Christmas down under

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January 10th 2009
Published: January 13th 2009
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Day 177: Tuesday 23rd December - Staying with an old friend in Melbourne

The thing that has been driving me on from place to place for the last six months is my arrangement to stay with my friend Danielle in Melbourne for Christmas. Every time I thought about staying longer somewhere or following a fellow traveller’s recommendation about a place I didn’t know about I always knew I’d have to sacrifice something later on in my trip before getting to Australia. I simply couldn’t miss the chance to spend Christmas with friends. I can’t remember her address on the plane when filling out the immigration forms so I end up having to make something up! Australian customs prove to be much easier to negotiate than their Kiwi equivalents so I have a relatively smooth exit from the airport. This is until I try to ring Danielle to pick me up. The only telephone I can find in the airport won’t accept cash and then won’t accept cards for local calls for some reason. I end up going across the road to the Hilton hotel and asking them if I can use their phone. A short while later and Danielle pulls up with her friend. It’s the first time in 10 months I’ve seen her, and it’s great to see her again. She left SCA, where we worked together and the UK to return to Australia and Melbourne where she is from.

It’s a 20 minute drive to Danielle’s house which looks small from the outside but the back of the house must be in a different postal code to the front! Danielle and her boyfriend Paul have been busy renovating the house since they returned and they’ve done a cracking job, the house is lovely. In the back garden there’s a BBQ on the go, and Danielle has invited a number of her friends around for my arrival down under.....I’m touched. The only thing that isn’t welcoming is the weather. It’s surprisingly cool, let’s hope I’ve brought some of the good weather from Christchurch across with me! Everyone is tired after a long day so after briefly catching up with Dan and meeting her friends I retire to luxury in my first double bed for a few months.

Day 178: Wednesday 24th December - Wandering through central Melbourne on a sunny Christmas Eve

Melbourne is awash with people on Christmas Eve. Unlike England where everyone tends to be making last minute preparations, my observation is that the Australians are out enjoying the sun having meals and drinks with friends and family. Me and Dan start the day by visiting Queen Victoria Market. There are some great foodstuffs to buy - you always get the best quality produce in the market - and I manage to hold off temptation for as long as possible until I see some sun-dried tomatoes. I could spend a fortune in here given the licence. After the market we head towards the centre of the city, catching a tram to the Southbank. We walk along the Yarra river which is surrounded by high-rises on both sides of the river, popping in to the Crown casino for a look around. In another part of the complex there is a Christmas show going on so we join the kids and Mum’s and Dad’s to watch the end of that. We later meet up with Paul and go up the Eureka Tower, Melbourne’s tallest building. On the viewing platform you get great views across the city; down both banks of the Yarra, the CBD, the MCG and the tennis grounds, Albert Park, Government House, the Botanic gardens, the ocean....this city seems to have it all.

After getting a brief feel for Melbourne in the morning we stop to get lunch at a pub on the Yarra. Normally at this time on Christmas Eve I would be heading into Newcastle with friends which I always love doing, but sitting here with the temperature in the twenties with Dan & Paul looking over the river is a pretty damn good alternative. In the afternoon on the other side of the Yarra, Dan & Paul show me the Flinders St station - an old Victorian building, the cathedral and then we walk through the main shopping areas of Collins Street and Bourke Street and go through the Royal Arcade. All this walking around in the scorching weather is thirsty work so we stop off for a drink in an old pub. After seeing an overview of the city I’d like to drive around Albert Park which is the home of the Australian Formula One Grand Prix but to do this we need a car so we head back on the train to the house in Kensington, a suburb close to the city.

Paul decides to chill out back in the house so me and Dan head across the city to Albert Park. I had never realised that the Melbourne Grand Prix was a) on a street circuit and b) so close to the city. The park is lovely in the late afternoon sun and after driving around the circuit (albeit considerably slower than the Formula One drivers!) we walk around the lake for a short while. On the way back to Dan’s we stop off at the Flemington racecourse, home of the Melbourne cup, Australia’s biggest horse race. This city has it all when it comes to sports events - the Melbourne Cup in November, the Boxing Day test in December, the Australian Open Tennis in January, the Australian Grand Prix in March. One can’t forget Aussie Rules Football, the biggest sport in Victoria as well. Melbourne is one sports mad city. My first impression of Melbourne is a very favourable one, I haven’t seen much but I love it already.

