Sydney: Dying to learn about grisly past

By Andrew Koubaridis

The Rocks Ghost Tour. Photo / Supplied
The Rocks Ghost Tour. Photo / Supplied

I did realise that a ghost tour of Sydney's historic The Rocks area was likely to be a scary experience ... but this was a bit more than I had bargained for.

I'm standing under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, wearing a silly sailor hat, about to be hacked to pieces with a knife.

And all because I have been given the role of an unfaithful sailor who has given in to temptation with the first lass he finds onshore after a voyage and, well, who came to an unfortunate end to say the least.

This seems to have been such a shock to the poor fellow that his spirit has yet to depart properly and still haunts the place where he died.

In fact, none of the stories we are hearing on The Rocks Ghost Tours in Sydney end well.

You get the impression that during Sydney's early convict days the cobbled lanes and narrow alleyways of The Rocks, where we are walking, saw many grisly murders and tragic accidents.

Because of that grim past this was never going to be your usual walk past famous sights while hearing a bit of colourful history and folklore.

Our group consisted of me, a collection of giggling young couples, a staunch guy who only loosened up when he was killed in one of the re-enactments and had to shriek and fall to the pavement, middle-aged couples from Sydney's outer suburbs and some visitors from Queensland.

Getting us to act out the tragic stories of the local ghosts is how our host, who is wearing a long dark cape, his features obscured by a dark hood, introduces us to some of Sydney's darkest moments, bringing to life the ghastly tales of lives lost in and around The Rocks.

The ghost tour takes us through the laneways and courtyards built when this bustling city was a convict colony.

When you think of the seedier side of Sydney you normally think of Kings Cross. But, the stories we heard all took place back when The Rocks was pretty much the birthplace of Australia and murders, suicides and executions were commonplace.

We start our tour by being cast as different characters in these tragedies. We don't know it yet but their stories will all be unveiled by the end of our two-hour walk.

I cautiously don my sailor's hat and follow our guide into our first stop, Cadman's Cottage.

It's a dark, very hot summer's night in Sydney but the temperature drops (how did they do that?) as our mysterious guide unlocks the door with the jangling keys attached to his belt and ushers us in. We stand in the dark with our backs against the wall as he points to us one-by-one as our turn comes to play along with the story.

We haven't had any warning of this, but everyone picks it up quickly and plays the game, blurting out whatever line we think the hooded figure in front of us wants to hear.

It sometimes works and sometimes doesn't, but we always get there in the end, and it inevitably finishes with someone dying or screaming ... usually both.

At Cadman's Cottage, a quaint little building near the end of George St, we learn of a bloody axe murder committed in the early 19th century. The body was hacked to pieces and the murderer's plan was to burn the remains before he was caught by the authorities and hanged.

Enter me, the sailor. My role is as the accomplice who was supposed to help dispose of the body. I'm obviously not a particularly smart sailor, though, as I'm told to drop the corpse and the contents spew out.

An execution quickly follows but I escape with my life in this case - though that piece of good fortune doesn't last long and I'm soon being hacked to death myself.

The other stories are of a similar vein, such as the one about the young man who fell into a gaping hole in one of the towers of the Harbour Bridge and was entombed there forever. Or the tale of the haunted house where lights flicker dramatically without reason. Or sinister goings-on in what was quite possibly Australia's first morgue.

Like the Jenolan Caves Mysteries, Legends and Ghosts tour I had done the previous day, The Rocks ghost tours don't have mechanical spirits or actors portraying ghosts ready to jump out with a shriek, and they employ no fancy Hollywood-style special effects.

But they do convey the tragic history of the Sydney of yesteryear and are a lot of fun ... and if you're lucky you survive unscathed - apart from the jangled nerves.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies several times a day to Sydney.

Where to stay: The Grace Hotel is in the heart of Sydney.

Caves ghosts: Jenolan Caves are on the web at jenolancaves.org.au.

Sydney ghosts: For details of the ghost tours of The Rocks see ghosttours.com.au.

Andrew Koubaridis travelled as guest of Air New Zealand and the Jenolan Caves Reserve Trust.

- NZ Herald

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