Up to 215,000 mostly young Catholics gathered in Sydney for the Catholic Church's World Youth Day, touted as the world's biggest Christian festival.
Catholic pilgrims braved the chilly waters and Franciscan friars clad in simple brown robes became rock concert "roadies" Wednesday as throngs of worshippers congregated on Sydney's famous Bondi Beach.
With up to 215,000 mostly young Catholics joining Pope Benedict XVI in Sydney this week for World Youth Day, Australia's largest city is getting used to the unexpected.
That was certainly true at Bondi where dozens of pilgrim groups planted their national flags in the golden sand of the beach more famous for summer hedonism and topless sunbathing than winter Christian festivals.
A group of pilgrims from the Gulf emirate of Qatar spent much of their time explaining what country their flag represents.
The mostly Filipino foreign workers from the Muslim state said they are proud to represent their adopted country.
"We have the same coloured sand in Qatar, that's why we were attracted to go down to the beach," joked Patrick C. Manahat.
The Bondi surf patrol sign warning swimmers to avoid the beach's notorious rips by swimming between the flags left swimmers wondering which flags they should aim for.
Hundreds of the youthful visitors took to the chilly water, joining the regular crowd of local wetsuit-clad surfers.
Kerri Hickey, an 18-year-old from the eastern US state of New Jersey, said she wanted to be able to say she had swum at one of the world's most famous beaches.
"We come from the Atlantic coast, so we wanted to be able to say we had swum in the Pacific Ocean," she added.
"The water is clean, but it is very cold."
Locals in their jackets and hats gazed in wonder at the swimmers.
"They don't feel the cold obviously, I'm freezing," said 85-year-old Bondi resident Lilian Selby while strolling the beach front.
But she welcomed the influx of life to the beach, which is usually left to the surfers, joggers and seagulls in winter.
"I think it's wonderful. It's great to have people coming down here and they are all very well behaved," she said.
At a park next to the beach, Franciscan monks wearing their simple brown habits with ropes tied around the waist scurried to set up a rock concert to be held late in the day.
"I've never done anything like this before," admitted Sydney friar Mario Debattista, pointing out that the friars' main line of work is helping the poor.
"But we have Stan performing later."
Stan Fortuna is a Franciscan friar from New York, who spreads the Christian message through rap and jazz music.
The relatively unworldly Franciscans aren't totally ignorant of the powers of merchandising. T-shirts are on sale with "I attended an Aussie WYD event..." on the front.
On the back is written: "and had a Franciscan good time".
Other pilgrims looking for an Aussie experience had the chance to attend any of around 200 sausage sizzles billed by the church as Australia's biggest barbecue.
Carol Stockley, another pilgrim from New Jersey, said she was happy it did not involve anything cute or cuddly.
"Is it kangaroo? Because I can't do that," she said at a barbecue at central city church St Benedict's. "But we'll try the sausages."
Pope Benedict was resting before joining World Youth Day Thursday but he too had a special taste of Australia when zookeepers took a selection of native animals to show him at his Sydney retreat.
The animals from Sydney's Taronga Zoo included a koala, red-necked wallaby baby or "joey", a python, a baby crocodile, a lizard and an echidna, a spiny insect-eating Australian mammal that lays eggs.
Date created : 2008-07-16