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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.


  1. Alisdair Budd Alisdair Budd 24 June 2008

    LEt us not forget the rhythmic thuds of police batons carrying through the Harare nights, in the darkened blackouts and power cuts.

  2. OneFlew OneFlew 24 June 2008

    You should have hung out in more salubrious parts of Cape Town, where it doesn’t smell of fish ;)

  3. Jo Jo 25 June 2008

    Eucalyptus in the rain – it smells just as good but slightly different in the heat – once you get out of the centre of the city, that’s the smell of Sydney. Best smell in the world if you’ve been out of the country for a while.

    And dogs bark in the suburbs but you’re staying in the city. One day you’ll appreciate it, if you stay long enough, darl.

  4. OneFlew OneFlew 25 June 2008

    The more salubrious parts of Cape Town do not have a fishy smell. Hmpff, Vaalies…

  5. René René 25 June 2008

    I am also a South African living in Sydney. Another sound I find really strange is the magpies early in the morning, they sound like something from another planet. I also do not remember the ambulances and police vehicles in SA having such loud sirens. If you are in the city and one of them race past, the sound is deafening.

  6. Sarah Britten Sarah Britten Post author | 25 June 2008

    I was talking about the V&A Waterfront. Cape Town smells of the sea, and yet Sydney doesn’t.

    My apartment still smells of scented toilet paper – I just can’t get rid of it.

  7. Craig Craig 25 June 2008

    I heard chickens the other day in London – I kid ye not.

    I agree with you on the lack of pet sounds – South Africa seems alive with barking dogs, but they don’t make a peep here. My explanation for this is that they are much better socialised dogs – in general they mingle with other dogs and humans in the parks regularly and spend more time indoors due to the weather.

    Either that or they are ‘fraidy cats.

  8. Xolani Xolani 25 June 2008

    To Sarah:

    You made mention of the following: “In Jo’burg, jasmine in spring and the acrid fug of urine in the CBD.” Well the urine spots are actually and literally being washed away. Johannesburg is now truly transforming into a world class city.

    You would know that last year 4 dilapidated and smelly buildings were demolished to make way for infrastructural developments.

    Have a look for yourself at some of the developments:

    To mention but just a few.

  9. Craig Craig 25 June 2008

    @Xolani – you are right to stand up for the city you love, but the CBD of Johannesburg is nowhere near worldclass. End of story.

  10. walter walter 26 June 2008

    The beep beep beeping on the traffic lights is to tell blind people when it is safe to cross. And not, as you seem imply, yet another sinister method of social control in Sydney. Yikes the whiff of “when we” in your otherwise brilliant writing is chasing me away.

  11. Sarah Britten Sarah Britten Post author | 26 June 2008

    Depends where in the CBD you go. Loveday Street is awful; the area around the banks is fine.

  12. Sarah Britten Sarah Britten Post author | 26 June 2008

    To my point about the sounds of the city I should add: the penetrating voice of a woman in the street conducting a conversation with attitude at 00:30 on a Thursday morning when I am trying to sleep. I could hear her on the 8th floor!

  13. Jon Jon 26 June 2008

    Joburg becoming a “world-class city”? You don’t get around much any more, do you?

  14. Mark Anthony Mark Anthony 26 June 2008

    Interesting one about the silent dogs. I hear they cut out their vocal chords over there. Strange world we live in.

    I love the sound of barking dogs, I understand the sound of barking dogs. I grew up with the sound of barking dogs in South Africa.
    I fell asleep every night with the sound of dogs communicating across the night, of dogs warning you of dogs asking for help of dogs in pain of dogs in fear, of dogs on the hunt of dogs on the attack. Dogs have a voice and so it should be. Is there anything more uplifting than the howling of stranger packs across distant valley’s and sound of pups calling to their mothers.

    It would be a strange and sterile place without. Luckily where I live we have packs of wild dog to add to the noise of my own, to lull me gently into a deep sound child like slumber.

  15. Sidakwa Sidakwa 26 June 2008

    Claim street near noord by the old teljoy building , i salute you. It takes the trophy for the smelliest street.

    Funny enuff i used to live across there in the 80s , when hillbrow was still beautiful.

  16. Sarfeffrikin Sarfeffrikin 26 June 2008

    My experience of Cape Town was that certain members walked around with a smell up their noses which I as a Vaalie was clearly unable to detect. These folks lived mostly in areas like Constantia and Newlands. Perhaps some Capetonians could explain? Is it a skill taught at Bishops?

    Cape Town: lovely place, pity about the ugly bare mountain, crap weather and the awful people. Give me the piss soaked streets of Jozi anyday – at least the people are real.

  17. Sarah Britten Sarah Britten Post author | 26 June 2008

    Mark Anthony, have you ever lived next door to a lonely dachshund?

  18. Johnson Johnson 26 June 2008

    I visited Johannesburg last year,the outskirts of the city were filthy and dangerous we were warned not to go near the inner city without a security guard.

    We were also told there was nothing there to see anyway just decrepid buildings and boarded up hotels.

    The game parks and beaches in SA were fine but the cities were tips.Sarah you must be so releived to be in Australia. Your reports are doing good if they are persuading good people to leave.

  19. Johnson Johnson 26 June 2008

    On the issue of pets,most Sydneysiders have some sort of pet but they do not have these huge dogs that are for protection. The dogs are ostly small like Jack Russels and are pets. They stay inside the house so that is why they dont bark.

    South Africans normally have big dogs and several of them for self defence.

    South Africa is very dangerous and most people have dogs and guns and other things. It is not a safe place and that is why people are coming to australia.

  20. Mark Anthony Mark Anthony 27 June 2008

    “Have you ever lived next door to a lonely daschund” ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.


    But if I did it wouldn’t be lonely for long and I certainly wouldn’t ever condone slicing out its cries for help with a sharp scalpel


    If this doesn’t work damn “thought thing”, and why is there not a link to updates from posters opinions posted on the front page instead of the “thought leader” themselves? Is it about them and their single opinion or about public opinion?

  21. amandzing amandzing 1 July 2008

    nice sarah, starting to build a picture of the city now.

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