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The sounds of a city

We experience a city through sight, mostly. But what about other senses? The fishy smells of Cape Town, warm bagels in New York. In Jo’burg, jasmine in spring and the acrid fug of urine in the CBD. Chlorine in pools, wet dog, mown grass, fragrant steaming pavements after a summer storm.

Sydney lacks a distinctive odour signature. There’s no smell of the sea here, even though the Pacific Ocean lies just through the heads, on the other side of Manly.

Instead, it is a city of sounds. The birds, for instance — the strange retching wails of the currawongs, the squawks of the sulphur-crested cockatoos, the shrieks of the rainbow lorikeets. The wind that howls outside my bedroom window; the cheerful ringing tinkle of the washer-dryer as it announces that the load is done. The pompous signature tune of the news on ABC 1.

(No barking of dogs. That’s one of the things I find so strange about this place: 42% of Australians, it is said, own pets, and yet the dogs are almost completely silent.)

The deep throbbing chug of the ferry as it wends its way across the bay, the shuddering and creaking as it arrives at the wharf, the sigh of the waves. The doef-doef-doef of the buskers who combine house beats with didgiridoos and traditional Aboriginal songs, flogging CDs to tourists for $10 a pop (please give a donation if you want a photo).

The most distinctive Sydney sound of all, the beep-beep-beep of the traffic lights which, like a metronome, force the waiting walkers and restless joggers to bide their time, before switching to an urgent chirring instruction for all to cross.

In all the time that I have been here, I have seen precisely one blind person. In a city of sounds, it’s entirely appropriate that it should be so attuned to those who cannot see.


  • During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.