The overnight flight from Singapore had been thoroughly miserable - ruined by a group of drunk shouty passengers who refused to shut up despite repeated requests and, on occasion, threats of violence from another passenger. Even the cabin crew weren't in the mood to calm them down... not when they could be selling them more alcohol (and presumably boosting their Christmas bonus.) Yet, as I stood and waited for my bag to come off the plane, I couldn't help but smile for, despite the reality of the freezing Melbourne morning; I was back in Australia once again. Life really wasn't that bad, was it.I picked up my rental car - if car is a word that can be used for anything built by Kia - and headed off into the Melbourne rush hour without the faintest idea of where I was heading. I really needed a map but, despite my best efforts, I couldn't find anywhere that could sell me one: a sign of the times where we all use GPS navigation systems, perhaps? After an hour of getting increasingly frustrated at going round in circles, I finally realised that that phone book that had randomly been left in the passenger footwell wasn't actually a phone book at all; but a very detailed map of Melbourne. It was the kind of morning where even a couple of cans of Red Bull couldn't compensate for my lack of sleep and I decided that it was time to head hopefully for my hotel.
Check-in time was the usual 3pm but the clerk wasn't fazed in the slightest when I arrived at 10am with a smile and bags under my eyes. When he said he could have the room ready for me in an hour I could have kissed him on his shiny bald head but I chose not to as I suspect he wouldn't have appreciated it! Instead I headed off to the nearby supermarket to stock up with food and to pick up some beer and was reminded once again of the friendly easy-going nature of Australia. I started to feel at home once again - even the weather was thoroughly English. The clincher though was when I headed to the local Bunnings store to pick up a cooler (or Esky as they are known here) and discovered that they sold Rainbow Play Systems - something that I had not seen since I left my job with them way back in April. I am not sure why but I couldn't help but stand there in the rain, staring at the display model and laughing to myself which got me a very strange look from one of the salespeople!
It turned out that my hotel room wasn't a hotel room at all but a serviced apartment complete with DVD player, stereo, full kitchen and an en-suite laundry. With no reason to leave the apartment for the rest of the day I had one of those down days which are so valuable on these extended trips and spent the day catching up on my email, catching up on my sleep and catching up on my laundry. It's not that this travelling business is hard work, or anything, but sometimes you need a ‘weekend' where you take time off and do ‘normal stuff'.
Later that day I pulled out that map and discovered that I was just a few kilometres from Pin Oak Court - better known as Ramsey Street - and decided that I would take Dan over there later in the week. He's Australian; he'd like that, right? Here's the deal: he didn't like it. He didn't like it at all! Oh the irony when he talks about us Brits being whinging poms!
I hadn't seen Dan for over seven years but, when I met him at the airport, it seemed more like seven minutes. After popping into town and then visiting a friend of his for a bit we headed back to the apartment and managed to stay up chatting - and putting a fairly big dent in the bottle of Jack that I bought earlier - until 3am that morning. I guess it must have been some time, after all.
The following day was spent - when we finally found the bothered to leave the apartment - driving round the Melbourne Grand Prix track before driving round and round downtown Melbourne searching desperately for a parking space. Eventually, with Paul Kelly blaring out of the radio, we spotted a parking space and set off on foot to explore the city. I have news for you, Paul; every ****ing city ain't the same, my old son! I really rather like this one - Melbourne is a very cool city indeed.
After another night in the apartment it was time to hit the road once more and head south to Phillip Island for the Moto GP. It is tough to find accommodation on ‘The Island' at any time but it is simply impossible around race weekend so we were incredibly lucky to get in touch with Leonie Falzon at Motorsport Travel who offered us a homestay option. She hooked us up with John and Kaye Boreham who live near the circuit and would be looking after us for the three nights of the race meeting. I don't know why but I am always a tad nervous about B&Bs or this sort of homestay scheme but, as soon as we arrived, we knew we'd landed on our feet. The house was beautiful; spotlessly clean and our hosts were magnificent. If I go home at Christmas and get that welcome from my folks I will be flabbergasted!
Once we'd unpacked we headed straight off to the circuit. Despite the rain doing its best to ruin the occasion, we were both suitably impressed; walking the perimeter of the circuit to find the best places to take photos. This is a very important ritual when visiting any circuit for the first time as these opportunities are usually few and far between but Phillip Island, much to our delight, was one huge photo opportunity and we had a ball taking advantage of that before heading off for a look around the island.
