David Whitley explores the mushrooming small bar scene in Australia’s biggest city – and discovers that a change of licensing laws has led to drinking dens with character.


There’s no carpet on the floor, the walls have their brick gleefully exposed, and all around are the heads of moose, cows and wild boar. The man with the enormous comedy moustache at the bar takes his time describing the range of drinks on offer, genuinely knowing his stuff and says it’s fine if we want to bring some food in. Shady Pines is an audacious attempt to bring a semi-ironic saloon bar to an underground cellar just off Sydney’s gay epicentre, Oxford Street. It’s in a quiet side lane, and the signage consists of a single bit of paper with the name scrawled on.


It doesn’t feel like a Sydney pub at all. Generally, these fall into three categories. The first is the utter dive where people go to play on pokie machines (the ubiquitous gaming machine curse of Australia) and offer “I might stab you” looks to strangers. Then there are the giant beer barns that feel like a small city in themselves and the showpony bars where airheads go to look beautiful and get bought drinks by sleazy Neanderthals in suits.


Shady Pines is quite clearly in none of these categories, and it is not alone. In a bin lane between the RM Williams and Oakley stores on George Street, there is a door with a strip of Astroturf above it. This, it turns out, is The Grasshopper.


Its owner, Martin O’Sullivan is the driving force behind the Sydney Small Bar Owners’ Association, a collection of chaps and chapesses running similar bars. They’re mushrooming at the moment – especially in the CBD and Surry Hills – and Martin says that if I’d turned up a couple of weeks later, I’d be able to find another four or five.


The small bars are branded as a ‘scene’ but each is very distinctive. The only things in common are that you can’t fit many people in and there are no pokies. The Grasshopper has a French-style bistro upstairs, while downstairs it’s all about cocktails and bizarre martial arts photos all over the walls. So what has happened to the bars in Sydney since I left?


Martin explains that it’s all down to a change in licensing laws that came into practice in late 2008. “Before then, the minimum to get in was a million dollars. Owning a bar was reserved for the elite few with rich parents. Now you can get a small bar licence for a place with under 120 capacity and no pokies, and the game has changed.


“You can open up with around $100,000 if you want to. People can set out what they want to do, and do it – they’re not betting everything on it, so can afford to take risks.”


What tends to happen is that the bars reflect the personalities of their owners, and can afford to test out a few new concepts – the Grasshopper, for example, serves some cocktails in jars shaped like teddy bears. Not every bar is going to be for everyone, but they’re certainly distinctive. And they’re doing well, attracting drinkers with a degree of intelligence, discernment and lack of attitude. The people, in other words, who have previously had to settle for the beer barns or show pony bars due to lack of alternatives. 


Other small bars worth checking out include the Bondi Speakeasy in Bondi, the Foxhole and Grandma’s in the City and Love Tilly Devine in East Sydney. But new ones are cropping up all the time – the trick is to find one, then ask someone at the bar for other recommendations.


More on the Grasshopper here





Off the coast of New South Wales, David Whitley stumbles across a scheme to save the fairy penguins and rid their island habitat of an unwanted invader.


The ranger removes the brick from the top of the wooden box and lifts the lid. Huddled away in the corner is a sight of such undeniable cuteness that even the most emotionally-stunted meathead couldn’t resist crumbling into a gushing “awwwwwwwww!” The two little penguin chicks are essentially just big balls of fur with intensely lovable faces, and they are one of the main reasons that so much work is going into Montague Island.


The tiny 82-hectare speck off NSW’s south coast is home to Australia’s second-largest colony of fairy penguins (the largest being Philip Island in Victoria). If things had been left as they were, however, the penguins would have been pushed out. Kikuyu grass, an African import, was beginning to take over the island – including the penguin nesting sites. When left to grow rampant, it becomes dense and incredibly strong. For one of those adorable little furballs, to get caught up in the wrong patch can mean death. A long blade wrapped around the neck may as well be wire.


