Australia

Melbourne 2

 


Sisto Malaspina has seen a few changes in old Melbourne in the forty-five years he has been running Pellegrini’s espresso bar. “From time to time I try to make some minor changes inside too. I try to repaint, decorate a bit – maybe a bit of minor renovation you know?” he smiles. “But I get in so much trouble from the locals. They see this as their bar now – and in a sense it is. ‘Don’t you dare change a thing Sisto,’ they warn me!”


Through Pellegrini’s plate glass window we watch tram 96 rumble along the broad tree-lined boulevard of Bourke Street. Sleek and shiny steel trams cruise the main streets of Melbourne’s Central Banking District (CBD). But so too do venerable old vintage trams, in their racing green or oxblood-and-gold livery. They too have become icons of traditional Melbourne and there is little chance that they will ever be replaced.


Today Melbourne boasts the most extensive tram system anywhere in the world. Tram 96 is the most useful for tourists, linking as it does the old city with St Kilda and the beaches of Port Philip Bay. But the City Circle Tram runs in a constant loop around the city centre to take in all the important sights of what is certainly one of Australia’s most historically fascinating spots. Many of the trams are equipped with recorded messages explaining the importance of the landmarks you are passing to ensure that you don’t miss even the most fleeting gem. Moreover the City Circle Tram is completely free, allowing you to hop on and off at will whenever the temptation to explore in greater detail becomes irresistible. 


Melbourne’s city centre consists of just eight blocks along the north bank of the Yarra River. It would, of course, be completely unrecognisable to the Aboriginal nomads who knew this camping spot only as ‘Yarra’ – their name for the waterfall that marked this spot and hence neatly marked the line between the tidal river and the all-important freshwater. But these shady boulevards and laneways, and sunny parks and piazzas constitute a square mile that is as historically rich as you will find anywhere in Australia. 


The forefathers laid their city out on a grid pattern that makes it very easy to navigate. In fact every major road is exactly ninety-nine feet wide because that was the distance needed to turn the huge bullock carts that supplied the gold mines and sheep stations of the interior. The big thoroughfares of Collins, Bourke and Flinders Streets are now the main shopping streets but all along their length they are linked by narrow laneways that have played a famous part in Melbourne’s rising image as art capital of Australia. Abandon the tram for an hour or so anywhere in this area and just take a random wander into a few of the tiny alleyways that link these major thoroughfares and you will come across some fantastic example of cutting-edge street art spray painted onto the walls. The Laneways Commission was set up as a visionary, and ultimately impressively successful, way of brightening these once gloomy passageways. It offers licensed street artists a unique forum for some astounding work.


Melbourne is often touted as Australia’s smartest, chicest, sexiest and most sophisticated city. And it is certainly the most cosmopolitan. Jump off the tram beside Flinders Station and take a stroll across the old Sandbridge railway bridge to get an idea of just how many nationalities were involved in the founding of the Victorian capital. What is now a simple footbridge across the Yarra River doubles as an outdoor museum displaying information on immigrants from no less than 114 nationalities that now call the city their home.  It is said that whether you sit on one of the sunny café terraces or take advantage of an eagle’s eye view from one of the delightful rooftop bars you will, within the course of an hour, have seen representative of half the nations on earth. After the trams have made their last circuit of the day Melbourne’s ‘historical square mile’ becomes the booming quarter for nightlife. Just ask directions to famous rooftop bars like Siglos or Tuscan (or for something quirkier 1806 cocktail bar or The Croft Institute) and you will find that they are all within just a few minutes walk.


Tram 96 will take you southwards to the beaches (and an equally jumping bar-scene) in St Kilda. But for something very original hop off just after you cross Kings Bridge and you will find yourself at what is probably Melbourne’s most interesting dining concept. Colonial Tramcar Restaurant (book on +61 03 96964000) takes you on a rumbling but relaxed two-hour tour so that you can continue to enjoy the ever-changing panorama of some of the city’s most romantic architectural gems even while tucking into a wonderfully prepared meal and a glass or two of VB (Victoria Beer). You take in some of Melbourne’s most prestigious areas and end up back among the casinos and five-star hotels of the Yarra’s southern banks.


