Australia’s most incredible sick bay

On the North Head of Sydney Harbour, David Whitley discovers the Quarantine Station that thousands would have passed through on their way to a new life

The shower block is gigantic, and feels industrial. This was the nice one, for first class passengers only, with barriers erected for privacy. The steerage passengers wouldn’t get such treats – they’d just be herded through and forced to scrub publically in water infused with heavy doses of carbolic acid. I don’t want to say where it reminds me of, but the guide steps in.

She says: “Some people coming here had come from the concentration camps in Germany and Poland. They would see people going into this huge shower block, smell the awful unnatural smell of the carbolic acid, and then not see the people again because they left through the back.

“It was like they had been sent back to what they had escaped from"

The Quarantine Station on Sydney Harbour’s North Head is a remarkable place. Bandicoots, kookaburras and cockatoos pretty much have the run of the place, the harbour views are exceptional and most of the old buildings there have been cleverly converted into hotel rooms. But the place is riddled with history. This is Australia’s equivalent of Ellis Island in New York – it’s the place where first convicts and then free-settling immigrants would have to pass through before starting their new life.

Only one person on a ship needed to be sick for everyone else on it to be quarantined. Most people staying here were healthy when they disembarked, but they had to stay healthy for 21 days. You could be in for 20 days, then come down with the mild sniffles – something hard to avoid in the overcrowded conditions. The clock would be reset – it’d be another 21 days before you could rejoin the wider world.

The burden of proof was on the passenger, who had to prove he or she was free of disease. This usually involved being methodically checked over for smallpox rashes and other such indignities.

In 1918, there was panic over the Spanish influenza pandemic, and the solution was to send 40 people at a time into an ‘inhalation chamber’. To all intents and purposes, it’s an empty room that would be pumped full of steam laced with zinc sulphate. It was designed to cleanse the throat and airways, but given that zinc sulphate is now used as an emetic, it’s no surprise to learn that the treatment made more people sick than it cured.


Another building contains the autoclaves. They’re huge, industrial oven-like machines, connected to the boilerhouse by pipes. Steam would come through, and trolleys full of luggage, bedding and other belongings would be dumped inside for a high temperature steaming. Given that a lot of the luggage was essentially cardboard, many people had vital documents, photographs and clothing destroyed.

Only about 580 boats ever came here. The idea was to not let disease on board at the point of embarkation in the first place. There are no accurate numbers for the number of people who stayed at the Quarantine Station, but it is known that at least 572 died here. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a lot of ghost stories. And during the evening ghost tours, that shower block is the creepiest place of the lot.


Disclosure: David stayed at and visited the Quarantine Station as a guest of Tourism Australia.


by David Whitley



 Australia travel expert David Whitley answers questions about holidays in Australia at

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Australia’s top ten museums


Australia is usually pictured as an outdoor haven, with beaches and bushland glimmering under the bright sun. When it rains, however, you’re probably going to want to plump for an indoor option. Luckily, Australia has some tremendous museums – and there’s one to suit all tastes.


Best for sports fans


The Bradman Museum in Bowral, New South Wales


Domestic Aussie Rules football and rugby league games may draw higher crowds, but cricket is unquestionably Australia’s national sport. And while the Melbourne Cricket Ground may be the biggest venue, the picturesque ground at Bowral is the one that epitomises the spirit of the game. This was where Donald Bradman – the greatest batsman who has ever lived – played his club cricket. Next door to it is the Bradman Museum, which originally started out as a shrine to the man who retired with an average of 99.94. In recent years, it has become more all-encompassing, tracing the history of cricket and great moments from the game’s past.


There’s also a chance for novices to learn via new hi-tech installations that show various batting shots, fielding positions and umpiring gestures. Perhaps the most addictive is the game where you can play at captain, setting fields in a bid to get the electronic batsmen out.


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Best for the fear factor


The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin


There are numerous sections in the MAGNT, but the museum’s icon is amongst the rest of the stuffed wildlife. Sat alongside the birds of prey, shellfish, parrots and butterflies that still have relations living in the area is Sweetheart. This 780kg, 5.1m long saltwater crocodile gained notoriety in the 1970s for attacking fishermen in dinghies, overturning at least two. It was decided to move him from his billabong in 1979 and take him to a crocodile farm, but he died during the capture attempt.