The rest of the evening is a quiet one back in the house in Kensington. We make an attempt to eat up all the leftovers from yesterday’s BBQ, but there is so much we’re fighting a losing battle. For once I will go to bed on Christmas Eve without having drank a bit too will be nice to wake up on Christmas Day without feeling rough for a change.

Day 179: Thursday 25th December - Christmas Down Under

When I eventually arise from my slumber, Dan & Paul are hard at it in the kitchen preparing for lunch. After I’ve eaten my breakfast Dan makes me open my presents. I really didn’t expect anything, so it is a lovely surprise. They’ve got me a ticket for the Boxing Day Test, an Aussie flag which I’ll be taking with me tomorrow, some chocolate and a selection of local beers....I didn’t realise I’d been such a good boy this year!! My Mum and Dad have bought me a laptop for Christmas which arrived just the other day so I receive some great presents.

With Dan & Paul so busy I’m feeling like I should be doing something so Paul sets me on cleaning the BBQ from the other day. For some reason, (I think I get it from my Dad) when I start a job I have to do it properly so cleaning the BBQ keeps me occupied and out of the way for a good hour and a half while Dan & Paul beaver away in the kitchen. Dan’s sister - Michelle, brother-in-law - Marty, their two year old - Richmond, and Dan’s Auntie Val arrive just before lunchtime. Dan’s cooking a ham for the main course and when Michelle arrives she starts cooking some prawns in a garlic and chilli sauce. All these gorgeous smells are making me hungry! We sit down for lunch outside in the garden. It’s over twenty again and even in the shade its hot. This is a first for me having Christmas dinner outside - but it makes a nice change from the cold Christmas in England. The whole McNamara family make me feel very welcome and part of the family so I don’t miss my family back home too much.

After we’ve all stuffed our faces we start clearing up whilst watching Richmond open a seemily endless supply of presents. By the end of it I’ve lost count how many he’s opened and when they leave later in the afternoon Michelle & Marty have a job fitting it all into the boot of the car. Richmond has fun playing with some of his presents in the garden with various members of the family.

The evening is just me, Dan & Paul and I think we’re all tired after a busy day. We try to eat up some of the ham as well as some of the desserts still left over from the BBQ. Then we settle down to play a greyhound racing game. The races play on the TV and we bet on them before the race. We don’t get very far into it before Lou calls me and Dan on Skype. We were really close friends when we worked together at SCA, and it’s good to hear from Lou. She tells us about the rest of her holiday in New Zealand - she had a great time. We talk to her for well over an hour, and in the end Paul ends up getting sick of waiting for us to return to the game so he goes to bed. By the end of the call I’m also conscious of the time as I’d said I’d call my parents at midday UK time and its now twenty past. We say our goodbyes to Lou and then I call my family. It’s good to talk to them - I haven’t spoken to them since Chile, two months ago. Also, thanks to the modern technology that is Skype it is good to see them. I have an all too brief conversation with my parents before they must go off and prepare Christmas lunch, before speaking to my brother for longer. He looks and sounds well, given he has had a few health and work issues the last few months so it’s good to hear him sound so positive. We end the conversation talking about potentially meeting up in China sometime in 2009 which would be great.

Day 180: Friday 26th December - Boxing Day test at the MCG

I’m still shattered when my alarm wakes me up. I blame the bed, it’s just way too comfy in comparison to what I’m used to. I have a quick breakfast before leaving the house at 9:30am with my ticket, aussie flag and a sense of excitement about going to the Boxing Day test. Dan walks me the short distance to Kensington station. I try to pay as much attention to the landmarks on the way to the station as when I have to retrace my steps tonight I will no longer be sober. At the station Dan hands me a slip of paper with her phone number and address in case I end up drinking too much and getting lost! The train quickly appears and I get off at Flinders St station following the rest of the crowds on the short walk through the city to the MCG, or simply the ‘G’ as the locals refer to it. On the way to the ground I’m getting excited about watching my first Boxing Day test live. I’ve seen the first hour on the TV back home for the last few years - usually switching it on after returning home after spending Christmas Day with family and friends.