This area is perhaps the hub of boomtown Melbourne - a city that has bucked the trend of the global downturn and is actually enjoying what amounts to a new gold-rush era. Within a couple of blocks you have the biggest casino complex and the tallest skyscraper in the southern hemisphere. The Eureka Tower is actually the tallest entirely residential building in the world. It was named after the Eureka minefield and the riots that took place there. The windows of the upper floors are tinted with real 24-carat gold and a streak of red panelling on the outside of the building signifies the blood of the miners who started Melbourne on its tracks to this bright and shining future.    On the Eureka’s eighty-eighth floor you can experience ‘The Edge,’ Melbourne’s greatest modern-day adrenalin buzz. You stand in a small cubicle of smoked glass which is then projected 3 metres out over the precipice. Suddenly the glass clears and you are hovering a dizzying three hundred metres above street-level.


The cubicle is creaking, shuddering and clunking as if it is about to disintegrate and you struggle to remind myself that it is designed to make these awful noises. This is part of the experience. The horrendous grating noises are doubly shocking because by now you have become used to the fact that in Melbourne pretty much everything runs as smoothly and efficiently as it was designed to do. Apart maybe from the clanking, clattering old trams…and by now they are such a venerable part of Melbourne’s identity that it would be a brave planner who would even suggest messing with them!


Great Ocean Road:
For a breath of bracing sea air and a sense of the wildness of the Southern Ocean hire a car (see www.europcar.com.au) and set out to explore the wonderfully winding, cliff-hugging stretch of tarmac that is the Great Ocean Road. Although reachable in a daytrip from the city, you need at least two days to do justice to the area’s diversity: the crashing waves of Bells Beach; the eucalyptus forests near Apollo Bay (home to countless kangaroos and koala); the pristine rainforests (and Otway Fly canopy walk) in Great Otway National Park; and the truly breathtaking Twelve Apostles. For a real once-in-a-lifetime adrenalin buzz take a chopper ride over these spectacular limestone formations and across the pounding Antarctic breakers of one of the world’s most dramatic coastlines (see www.theedgehelicopters.com.au). Break the long drive back to Melbourne by stopping at Ballarat to visit the restored gold-rush town of Sovereign Hill.

 

 

By Mark Eveleigh

Murray

 

David Whitley discovers the importance of Australia’s longest river

 

I have to confess that, before I visited, I didn’t understand why Australians mythologized the Murray River so much. In Australia, the Murray is regarded as the blood that pumps through the nation’s veins. It is almost always known as the ‘Mighty Murray’ and its fortunes are a constant source of debate. But the river’s significance isn’t something you see – it’s something you hear. Stood amongst hundreds of red gum trees in a patch of forest along the Murray’s south bank, I finally understand as dusk falls. The sound of the birdsong is cacophonous. Cockatoos and galahs screech away as if they own the place, and it’s to a degree that I’ve never witnessed elsewhere in Australia. It’s the sound of life – and the Murray River is what provides it.

 

The Murray is often called Australia’s lifeblood, and its role in Australia’s evolution from backward penal colony to first world nation cannot be overstated. It opened up farmland well beyond the confines of the Sydney area and became the continent’s major trading route. To find the source of the Murray, you just have to look at a map of Australia. The border between New South Wales and Victoria starts out as a straight line from the coast, then suddenly goes wiggly as it reaches Mount Pilot in the Australian Alps. This is where the 1,476 mile long Murray River starts – and the border follows the river until it crosses into South Australia. Once in South Australia, it empties into a series of lakes and a surprisingly feeble river mouth to the south-east of Adelaide.

 

The Murray’s dual role as a border and a trading route accounts for the number of twin towns that are stretched along it. Until the river hits South Australia, the Murray tends to have settlements lined up opposite each other. Originally, this was all about money. Victoria and New South Wales were separate colonies, while tolls and import duties were easy sources of revenue. As wool, wood and other goods chuntered up the river, the river towns acted as gateways to the other state – and places to ensure that the government got its rightful cut.

 

Since federation in 1901, these twin towns have gradually become single entities. You’re more likely to see Albury-Wodonga than the two listed separately, and the same applies to the likes of Robinvale-Euston, Yarrawonga-Mulwala and Echuca-Moama. Given that none of the river actually runs through Victoria – the state border is technically the high water mark on the Victorian side – it is a strange quirk that most of the Murray River towns worth visiting are in Victoria. One of them is Echuca, once the third biggest port in the whole of Australia. Its key position on the closest part of the Murray to Melbourne made it a major trading hub. Goods would be taken up from Melbourne by road or rail, then distributed along the river system to the rest of the country.