Sweetheart may be the star, but he’s not the real reason to visit this museum. Where it offers something special is the exhibit on Cyclone Tracy, which ripped through Darwin on Christmas morning in 1974, killing 71 people and destroying over 70% of the city’s buildings. The panoramic photos of the devastation and the reconstructions of ruined homes are deeply moving, but most terrifying is the darkened booth that you can step into. Once inside, you hear a recording made by a priest on that fateful morning, and the sounds of the 200km/h-plus winds make you want to cower.


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Best for history


The Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney


One of Sydney’s finest old colonial buildings, the Hyde Park Barracks has gone through numerous incarnations over the years. It started as a convict barracks, became an immigration depot and asylum and then a court complex before finally becoming a museum in 1979. The former incarnations have rich stories to tell, and they’re presented expertly. The Convict Sydney Exhibition is arguably the best done. Around 50,000 transported convicts passed through the barracks between 1819 and 1848, and a giant mural depicts the whole system. Starting at the industrial revolution in the UK, then heading to the docks and across the oceans to life in New South Wales, there are lots of little details. Brilliantly, the mural is replicated on a scrollable video screen, where you can touch the details to find out much more about various aspects of colonial life.


Other highlights include the archaeology room, where some of the 85,000 items found under the ground and floorboards are put on display, and a room devoted to orphan girls shipped over from Ireland. Between 4,114 girls were sent to New South Wales, and their often-inspiring, often-heartbreaking stories are spelled out here.



Best for kids


Questacon in Canberra


Questacon is where science and technology become tremendous fun. Just about everything inside is hands on, and the theming of the various exhibitions is superb. A perennial favourite is the Sideshow: The Science Behind The Fun exhibit. It has a rollercoaster simulator and a giant slide, but does its best work when explaining how fairground slideshow games work. You learn that throwing balls into a bucket is easier when you lob them up and put a bit of spin on them to stop them bouncing back, and that it’s easier to knock cans off a shelf with a heavier ball.


Elsewhere, you can be in charge of traffic flow systems in a bid to stop (mercifully fictional) cars from piling up in traffic jams and test out the advantages and disadvantages of recumbent bicycles over normal ones.


Essentially, it’s a giant playground, with fabulously inventive methods of explaining how physical forces work.


More information:


Best for moving stories


The Immigration Museum in Melbourne


Perhaps better than any other museum in the country, Melbourne’s Immigration Museum tells the underlying story of Australia. It is a country built on immigration, from the early waves of convicts to the recent influxes from all over the world. The tales of numerous individual immigrants are told, while you learn about the conditions suffered by those coming in on the original convict ships. The various racist policies to restrict non-white immigration are also detailed, from Dutch people being forced to pass a dictation test in Maltese to extra taxes for Chinese immigrants. It’s one of those places that you mean to dip into for an hour, yet emerge five or six hours later with your mind whirring.



Best for atmosphere


Port Arthur in Tasmania


The tale of Australia’s convict era is told well in a number of spots, but nowhere does it feel more real than Port Arthur. This is where it all really happened – Port Arthur was a prison for the very worst of the reconvicted convicts, and the museum displays are in the old buildings. The curators get it spot on, knowing when to use gimmicks and multimedia to make things more interesting, and when to allow the complex’s ghosts speak for themselves. It’s also in an amazingly beautiful setting. The prison was chosen for its position at the end of a narrow isthmus – it was difficult to escape from – but the natural beauty didn’t half give the prisoners a good view.


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Best for art


National Gallery of Australia in Canberra


The National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne and Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney are both pretty good, but Australia’s best art collection can be found in the capital. There’s a massive amount to see in there, with a smattering of the big names from European and American art history represented, and a couple of good contemporary art sections. Its real strength is in Australian art, however. There’s no better place to go through the best in Aboriginal art, whilst Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings are arguably the most iconic works ever produced in the country.


