Having passed the apex of our time away, we were planning on spending the next 3 months or so drifting around the sizeable continent of Australia, beginning in the southern-most state of Victoria. Our plane was surprisingly efficient in transporting us into Melbourne's international airport nearly 30 mins ahead of schedule which was, in itself, a more than agreeable start to our time in Oz. As the plane coasted in to land, we were treated by a spectacular view over the city itself, looking much as it did an architects model, with the CBD compact and lanky, then suddenly dropping off within the space of a few yards to the staunchly low-rise sprawl of suburbia. It was an arresting sight and kept us glued to the plane window for the entire landing.
A swift trip through customs and before we realised it, we were waiting in baggage collection phoning family friend Steve, who was to be our kind host during our stint in Melbourne. It soon became pretty clear that we weren't in a little New Zealand hamlet anymore when, after over 30 mins waiting for him to arrive to pick us up, we got a phone call explaining that he would be at least another hour because traffic was (and we quote) "F****** Rubbish". Welcome back to city life. As we waited for our "taxi" to arrive, we glanced around the airport and noticed a very disturbing sight. An enormous 96 sheet (aka, bloomin' big) poster site, containing a white romper-suited David Hasslehoff gurning and growling out at us as he popped the top off a pepsi bottle in a horrifically phallic display. Apparently "The Hoff" is quite the popular music star in this part of the world, and seeing him huffing and puffing down at us was at once intimidating, mystifying and more than a little perturbing... we hoped that this was just a freak occourance and wouldn't set the pattern for the types of media that we would be exposed to during our time here.
Eventually, Steve managed to force his way through friday evening rush hour and, barring a brief but annoying tete-a-tete with a jobsworth airport baggage monkey who "kindly" informed us that we were not being picked up in the "pick up area" of the airport, and that the correct area was in fact 15 yards behind us, we were soon on our way. Having been used to spending the past month or so living hunched up in the back of a converted people carrier, we were almost overwhelmed by the prospect of being able to stand up vertically, sleep stretched out and eat something other than super noodles. In fact, sitting down for a hearty pizza dinner with Steve and his good wife Sharon, drinking wine and lounging on comfy sofas was such a contrast to our previous months existence, that we were almost moved to tears by the opulance of it all. They were going to struggle to get rid of us at this rate!
A long and luxurious nights sleep later, and we awoke to the sounds of Steve and Sharons little one, the vivacious and outgoing 3 year old, Chloe. Dunc decided to test out his stature as "Living Marmite" to small kids (they either love him or hate him) by introducing himself brightly to the youngster. A brief (about 10 seconds) period of shyness followed, before she promptly ran off into her room and returned with a stack of books, which it was evidently now Duncs job to read to her. We had clearly established that this child was not even remotely backwards in coming forwards. By the time Vickie surfaced, Chloe was in full on entertainer mode, and proceeded keep us busy for the remainder of the morning with her attentions.
We were in no hurry to do anything of any value, so the rest of the weekend was taken up by sitting, occasionally turning into lounging, with the odd bit of slobbing thrown in for good measure. The most energetic part of our entire weekend came when we headed off with Steve and Sharon to a display home village to check out some Melbournian property. As we had been travelling the globe, we'd been keeping plus and minus points of every major area we stayed in just in case any one area tickled our fancy sufficiently to stay for a wee while longer. As we sauntered about the multitude of frankly wonderful display homes, and stared agog at the relative cheapness of property, we began to add some ticks in the plus column for Melbourne. Vickie in particular seemed to delight in nosing around some of the kitchens and gardens, all the while commenting that "We need to get one of these for our house" or "Oooo, i like that room!". The fact that we currently don't have and in fact aren't even close to being able to afford a home did little to dent her boundless enthusiasm for cooing over duvet covers, lounge suites and theatre rooms.
We had to admit, that the affordability of housing here was both a temptation and a frustration given that for the price of a size 12 shoe box back home, we could get a brand new property of approximately the same floor area as Yorkshire in this part of the world. We were so taken aback by this that, later in the week, we returned to the display village and furtively filmed and snapped our favourite home "just in case" we needed it in the future.