 

Nowadays Echuca is an immediately engaging town. It’s green, has something of an alternative edge to it, and has definite signs of life in a series of cracking pubs, cafés and restaurants. If you had to pick one Murray River town to stay in, rather than hopping along it and visiting a series of destinations, Echuca would be it. Echuca’s main trump card is its magnificent port. Usually than word conjures up grim images of shipping containers and cranes, but Echuca’s port is stuck in a spellbinding timewarp.

 

It is dominated by a giant wooden wharf. Built in 1865, it stretches over three levels. The theory behind this was that it could still operate, irrespective of what level the river was at. The old train tracks still head towards the station in town (and thus the rest of the Victorian rail network), but the main cargo handled here is now people rather than wool. To get an idea of how busy the port was in the pre-Federation days, consider that the wharf was once five times longer than it is now. These days, it weighs in at a sizable 75.5m long but it’s not a patch on what it was. 

 

The street on the landward side of the wharf is lined with wine tasting cellars, craft shops and historic pubs. One of these is the Star Hotel, which in the 19th century built an underground bar as a refuge from the intense summer heat. The pub lost its licence in 1897, but the underground room was retained and it became an illegal drinking den, connected to the outer world by a tunnel network. If the police arrived, drinkers simply disappeared into the tunnel. The Star now has its licence back, but visitors can go for a peek at the subterranean boozer.

 

Most people come for what’s on the water, however. Echuca is the paddlesteamer capital Australia, and a flotilla of the old time vessels plies up and down the river from the wharf. The PS Adelaide is the oldest timber-hulled steamer still operating in the world, while the PS Pevensey was the star of 1984 mini-series All The Rivers Run. I end up on the PS Alexander Arbuthnot. It was the last steamer built for the riverboat trade in Australia, and dates back to 1923. The 76-foot old dame has been restored and now ferries daytrippers around rather than the charcoal and firewood it originally carried. As with many of the other steamers, it was built specifically to work on the Murray. Its hull has shallow drafts and broad beams – ideal for scraping over sandbars. 

 

It’s a real joy, clanking down the river as the engine kicks out an almighty racket. Steam billows out of the side of the Alexander Arbuthnot as we trundle past people out in their tin boats with a beer in hand. All jolly good fun for the cruisers, but not so much for the poor chap downstairs, sweating next to the engine as he keeps it stoked...On the wharf itself there are a number of attractions to poke your nose around, including engine displays, a sawmill and a guard’s van from the old trains.

 

But most interesting of all is the cargo shed, which has been converted into a museum which tells the story of the Murray River. The Murray-Darling basin, we’re told, covers around 14% of the country and most of its fertile land. It stretches into southern Queensland. But more importantly, it’s in trouble, as a video called “A message from downstream” demonstrates. Prolonged drought and controversial irrigation schemes have meant that the Murray is struggling. The children in the video say that the mouth of the Murray is sometimes just a series of dirty ponds, with no birdlife around. They claim the water isn’t safe to swim in and nothing goes into the sea.

 

It’s a desperately sad state of affairs, and one that I get to witness for myself a week after Echuca. The town of Murray Bridge in South Australia is the last major crossing before the mouth of the Murray. The bridge in question is enormous, but much of the ground underneath it is dry. Part of the charm of the Murray River towns is that they have preserved history. But Australia has some tough decisions and changes to make if it is going to preserve the one thing that this history is based around. The lifeblood is an incredible natural phenomenon, and one that’s enchanting to visit – may the Murray long remain mighty. 

 

Big Things

 


 

 

David Whitley discovers why Big Things are a big thing in Australian country towns – and stumbles across a new favourite.

 

Australian country towns can be comically magnificent. Most labour under the impression that they are comfortably the greatest place in the world. And, if by ‘greatest’ you mean ‘having the highest ratio of mullet hairdos’, then they’re usually spot on. The combination of big hearts and big hair tends to be a winning one, however.

 

But any country town worth its salt has to be big in another respect. They ain’t nuthin’ if they ain’t got themselves a Big Thing. To the uninitiated, Big Things are something of a roadside status symbol. The first one cropped up in Coffs Harbour, New South Wales, back in 1964. Local banana grower John Landl decided that a visible gimmick would help him sell more fruit, so he unveiled an 11m long, 5m high fibre glass banana, based on the precise measurements of the winner from the recent agricultural show. 