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Best for niche topic


Whaleworld near Albany, Western Australia


Whaling was once big business in Australia, although the country has long since realised that there’s more to be made from binoculars than harpoons when it comes to whales. The old Cheynes Beach whaling station is now the site of Whaleworld, which is more an experience than a museum. Oil storage tanks have been converted into movie theatres showing films about whales and sharks, whilst a full sensory blitz accompanies you around the flensing decks and old station buildings.


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Best new museum


Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart


Opening in January this year, the Museum of Old and New Art has almost single-handedly seen sleepy Hobart picked out as a new happening hotspot. It’s worth a visit for the architecture as much as the contents – but just about everything about it is either striking, challenging or both. It’s more about installations than the traditional paintings hanging on walls look, and the variety makes walking from room to room a tremendously eclectic experience.


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Best overall


The Australian War Memorial in Canberra


If you can go to just one museum in Australia, make it the Australian War Memorial. In fact, it’s worth detouring to Canberra for alone. It doesn’t glorify or celebrate war, yet meticulously details its horrors. The collection is enormous and best tackled over a couple of visits, but if you have to pick just one area to concentrate on, make it the World War I section. From a British perspective, it’s hard to understand what this war meant to Australia. It was something of a coming of age for a fledgling nation. 60,000 Australians died in the various battles, of which the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey became the symbol of sacrifice.


World War I is depicted through a series of detailed 3D panoramas, all of which recreate the topography and troop positions from major battles. But there are also numerous personal artefacts, photos and in-depth explanations of events to add heart and background to the visuals.


Other galleries explore World War II and engagements since then, while the aircraft hall contains an impressive selection of war planes.


It’s also worth making sure you’re there for the end of the day, when a lone piper or bugler plays The Last Post. It’s something to make the hairs on your back stand up.




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by David Whitley



You can get the USA included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW or on our Discoverer RTW deal


Kings Cross

David Whitley starts digging away at the often sordid secrets of Sydney’s ‘entertainment’ district, Kings Cross 
Under the largest advertising billboard in the southern hemisphere, it is lashing it down. But it’ll take a lot more than this deluge to wash the stains away. The Coca-Cola sign – so famous as a landmark and meeting place that it is now heritage listed – marks the gateway to Kings Cross, a place of notoriety, history and everything else in-between.

The squall of wind and rain seems fitting. To our right is Darlinghurst Road, long Sydney’s epicentre of fun and filth – the adjectives always depend on which side of the fence you sit on. It’s a place of 24 hour bars (some classy, some less so), strip clubs, shambling junkies and backpacker hostels. One person will be looking for somewhere to stay, another for somewhere that’ll still serve them when they can barely stand, another will be trying to entice all and sundry into a live sex show.

Yet, according to our guide, Kim, the Cross has dramatically cleaned up its act. “When I came here 30 years ago,” he says. “Everyone had a story about crook cops. I thought they were all too fantastical, then one by one they turned out to be true.”

He’s not claiming for a second that the Cross is squeaky clean – nightclub shootings, the legalised injecting room and the heroin-wrinkled dead stares of the prostitutes still out through desperation at 9am would make that a fanciful boast - “but you don’t hear those stories on the street anymore.”

The story of Kings Cross is one of debauchery. It can, says Kim, “be told through the criminals who ran it.”

And the first two major criminals were women. One, Tilly Devine, took advantage of a law that stated it was illegal for a man to make a living off the immoral earnings of women. There was nothing to say a woman couldn’t make a living off those immoral earnings, and she set up a series of brothels in the area. The taxman eventually caught up with her, and she had to sell the brothels off to a ruthless tough who had no family. When he died, most of his estate was left to the RSPCA. “They suddenly found themselves with 24 brothels – not exactly their core business,” says Kim.

On the other side was Kate Leigh, who took advantage of laws that shut pubs at 6pm, setting up “sly grog shops” across Kings Cross. The two had razor-wielding gangs that did their bidding throughout the 1920s and 30s. It culminated in a 40-man slashing brawl at the bottom of Kellett Street, now an odd little back lane where red-lit ‘Gentleman’s Clubs’ rub shoulders with restaurants and antique dealers.

