Here are the rules for this 'safari': guys are assigned an itinerary and an animal mascot (lions, tigers, or in our case, a hippo). Groups of three girls are strategically posted in one of four trendy Sydney nightspots for the evening – in our case, the prowling ground was Darlinghurst. The boys traverse the urban jungle to find the girls at each bar, put on the moves for half an hour, then head to the next bar. Wash, rinse and repeat.
Armed with a hippo mascot (nicknamed Shame, so we could technically claim we still had some), Time Out began the search. The first stop was the Li’l Darlin cocktail bar, which can’t be accused of false advertising – it ain’t big. If the Dating Safari crew want to improve the experience for future explorers, a host at each bar might help; the bartender had no idea what we were talking about. “Mate, never heard of it and if it was happening here, I’d know.”
It was clear the natives were to be of no assistance, so we did what explorers do: hunt. Stools line the walls of Li’l Darlin, hard wooden chairs provide the seating at marble slab-like tables in the middle, and fairy lights among grapevines make for mood lighting. The bar’s claim to fame is its pizza tapas, but our dates had already ordered chips and nachos. That safe, vanilla choice should have been a warning.
The girls, who we had located thanks to their elephant mascot, were all from the UK, and had all signed up to the Safari to meet new people. “I work in PR,” said Corrie. “I’ve just come straight from work.” I nodded while subtly checking the time, a skill I’d perfect by night’s end. When asked if she had any expectations, Corrie replied, “Oh yes, I thought Ryan Gosling would walk through that door first off.” The powerful silence that followed afforded me another opportunity to check the time. 20 minutes to go. Shit.
The rest of the evening went by more quickly. With only ten minutes allotted for travel time between each bar, the pace is kept mercifully brisk. The Passage Bar provides a setting straight out of A Clockwork Orange. A psychedelic colour scheme and an arty design were the backdrop for a conversation about sweaty gyms and Dane Cook. The bar offers a variety of elaborate cocktails, most of which were being sampled by our dates. These girls were all friends, and had signed up in the pursuit of fun. Any luck? “Too early to say yet,” said Danielle. “The last group didn’t turn up.”
The rustic charm of Elizabeth Bay’s breezy, open-air Gazebo Wine Garden had been diluted by an abundance of overly sauced people by the time we got there. And the effects of having to sit in the one place all night were starting to show on our dates, who were playing with their phones when we arrived. “It’s been alright,” Chloe said. “The guys keep asking us what we do for fun.” She sighed, disappointed. Clearly not the Dating Safari, then.
Time Out's final meeting for the evening was at the Tigerbakers Café, and despite being famous for its breakfasts, it was the most appropriate venue of the night: relatively quiet and very cosy, with a cool, lounge room atmosphere. None of this had a calming effect on the girls, though. They had been stood up by their first group of guys and appeared to have drowned their sorrows steadily since. And by now the concept was wearing thin, even for us.
“I went along with it because I thought it’d be a fun way to meet people without the sleaziness you usually get,” said Anneke, the least salty of the last group, “but so far the guys have been a bit underwhelming.” Why? I wondered. Did they all work office jobs and expect you to ask all the questions? The energy here was low, so in jest my friend asked them what they do for fun. “Drink,” replied one – the drunkest of the group by far.
When the bar hopping was complete, all of the groups were to meet up at the Darlo Bar, swap details and continue conversations cut off by the dreaded half-hour mark, but by this point half the girls had gone home. The others had called friends to join them, so apart from a few familiar nods across the crowded pub, the night’s mingling had come to an end.
Some of the guys involved professed to feel a bit suffocated by the night’s rigid format. “I could just go out for free and go to as many bars as I like,” noted James. “That way I could bring more friends and talk to whoever...” Easily distracted, James wandered off, thought unfinished. I myself would have preferred less people (or at least more interesting or creative ones) and fewer venues. But he is a lion and I am a hippo: wildly different beasts both confined by the laws of the jungle.