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



Western Australia Whales

David Whitley gets a taste of Australia’s dark whaling past, and realizes why the only boats going after whales now don’t have harpoons.

The bay is awash with blood. Sharks, whipped into a feeding frenzy, surround the boat, as the men on board battle to drag their precious haul ashore and keep it intact. Gunshots ring out above the howling wind, a shoot-to-kill policy adopted to keep the circling predators away. To go overboard now would be instant death, as it has been for colleagues in the past.

This scenario, mercifully, is at least half a century out of date, from back in the day when hunting whales was a lucrative way of life. But, at Whaleworld in south-western Australia, it’s not difficult to find yourself going back in time. Now a museum, this site was formerly home to the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company, and it’s not difficult to surmise that it must have been a stinking hellpit.  Before lack of demand for whale oil and international hunting restrictions ensured that whaling was a deeply unprofitable business, the windswept coastline of the Southern Ocean had big bucks swimming alongside it. The whaling industry was a major breadwinner in Western Australia’s first town, Albany, and though the work was deeply unpalatable, it was work nonetheless.

Whaleworld doesn’t beat about the bush in explaining how much of a thankless task it was too, and as you go through the old station, recordings from that bygone age act as a particularly unpleasant time machine. The flensing deck is first up, and this was where the captured beast was hauled onto from the boats to be unceremoniously hacked to pieces. Starting at 4am, the flensers, caked in blood, flesh and saltwater would reduce the ocean giants to carcass with the sort of knives that would bring most of us out in a cold sweat. It wasn’t only the whales that got butchered; fingers were routinely severed and limbs regularly sliced open. The worst assaults would have been on the nose though. The flensing deck, as with the rest of the station, bore the overriding stench of death. The company closed down their operations 28 years ago; it’s taken almost this long for the sun to bleach the deck clean and the wind to blow the smell away.

These days, everything is far more sanitised, and the station has had millions of dollars thrown at it to make it into an attraction. It drips with technology, from the restored ships to the processing factory and storage tanks. Some of it is unnecessary – the size of the ovens in which bones were melted down speaks for itself – but from 3D movies to interactive displays, the intention is clear: more money can be made from learning about whales than slaughtering them. It’s a principle that is carried on down the road in Augusta. This is one of Australia’s corners, and it’s where the Southern and Indian oceans meet. It’s also one of the country’s prettiest coastlines, with the granite headlands surrounding Flinders Bay quite wonderful on even the bleakest winter’s day.

Between June and September every year, the bay is home to humpback and southern right whales, who have ventured north from the Antarctic in order to mate and generally warm up a bit. It doesn’t take long to spot one either. The crew of the Cetacean Explorer have around 20 eager helpers, ready to believe that any slight ripple in the water is their quarry, but the assistance isn’t really needed. They know where to look

These people are seriously knowledgeable about their whales, and the tours are almost run as an excuse to research their behaviour rather than a business. They know most of the bay’s inhabitants by name, recognisable from various markings and shark bites.

They observe the rules about approaching the whales very strictly too – if the target is not showing interest in being observed, or goes to hide under the water a couple of times, then it is time to move on. This is the case with our first sighting. Initially looking like a boulder, upon closer inspection it’s an adult southern right. Not a particularly sociable one, however, as he disappears soon after we get close and switch cameras on.

This is not the case further round the shore, however, and here we strike gold. What initially looks like one whale turns out to be two, a mother and a newborn calf. The youngster is exceptionally playful, and keeps popping up at all angles, then dipping away again just as the flashes go off. That would be another photo of a slight ripple, then… Eventually his mum, perhaps affectionately and perhaps through sheer exasperation, collars him. It’s an incredibly moving moment; it looks like she’s giving him a hug. You can see the close bond between the two through the clear waters, and it’s magical, worth immeasurably more than all the oil and whale meat in the world.



By David Whitley


A kangaroo on the beach: The Australian cliché jackpot


David Whitley stumbles upon a magical wildlife encounter at Cape Hillsborough in Queensland

It’s that magical period of dusk where the moon is forming a perfect white circle in the sky, and the range of orangey pinks are layering stripes over the top of the water on the horizon. This would be pretty marvellous any evening; the massive 6.5 metre tide at Cape Hillsborough is on its way in, covering the bobbles made in the sand made by burrowing soldier crabs earlier in the day. Wedge Island provides a perfect backdrop, and the arm of the cape itself protects the almost unnatural glimmer of the beach. 

But it’s not just any evening. I’ve got company. There are a few children still on the beach, plugging away with their buckets and spades, but it requires a double-take to realise that one of the outlines isn’t child-shaped. 

We have been joined on the beach by a very special lady. 

One with a pouch and a very long tail. An eastern grey kangaroo has come to enjoy the sunset as well. I start off observing from a distance. She sits still for a bit, then hops over to what she must regard as a much more exciting spot on the beach. I don’t want to scare her off, so I approach gradually. She seems remarkably unthreatened – I guess that comes from growing up near a holiday park full of families with young kids – and I find myself getting almost within touching distance. 

