquarie) who founded the Botanical Gardens. Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair is a popular destination, providing panoramic views of Sydney’s magnificent harbour.
The Botanic Gardens and its periphery is one of the most visually spectacular spaces in the city (maybe even the world) and only a quick escape from the urban bustle just blocks away. The garden itself is the oldest in Australia and contains flora and fauna from Australia and the South Pacific. With almost 9,000 plant types (download list here!), one can explore the varied environments or follow the recommendations from the visitor guide to “walk on the grass, smell the flowers, hug the trees and picnic on the lawns.”
Meandering through the different spaces, one might confront a flock of cockatoos or be eyed by a group of magpies (they are not very nice birds). Ibis’ (which have become a pest in the city) pick through trash cans with their peculiar beaks as ducks bathe in the ponds.
The most surprising though, is the “Rare and Threatened Plants Garden,” home to a colony of over 20,000 fruit bats. These native, grey-headed, flying-foxes live happily in the palm grove. As one walks along the Grove’s designated pathways, bats hang like ornaments in the trees above, sleeping the day away. Several have insomnia, waking up, screeching, disturbed with flapping wings (with a wing span that can exceed 1 meter). There is a distinct scent in the air and bat droppings all over the pavement. It is both fascinating and grotesque.
But while the bats remain a photo stop for tourists, the Royal Botanic Gardens is extremely vocal about the destruction that the bats are causing to the plant collection. Signs explain that while the bats are “important for pollinating and spreading seed of native vegetation, in the gardens, they defoliate and kill the trees… in time the Palm Grove and surrounding gardens will be destroyed and the flying-foxes will need to find a new home.”
The problem was originally created by the extensive planting of fig, eucalyptus and gum trees that have become the favorite food for bats. Sydney has become the bats best feeding ground.
Currently, the Botanic Gardens is working to relocate the bats outside of this heritage site using noise disturbance, although plans have been postponed. The attempt by the Botanic Gardens to move the bats presents much controversy. For starters, flying-foxes are threatening extinction in the next century.
An opposing argument is that the city needs to be shared. In April, a unique event was held, “The Bat Human Project” presented by the Remnant Emergency ArtLab. The project looked to better understand the bat-human relationship. The event brought together various voices — artists, scientists, urban planners, flying-fox carers ”” to generate a greater understanding of the flying-fox’s relationship to human environments.
While the discussion continues to stew, no matter which side of the debate you support there is no doubt that the bats add individuality to Sydney. Every evening at sunset, this colony of flying-foxes cross the city skyline. A swarm of bats, thousands of them, fly overhead, traveling from the Botanic Gardens to their evening playground, Centennial Park. It is a sight not to miss, an awe-inspiring experience. It is a moment of pause where you realize you are in a different place. A city, a jungle, paradise”¦ After all, it is the little things that make a difference.