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Hanging Out in Melbourne, Australia

An article by Mark Moxon, travel writer All rights reserved.

Life in Melbourne proved to be much like life in any friendly, cultural city. Steady work ensured I could afford to go out regularly, and it wasn't long before I felt as settled as I had been back home.

  • One Saturday we went up into the Dandenongs, the mountain range round the northeast of Melbourne, and visited a little village called Olinda. What a time warp! It's full of these strange little shops and art galleries that sell aromatherapy oils, incense and strange furniture from India: I found the whole thing most entertaining, especially the peaceful hippies running the shops. Far out, man.

  • It wasn't long before I realised I needed to do some real exercise, so I took up jogging every weekday night, through the State Park in Doncaster East. There aren't many people in Europe who can say they go jogging after work and see kangaroos, brightly coloured parrots, rabbits, creeks, gum trees and all of the rest of the park's sights. It sure beats jogging round London, and it's a lot healthier.

  • Melbourne has a whole street full of cake shops (known as 'Sticky Cake Street' by the locals), the famous Myer's Christmas windows (Myer's is a department store and its Christmas window displays are a part of Australian shopping culture), trams, the bay (which is the size of Somerset, so it's not so much a bay, more a little sea) and a lovely skyline. Australian cities seem to rise out of nowhere, because the suburbs are so flat, though clear weather helps with the view, too.

  • Chris once showed me his collection of Tasmanian postcards, to get me in the mood for when I went there in the New Year. But these weren't ordinary Tasmanian postcards; they were black and white postcards from the turn of the century. That's interesting in its own right, but the most incredible thing was that a lot of them were written on: they were postcards from Chris' grandfather to his grandmother, before they were married, and when grandfather was in Tasmania and she was on the 'northern island', as Tasmanians sometimes refer to mainland Australia. The style of writing was superb, and so formal, but they were so obviously love letters. Try this for a quote: 'I hope you will come to stay soon, for I am dead without you.' It was just like something out of Mills and Boon, 1911. This island nation does have a history, after all.

  • Melbourne is a very arty place; it's more like Covent Garden and the West End, whereas Sydney is more like the Houses of Parliament and Tower Bridge, if you see what I mean. Melbourne has these lovely trams everywhere, which are easier to use than buses, and are much more fun. There's even a restaurant tram, and a free tram for tourists. The railway network is also good, and you can get two-hour tickets for A$2.10 and all-day tickets for A$4.10 that enable you to use buses, trains and trams, all for the one price. It's quite excellent, and a great way to get to see the city. There's something reassuring about the way the tram has to follow tracks, so you know exactly where it is going to go...

  • I quickly realised why it's important to get up early on Christmas Day1 in Australia. The sun was up, the sky was really clear, and it was hot, really hot. As we sat on the verandah, munching freshly cooked ham and melon and basking in the sun, I really felt that Christmas in the sun was different. Sure, we had a huge turkey, roast potatoes, presents round the tree, and port after Christmas pud, but we also had a swim in the outdoor pool before lunch, a walk into the State Park to play with Alistair's new Frisbee, and had to make sure the sunblock was on thick.

    A solitary wombat wandering around Wilson's Promontory National Park

  • Wilson's Promontory, the National Park to the southeast of Melbourne and the southernmost point of mainland Australia, is gorgeous, with beaches that blow the mind and moody mountains as a backdrop. The beach we visited is called Squeaky Beach, because the sand is so clean it squeaks as you walk on it, and I can confirm that this is indeed the case. Alistair and I had huge wads of fun boogie boarding on the two-metre waves, with great success. For the uninitiated, boogie boarding is like surfing, but you just lie on the board on your front, and ride the crests of the waves straight onto the beach. You actually go pretty fast as you glide the foam onto the sand, and it's the next best thing to surfing: anyone can do it without any training.

  • The Big Day Out on Friday 26th January was, indeed, a big day out. Andy and I went together, along with his girlfriend Elizabeth and her brother Alan; we lost Alan pretty early on, but the three of us spent a most enjoyable day watching Australian, American and English bands thrash around in the Melbourne Showgrounds. It was good to see some contemporary Aussie bands after the Tassie folk.