 

The idea caught on, and now hundreds of these absurd monstrosities dot the highways across Australia. Most are about a town saying what they’re good at; they’re as much an attempt to define a unique identity as they are a marketing stunt to pull in snap-happy tourists. Nambour in Queensland grows pineapples, for example, so it hosts The Big Pineapple. Goulborn does sheep – hence The Big Merino – whilst Tully in Queensland likes to think of itself as the wettest place in Australia, and has created The Golden Gumboot to commemorate this.

 

Some are undoubtedly better than others. The Giant Cassowary in Mission Beach is very cool, for example, while Robertson’s Big Potato looks like a massive turd. Up until recently, I thought the best was the Big Prawn in Ballina, New South Wales. It sprawls across the top of the small shopping centre/ roadhouse like an evil invader from a planet where seafood eats you rather than the other way round. Its winning quality is the way that people just nonchalantly ignore it as they go in to pay for petrol.

 

But after a couple of days in Swan Hill, Victoria, I think I have a new favourite. Swan Hill’s Big Thing is The Giant Murray Cod. It’s an enormous, spectacularly ugly fish that sits by the side of the road. Quite why someone thought “that looks attractive” and decided to put it up is beyond me – although I’m told it was made for a movie set and then appropriated by the town.

 

The best thing about the Giant Murray Cod is what’s next to it, however. A mere ten metres away from the absolutely unmissable megafish is one of those brown tourist information signs that tells drivers which direction to take for major attractions. As far as I am aware, there is no other sign pointing out the right direction for the Giant Murray Cod – just this solitary post that may as well be in the Giant Murray Cod’s mouth. Many a driver must go past, thinking: “Thank heavens they put a sign up – I’d have missed it otherwise.”

 

Better still is what sits between the sign and the Giant Murray Cod. A park bench has thoughtfully been placed there so that anyone with a Jonah and the Whale fetish can stare directly down the cavernous throat of a big, scary fish. It’s quite a view...

 

More photos here

 

 



 

Grampians

 

 

David Whitley finds himself surprised by one of Australia’s unheralded journey-breakers. 

A wrong turning takes us down a side road and into the driveway of a motel. Guarding it stands a kangaroo, who looks at us and clearly decides that our car is bigger than him. He bounds off through the grounds, acting as our guide towards the exit.
 Anywhere else, following a kangaroo through a motel would be a little odd. But in the Grampians it somehow fits. The area – named after the mountains in Scotland – is a green oasis in the sea of monotonous wheat-growing country that is western Victoria. Approximately three hours away from Melbourne by car, it acts as a breath of fresh air for city dwellers, a playground for walkers and climbers – and a haven for wildlife. 

 

Not all that many travellers get to this part of the world (although it’s a reasonably logical stop off between Melbourne and Adelaide). Those that do get out of Melbourne will usually tackle the Great Ocean Road and Philip Island, then toddle off to the more glamorous states. However, if you want to tick off your Australian cliché box and find kangaroos in the wild, there are few better places to do it than the Grampians. Halls Gap, the village that acts as the area’s tourism hub, is absolutely teaming with the buggers. They munch away nonchalantly in the park opposite the shops, happy to pose for photos, and anyone thinking of driving at dawn or dusk had better be doing so at snail’s pace – the roads become a marsupial obstacle course.

 

It’s not just kangaroos of course, although they’re the easiest creatures to find. Around 40% of all mammals found in Victoria can be found here, along with 45% of all the bird species. Spend a day walking through the forests with your eyes peeled and you’ll probably come across koalas, cockatoos, kookaburras and many of the other Australian wildlife favourites. A large part of the Grampians region is National Park, but this only partly explains why it’s a wildlife hotspot. To get a full idea, you need to go back a few million years. Around 430m years ago, the Grampians was a coastal area. Sea levels have risen since then, but the beach sand that was around at the time has slowly evolved into sandstone. 

 

In the intervening years, continental plates have pushed together, creating the ridges and mountains that make up the Grampians National Park, while the higher points became islands in a shallow inland sea. The area, to all intents and purposes, became a natural island. This allowed new species to evolve and develop. And once the sea retreated, a certain degree of natural impenetrability protected the wildlife.

