The iconic area of Kings Cross in Sydney’s east inner city has long had some of the most exciting and varied nightlife of anywhere in Australia.
The introduction of the Sydney lockout laws designed to curb alcohol fuelled violence in the city has sanitised the area somewhat, but my experience there in the autumn of 2005 was that of zone buzzing with life of all sorts.
I stayed in a backpackers on Darlinghurst road, just a few minutes’ walk from Kings Cross underground station, so I became acquainted with the comings and goings in the area.
From early morning starters to late night revellers, you could see anything once you walked out the hostel door.
I had arrived in Sydney with little money so had to find the most economical accommodation I could, and that turned out to a packed place right at the heart of The Cross.
Standing on the upper floors of the hostel there was a view of the famous red and white Coca-Cola billboard to the right, while the left had a mixture of bars, nightclubs and any other type of late-night entertainment venue you can imagine.
Walking down Darlinghurst road away from the Coca-Cola sign on a Friday night, an air of seediness mixed with a palpable sense of energy.
I can only compare it to Hamburg’s Reeperbahn where I spent some time working in a bar in the late 90s. A red-light district mixed with rocking music venues and bouncing nightclubs. This was the place to find excitement in Sydney.
The Cross has a chequered history with powerful underworld figures running the drug trade, as well as owning many of the businesses in the area.
Corrupt police aided criminal activities of underground figures, some of whom were in business with the criminals, taking payoffs to turn a blind eye to illegal activity or provide information on police raids.
There were also cases of drugs seized by police being sold on to other criminals for distribution.
Budget accommodation as it is, I shared a dorm room with five other people, one of them a tall curly haired Liverpudlian named Stuey. A guy with a great sense of humour we used to spend the weekends on The Cross drinking cheap beer and living it up after a week at work.
Like me, Stuey worked on the building sites so was up at 5am and we looked forward to the weekend when we could spend our earnings.
“Free red bull and vodka in the bar across the road,” Stuey said to me one Friday evening after I got back from work.
“Really?” I asked.
“Seven til eight, you better get your skates on mate and get ready,” he answered.
“I didn’t think we would put away that much in an hour,” I said to Stuey as I sat drinking the last of my red bull and vodka just after 8pm.
“Ya mate, I’m proper buzzing now,” Stuey replied.
Filled with energy from the red bull after a long week at work we started a pub crawl at the Kings Cross hotel, making our way slowly down Darlinghurst road stopping wherever the music or the vibe inside seemed good.
By midnight, both the street and the venues lining it were electric. The energy of a Friday night on the Cross was something to savour. People now free of the constraints of work were ready for a good time, as the worries of the week melted away.
“An hour of free red bull and vodka really kicked the night off,” Stuey said to me when I saw him the next afternoon, both of us the worse for wear.
This became our routine for the duration of my stay in Kings Cross. Stuey, me and whoever else was around hit the free red bull and vodka on a Friday night before seeing where the night took us.
In typical Kings Cross fashion, the owner of the hostel was another standout character.
An obese Australian man called Barry in his mid-fifties with short dyed black hair, he sat behind his desk from where he ran the establishment.
This wasn’t a hostel with the usual young and bubbly reception staff, who looked like their previous work had been as a model. No, this place was no nonsense, as well as being cheap and unpretentious.
“Jeez, Barry never seems to move from the reception desk. He even bloody eats there,” Rebecca, a young backpacker from England, said to Stuey and me one evening as we stood outside the hostel for some fresh air.
“Yeah, I think he has been running this place for decades,” Stuey replied.
“It’s hard to believe he was in the Olympics in Montreal in 1976,” I added.
“Get lost. He didn’t go to the Olympics,” Rebecca said.
“He did. He told me all about it last week,” Stuey added.
“He was there as part of the Australian tennis team, mixed doubles I think it was,” I continued with the story.
“He still keeps the racquet he used at the Olympics behind the reception desk. He will show it to you if you ask him,” Stuey said.
“Piss off, Barry didn’t play tennis at the Olympics,” Rebecca said, laughing, and walked back inside.
“Ask Barry about the time he was in the Olympics,” Stuey called after her.
“Piss off you lunatic,” came the laughed reply.
This hostel had The Cross written all over it. An eccentric owner providing accommodation to travellers who had no interest in frills and felt at ease in the atmosphere of the area. A great place to experience the manic side of Australia, but only for a short time!