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It had been billed as “a stunning re-creation of the fire that devastated the 19th-century convict ship the Three Bees sending its cannon balls blazing across the harbour”.

Loudspeakers project music as we arrive, soprano vocals and a didgeridoo accompanying each other in a work that creates the impression the composer intended it to be haunting. The Fire Water event location is a small indentation of Sydney Harbour near the Bridge. It is hidden from view of land except for a small area above the embankment around the tiny cove, along the edge of which have been placed several stalls in the form of small marquees a foot taller than a tall man. A throng has formed behind the handrail that delimits the stall-free remainder of the embankment’s edge.

The level land limits sight of the harbour to those spectators close behind the handrail. The elevated road a little further inland is completely obscured by a row of buildings, but a visual scan reveals a small pedestrian bridge and steps leading up to it, both of which have a partial view over the water. We position ourselves on the steps where some space remains unoccupied behind a lady carrying a toddler on her shoulders. Peering around the toddler towards the harbour, I see the kind of smoke you might associate with stage effects hovering over a small area of the harbour, confirming that this is a viewing spot for the spectacle to come.

White rays shining vertically from the water form a row of virtual bars in the artificial fog, which remains visible until the lights are extinguished. The music continues, its escalating insistence creating the impression that something is about to happen.

A full quarter of an hour later the waxing and waning music has created that impression several times, and the crowd about me is beginning to wonder openly whether the narrow view over the harbour afforded to the left of the last marquee in fact includes the main Fire Water display area. On the plus side for me, the toddler has been lowered to ground level. Seemingly a visual part of the fanfare, a single halogenesque white light appears and floats atmospherically back and forth atop a pole**. The crowd breathes a collective sigh of relief, and settles back expectantly.

After a while the anticipation subsides, and a laconic voice can be heard remarking that it would have been more spectacular to set fire to the marquees.

Eventually we see the frame of a ship emerging from the harbour. A lone figure clothed in naval period costume appears patrolling the deck. A spectator cries in mock alarm “He’ll be burnt alive!”. The same laconic voice as before is heard expressing the fervent wish that the role of naval sentry is being played by the composer of the music; another wit hopes it is the person who decided where to erect the marquees.

A small area of flame spurts from the ship’s side, followed soon after by the instantaneous spread of the flames to the remainder of the hull. The flames burn for a couple of minutes, after which the ship’s frame descends once more from view. The crowd disperses silently, the music proclaiming the same message but no longer credible.


* The beautifully presented Vivid Sydney website describes it as “the biggest international music and light festival in the Southern Hemisphere”. This new festival featured four main events: Luminous, Smart Light Sydney, Creative Sydney and Fire Water. If time permits I will write a few words about the Luminous and Smart Light displays, both of which I enjoyed enormously.

** Photographs in the Sydney Morning Herald later reveal that the single white light marked the topmost point of the mast of a small boat being rowed by several men in the colourful red coats and uniform of British colonial soldiers. Apparently there was a whole lot more to be seen by the photographers at water level and the few hundred spectators along the handrail.

Pic borrowed from Time Out