 

The hills and ridges very much give the Grampians its character. They attract rain, ensuring that a regular carpet of green stands out in contrast to the often-parched surrounding areas. Plant species thrive and forests grow, although the rugged, jagged edges of elevation formed through violence lead to startling valleys and sheer drops.

 

The best way to see these unique rock formations, of course, is to get out there and walk. But for those too lazy to put in the shoe leather, many of the best bits can be explored by car. There are a number of scenic drives throughout the Grampians, most of which are designed to coincide with the best photo opportunities. Arguably the best of these is the Boroka Lookout, reached via a steady uphill drive along winding roads and under lush canopy. Along the way, it’s possible to see the blackened trees that have been ravaged by bushfires through the years. They’re all part of Australia’s unusual life and death cycle – the fires kill, but they also make seeds burst and start new life.

 

Once you reach the top of the hillside, you look out over Halls Gap and realise why it got its name. It is in a tiny valley, threaded through two towering semi-circular ridges that look a little like a giant clam enveloping the settlement and Lake Bellfield. It’s an extraordinary view; the formation juts out from a flat landscape like a bear trap under a carpet.

 

And this is what Australia can do to you. Beyond the headline attractions are unexpected treasures that have a genuine wow factor. I went to the Grampians expecting relatively pleasant countryside for a few days; I came back with a scene that will always stick in the back of the mind.


Disclosure: David was a guest of the the ultra-green Grampians YHA Eco-Hostel (YHA.com.au). It is, incidentally, one of the best hostels he’s ever stayed at.

 

Sovereign Hill

 


 

 

David Whitley goes back to the past in Ballarat to discover the gold-mining industry that helped shape Australia.

 

In European terms, Australia really isn’t that old. The first permanent British settlers arrived in 1788, and the country has not taken long to go from an outpost penal colony at the end of the earth to rich first world nation.In the early days, the place that would later become known as Australia was heavily subsidised by Britain – it was an extension of the prison service after all. But as more and more settlers arrived, industries started up. The three main money-spinners were sealing, whaling and sheep farming; enough to bring in big money for those in charge, but not exactly anything to get excited about for the outside world.

 

But in the middle of the 19th century, the perception of Australia being little more than desert and grazing land underwent an abrupt change. Gold was discovered, and suddenly Planet Earth became very interested indeed. Gold was the catalyst for huge population growth. The state of Victoria was where most of the gold was found. The goldfield towns of Ballarat and Bendigo became magnets for those wanting to dig for wealth, and they took on a rough-and-ready pioneer spirit. Between 1846 and 1855, the official population of Victoria went up from 32,879 to 347,305. That’s serious change.

 

Ironically, one of the places that drove such change is now preserved as a relic. Sovereign Hill in Ballarat has been kept as a colonial era settlement – a living museum where everyone wanders around in period costume, wooden buildings are the norm and the dusty, unpaved streets become a mudpath when the rains come. Sovereign Hill ceased to become a viable mining settlement as World War I broke out. Profits at the mines had been dwindling anyway, and once the miners had been sent off to war, there was little point in continuing. It now serves as an outpost of quaintness where you can learn to make traditional sweets, watch candle-dipping displays and cover your ears as fake soldiers in red coats fire their muskets.

 

You can also pan for gold in the stream and watch a gold pour where a chap with some seriously heavy duty gloves turns the molten metal in the bars we’re more familiar with. But the real draw card is the chance to go down what was once a real mine.We descend into the mine on a cable car tram – essentially a funicular railway that plunges into the darkness. It’s a shock to the senses; one that real miners would have had to go through every day, and with none of the modern electric lighting to help them out. 

 

The mine has had some serious work done to it to make it safe for tourists – tunnels that were formerly just five foot two inches in height have been enlarged so that they’re now six foot six – but the atmosphere remains. Lamps, benches and rudimentary kettles remain down there and some of the original machinery is still in place. Our guide demonstrates how some of it works.

 

But the real surprise is how little of the whole gold mining procedure was down to skill – much of it was brute force; a simple equation of getting as much rock as possible through a steam engine-powered crusher. The steam engine is still working today, pounding away on the surface of the mine in a bid to demonstrate the power. You’d need to crush three tonnes of the primarily quartz rock to get just one ounce of gold. But it’s on such mathematics and brute force that fortunes can be made and countries can be built – and while Sovereign Hill is clearly living in the past, it’s a past worth getting to know.