Their era ended with master corruptor Abe Saffron in control throughout most of the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. Through blackmail and bribery, Saffron had an uncanny knack of getting those who had the power to shut him down in his pocket. Age and tax bills brought Saffron down, but the police ably filled the void of vice, drug-dealing and corruption themselves. The most alarming stories on the tour are of what the coppers got up to – such as the gauntlet of batons that drunken brawlers were forced to run at the back of the police station as they went inside from the van.

These days, Kings Cross is beginning to embrace its past. The pavements tell the stories of the blood spilt on them through a series of special golden paving slabs. Euphemisms about the ‘characters’ are out in force, but some tell the tales of the victims. Outside the Empire Hotel, a slab commemorates Juanita Nielsen – a local journalist who had the temerity to campaign against developments on Victoria Street. She went to a business meeting at what was then the Carousel Club, was herded up the stairs that can still be seen from the entrance today and was never seen again. All those who could possibly reveal the truth have since died. Darlinghurst Road wears many of its secrets on its sleeve; but it holds many more back forever.

Disclosure: David stayed at the Altamont in nearby Darlinghurst as a guest of Tourism Australia ( He did the Kings Cross tour with Two Feet and a Heartbeat (

Forgotten Sydney


David Whitley is led on a voyage of discovery through the unassuming laneways that tell an alternative history in central Sydney 

I find myself in a place I’ve stood many times before. I’m outside the Customs House Bar in Sydney’s Central Business District, a place I frequented on many a Friday night when a friend was bar manager and inclined to pour out exceedingly generous measures of vodka. I can’t quite work out how I’d never noticed the giant anchor before, though.

It’s not exactly hidden – it’s enormous and sits on a large platform in the middle of Macquarie Place. For the first time, eleven years after I must have first walked past it, I read the inscription around the outside. The anchor belongs to the Sirius, one of the ships in the First Fleet that first brought convicts and settlers to Australia in 1788. I’m taken aback. It’s a major piece of history, and I didn’t know it was there.

For all the great information you can get in guide books or online, there’s something to be said for going about things the old fashioned way. It’s often the case that you can get just what you’re after by walking into the tourist information office and flicking through the leaflets.

That’s how I found myself wandering around the bin alleys and forgotten passages of Sydney CBD. The City of Sydney has put together a number of themed leaflets that map out walking tours around parts of the city and its suburbs. They contain days of discovery for anyone curious enough to pick them up and follow them.

I’d grabbed the one that links what are optimistically known as Sydney’s ‘laneways’. Realistically, most of them are grimy, forgotten passages full of parking lot exits and loading docks, but most of them hold fascinating little morsels of the past, present and future.

Curtin Place, for example, runs around the back of the Australia Square complex. Against a wall by the huge outdoor terrace of Ryan’s Bar, there is a plaque. It shows a map of central Sydney with the map of the 1788 coastline marked on. It went a surprisingly long way in. Old buildings that are now a few streets back from the shore were once waterfront properties – old wool storage warehouses still have the wheels at the top where bales were winched up from.

Also on the map is the Tank Stream, which is now thoroughly hidden from view and running under the city as a storm water outlet. If it wasn’t for the Tank Stream, Sydney may not have been situated where it was. It provided a crucial source of fresh water for the early settlers – something Governor Arthur Phillip was intent on finding before choosing a site.

The stream now runs under the terrace of Ryan’s Bar. Again, something I didn’t realise before.
The rest of the journey throws up similar surprises – a hotel made from a former warehouse on Bridge Lane, a cool-looking wine bar all on its lonesome on York Lane and swish shops along Palings Lane.

All I’d walked past countless times in the past, all I’d have probably walked past countless times in the future without having them pointed out.

Towards the end of the route, I turn into Angel Place. Above me are dozens of bird cages. There are no birds inside them – they’re just hanging down. And then I hear the birdsong; the twittering gently wafts across the air.