My general admission ticket allows me to sit in one of three areas in the ground. I choose to sit in the top tier square of the wicket for the start. I make it to my seat just before the Australian’s and South African’s take the field. Australia are in bat and there is a roar of excitement from an expectant crowd as Dale Steyn races in to deliver the first ball of the day. The ground is still far from full, the attendance later being called at 63,000 some way short of the 100,000 capacity. I continue watching play from the top tier for an hour, seeing Australia lose the out-of-form Matthew Hayden early on. It’s rather quiet in the section I am in. The view is good but there isn’t the atmosphere I expected from a Boxing Day test. I decide to go and sit down in the bottom tier, behind the slips and grab my first beer on the way down. Sitting in the most raucous part of the ground in the legendary Bay 13 is more like what I had imagined. Mexican waves, beach balls being thrown around just out of reach of security, chants to skull drinks, at any ranga (ginger person) who walks past, at pretty girls etc. The cricket is only 50% of the experience down in Bay 13 and I love it. I don’t like the overpriced, weak strength beer though. Three beers down at lunch and I’d hardly know I’d had a drink.

The afternoon session sees a belated appearance from the sun. It’s been hiding behind the clouds all morning but when it does appear it is 28 degrees. Cricket on Boxing Day at the MCG, in the legendary atmosphere of Bay 13, beer in hand, sun shining.....does life get much better than this? The crowd continues to entertain with its chants, the cricket ebbs and flows with captain Ponting reaching his century just before tea to a loud applause around the ground. Shortly after and South Africa regain a foothold in the game, bowling out Ponting a ball before tea. I miss it trying to get a flier at the bar. The final session after tea sees the police and security continue their heavy handed approach to policing Bay 13. I count at least a dozen people getting ejected, and no-one really deserves to go. I decide to watch the final action from the game from a better vantage point higher in the ground, but I am disappointed to see the bars closing early at 5pm on my way up there. For the 11 beers I’ve drunk I should be in a much worse state, but that’s weak strength beer for you! The day finishes with Australia on 280-6, an even day’s play and I’ve had a great day. The atmosphere has been electric and is as good as I’ve experienced at a cricket ground and just being part of it all here in the ‘G’ has been a real privilege.
I make my way back into the centre of Melbourne with the rest of the hordes. There is still a buzz going around even though the cricket is over. I catch the train back to Kensington and manage to negotiate my way back to Dan’s & Paul’s house without a problem.

The three of us then debate what to do this evening. I’m feeling very sleepy after spending the day drinking in the sun so I don’t contribute too much to the conversation. In the end Paul makes the call that we’re going down to the Docklands. I drag myself along, glad I do so in the end as at the time all I could think of was sleep. We all cycle down to the Docklands. Thankfully most of the way is on cycle paths as I’m not feeling 100% steady after so many beers! The Docklands is like most similar areas in the world. It has been recently developed and is a mass of restaurants, bars, expensive property, shops and businesses. It’s a nice spot to finish the day with a meal and a drink looking across the dock area. After eating we ride back in the dark. I use the bottle holder for my beer which I haven’t finished. If I get stopped by a policeman riding whilst slightly intoxicated, without helmet and with an alcoholic beverage on my bike I’m going to be in trouble! Thankfully we make it back without incident, save a local shouting out from a car that I’m breaking the law riding without a helmet.....if he only knew the full story. When we get back to the house I stay up into the early hours watching a drab football match on TV. Man United eventually beat Stoke 1-0 but I dose off so many times in the first half.

Day 181: Saturday 27th December - Driving the Great Ocean Road

It’s an early start this morning as we are going to drive the Great Ocean Road in one day. We’re out of the house by 7:30am, taking an overnight bag as we will spend tonight at Danielle’s parents. I spend the morning sleeping as we drive the 3 hours on the inland highway to Warrnambool at the end of the Great Ocean Road. Paul wakes me when we reach the Great Ocean Road, and they laugh in the front of the car when I lament where the Ocean is in a dazed manner! After driving inland for about 20 minutes the Ocean soon appears. The Great Ocean Road is rated as one of the world’s great drives and along with seeing Dan & Paul, seeing the Boxing Day test is the thing I’ve most been looking forward to about coming to Melbourne. We stop regularly as we drive east along the coast from Warrnambool until we get to the most famous landmark the Twelve Apostles. The rock formations, coves, beaches and cliffs along this section of coastline are stunning. Wild surf pounds the coastline eroding the soft stone creating the fabulous rock formations. We stop off at the Bay of Islands, the Bay of Martyrs, The Grotto, London Bridge, The Arch, Loch and Gorge before finishing at the famous stacks that are the Twelve Apostles.