Thus the National Parks and Wildlife Service has embarked on a long term mission to replant native bush on the island, getting rid of most of the kikuyu and allowing the penguins to regain their habitat. Most of this work is funded by government grants, but an increasing amount is from tourists. And not only are they paying the money – some are mucking in with the job in hand too. While most visitors come to Montague on a half-day trip, there is also the opportunity to stay a night or two and help out with the conservation work.


This innovative marriage of holiday and environmental protection has seen the project win Tourism NSW’s eco-tourism award for the last two years. Phenomenal amounts of effort and paperwork have gone into making sure the footprint of visitors is as low as possible. There are no-go areas around important Aboriginal sites, a strict code of conduct has to be signed and solar panels and water tanks have been installed to make the operation largely self-sufficient.


The island is a half-hour’s boat ride from the wharf at Narooma. It’s a deceptively treacherous stretch, involving the navigation of high sandbar and decidedly choppy waters (even when the swells at the mild-to-moderate setting). Stand at the back of the boat without shelter and a drenching is guaranteed.


As it pulls into the jetty, a strong smell assaults the nose. It’s coming from the right – around 200 seals are perched on the rocks, some sniffing the air, some jumping in for a quick dip and others simply lolling about. The sheer concentration of them in one place makes for engrossing viewing, but it’s fair to say that they have the odd personal hygiene issue.


Climbing up the path to the lighthouse, it’s clear where the work has already been done. The island has been divided up into zones, and they are being tackled one year at a time. This leads to some wild discrepancies. One, for example, is covered in towering acacia, while in others kikuyu runs free or the land is barren, waiting for recently planted trees to grow. The task of transforming the island back to its natural state is not an enviable one – the grass has to undergo a fingertip search for penguin nests before it can be burned off. Even after that, it’s remarkably resilient and keeps growing back while rangers attempt to replant hectare after hectare.


This is where the overnight volunteers come in. There are some glamour tasks – such as helping PHD researchers monitor the penguins, but most of it is hard toil. That means digging out weeds, and fumbling in the dirt to plant. Those in charge are keen to point out that the volunteers are free to do nothing if they so wish, but in practice most throw themselves into it. To the NPWS, the assistance is the equivalent of employing an extra full time staff member for half a year.


It’s not all about the grunt, though. The overnighters stay in the surprisingly luxurious lighthouse cottage, which gives the air of a rather plush guesthouse, albeit one stranded on the top of wild moorland where ghosts are ten-a-penny. A selection of board games is scattered around; a bit of old-fashioned entertainment on stormy nights, isolated from the rest of the world. This is all part of what makes the experience so unique, of course – almost like a camping expedition in the middle of nowhere, but with a comfortable bed to sleep in and a decent kitchen.


There are also special privileges, such as seeing parts of the island not accessed by the day-trippers and getting to watch the penguins scuttle back to their nests at dusk from a much better, more intimate spot. And, when counts are being made, the temporary residents get to peek inside those nesting boxes. But the biggest privilege of all is being able to make a tangible difference. As Preston Cope, the NPWS’ area manager, explains: “People have said they want to be able to come back in five, ten years time and see the changes. You can’t put a price on the satisfaction of being able to say ‘I did that’.”

More photos here

 Disclosure: David was a guest of Tourism New South Wales (



Sydney again



Sydney is one of those truly great cities that can be a holiday destination in itself. You can spend months there and still find new things to do. Even if you’ve already visited once, chances are that there’s a heck of a lot you’ve missed out on. So, for those who’ve done the usual harbour, Bondi, Watson’s Bay and Manly Ferry schtick already, here are a few suggestions to try for when you go back to Sydney.


