8 Australian Road Trip: A Melbourne Revelation
Learning to love mine enemy
Itchy feet and slow heavy clouds force us out of Wilson’s Promontory in the late morning. As soon as we are on the road the sky clears and we are driving, happy and carefree, through rolling Victorian countryside, past hazy herds of cattle grazing against a distant blue backdrop of mountains.
We stop at a forgetful place on the coast highway called K--------, where a pub, restaurant, café and post office rest forlornly on the crest of a hill, overlooking the choppy grey waters of the Bass Strait. Sheila waits in the van while I duck into the café to get a couple of takeaway coffees.
While she is making our “flat whites,” the waitress susses that I am a traveller and as we idly chat, I sense her mood through those dark, ‘worn-out-with-waitressin’ eyes. I reckon she would take little persuasion to tear off her apron, empty the till and walk off the job that very minute to join us on our adventure.
It’s the ‘Road Movie’ thing again. All the sets are in place – the desolate, out of season café, the zizz-zizz of the cars on the highway, the sexy, fed-up waitress looking for adventure, the dusty traveller….
I’m suddenly overwhelmed with cliché, and awake from the micro-fantasy by remembering that my missus is waiting patiently outside in the van. I smile, pay the girl, grab our coffees, turn my back on the tableau and push through the swinging screen door, back to the endless highway.
We are heading to Melbourne, driving across flat, salt marsh country that laps against the shores of Western Port. You don’t notice at first, but gradually the traffic becomes heavier. At Cranbourne we realise we have entered the outer limits of Greater Melbourne. The dual carriageway becomes heavy with vehicles and an increasing curse of traffic lights that turn red as we reach them. As if on cue, the rain tumbles down. In the distance, through the mist, we see the sky-high spires of Melbourne rising up beyond the walls of the freeway, quite resembling a mighty city from Middle Earth.
Of course, we have no map to guide us into the metropolis and I have no idea where we are going or how we are going to get there. It all happens so fast. One minute we’re in the bush and next thing you know we are on the outskirts of bloody Melbourne, the second biggest city in Australia.
Melbourne is a huge metropolis. Handy Tip: Make sure you have a road map (or a satnav) - unlike us who had to rely on directions from locals.
We have ear-marked a couple of hostels, chosen mainly for their location in the kind of suburbs that we would normally gravitate to. We quickly discuss the merits of Richmond and St. Kilda, based primarily on the availability of live music at night and proximity to the city centre. After a brief, non-violent argument we unanimously agree to head for Richmond. But where the hell is it in relation to where we are on the freeway? I have no idea what direction we are even going in as the torrential rain has blotted out any guiding rays of sunlight that we may have been able to navigate by. An exit sign for the suburb of Toorak makes the decision for me. I have heard of Toorak, and with no more than that to go on, we take the exit. It’s easier to find your way in a big city once you are off the freeway; at least we can buy a map. As it turns out, Toorak Road takes us to the heart of the city and after a few hair-raising confrontations with trams and traffic and some directions from a few locals, we are cruising up Swan Street in the heart of Richmond.
We can’t find a hostel; the rain, traffic and weariness make us less inclined to look, and as tempers become explosive, we check into the Richmond Hill Hotel on Church Street; a series of large Victorian terraces combined to form one hotel and a bargain at $90 a night, with balcony and Wifi/broadband.
Being a Sydney boy, born and bred, the city of Melbourne has always been regarded as enemy territory for me. This age old animosity goes back to the fact that Sydney was founded as a convict prison, whereas Melbourne was created especially for the free-born English ruling class. As a true ‘class warrior,’ I spend the first few hours of our evening stroll slagging the place off – comparing every aspect of it unfavourably with my beloved Sydney. I must have irritated Sheila to the point of murder because man, did she get stuck into me. Shame-faced I stood back and thought about what I had been saying. How could I be so unfair? True, Melbourne is flat and has incredibly long streets where you walk forever and never seem to reach a corner; it has strange weather, both fickle and extreme. Other than that I really don’t know what I am talking about so I take my love’s advice and I “shut-the-fuck-up!”
Give Melbourne a cuddle
The next day I embrace the city with open arms and mind. From then on it can do no wrong. It is a city of eccentric, sculptural architecture. The skyscrapers tower above the broad Victorian streets, but unlike Sydney, there are no canyons. In fact, one hardly notices these towers, such is the broadness of the streets and the distractions of activity that fill them. The trams clatter and clang up and down, while traffic, a trickle compared to Sydney, performs intricate hook turns in deference to the trams. To me, Melbourne has the feel of a huge country town, with its well-preserved facades and wide awnings. There’s a kind of languid movement about the place that lacks the urgency of my city to the north. We become absorbed into the place, without being overwhelmed by it.
Sometimes you only get one chance in life to do something and as we stroll past the Tasmanian Tourist Bureau – we take that chance – we walk in and buy a ferry ticket for the following evening's sailing to the fabled island, something we had not really considered on this trip. With that to look forward to, we walk the long walk up Elizabeth Street to the Victoria Markets. On the way we stop at a tourist shop to buy a detailed map of Melbourne and its surrounds. The shop assistant shows me a map and when I asked her teasingly if the map shows where the bridge to Tasmania is, she replies, with a little uncertainty, “there’s a bridge?” I don’t dare ask her if she has a Map of Tasmania.
The rest of the day is spent perusing the markets, betting on the horses and drinking beer in a pub, feasting on Greek food and watching a live band in a Richmond boozer. The next morning we drive out to St Kilda where we spend a lazy day exploring this trendy seaside suburb. The ferry sails at seven in the evening so for the last few hours we park up on the Esplanade, reading the newspapers and dozing. For some reason I dream of waitresses and Tasmanian devils.
Hop on board The Spirit of Tasmania for a different look at the Apple Isle
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