It's winter in Sydney now, but the dark and dreary atmosphere one usually associates with this chilly season is absent in this part of the southern hemisphere because the Australian city is all lit up!
Sydney has cleverly transformed and marketed itself, turning the winter months into one of the best times to enjoy the city.
After all, what’s winter like Down Under? The temperature in our air-conditioned offices and cinemas are probably lower!
Every year, from late May to mid-June, Sydney turns itself into a magical wonderland from 7pm, with “the sails of the world-famous Sydney Opera House bathed in technicolour lights, rising like a beacon in the night sky from its spot at the head of the Sydney Harbour, and flooding tens of thousands of Instagram feeds with its vibrant looks,” as writer Hashirin Nurin Hashimi, put it aptly.
It was my first Vivid Sydney – the largest annual festival of light, music and ideas – experience and it surprised me that it has been around for the last decade, with 2019 marking the 11th edition of this spectacle.
The days of Australian cities shutting down at 5pm and becoming ghost towns are over, and Sydney seems to want the world to know that the country’s biggest city wakes up and parties when the sun sets, even in winter.
Wanting to avoid peak-hour gridlocks, or getting crushed by the crowd, I planned my trip in detail.
I accepted that I wouldn’t be able to see everything, so I decided to pick only the essentials, given my brief stay and budget. The shrinking ringgit has, of course, hit the pockets of many Malaysian travellers.
To ensure I didn’t get stuck in traffic, I picked a hotel that was walking distance to Darling Harbour, where the festival was centred.
Of course, the iconic Sydney Opera House – which was no more than a 20-minute ride on the Light Rail from my hotel – is a compulsory pitstop.
The brilliant light installations, projections and sound effects of Vivid Sydney are based at Darling Harbour, Sydney Opera House and Customs House.
I skipped Taronga Zoo in Sydney upon learning the entry fee was AUD40 (RM115) per person, not including the ferry ride there.
In any case, I have always regarded zoos as sad animal prisons, and in an ideal world, I see them being freed. And even if I wanted a memento, the last thing I would do is buy the paper-made lanterns in animal likeness on display, which serve nothing more than to steal the thunder of the real animals.
I spent the first night at Darling Harbour, absorbing the brilliant creations with my wife. We did nothing but let the sea breeze caress our faces as we enjoyed the mild Australian winter, sipping wine on the grass facing the waterfront.
That’s how Aussies do it, and yes, that’s the way they enjoy life.
The brilliant illuminations vividly captured our imaginations, and we just felt that, for once, we could let the child in us take over for the night as we enjoyed the moving pictures projected on the walls of the nearby International Convention Centre.
This year, the city – nestled in the Cockle Bay area of Darling Harbour – chose robots as its theme, with a firm eye on the future, where “mind-boggling electro-automotive super-bots have been sent to sow the seeds of a greener tomorrow.”
It plays along the theme of the emergence of driver-less cars and what happens to crushed cars. The central figure, or a 16m structure, is the Ecobot, which resembles a Transformer.
For the extravagant event, Robot SPACELand, the designers have created sizeable new works, the largest of which is Evolution Island. This behemoth floats on a 20m x 10m barge and weighs 39 tonnes.
There is the 15m-tall car-crushing robot named Ecobot – which “picks up wrecked cars, then crushes them into these usable car bails,” as the creators put it – parked on the sidewalk.
According to a news report, the robots and their mechanical world were made from various recycled and reclaimed materials (at least they didn’t send them to Malaysia!).
But the creators insist they have no serious messages in the show and merely want visitors to have “fun.”
The highlight of the evening includes the spectacular fireworks, which lights up the sky in the finale.
The following night, we decided to take a cruise, which leaves King Street Wharf in Darling Harbour, passes under the Harbour Bridge and heads toward the Opera House. This must surely be the best way to take in the iconic theatre.
We were served a six-course meal on board one of those Captain Cook Cruise three-hour dinner cruises, compliments of the Vivid Sydney package.
Unfortunately, the food wasn’t memorable, but the wine pairing was good, and since my wife doesn’t drink, I had her share as well.
And the pianist sportingly played my Hal David/Burt Bacharach favourite What The World Needs Now Is Love, which was a fine touch to a romantic candlelight dinner.
Going out to sea also meant we got to see the event’s best illuminations up close, with the changing visuals and colours.
The boats have also become part of the festival, with a select number, including Captain Cook Cruises, illuminated by brilliant LED lights that change colour as the vessels travel into different harbour zones.
The premium pictures and videos were to be had on board. Fortunately, we didn’t have to jostle with other tourists for the best positions or mind the many photo bombers around us. Otherwise, editing would have required some skills to digitally crop out these strangers, which would only likely leave an unnatural end result.
The boat sailed under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, enabling us to view the powerful work of Eora – Broken Spear – curated by artist Rhonda Roberts, which was projected onto the southern pylon of Sydney Harbour Bridge, with a reminder to reflect on the country celebrating the International Year of Indigenous Languages.
“The title is a reflection on the actions of peace-seeking members of the Indigenous Australian community responding to First Contact and western invasion. While some raised spears in defence, a knowledge keeper carried a spear with a broken tip, which is a sign of peace and respect,” reads to a report.
My favourite part of the light projections has to be the one at Customs House, with its aquatic fantastical theme of neon sea creatures and botanical wonderlands projected onto the facade of the building.
I’m surprised it has taken me more than 10 years to finally discover – and fall in love with – Vivid Sydney, and certainly, it has lit up my life. This winter wonderland experience is highly recommended, so, for once in your life at least, be immersed in this magnificent light party.