The Moonlight Cinema

During January, a few spots in the city trade on the moonlight cinema concept. They vary in levels of comfort and formality – the one at Mrs Macquarie’s Point in the Botanic Gardens erects temporary seating and strictly controls the number of tickets, while the one at Centennial Park is very much a picnic blankets and beanbags affair. The latter tends to mix in the all-time classics with some new releases, and whilst it’s hardly the best place for viewing the screen and listening to car chases, it’s a wonderful way to pass an evening with friends, cheese, nibbles and a bottle or two of wine. The former, of course, wins out by having the harbour as a backdrop to the screen.


Newtown and Enmore

The hugely likeable suburbs of the Inner West have a tendency to blend into each other somewhat, but the Newtown-Enmore hybrid is probably the most interesting spot in the area if you have to pick one. It’s full of bars that are far more down to earth than their showpony rivals in the Eastern Suburbs and CBD, you can generally find a good live band on, and there’s food from all around the world available – usually at a very reasonable price. This is Sydney’s slightly grungy, slightly arty heart and most people don’t venture there due to a lack of obvious tourist sights. Time to rectify that.


The Spit to Manly Walk

Everyone does the Bondi to Coogee walk. That’s why you’re constantly fighting through disgustingly fit joggers dragging their tiny little rat-dogs behind them. There is, of course, an absolutely justifiable reason why everyone does the Bondi to Coogee walk – it’s brilliant – but it’d be a mistake to think it’s the only brilliant walk in Sydney. The slightly longer 10km trail from the Spit Bridge to Manly takes you around the undeveloped northern reaches of the Sydney Harbour National Park, past Aboriginal rock carvings, sunbathing lizards and tethered yachts. If you couldn’t look out upon the rest of the city, it’d feel a world away.


The Northern Beaches

For most visitors, going to the beach in Sydney involves getting the bus to Bondi, or the ferry to Manly. If you stay a while, you branch out to the other Eastern Suburbs beaches such as Coogee, Bronte and Tamarama. None of these would probably be in with a sniff of Sydney’s top five – perhaps even top ten. For the best beaches in the city, you have to head north. Manly is theoretically one of the northern beaches, but the trees make it shade over in the afternoon and it can get very crowded. Take the bus up to any of the options on the way to Palm Beach at the top of the Barrenjoey Peninsula and you’re pretty much guaranteed to find a beautiful, relatively uncrowded spot. My favourites are Whale Beach and Bilgola Beach, but Narrabeen, Collaroy, Dee Why and Curl Curl all have a lot going for them too.


The Royal National Park

In Sydney’s southern reaches, this is the second oldest national park in the whole world. Established in 1879, it is largely untamed bushland with a few walking tracks running through it. Bushfires periodically have their wicked way with the eucalypt trees, but the hardly-touched beaches and big cliffs make the coastal fringes worth battling through the bush for. Hire a kayak, bring a picnic or strap on the walking boots – you’ll forget that you’re still within the city boundaries.


Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park

Also within the city’s boundaries, albeit at the northern rather than southern end, is Ku-ring-gai Chase. It’s another staggeringly large swathe of bushland where the walking tracks barely see a soul, and the water gives it a magical frame. In this case, the water is Pittwater, the yacht-strewn stretch that separates the Barrenjoey Peninsula from the thick greenery of the National Park. Incidentally, much of the Skippy television series was filmed here...



OK, Kurnell isn’t the most glamorous part of Sydney, but it is one of the most historically important. It was here at the southern tip of Botany Bay that Captain Cook landed in 1770. With the land claimed for Britain, it set into motion the European colonisation that vastly changed ancient cultures and turned Australia into what we know it as today. A monument marks out Captain Cook’s landing place, while there are also memorials to the most important members of his crew, such as Joseph Banks. The latter was the botanist who meticulously catalogued as much of the native Australian fauna and flora in the short time he had on the new land. The Discovery Centre, within the Botany Bay National Park, partly tells the story of Cook’s expedition – but it also goes into the much longer history of the area.