Our second day on The Island was a strange one in as much as we were leaving early and heading back up to Melbourne! Dan had a photo shoot in the city and was planning on dropping me at the circuit then driving up but, when I looked out of the window to be greeted by rain, I decided to head up with him to spend another day exploring Melbourne. It was a fair drive back but one which was enlivened by a huge procession of motorcycles heading south onto The Island. The procession was huge and went on for miles: official estimates put the number of bikers at something over 10,000 so you can be sure that there were many more than that!
When we reached the city I dropped Dan off and then started my tour by tagging on to a fascinating tour of the hugely impressive M.C.G (Melbourne Cricket Ground - or ‘The G' for short) before heading into the city and stumbling across an arts and music festival on the riverside. Before I knew it I was heading back to collect Dan and then south once again to The Island. The drive back seemed even longer but that was down to having to go slow to reduce the likelihood of hitting a kangaroo: a real danger down here after sunset - and one which would your day just as much as the poor ‘roos!
Raceday taught me two things - 1) bike racers are absolutely insane and 2) I prefer cars - but, even though I was seriously tired and suffering from a nasty cold, I was very happy that evening as we joined John and Kaye for a meal. It had been a fantastic few days and that was rounded off when I got to speak with Kristina on the phone. These are crazy days and I love being away but it was dawning on me - there is a hell of a lot to go back to Europe for too!
It was a case of déjà vu the following day when, having just dropped Dan at the airport, I found myself driving away with no idea where I was heading. Ultimately I had three days to drive to Sydney but I had no idea of which route to take. I pulled in to a gas station, pulled out the map and, after five minutes of studying it blankly, I decided to head south again and follow the South Gippsland Highway to the Wilsons Promontory National Park. From there I would head along the coast road to the settlement at Cann River and then turn to the north along the Monaro Highway to the Australian Capital of Canberra. It turned out to be an excellent choice of route and one full of contrasts - much like Australia as a whole.
The Prom, as it is known to Victorians, is a beautiful park located at the very southern tip of mainland Australia. It features 130km of stunning coastline, mountains and a fantastic campground at Tidal River where I would spend the first night in my new tent. Typically, a huge storm blew up as the sun went down producing a spectacular light show followed by gale force winds and torrential rain for the rest of the night. Despite its cost ($34 from Kmart) I am pleased to report the new tent passed the test with flying colours and I emerged dry and warm the following morning. The rain stopped as the sun came up but the high winds persisted: not ideal conditions for my early morning 14km hike out along the coast to Oberon Bay. I put this to the back of my mind, wrapped up warm, and headed off anyway which I was glad I did as I was rewarded with some simply stunning ocean scenery.
Whilst I sat there - at the southernmost point of the southernmost country on my trip - I couldn't help but reflect on where I had been and wonder how this one small corner of Australia could instantly take me back to so many different places that I had visited along the way. The rain forest reminded me of the Pacific North-Western USA, the mountains of the Canadian Rockies, the white sand beaches of Hawaii and the rugged coastline of Nova Scotia. It crossed my mind that I should just have spent the past six months here in Australia but, as all manner of memories came flooding back, I was pleased that I hadn't. This trip wouldn't have been anything without the people I had met along the way. One thing was beyond doubt, though: I was falling truly in love with this remarkable country.
I spent that night in a motel in Bairnsdale before embarking on a long day in the saddle the following day. I lost a little time nosing around Cape Conran but soon decided that I had to press on if I were to achieve my goal of reaching Canberra that day and turned the car to the north. Shortly after Chandlers Creek I crossed the border into New South Wales and, much as it had done as I entered California, the weather changed instantly for the better.
Having stopped for lunch in the small town of Cooma, I left New South Wales again - but only for a short time - as I entered the tiny area known as the Australian Capital Territory. I had read and heard that Canberra is a place that you either love or hate and I figured that it deserved my full attention if I were to get a true feel for the place. I wouldn't be doing it any justice at all if I was tired so, having found a motel, I took the rest of the day off to chill out, stock up on groceries and get my hair cut.
Suitably rested and prepared for a full day of exploring I woke early, scraped the ice from the window of the car (seriously!), and fired up the TomTom. Canberra is a strange city in that it doesn't really have a ‘downtown' area as such so, unable to decide between the huge lists of landmarks (many of them starting with the word National... Gallery, Library, Museum, Zoo, etc.) I went for the big one and headed straight to the Australian Parliament Building.
