Two days after setting out from London, we’ve arrived in Sydney which has some quirky surprises in store as we continue our Virgin’s ’round the world in eight days’ tour, which I’m posting live to Twitter.
Sydney, Australia (Monday 23 February – Tuesday 24 February)
We arrive at the hotel on Monday morning, slightly dishevelled but in good spirits about the adventures ahead. The Four Seasons is beautiful and we’re given a warm Australian welcome by public relations director Sally.
After frantically setting up the laptop and catching up with some work, we head off to Bondi Beach where Stefan the pilot spots a nice restaurant/bar, Icebergs. It turns out we’ll be returning at a later point for dinner with Richard. A couple of other female reporters and I decide to revive our energy levels with a quick dip in the sea. We’re ceremoniously battered by the waves; I guess Bondi’s better for surfers than swimmers.
We head back to the hotel and there’s another rapid turnaround before dinner. The venue for pre-dinner cocktails is the Orbit Lounge on George Street, which revolves over the Sydney skyline. Next we’re off to the Hilton Hotel’s Glass restaurant for dinner. I’m later told that the Hilton was the scene of Sydney’s only fatal terrorist attack. History aside, the meal is excellent and by now our group is well-bonded.
On arriving back at the hotel I receive a note advising me that I have ‘an amenity’ waiting to be delivered. What, exactly, is one of those? It turned out to be a series of chocolate aircraft at various altitudes, flying in front of a sugar Virgin logo – a gift from the hotel to celebrate Virgin’s 25th anniversary. I’d have been wrong if I’d attempted to guess.
By now it’s Monday evening and we’ve not slept in a normal bed since Friday night. I try to file material back to the office until gone 01:00 before the jetlag finally wins out. The bed is a very welcome sight.
Tuesday morning and we’re off to an early start with the opening of a new Virgin Active gym at French’s Forest. This is Richard Branson’s first Virgin Active in Australia and he’s due to attend the formal opening. This isn’t exactly core aviation journalist fodder, but I’m promised that – in true Virgin fashion – there are a few surprises in store.
A press conference reveals that Richard is going to swim a relay race against Australia’s top swimmers.
Richard’s team, including his son Sam (pictured left), have been trained by Olympic gold medallist Ian Thorpe - also known as ‘the Thorpedo’. Richard claims any anti-competitive practices have nothing to do with him, but the professionals emerge somewhat suspiciously bound hand and foot (shown on the right of the picture below).
The pool is surrounded by journalists and we all try not to slip into the water as everyone jostles to get a good shot. With a cheeky grin, Richard strips to reveal he is clad in a full-length swim suit – a Thorpedo trademark which has stirred up some controversy.
The race kicks off. Sam and Richard put in impressive lengths, claiming victory for the Virgin team by a surprisingly thin margin, but hats off to the professionals.
One has his hands bound behind his back and his feet tied together. Despite the impediment, he takes the length underwater and swims with all the grace and speed of a marine mammal.
Once the race is over, we move into unscripted territory. A female Branson fan (behind Richard in the picture below) jumps fully-clothed into the pool to meet her idol and Richard takes it in good spirits, posing for a flurry of photos. He then grabs the eight year-old son of a fellow journo off the side of the pool. The boy gets plunged and goes home with a great story to tell his mates. There’s another splash and a pool-bound journalist emerges, looking unimpressed at his colleagues who have just pushed him in. Probably best to leave before my camera gets soggy.
We head back to the hotel and it’s another rapid turnaround. There’s barely time to switch the laptop on before we head off to climb Sydney Harbour Bridge. We don our fetching grey boiler suits and we’re issued with uniform belts, harnesses, radios, sunglass lanyards, shoes, socks, hankies and caps – most of which clip onto the suit. Security is even tighter than in airports; even watches and hair clips are a no-no. We begin the climb and it soon emerges that a head for heights is a must. At times the floor comprises see-through metal grating, revealing the long drop and water below in all its splendour. There are narrow squeeze-throughs and places where the whole party has to gather between locked, barred gates before proceeding. We climb the 545 steps to the summit of the bridge (marked by the flags in the picture below). The views are simply stunning. I’d recommend the Discovery Climb as a must-do for anyone visiting Sydney.
Our guide, James, fills us in on a few bridge facts. At the time when building began there were only five cars on Sydney’s north shore, but good forethought meant the bridge was built wide enough to accommodate what is now Sydney’s busiest highway. Construction took place long before the advent of health and safety rules, so the workers had to climb the bridge’s spars without any safety gear or nets. White hot rivets were thrown to workers constructing the central heights of the bridge who would catch them in a metal bucket. Several thousands ended up in the bay and the in-joke was that by the time the bridge was finished, the rivets would do the job instead.
Miraculously only 14 people were killed while the bridge was being constructed, and only four of these were caused by falling from the bridge. One of the 14 was hit by a tram on his way to work and another was apparently eating his lunch when he fell in to wet cement which was being used to fill one of the bridge’s immense stone pylons (which stop the feet from moving). His fate was only learned later and it was too expensive to extract his body, so he’s still somewhere in the left pillar shown above. On a lighter note, while there were no objections to demolishing houses and churches to make way for the bridge, not so for the pub: the protests and ill-feeling forced the government to relocate it, so the Harbour View Hotel, which has kept its name, to this day has no harbour view.
Another whistle-stop visit to the hotel and back out to a Virgin staff event, dubbed ‘Doin’ time with Richard’, at the Sydney Theatre Company. The packed lobby is filled with lots of model-like Virgin staff and the presenter turns out to be a drag queen called Mitsy. We hear about Virgin’s charitable projects through Virgin Unite and see performances from some of the music-based ventures, subtly linking with Branson’s own roots in the record industry. Although several of the projects are deliberately small local causes, Richard says: “Also we look at bigger global issues and use our entrepreneurial skills to tackle them more efficiently than in the past.”
The bigger projects include a ‘carbon war room’, aimed at collating any ideas or potential solutions to help cut carbon emissions. Another is a centre for African disease, the positive outcome of a dispute about the links between HIV and AIDS between the South African president and Branson. Finally he mentions ‘the elders’ which is a group of highly-respected figures who aim to bring peace in potential war zones. Members include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, former US president Jimmy Carter and Ireland’s first female president Mary Robinson.
Staff pose their questions about anything Virgin-related. Richard is asked if he’s ever considered moving to Sydney and one woman pipes up “you can stay at my place”. Another asks how many gym memberships she has to sell to visit Richard’s residence on Necker Island. He replies: “My son’s still at Bondi. That’s the quickest way.” Finally Branson was searching for the name of a potential energy source identified on the moon. “Cheese?”, queried one of his staff members.
We leave the theatre and have another brief encounter with our hotel rooms before returning to Bondi Beach for dinner at Icebergs. Richard and Sam re-join us for the first time since landing in Sydney. Richard says he can hypnotise me. He tells me to look into his eyes and push my hands up towards his, then down towards his without making physical contact. He then asks me for the time. My watch is gone and none of us saw it go. It now appears on his wrist; stretched to the last notch.
On a trip like this, time moves fast.
(See video clip below for Richard’s take on events so far.)