Also of interest to the historically minded is Sydney’s ‘second CBD’. Way out to the west, through all manner of unappealing, faceless, suburbs, Parramatta doesn’t exactly have the hippest reputation. But it was the second settlement in New South Wales, and many of the buildings from the early colonial era still exist. Elizabeth Farm is now a museum, but part of it is the oldest surviving colonial home (dating back to 1793). Old Government House – which used to be the official home of New South Wales governors – is also worth a look. But the real joy of Parramatta is getting there. Everyone takes the ferry to Manly, but the Parramatta ferry from Circular Quay gives you just under an hour of boat ride along the harbour and Parramatta River.





David Whitley takes to the air over the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park, terrified that his tiny steed won’t make it.


If two proper helicopters got together and had a baby, this would probably be it. In chopper terms, the tiny contraption in front of me looks like a newborn. It can seat two (or three with a bit of breathing in) and appears to be a mere shell. This is my first time in a helicopter, and I can’t profess to being an expert, but being able to see the engine and inner workings surely isn’t safe, is it?



Despite it looking like it might start crying when I touch it, the helicopter is apparently fine. Seeing the guts is a cool design thing according to Mike Watson. Mike runs Fleet Helicopters in Armidale, New South Wales and his small squadron of flying machines gets up to all sorts. Some are used for transporting rich businessmen around, some are used for fighting bushfires or power line surveys and others are used for taking tourists out on jaunts above the countryside. And for me, that countryside is going to be the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park. It’s gorge country, and we’re going to fly low over six of them, taking in waterfalls, old mines and areas that even the most ardent bushwalker would be hard pushed to reach.


“Do you want the door on or off?” says Mike, as if this is a perfectly normal pre-flight question to ask. “There’s not too much wind about, but it might be a little bit blowy.” A little blowy? In every single one of my other flying experiences, a missing door mid-flight would lead to a depressurised cabin and being sucked out to certain death.  But hey, if it improves the view, why not? I’m strapped in with a harness that looks suspiciously like one from a high thrills rollercoaster, and the rotors slowly begin to whir. It takes a few minutes for the engine to warm up – it needs to be going at 30rpm before take-off. 


To emphasise just how small the scale of things is, Mike’s radio communications don’t go through a control tower – he talks directly with the pilot of the Qantaslink plane that’s nearby on the runway. After a quick “do you mind if I go first old chap?” in pilot-ese, we’re off over Armidale, and then over the farms and vineyards towards the gorges. It’s a part of the world that’s monumentally underrated. The Oxley Wild Rivers National Park bears comparison to the far better known Blue Mountains near Sydney. Of course, it’s not within two hours of a major city so it doesn’t see hordes of tour buses every day - but there’s the familiar blue haze, a lush green foliage and jaw-dropping views from almost every angle.


Before heading into the gorges, I’m given a little education about the area. What we see today started to form around 60,000 to 70,000 years ago when Australia and New Zealand were part of the Gondwana supercontinent. The tectonic plates crunched into each other, forming a plateau. A wet period then followed, in which rivers carved out the gorges through granite rock that was at one stage the floor of the Pacific Ocean. It’s an area that has been subject to a David Attenborough documentary, Life. The famous naturalist came out looking for rock wallabies and wedge-tailed eagles, and he wouldn’t have had to battle through many people to see them.


The benefits of the pocket-sized helicopter, its wrap-around glass windscreen and missing doors soon become apparent. We fly over Hillgrove, an old antimony mining settlement on Baker’s Creek Gorge. It feels like a proper eagle’s eye view as we pick out the mine shaft, and the mild buffeting as we transcend air channels adds to the thrill. Lean back towards the propeller, and the DAKKA-DAKKA-DAKKA is vivid; venture a hand out towards where the door once was and it feels the pace. The pen I’m holding almost takes a long trip downwards.