Whilst the coastline doesn’t disappoint along this section I did expect the road to hug the coastline more and offer views across the ocean. However, once we make our way through the lush Otway ranges the road starts to weave its way along surf beaches and coastal towns. This is more what I expected, and the drive passes through some amazing scenery. In the Otway ranges Danielle pulls off an almost emergency stop when she spots Koala bears in the trees. One Koala is in the bottom branches, feeding on Eucalyptus leaves. Apparently it’s extremely difficult to see them in the wild, and to see them this close is special. After watching the Koala’s for a while we continue eastwards. We stop in the overcrowded Lorne for an ice-cream. Seemingly half of Melbourne has headed down to the Great Ocean Road for their holidays. Thankfully, we’ve driven along the Great Ocean Road in the opposite direction to the tour buses and the rest of the tourists but in Lorne we can’t avoid them any longer. We continue along the Great Ocean Road to Torquay, stopping at the famous surf spot of Bells Beach and also when we see Kangaroos in a field beside the road. The second native Australian creature of the day, and I’ve only been here four!

What a day, the Great Ocean Road, Koala Bears, Kangaroos and I still have the final leg of the ‘Awesome Foursome’ to come according to Paul - McNamara Towers. After finishing the Great Ocean Road drive at Torquay we continue to the end of the peninsula at Queenscliff where we catch a ferry across the short stretch of Port Phillip to Sorrento on the other side. From here it is a short drive to Dan’s parents at Cape Schank. On the way we stop off to see some more Kangaroos. This time we get even closer. There must be nearly a hundred in the field but as soon as you get close to them they get scared and bound off into the distance.

We arrive at Dan’s parents in the mid-evening. Paul wasn’t wrong the house is huge and overlooks a golf course. Dan’s sister and family are still here but they don’t stick around much longer as they’re driving back to Melbourne tonight. Dan’s parents cook us a BBQ which we have on the deck outside overlooking the golf course in the fading light - a perfect end to a perfect day. Dan’s parents are lovely people and are very hospitable. Dan’s Mum and Dad tell me some places I must try to visit whilst I’m over here in Australia - I just don’t know if I will have the time on my 3 month visa but it sounds amazing. Dan’s mum then spends the rest of the night telling me stories about all the scary creatures they have in Australia, goodness knows how I manage to sleep!

Day 182: Sunday 28th December- Mornington Penninsula and Phillip Island

After breakfast, Dan’s dad takes me on a tour around the national golf course where he plays in his golf buggy. It’s rated as one of the best courses in Australia, if not the best, with two course rated in the top 30 and it’s easy to see why. A few of the courses look out straight across the ocean. In mid morning we leave Dan’s parents house and drive around the Mornington peninsula to Portsea. The town itself is overrun by Melburnians on holiday, but we do a very nice walk along the picture postcard perfect coastline. After the walk we stop for lunch at a local pub which is heaving. It’s nevertheless very pleasant having a beer and lunch in the beer garden on another sunny Victorian day. After lunch we drive back to Cape Schank where we walk down to the headland. We decide against a visit to the lighthouse as you have to pay to look around. It’s back in the car again for a trip to a local winery for some wine tasting. We’re all looking forward the most to the next stop which is a strawberry farm. It promises fresh strawberries in a variety of different yummy desserts. However, when we arrive many people have had the same idea and the cafe is really busy. When they tell us it will be at least a 30 minute wait we decide to leave. We drive up to a lookout over the Port Phillip can see Melbourne’s skyscrapers in the very distant.

We leave the Mornington peninsula for the two hour drive around to Phillip Island. Phillip Island is famous for its fairy penguins, the smallest of the 13 penguin species. We stop on the way across the island for a takeout at a posh burger place in Cowes, the island’s only real town. On arrival at the penguin parade we’re glad we’ve booked ahead this morning when we see signs that it’s full tonight. We park the car and after ambling through the information centre reading up on the little penguins we walk down to the viewing area which is swarming with people. It looks to me like they have overbooked as our vantage point isn’t great and we strain our necks for a view of the penguins coming ashore. They are really entertaining as they form rafts (groups) of about 20-30 birds to land on the beach. They stay in the shallow water for an age waiting for the perfect moment to come ashore. They do this to avoid predators which may be lurking on the beach, but all that’s around is camera happy tourists. Anytime when a lone penguin or two breaks off the raft they wait, reform and have another go. They will sometimes even land on the beach and if there is a straggler left behind, the whole group returns to the water. We must watch them for almost an hour until they’re all ashore. After they’re all ashore we watch them waddling along trying to find their burrows and any hungry chicks they’ve left behind. This is the best part of the whole parade as you can get within a metre of the miniature penguins as they chirp away.
Watching the fairy penguins is the fourth species I’ve seen on my travels in the wild and short of swimming with a Galapagos penguin this has been the highlight. Watching them come onto the beach would have been better if there had been less people but seeing them up so close as they try to find their respective burrows is good fun. We leave the parade at going on 10pm and we still have a two hour drive back to Melbourne. Luckily for me, I can fall asleep in the back of the car. I only awake when we get to Melbourne, waking up just in time to see the Melbourne skyline lit up against the night sky, it’s a beautiful sight.

