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TRAVELING IN STYLE : Party Time Down Under

October 18, 1987|SHARON DIRLAM | Dirlam is a Times staff travel writer. and

Certain cities have an air of sophistication, others run on th energy of power and politics, and still others simply reek of history. Sydney, Australia, on the other hand, seems primed to party.

And what a party is in store for 1988!

The United States a decade ago celebrated 200 years of independence after dumping a shipload of tea in Boston Harbor during the great Boston Tea Party to protest English taxes. Australia will celebrate its Bicentenary next year, dating from the infamous day in 1788 when 11 boatloads of prisoners were landed, establishing the world's biggest and most remote penal colony on the continent's southern shores. Having lost the 13 Colonies, England needed a new dumping ground for its social problems, and Australia became that place.

From such inauspicious beginnings, a wonderful nation has evolved--a continent of cities and beaches encircling an outback unparalleled elsewhere on the planet. Australia was settled not only by murderers and cutthroats but also by scalawags and pickpockets, embezzlers and prostitutes, ,and--not least--by the soldiers whose duty it was to guard the motley lot.

If you study the history from the Aussie point of view, plenty of those stalwart forefathers were victims of the biggest crime of all: poverty. Young girls were reportedly "transported" to Australia for such infractions as having spent their schoolbook pennies on candy, and lads were sent out for life for sneaking a ride on a neighbor's pony, or for snitching a loaf of bread.

And what should happen but that their children would grow hearty and healthy under the warm southern sun, taller and sturdier than they ever would have become in the bleak northern motherland. Soldiers would marry prisoners, and their little families would prosper as landed settlers. Constables and other proper English officials would kiss their native soil goodby and stay forever in the distant land.

Aussies once shied away from talking about their humble beginnings, but it's a different story today. Many of them are rummaging through the historical woodpile, trying to trace their own family lineage to a link with the country's origins. Either a prisoner or a soldier will do.

"It's a mark of distinction to find a prisoner in the family tree," said Maureen Fry, a historian who conducts walking tours of Sydney.

One of the best-known women in Australia's history is Mary Reibey, who helped found the First Australia Bank. She came to Sydney in 1789 as a 12-year-old girl who was banished to Australia for riding someone else's horse.

The first ships from England carried 757 convicts and a military escort of 200. The original prison colony, The Rocks, remained a sorry mess for many years. Long after it had ceased being a prison colony, it was a squalid slum, where in 1900, plague struck and spread throughout Sydney.

Today, The Rocks has been restored and revised to a rustic elegance, its curving streets and stairways leading to quaint shops and friendly pubs and the Australian Bicentennial Authority head offices, with views of Sydney Harbour.

Jim Kirk, chairman of the Australian Bicentennial Authority (and the retired chairman of Esso Australia), says he has three goals for the Bicentenary celebration:

"I want the celebration to be self-supporting. In fact, we expect to generate $3 for every dollar we spend. I want us to leave something tangible behind: educational programs, roads, restoration projects, attention to our national heritage.

"And I want to have a hell of a good party."

With that sentiment, Kir seems to symbolize the festive side of the Australian national spirit--the love of a good party.

There are others involved in the plans for the bicentennial who would rather focus on Australia's needs and problems, but not Kirk. "Australians are a fairly cynical lot," he says. "I want the Bicentenary to instill in them that this is a damned good country."

One unsung Australian offered the suggestion that a moment be designated in 1988 when every Aussie in the country will stand up and say something good about Australia.

Another party plan is to designate an "extra day" in 1988, possibly Feb. 29 since it'll be Leap Year, and set that day aside for street parties. "I mean a street party on every street in Australia," Kirk says. He thinks big and his vision encompasses all of Australia, though the essence of enthusiasm for the 200-year celebration does seem to be in Sydney.

One of the most spectacular events to commemorate the Bicentenary will be the visit of the Tall Ships, signifying the nation's maritime herigage. They'll include topsail schooners and ketches, square-rigged ships and barkentines from around the world.

From the Pacific, the Tall Ships will call at Brisbane, Melbourne and Launceston. Others passaging the Indian Ocean will reach Fremantle, Albany, Port Lincoln, Adelaide and Melbourne. They'll sail on to Hobart, Tasmania, and from there participate in the Tall Ships Race, setting out on Jan. 14, 1988, en route to Sydney Harbour.

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