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One Sydneysider's tempestuous love affair with a magnificent stretch of sand and surf that is the most famous shore in a country known for them

August 25, 1996|ALEX MITCHELL | Mitchell is a columnist and associate editor of the Sydney Sun-Herald

SYDNEY, Australia — Bondi, the world-famous beach on this city's Pacific shoreline, is my home, my inspiration, my relaxation and my temperamental companion. We've been together on and off for more than 35 years, so we know each other pretty well.

It's likely that a visitor to Sydney will want to sample Bondi's considerable charms at some point, which partly accounts for the beach's sometimes aggravating crowds. When the city welcomes visitors from around the world in four years as it hosts the Olympic Games, however, my romance with Bondi is going to be even more severely strained. And my apprehension has been heightened by reports that a new TV series from the producers of "Baywatch" will start filming at Bondi next year.

I know that all this attention should make me and my neighbors feel proud, but it doesn't. Instead, we locals feel insecure and highly protective of our beloved beach.

Sydney is blessed with about 30 beaches, but none with the brash, engaging and wild personality of Bondi, an arc of fine-grained white sand more than 250 yards long and washed by a sparkling surf of the deepest blue or the most magical green--or enchanting shades in between.

SCENE 1: New Year's Eve, 1989. At the stroke of midnight, hundreds of people start singing, dancing, peeling off their clothes. Naked and semi-naked revelers hurl themselves into the warm surf. Couples are rolling in the sand in the position made famous by the late Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in "From Here to Eternity."

As in all intense romances, there are moments of turmoil and despair between Bondi and me. For example, when I turned 21, my parents presented me with the traditional gift of those days--a wristwatch.

Two years later, on the eve of my departure to find fame and fortune on London's Fleet Street, I went for a sentimental, farewell swim at Bondi. I spent a delirious 30 minutes in the surf before returning to my spot in the sand to discover my watch had been stolen.

I didn't see Bondi--pronounced BOND-eye--again until the mid-1980s, when I came back to start a new job, a new marriage and a new family. The bliss was shattered when my new apartment was broken into twice. In the same week.

And earlier this year, enjoying an early morning swim, I was suddenly caught in a malevolent riptide that carried me out beyond the breakers.

In a state of panic and exhaustion, I truly believed that I was about to become another drowning statistic when an alert surfer noticed my distress and pulled me ashore. That's Bondi: sublime one day, a trace of treachery the next.

The surprise of Bondi is that it is little more than two miles from the center of downtown Sydney, 15 minutes in a cab or 40 minutes in a bus.

You can't see Bondi from the famed Sydney Opera House because they are separated by a mountainous sand dune, which, since European settlement began in 1788, has been transformed into the exclusive residential suburb called Bellevue Hill, where captains of industry and commerce (such as media tycoon Kerry Packer) live.


Bondi's location is unique. What major metropolis has a glamorous, dazzling beach on its doorstep? Travel two miles from the center of London and you are . . . still in London. The same is true of Paris, Rome, Berlin, New York and most world capitals I can think of.

SCENE 2: Christmas Day, 1991. High-spirited English tourists are carrying a monstrous floral sofa across the beach during the heat of the midday sun. They set it down near the water's edge, plant a flowing Union Jack in the sand, snap open cans of lukewarm beer and start singing, "Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside."

Bondi, taken from the Aboriginal word "boondi," which means "the noise of the tumbling waves," is Sydney's major tourist attraction after the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, receiving about 2 million visitors a year.

On all but a few windy, wintry months in the midyear (don't forget that June is the dead of winter Down Under), the beachfront is the place to enjoy the sun-drenched democracy of the Australian seaside.

You can swim, body surf, ride a surfboard, sunbathe, jog, build sandcastles, read a book, picnic, listen to music, play volleyball, roller-blade, fly a kite, go fishing, play chess or do nothing at all.

Bondi has an egalitarian spirit that is much-prized by Sydneysiders. Where else can you see High Court judges, colorful ex-convicts, bishops, professional gamblers, sports stars, bankrupts, ladies of the parish and ladies of the night taking a constitutional walk along the seafront?

As a local observer once remarked, "When they take off their clothes and get into their 'cossies' (swimming costumes), cops or criminals, they all look the same."

Because Bondi's size is positively boutique by Australian standards--beachfronts can stretch up to 12 miles in the world's vastest island continent--and becomes overly crowded in midsummer (New Year and Christmas), many Sydneysiders prefer to visit beaches north or south of the city.

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