She fidgets, trying to get a sandfly off her leg, but unperturbed by me. I move around to the side so that I’ve got the coloured sky and Wedge Island behind her. And then I just sit there on the sand, watching night come in. She’s not exactly the ideal model – she has an uncanny habit of moving her head just as I think I’ve lined up the perfect photograph. But after a while, I put the camera away and just lie there entranced. To get so close to such a magnificent wild creature, one-on-one, for so long and in such an incredible setting is one of those memory of a lifetime moments. And then she moves – not to hop away, not to go and investigate something more interesting, but to lie down on the sand less than a metre away from me. It’s around 45 minutes before I can bring myself to leave. It’s almost totally dark. 

I turn round to see the children still absolutely focused on building their giant network of sand canals. Philistines.


New Norcia


David Whitley discovers a bizarre slice of Spain in the West Australian bush, and finds that the monastic community looking after it is struggling to survive.

The artwork inside the chapel is astonishing. The murals fill every available bit of wall space, climbing towards the patterned roof. The scene is a riot of angels, and in contrast to the puritan wooden pews lined up in front. It would be an eye-opener in a fine old European city, but to find it on a patch of red dirt in the Australian bush is a little unusual. What’s more, the standards of architecture and decoration are maintained across the town in prayer rooms, old schools and the Abbey church. As a result, 27 of the 65 buildings in New Norcia, Western Australia are listed by the National Trust. New Norcia is a spectacular oddity. It is Australia’s only monastic town, and every building in it is owned by a small community of Benedictine monks. This includes the surprisingly lively pub.

A couple of hours’ drive north-east of Perth, the town was founded in 1846 by a group of four Spanish monks fleeing persecution in their homeland. The key man in the early years was Dom Rosendo Salvado, who managed to set up the town as a farm and educational centre. He finally died in 1900, after writing extensive diaries in Spanish, English and the seven Aboriginal languages he learned. These are currently being translated in Melbourne, and are thought to be the most complete Aboriginal history ever committed to paper.

Under Salvado, New Norcia was a mission, but in the 20th century, education was the town’s major industry. Those schooled included Aboriginal children removed from their parents’ custody (at the behest of the government rather than the monks). The tour guides tend to gloss over the links with the Stolen Generations, however. If you don’t ask, you’ll not  be told. The two boarding schools - St Gertrude’s College for Girls and St Ildephonsus College for Boys – created a relative population boom. At one point, around 250 people – both monks and staff – lived at New Norcia. But when the schools were abruptly closed for economic reasons in 1991, the community was left without a purpose or an income. The population dropped to around 50 almost overnight. Dom Chris, the prior, procurator and tourist glad-hander in chief at New Norcia, says: “It was a great crisis. It wasn’t an easy thing for us to reinvent ourselves.

“These lovely buildings cost a huge amount in upkeep and insurance, so we couldn’t just sit on our hands.” In accordance with St Benedict’s rules, the town is self-sufficient. It gets no State or Federal Government funding. And with the school gone, the monks decided to return to the traditional industries; making olive oil, bread and wine.

It went part of the way. New Norcia’s bread is generally regarded as the best in WA while the nutcake is sold in both Aussie department store David Jones and Harrod’s. The monks also decided to develop tourism, or “hospitality” as Dom Chris prefers to call it. The museum and art gallery were improved, guided tours of the buildings were set up, and those that book in advance can “meet a monk”.

In practice, this is usually Dom Chris again. He has the bearded look and jolly demeanour of an affable-but-bumbling country vicar in an old fashioned British sitcom. But he seems genuinely keen to enlighten his curious audience, responding with admirable verve to questions he must have heard a thousand times before. Yes, they do have lighter weight habits in summer, yes, they are allowed to drink and no, they haven’t taken a vow of silence – that’s the Trappists.

He runs through both the daily routine (highly structured, prayers seven times a day, plenty of silence, 5am starts and a surprising amount of wine) and the process of becoming both a monk and a member of the community. It’s a drawn-out affair that involves a vow to stay as part of the community for life, a year doing all the crappy jobs as a novice and a potential black-balling from the other monks. Dom Chris has been at New Norcia for 27 years, a stretch he describes as “creditable, but nothing to brag about.” He has a strong Catholic upbringing and became a monk after training as a priest and deciding that it wasn’t quite right for him. Others have far more intriguing backgrounds – one member of the monastery comes from Nigeria, and others have previously been bankers and jackaroos.


But despite healthy tourist numbers – around 75,000 visitors a year – New Norcia faces a tremendous struggle to survive. It’s estimated that $15m is needed just to repair decay in the heritage-listed buildings, and the community is down to just twelve monks. Four – including the abbot – have died in the last year, while 98-year-old Dom Paulino is the last remaining Spanish monk. He’s now too frail to join the others on their occasional outings to the seaside, and has had to give up his passion for overseeing the olive harvest. This does save the community a small fortune on quad bikes – apparently Dom Paulino has managed to write off four of them by refusing to go at anything other than full pace – but is symbolically sad nonetheless.


It seems as though the appeal of the monastic life has waned dramatically in the modern era. Most novices these days come from Africa and Asia – and very few from developed nations. New Norcia’s shrinking, ageing population is a symptom of a wider trend. It’s a town that belongs in a different time and a different place, seemingly doomed to eventual extinction. But for now, the monks battle gamely onwards, trying to keep afloat a community and artistic treasure trove that is entirely unique within Australia. New Norcia is surviving – just – and it’s all down to force of habit.


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.