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While Olympics take center stage, Sydney will provide a sideshow

Australia all about 'having a go'

Posted: Tuesday, September 12, 2000

SYDNEY, Australia -- Most any Aussie will tell you Mick Dundee was a crock, and prawns, not shrimp, go on the barbie. The world outside just doesn't get it. But maybe, many hope, the Olympics will help.

''No one really has a clue,'' said Mal Thornton, a Perth oil engineer who trots the globe. ''People forget the 'L' and think I'm from Austria, as if I go about in a little green hat and yodel all the time.''

Like many of the 19 million people on a fabulously variegated nation-continent some call God's home base, Thornton believes that if billions of eyeballs focus on them for weeks, a few myths may explode.

There is a problem, however. In Australia, outrageous myths tend to be true. And if they're not, Aussies seem happy to boast about them anyway.

This place is known widely as Oz, and Australians, in sum, are proud to be different.

''We believe in 'aving a go, in just getting out and trying things,'' said Tracey Fenton, part of the ragtag army hired to help a half million visitors enjoy Sydney. Her T-shirt reads: ''Life. Be In It.''

Take, for instance, the camel races organized Sunday to benefit local charities.

Paul Graig, a shaggy-haired sheep shearer from Streaky Bay, won by a foam-flecked nose atop Eunich. Emily Weir, 15, limped in next to last on Curly Sue, smiling nonetheless, to generous applause. A reporter wanted to know when she first learned to ride. ''Last week,'' she said.

Both winner and loser had just decided to have a go.

Sydney is not Australia, but it's close enough. Almost anywhere they look, Americans find a society that looks familiar yet somehow marches to some different Down Under drumbeat.

From the aircraft window, a visitor sees a smiley face by the runway with the words, ''Welcome World.'' In the terminal, the usual bustle is calmed by the haunting notes of an Aborigine didgeridoo.

At Sydney Cove, the heart of town near Circular Quay and the Opera House, a visitor walks past bankers in silk ties, bag ladies and purple-haired kids -- without a marsupial in sight -- to the Rocks.

There is no symbolic rock in the Rocks, where modern Australia started after the First Fleet of British convicts tied up in 1788. It is a warren of old streets and classic buildings. By 7 p.m, the Rocks rock.

At a bar called 55 George Street, when a leather-lunged guitarist gets the packed place singing, dancing and swigging to ''Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie,'' it is obvious this ain't Atlantic City.

Cigarettes turn the place a murky gray. Smoking is banned in restaurants now. But if that is extended to pubs, as planned, many expect to see the first revolution in the country's two centuries of history.

The atmosphere of a private party to which everyone is welcome suggests a natural friendliness no newcomer can miss.

High above the merriment, among the leafy trees, old stones and wrought iron fanciwork atop Bunkers Hill, one has a deeper sense of what sets Oz apart from everything else.

Old Eber Bunker, whose grand stone mansion named the hill, was born near Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. When Americans won independence, he went off after whales elsewhere in King George's domain.

As in America, Manifest Destiny arrived as bad news for indigenous peoples. Cities arose on a land mass equal in size to the 48 contiguous U.S. states. But the great Outback was too tough to tame.

These days, rough life and simple pleasures in the bush -- out in Woop Woop, as they say -- are part of the culture.

Sydneysiders love a television program called, ''Something in the Air,'' so close to that Alaska-based U.S. series it might as well be called ''Southern Exposure.''

With the credits, an emu rather than a moose wanders through town and then a down-home philosopher waxes wise on the local radio. A lovable but crusty woman runs the Emu Spring grocery store.

Bizarre things just seem to happen in a place with marine creatures, reptiles, bugs, plant life and mammals -- the human species included -- that dazzled Darwin and have intrigued outsiders ever since.

There is, for instance, the story about the cod fisherman who disappeared overboard in the waters up North. Days later, someone making filets of a giant cod from his boat's catch found his head in its belly.

Even the casual visitor is likely to learn not to dismiss such a new report. All he has to do is read a quote from Mark Twain's ''Following the Equator,'' on a bronze plaque set into the bricks on Circular Quay, where the ferries go:

''Australia's history ... does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies. And all of a fresh sort, not mouldy old stale ones. It is full of surprises and adventures and incongruities and incredibilities, but they are all true. They all happened.''



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