From Baker’s Creek, we fly over motorbike tracks, walking trails and tributaries of the Macleay River. We’re looking out on a unique eco-system – plenty of hitherto undiscovered plants have been found here by scientists, and there are probably a few more that are yet to be tracked down.Animal tracks – probably belonging to dingos or wallabies – dot the scree slopes near the gorgeous loop in the river known variously as “The Heart Of New England” and “Mickey Mouse”. There’s no sign of any active life though – our tiny aircraft feels like it’s the only thing for miles around


We swing a sharp right to get a proper view of Wollomombi Falls, which is the first, second or third biggest waterfall in Australia, depending on whose tape measure you’re using. It’s little more than a trickle today, but it’s more than made up for by Dangar Falls, which is billowing over the cliff face. Apparently an Italian chap once tightrope-walked over Dangar Falls pushing a wheelbarrow. Each to their own, but I think I prefer my baby skeleton helicopter with its missing doors.


More photos here




The Flight of the Six Gorges with Fleet Helicopters ( departs from Armidale airport and lasts around 60 minutes. 




On one extraordinarily long day that’s actually three, David Whitley visits two famous beaches on two continents.


With the possible exception of Santa Monica, Malibu Beach is arguably the most famous beach in the United States. In a way, it is indicative of Los Angeles’ sprawl – it feels like an incredibly long, stressful drive to downtown from there, but it is still regarded as part of the city. The Malibu sands stretch out for miles as well, prettying up the development that spreads along the California coastline north of LA.



For anyone other than Big Lebowski connoisseurs (“Get out of my beach community!�?), Malibu is the fabled home of ludicrous plotlines, red floatation devices and Pamela Anderson’s bounding breasts. It is, of course, where Baywatch was filmed.


The Hoff and company can’t be found there any more, alas, but the lifeguard towers still remain. As we parked up, a resolute guard looked watchfully out to sea, and a fleet of rescue vehicles sat in the car park. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, and it appeared as though every skinny rich kid in the LA area had descended on Malibu.


It is not a place you go to if you want a representative snapshot of LA’s diversity. For such a multi-ethnic city, Malibu appears to be something of an upper middle class white ghetto. It’s also a terrible place to go to if you happen to be over the age of 22. You’ll start to feel old very quickly.  We wanted to stop at Malibu for a couple of hours to break the journey to LAX airport. But it wouldn’t be the only famous beach we stopped at before finally getting to bed.


Flying across the Pacific is weird. No matter how many times I cross the International Date Line, I’m doomed to remain perpetually confused. Our flight from LA left late on April 16th, and we arrived in Sydney on the morning of April 18th. April 17th didn’t exist for us, yet it felt like one extraordinarily long day


We’d finally get to rest our heads in the Hunter Valley, but despite being clad in clothes I’d really rather change out of, I foolishly insisted on a detour. We would go to Sydney’s northern beaches, largely because I wanted to eat barramundi overlooking Pittwater at the Newport Arms. The northern beaches and Barrenjoey Peninsula are a scandalously unsung part of Sydney. While everyone flocks to Bondi, Coogee and Manly, they’re missing out on the city’s most glorious beaches. The peninsula is a narrow spit, flanked by the Tasman Sea on one side and the boat-crammed Pittwater on the other. It’s beautiful, and it’s no wonder that some of the most expensive houses in Australia can be found there.


The last stretch of sand on the peninsula is Palm Beach, and as we attempted to park, a flustered chubby chap frantically waved for us to move to another spot. I wondered what the jobsworth’s point was until I saw the TV cameras. Whilst the show that made Malibu famous is long gone, Palm Beach still stands in as Summer Bay. Home and Away is still regularly shot here, generally about once a week, and we’d struck lucky. Running through their scenes were a couple of spindly kids who are probably famous (but not to me as I’ve not seen the show since the days of Pippa, Michael and their zillion fake children).


Adolescent actors aside, Palm Beach still retains its enormous beauty. Unlike Malibu, there’s hardly anyone on it and it just feels special. Standing there, I knew I was back on the side of the Pacific I’ve long been hopelessly in love with. And, pleasingly, the name of Mr A. Stewart can be found on the sign above the surf club...