Day 183: Monday 29th December - Exploring some of Melbourne’s suburbs

The three of us spend a lazy morning after a busy few days. Dan and Paul seem to have more get up and go than me today. I don’t know where they get all their energy from after doing a lot of driving the past few days. Although Victoria is the smallest mainland Australian state, it’s still the same size as the UK and we’ve driven around a fair portion of it to put it into context.

We spend the afternoon visiting a number of Melbourne’s character-filled suburbs. St Kilda, Melbourne’s most famous seaside suburb is our first stop for lunch. Eating lunch I spot a number of cake shops across the street, however when I come to buy one it turns out to be a disappointment. Me and Melbourne’s cake shops have a permanent falling out! Added into the bargain they take my eyes out (rip me off!) for the pleasure of one of their deceivingly bad cakes. From St Kilda we drive to Fitzroy, home to the lively Brunswick Street and then finish the afternoon at Carlton, Melbourne’s Italian suburb. Melbourne is certainly very cosmopolitan, shaped by a dynamic population. Sophisticated and slick, with a big cafe culture it also maintains an edgy appearance. It does this whilst keeping a relatively sedate pace for a city. This is a very liveable city with a great sports, cuisine and arts scene and a myriad of festivals.

With this being my last night in Melbourne I want Dan & Paul to show me Melbourne’s nightlife. Tonight will be my treat to thank them for their hospitality and for showing me around this past week. We get the train in to the city centre - the public transport makes this a very accessible city. We go to two bars in an apartment block before dinner. You would never guess there were bars here if you look from the street but the first in particular is good, offering views of the surrounding skyscrapers in the CBD. One of the few things I dislike so far is the price of drinks - it’s even more expensive than England and you don’t get full measures! We go to a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown for dinner, before finishing the night in another of Melbourne’s ‘hidden’ bars. Dan only knows about this due to a number of her friends recommending it, but she’s never been. We make it just as they’re calling last orders and get an expensive but good jug of cocktail. The bar looks like it belongs in Wimbledon. It has a tennis feel to it, with lawns, the barmaid’s uniforms and the fake trees that line whitewashed walls. It’s only when you look over the wall to the street three stories below that the illusion is broken. It’s been a good night and a good taster to Melbourne’s bar scene. Thankfully I had some locals to show me around or I’d never have found the bars we went to.

Day 184: Tuesday 30th December - Farewell to Melbourne

After staying with Dan’s parents and hearing them and fellow travellers telling me about how beautiful Western Australia and Tasmania is I had wanted to widen my planned Australian trip to incorporate the two. However, I’ve discovered that the Overland Track walk is booked for the entire month of January which was my main reason to travel to Tasmania. Also, digging a bit deeper into my guidebook, the distances invol ved in even doing the northern coastline of Western Australia are huge and I only have a 3 month visa. Therefore, I decide to stick to my original plan and just do the eastern half of the country, namely Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and the Northern Territory. Western Australia, Tasmania and South Australia will have to wait until another trip.

We go out for a late breakfast to Brunswick street in Fitzroy. It’s a huge portion, defeating me and Danielle. We leave Fitzroy and drive across the city to Williamstown, another seaside suburb and the main seaport in years gone by. With the morning gone it’s time to head back to Kensington to pack my bags ahead of my flight later this afternoon. Dan and Paul drive me to the airport and it’s with a heavy heart I wave them goodbye. They’ve been great hosts, showing me around a fabulous city and the surrounding state of Victoria and have made my Christmas down under unforgettable and special. Thanks guys I will always have happy memories of Christmas 2008 and Melbourne, one cool city.

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