On my arrival I parked quickly and easily right near the parliament building and wandered through the immaculately manicured parkland for a look: it was about as far removed from the Houses of Parliament in London as it could possibly be. When I learned there were tours available I instantly signed myself up and, whilst I waited for my tour group to assemble I decided to explore on my own. The very fact that I was able to do this was refreshing: it is something that would never be allowed in the modern-day UK which I find an incredibly sad state of affairs. I would face a stark reminder of this a couple of hours later when passing row upon row of embassy buildings. Each was open and welcoming - until I reached the British embassy, which was surrounded by a three metre high steel fence with barbed wire on top, surveillance cameras every two metres along the pavement, huge ‘prison-style' airlock gates and a small army of guards armed with semi-automatic weapons. I guess that is the price you pay when you go sticking your nose into other people's business around the world.
Modern Australia is a young nation but Canberra is even younger - once little more than a sheep station, it was planned in 1908 as the new seat of federal parliament to end rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne. It is perhaps a unique way for a capital city to be established but it did present one unique opportunity - to design the ideal capital city - a competition was held and this was won by architect Walter Burley Griffin. As I stood on top of the modern Parliament House I was able to marvel at the architecture not only of the Parliament building itself but of the entire city. My view from the roof of the building presented a stunning unimpeded view straight down to Old Parliament House, across Lake Burley Griffin and along Anzac Parade to the imposing Australian War Memorial beyond. Compared to the cluttered and haphazard streets of European cities, it was inspired and quite beautiful.
The tour itself, despite Parliament not being in session until the following week, was fascinating and, I was very pleased to learn, did not gloss over the whole situation pertaining to the indigenous people as is so often the case in Australia. In fact the guide made a point of explaining the huge significance of ‘Sorry Day' and suggested that everyone should take time to visit the Aboriginal Tent Embassy which, since January 26th 1972 (Australia Day), has been located on the front lawn of Old Parliament House as a protest against the denial of land rights and self-determination. I did just that but, if I'm honest, felt a little intimidated by the welcome that I received. Maybe it was the English accent - if it was then I can completely forgive the welcome - after all we did treat them appallingly bad when we came and colonised their country. It made me sad, thinking back to the current fortress-like state of the nearby British Embassy, that we are still marauding around the globe as if we owned it 220 years later.
As I made my way to the War Memorial I had one eye on the time - I was set to drive to Sydney that evening to meet up with Dan once again - and I really wish it hadn't been that way. I was expecting a memorial in the style of the Cenotaph in London but was amazed to discover the sheer scale of the place - it was simply stunning and, quite literally, brought a tear to the eye. Not for Australia would a simple plaque or bronze statue suffice; not even a list of war-dead etched on a wall. It had these, of course, but it also had a huge museum and gallery of war-art that put the Imperial War Museum to shame and every effort had been made to make the reality of war come alive to visitors and demonstrate to them the bravery shown by those lost to it. It was fantastic and horrendous all at once but it was a truly, truly memorable experience and I can only imagine how it would be to be there on Anzac Day. I was sad to have to get back in the car and head off to Sydney without having seen even a fraction of the city and I promised myself that I would try and make it back later on in my trip. I guess I was one of those people who loved Canberra...
The drive to Sydney was quick, easy and uninteresting - typical motorway driving - but was suddenly livened up when I reached the outskirts of the city and had to negotiate the labyrinth of roads that all seem intent on depositing you on the toll road for which I had no permit. Finally though I made it across town to Potts Point and, having finally found somewhere to park the car, it finally began to sink in that I had just driven into one of the world's great cities. Any doubt about that was removed several hours later with Dan's whistle-stop (and Steve McQueen Bullitt-style) tour of the sights. We ended the evening crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge and standing on a pontoon on the opposite site of the harbour looking back at that famous landscape of the Sydney skyline bookended by the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. Glorious. It was a very different city to Canberra and it reconfirmed that whole image of Australia: contrast and contradiction. If there had been any doubt that I was in love with the country then that was removed right there and then. It is a truly amazing place. If you've not been then, as the adverts say: "Where the bloody hell are ya?!"
Originally published on - and Copyright retained by - Boogity, Boogity, Boogity
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