I double take – not for the first time on this illuminating walk of surprise discoveries – and realise that the noise is coming from speakers. This inconsequential little laneway, it seems, has been chosen for a bizarre art installation.

Sydney, it seems, is not the city I thought it was. But I love it even more.

First 24 hours



Want to know what to do in your first 24 hours in Sydney? Here’s the RTW guide from Shaney Hudson


Get out of the Airport:

The train from Sydney Airport is quick but carried an expensive surcharge- it will cost $15.80AUD to get into the city. A good cheat’s way to exit the airport is to get the (very slow) 400 public bus to Bondi Junction (great if your destination is Bondi Beach or King’s Cross) and connect to a train from there. Taxis carry an $3AUD surcharge and are metered, and costs about $35AUD+ and various companies run shuttles.


Getting around: 

Sydney has an expensive and occasionally- unreliable bus and train network.  Fares start at around $1.60AUD up. Many bus stops and buses work on a prepay only cards, which you have to buy from a newsagent or mini-mart (sadly, the Oyster card wasn’t adopted here). A weekly “MyMulti” ticket within the ‘Red Zone’, covering bus and rail most of Sydney costs $41AUD for adults.


Where to Stay:

There are a few notable backpacker ‘hubs’ in Sydney, include grubby Kings Cross, flashy and crowded Eastern Beaches like Bondi and Coogee, or Manly on the Northern Beaches. My pick for first timers is Sydney Harbour The Rocks YHA. Suspended over the top of an archaeological dig in the oldest part of the Rocks, this brand-new ecologically sensitive YHA has dorms, private rooms, cooking facilities and a terrace with a view to the Harbour Bridge, Sydney Harbour, Circular Quay and the Opera House.


Insider Tips:


Eat: Pubs across Sydney have cheap promotional menus, with different meals offered each night of the week (The Paragon does steak and chips on a Tuesday for $12, for example). Thai takeaway is also another cheap option- and a pie from Harry’s café de wheels in Wooloomooloo is a right of passage for any visitor.


Do: Walk (not climb) the Harbour Bridge (it’s free!) and walk around the Harbour foreshore past Circular Quay and ferries, past the Opera House and through to the Botanic Gardens. If you’re near the beach, go for a swim (between the flags) to get rid of jet-lag.


Drink: The pubs are too numerous to mention, but hotspots include speakeasies like Since I Left You, while trendsetters pack out the Ivy on the weekend. Notable beer gardens include the Watsons Bay Hotel or the Coogee Bay Hotel.


Link: Free Wi-Fi is available from the City of Sydney library- beware it is popular and you can’t Skype. (The library also has a top selection of international papers if you miss the tabloids from home, plus there is a giant model of Sydney city embedded in the floor under glass you can walk all over). Most McDonalds in Australia also offer free wi-fi.


Learn a bit of the Lingo:

Schooner: small than a pint, the regular sixed beer

Middie: baby beer

Mate: Attach to the end of every sentence. ie "thanks mate".


Politically incorrect but often used word: 

Ranga- red headed people. Don’t say it, commonly used in reference to the Australian PM.


Consider Avoiding:

Darling Harbour. Built originally as a tourist mecca, it’s a relatively unattractive planning failure with a 1980s-style shopping centre selling stuffed koalas, knock-brand UGG boots or souvenir t-shirts.


Escape Route:

  • Regional trains leave from Central Station, as do intercity buses.
  • Budget Airlines like Jetstar, Tiger and Virgin can have great early bird fares to long distance destinations, and some RTW tickets can be booked to include domestic flights or overland sections (fly into one city, fly out of another).
  • Avoid hitchhiking- it’s not safe.
  • Signs go up in dorms all the time to split petrol and catch a ride up the coast-but pick your driving partners carefully.
  • Sydney City council has just opened a new car market for backpackers who want to sell and buy cars and campervans in Kings Cross, details of which can be found here (and buy rather than hire vans. They’re largely un-roadworthy and safe- described by one friend as a ‘death-trap on wheels’)


Disclosure: the author has been the guest of YHA in the past- and frequently consumes too many pies from Harry’s Café de Wheels.