Eventually, we were going to have to get out and explore some of our surroundings, so come the start of the week we elected to head out and wander around the city centre for the day. A one hour train ride re-iterated to us just how sprawling a city Melbourne is and once in the city, we wasted no time in getting to know the place in more detail. We headed for a couple of the more touristy attractions such as the Aquarium and the viewpoint from the top of the Rialto tower, but we were feeling in a thrifty mood and didn't feel like parting with any cash at the moment, so contented ourselves with taking pictures from the outside instead. The more we strolled around, the more Melbourne was starting to live up to its reputation as one of the most "Livable" cities in the world. The whole place exuded a chilled out air of comfort and well-being slightly at odds with its status as an important international city. It was almost as if someone had taken the city of London, halved the population and given the rest some hot chocolate to calm them down and make them more agreeable to be around.
However, every silver lining needs a cloud (as the saying doesn't go), and it wasn't long before we found Melbourne's. The Australian common fly. This persistant and dozy creature was in plentiful supply along the river and soon hordes of them were buzzing lazily around us, attemtping to crawl into our ears, up our noses and such like. We initally thought that it was just us that these beasts found interesting, but a brief glance along the street soon consoled us that everyone else was suffering as well, and we spent a while observing the twitching masses. It was as though everyone had a kind of unfortunate nervous tick, and we later learnt that this phenomena is more commonly referred to as "The Australian Salute". Seeking refuge from these determined little pests, we headed to the largest casino in the soutern hemisphere and spent at least 30 enthralled minutes watching large amounts of people (mainly of asian descent if truth be told) patiently handing over their cash under the guise of "games of skill and chance". The temptation was getting a little much, and we were much too poor to be hanging around such a place so, as the afternoon was wearing on, we took our leave and made our way back into the bright Aussie sunshine.
After such an energetic day, we decided to take our collective feet off the gas as it were the following day, and busy ourselves with taking Steve and Sharons little dog Smudge for a walk around the estate, tiring him out completely before retiring to the sofa and passing the rest of the afternoon watching movies and slipping in and out of a very contented sleep. In the evening, Steve's son Chris (an old friend of Duncs from waaaay back) and his wife Leona popped round with a couple of friend and several crates of beer in tow. We all took root on the veranda and spent a most entertaining evening taking in the Aussie sense of humour. It was purile, childish, un-pc and base. We laughed long and hard and felt right at home. During the evening, we sampled a wide range of traditional Aussie beers, procured especially for the 'Visiting poms' and, full of such delights as VB (Victoria Bitter), Crown, Cascade among others, we flumped into bed and had no bother sleeping right through until well into the following day.
For the past couple of weeks now, Vickie had been enviously glancing into shop windows, looking at the range of fashion on display and trying to work out how to weedle some money from Dunc to buy some "essential clothing items". As midweek beckoned, she was presented with the perfect opportunity to mature her plan. Dunc had been hankering after seeing the new King Kong movie for several months, and was more than a little keen to book a couple of tickets. Vickie wasn't carrying quite the same level of enthusiasm for the activity and so, with the aid of Sharon, suggested that maybe she could take the money that we would have spent on her cinema ticket, and go shopping with that instead. It took precicely 10 seconds before Dunc realised that resistance was futile, so he aquiessed and went to watch the film with Chris instead.
Without wanting to labour the point, Dunc and Chris throroughly enjoyed the film, and even found time for a little old man style reminiscing about the good old days when it snowed at christmas, 5 pence pieces were a decent size and kids respected their elders. Vickie meanwhile was having a grand old time perusing the local wares, and coming back a top and skirt to the good. Everyone was happy.
On Thursday, we headed back into the city, this time with Chris as our guide. First stop was the venerable MCG, home of just about every major sporting event in Australia. Dunc couldn't help but launch into a dizzying array of woeful impressions of Aussie commentary greats Bill Lawrie, Tony Grieg and the master himself, the immortal Richie Benaud, much to Vickie's mild embarrassment. Next up was the well thought out Melbourne museum, where we spent a couple of hours staring through worried eyes at the array of lethal creatures contained in Australia, and spent even longer attempting to work out the exact odds of us running into/swimming past/stepping on said venomous horrors. As Vickie stared agog at the poisonous arachnids, Chris delighted in telling her about the time he was bitten by a white tailed spider, with the result that the venom solidified in his leg and was the consistancy of a string of cotton when it was eventually removed. Vickie blanched and Chris grinned at Dunc saying "Hurt like heck mate, i can tell you".