  • I went to the polling booth during the Federal Elections, and even put a voting slip into the ballot box (it was Andy's, not mine, I hasten to add before I get arrested). The politics in Oz was almost American: the party political adverts only went on about how crap the other party was, and I couldn't remember hearing about any real policies. Shoddy is the word that springs to mind.

    Frankston, an outlying suburb of Melbourne, as seen from Steve's boat

  • High up on the list of incredible experiences was the canoeing trip with Steve, a good mate of Andy's. While I was away driving round Oz, Steve had somehow managed to get hold of a knackered old canoe goodness knows where from and we set off to explore a canal in Frankston, on the east coast of the bay. What a trip! There's something incredibly surreal about paddling past houses that back onto the canal, looking into people's back gardens as you crack open another stubby, something that you simply don't get from any other journey through a city. And as for the tranquillity... it was Melbourne from the inside, you might say.

  • Our weekend in Sorrento was also great fun, mostly because of the hosting talents of Sheridan's brother Nigel, who was a ranger down at Point Nepean National Park, on the south of Philip Bay. Remember that Melbourne is on the north part of a circular bay that has a very small entrance to the ocean at the south; the west tip of this gap is Queenscliff, my first point of call after leaving Melbourne some six months before, and the east tip is the National Park. We all packed off to Nigel's house in nearby Sorrento, armed with far too much beer, champagne and brandy, and on the Saturday evening we drove out to the point, which was at that time closed to the public; here we explored all the gun emplacements and tunnels in the hill, dating from the defences built for World War II (not that they were needed as Australia was never invaded). Nigel, in true explorer mode, took us through the tunnels with all the lights switched off, and it was incredibly dark; the whole thing reminded me of a dry Tunnel Creek, although with five of us it wasn't quite as scary, and as the tunnels were man-made, at least there weren't any tree stumps or crayfish tripping us up. We repeated the tour with the lights on, which only goes to prove that when you can't see a thing, your imagination really kicks in. Finishing off the rest of the weekend with champagne cocktails and drinking games seemed only fair after that bit of culture...

  • My last week in Australia was spent working for a company called Oriental Merchants at the Royal Melbourne Show; Sheridan had got me the job, as she worked for the company at the time. The Royal Melbourne Show is an annual event, and it's huge: the Showgrounds, where I had gone to see the Big Day Out months before, was packed with exhibitors and punters, spending heaps of dough. The original idea of the show when it first started was that it would 'bring the country to the city', so farmers would bring their animals and produce to show the city dwellers; now it's a huge event in its own right, and although the cows, pigs, chickens and so on still come, there are stalls selling anything from Barbie dolls to milkshakes to two-minute noodles. I was selling the two-minute noodles.

    Actually, it was a hoot. I had to man a stand, wearing a natty red apron, where people would bring a piece of paper, and I would stamp it and hand them some two-minute noodles and a smile. The idea was one of a do-it-yourself show bag; show bags are a peculiarly Australian concept where you get a bag full of goodies with a theme, so the Barbie show bag has loads of bits for Barbie, and the Cadbury's show bag is full of chocolate. Our show bag was one where you bought an empty bag for A$7 and then followed a map round the show, collecting the items to put in your bag, including some yummy two-minute noodles from Oriental Merchants. Well, it was for the kids really, and four days of stamping and smiling was pretty soul-sapping, but hey, it was cultural, I guess...

1 At the risk of sounding a bit slushy, I must mention Laurence and Mary's present to me for Christmas 1995. It was a bush hat that folded up into a little bag and could be sat on, crushed or folded as much as you like, and it bounced back into shape without any problem. A wide-brimmed hat is an essential piece of the Australian garb, and I loved my hat dearly, so much so that when it finally died after my voyage to Polynesia, I bought an identical hat in Brisbane, which travelled throughout Asia with me. Thank you so much for the hat!


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