By the end of the week, we were all set to head off and check out some more of Victoria state under our own steam so, borrowing the car kindly offered to us by Sharon, we headed inland to the area of old skool Victoria known as the Goldfields. As the name suggests, the goldfields primarily consists of a number of old former prospecting towns still clinging onto their prosperous pasts via the preservation of some truly ostentatious architecture which is somewhat at odds with the "one horse town" nature of many of the regions locales.
The small town of Ballarat was to be our destination, and once we'd dropped Steve off at his office at some ungodly hour of the morning (it was touch and go for a considerable length of time as to whether we'd even make it as far as the front door when our alarm rudely woke us up at 5:30am), we were off and running. An hour later, we pulled into town, whereapon Vickie mumbled that she really needed a kip, before lazily reclining the seat and instantly joining the land of nod. Suddenly all alone, Dunc grabbed the bag and strode off to look around by himself, returning some 30 mins later to wake a dribbling and incoherant Vickie up to allow us to continue our day.
Ballarat itself was a diverting little town, and we spent several relaxed hours drifting around the botanical gardens, checking out the aformentioned architecture and generally absorbing the "land that time forgot" feel of the place. Vickie was busy picking up some fresh blisters from her new flip-flops (Dunc was still steadfastly refusing to call them by the local colloquialism "thongs" because it was just too weird) when we decided enough was enough and headed back to the city, pausing to pick Steve up and spend the better part of two hours chewing the steering wheel whilst stuck in some dire friday evening traffic. All in all, a long and tiring day.... we had no problems falling asleep.
The Great Ocean Road
The Great Ocean road is one of the prime tourist attractions of Victoria, and there was no way we were going to visit this part of the world without taking part in "the great Australian road trip". Again, we temporarily procured Sharons car and made for the highway. A night in the slightly non-descript town of Warrnambool later (during which time we noticed on our motel room tv that there were several riots kicking off in both Sydney and Hong Kong... two future destinations of ours... d'oh!), and we were ready to make our way back to Melbourne (now some 280kms away) via the coastal road. Interestingly enough, we found out that the construction of the great ocean road, as well as a method to give employment to returning war vets, was also an exercise in inter-continental chest beating, attempting as it was to trump Californias Route 1 coastal road. We felt in an informed position to grade the two stretches of tarmac, having tackled Route 1 earlier in our trip.
Certainly, as we wound our way along the coast, we noticed several intrinsic similarities between the two roads. Although the Aussie offering couldn't match the grandoise splendeur and sweeping vistas of the Californian effort, it somehow felt more wild, untamed and immediate due to us being that much closer to the coastline itself, rather than viewing it from hundreds of feet up. Only problem was, that the weather was proving to be rather inclement, preventing us from spending more than a couple of minutes at each viewpoint before the rain that was chasing us down the coast caught us up and forced us back to the car. Many viewpoints were sporting impressively creative names such as "The blowhole" and "The grotto" (sadly, santa was nowhere to be found, causing us to 'bah humbug' the following 30kms or so up the road), which added to the intimate and personal nature of the experience.
We stopped briefly at the most renowned site on the road, the 12 apostles. We say "The 12 apostles" despite the fact that, due to coastal erosion, there are now only about 9 of them (and three of those look like they're ready to go for a burton any day now), before heading onto "London Bridge". Apparently, a couple of tourists had just crossed London bridge right to the end of the rock formation, when a large chunk of the walkway collapsed behind them, effectively stranding them at sea. After an hour or so, they were eventually rescued but (and here is where the story got funny), they in the middle of conducting a clandestine extra-marital affair and so skidaddled rather swiftly when the antipodean media descended on them post-rescue.... amusing stuff indeed.